No Culture, No Europe

Dalibor Rohac’s analysis of how the European integration project came undone is a story of the failure of technocracy and the European political class which manages it. A combination of hubris and severe mismanagement of multiple crises has damaged, perhaps fatally, the credibility of that project and those presently driving it. In retrospect, it’s clear that one reason why Brexit was resisted so ferociously by the Brussels mandarins is that they understood that once a country of Britain’s stature exited the European Union, the aura of inevitability that EU politicians have tried to invest the establishment of a supranational state would be shattered forever.

That is precisely what has transpired. People like France’s Emmanuel Macron may repeat ad nauseam the “ever-deeper union” refrain, but that song has lost its rhythm. The Covid pandemic, which resulted in many EU nation-states unilaterally closing their borders to each other, underscored the fact that, when push came to shove, nation-states wouldn’t hesitate to invoke one of the ultimate attributes of sovereignty, whatever the fine print of EU treaties. The Kantian dream of a borderless world turned out to be exactly that: an illusion.

Where Europe as a political entity goes from here is the focus of Rohac’s attention. His suggestion is that one way forward is for a return to something like the EU’s pre-Maastricht configuration. Here the goal would be to build cooperation between independent European communities rather than continue trying to establish a Union managed from the top-down by largely unaccountable career politicians.

To my mind, Rohac’s communities-model is infinitely preferable to the present status-quo which pulverizes accountability and transparency, perpetuating a half-world of split-sovereignties that in turn generates endless layers of competing bureaucracies. Alas, I see little evidence of any willingness on the part of Europe’s political class to contemplate such a possibility. Far too much is at stake for them. For one thing, no one likes to admit that their political dream has come to naught. Less top-down bureaucracy and more bottom-up communities also likely translate into fewer positions for European politicians and the armies of advisors and officials located in Brussels and Strasbourg. Not even France, I suspect, could generate enough civil service positions to fill the void.

There is, however, another specter haunting Europe: one which isn’t fixable by politics, or even the desperately needed dose of economic liberalization needed to shake up the ingrained dirigisme that characterizes much of the Old Continent. That specter is the ongoing forgetting and, at times, denigration of Europe’s cultural roots, and their replacement by an opaque sentimental humanitarianism that leaves little but virtue-signaling and historical amnesia in its wake. This matters because no set of political structures, however proficient, can maintain a polity or set of communities in place if such entities lose a sense of where they come from and what they offer the world.

Cultures and Culture

In one sense, it’s a misnomer to speak of European culture. The value commitments, memories, historical legacies, attitudes, habits, and other hard-to-measure elements that make up the various cultural formations that mark Europe are not uniform. There are, however, five particular cultural forces that have impressed themselves upon Europe’s landscape and make all the many European nations and communities different from, say, those found in India and China. These are the world of Greek philosophy and politics, the legacy of Roman law, the presence and influence of the Jewish people and religion, the sway of Christianity, and the intellectual movements associated with the various Enlightenments.

Certainly, there have always been tensions between these elements. The clashes between particular expressions of Enlightenment thought and Christian belief from the late-eighteenth century onwards are one example. Another is the shameful history of anti-Semitism, culminating in the worst crime in human history being carried out in the most modern way possible, and yet unthinkable without centuries of prejudice from Romans, Christians, and more than a few Enlightenment thinkers whose aspirations for tolerance stopped at the ghetto wall.

Nonetheless, there is a way whereby these distinctly European cultural underpinnings have produced transcendent things that no one would describe as anything but European in origins and character. Possibly the most sublime piece of music ever composed, Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum” K. 339, is incomprehensible without the background of baroque Catholicism and early-Enlightenment aspirations that characterized the mid-eighteenth-century Habsburg Empire. It is likewise hard to contemplate Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations—a book which changed the world forever—emerging in the absence of prominent Church of Scotland minsters like Francis Hutcheson who combined moderate Presbyterian faith with deep interest in the new learning sparked by Isaac Newton. The genius of Michelangelo’s David is to be found in the way in which it takes the Hebrew Scriptures’ account of the young Jewish shepherd who became a heroic and tragic king and invests it in the Greek concern for form and beauty.

Or: consider the world of medieval Europe in which figures like Thomas Aquinas closely read Greeks like Aristotle and Romans such as Cicero, while also consulting the works of Jewish philosophers and Torah scholars like Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides, born in Córdoba, Andalusia, then part of the Muslim-ruled Almoravid empire. Without this type of exchange of ideas within the settings of institutions that have good claims to be the first universities, tomes such as the Summa Theologiae might never have seen the light of day.

So too the emergence of constitutionalism is difficult to fathom without the deeper background of Roman lawyers searching for practical ways to reconcile competing interests, the desire of medieval religious communities to order their internal governance, or epic clashes between church and state which ended up limiting the power of both. Even the modern sciences—the product of a concern for empirical rationality—find their deeper roots in the researches of figures like Aquinas’s master, Albertus Magnus, or the Toledo-born medieval Jewish astronomer, Judah ben Solomon ha-Kohen, who was eventually invited to live at the court of Emperor Frederick II on account of his brilliance.

No amount of politics, Röpke believed, could substitute for the deeper unity derived from Europe’s shared inheritance of Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian and Enlightenment values.

Diminishing One’s Inheritance

I could go on, but it is impossible to conceive of Europe without these five sources and their varied interactions over 2000 years. Such reference points are not, however, what inspires most European elites in our time. Theirs is a very different outlook, one that is simultaneously detached from and palely imitates these sources.

We see this in the way that the language of rights now operates in European political discourse. This conception of rights is not one derived from natural law, moderate Enlightenment sources, the inherited wisdom contained in tradition, or even a judicious blending of these sources. More often than not, it is grounded upon raw assertion—as a way of expressing what I just happen to want, and detached from any sense of obligation to the communities in which such freedoms are embedded. In this world, rights are not understood as how we give legal form to particular liberties as preconditions for freely choosing to pursue the good life. Rather, they tend to be about autonomy for the sake of autonomy, such as we see in euthanasia laws being increasingly justified on grounds of self-determination alone.

This goes hand-in-hand with a certain flattening and narrowing of opinion throughout much of Europe regarding any number of subjects. Today’s European presidents and prime ministers interminably celebrate everyone looking and sounding different. But for all the diversity talk, there is enormous pressure upon anyone who occupies prominent political, economic, and cultural positions to think exactly the same way as one’s peers. Any mainstream European politician who suggests, for example, that climate change might not be quite the imminent threat that we are told it is, can be sure that their career will go down in flames. Or try arguing that Britain’s National Health Service isn’t exactly the eighth wonder of the world that even many Tory MPs proclaim it to be. You will be immediately labelled damaged goods.

Further muddying the waters is the fact that many of those who bear particular responsibility for imparting and clarifying the many facets of Europe’s cultural and historical memory have spent the past half-century trying to dismantle it. By that, I don’t mean identifying myths and separating them out from the truth, or reckoning with the many dark spots in the European story. But in many European universities, the study of history may as well be labelled “oppression studies.” Rather than seeking to unravel the complexities that mark any epoch, the study of history has collapsed into arguments about discerning who did what to whom, without any regard for context or effort to enter into the mental universe of medieval or early-modern Europeans. Presentism—the unthinking application of contemporary standards to those who lived long ago—undoubtedly makes woke Ph.D. students feel infinitely superior to their sixteenth- or first-century forebears. Yet it isn’t likely to enhance the type of understanding of the past which is necessary, albeit insufficient, for moral judgment of figures like Henry VIII, Napoleon, Frederick the Great, or Caesar Augustus.

Similar problems manifest themselves with a large cross-section of Europe’s religious leaders. At any culture’s core is the “cult:” the dominant religion which seeks to explain ultimate realities that, at some level, inform how people in a given culture view the world, even if they are nonbelievers. Since, however, Benedict XVI’s retirement and the death of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, much of Europe has been bereft of major public figures able to explain how Europe’s primary religious traditions have invested the continent with key components of its identity, let alone their meaning for the present. Instead, they endlessly issue statements full of corporate-speak on topics ranging from the environment to Israel largely indistinguishable from the standard center-left orthodoxy on any given issue. Their comparative advantage, to use an economic concept, is to reflect upon those things that transcend the ordinary. Yet it is the one standpoint which they seem petrified of embracing.

Nothingness or True Humanism

One of the thinkers cited by Rohac, the ordo-liberal economist Wilhelm Röpke, fully grasped the importance of these cultural realities for Europe’s political future. According to Röpke, the sociological preconditions for reviving Europe lay not in supranational structures like the then-European Economic Community. Instead, it was to be found at the level of shared values. “What holds Europe together,” he wrote, “in the widest sense is something of a spiritual nature: the common patrimony of Humanism and Christianity.”

By “humanism,” Röpke didn’t mean the sentimental humanitarian discourse which conflates peace with pacifism, moral reasoning with mawkishness, and liberty with autonomy that Pierre Manent has highlighted as the lexicon of choice of EU political leaders and civil servants. Rather, Röpke had in mind classical thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, medievals such as Aquinas and the Talmud scholar Hillel Ben Samuel (the “Jewish Thomist”), Renaissance figures like Erasmus and Thomas More, as well as early and late-modern minds writing in the grand liberal tradition such as Edmund Burke, Moses Mendelssohn, Adam Smith, and Alexis de Tocqueville. For Röpke, “more important than international institutions and legal documents are the moral forces” that infuse a society. No amount of politics, Röpke believed, could substitute for the deeper unity derived from Europe’s shared inheritance of Greek, Roman, Jewish, Christian, and Enlightenment values.

Perhaps it is the case that contemporary Europe is far too removed from these sources for them to be a foundation of renewal—in which case, I find it hard to believe that Europe-as-Europe has much of a future, whether as a Union or a group of independent cooperating communities. Yet I also doubt that, in a hundred years’ time, too many people will be paying attention to the missives of today’s woke professors or attributing particular significance to the anodyne statements issued by the EU Commission. There is something about texts like Magna Carta, addresses such as Socrates’s “Apology,” poetry like Dante’s Divine Comedy, or novels such as Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago that is both distinctly European and decidedly eternal.

That, I’d submit, is grounds for hope in Europe.