During a conversation in Cracow last July, Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, OP, the archbishop of Vienna, proposed that he and I organize a conference to discuss the growing gap between America and Europe, the roots of that gap as analyzed in my book The Cube and the Cathedral, and the possibilities of strengthening the trans-Atlantic Catholic dialogue and the new evangelization on both continents. I readily agreed, and the conference, which included some fifty public intellectuals from “Old Europe,” “New Europe,” and the United States, met in April in the archbishop’s palace in Vienna. Many of us were housed in a former barracks of the Teutonic Knights; to have come from Poland, where I had been visiting, to the barracks of the Teutonic Knights was…historically interesting, to say the least. (Why? Google “Battle of Grunwald, 1410.”). But the Deutschordenshaus is a story for another day.
Cardinal Schoenborn, who makes great sense in a half-dozen languages, provided the intellectual glue that held an international, interdisciplinary conversation together; as an American present, Dr. William Hurlbut of Stanford, put it, “Coming from California, it’s refreshing and amazing to hear words of truth and light in the accents of Arnold Schwarzenegger.” But perhaps the most intriguing intervention of the conference came from my friend Rémi Brague, who divides his time between the Sorbonne in Paris, where he teaches philosophy, and Munich, where he holds the chair of the late, great Romano Guardini. Professor Brague’s name would rightly appear on any list of Ten Most Intelligent Catholics in the World, and in Vienna, he didn’t disappoint.
Picking up on a phrase I had used in The Cube and the Cathedral, that Europe is “dying from a false story,” Brague suggested a fascinating way of looking at the last two centuries of western history. The 19th century, he proposed, was focused on the question of good-and-evil: the “social question,” posed by the industrial revolution, the emergence of an urban working class, and the demise of traditional society, dominated the landscape. The 20th century, he argued, had been the century of the question of true-and-false: totalitarian ideologies, built on perverse misunderstandings of the human person, defined the contest for the human future that drove history from the aftermath of World War I until the Soviet crack-up in 1991.
And the 21st century? Ours, Professor Brague said, is the century of the question of being-and-nothingness — the century of the metaphysical question.
Which may sound extremely abstract, but is, in fact, very concrete. For if nothing is “given” in the human condition, then everything is up-for-grabs. If, to take a salient example on both sides of the Atlantic, maleness and femaleness are mere “social constructs,” then “marriage” can mean anything someone wants it to mean, including not only “gay marriage” but polygamy and polyandry — and to deny that is an act of irrational bigotry.
Brague, who knows a great deal about Islamic philosophy, knows all about the threat to the West from jihadist Islam. In Vienna, however, he insisted that nihilism — a soured cynicism about the mystery and wonder of being — is the prior enemy-within-the-gates. For nihilism leads to deep skepticism about the human capacity to know the truth of anything; skepticism leads to what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger described on April 18, 2005, as the “dictatorship of relativism;” and relativism is a solvent eating away the foundations of western self-understanding, western civilizational morale — and the western capacity for intelligent self-defense.
An Enlightenment intellectual, cited by Professor Brague, once said that he didn’t have children because begetting children was a criminal act — a matter of condemning another human being to death, to oblivion. That is the kind of nihilism that lies beneath Europe’s demographic suicide of recent decades. That is the kind of nihilism that occupies some of the commanding heights of American culture. That is the kind of nihilism that makes the defense of western civilization difficult today — and would make it impossible tomorrow, were it to triumph culturally.
The very goodness of life, the goodness of being — that is The Issue beneath all the other issues of the 21st century. So suggested Rémi Brague. I’m afraid he’s right.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.