I have noticed that it seems almost impossible for us to view the medieval period on its own terms. We work this out for almost any other civilization. The period has come under attack in two separate eras, from two different directions. First, we had the period from the late Renaissance through perhaps the end of the Cold War. This attack took the form of 1) Reason instead of “superstition,” and 2) Science over faith, and the like.* Today we see a neo-pagan revival, which has its manifestations in areas of culture such as Bronze Age Pervert, The Northmen, Bernard Cornwall/Netflix’s The Last Kingdom, and The Legend of Redbad. The basic theme of all of them centers around the strong reality of the pagan gods and practices, and the cruelty, venality, femininity and emptiness of Christianity.**
I think a variety of reasons exist for this critique. As I wrote here, one of them involves the idea of the awkward uncle vs. the stranger at Thanksgiving. Maybe your mom invites someone you don’t know to Thanksgiving dinner, a friend or co-worker. They may be great or interesting people, or not. Either way, it matters little. They are not “family,” so they inspire little emotional reaction. Having no attachments to us, we have no stake in how they act. But many of us have encountered the “crazy,” awkward Great Uncle. He’s family, so he gets an invitation, though some groan at the prospect. Maybe his mannerisms or his comments alienate people around him.
The unexpected guest might act obnoxiously as well, but the uncle inspires a much stronger reaction because of his family connection. Most people think he’s annoying and crazy. But maybe a few people think, “No–he’s the sane one–the rest of my family is crazy. Uncle Bill is great!” Those that love Uncle Bill, they tend to love the Middle Ages when they meet.
We have a strange connection to the Middle Ages. They are not nuclear family to us, but neither are they someone’s friend from work who shows up randomly. They are the Great Uncle. We can view civilizations like that of Egypt and China as a new guest at dinner. Showing hospitality to strangers has a universal history. But the awkward family member, i.e., the Middle Ages, gets a different treatment. We can argue and get mad at family, or passionately defend them. We wouldn’t do this with a guest. Some, for example, who seek to appreciate and praise the medievals get called fascists on Twitter. It’s Twitter, sure, but even on Twitter no one would call those who love ancient Chines or Meso-American civilization fascists.
Modern politics in the U.S. today has this same problem. True–many can see something recognizably American about both the guy in the loud oversized pickup with accompanying gun rack, and in the guy drinking a latte admiring the art in the Guggenheim. But . . . very likely neither of the two subjects in question will see this about the other. The Red State guy knows the Blue State guy is technically American, but he looks weird, and that’s unnerving, off-putting, bizarre. It inspires a gut-level horror reactions for both sides. As we have stopped mixing with each other, as technology and other factors allow us to narrow our scope, our fellow Americans increasingly look like the weird Great Uncle at Thanksgiving, though the Red and Blue guy would both show perfect politeness to a guest from Japan.
Jean Francois Revel was a French intellectual who pulled off the unusual feat of liking and defending America during the Cold War. He wrote How Democracies Perish not so much to praise America, however, but to express outrage and incredulity at other European intellectuals and politicians. Much of the book shows how the European press, and European governments, tended to commit a kind of suicide by showing much more suspicion, and less trust overall, to the Americans instead of the Soviets. He cites numerous examples of this with various press releases and newspaper articles regarding different aspects of Soviet and American actions. He compares European treatment of America’s involvement in Vietnam (quite harsh), with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which many other Europeans of Revel’s class described as regrettable, but an understandable reaction against American ambition and aggression. He shows how the European press soft-pedaled the Cambodian genocide, but jumped down the throats of America when we failed to cooperate fully (according to the journalists, at least) with the Soviets on missile reduction.
Smart, sarcastic, old, Frenchies always provide a certain pleasure. Revel delivers the goods. But I think he misses something in the explanation of why this happened, and fails to expound on perhaps his most pertinent and brilliant insight.
As to what he misses in his explanation for Europeans’ attitude towards America, I present the ‘Uncle at Thanksgiving Dinner’ theory. We Americans come off as boorish, too loud, too simple, too whatever for many European sensibilities. But, we’re also clearly a chip off the old block. So that means that we come in for more criticism than those outside the family. Russia, China, Cambodia, . . . they have never been family to Europeans.^ This covers things only partially, I admit, but Revel looks almost entirely at the facts of the difference and mostly leaves off the reasons for it.
Revel’s best insight comes in the beginning of the book. He writes,
Democratic civilization is the first in history to blame itself because another power is working to destroy it.
. . . It follows that a civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does and thinks will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself when its existence is threatened. Drilling into a civilization that it deserved defending only if it can incarnate absolute justice is tantamount to urging that it let itself die or be enslaved.
This condition has not always existed in America in Europe. But it did seem to grow as we grew more democratic.
Athens after Marathon in 490 B.C. started to show supreme confidence in itself. We see this in a variety of ways, in its literature, its innovations, etc. and this manifested itself in increasing democratic reform. On the eve of the Peloponnesian War, Athens went to war over what many would consider a trifle with the Megaran Decree, over the perception of whether or not they had bowed to Sparta or not. I’m not sure the Greeks would have thought this a trifle, but the point stands. They had great confidence and a thin skin.
Athens lost that war, but a curious thing happened. Their defeat ultimately failed to slow the progress of democracy. Athens may have been more democratic in 350 B.C. than in 450 B.C. I believe that much of the same trappings of democracy existed as in the Periclean era, but the aristocratic tradition which had moderated democracy, giving them an alternate framework to use (as well as the thin skin of the aristocrat) had no more presence. Phillip of Macedon in the 340’s B.C. provoked Athens just as much if not more than the Spartans in 430’s. Yet the Athenians responded much more tamely, much more “politely,” to Phillip than they ever did to Sparta.
Many might point to Athens’ great material prosperity, and then argue that this made them soft. Victor Davis Hanson I believe makes this argument in his book about the Peloponnesian War. This can explain some things, but not the whole picture. Athens had a great deal of wealth in the 430’s, perhaps more proportional wealth vis a vis other city-states than in later decades. This wealth gave no hindrance to their supreme confidence and a bullish imperialism. Likewise, England’s wealth ca. 1880 did nothing to curb their global dominance.
We may miss the fact that Athens’ democratic ethos had grown stronger since the advent of the Peloponnesian War. I believe that the technical Periclean structure had not changed much, i.e., they still had the same voting rights, jury pay, and so on. But they had “addition by subtraction”–the gilding of an aristocratic ethos that still lingered in the 5th century gave Athens an alternate framework to think with. It also gave them the confidence–and thinner skin–associated with aristocracies. But by 350 B.C., that aspect of Athenian life had departed, leaving them with an unvarnished democratic ethos.
Revel points out multiple examples of the following dynamic in Europe, which mirror that of Athens in the 4th century B.C.:
- Europeans declare that NATO should avoid unduly antagonizing the Soviets
- The Soviets do something antagonizing, such as clamp down on Poland, or invade Afghanistan
- Europeans insist on a muted response, to avoid antagonizing the USSR any further.
This leads, naturally enough, to a weak foreign policy. Finding explanations in grand cultural and geo-political terms has great value. But I prefer bring issues into a smaller more human lens. With this above dynamic, the Europeans practice a kind of excessive politeness.
This is also pretty good.
Good manners should produce magnanimity and humility for those who practice them, and a deferential ennobling for those on the receiving end. But the excess of this virtue works against itself, creating slavishness on one side that likely will produce a prideful dominance on the other.
The main virtues of democracies involve
- Openness, an openness to the ideas of others, and a belief that the clash of multiple perspectives will give rise to the truth, and related to this,
- Inclusion, and the erasure of differences between people, a necessary bulwark of equality.
The problem comes when these virtues, not ultimate in themselves, get extended to a point where they lose their meaning. Those who practice inclusion with no discrimination . . . we call them prostitutes.^^. In such situations, one dies of the flood, where too many things converge, and so we lose distinctions and coherence.
This poses a difficult problem for us. We can see that in eras when western civilization had less democracy (in good and bad ways), say, ca. 1870-1914 we had much more energy, dynamism, and confidence. This resulted in a host of good and bad things–our era has both as well. As we grew more democratic (in good and bad ways) the virtues of inclusion could transform into slavishness. It is impossible to have it all. I am not criticizing democracy, only pointing out that as a political system, it has strengths, weaknesses and limits. It has not come to save us.^^^
Revel shows us that democracies weaken themselves by gorging on democratic virtues. inviting a newcomer to Thanksgiving dinner can have the paradoxical effect of keeping the family together. As George Harrison said, inviting Billy Preston to help them record Let it Be meant that the Fab Four had to be on their best behavior. But . . . invite the whole neighborhood and the identity of the family disappears. To preserve themselves, democracies should temper their virtues, for at their limits these virtues turn to vices.
*I recently rewatched Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, that renowned 80’s classic. Our heroes go back in time to get greats from the past so they can pass their history class and eventually create universal harmony through glam rock. Everywhere they go back in time, they bring back greats from the past, including Greece, China, and so on. When they get to the medieval period, it’s all darkness, gloom, and people screeching about heretics. They have to rescue two “maidens” from that period forced into marrying some crusty old barons–there is nothing to preserve, nothing to bring back from the Middle Ages. In the movie it serves only as something to escape from. When the two “babes” are brought back into the modern era as part of their rescue, they are un-ironically introduced to the joys of credit cards and shopping malls.
**Albert Mohler has a great line which he uses on those who disparage aspects of the evangelical religious right: “If you don’t like the religious right, wait until you see the irreligious right.” By that he means not your typical agnostic libertarian, but the Neo-pagan worshippers of blood, soil, and violence.
It is interesting that such a revival would occur at a time when culture in various ways seems feminized. I would say that problem is not only Uber-femininity–though that is part of it–but also the reverse. In our culture today, the only way for a female character to be the hero is for her to act like a man, to be as tough, strong, as comfortable with killing, as a man. We have very little sense of the power of the true feminine virtues.
^How then to explain Europe’s current position with Russia as the ultimate enemy once again? Well, I know the ‘Uncle’ theory is incomplete–that’s a start. Also, there is the natural affinity with the underdog at work. But I think also that we went through a period between ca. 1985-2010 or so, that we started to think of Russia a bit more like family. Then, they “betrayed” the west and “reverted to form.” Europe will not forgive them for this.
^^Note how certain strands of feminist thought have turned completely against women. Most early feminists stood strongly against pornography and objectification of women. Now, some take the idea of supporting women so far that they declare “Sex work is work!” and demand equal respect for women who choose those “professions.” No one ever said that it wasn’t work. Objections to such practices had nothing to do with the definition of work.
^^^Democracy may not be my favorite form of government, but that is not the point. I wish that defenders of democracy would focus much less on arguments that it is better than other forms, whether or not such arguments hold weight. I wish we focused more on the fact that whatever its virtues and vices, democracy is our way of life and thus worth something because it is ours. This way of thinking has its limits too. Family is not absolute either. But it is a more solid foundation that debating democracy in the abstract.