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Does the Centre Hold in the EU?: a Sequel
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2013-08-25 11:25:55
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A colleague with whom I shared the recent article on the EU challenged it by pointing out that although I lament the lack of specificity in regard to Italy vis a vis the EU in the article to which it responds (the one by Mr. Nagel titled “Chances are that Europe will resemble Italy in the foreseeable future,”) I too fall to mention specifically what exactly is the cultural cement or historical heritage which the EU continues to ignore but desperately needs.

Admittedly, as the article stands, the critique has some validity. It would come as no surprise to me if Mr. Nagel too were to level the same criticism. However, I responded to my colleague’s critique by suggesting that he read the thirty or so articles I contributed to Ovi on the EU in the last eight years or so. As I remember my very first article for the magazine was on the topic of culture in the EU, immediately followed by one on Levinas’ ethical philosophy vis a vis European ethico-political history which turned out to be quite popular.

Many of those articles were then compiled in an Ovi e-book titled Europe beyond the Euro. I suggested to my colleague that if he has no time to peruse the whole book he should at least take a close look at the article on Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) titled Christopher Dawson and the Making of Europe  (see http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/2585) which appeared on the 28 of January 2009. There, the cultural cement which used to be a reality in Europe during the medieval, Humanistic and Renaissance periods, is amply discussed.

In fact, it may be worthwhile to copy a few excerpts from such an article. I have chosen three short paragraphs which read thus: …but let us go back to The Making of Europe which remains Dawson’s best-known book. In it he demonstrates that Christianity has been the spiritual force that created the unity of Western culture, indeed the commonwealth of Europe itself, from the chaotic world of myriad warring tribes. He shows in that book how the Dark Ages, the period between 400 and 1000 A.D., became a dawn witnessing to the conversion of the West, the foundation of Western civilization and the creation of Christian art and liturgy. And he then asked a crucial question: If such a transformation could happen in the age of the barbarians could it not be repeated now? Like the founding fathers of the EU Dawson, after the Second World War was already envisioning a new united Europe. But he soon realized that there was a problem which faced not only Europe but America too and all societies that consider themselves Western.

The problem was this: the disastrous separation of culture from its religious base brought about by the modern barbarians of the mind and assorted nihilists had not been stemmed by the modern educational system which considered the study of religion superfluous and in fact aimed at its eventual liquidation. The unity of thought, which had prevailed in European civilization over a thousand years, was shattered by excessive specialization which allowed the educated elites to see the tree while missing the forest; moreover science, philosophy and theology had long since split apart. Education, rather than being a preparation for life, had become purely utilitarian and vocational. Humanistic studies needed to be resurrected in all schools and not preserved, almost as a relic of the past, in places like Harvard, Yale and Princeton university as a sort of frosting on the cake of education. This was urgent since the neo-barbarians had already entered the citadel of learning and were hart at work to destroy it from the inside.

Humanism as integrated with Catholicism was at the forefront of Dawson’s speculation. It was that humanism which produced the medieval unity of the 13th century exemplifying Christian culture par excellence. For the flowering of art in every form reached its zenith in Europe between the 13the and 15th centuries with the poetry of Dante and Petrarch, the fresco painters of the Florentine school Giotto and Fra Angelico, and the sculptures of Michelangelo. It was also the age of saints and mystics, both men and women: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominick, St. Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, just to name a few.

It must be mentioned that Dawson was not advocating a return to the Middle Ages; neither was he commending the external apparatus of medievalism, nor Charlemagne’s so called Holy Roman Empire, but rather “a return to the forgotten world of spiritual reality” to which these centuries bear witness. He was not recommending a nostalgic evasion of the present day cultural dilemmas. He was indeed an intellectual for whom ideas were important but many of his colleagues noticed a paradox in him: together with the remote facts of history, he knew of the latest current events in remote corners of the world, and understood and spoke several European languages. Indeed, he had the gift of seeing deeper and further than many of his contemporaries because he had the capacity to interpret the present in the light of the events of the past. As he put it: “The more we know of the past, the freer we are to choose the way we will go.”

All the above remains relevant four years later, perhaps even more so, to which I would now add the following. Dawson’s writings remain a masterwork of Christian humanism witnessing to one of the 20th century greatest thinkers. The real importance of his writings comes not from the retelling of the story of western civilization, but from the theory he presented about the nature and philosophy of history, the fundamental role of the Church in reconciling classical thought and Christianity, and, especially, in the primacy of culture.  They reflect the life-long thought of one of the greatest minds of his day, a fully alive Catholic mind at the absolute peak of its power. One cannot exaggerate Dawson's importance in inspiring a number of the best thinkers of the past century. Their numbers included poets, novelists, cultural critics, and artists such as T.S. Eliot, David Jones, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Thomas Merton, and Russell Kirk, each of whom openly adopted Dawson's position regarding culture during his life time.

For example, culture, Dawson would explain with deceptive simplicity "is the human way of life communicated by language, so that the word of man is both the creator and the transmitter of culture"  This could have been said by Vico himself in The New Science.  Culture, Dawson would argue — along the lines of the great Anglo-Irish statesmen Edmund Burke, French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, and Italian philosopher of history Giambattista Vico — is an artificial product; a creation of man who makes history while at the same time history makes man.  It is like a city that has been built up laboriously by the work of successive generations, not a jungle which has grown up spontaneously by the blind pressure of natural forces.  It is the essence of culture that it is communicated and acquired, and although it is inherited by one generation from another, it is a social, not a biological, inheritance, a tradition of learning, an accumulated capital of knowledge and a community of "folkways" into which the individual has to be initiated.  Hence it is clear that culture is inseparable from education.  As Dawson often argued, culture finds its most significant expressions in the most human things, in language, in gestures, in artistic creations, and, especially, in religious liturgy. Here the medieval Gothic cathedrals and Gothic architecture, already examined in the symposium, jump to mind.

Beginning with his first book, The Age of the Gods, published in 1928, Dawson unceasingly promoted an examination of culture as the most important basis of understanding a society, the family, and the human person.  In this, Dawson ran counter to the twentieth-century obsession with fanatic ideologies and politics.  Indeed, Dawson believed the desire to give primacy to politics and political thought led inevitably to a loss of imagination in the individual human person and an impoverishment of higher reasoning in human societies.  Lacking nuance and always and everywhere partaking of the imperial, politics attempted to expand its own sphere of influence into every aspect of life.  Ultimately, though, politics could succeed only by neutering a man, labeling him as something less than God or nature intended.  "One has to face the fact that there has been a kind of slump in ideas," he confided to a close friend, Bernard Wall.  "There is not only a positive lack of new ideas but also a subjective loss of interest in ideas as such."  Certainly Mars and Demos had hastened the growth of Leviathan, Dawson feared.  "We are still living much under the shadow of war and the uncertainty of the future of Europe is unfavorable to creative work," he worried.  Ideological limitations and propaganda were quickly pervading thought, art, and music in the various Christian churches (Catholic and Protestant), Dawson argued.  "The modern theologians in ceasing to be poets have also ceased to be philosophers." 

Politics served only as a distraction in this world of sorrows, but a deadly one as the Holocaust camps and the gulags had proven.  Still, the analysis of politics must be done, but it must always be done with an eye to explaining its insignificance in comparison with culture.  In his last overtly political work, 1942's The Judgment of the Nations, Dawson tellingly dedicated the work "to all those who have not despaired of the republic, the commonwealth of Christian peoples, in these dark times." This reflects a conviction, among scholars and teachers, that they are Bearers of the Word — dedicated men, whose first obligation is to Truth, and that a Truth derived from apprehension of an order more than natural or material. 

As Dawson aptly put it: “The history of Christianity is the history of a divine intervention in history, and we cannot study it apart from the history of culture in the widest sense of the world.  For the word of God was first revealed to the people of Israel and became embodied in a law and a society.  Secondly, the word of God became Incarnate in a particular person at a particular moment of history, and thirdly, this process of human redemption was carried on in the life of the Church which was the new Israel — the universal community which was the bearer of divine revelation and the organ by which man participated in the new life of the Incarnate Word. 

Each one of us is a little word, Dawson understood, carrying within each one of us an icon, a perfect image of what we are meant to be according to He who created the world as well as redeemed it.  As St. John assures us, the Logos is the "light that lighted up every man."  Dawson thought this truth the most important we can ever know in our sojourn through this world. Those who grasp it also grasp how misguided it is to advocate the liquidation of religion in general and Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular as was done only a few months ago in this very magazine on the occasion of the Papal enclave and as it continues to be advocated by those who misguidedly think that economics and politics are all that matters in creating a human enlightened polity. In reality, not by bread alone does man live. Food for thought.


Rheim’s Gothic Cathedral (13th century A.D.)


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