the great museum

As someone who admires tradition I was naturally saddened by the Notre Dame fire. What really saddened me most though was that it was like seeing a museum burn. A museum full of beautiful things, but beautiful dead things. Notre Dame is a symbol of a dead civilisation.

Had Notre Dame been destroyed during the Middle Ages it would not have been a disaster. A new cathedral would have been built to replace it. The faith that inspired men to build something that would take almost two centuries to complete still existed. Not just the religious faith, but the faith in the future, the faith in their own civilisation. Had it been destroyed in the 14th century it might well have been replaced by something even more impressive. The faith was there, and the skills and the aesthetic sensibility were there, to create masterpieces of religious art and architecture. All of that is gone now. We can create replicas of masterpieces. We can no longer create anything original of value.

It’s like looking at the Venus de Milo. It’s beautiful but it’s a product of a dead civilisation. We could, and we do, make copies of such statues. But no-one today could create such a statue. We just don’t look at the world the way the classical Greeks did. We cannot truly get inside their heads. Just as we cannot truly get inside the heads of those medieval Frenchmen who built Notre Dame. The Venus de Milo is a museum piece.

It’s not just a symbol of what the French have lost, it’s a symbol of the West. Western civilisation has been living on its reputation for a very long time. The West created some marvellous things, things of surpassing beauty and sublime intelligence and subtlety. But that was long ago.

The great achievements of European civilisation lie in the past. Perhaps it’s just not possible for a materialistic society to create anything of real value. Europe is a gigantic museum. Modern Europeans are ambivalent about their cultural treasures. They’re an uncomfortable reminder of the extent of our modern decadence. Treasures of religious art make modern Europeans particularly uncomfortable. Is it possible that there was a time when people cared about more than shopping and sex?

Of course one would like to see Notre Dame restored, but it can only be restored as a museum exhibit. In some ways that would be even sadder than leaving it as a ruin.

what does western civilisation actually mean?

Those who value tradition and traditional values and morality often talk about western civilisation. I talk about it all the time. But what does western civilisation actually mean?

It is often assumed that western civilisation began with classical Greece and Rome. This is simply not so. There have in fact been at least three completely different western civilisations, with very little in common.

It is often not appreciated just how profoundly alien the classical civilisation was. This was a world in which religion was largely a matter of ritual. If you failed to perform the rituals correctly the gods would be angry and really bad stuff would happen. If you performed the rituals correctly there was a chance that the gods would be content and would leave you alone. That was about as much as you could expect from the gods.

The idea that religion and morality were intimately connected did not exist. The gods were amoral, selfish, violent and lustful. It’s not that there was no concept of morality. It’s more that morality was a civic virtue. Morality was necessary because without it society would collapse. The gods simply didn’t care, as long as you offered them the correct sacrifices. Morality was not a religious duty, it was merely useful.

The idea that foreign policy had some connection with morality would have been dismissed as an absurdity. Foreign policy was about power. The Athenians, so worshipped by admirers of classical civilisation, were particularly cynical. Wars were fought for purely materialistic reasons. Alexander the Great did not invade the Persian Empire because the Persians were wicked or immoral or uncivilised. He invaded because the Persian Empire was weak and would offer easy pickings. The Roman Empire conquered anybody it was capable of conquering because it was in Rome’s interest. The business of Rome was imperialism.

By the time that the classical civilisation was reaching its peak philosophers were abandoning the traditional pagan religion but mostly what they offered in its place was a vague pantheism, or even outright atheism. The classical civilisation was conquered by Christianity because it had nothing satisfying to offer people.

When the classical civilisation collapsed in the West it collapsed totally. It was replaced by an entirely new civilisation. Medieval civilisation had nothing in common with classical civilisation. It offered a whole new approach to religion. Religion and morality were now intertwined. Morality became a religious duty. Ritual became relatively unimportant. It survived, but mostly as symbolism.

Kings were now expected to be concerned by things other than power. Being human they were of course still very interested in power. The medievals would have been the first to admit that they often fell short of their ideals. But ideals were still important and they were religious ideals. The king was king by the Grace of God.

Nationalism did not exist. The loyalties that mattered were loyalty to the king, and to the Church.

The Reformation utterly destroyed medieval civilisation. A new civilisation arose in its place, a civilisation that has almost nothing in common with medieval civilisation.

Religion appeared to remain important for a century and a half but it was mostly an illusion. The new civilisation was right from the start well on the way towards being a post-Christian civilisation. The idea that religion was a matter of individual conscience rapidly took hold. What a man believed was his own business. Freedom of religion became a popular idea. In practice of course freedom of religion means freedom from religion. By the 18th century Christianity had ceased to be a factor in national policy, except insofar as national policy was directed toward explicitly anti-Christian objectives (such as state control of education). Once that happened the decline of Christianity was irreversible.

Liberalism became the new religion. Liberalism and capitalism made short work of what remained of Christian morality.

Nationalism appeared. Nationalism is a liberal concept. Nationalism is essentially worship of the state. The two competing religious values were now money and freedom. Freedom of course meant the freedom to pursue money and pleasure. Society as an organic entity gave way to the state and the corporation.

It needs to be clearly understood that this is a civilisation that differs profoundly from earlier western civilisations. It is inherently materialistic and atheistic. Morality is now defined as social conformity.

Whether you think this liberal conception of western civilisation is worth saving is up to you.