Revenge of the Mediterranean Man

by Michael Knox Beran
He’s on the march in Europe and North America.

In antiquity the Mediterranean peoples despised the yokels of northern Europe. The “masters of the fairest and most wealthy climates of the globe,” Gibbon says, “turned with contempt from gloomy hills assailed by the winter tempest, from lakes concealed in a blue mist, and from cold and lonely heaths, over which the deer of the forest were chased by a troop of naked barbarians.”

The barbarians avenged this contempt when, coming down from the northern forests, they sacked the Mediterranean cities. Yet the northern man — whether Goth, Visigoth, or Vandal — was willing to learn from the Mediterranean man whose sanctuaries he despoiled. Having destroyed the Roman Empire, he was civilized by the Roman Church.

With his new cultural tools, the northern man built up a civilization of his own, one that surpassed, in worldly treasure, the Mediterranean civilization he had plundered. In the Reformation, the northern peoples threw off the last restraint of Mediterranean culture, the spiritual and ecclesiastical authority of the Roman faith. In the centuries that followed, a new commercial and industrial order arose in northern Europe and in its colonies in North America, creating riches that far outshone “the wealth of Ormus and of Ind.”

Now it’s the Mediterranean man’s turn for revenge. The Germanic marauders used fire and the sword to plunder their more prosperous neighbors in the Mediterranean littoral. Today, the peoples of the Mediterranean nations are using the redistributive machinery of the social state to do pretty much the same thing to their better-off neighbors to the north.

The Mediterranean states of Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal look to the European Union and in particular to the German Federal Republic to bail out their debt-burdened social regimes, much as the barbarous Germans of antiquity once looked to the gold and silver of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean for a better standard of living.

Emigrants from the Mediterranean’s failed Islamic social states have put an additional strain on northern-European economies. Having fled to the north to escape regimes with abysmal prospects — Egypt’s per capita GDP ranked 130th of 190 countries surveyed by the World Bank, just ahead of Bolivia’s — the newcomers avail themselves, Robert S. Leiken writes, of the “generous welfare and housing benefits” offered by countries such as the Netherlands. According to Christopher Caldwell, two-thirds of the Muslim imams in France are on the dole.

Across the ocean in North America, Latino refugees from broken Mediterranean-style economies in Latin America are pushing politicians in the United States to redistribute more of North America’s wealth. In California, the Latino diaspora was instrumental in securing higher taxes on the gringo rich; President Obama himself has called on Americans to cast ballots for “revenge” against the prosperous.

It is not my intention to write a brief for the superiority of the northern system. Were it up to me, I would preserve the economic liberties that have made the northern nations more prosperous than any others that history records. But man does not live by bread alone, and it seems to me that the northern peoples made a mistake when, on the threshold of modernity, they allowed a number of the Mediterranean qualities their culture had adopted to decay.

During the thousand years that elapsed between the deposition of Romulus Augustus, the last emperor of the West, and the posting of Luther’s 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, many of the cities and towns of northern Europe emulated non-compulsory, local forms of civic order originally developed by the Mediterranean peoples. Under this town-square arrangement, individuals were free to develop their own talents yet were always in touch with the common life of those around them. (The basic argument is set forth in Thucydides’s version of Pericles’s funeral oration.) The result was the market-square (or agora) culture that the achievements of Athens, Florence, and Venice, of Salamanca and Kraków, of Bruges, Dijon, Prague, and a thousand lesser centers have made familiar to the whole world. Both the material prosperity and the artistic splendors that these cities attained or inspired are still evident to those who visit their historic centers. It is more difficult for visitors to grasp the pastoral and charitable care that once flourished in these cities, a solicitude that led Dante to liken Florence to a “fair sheepfold.”

The great expansion of the modern age overwhelmed these older forms of order: Men came to live, in Wordsworth’s phrase, “irregularly massed.” New kinds of suffering arose amid a general plenty, the misery Dickens and Hugo and Ruskin wrote about in their books. But instead of drawing on the West’s older philosophy of mercy and adapting it to an altered climate, the sages of the north devised a wholly new remedial system.

Unlike the pastoral culture it was intended to replace, the new therapeutic machinery was to be compulsory rather than voluntary, national rather than local, secular rather than spiritual, rigidly bureaucratic rather than idiosyncratically flexible. The old pastoral culture was a product not merely of the religious sensibility of the old Europeans but of their aesthetic finesse: They used art and especially music to create desirable patterns of order in everyday life. (Art and music, the Greeks believed, are more effective than laws in the building of cities — an insight that we in our rage for rule-making have forgotten.) The old pastoral culture of the West appealed to the imagination, for it was saturated with myth and deeply indebted to the poets. The new redemptive machinery, by contrast, was sterile and unimaginative: It said nothing to the soul. Such was the viper the northern sages nourished in their bosoms. They called it socialism.

Once upon a time, the Mediterranean peoples — the very peoples who are now preying on the northern system of political economy — might have inspired the harder, less supple northern man to recover cultural forms that once tempered his individualism and brightened his common life. But by a curious paradox, the social state, although it originated in the north of Europe — in the brains of Marx, Engels, Saint-Simon, and others — struck its deepest roots in the soil of the Mediterranean nations and in their cousin-states in Latin America, where its suffocating banality extinguished the last vestiges of the older culture.

With the passing of this culture, something died in the West. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga said that the Europeans lost their ability to play. It might seem perverse to connect the playfulness of a civilization with its cultural vitality. But great civilizations have always been distinguished by the exquisiteness of their play. “O Solon, Solon,” the Egyptian priest exclaims in Plato’s Timaeus, “you Hellenes are eternally children, and have not an old man among you.” In peoples no less than in individuals, genius waits on those who protract into maturity the childish season of play. “Our point of departure,” Huizinga wrote,

must be the conception of an almost childlike play-sense expressing itself in various play-forms, some serious, some playful, but all rooted in ritual and productive culture by allowing the innate human need of rhythm, harmony, change, alternation, contrast and climax, etc., to unfold in full richness. 

Much of what Huizinga called the “play-element” in Western culture was concentrated in the play-space of the agora or market square — the “sphere of the festival,” of the “sacred performance and the festal contest,” of the “liturgical and theatrical representations” of man’s fate. In the north of Europe, the Reformation sounded the death knell of this culture, one that used art to mediate between the individual and the community. The Puritan broke up the sculpture of the market square, interdicted its theater, cast a baleful eye over its poetry and its ritual, outlawed its feasting, its dancing, its ale-drinking, and proscribed even the merriness of Christmas. What radical Protestantism destroyed in the Germanic north, the social state destroyed in the Mediterranean south and in Latin America, where the old market centers, once graciously ordered by art, music, and the poetry of the festival, today witness the blood-sport of gangs of drug fiends.

The more brutal and ungraceful a civilization’s play, the less creative its culture will be: Art will scarcely exist in its everyday life. In the United States, such art as we have is shut up in little mausoleums of dead culture, in the museum and the concert hall, cultural mortuaries that are remote from our daily occupations and without an accepted place in the lives of those with whom we are each day thrown together. When a people, in its efforts to order daily life, has replaced the sweet compulsions of art with the coarser machinery of regulations, red-tape, and police power, it has ceased to be healthy: It has outlived beauty, which is to say that it has outlived its lease on life.

“We must spend our life making our play as perfect as possible,” Plato said. Our modern social and political movements have all been “inimical to the play-factor in social life,  “Huizinga observed, “Neither liberalism nor socialism offered it any nourishment.” “Even in the 18th century,” he wrote,

utilitarianism, prosaic efficiency, and the bourgeois ideal of social welfare — all fatal to the Baroque — had bitten deep into society. These tendencies were exarcerbated by the Industrial Revolution and its conquests in the field of technology. Work and production became the ideal, and then the idol, of the age. All Europe donned the boiler-suit. Henceforth the dominants of the civilization were to be social consciousness, educational aspirations, and scientific judgement. With the enormous development of industrial power, advancing from the steam-engine to electricity, the illusion gains ground that progress consists in the exploitation of solar energy. As a result of this luxation of our intellects, the shameful misconception of Marxism could be put about and even believed, that economic forces and material interests determine the course of the world. This grotesque over-estimation of the economic factor was conditioned by our worship of technological progress, which was itself the fruit of rationalism and utilitarianism after they had killed the mysteries and acquitted man of guilt and sin. But they had forgotten to free him of folly and myopia, and he seemed only fit to mould the world after the pattern of his own banality.

Under different stars the Mediterranean man’s northward march might have heralded the rapprochement of two civilizations and shown the world that economic freedom is not incompatible with splendor of culture. But the Mediterranean man today is no less cut off from his cultural heritage than is the northern man, and his inexorable progress in the higher latitudes seems to portend not renewal but something more ominous.

Michael Knox Beran, a lawyer and contributing editor of City Journal, is author of, among other book Forge of Empires, 1861–1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

Did you like this?