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October 25-29, 2005

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Ralph McInerny



The land mass of Europe was there before the Roman Empire but it was the empire that gave it a common language and law. And it was the imperial structure that permitted the spread of Christianity through those lands the conqueror regarded as barbarian. Condescension of a linguistic sort, of course; these strange and wild people did not speak Latin. But the contrast was not simply one involving syntax and vocabulary; however bloody the conquest was, there came in its wake that precarious benefit called the pax Romana. In what Hegel would have thought to be the Cunning of Reason in history, but which is better thought of as Providence, the legions made possible the Christianizing of Europe.

Hilaire Belloc’s remark that Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe has often been misinterpreted to mean that Christianity is a regional affair. But Belloc was drawing attention to the fact that the real unification of Europe took place under the aegis of the cross. And what had been accomplished in Europe, spread far and wide in the world. St. Paul’s proud claim, civis Romanus sum, brought him to Rome in what few would have regarded as a triumphal entry. The centuries of conflict, of martyrdom, during which Christians gradually established themselves as part of the res publica, began.

The apostate Edward Gibbon, in his vast and tendentious account of the fall of the Roman empire, points the finger of accusation at the Christians. [1]Augustine, in his north African see, had confronted the same accusation in The City of God. That great and sprawling work, a tale of two cities, draws attention to the creative tension that would define the future of Europe. With Constantine, with the conversion of barbarian kings, and the eventual Holy Roman Empire, that tension may seem to be resolved, but it remained. As the 13th century turned into the 14th, Dante brooded over the matter and dreamt of two equal powers, Pope and Emperor, each deriving his power from God. A failed dream, of course. Plato saw man as the state writ small, and in any Christian there is a constant combat between his baptized and unbaptized selves, and so it was with Europe.[2]

In our chronological chauvinism, we tend to see modernity as beginning in 1789, and so no doubt it did. The proposed overthrow of prince and priest, the shallow attitude of Kant’s What is Enlightenmen?, made it clear that the future of Europe would involve a debased and secularized form of Christianity.

The feisty prophets of the Enlightenment invite us to consider the contrast between what was predicted and what in fact ensued. And this in turn leads me to consider those great prophetic works of the 20th century which foretold our times, sometimes with eerie presecience.

In mid-century, there were two novels whch attempted to peer into a future which has become our present. Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, and then there was George Orwell’s 1984. A common mark of these magnificent stories is that their critiques are based on secular, humanistic principles. This is even more painfully apparent in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which paper burns).[3] Huxley foresaw the dehumanizing that would result from technology put to the Promethean purposes of man. Babies would be fashioned in laboratories, produced in graded levels, from delta to alpha, programmed for certain tasks in society. Sex becomes merely hedonistic recreation, love and fidelity not even faded memories. Huxley contrasts the denizens of this supposed rational paradise with an enclave of ordinary human, subject to age and illness, pregnancy and birth, and lingering death. In the brave new world, there is a more or less perpetual youth, an absence of illness and, eventually, euthanasia. The hero of the novel visits the enclosure of ordinary humans and there awakens in him a sense of life to which he is strangely drawn. Orwell’s future world is one of totalitarianism, of the great Leviathan obliterating individuality and privacy. It is a powerful depiction of totalitarianism. Absent from both novelistic glimpses into the future is anything remotely like religion and a transcendent goal for men.

More theologically satisfying looks into the future are provided by Vladimir Soloviev’s Antichrist and Robert Hugh Benson’s Lord of the World, both early twentieth century works. Both novels end in Armageddon and their accounts of the future City of Man are suffused with significance because of the interpretative presence in them of the City of God.

Pope Benedict XVI has pointed out the oddity of trying to understand Europe without paying attention to its Christian roots. Is that obvious reminder a feature of the growing shelf of books dedicated to the demise of Europe? Of course it is, but in strikingly different ways. The demographics of the old continent when added to the increasing and pullulating Islamic presence there has caused alarm in many, notably Bat Y’eor, with her accusation of dhimmitude. Oriana Fallaci, who described herself as a Catholic atheist, devoted a trilogy of books to sounding the alarm of the Islamization of Europe, a process in which she sees complicity on the part of European politicians.[4] But is a recognition of the theological stakes all it should be?

Let me suggest a parallel. During recent decades there has been a strong and largely successful campaign in colleges and universities to displace what is called the Western Canon. The great works of western literature make up that canon, works whose excellence has been recognized over the centuries – Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, etc. There have always been quarrels about membership on the list --  T. S. Eliot spent a lot of effort getting some authors onto it and others off.of it. Indeed, one might say that the task of criticism lies precisely in establishing and defending such a list of great books. The recent attack has not been devoted to discussing whether, by acknowledged criteria, certain books belong in the canon; rather, the very question of criteria has been raised. The criteria according to which the western canon has been established are, we are told, reflections of male dominance and chauvinism, class and economic assumptions, with the result that the recommended books are part of a propaganda effort, however unwitting, to preserve the perquisites of the ruling class. The upshot is that any recommendation of books to be read has an ideological basis.

This is a large story but I hope to have given sufficient indication of the quarrel in order to glance at one noble effort to come to the defense of the books in the western canon. I am thinking of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canoin, in which the distnguished critic takes into account the accusations I have suggested above and seeks to counter them. That a scholar who has devoted his life to the study, interpretation and promotion, not only of the classics of the western tradition but to a host of other writings of less magnitude, should be angry and bewildered to be surrounded in academe with colleagues whose aim is to tear down the very framework of his life’s effort is understandable enough, however insufficient as a defense.

We read Dante as we read Shakespeare with the sense that we are gaining insight into what it is to be a man. George Santayana called Dante a philosophical poet, not because he fashioned arguments in the way that philosophers do, but because the large question, what does it all mean?, is answered by the worldview that is the assumption of his work. A vision of the whole to which the philosopher works laboriously by argument the poet simply assumes and then works within it.

Now one of the complaints against the works in the western canon – I think it is the chief complaint – is the religious, Christian, assumptions of the great authors. The secularized mind is offended by reminders of the supernatural or even by the assumption that some actions are unequivocally bad. This suggests that any serious defense of the western canon must begin with a defense of the fundamental assumptions of what have long been regarded as the great artistic achievements of our civilization. It is here that Harold Bloom disappoints. He comes dangerously close to recommending the western canon on the basis that he has spent a lifetime with it and personally likes the works involved. In short, the whiff of subjectivism, of what might be called literary emotivism.

A full appreciation of western art entails a reasoned acceptance of its assumptions. Philosophy and theology are inescapable or we will end with some version of Oriana Fallaci’s Catholic atheism. A love of the achievements of western art, more or less independently of its philosophical and religious underpinnings, is not ignoble. But it is woefully inadequate.

My point is not a subtle one. It is, salva reverentia, what I take to be Benedict XVI’s point. There are many reasonable and middle distance approaches to the crisis we are in. But these have the force they do because they are, however unwittingly, borrowing from what is the only profound and adequate approach. One can love and appreciate Dante for many reasons, good reasons, but is it truly possible to occupy his world without occupying his world, that is, by sharing his faith?  For example, if the role of the Blessed Virgin in the Commedia is seen as merely a literary allegory, the full import of this humble maiden whom Dante addressed mane e sera will be missed.

If 1789 is a pivotal date for the west, 1879 is a yet more important one. That was the year of Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris which directed us to that Christian philosophy which was formed over the centuries but had been eclipsed since the Enlightenment with devastating social and moral consequences. The malaise that Leo addressed has deepened, but the remedy is the same. Hence John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio. Hence too Benedict’s lecture at Regensburg.[5] In order to defend the faith, we must first come to the defense of reason. Without sound philosophy, theology is impossible. And without both philosophy and theology, our art, our society, ourselves, will sink deeper into difficulties.



[1] In Boswell’s life of Dr. Samuel Johnson are to be found many disparaging remarks about Gibbon, whom the great lexicographer knew. For example, Gibbon is dismissed as that “notorious infidel.” [Gibbon had converted to Catholicism, then repudiated it.] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman and J. D. Fleeman. Oxford University Press, 1980, p. 1038.

[2] That the concept of Europe can be difficult to define is the thesis of Remi Brague’s Europe, la voie romaine, now in an English translation by Samuel Lester as Eccentric Culture, A Theory of Western Civilization, St. Augustine’s Press, 2002. For all that, we easily understand James Joyce’s remark that Ireland is an afterthought of Europe. Perhaps wishing that it were still true.

[3] Anything in print is sacred in Bradbury’s novel and our sympathies are invoked for the indiscriminate reverence for the published word. The novel might be a brief in the American Library Association’s case against ‘censorship’ when, for example, citizens object to pornography in the public library. Bradbury seems not to have worried about newsprint, but surely the world’s fireplaces would grow cold if yesterday’s New York Times were not used to ignite the kindling. One thinks of Cardinal Newman’s wonderful essay, “The Tamworth Reading Room.”

[4] Others find this forecast overstated. See Philip Jenkins, God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis; see too Richard John Neuhaus’s “The Much Exaggerated Death of Europe,” in First Things, May, 2007.

[5] See now Jame V. Schall, S.J., The Regensburg Lecture, St. Augustine’s Press, 2007.