What is it about modern European civilisation that differs from Indian, Chinese, and Jewish civilisation, and what can it teach us about the flaws in our own sense of identity?
The shock of history: we live it neither knowing it nor comprehending it. Many past eras have experienced similar shocks, and faced immense challenges, such as the Hellenes during the Persian Wars. Over centuries, ‘modern’ and contemporary, major shocks have caused responses that have heavily marked the history of ideas, significantly influencing personal and political worldviews over the long term. Machiavelli was born in the midst of a tumultuous period for Florence and Italy at the end of the fifteenth century; Montaigne in the French Wars of Religion; Hobbes at the time of the first English Civil War; Carl Schmitt into the German and European disaster that followed the Treaty of Versailles; Samuel Huntington into the newly emerging Cold War. Since the frightening European retreat following the Second World War, the disappearance of traditional sovereignties, and the end of the jus publicum europaeum that established limitations on war between states, and its replacement with the American concept of war crimes and the criminalisation of the enemy, Europeans are now confronted with a new shock of history that requires new answers. American hegemony has led to the complete globalisation of economics, much to the benefit of finance industry sharks and much to the detriment of the average person. To these blights we must also add the untold consequences of the invasion of Europe by masses of immigrants of exotic origin, completely incapable of assimilation, and the reawakening of former powers that, until recently, were considered dead.
Perceiving these historic disruptions has been at the very heart of my work as a historian since the beginning. This includes the relation between religion and politics, religion and identity, and the continuity and resurgence of civilisations, considered in their own right as particular expressions of the long-lasting identities of their peoples. Thus, since the very dawn of her very long history, before she was even given her name, Europe found answers in a tradition that goes back to the poems of Homer, themselves an expression of Indo-European roots dating back many thousands of years.
Higher civilisations are not simply regions of the planet, they are different planets entirely. Much like our own in Europe, Chinese, Indian, Muslim, Native American, and Hispano-American civilisations all have roots that reach back into time immemorial. These roots often dig deep into the depths of pre-history itself. They rest upon specific traditions that are passed down through the ages in ever-changing forms. These are composed of spiritual values that build behaviours and nurture representations. If, for example, sexuality is universal in the same manner as eating, love is then different for each civilisation, as are representations of femininity, cuisine, architecture, the visual arts, and music. These all reflect a spiritual morphology, transmitted as much through atavism as through experience. These features make us who we are, unlike any other. They constitute our perennial tradition, our unique way of being men and women in the face of life, death, love, history, and fate. Without them we are fated to become nothing; to disappear into chaos, and into the chaos of a world dominated by others.
Fortunately, our tradition survives in our subconscious, despite having been forgotten due to old divisions that have shattered our memory, a memory further scarred by the delusive belief in our universal mission. A belief that is dangerously wrong.
More wrong than even Samuel Huntington could have imagined. It denies and destroys other cultures and civilisations, specifically those that threaten the universalist values said to be ‘Western’, that in reality exist simply for the benefit of globalising markets and ‘democracy’, summed up in the triptych: fun, sex, and money. It is clear to us, of course, that this globalist pretension rallies the resistance against itself, and even the revolt of peoples who refuse it.
This universalist belief is also dangerous for those of us in Europe. It stunts our ability to comprehend that other men do not feel, think, or live the same way we do. It is dangerous because it acts destructively upon our own identity. After having colonised other peoples in the name of universalism, Europeans are now in the process of being colonised in the name of the very same principle against which they do not know how to defend themselves: if all men are brothers, nothing can stop the arrival of others on our doorstep.
In the past, when Europeans were strong and powerful, when they dominated the world, they had made of their Christian or secular culture, which in both cases was universalist and individualistic, the tool by which they conquered, intending to impose it upon the entire world. This was shattered following the upheavals of the twentieth century: both world wars in Europe, de-colonisation, and the reawakening of ancient civilisations. What had once been a source of strength has become the cause of their weakness. Their old universalistic worldview has removed their moral defences, in spite of their economic strength and a few vague stirrings of illusory power. Europe has been thrown, naked and defenceless, into a world aching to vengefully humiliate her.
Elsewhere, things are perceived far differently than the average European could ever imagine. To help elucidate this reality, I would like to cite two accounts drawn from French experience. The first is that of Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the mosque of Paris and President of the French Council of the Muslim Faith. He explains that Islam is ‘at once a religion, a community, a law, and a civilisation […] it is not only those who practice the five pillars of Islam who are considered Muslims, but all those who take part in this identitarian whole’. The key word here is identitarian. In this way, Islam is not simply a religion. It is in fact much more than that: it is ‘a community, a law, a civilisation’.
This interpretation runs parallel to another account given by the philosopher André Comte-Sponville. In a book about atheism and religiosity, he mentions friends of his who identify as ‘atheist Jews’. The term left him dumbstruck. One cannot imagine Christians who identify as ‘atheist Christians’. He took it upon himself to discuss it with a former classmate, formerly a militant Maoist: ‘But do you believe in God?’ His friend smiled: ‘You know, for a Jew, whether or not one believes in God is not really the issue…’
For Comte-Sponville, who was raised a Catholic, this was antithetical to the central question of religion. His friend explained to him that it is a completely different issue: ‘God does not exist, but we are his chosen people…’ For him, being Jewish means being loyal to a particular history, tradition, law, book, and community. This loyalty has helped his people survive centuries without a state, a homeland, or ‘any other refuge than memory and fidelity’.
When we are immersed in Christian culture, which is at once universalist and individualist, this is surprising. However, many other religions, even Islam, as we have just seen, and of course Judaism, but also Hinduism, Shinto, or Confucianism, are not just religions in the Christian or secular sense of the word, namely a personal relationship with God, but also identities, laws, and communities.
The thinking that associates a group’s identity with its perennial tradition can help modern Europeans who are often de-Christianised by a deeply rooted culture of secularism. It can help them find the strong identitarian ties that lie beyond personal faith (or lack thereof). What ties? Precisely those of tradition. Ties capable of uniting Europeans with each other and arming them morally so that they may confront the impending threat of complete disappearance into the great void of the universal melting pot and of ‘brazilisation’. In the same way that some consider themselves sons of Shiva, Muhammad, Abraham, or Buddha, it is important that Europeans see themselves as sons of Homer, Ulysses, and Penelope.
The European tradition, whose origins predate Christianity, as Benedict XVI bravely reminded us in his Regensburg lecture on 12 September 2006, can be safely reconciled with religious convictions – or the lack thereof – since these have become a private matter in Europe. Whether one is Christian, free thinker, or whatever else on top of that, the point is that in order to resist and renew, we must rise above political and denominational variables and rediscover the permanence of tradition, which has permeated our founding poems for millennia.
(The above is taken from Dominique Venner’s introduction to The Shock of History, which was recently published in English by Arktos Media.)