Published on October 26, 2006
Thank you for the honor of inviting me to deliver the twentieth Wriston Lecture.
Walter Wriston was, as Henry Kissinger eulogized him, “the type of American who has made this country the hope of the world.” Let us all be grateful for Walter Wriston’s love of freedom, for his faith in the power of ideas, and for his generosity; and let us try, in our own ways, to emulate his example. At the outset tonight, let me also thank the trustees of the Manhattan Institute and Institute president Larry Mone for their invitation, and my friend Peggy Noonan for her characteristically kind introduction.
For years now, what seems to be a growing political gap between the United States and its cultural parent, Europe, has been a staple of transatlantic debate. This “widening of the Atlantic” is usually discussed in terms of policy differences: differences over prosecuting the war against jihadist terrorism; differences over the U.N.’s role in world affairs; differences over the Kyoto protocol on the global environment; differences over Iraq. The policy differences are real, and as Robert Kagan has suggested, they reflect the dramatically different experiences that Europe and America had in the 20th century. Permit me to suggest tonight, however, that attempts to parse these differences in political, strategic, and/or economic terms alone will ultimately fail, because such explanations don’t reach deeply enough into the human texture of contemporary Europe.
If I may state my thesis in the indicative rather than the subjunctive: Europe, and especially western Europe, is suffering from a crisis of civilizational morale. The most dramatic manifestation of that crisis is not to be found in Europe’s fondness for governmental bureaucracy or for fiscally shaky health care schemes and pension plans; nor is the drama of the crisis captured fully by the appeasement mentality that some European leaders display toward jihadist terrorism (most recently, in the Danish cartoons controversy and the cancellation of a performance of Mozart’s “Idumeneo” by the Berlin State Opera). No, the most dramatic manifestation of Europe’s crisis of civilizational morale is the fact that Europe is depopulating itself.
Several decades of below-replacement-level birthrates have created situations that would have been unimaginable when what we now know as the European Union was taking its first institutional baby-steps in the late 1940s and early 1950s. By the middle of this century, some demographers estimate, sixty percent of the Italian people will have no personal experience of a brother, a sister, an aunt, an uncle, or a cousin; Germany will lose the equivalent of the entire population of the former East Germany; and Spain’s population will decline by almost one-quarter. Europe is depopulating itself in numbers not seen since the Black Death of the 14th century. One result of these unprecedented demographics is a Europe that, in British historian Niall Ferguson’s striking term, is increasingly “senescent” – and senescence is not, to put it gently, a condition conducive to political vigor.
Yet the issue, as I suggested a moment ago, goes far deeper than politics. When an entire continent, healthier, wealthier, and more secure than ever before, fails to create the human future in the most elemental sense — by creating the next generation — something very serious is afoot. It is neither unfair nor Europhobic nor isolationist to call that “something” a crisis of civilizational morale. Understanding its origins is important in itself; it is also critically important for Americans. Why? Because some of the acids that have eaten away at European culture over the past two centuries are at work in the United States, and indeed throughout the West, at a time when another civilizational enterprise, with a far different vision of the future, is contesting with the West for the definition of that future, often in aggressive ways.
Probing to the roots of Europe’s crisis of civilizational morale requires us to think about history in a fresh way. Europeans and Americans alike typically think of “history” as the product of politics (the contest for power) or economics (the contest for wealth). Both “history as politics” and “history as economics” take a partial truth and try, unsuccessfully, to turn it into a comprehensive truth. Understanding Europe’s current situation, and what it means for America, requires us to look at history in a different way, through the prism of culture.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Europe was the acknowledged center of world civilization. Yet within fifty years, that same Europe produced two world wars, three totalitarian systems, a Cold War that threatened global disaster, oceans of blood, mountains of corpses, the Gulag and Auschwitz. What happened? Perhaps more to the point, why had what happened, happened? Political and economic analyses don’t offer fully satisfactory answers to those 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, in 1942. De Lubac argued that Europe’s torments in the 1940s were the result of a constellation of defective ideas which he summarized under the rubric “atheistic humanism” — the deliberate rejection of the God of the Bible in the name of 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 (as in 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 history could be bent in a more humane direction — and that it was man’s responsibility to do so. One of European civilization’s most distinctive cultural characteristics is the conviction that life isn’t just one damn thing after another, about which little or nothing can be done; Europe learned that from its faith in the God of the Bible.
Several of the most significant figures in nineteenth century European high culture turned this inside out and upside down, however. Human freedom and human greatness required rejecting the biblical God, according to such influential thinkers as Auguste Comte, Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Here, Father de Lubac argued, were ideas with consequences. For when you marry modern technology to Comte’s positivism, Feuerbach’s subjectivism, Marx’s materialism, and Nietzsche’s will-to-power, what you get are the great mid-twentieth century tyrannies — communism, fascism, Nazism. The same point has been made more recently by the English historian Michael Burleigh in two important new studies, Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes: ultramundane humanism, in its quest for a worldly utopia, is inevitably inhuman humanism.
The first explosive result of this profound shift in European high culture was World War I. For the Great War — not only in its origins (as described by David Fromkin in Europe’s Last Summer), but even more in its mindless continuation after the impossibility of a rapid military resolution was plainly obvious to all — was the lethal by-product of a crisis of civilizational morality, a failure of moral reason in a culture that had given the world the very idea 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 could only become fully visible after the end of the Cold War. Its effects were first masked by the illusory peace of the interwar period; 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 European civil war that had begun with the guns of August 1914 had ended, that the long-term effects of what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once called Europe’s “rage of self-mutilation” came to the surface of history and could be seen for what they are. Europe is experiencing a crisis of civilizational morale today because of what happened in Europe ninety years ago, and because of what paved the way, culturally, for that political catastrophe. The damage done to the fabric of European culture and civilization in the Great War could only be seen clearly when the Great War’s political effects had been cleared from the board in 1991.
Contemporary Europe is not bedeviled by the rawest forms of de Lubac’s “atheistic humanism;” the Second World War and the Cold War settled that by putting an end to fascism, German National Socialism, and Marxism-Leninism. Europe today is profoundly shaped, however, by a kinder, gentler cousin, which the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has termed “exclusive humanism:” a set of ideas and political default positions according to which (and in the name of democracy, human rights, tolerance, and civility) all transcendent religious or moral reference points must be kept out of European public life — especially the life of the European Union. This conviction led to two recent episodes that tell us a lot about Europe’s crisis of civilizational morale, and where that crisis can lead politically.
The first episode involved the drafting of a new constitutional treaty to govern the now 25-member European Union. That process set off a raucous argument over whether the Euro-constitution’s preamble should acknowledge Christianity as one of the sources of European civilization and of contemporary Europe’s commitments to human rights and democracy. The debate was sometimes silly, not infrequently bitter, and was finally resolved in favor of Taylor’s “exclusive humanism:” a treaty of some 70,000 words could not find room for one word — “Christianity.” Yet while following this debate, I had the uncomfortable sense that the real argument was not about the past but about the future — would religiously-informed moral argument have a place in the European public square?
A disturbing answer to that question came in October 2004, when Rocco Buttiglione, a distinguished Italian philosopher then serving as Minister for European Affairs in the Italian government, was nominated as E.U. 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, during which numerous members of the European Parliament made it unpleasantly clear that Buttiglione’s convictions about the nature of marriage disqualified him from holding high office on the European Commission — despite Buttiglione’s sworn commitment, substantiated by a lifetime of work, to uphold and defend everyone’s civil rights. Buttiglione ultimately withdrew when it became clear that too many Euro-parliamentarians agreed with one of their number who claimed that Buttiglione’s moral convictions — not any actions he had undertaken, and would 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. Six months after the Buttiglione affair came to its disgraceful end, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described the same phenomenon as “the dictatorship of relativism,” in a sermon opening the papal conclave of 2005. That this new dictatorship marches under the banner of “tolerance” only makes matters worse. But from whence does it spring?
One of Europe’s wisest men, the French philosopher Rémi Brague, wrote recently that, while the nineteenth century had been the century of good-and-evil (with the “social question” posed by the Industrial Revolution dominating public life) and the twentieth century had been the century of truth-and-falsehood (as great ideological systems contended for the human future), the twenty-first century would be the century of being-or-nothingness. A nihilism that had soured on the very mystery of being itself had settled like a thick fog over European high culture, Brague suggested; that nihilism was informed by a deep skepticism about the human capacity to know the truth of anything with certainty; and it had given rise to a moral relativism which had eaten away at Europe’s capacity to give an account of its commitments to freedom and justice, civility and tolerance. The net result of this witches’ brew, Professor Brague proposed, could only be a politics of coercion, for the arts of democratic persuasion could not function in a cultural climate marked by nihilism, skepticism, and relativism. Thus Buttiglione’s “new totalitarianism,” or Ratzinger’s “dictatorship of relativism,” are real and present dangers, and the struggle to resist them defines one pole of Europ’s bipolar culture war.
Europe’s other culture war is brought into focus by the relentlessness of Europe’s demographics. To repeat: the wasting disease that has beset this once-greatest of civilizations is not physical, but rather a disease in the realm of the human spirit. The Orthodox theologian David Hart, in a variant on Rémi Brague’s theme, has called 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. And that is having the most profound strategic consequences.
For while Europe is boring itself to death, it is allowing 21st century jihadists — who regard their military defeats at Poitiers in 732, Lepanto in 1571, and Vienna in 1683, as well as their expulsion from Spain in 1492, as temporary reversals en route to Islam’s final triumph in Europe — to imagine that the day of victory is not far off. Not because Europe will be conquered by an invading army marching under the green banners of the Prophet, but because Europe, having culturally disarmed itself to the point where it cannot give a robust account of its commitments to human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, and having depopulated itself out of the boredom that is an ever-present danger in what Zbigniew Brzezinski once called modernity’s “permissive cornucopia,” will have handed the future over to those immigrants, and their children and grandchildren, who wish to make Europe a cultural and political extension of the Arab-Islamic world. Should that happen, the irony would be unmistakable: the drama of an exclusivist humanism, emptying Europe of its soul, would have played itself out in the triumph of a thoroughly non-humanistic theism. Europe’s contemporary crisis of civilizational morale would reach its bitter conclusion when Notre-Dame becomes Hagia Sophia on the Seine — a great Christian church become an Islamic museum. At which point, we may be sure, the human rights proclaimed by those exclusive humanists who insist that a culture’s spiritual aspirations have nothing to do with its politics would be in very, very serious trouble indeed.
It need not happen. There are signs of spiritual and cultural renewal in Europe, especially among young people; the most influential of contemporary European philosophers, Jürgen Habermas, who once defended a hard form of exclusivist humanism, now argues that a humane and democratic politics requires a foundation built of moral norms that we can know to be true; the Buttiglione affair raised alarms about the new intolerance that masquerades in the name of “tolerance;” the brutal murder of Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh by a middle-class Dutch-Moroccan, the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, and the depredations attendant on the Danish cartoons controversy have reminded Europeans that “roots causes” don’t really explain jihadist ideology or jihadist terrorism. Perhaps most importantly, the outlines of a new European conversation that challenges the sterilities of exclusivist humanism, while engaging both believers and non-believers alike, has come into focus in the past year, thanks to the collaborative work of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, and Marcello Pera, a nonbeliever and philosopher of science who is a member of the Italian Senate (and was, until the recent change of government in Italy, the Senate’s president). In a jointly-authored book, Without Roots, Ratzinger and Pera advanced strikingly similar analyses of Europe’s crisis of civilizational morale, the roots of which both located in a loss of faith in reason, including moral reason — moral reason being one of the distinctive characteristics of the culture that arose from the meeting, in what we now know as “Europe,” of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome.
Moreover, these two distinguished intellectuals agreed, in a variant on Toynbee’s theory of historical change, that a “creative minority” of men and women, convinced that the truths the West lives politically are truths susceptible to rational defense, can be the agents of Europe’s rebirth as a culturally self-confident civilization, capable of giving an account of its democratic political aspirations — which is to say, a civilization willing to face squarely and respond imaginatively to the threat posed by the aggressive elements of the far different civilizational project now housed within it. Indeed, now that the dust has settled after Pope Benedict’s recent lecture at Regensburg, perhaps we can see that Benedict, in cooperation with men like the nonbeliever Pera, has given the world a vocabulary through which a discussion of the sources and threat of jihadist ideology can be engaged by believers and nonbelievers alike, and without falling into the trap of xenophobia: the vocabulary of “rationality” and “irrationality.” If Europe begins to recover its faith in reason, then at least some in Europe may, in time, rediscover the reasonableness of faith; and in any event, a renewed faith in reason would provide an antidote to metaphysical boredom — and thus open the prospect of a new birth of freedom in Europe.
Europe’s current distress is a reminder to all of use who are “Europe transplanted” — and who should feel a deep filial piety toward Europe because of that — that societies and cultures are only as great as their spiritual aspirations. It is not an act of ingratitude toward the achievements of the Enlightenment to suggest that the soul-withering secularism — the exclusivist humanism — that has grown out of one stream of Enlightenment thought threatens the future of the West, precisely because it prevents us from giving an account, to ourselves and our children and grandchildren, of the noble political ends embodied in the western democratic tradition. As Marcello Pera put it in Without Roots, “Absolute [worldliness], supposing there is such a thing, is an absolute vacuum in which neither the happy majority nor the creative minorities can exist.”
For a people whose democratic birth certificate begins with the assertion of “self-evident” moral truths built into the human condition by “Nature, and Nature’s God,” Professor Pera’s brave words should be taken, not as an elegy, but as a call to renewal — a moral and cultural call to arms.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.