Marlowe's Shade

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Sick Man of the West

I'm indebted to Jaco Pastorius at CUANAS for keeping up to day on recent events in Europe. A few days ago he posted a great article by George Weigel that is reminiscent of Spengler's recent commentary on moribund Europe. After a discussion of declining European birthrates and other evidence of malaise ennui et nausee Weigel looks to the causes.

Europe began the twentieth century with bright expectations of new and unprecedented scientific, cultural, and political achievements. Yet within fifty years, Europe, the undisputed center of world civilization in 1900, produced two world wars, three totalitarian systems, a Cold War that threatened global holocaust, oceans of blood, mountains of corpses, the Gulag, and Auschwitz. What happened? And, perhaps more to the point, why had what happened happened? Political and economic analyses do not offer satisfactory answers to those urgent questions. Cultural-which is to say spiritual, even theological-answers might help.

Take, for example, the proposal made by a French Jesuit, Henri de Lubac, during World War II. De Lubac argued that Europe's torments in the 1940s were the "real world" results of defective ideas, which he summarized under the rubric "atheistic humanism"-the deliberate rejection of the God of the Bible in the name of authentic human liberation. This, de Lubac suggested, was something entirely new. Biblical man had perceived his relationship to the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as a liberation: liberation from the terrors of gods who demanded extortionate sacrifice, liberation from the whims of gods who played games with human lives (remember the Iliad and the Odyssey), liberation from the vagaries of Fate. The God of the Bible was different. And because biblical man believed that he could have access to the one true God through prayer and worship, he believed that he could bend history in a human direction. Indeed, biblical man believed that he was obliged to work toward the humanization of the world. One of European civilization's deepest and most distinctive cultural characteristics is the conviction that life is not just one damn thing after another; Europe learned that from its faith in the God of the Bible.

The proponents of nineteenth-century European atheistic humanism turned this inside out and upside down. Human freedom, they argued, could not coexist with the God of Jews and Christians. Human greatness required rejecting the biblical God, according to such avatars of atheistic humanism as Auguste Comte, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. And here, Father de Lubac argued, were ideas with consequences-lethal consequences, as it turned out. For when you marry modern technology to the ideas of atheistic humanism, what you get are the great mid-twentieth century tyrannies-communism, fascism, Nazism. Let loose in history, Father de Lubac concluded, those tyrannies had taught a bitter lesson: "It is not true, as is sometimes said, that man cannot organize the world without God. What is true is that, without God, he can only organize it against man."[4] Atheistic humanism ultramundane humanism, if you will-is inevitably inhuman humanism.

The first lethal explosion of what Henri de Lubac would later call "the drama of atheistic humanism" was World War I. For whatever else it was, the "Great War" was, ultimately, the product of a crisis of civilizational morality, a failure of moral reason in a culture that had given the world the very concept of "moral reason." That crisis of moral reason led to the crisis of civilizational morale that is much with us, and especially with Europe, today.

This crisis has only become fully visible since the end ofthe Cold War. Its effects were first masked by the illusory peace between World War I and World War II; then by the rise of totalitarianism and the Great Depression; then by the Second World War itself; then by the Cold War. It was only after 1991, when the seventy-seven-year-long political-military crisis that began in 1914 had ended, that the long-term effects of Europe's "rage of self-mutilation" (as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn called it) could come to the surface of history and be seen for what they were-and for what they are. Europe is experiencing a crisis of civilizational morale today because of what happened in Europe ninety years ago. That crisis could not be seen in its full and grave dimensions then (although the German general Helmuth von Moltke, one of the chief instigators of the slaughter, wrote in late July 1914 that the coming war would "annihilate the civilization of almost the whole of Europe for decades to come"[5]). The damage done to the fabric of European culture and civilization in the Great War could only been seen clearly when the Great War's political effects had been cleared from the board in 1991.

This is familiar territory. But in spite of the poor results of its secular experiment, Europe will continue to not only persist in making human reason its highest value, but also in defining itself in explict anti-Christian terms.

In October 2004, Rocco Buttiglione, a distinguished Italian philosopher and minister for European affairs in the Italian government, was chosen by the incoming president of the European Commission, Portugal's Jos, Manuel Dur_o Barroso, to be commissioner of justice. Professor Buttiglione, who would have been considered an adornment of any sane government since Cato the Elder, was then subjected to a nasty inquisition by the justice committee of the European

Parliament. His convictions concerning the morality of homosexual acts and the nature of marriage were deemed by Euro-parliamentarians to disqualify him from holding high office on the European Commission-despite Buttiglione's clear distinction in his testimony between what he, an intellectually sophisticated Catholic, regarded as immoral behavior and what the law regarded as criminal behavior, and despite his sworn commitment, substantiated by a lifetime of work, to uphold and defend the civil rights of all. This did not satisfy many members of the European Parliament, who evidently agreed with one of their number in his claim that Buttiglione's moral convictions-not any actions he had undertaken, and would likely undertake, but his convictions-were "in direct contradiction of European law."

Buttiglione described this to a British newspaper as the "new totalitarianism," which is not, I fear, an exaggeration. That this new totalitarianism flies under the flag of "tolerance" only makes matters worse. But where does it come from?

One of the most perceptive commentators on the European constitutional debate was neither a European nor a Christian but an Orthodox Jew born in South Africa-J. H. H. Weiler, professor of international law and director of the Jean Monnet Center at New York University. Weiler argued that European "Christophobia"-a more pungent term than Taylor's "exclusive humanism"-was the root of the refusal of so many Europeans to acknowledge what Weiler regarded as obvious: that Christian ideas and values were one of the principal sources of European civilization and of Europe's contemporary commitment to human rights and democracy. This deliberate historical amnesia, Weiler suggested, was not only ignorant; it was constitutionally disabling. For in addition to defining the relationship between citizens and the state, and the relations among the various branches of government, constitutions are the repository, the safe-deposit box, of the ideas, values, and symbols that make a society what it is. Constitutions embody, Weiler proposed, the "ethos" and the "telos," the cultural foundations and moral aspirations, of a political community. To cut those aspirations out of the process of "constituting" Europe was to do grave damage to the entire project.

One need only look at the history of that vanguard of European secularism, France, to see the fruit this philosophy produces: decades of civil chaos, the blight of crops, the carnage and destruction of WWI, the humiliations of Waterloo, the Franco-Prussian War, WWII, and Dien Bien Phu and perhaps worse, a cultural pestilence that has infected the Continent.

The demographics are unmistakable: Europe is dying. The wasting disease that has beset this once greatest of civilizations is not physical, however. It is a disease in the realm of the human spirit. David Hart, another theological analyst of contemporary history, calls it the disease of "metaphysical boredom"-boredom with the mystery, passion, and adventure of life itself. Europe, in Hart's image, is boring itself to death.

I've commented at length on the Dutch euthanasia experiment that I consider one symptom of this soul-plague. Another that the article points out is the horrifying spectacle of Europe willingly transforming itself into Eurabian. Weigel tries to offer a glimmer of hope that attitudes are changing among younger Europeans. But as previously noted, Europe is producing so few of them.
papijoe 5:56 AM