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.