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Ovi Symposium; seventy-first Meeting Ovi Symposium; seventy-first Meeting
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-07-24 00:18:22
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Ovi Symposium:

“A Philosophical Conversation on the Nature of Art within Modernity
and the Envisioning of a New Humanism”

Between Professors Emanuel Paparella, Ernesto Paolozzi, and Michael Newman
Seventy-first Meeting: 15 July 2016



Symposium's regular participants (in alphabetical order)

papDr. Emanuel Paparella has a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism with a dissertation on Giambattista Vico from Yale University. He currently teaches philosophy at Barry University and Broward College in Florida, USA. One of his books is titled Hermeneutics in the Philosophy of G. Vico, Mellen Press. His latest e-book Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers was printed in Ovi magazine in June 2013.


enDr.Ernesto Paolozzi teaches history of contemporary philosophy at the University Suor Orsola Benincasa of Naples. A Croce scholar and an expert on historicism, he has written widely and published several books, especially on aesthetics and liberalism vis a vis science. His book Benedetto Croce: The Philosophy of History and the Duty of Freedom was printed as an e-book in Ovi magazine in June 2013.

newmanProf. Michael Newman received his Master’s of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Eastern Michigan University.  He discovered his love for teaching English as a Second Language while living abroad. He moved to South Florida and began his journey for a tenure track position at Broward College where he has recently earned a tenured position teaching English for Academic Purposes.  Another great passion of his is that of philosophical writing and discussion.  


Subtheme of session 71: Modernity vis a vis the Judeo-Christian heritage in Western Culture: Revisiting Christianity, Humanism, the Enlightenment, the Liberal Tradition, Secularism, and Positivism.

Indirect Participants within the Great Imaginary Conversation across the ages:  Plato, Aristotle, Mazzei, Jefferson, Habermas, Levinas, Dante, Virgil, Troeltsch, Descartes, Epicurus, Lucretius, Patocka, Havel, Dawson, Nietzsche, Husserl, Kierkegaard, Vico, Croce, Blondel, Augustine, Aquinas, Einstein, John Paul II, Marx, Feuerbach, Adorno, Held, Valery, Frederick II, Heidegger, Derrida, Novales, Mammonides, Paul, Lang, Del Bornio, Rosenweig, Hegel, Acton, Green, Jones, Chesterton, Graham, Cyril, Methodius, Homer, Leibnitz, Paul, Jesus, Kant, Fitche, Hegel, Goethe, Carducci.


Table of Contents for the 71th Session of the Ovi Symposium

Preamble by the Symposium’s coordinator Emanuel L. Paparella

Presentation 1: “The Points of View of  Eight Scholars (Dante, Husserl, Levinas, Dawson, Weiler, Habermas, Eisenstadt, Troeltsch) on the Loss of the European Spiritual Identity.”  A Presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella

Presentation 2: “Why we Europeans can only Identify ourselves as Christians.” An essay by Benedetto Croce.

Presentation 3: “Liberalism between Nature and History: Absolute and Relative Values.” A Presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi (translated from the Italian by Emanuel L. Paparella).



Michelangelo’s David symbolizing the harmony of Greco-Roman and Christian Culture

Preamble by the Symposium’s Coordinator
Emanuel L. Paparella

(Ovi Symposium 71: July 2016)

The core issue that we wish to revisit and explore in this 71st   encounter of the Ovi symposium is basically that of “inalienable rights” which allegedly define modernity, distinguishing it from more retrograde obscurantist eras such as the Middle Ages, even from Antiquity.

To be sure, while Greco-Roman culture possessed elevated concepts of freedom and republicanism, try as one may, one will not find anywhere within it, not even in Plato and Aristotle, the concept of inalienable rights; that is to say rights that accrue universally to each and every human being. That concept arrives on the scene of Western Civilization later on with the advent of the Judeo-Christian ethos which proclaims God our common father, thus making us all brothers and sisters in Christ. Within Christianity inalienable rights are not conferred by any state, no matter how powerful that state may be politically. One possesses them by the mere fact that one is a human being.

The historic-political mistake occurs as soon as one makes the Enlightenment, progressivism, liberal secularism, positivism (all arriving with the era of full-fledged rationality in the 18th century), the fountain-head of those rights,  while at the same time contemptuously proceeding to jettison Christianity from the body politics, assumed to be superstition and ignorance. Initially this is accomplished by emphasizing humanism but it is a radically secular kind of humanism, contemptuous of religion, any religion. At best, religion is to be tolerated and confined to the sphere of one’s private life; its voice does not belong in the public agora. All this, mind you, proclaimed in the name of freedom, democracy, brotherhood, solidarity, human rights and egalitarianism. Eventually this trenchant initial stance blends with positivism which aims at the liquidation of philosophy and/or metaphysics, not to speak of the denigration of the liberal arts. The iconic figure of such a misguided stance toward religion in general is Voltaire.

As a consequence Humanism, as understood within modernity, has become thoroughly secular and positivistic. The French call it laicitè, a far cry from that of the Italian Renaissance which never forgot its Christian roots even as it revived antiquity (the word “Rinascimento” literally means rebirth in the original Italian). But it was in fact, the amalgamation of Antiquity and Christianity, properly understood, which resulted in the Italian Renaissance; it was not a mere imitation of Greco-Roman culture. Look at Botticelli’s Primavera or Michelangelo’s David. Nowhere in Greek or Roman paintings or sculptures can one find those unmistakably spiritual faces. It had taken 1400 years of Christianity to arrive at that feat.

The founding fathers of the US were aware of the unique historical phenomenon that was the Italian Renaissance, harmoniously encompassing both Greco-Roman and Christian culture. The Renaissance never saw itself as a creation ex nihilo, or, for that matter, as a mere slavish imitator of antiquity. One of the reasons why a Jefferson knew Italian and cultivated the friendship of a Florentine (Philip Mazzei, who taught him how to make wine and how to speak Italian, among other things) is that he was acutely aware of how much the Enlightenment owed to the Renaissance and Christianity per se. Of course, this is hardly the case today when we have a romanticized notion of democracy claiming to espouse freedom, equality and brotherhood while ignoring the common good, social justice, solidarity with one’s brother in need, as Levinas has well pointed out in his critique of Western ethics. Thus one ends up loving humankind in the abstract but neglecting the particular other next door or even in one’s own home, to wit the refugee crisis.

Now, keeping these thoughts well in mind, the reader will perhaps be able to better appreciate, even when continuing to disagree, the attempt of this particular issue of the symposium (consisting of three in depth essays, one by Croce, one by Paolozzi and one by Paparella) to disentangle the various strains of modernity and suggest ways and means by which to distinguishing them while keeping them in harmony: the secular and the sacred, religious and the political, to be distinguished but not to be considered mutually exclusive. Given the modern bias against religion this harmonizing is admittedly not an easy task but, nor do we wish to give the impression that we are condemning secularism and the separation of Church and State, but as the modern philosophers Habermas and Levinas have intimated, this harmonization is the first preliminary step on an arduous journey whose destination is a post-secular modern Western society in touch with the vital and genuine sources of its cultural identity; something already advocated by Dante way back in the 14th century in his De Monarchia; which is to say that rationalism and the enlightenment may still have to take the first step in enlightening themselves. The journey may be arduous, but it needs to begin, the sooner the better.

The eight thinkers and scholars (four of them with Jewish background and four with Christian background)  who have deeply reflected on the above ideas are Dante, one of the first to envision a united Europe; Husserl, the first modern philosopher to suspect the dichotomy between reason and extreme rationalistic ideologies issuing eventually in Nazism, Fascism and Communism in the 20th century,  now experiencing a resurgence all over Europe; Levinas, a philosopher who dared challenge in the 20th century the whole vast ethical tradition of the West, beginning with Plato and ending with Heidegger; Dawson, author of The Making of Europe, who uncovers the genuine Christian identity of Europe and the EU demonstrating how the corruption or elimination of religion usually precedes the end of a civilization or at the very least a latent desire for political suicide; Habermas who suggests that a post-secular Europe not only is not against modernity but it is a sine qua non for the continued flourishing of the ideals of the Enlightenment; Weiler and Eisenstadt, who insightfully discover that the worst enemies of Christianity, are to be found not in other religions but among the Christians themselves who, ignorant of their own rich tradition, end up functioning  as a sort of Trojan horse inside the citadel of democracy.

The second presentation is a revisiting of an essay by Benedetto Croce on the Christian cultural identity of the West previously published but even more relevant in the context of the sub-theme of this 71st Ovi Symposium. We reproduce it once again for the benefit of those readers who may have missed it the first time around.

In the third presentation Ernesto Paolozzi delivers an admirable, masterful, and lucid essay on the history of modern liberalism vis a vis the problem of secular and transcendent religious values, absolute or relative, the particular and the universal. These are thorny issues partaining to secular modernity having to do with the very cultural identity of Western Civilization that a highly competent philosopher like Paolozzi is capable of  elucidating adequately. Not that Paolozzi gives us a definite, absolute once and for all answer on the issue, but he masterfully delineates the problem and then points the right way on  which to travel. He points out that Croce dubs Christianity the greatest revolution in human history and an understanding of that definition makes the reading of the essay worthwhile, especially today when we have a Europe in search of its cultural identity and its very soul.

 It is then up to each one of us to initiate the journey. Particularly poignant for me personally is the allusion by Paolozzi, in kind and generous words, to the ongoing dialogue between us carried out for several years now via the Ovi Symposium. Come to think of it, isn’t that what a symposium is all about?, a friendly convivial dialogue among those in search of the True and aiming at the Good and the Beautiful. As I continue to reiterate every chance I get, I sincerely hope that this dialogue will expand and extent to other Ovi readers and participants, if nothing else via the comment section of the magazine, for friendship and hope can only be kept alive by the sharing and implementing of common values.

We sincerely trust that those challenging ideas presented to the Ovi readership in this symposium session will initiate and sustain a fruitful dialogue on the urgent problems of our Western Culture. This dialogue is more urgent than ever after Brexit which has revealed that the center no longer holds, that ominous centrifugal forces are at work and that the present EU leadership may be dealing in delusions and vain nostalgia of past glory days. In my modest opinion, a return to genuine origins, to the original democratic ideals as the union was envisioned by its founding fathers, remains a sine qua non for a return to social sanity. But we cannot just dialogue and debate and leave it at that; we must also act in solidarity; to do that a preliminary genuine dialogue (constitutive of the very nature of Western philosophy which is based on Socratic dialogic principles) is urgently needed, or we will not be able to arrive, any time soon, to the correct diagnosis and prognosis of what continues to menace us.  



Eight Scholars’ Views (Dante, Husserl, Levinas, Dawson,
Weiler, Habermas, Eisenstadt, Troeltsch) on the Loss of
the European Spiritual Identity

A presentation by Emanuel L. Paparella

Clearly the title Europe designates the unity of a spiritual life and creative activity--no matter how inimical the European nations may be toward each other, still they have a special inner affinity of spirit that permeates all of them and transcends their national differences… There is an innate entelechy that thoroughly controls the changes in the European image and directs it toward an ideal image of life and of being. The spirited telos of the European in which is included the particular telos of separate nations and individual persons, has an infinity; it is an infinite idea toward which in secret the collective spiritual becoming, so to speak, strives.

                                                                             --Edmund Husserl


           Dante                         Edmund Husserl                  Emanuel Levinas


       Christopher Dawson              J.H.H. Weiler                Jurgen Habermas


 Shmuel Eisenstadt                          Ernst Troeltsch

The renowned Church historian Ernst Troeltsch once boldly declared that Europe had ceased to be Christian in the 18th century. Of course such a statement referred not to individuals but to the cultural identity of Europe as a whole. Some post-modern thinkers not only would wholly agree with that statement but would also point out that indeed the 18th century is the watershed separating Christendom, so called, or the old Europe, and the new modern Europe. This New Europe, after World War II has finally transformed itself in the European Union and is based on purely neutral, that is to say, non-ideological, economic, scientific, educational foundations.


This leads to a crucial question: are those foundations reliable and solid enough by themselves, or is there something sorely missing? Is the absence of spiritual foundations a sign that a more perfect union transcending nationalism will forever elude the European Union? Some post-modern philosophers attribute the problem of modernity to a mistake made at the beginning of Western culture, to Plato in particular. They assume a continuity between modern rationalism and the principles of reason as formulated by the ancient Greeks. Others draw a distinction between the original principles of rationality and their modern interpretation. They trace the root of that distinction, with its dramatic political implications, to the modern turn toward the human subject as the only source of truth and its consequent pragmatism. This turn was initiated, to be precise, by Renè Descartes, widely considered the father of modern Western philosophy.

What post-modern thinkers reject is not only Enlightenment rationalism, but also the original Greek form of rationality. For them rationality is little more than behavioral attitudes, a sort of incessant self-correction and perfectibility patterned after the experimentalism and self-correction of science. This is considered progress. In fact, it is branded as deterministic inevitable progress: the newest is always the best. Allegedly, it does away with disastrous and destructive universalist totalizing ideologies, the grand scheme of things a la Hegel, the grand narrations, often at war with each other. The argument is this: it is better to be more modest in one’s goals and humbly attend to immediate social and economic needs. Welcome Epicurus and Lucretius, away with Plato’s grandiose Forms. What is conveniently side-stepped are some fundamental issues at which we shall look a bit more closely.


Indeed, the ineluctable fact is that Europeans no longer agree on spiritual values; those values that, despite political conflicts, were in place prior to the Enlightenment. It took the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka (who in turn greatly influenced Havel) to dare propose, in the middle of the 20th century, a return to an idea that used to be characteristic of the European tradition since the Greeks but in the 20th century is seen as a scandal and an anomaly: the care of the soul by way of a great respect for truth and the intellectual life, holistically conceived. Plato had claimed that it is through such a life that we, as human beings endowed with a soul, partake of the life of the Ideas and share the life of the gods themselves. Later, Christians adopt this notion but change its direction. For Christians, theoria, or contemplation, remains the fundamental principle of any viable culture. Bereft of it, a civilization is left with nothing but a sort of aimless and blind praxis leading to its eventual destruction. Christopher Dawson for one explored and clarified this idea in his famous The Making of Europe.

So, the next question is this: can such a principle as advocated by Plato play a role in the spiritual unification of Europe? Which is to say, must the commitment to reason abandon a sort of rationalistic universalism that opposes it to an anti-rationalist particularism? To deepen a bit more: is not abstract rationalism and its irrational reaction to it responsible for much of the ominous nihilism which Nietzsche, for one, claimed hovers over Europe like a menacing specter? Has it not, in fact, corrupted the very principle of reason that, up to the Enlightenment, had constituted Europe’s spiritual identity? Has it not turned wisdom against itself? Prior to World War II, the philosopher who most acutely perceived the spiritual crisis that rationalism has caused in Europe was Edmund Husserl. In a famous lecture delivered in Prague on the very eve of one of the darkest chapters of modern European history, he said this: “I too am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism. That, however, must not be interpreted as meaning that rationality as such is an evil or that in the totality of human existence it is of minor importance.

The rationality of which alone we are speaking is rationality in that noble genuine sense, the Greek sense, that became an ideal in the classical period of Greek philosophy.” All we need to do is give a cursory look at Husserl’s philosophy of phenomenology to be convinced that Husserl regarded modern objectivism as the quintessential expression of this rationalism. It reduces the world, which for the Greeks was a spiritual structure, into an object, and reason into an instrument for manipulating matter. One may ask, how then did Husserl view the spiritual identity of Europe? As the quote by him on top of this essay implies, he advocated that the particular must be fully reintegrated with the universal, the immanent with the transcendent, an idea this that Kierkegaard too had proposed and before him Vico and after him Maurice Blondel; all renowned scholars in the philosophy of religion.


        Vico (1668-1744)              Kierkegaard (1813-1855)         Blondel (1861-1949)

But the question persists: is it possible at this point in its history to revive the spiritual idea of Europe? An idea that, despite Europe incessant wars, has kept its people united within an unrestricted diversity? Food for thought, to be duly digested by those of us who, like Husserl, are perceptive enough to sense the spiritual crisis he was talking about. In his Philosophical Discourse on Modernity Jurgen Habermas attributes the failure of the Enlightenment to the intrusion of foreign elements which derailed its original program of full human emancipation. He finds nothing wrong with the project itself, aside from the fact that it was prematurely abandoned for a romantic return to some form of pseudo-religion, such as the worship of nature in the 19th century, the era of Romanticism. Undoubtedly there is something unfinished about the Enlightenment, but contrary to what Habermas believes, it is not the execution of the project that failed to reach a conclusion but the concept itself. Many question nowadays the very principle of rationality that directed Enlightenment thought. This may sound paradoxical, for indeed it is the adoption of reason by the Greeks and the subsequent synthesis with Christianity as achieved by Augustine and Aquinas that distinguishes European culture from all others and defines its spiritual identity.


         St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)                St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD)

To be sure, the real culprit was not reason or rationality but rationalism, which was unknown to the Greeks. Rationalism is a modern invention inaugurated by Descartes and consisting in a separation of the particular from the universal and assigning supremacy to the universal while misguidedly assuming that a rationality constituted by the human mind could function as the same comprehensive principle that it had been for the Greeks. To the contrary, a rationality of purely subjective origin produces mere abstract, empty concepts in theory and pursues limited human objectives in practice, mostly narrowly focused upon economic, scientific, and political concerns. Einstein had it on target: our era is characterized by perfection of means and confusion of goals.


Renè Descartes (1596-1650)

Indeed, in developed societies where economic concerns have become all-important and dominant, the protection of sub-national identities and minority groups are at risk. One place where any obstacle to economic development has been successfully eliminated is the United States, usually mentioned as a model of federalism encompassing many nationalities. Many EU politicians advocate a United States of Europe. That may sound progressive, but it remains a chimera given that the nationalistic and regional identities are still very strong in Europe; nor is it necessarily desirable. It would be a mistake for the EU to imitate the US and attempt a repetition of a mega-nation which would translate into a super-power bent on power and the forcible exportation of democracy (an oxymoron if there ever was one).

The price that will have to be paid will be further erosion of Europe’s original spiritual unifying principles, the very roots of its cultural identity, and the embracing of a bland mixture of varied cultures leveled to its least common denominator. Soccer games heralded as a unifying principle may indeed be emblematic of that mistake. What some Europeans fail to grasp is that what keeps so many ethnic nationalities and groups together in the US is a constitution based on ethical ideals and principles which guarantees certain basic rights transcending nationality and even the very power of the State in as much as they are conceived as inalienable, not based on raw power, but on the very nature of man. Those enshrined ideals are what makes “a pluribus unum” possible, as the dollar bill proclaims.

It will prove difficult for Europeans with different languages reflecting diverse cultures to create a United States of Europe, nor should they. As it is, all the worst features of American popular culture are being imitated, even by those who are anti-Americans, while the best is largely unknown or ignored. That is not to deny that one of the major achievements of the European Union has been the preventing of a major destructive conflict on the continent at the level of a world war for the last sixty years or so. By itself such an achievement makes the forming of some kind of union well worth it. However, to count on mere political-economic motives to completely free Europe from its past destructive legacies may be a miscalculation.

Calling oneself a “Newropean” born in original innocence in 1951 and oblivious of his history will not do the trick either. It would suffice to take a hard look at the xenophobia that has raised its ugly head and pervades the EU especially its most affluent countries and the countries that were the original founders. Superficially it seems directed at immigrants coming from outside Europe but often the real target is a neighboring country. What seems to be lacking within this economic, political, educational coordination that is the EU is a deeper kind of integration based on an inclusive spiritual idea. How is this to be achieved in a secular democratic society pledged to protect the rights of all its citizens and their diversity? A nostalgic return to the Greek-Christian synthesis and the Christendom of medieval times (at times imposed politically) will not do either, and is not even desirable. That was a synthesis meant for Europeans Christians (many of them forced to get baptized by their kings who found it politically convenient to switch from paganism to Christianity), not for non-Christians, not to speak of the non-Europeans which are now counted into the millions in many countries of Europe. In any case, it is undeniable that at present no spiritual foundation for a genuine unification exists.

The present fought over Constitution which nobody even calls constitution any longer but a compact, mentions a fuzzy kind of spiritual heritage almost as an after-thought. Many Europeans don’t seem to be too concerned about such an absence, if indeed they even perceive it. The prophetic words of the former pope John Paul II to the European parliament in 1979 that to ignore such a legacy is to ensure a non viable future to European man, were all but ignored. And yet, some kind of new synthesis is needed. Unfortunately, it will not even be envisioned, never mind implemented, unless Europeans, begin a serious reflection and a debate on the original idea to which Europe owes it cultural unity and identity. That carries the risk of being perceived as an old-fashion European, maybe even an anti-modern and anti-progressive one, rather than a “Newropean,” but I would suggest that without that original idea, which precedes Christianity itself, a crucial novantiqua synthesis will not be perceived either, and Europeans will be sadly condemned to repeat their history.

What is this European original foundational spiritual idea that precedes even Christianity? Simply this: a commitment to theoria, the theoretical life which in its Greek etymology means the contemplative or reflective life in all its various aspects: the philosophical, the scientific, the aesthetic; in short the primacy of a holistic life of contemplation. All this sounds strange to modern and post-modern ears accustomed to hear praxis and a purely pragmatic technological notion of rationality emphasized over and above theory. Marx, for one, expressed such a mind-set in the 11th of the Theses on Feuerbach with this catch-all slogan: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, the point is to change it.” Indeed, but to start with praxis is to put the cart before the horse.


Unfortunately, postmodern theories, in an attempt to reject an extreme kind of rationalism, have also rejected the primacy of reason understood holistically and tied to the imaginative, which had ruled Western thought since the Greeks. Precisely the belief in that primacy, together with a common faith that could envision the transcendent and join it to the immanent, had been one of the spiritual foundations of Europe. It was that kind of devaluation and departure from foundational traditions that Husserl was decrying before World War II. Here the question naturally arises: is it still possible to revive the ideals behind Europe’s spiritual identity?

If this requires returning to a common Christian faith and to a pre-modern concept of reason, it will prove practically impossible. Science demands a more differentiated notion of reason than the one inherent in ancient and medieval thought. As for the common Christian faith that forged such a strong bond among Europe’s peoples, many Europeans have lost it, if they ever had it, and most recent immigrants, many of them Muslims never had it to begin with. This is not to forget that Moslem civilization in Spain during the Middle Ages was more developed and advanced than a Western civilization devastated by the Barbarians. Does the above reflection intimate perhaps that Europe must be satisfied with a merely political, technical, scientific, and economic integration? Such a spiritually “neutral” union does indeed appear to be “enlightened” in as much as it avoids the unfortunate conflicts of the past. Furthermore, many Europeans today think that social and cultural differences obstruct or slow down the process of economic growth and social progress. Why, then, don’t all Europeans adopt English as the common language for science, business, and technology, leaving French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian languages to private life?


Medieval Islamic Spain

Again, this may sound strange to post-modern ears, but if the European Union were reduced to a means for smoothing out political and economic transactions among its member states, not only would the individual states, not to speak of regions, gradually lose their cultural identity, they would also be doomed to play a very subordinate role on the world stage in the future. Even today, only a half century after the United States has economically and politically come to dominate the world, its powerful media and commercial enterprises have deeply affected the languages, the communications, and the cultural patterns of Europe. The effect is most visible in the smaller nations. Thus in the Low Countries the language of the news media has become infected with American idioms, bookstores are filled with American publications or translations thereof, television and cinema compete for the most recent American shows or films—all this at the expense of linguistic purity and respect for indigenous literature. Even the bigger countries like Italy and Spain can hardly contain the tidal wave of American popular culture. The result is a general decline of native creativity. What is even more perplexing is that what is being imitated is not the best of American culture (which is there if one takes the trouble to diligently look for it) but the worst and the mediocre.

Be that as it may, whoever controls the economy of another country is likely to control its culture as well, as Benjamin, Adorno and Marx have well taught us. Building a strong economy of one’s own, as Europe has been doing, is a necessary step to resisting such domination. But that alone may not be sufficient. If the European Union were to be reduced to a mere economic union, its leveling effect on European culture would in the end be comparable to the one the United States has begun to exercise. We are all Americans because we all drink Coke; and we are all Europeans because we all go to soccer games on Sunday! To the contrary, Europe’s political and economic unification must be accompanied by a strong awareness of a distinctive cultural and spiritual identity. This is the reason why the dispute over Europe’s Christian heritage is so important. In writing the preamble to the EU constitution, the most significant element in the European tradition is erased at the peril of building on political sand, as Kurt Held reminded us in his essay on Europe titled “The Origins of Europe with the Greek Discovery of the World,” with the following words: “A European community grounded only in political and economic cooperation of the member states would lack an intrinsic common bond. It would be built upon sand.”

The American techno-economic model of a political union is not suitable for Europe, especially of a Europe which has forgotten its spiritual roots and in the past has substituted them with political ideologies. Being a new country, with immigrants from various traditions, the United States had no choice but to build politically on a spiritually and culturally neutral foundation but the strict separation of Church and State in the US is deceiving. Its spiritual roots remained strong and were in fact a unifying principle. This base enabled the United States to integrate the economy and the social institutions of its states into a strong and coherent unity that resulted in the most powerful nation in history. This is not to deny that the glue that held the uniform structure together were indeed the ideals of the Enlightenment (but ultimately based on a Judeo-Christian ethos) as enshrined in its Constitution.

There is a lesson there for Europe to be pondered carefully before embracing a knee-jerk and mindless anti-Americanism or, even worse, a slavish imitation of all the worst features of American culture. Contemporary Europeans have preserved their diverse languages, customs, and histories, even at the regional level, and that points to an appreciation for tradition and heritage which is indispensable for a strong cultural identity. But, to reiterate, Europe needs a strong spiritual reintegration as well as a political-economic one. That requires that it assimilate essential parts of its spiritual heritage: the Greek sense of order and measure, the Roman respect for law, the biblical and Christian care for the other person, the humanitas of Renaissance humanism, the ideals of political equality and individual rights of the Enlightenment. The values left by each of these episodes of Western culture are not as transient as the cultures in which they matured. They belong permanently to Europe’s spiritual patrimony and ought to remain constitutive of its unity. None can be imposed in a democratic society. Yet none may be neglected either, the theoretical no more than the practical, the spiritual no less than the aesthetic.


Francesco Petrarca: Father of Humanism (1304-1374)

In recent times Europeans, discouraged by the self-made disasters of two world wars, have been too easily inclined to turn their backs on the past, to dismiss it as no longer usable, and to move toward a different future declaring themselves “Newropeans” with a new identity. In the years after World War II, the model of that future was America. In recent years, Europeans have become more conscious of their specific identity and are beginning to intuit that such an identity resides in the past; it stems from a unique past, created by the hundreds of millions of men and women who for three millennia have lived on “that little cape on the continent of Asia” (Paul Valery) between the North Sea and the Mediterranean, between Ireland’s west coast and the Ural Mountains. It has given Europeans, in all their variety, a distinct communal face. This new awareness of cultural identity makes Europeans view the entire continent and its many islands, not only their country of origin, as a common homeland with common purposes. This unity of spirit in a rich variety of expressions must be remembered in forging the new European unity and ought to be mentioned in the EU’s constitution. Its Constitution ought to have a preamble with a vision that inspires the people. That vision cannot be only economic and political but is necessarily a spiritual one. Without that kind of cement the whole edifice will eventually crumble. It goes without saying that it ought to be remembered also by North Americans whose roots are indeed Europeans; in that sense they too are also Westerners and inheritor of Western civilization, albeit accepting and integrating other experiences such as the African, the Native American, the Latin-American, the Asian. If all of this sounds too utopian and unpractical, I ask, what are the alternatives? I propose that a conspiracy of hope, as utopian as it may sound, is always preferable to the cynicism of a desperate nihilism. Europa, nosce te ipsum.


There is a rather naïve notion that the vision of a politically United Europe was born ex nihilo in 1950. The notion is naïve because it loses sight of the fact that there is no such thing in history as creations out of nothing. We stand on the shoulders of giants. It is therefore both proper and fitting to remember and celebrate those European cultural giants who, after the fall of the Roman Empire, began envisioning a United Europe.

As a Christian humanist Dante exemplifies the synthesis of Antiquity (i.e., Greco-Roman civilization) with Christianity. The mere fact that he chose Virgil, the poet of Latinity, as his guide in the Commedia, hints at it. With that synthesis Dante becomes the poet of the Italians just as Virgil had been the poet of the Romans. By giving them a written literature (The Divine Comedy) he gives them a national language and a cultural identity. There is a passage in The Divine Comedy where Dante is transported in spirit above the vicissitudes of men and flies higher and higher in the blue sky till he sees the earth just as 20th century astronauts saw it from the moon. I suppose that makes Dante the first global space walker, albeit via imagination.


 Botticelli’s Primavera: a Renaissance synthesis of Antiquity and Christianity

Two intriguing characteristics in this passage are worthy of notice: in the first place Dante does not discern any geographical or political borders on the earth: he sees the whole earth, holistically, so to speak, just as the astronauts saw it from the moon in 1969. Thereafter Dante comments that “vidi quell’aiuola che ci fa tanto selvaggi” which translates loosely as “I saw that puny garden that makes us so vicious.” He is addressing not just the Florentines or the Italians, or the Europeans but the whole of human-kind. In effect Dante with this contrast of good/bad, ugly/beautiful, true/false, puny/precious, is saying that this unique earth which is Man’s only home within time and space is meant to be beautiful as a garden, at the outset, but the sad ugly present reality is that in this garden brother kills brother; it is one of general viciousness and incessant warfare. Dante is pointing out that this garden is a garden of exile and humankind’s journey is a journey back to the future, a journey of a return toward that utopist garden it originally left behind. Later in his imaginary journey Dante will enter the earthly garden of Eden on top of the mountain of Purgatory, but his journey transcends even that beautiful earthly garden.

It is crucial to remember here that Dante, as he writes the Commedia, is himself in exile. He has been expelled from his beloved Florence because there too brother is fighting brother; Ghibellines are fighting Guelfs. Dante used to be a Guelf; they were divided in the Blacks who saw in the Pope an ally against the Emperor (Henry VII of Germany at the time), and the Whites who were determined to remain fiercely independent of both Pope and Emperor. When the Blacks, supported by Pope Boniface VIII (later placed in hell by Dante for politicizing his spiritual mission) seize power, Dante, as a White, is sent into exile. It is this condition of exile, of constant frustration of having “to eat the hard bread of others’ homes,” of constant hardship and uneasiness and dissatisfaction, that propels Dante into a spiritual quest aptly depicted in the Commedia and ending with his famous “tua volontà, nostra pace” (your will, our peace).

Had he stayed in Florence he would have remained just another self-complacent mediocre politician. The experience of exile transform Dante and his political views; he ends up embracing the cause of the Ghibellines and begins to champion the unification of Europe under an enlightened Emperor. He writes a Latin political tract titled “De Monarchia” where this vision is set forth. Dante has now come full circle, from the particularity of his city of Florence he is now envisioning a Europe unified by universal ideals such as justice, peace, the common good, the True, the Good, the Beautiful; ideals to be privileged above and beyond mere Machiavellian power considerations. His is a Humanistic political ethic founded on universal Christian principles.


Dante and his Divine Comedy with the Purgatorio in the background

The Europe that Dante envisions in De Monarchia is one that keeps a strict separation between Church and State (what Italians now call “lo stato laico”) so that which is Caesar’s will be given to Caesar and that which is God’s will be given to God. That means religious freedom and tolerance for other faiths and traditions such as the Moslem, fully welcomed at the Court of Frederick II in Palermo which greatly influenced Italian culture. Italy will be just another country among European countries and its preeminence will consist less on its militaristic Roman heritage, and more on its Humanistic foundations.

Dante is therefore one of the grandfathers of this vision of a United Europe. As the consummate poet he is, he reminds all Europeans that, in the words of the Dante scholar, the British-American poet T.S. Eliot, “...The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started from and know the place for the first time.” At that place we shall rediscover “l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle” [The love that moves the sun and the other stars]—Paradiso XXXIII, 145.


“I am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism”

                                        --Edmund Husserl, University of Prague, 1935)

Modern Western Civilization presents us with a Janus-like face: On one side Renaissance Humanism which begins in Italy in the 14th century with Petrarch, on the other side Enlightenment Rationalism which begins in France in the 17th century with Descartes. After Descartes, there is a dangerous tendency to separate the two cultural phenomena and consider Humanism either anachronistic, or superseded. The inevitable result has been sheer confusion in the area of cultural identity; consequently, at this critical juncture of the new polity called European Union, there is talk of a “democratic deficit,” that democracy that is integral part of Western Civilization. We are in urgent need of cultural guides to show us how to better harmonize the two above mentioned phenomena. One such guide is Emmanuel Lévinas’ humanistic philosophy. In as much as it challenges the Western rationalistic philosophical tradition, it is extremely important for the emergence of a renewed European cultural identity. It explores in depth the threats to the authentic cultural identity of Europe, how modalities of thinking powerfully affect other ideas and shape a whole cultural milieu, sometimes with less than desirable consequences.

A few background biographical details may be useful to better understand Lévinas. He was born in Lithuania in 1902. In 1923 he moves to Strasbourg to study under Husserl and writes a doctoral dissertation on his philosophy. There, he also comes in contact with Heidegger’s philosophy. The dissertation on Husserl’s phenomenology gets published in France in 1930 and reveals that, even at this early stage, Lévinas is beginning to take his distance from Heidegger. He enlisted in the French army, was captured in 1940 and spent the remaining five years of the war in two prisoner-of-war camps. Upon being liberated he returns to Lithuania and finds-out that his parents and siblings had been killed by the Nazis, while his wife, whom he had left behind in Paris, had survived thanks to the help of French nuns who hid her. He became a teacher and administrator in an institute for Jewish education in Paris (l’alliance Uneversel Juif); there he begins to study traditional Jewish texts under the directorship of the Talmudic sage Mordechai Shoshani to whom Elie Wiesel (who also studied with him) devotes a chapter in Legends of Our Time. In 1961 Lévinas defends the first of his two major philosophical works (Totality and Infinity) before the philosophy faculty of the Sorbonne becoming a professor of philosophy. His second major work bears the title of Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence.


Those are the basic events that dramatically change Lèvinas’ thinking. Prior to World War II he had merely criticized elements of 20th century Western thought; afterward he begins to attack the whole European philosophical tradition, especially its culmination in Heidegger’s thought, for what he considers its indifference to the ethical and its “totalizing of the other.” He begins to indict western philosophers in general for an uncritical reliance on vast concepts, such as Hegel’s “Spirit,” or Heidegger’s “Being,” which assimilate countless individuals to rational processes, thus negating their individuality. To be sure Kierkegaard had also criticized this Hegelian tendency, countering it with his existentialist philosophy. Those who understood his critique only too well, promptly proceeded to relegate his thought to the theological within a false dichotomy (shown absurd by Thomas Aquinas way back in the 13th century) of philosophy/theology, thus insuring that Kierkegaard would never be as influential as a Hegel or a Heidegger. In any case, Lévinas too argues that this taken-for-granted totalizing mode of doing philosophy in the West denies the face-to-face reality in which we—philosophers included—interact with persons different from ourselves. He argues that this “face-to-face” realm is not the same thing as the realm of abstract concepts. It possesses its own texture which is primarily an ethical one. In this domain we are challenged by “the otherness of the other person.”

It is this “otherness,” which is an integral characteristic of human life, but the Western philosophical tradition has overlooked and even negated it, thus contributing to the dehumanization of Man. Lévinas’ life and thinking were deeply affected by the trauma of the Nazi genocide, better known as the Holocaust. But what is unique about his thinking is that it refuses to make those monstrous events its core subject matter. As Derrida, who admired Lévinas’ philosophy, aptly expressed it once: the danger of naming our monstrosities is that they become our pets. Lévinas’ writings provide no extensive discussion of the Holocaust itself; therefore, the assumption, on the part of those who were thinking and writing on it, has often been that Lévinas could not be considered a valid source of philosophical insight into this dark period of human history. But that is an erroneous assumption, just as invalid as the assumption that he unreservedly admired Heidegger’s philosophy because he happened to have translated it into French. As a matter of fact, Lévinas’ thinking is a reaction to the Holocaust by the mere fact that it asks the crucial question: What does it mean to be a human being? Were one to encapsulate the whole of Lévinas’ philosophy in two succinct words, they would be “being human.” This philosophy insists throughout that an extreme, unbalanced rationality devoid of imagination, feelings, senses and spirit, unconcerned with the ethical dimensions of life, is the equivalent to a refusal to be human, to allowing oneself to become a monster.

Not unlike Vico in the 18th century, he individuates such a root in the Cartesian ego, an autonomous center of consciousness which in modern philosophy has assumed the function of a paradigm for thinking about human beings. Lévinas does not deny this world-constituting ego, rather he leads it to the discovery of an ethical core within itself; which is to say, he uncovers another root growing within the first root which he calls the “self.” The conundrum seems to be this: if it is true that the ego does the conceptual work of philosophy by announcing what there really is in the world, how can this ego then acknowledge the essentially ethical “self” which lives within itself? Somehow a bridge has to be found between this limitless power and freedom of the independent intellect, and the particular concrete ethical obligations to another person. For, this ethical self, unlike the ego, finds itself caught up with the welfare of the other prior to a conscious, rational decision, in a recognition, even when unwilled, of his/her humanity. Indeed this ethical capacity seems to come from another place than our rational powers of analysis evidenced within the Cartesian ego. Even if we grant that such an ego is adequate in identifying the truths of philosophy, it somehow remains unable to acknowledge a domain where there is no choosing of the connection with the other; in fact the other way around may apply: the other chooses me, one is “already responsible” for the other prior to any rational analysis.

And here is the philosophical paradox: Lévinas’ task becomes that of using rationality to take the Cartesian ego beyond rationality, somewhat similar to what Vico does with his concepts of fantasia, which for him precedes rational reason, and the concept of Providence who guides human events and is both immanent within history but also transcendent. Which is to say, the rational ego has to be brought to recognize a sort of enigmatic “ethical” truth which Lévinas calls “pre-originary,” i.e., arising outside, prior to the usual time-line of the reflective ego. In attempting this operation, Lévinas will proffer statements such as: ethics is “older” than philosophy, it is “first philosophy,” on the scene before the arrival of rational philosophical thinking; something ingrained in being human. Within purely classical categories, that may be equivalent to the Socratic preoccupation with dying well by living a life of integrity and devotion to truth, as exemplified in Plato’s Apology. It is this ancient voice of goodness, which even Vico’s pre-historical “bestioni” possess to a degree, a voice often overlooked by rationalist philosophers, but powerfully present in Talmudic texts, that Lévinas finds strangely silent in the modern Western philosophical tradition.

In mytho-poetic language, it’s as if Lévinas were to come face-to-face with the goddess Europa, as she is being abducted by a black bull (Zeus in disguise), to journey to another shore, there to assume a different persona, and he were to ask her, “Europa quo vadis?” after warning her to remember her original identity: “nosce te ipsum”; which is to say, go back to the future and know yourself holistically: know your Greco-Roman origins, yes, but also the Biblical tradition (the foundation for Christianity), the Christian heritage, the Humanistic synthesis of Graeco-Roman and Christian civilizations, Celtic and Germanic cultures with their ideas of freedom, the universalizing Enlightenment rooted in the democratic-scientific tradition born in ancient Greece, the Islamic influences. Voltaire and Descartes yes, but Vico and Novalis too are part of your identity. Your unity will be a chimera if it is only a unity of a bank and neglects its spiritual elements. Undoubtedly this hermeneutics, or re-interpretation of the Cartesian ego, placing at its core an non-refusable responsibility for the other without granting the ego any time to think it over and choose, so to speak, challenges some of the most basic assumptions of modern, and in some way classical, rationalistic philosophy.

Not since the times of Maimonides in the 13th century had a Jew dared such a fundamental challenge from within the Western philosophical tradition. It is the challenge of Paul to Greek culture revisited. For indeed Lévinas is saying nothing short of this: the knowing ego does not exhaust what it means to be human. Some have called his philosophy one of “ethical subjectivity,” as a way of dismissing it as the raving of a lunatic, just as the ancient Greeks dismissed Paul in the agora. For the serious reader, however, it is rather a re-definition of subjectivity face to face with a totalizing kind of Cartesian reflection.

While Lévinas does not write directly about the Holocaust, other thinkers, who influenced Lévinas, were nevertheless reflecting upon the philosophical implications of this dark event of human history. One such was Berel Lang who wrote an essay titled “Genocide and Kant’s Enlightenment,” which appeared in his Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide. In this essay Lang uncovers certain lines of affinity between some classical aspects of Enlightenment thought, and the Nazi genocide. His conclusion is that there are two important aspects of the Enlightenment that formed the intellectual heritage, which needed to be in place, for genocide to occur in the heart of civilized Europe: namely, the universalization of rational ideals, and the redefinition of the individual human being in terms of its possessing or not such a universal rationality. The genocide, Lang argues, was aimed at those groups who stuck to their own ancient pre-Enlightenment sources of particularistic identity, considered “irrational.” Hence the racial laws and racial exclusion were expression of ingrained Enlightenment prejudices. Which is to say, the Enlightenment sheds light on everything except itself; it remains to be enlightened. This powerful essay leads many cultural anthropologists comparing civilizations, to begin to wonder: which, in the final analysis, is more obscurantist: religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, or a so called “enlightened” era throwing out the window the baby with the bathwater and arrogantly refusing any suggestion that it ought to enlighten itself, and not with its own light?

This line of thought conjures up that terrible face to face encounter of Dante with the poet Bertrand Del Bornio in a cave in hell doing “light to himself” with its own decapitated head. There we have reason eating its own tail; internal logical thinking and assuming the grammar of lunacy. I dare say that such a question has not been satisfactorily answered yet. In that question lies the challenge of Lévinas’ philosophy: in its displacing of the centrality of Cartesian thinking within modernity, in order to re-center it around ethics: the face-to-face encounter with another human being which is always hopeful unless it occurs in hell. Everything we have discussed above begs this particular question: is Lévinas’ challenge to the Western philosophical tradition philosophically tenable? To answer the question adequately we need to be first aware that Emmanuel Lévinas, as well as Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenweig (the author of Echoes from the Holocaust: Philosophical Reflections in a Dark Time, 1988), are representative of learned European Jews with great familiarity with the texts of both the Jewish and the Western philosophical tradition. They challenge the latter exactly because they are so knowledgeable in both.

Lévinas is fully capable of confronting the intellectual traps of those rationalists who would relegate him to the sphere of theology. To the contrary, he insisted on writing in both spheres and claimed that Jewish religious textuality contains hitherto unexplored philosophical insights. For this is a tradition which puts great emphasis on interpersonal, social and familial relationships; phenomena not contemplated in traditional Western philosophy. Which is to say, the challenge is to Western philosophy’s totalizing pretense, beginning with Plato’s times, that it can gather everything up in one synchronic whole. It is that challenge that irritates control freaks, thought policemen, rationalists and mysologists galore. It goes a long way in explaining their attempt to relegate Lévinas’ philosophy to the sphere of the merely mystical.

Finally, let us briefly examine how Lévinas develops this fundamental challenge to Western rationalism. He names both the texts of Jewish tradition and philosophical discourse “the said,” while calling the living activity of interpretative struggle (its hermeneutics) with the texts, and the self which suffers for the other, “the saying.” The said always tries to capture the saying, which may partly explain the ancient grudge of Plato towards poets (see Plato’s Republic, book X, on Homer). In any case, it is the saying which launches the said and puts it into circulation. The saying echoes outside of space and time destabilizing the comfortable, rationally secure positions rationalists take up in the said, in conceptual truths (thought to be universal and eternal), in a secure totalizing kind of knowledge. Yet it is this very destabilizing process that injects the ethical outward-directness into the said.

Lévinas will often contrasts the saying’s vulnerable openness to the other (which he calls “being ex-posed) with the said’s relative security (which he calls “exposition”). He asserts moreover, that there is a rich unexplored relationship between the way we are “exposed” in ethics, and the life “exposition” we use to analyze and order the world. Indeed, this is a new, essentially Jewish, philosophical reflection which places into question the claim to totalizing completeness, by an appeal to the priority of ethics. It insists that any person that confronts me, needs to be placed outside the totalizing categories seeking to reduce her/him to an aspect of a rational system. Basically, what Lévinas is doing is relocating our dangerous ability to deny others their legitimate sphere of difference; an ability which is capable of destroying our own humanity. This is nothing short than the core struggle for the achievement of moral humanity which was also the root ethical aim of Vico’s New Science.

Like Vico, Lévinas shows us the way to keep the benefits of universal Enlightenment ethics while avoiding its perils. For, his ethics is not based on a totalizing sort of universalism, but on the particular concrete needs and demands of each unique individual, every “other’ that I meet within time and space. Every time I meet the other, she/he constitutes an ethical challenge to my self, a challenge as to who I am as a human being. This kind of philosophy is a challenge to each one of us to go beyond nostalgic returns to Greek classicism, as important at that may be, in the understanding of Western Civilization; to establish intellectual-background-assumptions which are different from those of the Enlightenment; to search for urgently needed new cultural paradigms, new ways of thinking appealing to the priority of ethics and the importance of the particular as a category of thought, a place in thought wherein genocide and hatred of the other becomes inconceivable; in short to prepare new wineskins for the new wine which is a “Novantiqua Europa.”


In 1932 Christopher Dawson published a book titled The Making of Europe which had enormous success and established his reputation as a scholar of incredible range and erudition who could communicate with great clarity and elegance. He had previously written two other books: The Age of the Gods (1928), and Progress and Religion (1929), but this one was unique. The book avoids the conventional burdensome footnotes, bibliographies and theoretical frameworks and reads like a romantic novel, hence its popularity. Indeed, 19th century Romanticism was a corrective to the previous century, the so called age of Enlightenment. It did this by questioning the rationalist conviction that the empirical physical sciences constituted the paradigm of all knowledge and thus reinstated Giambattista Vico’s revaluation of history against the Cartesian depreciation of it as mere gossip.


Vico had observed that the external world of nature is ultimately impenetrable, for the human mind can only attempt to manipulate it within the strict limits set by God who created it. The stream of history, on the other hand, is essentially the world that the human creative spirit has made, and therefore despite its recurring mysteries, it can come to be known by humans in an incomparably deeper sense. Dawson shared this revaluation of history as did Hegel when he declared history the highest form of knowledge: the self-realization of the absolute spirit in time. And what was the single idea, the keynote of Dawson’s thought as found in The Making of Europe? I was this: religion is the soul of a culture and a society that has lost its spiritual roots is a dying society, however prosperous it may appear externally. The fate of our civilization was endangered not only by the fading of the vision of faith that originally formed it, namely Christianity, but the failure to integrate the world of reason and science with the world of the soul, which has lost the power to express itself through culture.

In Dawson’s view this was the tragedy of modern man. Before writing his famous book Dawson had read and pondered deeply the works of Augustine (The City of God) and Edward Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire). He was also influenced by Lord Acton’s World History wherein Acton affirms that “religion is the key of history.” He slowly became aware of the continuity of history and of how the coming of Christianity had transformed the dying Roman Empire into a new world. He spent fourteen years of intensive study before writing his twenty some books, among which Enquiries into Religion and Culture (1934), Religion and Culture(1948), Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (1950), The Crisis of Western Education (1961), The Formation of Christendom (1961). All these books dealt with the life of civilizations. The underlying idea in them was the interaction of religion with culture and subsequently with civilization.

Religion is discovered to be the dynamic element in every culture—its life and soul. He discovered that worship, prayer, the rite of sacrifice, and the moral law were common to all religions and so what the object of worship, and that moreover, the destiny of the human race was conditioned not only by material progress but by a divine purpose or providence working through history. Dawson also discovered that “the world religions have been the keystones of the world cultures, so that when they are removed the arch falls and the building is destroyed” (Progress and Religion, p. 140).

As he surveys the two millennia of Christianity Dawson noted four landmarks. The first one is the new element which defines the difference between the new faith and the old mystery religions of Europe: this is the principle of a dynamic and creative spirit that inspires the whole of life. The Christian religion has a power of renewal that has accompanied it through the ages. The second landmark was the extraordinary development in the fourth century A.D. when Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. After centuries of living on the inherited capital of the Hellenistic culture, this fountainhead seemed to run dry. Yet the achievement of Greece and Rome were not rejected by this new faith. They were merely transformed. Classical learning and the Latin language became fused with the ideals of a Christian society that was founded not on wealth, tyranny and power but on freedom, progress, and social justice. Latin became “not only a perfect vehicle for the expression of thought but also an ark which carried the seed of Hellenic culture through the deluge of barbarism” (The Making of Europe, p. 49).

The third great change of thought, according to Dawson, came about in the 16th century with the Renaissance and the Reformation, which brought an end to medieval unity. The fourth came about after the industrial revolution in the 19th century and led to the 20th century. In one of his last books Dawson, the Crisis of Western Education Dawson calls our own era the age of Frankenstein, “the hero who creates a mechanical monster and then found it had got out of control and threatened his own existence” (p. 189).He had in mind atomic warfare and he argued that if Western society were to gain control over these forces there would have to be a reintegration of faith and culture, and that there is an absolute limit to the progress that can be achieved by perfecting scientific techniques detached from spiritual aims and moral values. This is similar to Einstein’s assessment of our era as one characterized by perfection of means and confusion of goals.

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 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 Universities 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 hard 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.


The Annunciation by Fra Angelico

It must also 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, Dawson 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.” To conclude, it is a mistake to think of Dawson as an anti-modern. Rather, what he was advocating was a retrieval of spiritual values in a godless and nihilistic world.

The reason he was assigned the first Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University was that he had the reputation of being a very broad-minded scholar, able to contemplate opposite ideas and integrate them. He was in short a consummate humanist who understood the universal character of the Church, a Church which belongs neither to East nor to West but stands as a mediator between the two. It was in fact his humanism which led him to conversion to Catholicism as it also happened for G.K. Chesterton, Graham Greene and David Jones. His was a beautiful mind.


There is a taken for granted theory on the part of Western intelligentsia that secularization is the inevitable result of modernization. Secularization is a particularly European experience. As strange and paradoxical as it may sound to European ears, that, despite differences between religious America and secular Europe, in the global future it will be entirely “normal” to be more fully modern and more fully religious at the same time. In fact, a dialogue between world religions remains an urgent and necessary cultural task of our times.

There are important implications for foreign policies and western attitudes towards Islamic countries still embedded, unfortunately, by the Voltairian anti-religion virus. It all comes together in Europe in the question of Turkey and this secular paradox as stated by the sociologist Josè Casanova: “In the name of freedom, individual autonomy, tolerance and cultural pluralism, religious people (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) are being asked to keep their religious beliefs, identities and norms ‘private’ so that they do not disturb the project of a modern, secular, enlightened Europe”  The future reality is that religious people cannot and will not do this as we learn to live in a post-secular society.



It appears that such a scenario will result in a post-secular Europe. This view is also held by none other than one of the most authoritative philosophers of contemporary Europe, Jurgen Habermas. Among other things he asks this pointed question originally asked in the Journal of Philosophy (2006:: 14: 1-25): “Are religious issues simply to be regarded as relics of a pre-modern era, or is it the duty of the more secular citizens to overcome his or her narrowly secularist consciousness in order to engage with religion in terms of ‘reasonably expected disagreement’?”


Habermas addresses the debate in terms of John Rawls’s concept of “public use of reason” and proposes that secular citizens in Europe learn to live, and the sooner the better, in a post-secular society; in so doing they will be following the example of religious citizens, who have already come to terms with the ethical expectations of democratic citizenship. So far secular citizens have not been expected to make a similar effort.


He is not alone in that challenge. In the year 2000 an essay came out written by Shmuel Eisenstadt, an Israeli sociologist, titled “Multiple Modernties (see Daedalus 129: 1-30) which right from its outset challenged the taken for granted assumption that modernizing societies are convergent, as well as the notion that Europe is the lead society in that converging modernizing process.

What the concept of multiple modernities implies is that Western (especially European) modernity is not the only conceivable one. It can come with indigenous differences. It would be enough to consider India, the largest democracy on earth which enshrines religion as part of its heritage and cultural patrimony. If one takes a careful look at the world outside the West one immediately notices that it is religion which defines the aspiration to an alternate modernity. That may well surprise the “enlightened” European mind, but there is such a thing as a Russian modernity inspired by Russian Orthodoxy, an Islamic modernity, a Hindu modernity, and what may surprise them even more, an integrally Catholic modernity. That was pointed out by Professor JHH Weiler whom we will examine further down. Those modernties are not illusions, as the old classical secularization theory tended to imply.


An Ovi e-book (2012) from its Bookshop

Eisenstadt argues that modernity in its multiple dimensions is a continual mechanism of reappropriations and reinterpretations of the idea of modernity. Driven by individual socio-cultural influences brought about by globalization, emerging versions of modernity negotiate and create their spaces within a modern institutional framework. Given the dynamics of a continual diversification of multiple modernities, Eisenstadt concludes that neither of the Western-centric assumption of the ‘end of history’ or the ‘clash of civilizations’ hold true by the change of the century.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of all might be that, as hinted above, that in many parts of the world the West is perceived in a pejorative way, as propagating a decadent, hedonistic culture of irreligious materialism. Such a perception is reinforced by both the influence of intellectuals, usually heavily secular, and the omnipresence of the Western mass media, much of whose content can indeed be defined as materialistic and irreligious. If that be true, it ought to be of great interest to the practice of diplomacy of Western democracies. At the very least, this crucial question ought to be asked and discussed: What are the consequences of taking seriously the empirical sociological fact that for the great majority of the world’s populations in the 21st century, it is not only possible, but quite normal to be both modern and religious? Might this question make a difference in the kind of paradigm that we construct in the West to better understand the nature of the modern world, be it European, American, Asian or African? Is it really “enlightened,” as the age of Enlightenment surely supposed in Europe, to isolate the vast field of the sociology of religion, or should it be restored to its rightful place in the overall global social agenda? Which is to say, is the Enlightenment still to enlighten itself?

Besides Habermas, there is also an eminent American voice expressing the same ideas regarding a post-secular Europe. I refer to Professor JHH Weiler of New York University. In his article “A Christian Europe? Europe and Christianity: Rules of Commitment” first published in Italy as “Un’Europa Cristiana," professor Weiler, who has studied the process of European integration for more than twenty-five years, speaks of a European Christian ghetto. Such a provocative statement is of course a mere metaphor rooted in a sad reality used purposefully by Dr. Weiler to jolt people out of their complacency. It should also be prefaced at the outset that Professor Weiler is neither a Christian nor a Catholic but a practicing Jew. This is important because in his knowledge of the history of the Church and its importance for the EU’s identity he puts many Christians to shame.


Weiler writes that the manifestations of the external walls of this ghetto are very much in evidence in the refusal to include in the Preamble to the European Union Charter of Rights even a modest reference to Europe’s religious heritage, completely ignoring the request of the former Pope John Paul II. In the recent draft Constitution there is still no reference to Europe’s Christian heritage–but a generic allusion to its religious inheritance tucked between the cultural and the humanist!

What exactly does Dr. Weiler mean by the internal walls of the European Christian ghetto? The reason he calls them “internal” is that these are walls created by Christians themselves. This fact for Weiler is even more striking than the refusal of the EU Constitutional Conventions to make an explicit reference to Christianity. He points out that despite the explicit Catholic orientation of the founding fathers of the European construct, there isn’t one major work, in any language, that explores in depth the Christian heritage and the Christian meaning of European integration. While writing his article Weiler pulled out from the library of his university 79 books published in the previous three years on the general phenomenon of European integration. None of them had a single allusion in the index to Christianity and its values. Weiler then writes that we ought not be too surprised that the Convention failed to make a reference to the Christian heritage of European integration, given that the Christian heritage has not been proclaimed, explored, debated, and made an integral part of the discourse of European integration by Christian scholars themselves.

This is puzzling indeed. Weiler has three possible explanations for the phenomenon. The first is a puzzling internalization of the false philosophical and constitutional premise of the most extreme forms of laicitË (secularity) as practiced for example in France. Freedom of religion is of course guaranteed and rightly so is also freedom from religious coercion. But on top of that there is the steadfast conviction that there can be no allusion or reference to religion in the official public space of the State, that such allusions are considered a transgression. A transgression of what exactly, we may ask.

There is the naive belief that for the State to be assiduously secular it needs to practice religious neutrality. Weiler considers this false on two counts: first, there is no neutral position in a binary option. For the State to abstain from any religious symbolism is no more neutral than for the state to espouse some forms of religious symbolism. The religiosity of large segments of the population and the religious dimension of the culture are objective data. Denying these facts simply means favoring one worldview over the other, masking it as neutrality.

symp47The second explanation is that to accept that view of the relationship between State and religion is also to accept a secular (basically 18th-century) definition of what religion in general and Christianity in particular are. It is a vision that derives from the culture of rights which treats religion as a private matter by equating freedom of religion with freedom of speech, of belief, and of association. But then Weiler asks this crucial question: can one accept that Christianity be consigned to the realm of the private by the secular authorities of the State? That question is not to imply that Weiler does not believe in the liberal constitutional order with its guarantees of democracy and freedom. He does indeed, but he also believes in a vigorous and articulate religious voice and viewpoint in the public spaces guaranteed by constitutional democracies.

The conundrum here boils down to this: many Catholic scholars have confused the public disciplines of constitutional democracy with a private discipline of religious silence in the public sphere. Worse than that, Christian scholars have internalized the notion that to integrate Christian thinking and Christian teaching into their reflections on constitutional law, on political theory, on social science, is a betrayal of their academic standing, of their objectivity, of their scientific credentials.

Another reason adduced by Weiler is fear. Fear that in an academy dominated by an intellectual class which often leans to the left or to the center-left and insists on “politically correct” principles, an incorporation of Christian insight (other than a study in scientific fashion of religious phenomena) would brand the scholar as lacking in scientific objectivity; of not being a “free thinker.” And finally Weiler mentions sheer ignorance. Precious few in the intellectual classes have read, studied, and reflected on the teachings of the Church, even less those of the current pontificate, its encyclicals, the apostolic letters, etc, with the same assiduousness that they study the latest offering from the secular intellectual icons of our generation.

Weiler maintains that while it is shocking that the explicit request of the Holy Father would be denied by the Convention, it is even more shocking that the call of this pontiff to the laity to be the messengers of Christian teaching in their own private and professional lives goes in many cases equally unheeded. The lives of those touched by faith cannot, once they exit the sphere of home and family, become identical with those not touched by faith. This is true for the shopkeeper in the market, for the conductor on the train, for a minister of the republic, as well as for those whose work is, in one way or another, a reflection on the public policies of public authorities.

One is led by the above reflections to inquire as to what is the relevance of Christianity and Christian teaching to the narrative of European integration. Weiler finds it laughable not to recognize Christianity as being a hugely important element in defining what we mean by European identity–for good and for bad. In art and in literature, in music and in sculpture, even in our political culture, Christianity has been a leitmotif–an inspiration as well as an object of rebellion. There is no normalcy within secularism in affirming this empirical fact; there is only normalcy in denying it. Weiler goes on to explain that while Christianity is a sociological and historical phenomenon, it is also a living faith based on revealed truth. Here is where Christian teaching becomes relevant.

The reader may now ask: what has all of this got to do with European integration? Weiler, speaking as a scholar and not merely as a believer, insists that indeed a great deal is at stake, that the narratives of history such as the story of European integration have no inherent meaning. They have the meaning we give them. What is at stake is what meaning we want to give. A Christian Europe is not a Europe that will endorse Christianity. It is not a call for evangelization. A Christian Europe is one that can learn from the teaching of Christianity. To reflect, discuss, debate, and ultimately assign meaning to European integration without reference to such an important source is to impoverish Europe. For lay people and for non-Christians, this becomes a challenge to match. Christianity today offers interesting “takes” on the central issues, the core issues, the deepest challenges in the very self-understanding of what Europe is about but few, even among Christians, are aware of it.

Weiler offers some examples which he hopes will motivate the reader to read and reflect on those teachings: the relationship to the “other”–within our society, across our boundaries within Europe, and beyond Europe–is arguably the most important challenge to which European integration tries to respond. Well, the encyclical Redemptoris Missio is a profound statement on how to think, to conceptualize a respectful relationship with the other. The Catholic teachings expressed in this encyclical are concerned with tolerance, respect, and inclusion, concepts inextricably connected with freedom and democracy.  On the one hand, the encyclical bravely eschews the epistemological and moral relativism of post-modernity by affirming that which it considers to be the truth. But at the same time, it treats with the utmost respect those who do not share in that Truth. One cannot truly respect the other if one does not have respect for oneself, individually and collectively. Forgetting one’s heritage is indeed a shabby mode of respecting oneself individually and collectively. Much can flow from this insight in the various debates on European integration.

For Dr. Weiler, the marketplace is another core issue of the European Union. Some would even argue that it is the core issue. Here again, Weiler points out that the encyclical Centesimus Annus offers one of the most profound reflections on the virtues of a free market but also of its dangers to human dignity. It is a reflection that goes well beyond the mantra of “solidarity” so dear to political activists of many stripes and which one finds endlessly in the debate of European integration. Europe need not espouse the teachings of the Church in this matter. But why exclude them from the debate? And there are many other examples in the book.

And of course the logical last inquiry is this: how would non-Christians react to the notion of a Christian Europe? Are we to exclude Turkey for example? Professor Weiler explains that a Christian Europe does not mean a Europe for Christians. It does not mean an official endorsement of, or call for, evangelization. That is certainly not the role of the European Union. It simply means a Europe that does not deny its Christian inheritance and the richness that public debate can gain from engagement with Christian teachings.

Weiler points out that there is something comic bordering on the tragic in observing those most opposed to any reference to religion or Christianity in the draft Constitution at the forefront of opposition to Turkish membership in the Union. It is indeed an insult to Christianity and its teaching of grace and tolerance to claim that there is no place in Europe for a non-Christian country or worse, for non-Christian individuals. Weiler underlies the fact that he is an observant Jew, the son of a rabbi with European roots that go back hundreds of years and that his ancestors were often the victims of Christians and Christianity; yet he finds it puzzling that anyone would fear the recognition and acknowledgment of the dominant culture (i.e., Christianity) as an empirical historical fact,  and reveals a fear of his which is also an insight, and it is this: “If I have a fear, it is the following: to deny the relevance of the Christian heritage in European public symbolism and European public space, for to deny that is to deny, too, the relevance of my own religiosity in that same public space.” That would probably be just fine for those who wish to eliminate religion altogether from both the public and the private sphere, but it remains a shortsighted social and political strategy, for if a body politic is based on the rejection of one’s history and heritage, it will be built on sand and will ultimately not survive. We may have seen the beginning of this unraveling in the EU in June 2016. Time will tell.



Why We Europeans Can Only Identify Ourselves as Christians: A Revisiting
An essay by Benedetto Croce
(Translated from the Italian by Emanuel L. Paparella)


To claim for ourselves the name of Christian we run the risk of being taken for  pious sanctimonious hypocrites, given that at times the assumption of such a name has well served self-complacency and the covering up of things that were diametrically opposite to the Christian spirit, as could be proven with references on which I will not tarry presently and so risk bringing in distracting judgments extraneous to the issue at hand. I simply wish to affirm, with an appeal to history, that we can only identify ourselves as Christians and that this denomination is a mere recognition of the truth of the matter.  

Christianity is the greatest revolution that humanity has ever experienced: so huge, so comprehensive and deep, so fruitful of consequences, so unexpected and irresistible in its development, that it is not astonishing that it appeared and still appears a miracle, a revelation from on high, a direct intervention of God in human affairs, those affairs which have received from him a new law and direction. All other revolutions and epochs which mark human history, do not compare well with it, appearing in comparison rather narrow and particular. This does not even exclude the revolutions of ancient Greece in the poetical, in art, in philosophy, in political liberty; or those of Rome in the law, not to speak of the most remote revolution in writing, in mathematics, in astronomy, in medicine and whatever else we owe to the East and to Egypt.


Cyril and Methodius bring Christianity to the Slavic People

Moreover, the revolutions and the discoveries which later followed in modern times, in as much as they were not limited and particular to the preceding ancient ones, but encompassed the whole man, the whole soul of man, cannot even be conceived without the Christian revolution, but only in a relation of dependence to it, hence to it alone belongs the primacy and the original impulse.

The explanation of what the Christian revolution operated is in the very center of the soul, in the moral conscience, conferring a relevancy to the inner reality to the point that it appeared that it had acquired a new virtue and spiritual reality which humanity had lacked till then. It is true that the men, the geniuses, the heroes that precede Christianity performed wonderful deeds, beautiful works, and transmitted to us a very rich treasure of forms, of thoughts and experiences; but in all of them we see what we have in common and makes us all brothers, and it is what only Christianity has given to human life.


Nevertheless, this was not a miracle which erupted in the course of history inserting itself within it as an alien transcendental force; neither was it that other metaphysical miracle which some philosophers (Hegel above all) have constructed since they began to think of human history as a process within which the spirit acquires its constitutive parts, its categories, and at a certain point scientific knowledge or the state of liberty, and with Christianity moral intimacy, because spirit is always its own fullness, and its history is in its own creations, which are continuous and infinite, by which it celebrates itself. So, as neither Greeks, nor Romans, nor Orientals, were the ones who introduced into the world those universal forms of which we call them creators, but it was because of them that they arrived at heights never reached before and traced some solemn points of human history; similarly the Christian revolution was an historical process which within the general historical process was the most solemn of its crisis. There are attempts, recursions, preparations which can be detected within Christianity, as indeed can be noted in any human creation, for a poem or a political action, but that light which they seem to pass on, is received by reflection, from the work which has been actualized, which did not reside within itself, since no work of art is ever born by aggregation or a collage with others which are not itself, but only by an original creative act; no work exists in its own antecedents.

When Christianity appeared, moral conscience was revived, it leaped forward and tortured itself in novel ways, at the same time enthusiastic and trustful, with the sense of sin which always threatens it and is always defeated, humble and exalted, finding its exaltation in humility and in the service of the Lord. And this moral conscience kept itself pure and uncontaminated, resisting all temptations that would lead to the loss of its identity or put it at odds with itself, diffident of worldly praise and the social climb, its law derived only from its interior voice, not from external commands and prejudices which always leave much to be desired, leading to sensual and utilitarian criteria. And its trust was in love, love toward all, without distinction of races, classes, of free men or slaves, toward all creatures, toward the universe, which is God’s work, toward God who is a God of love and is not detached from man and descends to meet man, and in which we all live and have our being.

From this experience, which was a unique act, sentiment, and thought, a new vision and a new interpretation of reality arose;  a reality searched for not in the object detached from the subject and substituted for it, but in the eternal creator of things and the only principle of their meaning; and thus the concept of spirit is laid down, and God himself was no longer conceived as an abstract undifferentiated unity, and as such unmovable and inert, but a distinct community, because living and fountainhead of life, one and triune.


The Crucifixion of Europe

This new concept and moral attitude were partly mixed with myths—kingdom of God, resurrection of the dead, baptism as preparation, expiation and repentance, and so on—which began with rugged myths and then became more refined and transparent with truth, and got mixed with thoughts which were not always harmonized and clashed in contradictions about which they paused, unsure and perplexed; but nevertheless are the ones briefly enumerated and that each intuits within oneself when one pronounces the name “Christian.” A new action, a new concept, a new creation of the poetical is not and ought not be conceived, as is conceived as abstraction conjoined to imagination, as something objectively concluded and delineated, but as a force which opens up to life with other forces, and at times it trips up or it gets lost, or other times it proceeds slowly and laboriously or even lets itself be overcome by other which it cannot overcome, and it is tested by defeats from which it returns to the struggle. 

Anybody who would like to understand Christianity in its original character must overlook the extraneous facts, overcome the accidents, see it not so much in its difficulties and slow-downs, in its aperies and contradictions, in its erring and loss of direction but in its first impetus and dominant tension, as if it were a poetical work which is valuable for what it has in it that is poetical and not for the non-poetical which may be mixed with it, for those flaws can even be found in Homer and Dante too.


Benedictine Monks Christianizing Europe

There is usually some diffidence that this mode of idealization does not respect the reality of doctrines and facts; but that “idealization” (which is never blind however to foreign elements and signs and does not deny them) is nothing more than the “intelligence” which understands them. If we take the opposite approach and place on the same plane the myth and the facts, the logical and the illogical, the certitude and the incertitude of a thinker, the conclusion will be that such a work is not really a work, but a nothing, corrupted and corroded from top to bottom from the errors that critics and historians are accustomed to bring forth, happy, it would appear, to find in the same great works of the past the mental dispersion and moral stagnation that is in them.


The Hagias Sophia in Istanbul, originally a Christian Byzantine Church

It was also necessary that the formative process of truth, that Christianity had so extraordinarily intensified and accelerated, would stop at a certain point in time, provisionally, and that the Christian revolution would experience a moment to catch its breath, so to speak, (a breath which historically may consist of centuries) and stabilize itself. Here too Christianity has been accused and it has been scolded, and it so continues even today, for the fall from the heights where Christian enthusiasm resided, for the immobility, the practicality, the politicization of the religious thought, which means death. But this bias against the Church’s formation and its very existence makes as much sense as the one against the universities and other schools wherein science, which is continual criticism and auto-criticism, ceases to be such and lives in manuals and catechisms so that one can learn it as prepared, either to utilize it for practical purposes, or for minds well disposed, as subject matter to consider for the attempt at new scientific leaps.

We cannot bypass this moment of the life of the spirit, within which the cognitive process of research is closed with the new acquired faith and that of practical action opens up, wherein faith is transmuted. And if this closing in one sense looks like, and in some way is the death (be it nothing but euthanasia, the merciful death) of truth, since authentic truth resides only in the process of becoming, and on the other hand it is the conservation of truth for its new life and for the recovering of the process, almost always hidden away and protected, which will germinate again and sow new fruits; so the Christian Catholic Church founded its dogmas, without fear of formulating at times what is unthinkable because not resolvable in the unity of thought, its cult, its sacramental system, its hierarchy, its discipline, its temporal patrimony, its economy, its finances, canon law and its tribunals and its juridical system, and studied and acted on compromises and transactions with needs which it could neither extinguish nor repress, nor ignore and leave alone; and its action was beneficial, winning over the polytheism of paganism and the new adversaries from the East (from which she herself had arrived and which she had superseded), those being particularly dangerous since they had borrowed many tracts of her own identity, such as the Gnostics and the Manicheans, and got busy building on new spiritual foundations the decaying and fallen Roman Empire, accepting and preserving its tradition and that of the whole ancient culture.

She then went through a glorious epoch called Medieval (an historic partition and name born almost by chance, but effectively guided by a sure intuition of truth). Within this epoch not only she brought to conclusion the Christianizing and Romanizing and civilizing of the Germans and the barbarians, not only she impeded the new dangers and damages of old-new dualistic, pessimistic, ascetic heresies not cosmic and negating life, not only it called for a defense against Islam, which threatened European civilization, put defended the moral and religious exigency as primary to political domineering politics, and as such it affirmed its right to the dominion of the world and considered the subversion of this right a perversion.

Neither are the other common accusations against the Catholic Church for corruption that it allowed to enter it, valid. This is so because every institution carries within itself the danger of corruption, of parts that corrupt the whole, of private and utilitarian motives which are substituted to moral ones, and in fact every institution suffers them and continually attempts to overcome them and return to sanity. This happens also in the various old Protestant evangelical denominations who protested the corruption in the first Church, even if in a less scandalous or more banal mode.

As is well known, even within medieval times, taking advantage of those Christian free spirits which shed light within and outside its parameters, and making them relevant to its goal, it reformed and renovated itself several times. Later on, due to the corruption of its popes, of its clergy, and its friars and the changed general political situation, which had taken away the domination exercised in medieval times, which rendered scholasticism passé, blunted its spiritual weapons, and finally, because of the new critical thinking, both philosophical and scientific, which rendered its scholasticism antiquated, ran the risk of disorientation, and yet reformed itself prudently and politically, saving whatever prudence and politics are able to save, and continuing its mission, which gave its best fruits in the lands of the New World.

An institution does not die because of accidental errors, but only when it no longer fulfills any need, or when those needs which it fulfills, are diminishing in quantity or quality.

What the present conditions of the Catholic Church may be, is an issue that does not fit in the discussion we have been conducting here. Picking up the discussion at the place where we deviated to furnish the above clarification on the truth that belongs to Christianity and its relation with the Church and the Churches; having acknowledged the necessity that the formative process of Christian thought to cease for a while (as it is done, after all, when we think it permissible for the sake of clarity to translate the big into the small, when, having written a book, one sends it to the editor and to the public, resisting the folly of the infinitum perfectionis), it was to be expected that the process eventually would be re-opened, reviewed and carried further and higher. What we have thought does not mean that we are finished with thinking: the facts are never dry sterile facts, they are always in gestation; to adopt a motto of Leibniz, it is always gros de l’avenir.

Jesus, Paul, the author of the fourth gospel, and all the others who cooperated with them in the first Christian era, led with their own example and action, which was enthusiastic and without pause in thought and in life, to ensure that the teaching they supplied would be not only a source, like a water spring, from which to attain eternally, similar to palm tree carrying fruits, but a perennial development, alive and malleable, that would dominate the course of history thus satisfying the new requirements and the new questions which they themselves did not feel or did not propose, but would later on be generated within the heart of reality.

Given that this execution, which is both transformation and addition, cannot be executed, without first determining, correcting and modifying the first concepts and adding new ones and complete new arrangements, and therefore devoid of repetitions or literary comments or banal work (as is in general, with a few notable exceptions, the case for the medieval period), but genial and congenial work, we must recognize as effective carriers of the religious work of Christianity all those who, beginning with its original concepts and integrating them with their critique and ulterior research, yielded substantial advancements in thought and life. These, with a few anti-Christian appearances, these men of Humanism and the Renaissance humanists of the Renaissance, despite some characteristics which may have appeared anti-Christian, understood the virtue of the poetical and of art and politics recovering full humanity against Medieval supernaturalism and asceticism. In some respects, the men of the Reformation, in as much as they amplified the doctrines of Paul, detaching them from particular references of his own time, were the rigorous founders of modern physico-mathematical and natural science, with new discoveries which gave new tools to human civilization.  

They were the promoters of a new natural religion and natural law and of tolerance, fountainheads of the following liberal conceptions; they were the enlightened men of triumphant reason who reformed socio-political life eliminating whatever there was left of feudalism, of medieval privilege of the clergy, and chasing away the darkness of superstitions and prejudices, lighting-up a new desire and a new enthusiasm for the good and the true and a renewed Christian and humanistic spirit; and then came the practical revolutionaries of France which extended their efficacy all over Europe, and then the philosophers who saw to it that a speculative Christian form be given to the idea of Spirit, substituting it to the ancient subjectivism, we have Vico and Kant and Fichte and Hegel, who directly or indirectly, inaugurate the conception of reality as history, thus overcoming the radicalism of the encyclopedic with the idea of evolution and the abstract libertarianism of the Jacobins and their institutional liberalism, and their abstract cosmopolitanism, by respecting and promoting the independence and the liberty of all the various civilizations of all people, or as they were called, of the nationalities: these and all the others like them whom the Catholic Roman Church anxious to protect its institution and the construction arrived at in the Council of Trent, consequently had to persecute and refuse to acknowledge the whole modern era which it condemns in one of its encyclicals, without being able to counter science, culture and modern civilization, the civilization of secularism, another rigorous science, culture and civilization.

So it has to reject with horror, as a blasphemy, the sullied name of those who work in the Lord’s vineyard, who have with their labor, sacrifices made the truth of Jesus fructify as announced by the first Christian thinkers and then elaborated, not differently than any other form of thought, as an outline to be perpetually supplemented by new lines and paragraphs. Neither could it bend to the idea that there were Christians outside every church, not less genuine than the ones who are inside, and much more Christians because they were free. But we who are writing neither to please nor to displease the men in the churches and understand, with the respect due to truth, the logic of their moral and intellectual position and the laws of their behavior, need to confirm the use of that name which history demonstrates as legitimate and necessary. The proof of his historical interpretation resides in the fact that the continual anti-Church debate, which runs through the centuries of the modern era, has always stopped at the reverent remembrance of Jesus, feeling that an insult to him would be an insult to oneself, to the very raison d’être of its ideals, to the heart of its heart.


A Christian Cathedral in Helsinki Finland

Even some poets who have the freedom allowed to poets to portray imaginatively with symbols and metaphors the ideals and the counter-ideals according to their passion, saw in Jesus, that Jesus who loved and wanted joy, a denier of joy and a propagator of sadness, at the end had to deny their first judgment, as it happened with the German Goethe and the Italian Carducci. Also vagaries and imaginings of poets were the nostalgic recalling of the tranquil ancient paganism, usually contradicted by opposite vagaries by the very same people who had proposed them for a while. 

The thoughtless lightness and the fun which appeared innocuous whenever it was applied to any fact or person of history and poetry, has not looked so innocent, and it has never been allowed for the figure of Jesus, which has been avoided even on the stages of theaters, except for the naïve sacred representations of medieval times, still alive among the people, and tolerated and even promoted by the Church. Another proof is to be found in the attitudes and the symbolism of Christian flavor, which have decorated the political movements of the modern age, even those with a definite anti-clerical tinge of the 18th century Voltairians, so that we could speak of “the heavenly city,” and “the garden of Eden” transferred to ancient Rome or the Arcadia of reason and nature, which substituted the Bible or the Church, and other similar phenomena; even the revolutions of modern times referred to “prophets,” and sent their “apostles” and glorified their “martyrs.” The fact is that although the whole of history culminates with us as its children, ancient ethics and religion were superseded and resolved in the Christian idea of conscience and moral inspiration, the new idea of God in which we live and have our being, and who can no longer be Zeus, nor Jawhe, nor the German Wotan, despite the praises conferred on him in our times; and so in the moral life and our thinking, we feel that we are directly children of Christianity. Those who dream of a neo-paganism, do not consider the words of Burckhardt who has Hermes of the Vatican say these words: “We had it all, the glory of heavenly gods, eternal youth, but we were not happy because we were not good.”  Which is the same as saying: “we were not Christians.”

Nobody can know if another religion, at a par or superior to the one defined by Hegel as “the absolute religion,” will appear in the future within humankind, but of it we see not even a first light. It is obvious that in our present times, we are still not outside the parameters of Christianity, and that we, just as the first Christians, continue to labor in the construction of the rugged contrasts between immanence and transcendence, between the morality of conscience and that of the commandments and the laws, between liberty and authority, the heavenly and the earthly which are also within man, and the ability to compose them in one single form gives us joy and inner tranquility, and the consciousness that we will never compose them fully and exhaust the sentiment of the perpetual struggler, or the perpetual worker,  to whom and to whose grandchildren will never lack their subject matter, that is to say, of life.

Our recurring need is to preserve and reignite and feed the Christian element, today more than ever pressing and troubling, in between sorrow and hope. And the Christian God is still our God. Our sophisticated philosophies call him Spirit, who is always above us but is also ourselves; and if we no longer worship as mystery, it is because we know that He will always be a mystery in the eyes of abstract intellectualistic logic, misguidedly dignified with the name of “human logic, but in the eyes of concrete logic it is limpid truth which can be said “divine” understood in the Christian sense as that to which man continually aspires to, and which makes him truly man.



Liberalism, between Nature and History:
Absolute and Relative Values
A Presentation by Ernesto Paolozzi
(Translated from Italian by Emanuel L. Paparella)


World War II, the advent of the atomic age, the crisis of Europe torn apart from Fascist and Nazi dictatorships, the consolidation of Stalinist in Russia in the Eastern countries and of Chinese Communism, seem to put in danger the very idea of an ethical-political civilization as delineated in the 17th, but especially in the 18th century. That liberalism which, despite its contradictions and with many limitations, had triumphed in the preceding 19th century, appeared now as passé and defeated (even if the war had in fact been won by countries which were essentially democratic), while others thought of it as the unfortunate harbinger of the events which changed the face of the world.

The liberal energies which had withstood the powerful juggernaut of the Nazi war-machine, seemed to have exhausted itself, and were under attack once again from neo-Marxist forces, which buttressed by the totalitarian power of the Soviet Union, presented themselves as the culmination and the overcoming of liberalism.

Within this framework of general difficulties, while liberal theories were accused of incarnating formal and middle-class freedoms, historicism which via Croce and various interpretations of Hegelian had identified with liberalism, was also placed together in the dock of the accused in as much as it represented the kind of philosophy which would objectively have represented (without meaning to be so, in as much as it declared itself liberal) and provided the theoretical ideological underpinning of 20th century dictatorships.

Today it would be possible to depict a different picture of the situation at that time with colors that are much less dark.

It appears as if history has been created to contradict the easy predictions of the philosophers, hence it may be a good thing to be prudent. But even if with caution one cannot but affirm that, despite it all, from the end of world war II till today, liberalism has not been superseded, and has in fact consolidated its  political primacy on those ideologies that have competed with each other in those fifty years.

Nevertheless, there is an internal crisis which is most serious and seems to repeat the terms of the issues which were in vogue in those distant times; some of which completely forgotten since. Confronted with the inability to understand and dominate a society which becomes more and more cynical, which has reached a sense of loss of values expressed as quiet desperation, and with the frenzy of activism which seems to be the only remedy to a diffused sense of nihilism by individuals, the question of the foundation and even the possibility of values returns, the question of the ethical  political praxis founded on the classical theories of natural law and historicism, resurrecting old ideological rivalries and proposing new connections and solutions.

From a purely theoretical viewpoint, the problem seems to be the redefinition of the nexus universal/particular, which delineates itself as the opposition of absolute/relative, economy/ethics, State/individual, and so on.

The historicist critique in pretending to found absolute ethical-political values on equally absolute concepts of nature and reason had within itself the germ of the risk of relativism. History, which is the ultimate test of values and norms does not seem to tolerate easily cages or nets which may hold it. It usually breaks them as the history of humanity proves. But if this is true, if the only absolute is history, what can one grasp to be able to condemn the absurd and unhinged manifestations of political violence?

That this is a vital and crucial problem s well demonstrated from the political  every-day praxis and experience as citizens, from the modern cultural debate, always attentive in stressing, in different modes, one or the other theme of the debate. We can go from the renewal of German anti-Hegelian anti-absolutist historicism, wherein history assumes the role of sole protagonist, to the renewed forms of contractualism which go back to the experience of the Enlightenment ties to analytical philosophy, from the reconsideration of Vichian and Crocean tradition to the reappearance of classical liberalism.

What keeps together the search for schools of thought so diverse, is the necessity to found once again a system of values which is not devoid of rigorous foundations. Be it a public ethics, as defined by the contractualists, or a transcendental ethics, which in presenting as sure and rigorous, does not become a slave of abstractions arrived at by mere  calculating reason.

Confronting these solutions we detect a resurgent nihilism, which finds its rational reason for being (at least when it is not mere vogue) in the general condition of a society torn between the Scylla of cynicism and the Carriddy of banality.

Even the world of religions (but are there really religions which are not secular and secularists who are not religious?) is tormented by the necessity of a rigorous adherence to absolute principles on which to found ethical action and the necessity for secularism, the only valid instrument to be able to exercise a role in a society which refuses what is different and transcendent in its very structure.

The immediate political outcome from this condition which has all the characteristics of an existential global crisis, is the loss of all points of references. Gone are all the collective myths of the 60s, the ethics of work and commitment, and man closes in upon himself within mere individuality which appears as that unhappy consciousness depicted by Hegel, which he dubs as atomism.

The ancient problems return under a new form (and thus they appear different); the problem of the universal and the particular, between society and the individual, morality and politics. What returns in its compelling necessity of discussing once again liberalism in the light of the nexus between nature and history, between the necessity of certainty and the necessity for originality.

Liberal natural law and historicism are representatives of those theoretical places to which we need to return to satisfy our immediate ethical-political exigencies (and it is up to us, as protagonists involved in the fluidity of history to say the last word in this regard), not to speak of the clarity of a fundamental issue of our era, as it was when those philosophical-political doctrines took shape and within which we identify the birth of 19th century modern liberalism.

To this question about the right kinds of fair and eternal values, capable of presiding to clear and distinct and rigorous norm the natural juridical answer was one of great historical importance, considering the times in which it was born and what it contributed to the emancipation of man from superstitions and slaveries. That it is not possible to elevate some historical principles to eternal absolute principles. Modern liberalism as understood, or is in the process of understanding, that juridical-moral norms, when restricted to particular concepts, to economic theories, have a practical political, historical value, but they cannot be transformed into absolutes.

Undoubtedly, from a psychological point of view, a series of norms of behavior founded on alleged eternal values, seem much more concrete of a general theory of freedom which seems to deny them. Modern political man requires certitudes to orient his behavior and invokes secure juridical-economic norms, remaining ready, with a happy incoherence, to ignore them every time the political situation of the moment necessitates their modifications so as not to become impediment to a problem’s solution. That is to say, norms, pacts and contracts are valid till they reveal themselves valid. Nobody denies their usefulness, but it is harmful to continue defending them even when they are no longer useful, as it happens with those who, being afraid of originality, hold on to clarity and exactitude of protocols and theorems.

To the contrary, to understand the danger of these assumed  concrete positions, one needs to imagine what would be the result were we to hold them in faith even when they are wrong under the light of reason. Even in medicine (this is a classic comparison between political system and biological human body) rules and regulations change. Were we practice medicine with the medical rules, norms and precepts of only fifty years ago, we’d be guilty of the lives of thousands of individuals. 

Even the most natural of natural rights, that of life (and here I am being paradoxical and provocative on purpose) can be put under discussion and can become historical, in the case of the life of one person being sacrificed for the common good, the defense of the State, of the country, of the community. For Chinese the right to procreation is seen almost as a crime, a sin to be punished for the good of the nation, perhaps even for the survival of the race.

Within the fight against political terrorism, liberal states have found it necessary to sacrifice their representatives to the atrocities of the perpetrators, in order to safeguard the common good and interest. Even the life of children may be on the line, in order to deprive the common delinquent of the arms they possess. Even religion, which usually defends life and procreation, requires at times, the sacrifice of individual life (from Abraham’s sacrifice to Christ’s death) in favor of a supreme good.

So, political and ethical skepticism is always lurking. When we go from contract as universal law to single individual contract, it is easy to understand that to each normative theory one can oppose another one which seems just as valid and reasonable. But skepticism lurks even in the field of historicism and has the name of relativism.

This is a general problem which deals not only with the ethical-political aspect, but also with the logical-aesthetic aspect, that is to say, theoretical. It is a problem this, wherein, even in logic lurks the germ of contradiction when the same logical categories when they preach the historicism of logic, seem to be subject to history, in other words, they are valid only at a certain moment in history; something which is certainly contrary to logic. We find this problem in every form of historicism, even those forms tending to absolutism such as Hegelianism and Marxism. The concrete universal of Hegel always runs the risk of annulling the universal at times or the individual at other times. The risk if that we end up with a philosophy, what is one’s time apprehended through thought, that is philosophical but without philosophy. So, within Marxism, economy (the totality of material connections) is at the same time the unjustified absolute and the extreme relativism of every law, of every human condition to the that unconditional absolute which is the material history of man.

Therefore, historical liberalism, on one hand satisfies the exigencies of historical concreteness and political realism, on the other hand it leaves itself open to the accusation of relativistic skepticism. Within Crocean liberalism there have arisen, to wit a voluminous literature in this regard, numerous protests which can be synthesized as a request to specify which are the concrete liberties that need to be defended above and beyond the unique great liberty of history which seems to justify itself as Christian providence, the laws of history of Hegelian or Marxist derivation, and I would add the classical liberal theories (think at the invisible hand of Adam Smith) which without being conscious of it, theorize a metaphysical belief that from the clash of particular private interests the collective common good will be born, almost mysteriously. Often, what results from these theories are practical contradictions which obstruct political life in the strict sense. Perhaps it is probable that the debate of these problems may amplify the horizon of the dialogue which keeps in mind the terms of the liberal issue of today, as well as the fundamental aspects of the history of liberalism.

The issue, if well thought out, is resolvable. I have often asked myself the question of the possibility of another road, that of the rethinking of Christianity within historicism. Frankly, I have never found the courage (a theoretical one of course) to begin such a journey. I am encouraged however by the long dialogue I have been entertaining with Paparella’s reflections. The same Croce gives a hint of this possibility with his famous essay Why Cannot but Consider Ourselves Christians. There the philosopher in effect reconstructs briefly the history of our civilization vis a vis the eternal barbarism of irrationality and political violence. It reserves to Christianity a place of honor, so to say, within Western Civilization.


Benedetto Croce

But perhaps the theoretical aspect of that essay can be even more interesting. The passage where Croce asserts that Christianity has accomplished the greatest revolution of human history placing the theme of subjectivity in center stage and God (value as we would say in a secular mode) not only outside humanity as divinity apart, but within humanity itself, in a subjectivity understood transcendentally.

The question arises: is it in this sense of individuality understood as a subject by nature open to the other (even Aristotle can be understood in that sense) that one recovers, within historical evolution, in the continual relativization of values, a firm constant point of reference? Does this reading of Christianity have a value that is purely secular or does it leave room for transcendence? It is not easy to give an answer to this question but I intuit that it is the right road on which to journey.




Intro - P. 1 - P. 2 

2nd Meeting - 3rd Meeting - 4th Meeting - 5th Meeting - 6th Meeting - 7th Meeting - 8th Meeting -

9th Meeting - 10th Meting - 11th Meeting - 12th Meeting - 13th Meeting - 14th Meeting - 15th Meeting -

16th Meeting - 17th Meeting - 18th Meeting - 19th Meeting - 20th Meeting - 21st Meeting -

22nd Meeting -23rd Meeting - 24th Meeting - 25th Meeting - 26th Meeting - 27th Meeting -

28th Meeting -29th Meeting - 30th Meeting - 31st Meeting - 32nd Meeting - 33rd Meeting -

34th Meeting -35th Meeting - 36th Meeting - 37th Meeting - 38th Meeting - 39th Meeting -

40th Meeting -41st Meeting - 42nd Meeting - 43rd Meeting - 44th Meeting - 45th Meeting -

46th Meeting - 47th Meeting - 48th Meeting - 49th Meeting - 50th Meeting - 51st Meeting -

52nd Meeting -53rd Meeting - 54th Meeting - 55th Meeting - 56th Meeting - 57th Meeting -

58th Meeting -59th Meeting - 60th Meeting - 61st Meeting - 62nd Meeting - 63rd Meeting -

64th Meeting -65th Meeting - 66th Meeting - 67th Meeting - 68th Meeting - 69th Meeting -

70th Meeting -71st Meeting -


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