Off the Shelf: What Is Europe?

Outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels (Yves Herman/Reuters)
Something is on the march there. Its character is not at all clear to me.

Editor’s Note: Every week, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes an “Off the Shelf” column sharing casual observations on the books he’s reading and the passing scene.

My mother was one of those Americans floating around Europe in the 1970s, the way, I suppose, there were Europeans floating around Beirut or the Hindu Kush. Well, maybe not exactly like them. But she was one of those young people who could afford to travel relatively cheaply. A visit to West Germany. A year in London. I would not be surprised if people around my mother referred to me as one of the souvenirs from her European wanderings. That’s enough to explain my ability obtain a passport that is good across the European Union. It explains why my favorite memory of the last two years that doesn’t involve the birth of my son is a quiet dinner at a Nepalese joint, Munal, on Upper Richmond Road with my London-Irish godmother, whom I missed more than I realized.

When others questioned why my mother spent a good chunk of her income and my First Communion money on trips to “the Isles,” she said she wanted me to travel the way she did. And in fact, I recently discovered in her effects a confirmation of my dim memory that she was trying to emigrate to London when I was seven, letters back and forth with the Home Office. We would have moved in to Putney, before it was unaffordable. We’d have had plenty of friends. For her happiness and her health, I sometimes regret we didn’t.

She encouraged me in 1999 to look into Oxford and Cambridge. I’ve always felt like I belonged there, as an American, but close kin nonetheless. And I suppose I adopted from some of my social set the idea that Europe was “ahead” of America. They meant that Europe was achieving greater civilizational progress and higher ideals, while America was still held back by its lowborn rednecks, Evangelicals, and the like. I began to suspect something like the opposite, that Europe was ahead of us in its exhaustion. And the idea of living deeper in the autumn of a civilization just appealed to me as an inveterate melancholic and as a young man who had the normal renegade sense of the opportunities that decay can provide.

Now, I suspect that in many ways America is actually the one leading Europe, culturally. And that even if Europe is closer to exhausted than America, it is also closer to the wellsprings of our civilization and has richer opportunities for cultural and spiritual renewal. But either way, it has left me with an unending series of infatuations with this or that national culture of Europe. Lately, I make the kids listen to mixes of French bossa nova and modern French pop before Mom comes home.

I suspect that in many ways America is actually the one leading Europe, culturally.

My vow this year was to read the set of books given the title “Worlds of Christopher Dawson,” which were reprinted a few years ago by Catholic University Press. They trace out the history and animating spirit of Western civilization, beginning in paganism, but swiftly moving to the building of Christendom and its subsequent disintegration. They start with The Age of the Gods: A Study in the Origins of Culture in Prehistoric Europe and the Ancient East. I jumped in at the end this week, with his volume Understanding Europe.

Dawson was writing in the shadow of sweeping, often shallow contemporary historians of civilization and its development that each championed one great reason for human advancement, and pointed to one great destiny for all mankind. These were often built on the idea that either science or reason itself was the great motor of modern human history. Or, of course, History with a capital H. Even as a matter of anthropology this makes a mess of the human as a creature, whose actions are motivated by all sorts of complex longings, fears, delusions, and dreams. But it is even worse for describing the development of ideas or describing societies.

Gifted with a real education. Dawson understood the ideas of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and (crucially) the various Enlightenment philosophies better than many of their champions. He also often understood the milieu in which they emerged. For just a taste, here is a short, stunning, and deadly passage on Hegel in Dawson’s essay Hegel and the German Ideology:

Hegel always declared that he was a Lutheran and he was in fact in his later years a loyal adherent to the official conception of the Prussian State Church as exemplified in Altenstein’s ecclesiastical policy. But it was a very residual and negative Lutheranism in which the Church had become no more than a docile and sentimental Hausfrau of a state which itself embodied the spiritual principle in a masculine and objective form.

Hegel was a true Protestant in the sense that he protested with passion and conviction against a Church which claimed to be the objective embodiment of the Spirit and the representative of the transcendent majesty of Divine Law. But he was no less opposed to the sectarian Protestantism which turned men’s minds from the state and from the present world and absorbed them in personal piety. It is characteristic of Hegl’s “Lutheranism” that he found “the hero of Protestantism” not in Gustavus Adolphus or Cromewell, but in Frederick the Great, the man who “had the consciousness of Universality, which is the profoundest depth to which Spirit can attain.”

Surveying the problem of the modern mass state and its growth, Dawson generously enumerates the advantages of their adaptability. But he cautions:

Our Western ideas of political and economic freedom, our concepts of free speech and government by discussion, our ideas of property and wealth and leisure, even our ideals of education and culture, were all framed under different conditions in a different society. They come from an age when states numbered a few million inhabitants, and a few thousand politically active citizens. It is only with difficulty that they can maintain themselves in a world that’s become a single power area — where states number their populations by the hundred million and where the whole of their populations are standardized by the same techniques and the pressure of the same economic forces.

Yet it is clear that we cannot abandon ourselves to the forces of change with the same optimistic faith with which our ancestors welcomes the age of progress. No one who is loyal to the spirit of Western civilization, whether in America or Europe, can accept theatrics of the totalitarian state, with its denial of human rights, its mass executions ,and its ruthless liquidation of minorities, without moral disintegration.We are bound in honor not only tonight this evil abroad but to prevent our own society from following the same path.

Of course at the heart of Dawson’s vision is religion itself. And many decades before my friend Douglas Murray made people talk about Europe’s exhaustion and loss of faith, Dawson began his final chapter, “We have seen that the weakness of Western culture in face of the new forces that threaten its existence is due above all to its loss of faith in its own spiritual values and the growing detachment of its external way of life from its religious foundations and the sources of its spiritual vitality. If Europe is to survive — if we do not surrender to the inhuman ideal of a mass society which is a mere engine of the will to power — we must find some way to reverse this process and to recover our spiritual unity.”

And unlike me, he has some hope.

Hard as it may be to see the possibility of this, it is no less difficult to believe in the possibility of indefinite progress along the present line to some robot utopia. Indeed the catastrophes of the last thirty years are not only a sign of the bankruptcy of secular humanism, they also go to show that a completely secularized civilization is inhuman in the absolute sense–hostile to human life and irreconcilable with human nature itself. . . . The forces of violence and aggressiveness that threaten to destroy our world are the direct result of the starvation and frustration of man’s spiritual nature.

It’s only that last little bit that I find slightly ridiculous. As I suspect the present course cannot be gently and healthfully reversed, or repaired. It will begin to fail, and have violent and destructive spasms. We may be seeing the beginning of that process now in Europe, perhaps much later than Dawson would have predicted. Something is on the march in Europe. Its character is not at all clear to me. And I suspect Islam will win many more converts in Europe before the Church recovers there.

And until then at least I have the languid sounds of French jazz.

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