What do Switzerland, Norway and Australia have in common? Oh, several things.
First, they’re all small, in population at any rate. Australia is the most populous of the three, and it only has about 23 million people. Switzerland has about eight million and Norway five.
Second, none of the three either is or, more important, aspires to be a great power. They are happy to mind their own business and aghast at the very thought of having to mind other countries’. Not a single one of them is trying to expand her territory, even though Switzerland, for one, could do with a bit more space.
Third, all three jealously guard their independence. Australia is of course part of the Commonwealth, but she doesn’t rely on the metropolis to tell her how to run her affairs. And both Switzerland and Norway stubbornly refuse to join the EU.
Fourth and most important, they occupy the top three places in the list of countries with the best quality of life.
Now, what about those countries that have now or have had at some point the macho craving for greatness, defined by size, possibly wealth, definitely influence in the world, ideally the ability to boss other lands? Russia, France, the United States and Germany spring to mind.
Where do such ambitious nations rank in our list? Well, none of them is in the top 10. And of the eurozone members, only Holland makes it into that tier. Just.
I detect a causal relationship there somewhere, and not one of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc variety. Diminution in the quality of life is clearly the price a nation pays for pursuing great-power ambitions.
It’s out of such hallucinatory delusions that Germany and France have pushed through the idea of forming a giant, unaccountable European state, complete with a single currency and eventually a single government.
One would think they might have learned their lesson, or rather quite a few lessons. Look at France, for example.
Her national hubris just couldn’t accept the loss of Alsace and Lorraine the country suffered after the collapse of her insane Napoleonic expansionism. Territorial losses weren’t the only ones she suffered. In fact for saner nations those would have been dwarfed by the 2,000,000 young men France had sacrificed at the altar of her pride – to say nothing of the millions of others whose deaths she had also caused.
It was time for national reflection, repentance, humble entreaties for forgiveness. Instead, once the nation had caught its breath, it felt it had to reclaim the provinces it had justly lost. La belle France just couldn’t be la grande France without them, n’est ce pas?
Hence Napoleon’s less talented nephew attacked Prussia and those other German principalities that sided with her. The resulting rout France suffered in 1870-1871 had a few highly undesirable consequences.
First, the German coalition’s success hastened the unification of Germany into a single state bristling with muscular strength and testosteronal aggression. Second, France’s delusions of grandeur suffered another blow, and she wouldn’t have a moment’s rest until she could recoup some of her self-image, along with Alsace and Lorraine.
Revanche became the most popular world in the French press and, more fatally, the most heartfelt aspiration of the French government. The countdown button for the First World War was pushed and, consequently, for the Second.
In the Second World War France suffered yet another humiliation, of being thrashed by the Germans in just 40 days. It then suffered the ignominy of turning into Germany’s satellite and accomplice – among the most enthusiastic ones Germany could recruit in the occupied territories.
After the war the Germans looked at what they had wrought, sighed and declared, “We don’t want to be Germans anymore.” The French, this time suffering not only from injured pride but also from what later would be called the Stockholm syndrome, perked up and said, “You don’t want to be Germans? Fine. But we do.”
The two then fell into each other’s arms and united in a marriage made in hell. France was hoping she could ride Germany’s coattails to regaining what she saw as her erstwhile greatness. In her turn Germany was counting on France to prevent her from gassing too many people in the process of reclaiming her own greatness.
Both countries were so obsessed with being great that they forgot how to be good. But then they aren’t the only ones. Goodness, virtue, call it what you like, no longer appears among modern desiderata.
This isn’t a national phenomenon but a temporal one: Western modernity has effectively removed the only source of goodness, and the only set of criteria by which it can be judged.
Just like a godless self-centred man spending hours every day building up his muscles, or a godless self-centred woman spending even more hours to prevent her various bits from sagging too much, godless self-centred nations also try all they can to boost their self-image.
They don’t comprehend the sheer futility, not to mention vulgarity, of such pursuits. Germany was made great, in the sense of good, not by Messrs Yorck, Moltke and Blücher, or even Benz, Daimler and Krupp, but by Bach, Goethe and Barth. Those who made France great, in that sense, weren’t assorted Napoleons or even Citroëns but Messrs Pascal, Racine and the whole faculty of Paris University circa 1250.
All in all, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that great is the enemy of good. When consciously pursued, greatness is as illusory as happiness – like a mirage it’ll disappear as one gets close. Both greatness and happiness can only result from other pursuits: truth, virtue, beauty, love.
Sorry about not being exactly topical. Blame it all on approaching Christmas – it tends to put one in a contemplative mood.