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16. The Re-Erection of Two Graeco-Roman Idols

The secularization of the Western Civilization in the seventeenth century, so far from producing a stable way of life, raised the question: What is going to fill the temporary spiritual vacuum that this deconsecration of Western life has created in Western souls? Alternative attempts to fill this vacuum have constituted the unstable spiritual history of the Western World during the last 250 years. The first new objects of worship that inserted themselves in place of the West’s dethroned ancestral Christianity were ghosts from a Graeco-Roman Civilization to which the Western Civilization is affiliated. The first of these Graeco-Roman idols to be resuscitated was the deified parochial community; the second was the deified oecumenical empire.

The re-erection of the first of these two idols in the West was a disaster. The political parochialism of the Modern Western World has been a perhaps inevitable nemesis of the break-up of the western provinces of the Roman Empire into parochial sovereign successor-states in the fifth century of the Christian Era, but this nemesis did not fully overtake Western Christendom until the Renaissance and the Reformation. It is true that, during the intervening millennium, the political break-up of the Roman Empire in the west into a litter of local successor-states had not been repaired. Western Europe had never seen a return of those halcyon days of the Roman Principate, when a civilian could travel from Rome to the Rhine without meeting any soldiers en route except one detachment, 1,200 strong, at Lyons. But the untoward political effects of the fall of the Roman Empire in the west had been mitigated at first by the fortunate psychological fact that these post-Roman local states had been regarded as an accident and a pity, and that their subjects had put no more than a minimum of their spiritual treasure in them.

The larger part of this treasure had been transferred from a dead unitary Roman Empire to a living unitary Western Christian Church. The Venerable Bede, for example, had told the stories of the petty English successor-states of the Roman Empire in Britain within the grander framework of an Ecclesiastical History; and this concentration of feeling on the Church, instead of on the local states, had been accentuated during the century and a half—circa 1050–1200—that had seen the rise and floruit of the Papal Respublica Christiana. Even the ghost of the Roman Empire that had been resuscitated by Charlemagne, feeble though it had always been, had also attracted some loyalty and affection, of which Dante has left a rather academic literary monument in his De Monorchiâ. Thus, down to the beginning of the Late Middle Ages, the unity which had been lost, some 800 or 900 years back, on the political plane had still survived to a large extent on the spiritual plane; and its survival here had put local secular rulers under a salutary restraint. This charge of feeling was not liberated from its attachment to the Western Church till the break-up of the Western Respublica Christiana, which had begun in the thirteenth century in the war to the death between the Papacy and Frederick II and which was consummated in the Early Modern Age in the Reformation.

The Reformation found instruments and allies in the parochial sovereign states as against the oecumenical Western Church, and in the parochial vernacular languages as against the oecumenical Latin language; and this movement towards putting treasure in parochial institutions was not confined to countries that went Protestant. Catholic Venice was equally insistent in asserting her local sovereign rights against the Vatican, and even Catholic Spain jealously maintained the patronage of the Crown in ecclesiastical appointments in the new Spanish Empire overseas. Again, in all Western countries, Catholic as well as Protestant, the cultivation of the vernacular languages, which had been started in the twelfth century by the troubadours and had been carried farther in the fourteenth century by Dante and Petrarch, was now extended from the fields of poetry and romance into the fields of administration and law and science. When, in the seventeenth century, French partially replaced Latin as a Western lingua franca for diplomatic and literary use, French gained no more than a fragment of what Latin had already lost.

The transfer of allegiance from the Western Christian Church to parochial Western secular states was given a positive form—borrowed from the Graeco-Roman Civilization—by the Renaissance. In our memories of the Western renaissance of Hellenism in the Early Modern Age, its literary and artistic sides loom largest; but really its political side has been by far the most important in subsequent Western history.1 On the artistic and literary planes the Renaissance proved, as we have noted in Chapter Thirteen, to be no more than a passing infatuation; but on the political plane it is still an obsession in our day. On this political plane the Renaissance revived the Graeco-Roman worship of parochial states as goddesses; and it did this all the more insidiously because it did it unavowedly, out of deference to the West’s Christian past (the Greeks had deified Athens and Sparta consciously and frankly). This unavowed worship of parochial states was by far the most prevalent religion in the Western World in A.D. 1956. Even the experience of the rise and fall of Hitler’s Europe and the menace of Russian Communism have hardly begun to shake the hold of nation-worship over Western hearts; and the Graeco-Roman inspiration of this Modern Western nationalism is ominous, because we know, from the long since concluded history of the Graeco-Roman Civilization, that this form of idolatry was the main cause of that Civilization’s breakdown and disinte ration.

The erosion of the West’s traditional common institutions and common outlook by Nationalism has been progressive. The unity of the clergy in Western Christendom was broken by the Reformation. The unity of the Western ‘Republic of Letters’, as it had existed down to the generation of Erasmus and Saint Thomas More, was broken when Latin was ousted by the local vernacular languages, and it was re-established only very imperfectly when Latin was partially replaced by French in the seventeenth century. The unity of the West European aristocracy—a polyglot social circle knit to ether by inter-marriage—was broken by the French Revolution, by the smotherin of the aristocracy in Britain in the nineteenth century in the embrace of a prolific middle class, and by the rise of the United States, where the West European aristocracy had never struck root.

The West European Royal Family had been still more closely knit together by inter-marriage than the West European aristocracy, and, if possible, still better educated in the gift of tongues. But its unity, too, was broken by the French Revolution; by the rise to power of middle-class and working-class parliaments and electorates; and by the political unification of Germany in A.D. 1871. This last event nationalized the royal family in the minor German states, where, up till then, it had remained nationally neutral and therefore eligible for such purposes as the export of West European kinglets to Eastern Orthodox Christian successor-states of the Ottoman Empire. The final stroke was the deposition of a number of dynasties in West European countries defeated in the First and Second World Wars.2

The unity of the diplomatic corps was broken by the eclipse of the aristocracy and by the rise of the United States and of the successor-states of the Hapsburg, Hohenzollern, Romanov, and Ottoman Empires—all of which had to draw their diplomats from among novi homines who had been born and brought up as nationalists and who had not been taught to speak French as virtually a second mother tongue. The successive liquidation of all these oecumenical families, corporations, and classes has meant a progressive removal of the traditional barriers in the Modern Western World to a totalitarian idolatrous worship of parochial states.

As the traditional oecumenical institutions of Western Christendom were liquidated or rejected, one after another, a post-Christian Western Society began to feel the painfulness and dangerousness of the vacuum, and it deliberately set itself to fill the gap with new oecumenical institutions of its own creation. In the seventeenth century the broken Medieval Western fraternity of Latin-learned clerks was partially replaced by a more artificial and self-conscious French-cultivated fraternity of savants and men of letters.3 But the increasing self-assertion of the local vernaculars, which had sabotaged the oecumenical use of Latin, has sabotaged the oecumenical use of French too—and this at a rapid pace since the fall of France in A.D. 1940.4 In the nineteenth century the establishment of the International Red Cross at Geneva provided a secular substitute for the religious restraint once imposed by a common Christianity on the barbarity of War, and also for the aristocratic restraint once imposed on it by chivalry. But the symbol of the Red Cross proclaimed that a secular nineteenth-century Western humanitarianism was living on a dwindling fund of religious capital.

On the technological plane ‘the conquest of distance’ by mechanical inventions within the last 150 years has provided not only the West itself but the whole of a Westernizing World, over all the habitable and traversable surface of the planet, with the physical apparatus for making one family of all Mankind. Since Technology has replaced Religion as the pursuit in which Western Man has put his treasure in the Late Modern Age, it is natural that he should have expected his new idol to reward him for his worship by enabling him to fill the spiritual vacuum which he had created by discarding his ancestral religion. Yet, so far from easing his difficulties, the physical unification of the World by Technology has aggravated them.

The physical facilities for peaceful intercourse which the progress of Western technology has provided at an ever accelerating pace have suddenly established contact between societies which have hitherto been physically insulated from one another by lack of adequate physical means of communication, and which therefore have developed very different manners and customs and outlooks. Technology can bring strangers physically face to face with one another in an instant, but it may take generations for their minds, and centuries for their hearts, to grow together. Physical proximity, not accompanied by simultaneous mutual understanding and sympathy, is apt to produce antipathy, not affection, and consequently discord, not harmony. Perhaps a subconscious realization of the truth that a sudden conquest of physical distance may be inimical to a union of hearts explains why, in A.D. 1956, the people of the World were putting up so patiently with the administrative obstacles that their governments were putting in the way of physical communications: tariffs and quotas, exchange controls, immigration controls, health controls, and the rest.

In spite of all the tariffs and the quotas, the annihilation of physical distance has made a Westernizing World economically interdependent to a much greater extent than it ever was before the Industrial Revolution. In an age in which local states are dependent on the World outside their frontiers for the supply of staple raw materials and foodstuffs, the political partition of the Oikoumenê into sixty or seventy fully self-governing parochial states is becoming more and more burdensome in peacetime and more and more devastating in wartime. In a world that is already economically interdependent but still remains politically disunited, the social disturbance caused by wars is necessarily far greater than it was in a world in which Man’s economic operations had no wider a range than his political communities had. Moreover, Technology is a neutral power that lends itself impartially to all purposes, including war. This is a point that needs no elaboration in an atomic age; and we are forced to conclude that Technology has not healed the wound that was inflicted on the Western Civilization in the seventeenth century by its leading spirits when they discarded their ancestral religion. Technology has made the wound worse; and Modern Western Man’s rueful recognition that, after all, this master-art of his is no panacea for his social and spiritual maladies has been virtually confessed in his successive attempts to attain a general and lasting peace by creating for himself some new form of oecumenical organization.

The West lost its original oecumenical institutions when in the thirteenth century the Papacy wrecked the Holy Roman Empire and when in the fourteenth century it wrecked itself. Since then there has been a series of attempts to replace these lost oecumenical Western institutions by new ones.

The Conciliar Movement was an attempt to salvage the medieval Respublica Christiana by placing the papal monarchy on a parliamentary representative constitutional basis. This movement was defeated by the Papacy’s lust for absolute power, which was the régime of the day in Northern and Central Italy and was the régime of the future in the rest of the Western World. Charles V’s Europe was an attempt to give the Western World effective political unity, which the Holy Roman Empire had never been able to give it, by uniting a sufficient number of key parochial states in a network of dynastic marriages. This project was frustrated by the unwillingness of France—the most fertile and populous state in the Western World of the day—to renounce her national ambitions for the sake of a Western common weal. Louis XIV’s and Napoleon’s Europe was an attempt to unite the Western World under the hegemony of the militarily strongest parochial Power in it. The military domination of France was alleviated, in both these attempts to impose it, by the cultural gifts which the French armies brought with them in this age. But France’s bid for hegemony in the Western World, like Spain’s earlier bid and Germany’s later bids, was overtrumped by the play of the Balance of Power.

The post-Napoleonic Concert of Europe was an attempt to make the Balance of Power serve a constructive purpose by putting in commission among the Great Powers the hegemony that previously had been denied to Spain and to France in turn. The League of Nations was the Concert of Europe expanded to a world-wide range, provided with a written constitution, and democratized by the inclusion of the middle-sized and small states side by side with the Great Powers, though not on an equality with them. The failure of the Concert of Europe to avert the First World War, followed by the failure of the League of Nations to avert the Second World War, indicated that the Balance of Power was not an effective substitute for the hegemony of a single Power, to which it had repeatedly proved to be an effective obstacle. Its failure as a constructive agency was proclaimed in a revival of the crude alternative method of trying to establish political unity. Hitler’s Europe was a fresh attempt to unite not only Europe but, this time, the whole World under the domination of the militarily strongest parochial Power in it. But Hitler’s outrage was not mitigated by any Napoleonic gifts from the conquerors to the conquered; and, considering that Napoleon had failed, it would have been surprising if Hitler had succeeded. The total defeat of Hitler’s abominable design has given the World one more chance of putting itself in political order by a constructive use of the Balance of Power. The United Nations is an attempt to revive the League of Nations, but this under conditions that are less favourable in a world in which the number of Great Powers has been reduced, by the shattering effects of a Second World War, from seven to no more than two.

Thus our Westernizing World has several good reasons for feeling anxiety. It is armed with atomic weapons. It has already experienced two devastating pre-atomic wars in one lifetime. And its political power is now neither distributed, as it was in the Concert of Europe and in the League of Nations, nor concentrated, as Hitler, Napoleon, and Louis XIV tried to concentrate it, but is polarized between two rival Powers and two only. In these circumstances our anxiety is well warranted. For, while we can foresee that, in an Atomic Age in which physical distance has been ‘annihilated’, the control of atomic weapons is bound to be unified in the hands of some single authority sooner or later, we cannot foresee whether we shall reach this inevitable goal of world-government without inflicting on ourselves a supreme catastrophe. We can, however, foresee that, when world-government does come, the need for it will have become so desperate that Mankind will not only be ready to accept it even at the most exorbitantly high price in terms of loss of liberty, but will deify it and its human embodiments, as an excruciated Graeco-Roman World once deified Rome and Augustus. The virtual worship that has already been paid to Napoleon, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao indicates the degree of the idolization that would be the reward of an American or a Russian Caesar who did succeed in giving the World a stable peace at any price; and in this baleful light it looks as if the oecumenical welfare state may be the next idol that will be erected in a still discarded Christianity’s place.

  • 1.

    This point has been put by the writer in A Study of History, vol. ix, pp. 3, 6, 7–8.

  • 2.

    There were, however, indications, by A.D. 1956, that this decimated and politically depotentiated West European Royal Family might be going to have a new lease of life on a new plane. Their decimation in the wars and revolutions of the past century and a half had given the survivors a rarity value; and it was no accident that the few countries in which the institution of Monarchy did survive were those in which it had previously lost its political power. This detachment of the Crown from politics had had the unforeseen result of giving it a new significance as a politically non-controversial symbol of social solidarity transcending the divisions between parties and classes. This new symbolic role had given the Crown a new hold on people’s hearts; and in A.D. 1956 it looked as if at least six of the seven monarchies then still in existence in Western Europe were going to become increasingly important as emotional focuses for the sense of unity, not only within the frontiers of their respective countries, but throughout the Western World, including the non-European states members of the British Commonwealth and even the United States. This striking reversal of the historic role of an institution that had formerly bred division and strife was a good augury for the future of the Western Civilization.

  • 3.

    ‘This Republic [of Letters] is a state with an extremely liberal constitution. The only dominion that is recognized here is that of Truth and Reason; and under the auspices of these a bloodless war is waged without respect of persons. Every citizen of this commonwealth is sovereign and is at the same time subject to every other citizen’s jurisdiction.’—Bayle, P., Dictionaire, 3rd ed., i. 812 a, s.v. Catius.

  • 4.

    The consequent fall of France’s linguistic and cultural empire had gone far in both South-West Asia and Latin America by A.D. 1956. In both these cultural provinces of a Westernizing World the English language seemed at the moment to be profiting by the French language’s loss, but it would have been rash to take it for granted that English would eventually succeed in filling a gap which the fall of Latin had left behind it and which French had never succeeded in filling more than partially. Throughout the 600 years that had run from the conquest of the Achaemenian Empire by Alexander the Great down to the first collapse of the Pax Romana in the third century of the Christian Era, a ‘Standard Attic Greek’ (the koinê) had been the lingua franca of a Graeco-Roman World which had expanded into India in one direction and into Britain in another. In Saint Paul’s generation even a cautious observer might have ventured to commit himself to the prophecy that, whatever else the Future might or might not hold in store, it could now be taken as certain that the Attic koinê was going to be the common language of half the World for good and all. The non-fulfilment of this then apparently reasonable expectation was a warning to observers of a Westernizing World in the twentieth century of the Christian Era that, at this date, the prospects of the English language were not certainly assured.