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Seven Years After the Fall

It was seven years ago that the Berlin Wall fell, liberating all of Central and Eastern Europe in a resounding crash. Now some in Western Europe wish it were standing again, while others in the East wonder what they’ve gained. Corruption has flourished in the ensuing moral vacuum. Not a few people have concluded communism is preferable to anarchy or poverty. The moral and spiritual leaders of the peaceful revolution have little political influence and they struggle to define the Permanent Things in a culture in flux.

It would be presumptuous of us in the West to offer advice, as our culture deteriorates apace. Once self-evident truths, which were the legacy of western civilization, are under full assault. Post-modernism, multi-culturalism, and revisionism dissolve the Permanent Things.

Ancient Roots of Western Order

The culture of contemporary Europe and America has ancient roots, as Russell Kirk explained lucidly in The Roots of American Order. These roots sprang from the ancient Hebrew perception of a purposeful, moral existence under God. They were enlarged through the philosophical and political understanding of the ancient Greeks. They were nurtured by the Roman concepts of personal virtue, law, justice, and reason. These were later entwined with the Christian understanding of the hope of personal redemption and sanctification. On this organic order grew an Anglo-Saxon understanding of liberty under law, property rights, and the tension between order and freedom. Such was the flowering of Europe as it was planted on American soil, together with the concept of a market economy. It is these common roots which today must be refreshed if our culture is to have the richness it has known in the past and bear new blossoms.

The cultural and intellectual heritage we share is the result of centuries of incremental growth, the accumulated inspiration and wisdom of those who have gone before us. Europe and America are now the trustees of more than two thousand years of culture which has grown this way. The task now is to define the things of lasting truth and beauty, defend them, and transmit them to those who follow, to enable the growth of a healthy contemporary culture from venerable roots.

The Vision No Longer Binds

In utterly different ways, both East and West have lost the order which held their diverse elements in cohesion. There was at one time a broad consensus in America on the fundamental questions of personal responsibility and freedom. Voluntary association and acceptance of a shared body of ideals held the American identity intact, conferring it anew on generations of immigrants. This shared vision no longer binds. The centrifugal forces of ethnicity and the “culture wars” are tearing the fabric of the American common-weal into tatters.

The communist order which was maintained by the iron fist from above now has splintered into ethnic entities which savage each other. In an empire once coerced into unity by ideology, national and ethnic rivalries now flicker and flame. Bloodlines are again the arbiters of identity.

In the American experience, it was once possible to claim, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” In the Soviet experience, the Party determined what truth was. Now there are few in either the East or the West who are sure that truth exists at all.

A multi-cultural society easily becomes a society without values. Some would argue that even the term values is suspect, as it implies a measure of taste, rather than the certainty of permanent things by which one evaluates. What was once weighed against natural law or revealed divine truth has been debased to cultural or personal preference.

But we are not condemned to flounder in the darkness; we have simply lost sight of the stars by which we navigate. Our Creator imprinted his law on our hearts as we came into being; through it we recognize moral truth. C. S. Lewis characterizes it in his book The Abolition of Man as the Tao, or the Way, “the reality beyond all predicates.… It is the way every man should tread… conforming all activities to that great exemplar.” Lewis quotes from the major teachings of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Hebrew and Christian sources, as well as Babylonian writings, ancient Chinese and Norse texts to illustrate his point. What each of these civilizations has discovered is stunningly consistent: We should honor our Creator. We should not murder. We should honor our parents and our duties to our families. We should not lie or cheat. We should show kindness to the weak. Here is evidence gleaned from the ages affirming that the same moral truths have been revealed again and again, not as a matter of taste, but as immutable verities, perilous to ignore.

The Power of the Powerless

Those who have recently emerged from the shadow of totalitarianism have had their own culture wars. Soviet leaders knew very well that admitting another culture other than their own was dangerous, which explains the remarkable energy they invested in silencing their critics, rewriting their history, banishing books, and forbidding contact with people holding competing ideas. Yet it was precisely in this climate of oppression that a “second culture” sprouted.

The dissidents in Central Europe set about to define the Permanent Things, and reclaim them. Poets and playwrights articulated a vision the communists had banned, but could not eradicate. Philosophers in Prague worked as furnace stokers by day, wrote by night, and published their works as samizdat. The “Flying University” in Poland offered a classical education to serious students who could not study the same ideas in official universities. There were private concerts, exhibitions, seminars, publishing houses, information networks, trade unions, and contacts across the borders. Dissidents and lovers of the truth constructed a civil society of parallel, free structures. Here were sown the seeds of the moral revolution which preceded the political one.

We get a glimpse of the “second culture” if we look at the writings of Václav Havel, Adam Michnik, and György Konrád–a Czech, a Pole, and a Hungarian. Theirs is a realm not defined by geography, but a kingdom of the spirit. Timothy Garton Ash remarked of these writers: “All three reassert the fundamental premises of Judeo-Christian individualism. Reversing the traditional priorities of socialism, they begin not with the state or society, but with the individual human being: his conscience, his ‘subjectivity’, his duty to live in truth, and his right to live in dignity.”

These writers, as did other leaders of the peaceful revolution of 1989, affirm that there is truth, that there are causes worth suffering and dying for, and that moral power supersedes political might. As Václav Havel put it in his essay “Politics and Conscience”: “It is becoming evident… that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power… than do thousands of anonymous voters.” This is a vision precious few in the West could articulate for themselves today.

For the people who have since been freed from the Soviet yoke, it has been a shock to realize that their vision of the West does not match the reality of what it has become. The culture of the West is neither as vile as had been propagandized, nor is it as good as the dissidents had hoped. The past forty-odd years of relatively peaceful prosperity on one side of the Berlin Wall, and the experience of Marxism on the other, have yielded different fruits. One need not unduly glorify those who resisted Soviet domination to conclude that they have perhaps led more examined lives than those who have not been tested in similar ways. We in the West have much to learn, if we will listen.

Fragments and a Loom

The countries of Central Europe now find themselves in a head-spinning transition from a severe paucity of telephones, copying machines, international reading material, and computers, into the Brave New World of the Internet, satellite communications, cellular telephones, and an absolute glut of information. It would be a grave error to assume that those in the West who have wallowed in the increasing torrents of information are any wiser.

One thing our culture is struggling to define is the difference between information and knowledge. While information is now available through silicon chips, computers, television cables, disks, and video, it comes at great velocity, unsorted, disconnected from meaning. We live in a world of multiple visual images, ten-second sound bites, channel surfing, and fragmented conscience.

Edna St. Vincent Millay put the problem into succinct, prophetic words:

Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts… they lie unquestioned,
uncombined
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric…

Education should provide this loom. But there is a lack of consensus among educators, and the lack of courage to affirm that eternal verities exist. The rough beast slouches in each of our countries, east and west. The breakdown of education, public and private manners, and morality is spectacular and devastating. The corruption of culture is abundantly evident. We must rally the remnant within, and set about the earnest business of reknitting the fabric of culture in each of our own countries.

The Crucible of Culture

Political, economic and cultural matters cannot be isolated from one another. They all form the matrix of civilization. But particularly in the ideological twentieth century, culture has become a negligible by-product, or something which can be manipulated to fit the current political design. We have become “culture conscious” but in a way that emphasizes our differences, without showing us a way to transcend them.

It is a fallacy of our age, with ancient roots, to believe that the political institutions are the supreme instruments for ordering human affairs. Our age is one of radical politicization. But the force that drives civilization is not located in its political or economic structures. Its forms can only offer a harness. It is a shallow hope to put our faith in democracy and capitalism, alone. The vitality of a culture is in the hearts, habits, and minds of the people who live within it: Edmund Burke knew that the character of a nation depends on the character of its citizens.

Cultural disintegration is the most serious sort of devastation, and that which is hardest to repair. It can come undone in a few years of violence, or in decades of neglect. Central Europe is weary after the head-on assault of Marxist ideology, while the West is unraveling from within. We are all in need. It is our shared task now to define the eternal verities and live them. It is a slow process, as order is an organic growth, and culture can be perceived but not contrived.

As T. S. Eliot concludes in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, with words which have only become more true in the years since they were written, “We are common trustees [of] the legacy of Greece, Rome, and Israel, and the legacy of Europe throughout the last 2000 years. In a world which has seen such material devastation as ours, these spiritual possessions are also in imminent peril.”

A culture is the incarnation of the beliefs of a people. It reflects and shapes simultaneously. St. Paul urges us to cherish the highest: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” If we can transmit with vibrancy the best elements of our culture, devotion to the divine, truth, beauty, and virtue, we will have lived well.