Aristotle and the European Meltdown
I: The Burial of the Dead
APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
It was Oswald Spengler who seems to have seen it first, TS Eliot who saw it most clearly: the death of Europe and European civilization. When Eliot wrote The Waste Land in 1922, he saw the life of a great culture, a great continent, sinking down into mud and dead branches.
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
Eliot came in the role of the Old Testament prophet, a new Ezekiel who had seen his wife die (emotionally and mentally in Eliot's case), and had never shed a tear; a man face to face with a god whom he did not understand, and an avalanche of violence and desolation that swept away everything he loved. Only now was the aftermath--the arid waterless dessicated dryness of spirit, a heart as hard and dry as a burnt potsherd on a desert at high noon.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
The language was Dante's, the vision Bertrand Russell's--it was a vision that came to Russell on the streets of London, one he says he shared with Eliot. For Eliot and Russell had been joined together in the Bloomsbury circle--Russell had taken Eliot's wife as a prize, taken her within two weeks of her returning from her honeymoon with Eliot. Soon Russell offered the apparently unsuspecting Eliot space in his house for Eliot and his wife--the better to control his prey. Russell was then globally famous as a philosopher, had led the destruction of post-Kantian Idealist philosophy, and was laying the foundations for the analytical philosophy that would soon control the philosophy departments of most of the English-speaking world. For his part, Eliot had written a doctoral dissertation on Idealist philosophy at Harvard, but would never join the analytical movement: the philosopher who succeeded in putting himself in Eliot's wife's heart never succeeded in putting his philosophy into the heart of Eliot.
II The Game of Chess
I think we are in rats' alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.
Eliot's marriage had become a purgatorio; Eliot's wife became increasingly unstable and she would die in an insane asylum. The years after World War I were a time of melting marriages and widespread abortion, abortions both outside marriage and within: "The chemist said it would be alright," says a character in The Waste Land, "but I've never been the same." Nor has Europe.
"[The] most dramatic manifestation" writes George Weigel, "is the brute fact that Europe is depopulating itself.
Europe's below-replacement-level birthrates have created situations that would have been unimaginable when the European Common Market was being created in the 1950s. As recent demographic studies show, by the middle of the 21st century, 60% of Italians will have no personal experience of a brother, a sister, an aunt, an uncle or a cousin; Germany will lose the equivalent of the population of the former East Germany; and Spain's population will decline by almost one-quarter.
Europe is depopulating itself in numbers greater than at any time since the Black Death of the 14th century."
The metaphor is striking: the Black Death of postmodern philosophy, slaughtering more souls than anything since the plagues of the middle ages.
III. The Fire Sermon
Under the brown fog of a winter noon
Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket full of currants
C.i.f. London: documents at sight,
Asked me in demotic French
To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel
Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.
Homosexuality had become the vice of choice for much of the Bloomsbury Circle. There are rumors that there were periods in Eliot's life when he himself did not succeed in stopping his ears to the voice of the Siren call. For Eliot in 1922, a weekend at the Metropole is only an affair--it is not yet a honeymoon suite.
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.
A previous generation of fallen women might have collapsed in grief, tears, and shame. For the flappers of the 1920s, losing one's virtue is all in night's work--and not very exciting work at that.
To Carthage then I came
Burning burning burning burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest
The verses comprise lines from both Buddha and Augustine's Confessions. It was Augustine whose turn from dissolution to virtue was the classic conversion narrative of European civilization. Yet is a narrative that 20th century Europe had burned, plucked, and discarded; a fire sermon no one wanted any longer to hear.
IV. Death by Water
PHLEBAS the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
Eliot's Phlebas captures both economic success and spiritual death--the waste land of the postmodern west. So Weigel: "When an entire continent, healthier, wealthier and more secure than ever before, fails to create the human future in the most elemental sense — by creating the next generation — something serious is afoot." And again: "Europe began the 20th century confidently expecting unprecedented scientific, cultural and political achievements. Yet within 50 years, Europe produced two world wars, three totalitarian systems, a Cold War that threatened global destruction, mountains of corpses, the gulag and Auschwitz. What happened? And why?" Eliot foresaw what Weigel witnesses...a culture that wouldn't listen to what the thunder said...
V. What the Thunder Said
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Eliot listened to the thunder. Within five years of writing The Waste Land, Eliot would convert to Anglo-Catholicism. The program was specific and clear. Europe was collapsing because it had rejected its own greatest achievements: the philosophy of St Thomas and the spirituality of St John of the Cross.
Eliot became friends with the French Thomist Jacques Maritain, and published Maritain's work in the pages of the Criterion. Maritain, coupled with the brilliant Dominican Garrigou-Lagrange, promoted Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy as a way of life which reached its consummation in the mysticism of St John of the Cross. These two, St Thomas and St John of the Cross, became Eliot's spiritual masters.
Eliot retreated into his flat in London. He spent his nights praying the rosary and memorizing verses of scripture. He appears to have remained celibate during the decades of his wife's confinement to an asylum, and he remarried only after her death. His poetry underwent a spiritual revolution. He wrote essays defending Christianity, and promoted Thomists such as Maritain and Josef Pieper as the key to European recovery. If he never became a saint, he seems to have become what he never was before: a moderately stable and happy man.
Europe admired Eliot's poetry and rejected his message. But one man listened.
That man was Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II. In the dark night of Nazi-occupied Poland, he surrendered to the call of the priesthood. Loyal to the leadership of the Catholic Church, he became a master of the philosophy of St Thomas. Influenced by the Carmelites and a home-town mystic, he became a student of St John of the Cross.
After the Communists swept out the Nazis and began the new Marxist version of hell on earth, Karol went to Rome. He finished a doctoral dissertation on St John of the Cross under Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, the Dominican who had also been the teacher of Jacques Maritain.
Meanwhile Maritain had moved to the USA, and had begun explaining to Americans and the Catholic Church why St Thomas was the philosophical cornerstone for the democratic values of the American Declaration of Independence. Karol Wojtyla was closely tied into this intellectual network, and began in Poland promoting St Thomas, democracy, and human rights.
Hence the great battle of the twentieth century saw the Catholic Church pitting the philosophy of St Thomas against the philosophy of Karl Marx. It was Marx who once stated that philosophers had only interpreted the world differently; the point however was to change it. The world would soon see which philosophy would better achieve lasting change for humanity: Marxism or Thomism.
The victory would come in the papacy of John Paul II. The pope called a collapsing civilization to repent before the cross of Christ and the wisdom of St Thomas. That philosophy was meant to lead to the mysticism of St John of the Cross, and a society based on human rights. The Catholic Church, long thought to be opposed to democracy in principle, led what political scientists sometimes call the third wave of democratization: democracy swept across the world from the Philippines to Latin America to Eastern Europe.
There the unreal cities of communism fell: Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, Moscow. Led by a pope who lived out in the eighties and nineties what TS Eliot saw in the 1920s: the Aristotelian/Thomistic synthesis in philosophy and the mysticism of St John of the Cross.
After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
...which is to say, after the Garden of Gethsemane and the Passion.
There is much to do. We are a generation in recovery. The intellectual corruption of the last generation runs deeper than most of us know or realize. The spiritual regeneration of a lost generation can be long and slow.
We might begin with Josef Pieper's astonishing little book on the sabbath rest as the basis for all true philosophy: Leisure, the basis of culture; to which TS Eliot wrote an introduction when it was translated into English (but missing from some reprints). Pieper's classic works on Thomism are The Silence of St Thomas and Guide to Thomas Aquinas. Do not miss his guide to mysticism, rooted in Aristotle: Happiness and Contemplation.
Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange must have been an amazing teacher to have two students the likes of Jacque Maritain and Pope John Paul II. His works on mysticism and St Thomas are available on-line for free at the EWTN library.
Perhaps the best way into St Thomas directly is Peter Kreeft's Summa of the Summa. It should be read slowly, about ten pages per day--and will give you the basics of Thomism in an easy and charming style.
GK Chesterton wrote a dynamic and compulsively readable introduction to the life of St Thomas, Thomas Aquinas: the dumb ox. The paperback is available for about $10.00. The copyright is expired and the book can be found on-line for free.
The evangelical Protestant Norman Geisler has written a superb (and appreciative) introduction for Christians of all denominations: Thomas Aquinas: an evangelical appraisal.
An excellent introduction to St John of the Cross is Kieran Kavanaugh's John of the Cross: doctor of light and love.
Aristotle's pope: the legacy of John Paul II
One of my students here in Nicaragua came up to me, a very devout young woman. She said simply, "He believed in us. Some older people lecture young people. But he believed in young people."
He did indeed. And young people responded. One saw it at the global World Youth Days. One saw it in the great tides of young men who flooded into Catholic seminaries to become priests: seminarians nearly doubled in the pontificate of John Paul II. Conversions to Catholicism in the US hit over 160,000 per year--an all time high.
John Paul II believed in young people because he had seen hearts with the courage to turn to Christ and the grace to make a difference. The young men and women who answered the call of Christ in the 1940s saw the fall of Marxism in the 1980s.
This generation can do the same. Those of us who are now teachers have the responsiblity to put before them the life of John Paul II--and the Jesus Christ to whom he bore witness.
In the words of Pope Benedict XVI: be not afraid of Christ!