O Europe!
[13.07.2006, Michael Novak, LECTURES]

1. Sad Reflections on Recent Sad Events

Watching on television from America, it looks as though Europe has lost its way again. It looks as though Europe is set to repeat in the twenty-first century, the disasters of the twentieth. Frequent visits to Europe these days do not dispel that haunting fear.

Europe (and especially France and Germany) seem to have a love affair with collectivism. They refuse to learn the lessons of the recent past. They certainly have a disdainful fear of liberty, especially in economic enterprise. (How they put the “Anglo-Saxons” down!).

Worse still, European elites have done their best to make Christianity wither and die. They have emptied Europe of faith in God. They have swept Europe clean just in time for the rapid rise of a new faith for Europe, Islam. Islam is a faith prolific with children, vitality, passion, and confidence in long-term victory. What Muslims of the seventeenth century could not accomplish at Vienna, nor Muslims of the sixteenth century at Malta or Lepanto, they are beginning to accomplish in contemporary Europe. Europe is being drawn irresistibly into becoming Eurabia.

One could see this in “France ablaze,” during the nights of October 26-November 10, 2005. On some of those nights, across more than 300 French cities, in excess of 1500 automobiles were being set afire each night. (Even during more “peaceful” nights in 2005, an average of 60 automobiles were being torched each night.) One thing that struck me in the televised images of the young males involved was that they did not look impoverished, and they did not look “angry.” Their clothing was modish and expensive, in the style of “gangsta rappers” familiar to us in the United States. Their faces carried a certain exultation.

I learned later that these young men are in the pay of the state, through unemployment insurance. They are paid for not working. But they do not receive honor from the state or from the society. Hamid, Hassan, and Abdul are not in French employment markets held to be equal to Pierre, Paul, and Andre, and they grasp now that they can never be. They are housed, fed, clothed, and otherwise left to graze on the land. They see in the eyes of others that they are regarded as less than cultivated human beings, with vision and enterprise and energy to contribute to the glory of France.

The actions of the French government showed the world that that government is afraid of these youths. When that government had earlier said to the Iraqi that Islam is not compatible with democracy, they said to these youths that their existence is also incompatible with democracy, at least in France. In the faces of the young men, one could see that they knew the government of France, and the people of France, held them in fear, and the young men were enjoying that. They will remember this lesson.

In all these sad events, we see that Europe has forgotten what made it great–great in nobility of soul and in spirited accomplishment, and also great in courage and victory in battle. Europe has lost its way.

2. Four Sources of Past Greatness

The distinguished American sociologist Rodney Stark is just publishing a book called The Victory of Reason, about the secrets which led to the dramatic surge of Europe during the last thousand years to become superior to all other civilizations in the range and depth of its talents and abilities. He quotes from a recent study by Chinese scholars:

One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we though it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful. The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this. (p.232)

Stark himself emphatically agrees, and offers four main reasons for doing so. What the Christian faith gave Europe, he sees, was not only its conception of unity as one civilization, but these four great civilizational gifts: (1) faith in reason, beginning with faith in progress in theology (as in defining Trinity, nature, and person); (2) faith in creativity in technology and in organizational innovation, as in the monasteries that were the first centers of capitalist activity and transnational organization; (3) faith in the use of reason and liberty in politics and state-building, as in early medieval cities, not least in Italy; and (4) faith in the application of reason to commerce, resulting in the development of capitalism within safe havens provided by certain political jurisdictions, especially the Northern Italian city states. Out of these particular faiths–in the origin of all reason in the Logos; in the individual virtues proper to rational animals, for inquiry, reflection, and choice; into the outlines of civilizational unity under the universal laws of nature and God; and into practical creativity in all spheres–Europe found itself by about the year 1500 enjoying alone, when other peoples did not yet have them, such humble goods as “eyeglasses, chimneys, reliable clocks, heavy calvary” and “a system of musical notation.” What surprised the European explorers of those first bold centuries, Stark notes, was the absence in other lands of the stunning technological advances they had come to take for granted. People in distant lands were also struck with wonder by these same advances.

What Stark notes, and the current generation of Europeans seems determined to forget, is that what once made Europe great came, most of all, from the human spirit. More exactly, it came from a vision of human greatness and possibility descended from the Creator of all things–a vision of reason, and freedom, and progress; and yes, a drama of free will and refusal and sin. Even those who do not believe in such a God can, in honest clarity, see how the Jewish/Christian faith lifted up Europe among the continents, and inspired a vision of universal caritas and amity and mutual assistance, especially to the most vulnerable among us, that haunts us still. One does not have to believe in God, in order to see the power of how that faith lifted the horizons of human accomplishment. If you wish to see its monuments, look around you.

It is clear, nonetheless, that in the twentieth century, Europe decisively chose against this faith, in favor of the lesser vision of the Enlightenment, in which it has excessively gloried. The twentieth century bathed the dream of Universal Reason in universal bloodshed. Neither Communism nor Fascism, once the passionate enthusiasm of hundreds of millions, left much behind of which to be proud. On the contrary, Europe still suffers from nightmares, spasms of guilt, and unworthiness. Mythically speaking, Europeans today wear signs on their backs which read: Kick me again! Whence come these self-loathings? When one feels guilt, and is there is no longer any God, there is no one to confess to. There is only the intolerable burden.

Europe after the twentieth century carries a very heavy burden.


Two great passions in Europe today appear to be -- peace, and security. But you cannot have peace, unless you are willing to prepare for war. And you cannot have security, unless you are willing to take risks. Few signs indicate that Europe is willing to prepare for war or to take risks. On the other hand, Europe still has many noble dreams; that is part of its heritage.

In the past, that has always proved costly for America. So perhaps you will excuse me for being candid about my deepest fears.

3. The Demographic Crisis, and the Crisis in Europe’s Soul

I think it is not necessary at this late date to recite the facts of the demographic crisis. The fact is that very soon there will be far too few young workers to pay for the benefits of a large generation of retirees, who will live longer and more expensively than any other cohort in history. An even sadder fact to contemplate, in an era of barely one child per married couple (with many paired couples benefitting by neither marriage nor child), is an Italy in which virtually no child has either a brother or a sister, or an uncle or an aunt, or cousins. Have Italian families in history ever fructified in numbers so spare, on trees so bare of fruit, in families of such acute loneliness?

For the state, such families will mean fiscal bankruptcy. For families, such loneliness will bring unimaginable human shortages. For civil societies, such numbers will result in low morale and dwindling resources. For rival ethnic groups, religions, and civilizations, such numbers will telegraph weakness. Lacking will for self-assertion, weakness surrenders to fate.

What lies behind Europe’s loss of will? There are still pockets of will, of course; there are still vigorous sources of life. But the heavy psychological costs of wars and bloodlettings and the pervasive guilts of World War II are still mounting up. Europe had exceedingly savage nightmares in the twentieth century. Never have so many died for so few lasting goods. In fact, for such malevolent and vicious purposes.

Did the twentieth century come from the Enlightenment? Is the way in which Europeans are living today the way of the Enlightenment? Is the Enlightenment sufficient, in itself, as the foundation for a civilization? Does it motivate and inspire? Is the Enlightenment radically ambiguous? Does it really depend upon thinking and living etsi Deus non daretur, as if God does not exist?

A Europe based solely upon the Enlightenment cannot long survive. That is what we are seeing. The Europe that is declining in population is the Europe based upon Enlightenment principles, more rational than Europe has ever been, more scientific, less religious, less pious, more mundane and laic, wealthier, more consumerist, more universally close to living etsi Deus non daretur than Europe has perhaps ever been.

A very large part of the “European crisis” is the crisis of the Enlightenment. On that ground, a civilization cannot be built, a civilization can only burn down to the last waxed threads of its wick.

For the beginning of culture is cult. Apart from the worship of god, human beings cannot in practice (whatever may be said in theory) transcend themselves–not, at least, in the large numbers needed to sustain a civilization. Unless humans have a vision of something larger than their own natures, and beyond the bounds of their own natures, they cannot be pulled out of themselves; they cannot be inspired; and they will not aspire, in the way that gothic steeples aspire.

To be sure, there are secular ways to interpret the word “transcendence” in a strictly human sense, meaning some potential already within human beings to break their own records, to go beyond what has already been achieved in order to achieve new things, and the like. But that is not the sort of transcendence on which civilizations are built, or cultures inspired. The sort of real transcendence is from outside, a new form of life, a new human nature, an uplifting into participation in the divine. This transcendence is known to all religions, and is sensed by many artists. It is a new dimension of the human spirit, which does not spring from human potential, but is given from outside. It is experienced as an uplifting, a newness, a vision and a vitality not within one’s own powers to achieve or to deserve. It comes as a gift.

To make myself perfectly clear. There are two types of transcendence. There is the transcendence of secular people, which is and always remains human transcendence, within the realm of human potential. For this transcendence, no divine principle needs to be invoked. Then there is the transcendence of which religious persons speak. It is the transcendence given from “above,” a gift, an endowment or an uplifting from a source that can only be described as “wholly other,” a source which evokes awe and the fear that is its appropriate companion (tremendum), and the attraction of what Plato wrote of as the beautiful and the good. One feels in the presence of “another.” As one writer put it, “the wholly other.” As close as to a friend, in the awareness that this “other” is good, benevolent, welcoming, beckoning. One approaches accordingly: with awe and worship and petition.

Compare a gothic steeple to a spiked pilon thrown up high into the sky. There are such pilons, and they are intended to be, monuments to the men who built them, technologically wonderful and artistically pleasing. A gothic spire is more than that. It points beyond itself. It points to one who is “above” (not literally, of course; the pointer actually points inwards, to one who is greater than oneself, of a different and superlative nature). A steeple is not a boast of human achievement, but a sign of acceptance, an acceptance of human limits, and of aspiration beyond those. That is why a gothic spire is so affecting, and an even taller pilon merely impressive. The second is a boast, and the first a sign of relation. The gothic steeple says there is an otherness in the universe, a responsiveness, an encounter. The pilon says, “Here we are, could anybody before us do this?” Two different kinds of transcendence.

Only the type of transcendence that points to the divine inspires a civilization or a culture, properly so called. Ancient Chinese culture, worldly in its practical Confucian wisdom, aspired to harmony with the stars and the will of Heaven. As yeast lifts dough, so the great religions of the world have informed and inspired cultures.

A merely secular culture these days reduces human beings to creatures of chance, deprives them of any end for which they were purposely created, and renders universal moral principles into subjective personal preferences. While it often promotes highly moral living, a secular culture can give no reasons for such living except preference, and in ethical practice it frequently borrows concepts and even a sensibility formed by an earlier religious heritage. The social morals of a secular culture these days tend also to depend upon moral credits stored up in the past. Even such supposedly secular values as compassion, liberty, fraternity, and equality are ultimately derived from Jewish and Christian moral commitments, not from Greece or Rome or any purely philosophical source.

It might seem that secular cultures are parasitic upon earlier religious cultures. But they sometimes play a creative role in putting questions to religious values that result in the deepening, revision, or withdrawal of earlier conceptions. For instance, the struggle for religious toleration led to a deeper comprehension of the grounds, both philosophical and religious, of religious liberty. The thinking of both Judaism and Christianity have benefitted greatly from this and other challenges by secular thinkers, just as the latter have borrowed much from the former. The contestation between believer and unbeliever has been very fruitful for Western civilization as a whole. As Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote: “The Almighty wishes to be worshiped by men and women who are free.”

One reason why I stress the religious depths of the crisis of Europe today is that the most secular thinkers of Europe do not like to think about it. This religious crisis must be faced, for it runs very deep, and many have forgotten even how to think of such things.

Furthermore, it cannot go unmentioned that when in 1948 Europe wished to preserve itself from absorption into the Soviet Union, it turned to the Christian Democratic and Christian Socialist Parties. Then, nearer to the endgame, having witnessed from a distance the bloody scene at Tiananmen Square in China, Europe turned to the religious leadership of nonviolent labor unions such as Solidarnosc, and to church peace activists and human rights activists, in order to find a bloodless, democratic path. Apart from the extraordinary skills, the saintly charisma, and the good humor of John Paul the Great, it is not easy to explain how so much happened so fast, and so peacefully, during the years 1978-1991. The Pope began his pontificate in the late autumn of 1978 by saying that the “twin branches” of Christian Europe must be reunited, and might be reunited soon. Such words seemed impossibly utopian. (I remember thinking precisely that, the first time I heard him.) And yet they came to pass.

Based upon such powerful recent experiences, one must conclude that Judaism and Christianity are still great powers slumbering in the soul of Europe. Secular Europe, it appears, lives still from its Jewish and Christian moral patrimony. It is difficult for a visitor from America to understand why those writing the Constitution of the European Union do not draw upon the inner dynamism of Judaism and Christianity in Europe much more expressly than they do. Europe’s Jewish and Christian heritage is its originating and still most profound and ultimate strength.

4. The Real Challenge from Islam–and the False One

Nonetheless, there are other, more secular aspects to the crisis of Europe, and I want also to turn my attention to those. The first of these, although I have titled this section in a way that might suggest religion, is actually a political, intelligence, human rights, and military challenge, not a religious one. It is true that Islamic thought up until this time does not separate religion from politics, either analytically or in practice, exactly as Westerners do. Today, for example, we who are Italian, French, German, American and so on do not think of ourselves as “Crusaders,” although a fair number of Muslims write and speak that way. They know as well as we do how secular France is, for example, and their best writers often write of that, some in admiration, others in disgust. That fact does not prevent them from lumping the French among the “Crusaders.”

In the view of some Muslims, Islam should be taken as a whole, and the religion of Islam is not really distinguishable from the one, united, universal Islamic caliphate and its military vanguard. This singular reality has been at war with “infidels,” they think, since its founding. This unitary Islam -- politics, military, and religion all grasped as one single entity -- has been at war with “Crusaders” ever since the latter had the nerve and the gall to resist, after about four centuries of fairly supine retreat, and then the effrontery to attack the Muslim heartland, from Constantinople to Jerusalem to Alexandria. Beginning in 1099, the Muslims, in fact, began gathering their forces for another protracted assault to subdue Christian Europe once and for all. City by city in the Middle East, they succeeded, and solidified the Muslim Empire. In attacking the Christian heartland, they succeeded right up to the gates of Budapest. They failed at Malta in 1565, in one of history’s greatest battles, and again at Lepanto in 1571. Their overland advance through Hungary then made great strides until, just outside Vienna, they were prevented from cutting Northern Europe from Southern by the cavalry of Jan Sobieski, bearing at its forefront the painting of Our Lady of Czestohowa. The year was 1683, the date was September 11-September 12, a date of high symbolic value, a date in September Americans will now long remember.

We Europeans and Americans today do not think often of those battles of the Crusades, which seem so long ago and so irrelevant. Yet now today the Muslim population of Europe is growing very rapidly, not only by immigration, but also by multiple births per family. Demographically, Muslim morale is very high. They are as it were investing with their bodies in the future, in a way in which Europeans are not. Already in various European states, there are important political districts in which Islamic constituencies predominate. In some cities, the number of new mosques is rising steadily, while the number of Christian churches actually in use continues to fall (partly for sheerly demographic reasons, but maybe more from widespread lapses in religious practice).

Moreover, it seems that some of the most ardent terrorists and political extremists among young Muslim radicals today are being raised in European cities, of second or third generation Muslim immigrants. Some Muslims in the past integrated themselves into European societies, mores, and political values. Many more today, it appears, are making no effort to do so. On the contrary, they are resisting what some call the “moral decadence” of Western values, others the political priorities of Western peoples.

Until recently, one of the expectations of Western democracies has been that all immigrants would shortly embrace the core values, at least the political values, of their host countries. It is not yet clear what will happen to the functioning of democracies if sizable groups of immigrants do not wish to meet that expectation.

It has been an assumption of a vulgar form of Enlightenment multi-culturalism that all cultures are equal with each other and essentially compatible in their moral and political preferences, as if underneath the skin, deep in their hearts, all peoples were universalist liberals. In a variety of circumstances, that is turning out not to be true.

On this front, the short-term dangers to European peoples from homegrown terrorism may be a worry, but the long-term dangers of European Muslims feeding the leadership of worldwide terrorism are far more certain and more menacing. They appear to be already underway. To what extent is, of course, for intelligence services to monitor.

More important still is a realistic understanding of the degree of benevolent competition, and long-term hostile threat, which Europe must expect from Muslim peoples, given the widespread lack of economic opportunity, and the fairly closed political outlets, of Middle Eastern societies during the past fifty years. One would think it in the high and urgent interest of Europe to set a new and different dynamic to work in that part of the world, which is so close to them.

It is also necessary for Europeans to come to a clearer understanding of the intense hatred for and violent opposition to democracy on the part of a small but intense faction of extremists who claim to be Islamists, for whom an adequate and accurate name seems to be Islamo-fascists, of the sort led by the Saudi Arabian, Osama Bin Laden (if he is still living), and the Jordanian, Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Whatever Europeans may think of American debates about Islamo-fascism and the political economies of the Middle East during the coming decades, it is crucial that clear ideas be formed.

The religious aspects of these matters can be analytically separated, but only up to a point, from the political and economic aspects. For of the three elements of society – political, economic, and cultural – it is the last that is most at the heart of the matter, although not often the most practical starting point. In this case, though, the resurgence of religious conviction in the Muslim world does bring into sharp relief the most acute weakness of European culture today, its dessication in matters of religion, once its source of greatest vision, fortitude, and practicality.

5. The Economic Crisis is Not Helped by Demonizing America

Although my main point has been the spiritual crisis in Europe today – especially in its visionary, intellectual component – I cannot close without a few words concerning the recent European habit of demonizing the United States. To a certain extent, European cultural elites have long been heavily outbalanced to the Left, and during the long, gray days of the Cold War, the Left had its own powerful propaganda motives and motifs with respect to the United States. I remember well the disdain in which Ronald Reagan was held by European journalists and broadcasters during the early 1990s.

Left-wing economic views adequately explain the special hostility reserved by European elites to Anglo-Saxon economic thought, especially the schools of it emanating from Austria by way of Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, with their emphasis on incentives, enterprise, risk, flexibility, and liberty. These emphases cut very sharply against communist, socialist, and in general statist and social democratic emphases on fixity, security, privileges already won, and denunciations of business, enterprise, corporations, and indeed the heresy of wealth creation. Without going so far as to hold that losing money is chaste, the European Left even today does seem to believe that making money, creating wealth, and profits are all obscene. The economies of the Left rarely do make money, create wealth, or show profits. The Left's economic chastity is its own punishment.

Given the demographic crisis mentioned earlier, it will be essential for Europe in the near future to create much more new wealth than its economies have ever been required to create before, simply to pay the benefits for the large proportion of retirees compared to workers in their economies. Social welfare economies were constructed on the basis of a proportion of about nine, or at least seven, workers for every retiree. In Europe, that proportion will all too soon approach three workers per retiree. To make matters worse, it was only recently expected that most retirees would die not long after their 65th birthday, but now very large numbers of them are living past 85. They will require their pensions to be paid for many more years than the planners of the welfare state after World War II ever imagined. In addition, medical care for them has become far more sophisticated – and vastly more expensive than anyone dreamed fifty years ago.

In Europe, it really is time to stop the show of disdain for economies that work better than Europe's, at least in creating new jobs for an ever expanding workforce, and in steadily raising the standard of living of all.

The United States, too, will face a crisis in providing old-age assistance, as the "baby boom" generation enters retirement.

Yet Europe will find during the next thirty years that it desperately needs alliance with the United States, for many reasons. It is utterly clear to Americans that in the immense challenges looming ahead during the twenty-first century, from China and India, as well as from the Middle East, we will desperately need an alliance with a strong and united Europe. That is why the prospect of a European sickness of soul, and illusions about its own spiritual health, worry us so deeply. We very much want, and need, Europe to be successful–and soon.

Europe, wake up! Please, Europe, wake up. The world is in need of you.

Michael Novak is a George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak researches the three systems of the free society - the free polity, the free economy, and the culture of liberty - and their springs in religion and philosophy. Twice the U.S. ambassador to the UN Human Rights Commission, and once to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He directs AEI's social and political studies and is the author of twenty-five influential books, translated into all major languages.

The lecture was presented in Bratislava on July 10, 2006 and originally in Venezia on November 19, 2005. - Spravodajská internetová televíziaThe lecture is available as a video on here (Part I) and here (Part II).

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