“Repudiation of Europe,” the novelist John Dos Passos once wrote, “is, after all, America’s main excuse for being.”
This is one of my favourite aphorisms because it rings true and also lends itself to extrapolation. For if repudiation of anything is the main excuse for being, that means the repudiator is mostly driven by negative impulses.
This is true of every revolution, political, social, cultural or religious. They are all animated by the urge to cast tradition away or, for preference, to destroy it. Sometimes, as in the case of the American Revolution, a positive impulse is present too. But it’s never as strong as the negative one, nor as all-pervasive as the revolutionaries claim.
All revolutions are in essence what Ortega y Gasset used as the title of his best-known book, The Revolt of the Masses. However, the masses don’t rise in revolt until they have been sufficiently primed by educated elites possessed of the urge and energy to change things.
Such elites never plan a long way ahead. They don’t bother about the chain reactions triggered by the revolt they inspire and organise. Their claimed motive is some sort of progress, but all revolutionaries mainly use positive shibboleths as camouflage for negative urges – to enfeeble, destroy, abandon or, for that matter, repudiate.
Now, my hypothesis, one that I’ve explored in several books, is that every formative upheaval of modernity was caused by a revolt against Western civilisation and the religion on which it was based – regardless of the slogans the revolutionary banners displayed.
Some revolutions, such as the French and the Russian, also aimed their slings and arrows at Christian worship. But neither the English nor American revolutionaries sought to annihilate the faith. It was the apostolic Christian religion that they loathed, along with the civilisation the religion has spun out.
They shared that animus with all other revolutions, including the only properly religious one, the Reformation. All of them were populist, serving up different versions of the same slogan, “All power to the people”.
But power, unlike wealth, is a zero sum game. The more of it is in the hands of the people, the less is left for the traditional institutions and, more broadly, traditional civilisation.
Yet all populist revolutionary slogans are larcenous. It’s not the people who gain power, but an elite presuming to act in their name. Hence, in effect, as opposed to rhetoric, the ubiquitous slogan really ought to be “Down with the traditional institutions and the civilisation they embody”. That would be less catchy but more honest.
The groundwork for systematic subversion had been laid by Renaissance humanism, whose spread signalled the end of the Middle Ages. That was the onset of the shift so precisely described by Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; rather, it has been found difficult and left untried”.
The Black Death (1346-1353), the cataclysm that wiped out up to half of Europe’s population, was a decisive factor. That delivered a blow to the Church, which couldn’t find a theodicy persuasive enough to explain a calamity of that magnitude.
Anti-clericalism, at the time mostly expressed as mockery, became the order of the day and so it has continued to this day. The personage of a corrupt, lustful, crooked monk, priest or nun densely populated European literature, from Rabelais and Boccaccio to Diderot and Voltaire. Even when the writers were themselves devout, as in the case of Boccaccio, the Zeitgeist made them put their pen to wicked use.
As the formulator and guardian of Christian doctrine, the Church was (and to a large extent still remains) for all practical purposes coextensive with Christianity, while the latter was coextensive with the civilisation called Christendom.
The three were like a tripod: sturdy only when all three legs are intact. But break one of the legs off, and the whole structure collapses. And the Church was the leg to which the subsequent Reformation took the sledgehammer.
Although the key figures of the Reformation thought they were better Christians, in fact they were out to destroy, not just to reform. Even though they identified their grievances against the Church as clerical corruption, graven images, indulgences and the rest, these were mere pretexts.
It was the very institution of the apostolic, hierarchical Church that they set out to annihilate, perhaps not realising they would thereby set the stage for the advent of mass atheism. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli aimed their blows at the Church, but the blows landed on Western civilisation, if by delayed action.
The typological secular equivalent of the apostolic, hierarchical Church was the aristocratic, hierarchical state. Since the two were interlinked, the state too was bound to become vulnerable. Luther et al. might not have realised that and, more critical, neither did the contemporaneous princes.
They were the ones who saved Luther’s life after he nailed his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. His action was blatant heresy, and under normal circumstances that would have been severely punished. But many princes shielded Luther from ecclesiastical wrath, and actually professed embracing his ideas. Their reasons were not fideistic but purely political.
By abandoning the Emperor’s confession, they could claim a legitimate reason for abandoning the Emperor. Hence Luther wasn’t their priest; he was their weapon.
The Western Church was put asunder, and it could no longer act as the ramparts protecting the civilisation against a barbarian assault. The walls had been breached, and they began to totter.
The Reformers were revolutionaries driven by the same populism that was later adopted and weaponised by their secular descendants. Luther and especially Calvin wished to remove the mediation of the Church from the discourse between God and man, effectively making each man his own priest, in Luther’s phrase.
De facto prayer leaders were going to replace priests who were no longer needed. After all, the Bible contained everything believers needed, and each of them was perfectly capable of interpreting Scripture as he saw fit.
Yet subsequent history showed that, when every man became his own priest, sooner or later he was going to become his own God. Thus Protestantism was bound to split up into the hundreds of dubiously Christian sects we see today, but that was the lesser evil.
Above all, men who approached the divine status in their own minds were bound to make God redundant sooner or later. Humility was being ousted by solipsism, liberally laced with hatred.
The Protestants were led to believe that they had lost the shackles of clerical oppression – and they were encouraged to abhor the institutions deemed responsible for their erstwhile plight.
The psychological mechanisms were exactly the same as those activated two centuries later, when the Americans and the French were tricked into believing they were tyrannised by the least despotic monarchs ever, George III and Louis XVI respectively.
We now know that a strong Church is the sine qua non of a strong religion, and a strong religion is the sine qua non of Western civilisation. Once the rot set in, atheism began to advance in parallel with the decline of a civilisation that could no longer ward off the blows raining on it from all directions.
Yet iconoclasm persists long after the icons have been smashed. The masses, encouraged to believe Western civilisation was evil and oppressive, are eager to erase its vestiges off the face of the earth.
To get the wrecking ball swinging, the Reformation and the Revolution combined to destroy some 80 per cent of all the Romanesque and Gothic buildings in France – an orgy that continued throughout the 19th century. Yet it’s not only the physical monuments of Christendom that continue to excite barbarian hatred.
Every extant manifestation of Western civilisation, from music and poetry to language and manners, is a red rag to the modern bull. That situation didn’t just appear. It has taken centuries to develop, a period signposted by the Black Death, Renaissance humanism, the Reformation and all the secular revolutions adumbrating modernity.
The rot set in a long time ago, and it has infested our civilisation the same way termites infest the foundations of buildings. And with the same result.