Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

The Tallinn Lectures--Introduction

In Search of Europe’s Cultural Identity


I. The “Anti-Europeans”?

Some years ago, two good British friends of mine found themselves called upon to cast their ballots on an issue involving closer cooperation with what was then called the European Community. As they went to the polling station, they both told me that they had decided to vote “against Europe”.

Now these two friends were, indeed, as British as they could possibly have been. Nevertheless, to my mind, they were simultaneously representative of everything positive that European culture in general signified. Proud of their own nation, they lacked all trace of a closed, parochial spirit. They had benefited from that traditional classical education once common to the British Isles and the whole of the Continent, and cultivated extensive business and personal ties with France, Italy and Germany. How is it, then that two such fine examples of the specific British contribution to the broader Old World achievement could convince themselves that they were somehow “anti-Europe”, and therefore “anti-Europeans”? One valuable source to consult in finding an answer to that question is the nineteenth century movement of Catholic revival and its passion for rediscovering the fullness of the Christian European cultural achievement. (For this revival, see J.M. Mayeur et. al, eds., Histoire du christianisme, Desclée, Vols. XI, XII, 1995-1997; also, John C. Rao, Removing the Blindfold, Remnant Press, 1999; “School Days”, Seattle Catholic, March 15th, 2005, on For the Whole Christ, jcrao.freeshell.org).

II. Nineteenth Century Catholics and the Problem of Language

Throughout the post-French revolutionary Catholic world, thinkers and activists of impressive caliber demonstrated a desire to learn, develop, and put into practice themes and customs which had been buried by decades and even centuries of Jansenist, naturalist, and simple pastoral neglect.

Depending upon energy, taste, and imagination, this drive led them back to the Fathers of the Church, to the medieval scholastics, and to a mystical, devotional, and liturgical life rich in lessons for both the Catholic community and individuals. The centers of re-discovery--German, Italian, and French, for the most part--were lay-clerical circles of believers, religious confraternities, orders restored after the devastation of the Revolution, university faculties, and groups gathering round those journals and newspapers that seemed to spring up everywhere in the course of the nineteenth century.

La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit journal of international impact founded in Rome in 1850, was of central significance in this broad and effective movement. It sought to deal, comprehensively, with all of the issues brought up by the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and their aftermath, as well as the response that Catholics must offer to them. The biggest difficulty that it faced, the journal’s editors noted from the very outset, was the problem of language.

Why language? Because they recognized that Catholic themes---such as the order and value of all of nature---and words---like freedom---which had been cherished and developed from late ancient times through the Baroque Era had been “seized” by the enemies of the Faith and redefined for their own anti-Christian use. So successful had the efforts of these opponents of Catholicism been that their “seized” themes and words had dominated the common parlance and penetrated deeply into the mentality of the general population. The result was that they were taken for granted by the average man as being obviously and unquestionably true.

Anyone who wished to fight the supporters of the Enlightenment and prove that they had actually distorted the language---to the detriment of the world around them and their own self-deception as well---was therefore obliged to begin his work with the basics. He had to examine all the disfigured themes and words to demonstrate their older and totally diverse meaning. “Almost everything will have to be reconstituted anew”, the Civiltà concluded, “since almost everything has been deformed and tampered with” (“Il giornalismo moderno”, La Civiltà Cattolica, Series I, Volume 1,1850, pp. 14-15).

Unfortunately, the anti-Enlightenment activist had to be prepared for enormous practical difficulties in undertaking such a task. His enemies would be fighting him every step of the way and with a clear linguistic advantage. Moreover, the average man, incapable of taking the time required for comprehending the rationale behind this massive work of reconstruction, could easily lose interest in it or, worse still, actually condemn it as a dangerous nuisance demanding impossible and economically destructive changes in his familiar thought patterns and daily behavior.

If the editors of La Civiltà Cattolica were still alive, so that I might express to them my English friends’ conviction that they were “anti-Europeans”, I know what their response would be. They would ask many questions about the definition of “Europe” and seek to determine who had seized control of that word to define it in the particular manner they had done. The Civiltà editors would suggest that my friends were perhaps not “anti-European” at all, but merely opposed to a precise vision of Europe that was a deformed and self-deluding one. And they would then tell them to prepare themselves to face a barrage of harsh criticism if they should dare to bring up the very possibility of there being a conception of Europe different from the one presented as an unquestionable “given” by the contemporary masters of the common parlance.

We here this week are not pressed to cast a ballot for or against “Europe”. We therefore have the chance to delve more fully into precisely what that word “Europe” might mean; to go “In Search of Europe’s Identity” with greater leisure and scientific openness to the truth. In the spirit of La Civiltà Cattolica, I should argue that we set to work to exploit this happy opportunity by asking ourselves four questions of crucial importance to our task: 1) What do we mean by a search? 2) How do we define an identity? 3) What, precisely, is Europe’s identity? And, finally, returning to the drama faced by my English friends, 4) What was the character of the “Europe” which they were called upon to accept, were they unquestionably “anti-European “ for rejecting it, and are we as guilty as they were for adopting a similar critical attitude to “Europe” today?

III. What is Involved in a Search?

Our first question may seem a rather strange one, and yet be it must immediately be posed in a world which for several centuries has suffered from the ravages of intellectual reductionism and ideology. What is involved in an intellectual search of any variety? Are we honestly permitted to utilize all the tools that intelligent men and women through the ages have come to appreciate as being necessary to conducting a hunt for answers to problems of great political, social and personal importance? May we gather and consult everything---scientific evidence, historical and cultural information, psychological studies of medical, literary and spiritual character, and philosophical and theological judgments---that the mind and soul have judged valuable to a complete understanding of human affairs? If some of these tools have been excluded from our search, on what basis have they not been permitted to play their role? What might be gained or lost by abandoning them? Who might benefit or suffer from that abandonment?

IV. What Do We Mean By the Search for an Identity?

Our next query is what we mean by a search for the identity of something existing in nature? This question lies at the very heart of the western philosophical debate, and the answer to it is of crucial practical significance in every realm. Have we exhausted our ability to identify a man, a woman, an animal, a political and social order, or whatever else might grasp our attention once we have recounted individual bits of data; individual “facts” concerning the subject under study that have made an immediate impression upon our eyes and ears; data and facts which can and do often change from one moment to the next? Could an identification on this basis somehow be flawed? And, if flawed, is it possible to correct what our senses immediately tell us, so as to distinguish between what is changeable and unchangeable in that which we are examining; to distinguish between what is truly natural and what is a misperception of the natural?

If we think that it is theoretically possible to identify flaws, what would our practical methodology for uncovering such flaws involve? Would it be based upon a hunt for the “essence” of a man, a woman, an animal, or a continental political and social order? Could “accidental” flaws of something natural be corrected according to its deeper, inner “reason” or “logos”? If so, what specific tools would we employ to determine what that essence is, and how to use it as a model? Once again, as noted above, would we utilize every instrument that intelligent men and women have come to appreciate through the course of history to reach our goal? Or would we perhaps seek to make sense out of the mountain of data that nature presents to our eyes and ears with reference to some simple, internal principle for identifying the essence of a thing: a mind already structured to interpret data that it has not yet encountered according to fixed rules; a strongly felt sentiment; even an act of pure imagination and will?

Finally, if, after all of this effort, we come to the conclusion that it is not possible to reach any accurate identification of the essences of things around us, would we abandon the search entirely and prohibit others from engaging in what we have come to believe is an impractical “waste of time”? Would we enter into a “contract” with one another and decide upon a “make-believe” identification of the nature of things so as to avoid despair, get on with the business of ordinary day-to-day life, and maintain some social order? And, once again, what would be gained or lost, and who would benefit or suffer from any of the positions discussed above?

V. What Do We Mean By the Search for the Europe’s Identity?

Our first two questions are obviously related to a third: what does our search for Europe’s identity entail? Is it the hunt merely for accumulated material data concerning a particular parcel of land as it exists in 2007 and will change, perhaps drastically, one, ten or fifty years from now? Does it involve accumulating past material data impacting on its present character as well? Should one go beyond the purely material sphere and investigate the identity of Europe by examining her whole psyche? What specific role should history, literature, philosophy and theology play in such an enterprise?

Then, again, must whatever is discovered about Europe be accepted “as it is”, or is it at least theoretically possible to identify flaws in her character? Can these possible flaws be corrected, in order to complete and fulfill any underlying “potential” she might seem to possess? If so, would such correction be made with reference to “essences”---such as the notion of “human nature” and its dictates regarding law, freedom and dignity---now made applicable to European political and social life? Could reference to God and God’s plan, and any place Europe might have under His Providence be seriously considered and publicly discussed? Would correction of Europe’s flaws be based only upon an innate internal principle of organization or a strongly felt sentiment or an act of pure imagination and will? If the search for Europe’s deeper identity were deemed an utterly meaningless enterprise which “practical” men of “common sense” ought to abandon, should any existential fears about the meaning of life flowing from this nihilism be calmed through a “social contract” erecting what amounts to a “make-believe” truth and order? And, yet once more, what would be gained or lost, and who would benefit or suffer by any such decisions?

VI. Seizing the Word “Europe” to Construct an Anti-Christian Society

We are now in a position to return to the drama faced by my English friends, identify the “Europe” concerning which they were called upon to vote, and judge the justice of their feeling that they were unquestionably “anti-European “ for opposing it.

Let it suffice to say for the moment that I am convinced that my friends were only voting against a very particular vision of “Europe”; a “Europe” whose name has been seized hold of to promote a specific understanding of what the continent should be, and what must be changed to allow her to fulfill the destiny ascribed to her. The European “order” promoted by this vision is built upon the will of the strongest elements in contemporary society. It is an order which will not permit itself to be corrected with reference to rational scientific and psychological evidence or any metaphysical guidelines whatsoever. Irrationally materialist, hostile to religion, and subject to constant flux, it is a vision which is ultimately incapable of identifying anything, including, ultimately, the “Europe” it insists that we believe it cherishes.

This particular vision of “Europe” has had a very successful career. Its proponents have consistently and skillfully associated it rhetorically with everything that westerners continue to view as being “good”, while cleverly linking opposition to its progress with all that westerners continue to identify as being “evil”. They have hindered dialogue by limiting the tools which one is permitted to use to search for the continent’s true identity, by unjustly condemning expansion of the debate as inevitably conducive to religious war and genocide, and also by ridiculing attempts to keep the discussion alive as a nostalgic and economically impractical waste of time. Hence, the errors, self-interests, and even criminal actions prospering under “Europe’s” unquestioned aegis remain dangerously hidden.

In the following three talks I will go In Search of Europe’s Identity by 1) Showing that it is an exploration whose character has been shaped by western battles concerning ways and means of understanding life in general rooted in the ancient Greek confrontation of philosophy and rhetoric; 2) That this ancient battle was made more intense by the arrival of Christianity and the evolution of the struggle over the meaning of the word “natural” into a conflict between those seeking to correct and transform all things In Christ and what I should like to call a “Grand Coalition on behalf of the unexamined life”; and, finally, 3) That the Christian vision of life, the search for the identity of the continent, and the perfection of the true character of Europe are all in the greatest danger in our time. This is due to the powerful modern tendency to justify thought and action on the basis of a willful “voluntarism” and appeal to “vitality” and “success” working in tandem with the secular religion of Americanist Pluralism.

One final comment before beginning. These conferences are not intended as detailed academic papers, but as a broad introduction to an enormous issue of theological, philosophical, historical, literary, political, economic, and sociological character. They form part of a larger work, still in preparation, entitled The War Between the Words and the Word. The foundation for that project can be found both in my study of the nineteenth century Catholic revival movement, published in 1999 as Removing the Blindfold (Remnant Press) as well as in related articles available online (For the Whole Christ, www.jcrao.freeshell.org). I will identify other indispensable sources for my argument, lecture by lecture, as we proceed through the week.

September 24, 2007

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