Quo vadis? That’s what a confused St Peter asked Jesus some thirty-five years after the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Peter was fleeing Rome to escape persecution at the hands of a Roman magistrate. Hurrying along the Appian Way, he unexpectedly came across Jesus marching steadfastly in the opposite direction. The mystified Peter asked, “Where are you going?” to which Jesus replied, “I am going to Rome to be crucified.” Dumbfounded, Peter asked, “Again?” Jesus replied, “Yes, again.” Only then did Peter take the hint and face his fate.
As we all know from the Gospels, the visitation on the Appian Way wasn’t the first time Peter had denied his religion in order to save his skin. But who could blame him? The Romans had a well-deserved reputation for brutality. Upon his return to Rome, Peter was crucified—upside down—in the shadow of the obelisk that now stands at the centre of St Peter’s Square.
This essay appears in a recent Quadrant.
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St Peter was buried on the slopes of the Vatican Hill, not far from the site of his crucifixion. A small chapel was built above his tomb, and a Christian cemetery soon sprang up around it. In the fourth century, the emperor Constantine built a great basilica on the site. Constantine’s basilica, now known as “Old St Peter’s”, survived more or less intact until 1505, when Pope Julius II took the momentous decision to tear it down to make way for a new, even more magnificent temple.
It seems appropriate that it took twelve popes to build the new St Peter’s, which ultimately followed a design by Michelangelo. It took another eight popes and two chief architects to finish the decorations and the facade. When the church was finally consecrated in 1626, it had been under construction for 121 years. The tomb of St Peter sits directly underneath the new altar, covered by an enormous bronze canopy by Bernini. Michelangelo’s dome, raised twenty-three feet higher by his successor Giacomo della Porta, towers overhead.
Like St Peter’s Basilica, the entire city of Rome is a palimpsest on which ancient structures undergird the modern streets. Take an espresso on the Piazza Navona, and you may notice that it is exactly the shape of a Roman stadium, which of course is what it was. Beyond Rome, the sites of London and Paris were selected and developed by Roman colonial administrators. The boundaries of Roman occupation continue to divide the island of Great Britain into the nations of England, Scotland and Wales.
Just as visible as the physical traces of ancient Rome are the human ones. Italy, Spain, Portugal and France still speak languages derived from Latin. All of the countries of continental Europe, as well as the super-national European Union, still use Roman legal systems. And notwithstanding the recent influx of Muslim immigrants, the dominant religion of Europe is still the religion of Constantine—to the extent that Europeans have any religion at all.
Yet for all this continuity, the civilisation of Western Europe is not the civilisation of Rome. Western civilisation was built upon the ruins of Rome. The population of Rome is thought to have shrunk by 90 per cent (or more) following the Germanic invasions that overthrew the Roman empire. The Ostrogoths, Visigoths and Vandals all sacked Rome. The Franks established what would become modern-day France. The Burgundians and Lombards left their names on regions of France and Italy, respectively. The Anglo-Saxons gave both their name and their language to Angle-land, or England.
Western civilisation thus emerged as a hybrid of the collapsed civilisation of Rome and the culture—one hesitates to call it a “civilisation”—of the Germanic invaders who conquered it. It is the civilisation that developed in those areas of the western Roman empire that fell under the rule of German aristocracies. North Africa, which ultimately came under Arab rule, was lost to the West in the seventh century. The rural north and east of what is today Germany had never been Romanised in the first place.
Visit the historical centre of Rome today, and Western civilisation is all around you: magnificent sixteenth-century churches, grand piazzas adorned with decorative fountains, the artwork of Bernini and Michelangelo. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of almost every other city in Europe. Americans tour Europe in droves to experience these living museums for themselves. Defying the destructive force of the Reformation, mass industrialisation and two world wars, the “sweetness and light” of Western civilisation still delights and shines. And the Pope still celebrates Mass at the “new” St Peter’s, now nearly 400 years old.
A civilisation may not always appreciate its culture, but every civilisation has one. The English essayist Matthew Arnold wrote that “culture has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light”. In the lead essay of his 1869 collection Culture and Anarchy, he defined culture as “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”. In Arnold’s hands, this Faustian quest for total perfection was harmless enough. But in Goethe’s Faust, it led to a pact with the Devil.
A century after Goethe, his countryman Oswald Spengler found in the mad doctor the defining spirit of Western civilisation. In The Decline of the West, Spengler described Western civilisation as “Faustian” in its search for knowledge. He argued that although Western civilisation was built on the ruins of the Roman empire, it approached the world in entirely different terms. The ancient Roman lived in a pragmatic world of the here and now, whereas the modern European was always looking into the distance—and the future.
Spengler’s Faustian West was not content to see the world as it was. It had to see over the horizon as well. Just as Arnold pursued “the best which has been thought and said in the world”, the Faustian West populated museums, zoos and botanical gardens with specimens from the five continents and the seven seas. For Spengler, this was all part of the West’s Faustian ambition to tame nature and master cause-and-effect. The same “tendency towards the infinite” that built the soaring cathedrals of the Gothic Middle Ages pushed Columbus and Magellan to explore to the ends of the Earth.
Spengler thought that Western civilisation’s “will to power” (he explicitly quoted Nietzsche) came from the culture of those early Germanic invaders who conquered and occupied the western Roman empire. Arnold, too, admitted the nobility of the German barbarians, though he did not necessarily approve of them. For Arnold, Spengler, Nietzsche and any number of West European intellectuals, “culture” was the accomplishment of the heroic individual, the Faustian aesthete. The cultured hunter does not graze with the herd.
The Decline of the West is timelessly apolitical, but it is clear from Spengler’s later writings that he thought Western Europe would benefit from a second injection of energetic German culture. Not generically German, but specifically Prussian. With the passage of time and the consolidation of the German state, we have come to think of Germany as one country sharing a single, German culture. But for pre-war intellectuals like Spengler, Nietzsche and the novelist Thomas Mann, there were two Germanys: the civilised, unwarlike, predominantly Catholic Germany of Bavaria and the Rhineland, and the rural, heroic, predominantly Lutheran Germany of Prussia and the east.
It was to the east that they looked for salvation: for these intellectuals, “civilised” was not a compliment. In his 1918 essay Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man, Mann railed against civilisation as “the imperium of the middle-class spirit” in much the same terms as Arnold decried “middle-class Philistinism”. Arnold certainly didn’t share Mann’s appetite for a new German barbarism, but he shared the German intellectuals’ loathing for self-satisfied middle-class liberalism.
Spengler’s masterstroke—and the reason why The Decline of the West was a hit in France and Britain, as well as in Germany—is that he published the first volume of his magnum opus in 1918, just as Western civilisation was, in fact, coming to an end. Western civilisation had had a good run, from Charlemagne’s coronation at Old St Peter’s in 800 AD to the final carve-up of the Middle East after the First World War. But by the end of that war, everyone sensed it was over, and the West’s victory in the war itself was soon redefined as tragedy. When Germany marched west again in 1940, the Netherlands, Belgium and France fell with barely a fight.
Off the battlefield, there were also many signs that Western civilisation had run its course. The history of art and architecture from the Gothic cathedral to the nineteenth-century railway station can be told in one continuous narrative of evolutionary development. The twentieth century put an end to that, and “contemporary” art must now be housed in its own, contemporary museums. Western religion, too, evolved enormously over the centuries, but right up to the First World War the Christian basis of European society was simply taken for granted. No longer.
The early-twentieth-century collapse of the distinctively Western civilisation of Western Europe may be good, bad or indifferent, depending on your point of view. But whatever the civilisation of Western Europe is today, it is not the civilisation of Charlemagne. His civilisation was aristocratic, aesthetically elite and brutally militaristic—all values that were recognisable to nineteenth-century Europeans. The divine right of kings was being debated right up to 1914, and anti-Semitism was a constant feature of European life right up to the Holocaust. The cultured aesthetes of Western civilisation had an exquisite taste for beauty, but Arnold’s “sweetness and light” came at a very high price indeed.
When it comes to beauty, there are no buildings in the world to match the Gothic cathedrals, no paintings to match those of the Old Masters, and no musical compositions to match the operas, concertos and symphonies of the classical canon. The literary output of the West is unparalleled. In the seventeenth century it was still possible to debate whether or not modern European literature had surpassed that of the ancient Mediterranean. By the end of the nineteenth century, there was no comparison. Romantics might still praise the spiritual depth of the classics, but on sheer quantity the West had won.
The descendants of the people who produced the high culture of Western civilisation still live in Western Europe, but the high culture of their ancestors died in the world wars. The idealism, refinement, devotion, racism, colonialism and repression are all gone, and with them the architecture, art and music as well. There is still a civilisation in Europe, but it has little to do with the West as it was.
In places like St Peter’s Basilica and the historical centre of Rome, the glories of Western civilisation still stand out among the convenience stores and kebab shops. Stray into the suburbs, and you will find shopping malls, parking lots, big box stores and petrol stations. Turn on the television and you’ll see American sitcoms and game shows. Turn on the radio and you’ll hear a steady beat of rock, rap or pop. The universal European language is no longer Latin, or even French, but English. Europeans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but their shopping malls hold “Black Friday” sales.
That’s not Western civilisation. It’s American civilisation. Arnold called it “Philistine”. He was probably right.
Before the First World War, most intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic thought that the United States represented a new civilisation, one growing ever more distinct from the Western one that spawned it. Admirers found in it the energy of youth and the purity of an unfallen world; detractors found it vulgar and crassly materialistic. The Pilgrim Fathers thought they were building a New Jerusalem in the American wilderness. European aesthetes like Matthew Arnold thought it a society “without general intelligence … that, in the things of the mind, and in culture … falls short”.
What all pre-war commentators agreed was that America was the home of the independent individual, of the universal middle class, of ecclesiastical nonconformism transformed into a general way of life. H.G. Wells wrote in his 1906 travelogue The Future in America that “America is a middle class become a community … unhampered and unilluminated by any feudal traditions either at its crest or at its base”. Goethe, who never visited America, wrote a little twelve-line poem called “The United States” in which he congratulated the country on avoiding Europe’s “unnecessary remembering and futile strife”.
By 1940, American civilisation was the only civilisation left. All of continental Europe had fallen to the Nazis, their allies, their sympathisers, and their collaborators. Western civilisation was effectively dead, conquered by a new wave of German barbarians marching in from the east. For the second time in a generation, the United States was called on to settle Europe’s “futile strife” and save the continent from self-destruction. After the war, the United States preserved at least half of Europe from Soviet occupation, and through moral, military and financial assistance remade the continent in its own image.
Truth be told, that just-so story gives too much credit to the United States. In reality, Western Europe remade itself. The American occupation was relatively light in Germany, and in the rest of Western Europe there was no occupation at all. But when West Europeans renewed their civilisation after the war, they modelled it on American principles. The civilisation of Western Europe today is not a robust revival of the civilisation of Charlemagne, Michelangelo, Napoleon and the popes, but a somewhat half-hearted imitation of the civilisation of the United States.
Europeans point to the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man as the founding document of today’s enlightened European values. The Declaration was written in 1789 and repudiated just ten years later. Along the way, France went through three revolutions and the Reign of Terror. So much for the rights of “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression”. In any case the Declaration was probably ghost-written by Thomas Jefferson; its nominal author, the Marquis de Lafayette, may have been a great soldier but he was no man of letters.
The European Union says that its “fundamental values are respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law”, but these are not historically European values. Before the world wars, they were both admired and criticised as distinctly American values. The most famous nineteenth-century European book about America, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, fully reflects that ambivalence. Tocqueville is usually portrayed as an admirer of American institutions, but close readers will come up against his intellectual snobbery, equation of democracy with corruption, and elitist condemnation of majority rule.
When people call our current globalised American civilisation “Western”, they obscure the fact that our contemporary civilisation—the civilisation of religious liberty, artistic self-indulgence, political democracy and personal freedom—has little to do with the civilisation of the West. Call it American, call it postmodern, call it what you like, but don’t call it Western. The Westerners of a hundred years ago would hardly recognise it. They certainly wouldn’t have claimed it for their own.
Many people today worry that American civilisation is itself self-destructing as it dissolves into postmodern identity politics. In reality, the United States led the world into postmodernity centuries ago. At a time when modern Europe was rationally questioning its faith in a seemingly arbitrary God, America was prolifically spawning new sects, new religions and a new spirituality. Traditionalists may resist the idea that vibrant religiosity is somehow connected to rampant postmodernism, but on reflection they might realise that it is but a short step from the principle that people can choose their own religions to the idea that they can choose their own genders, too.
After all, what is the freedom to choose your own gender compared to the freedom to choose your own God? The first may be a transgression against nature and society, but the second could land you in Hell. When the Puritan Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they were convinced that the friends and relatives they had left behind in the old country were doomed to eternal torment in the afterlife—and they meant “eternal”. They were anxious lest their children be tempted into the false faiths of their neighbours. Taking their inspiration from Paul’s exhortation in 2 Corinthians 6:17 to “come out from among them, and be ye separate”, they chose the physical terrors of the wilderness over the spiritual terrors of a comfortable life at home.
If you sincerely believed that your children would suffer endless years of excruciating pain if they hung out with the wrong kids at school, you’d move, too. Quakers, Catholics, Presbyterians and Anabaptists soon followed the Puritans to America, for much the same reasons. Two centuries later, the Mormons would repeat the process in their trek west to Utah. They weren’t the only ones or the last ones: from the Hutterites of Montana to the Hasidim of Brooklyn, religious communities continue to seek salvation on their own terms in the wilds (rural and urban) of North America.
But as the Pilgrim Fathers were the first to discover, splendid isolation doesn’t last very long on the ever-receding frontier. Within ten years, the Plymouth Pilgrims had boisterous new neighbours in Boston. Within twenty years, disgruntled parishioners had split from the Massachusetts Puritans to found new communities in what would become Rhode Island and Connecticut. By the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, it was clear to everyone that “live and let live” was the only way to live at all in such a plural (if not necessarily pluralistic) society.
Accordingly, the 1780 Constitution of Massachusetts, the oldest written constitution still in force in the entire world, prohibited the punishment of any individual “for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience”. A decade later, the very first amendment to the United States Constitution opened with the blanket statement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Freedom of speech and of the press followed only after that first, paramount provision.
The situation in the rest of the world couldn’t be more different. Nearly every country in Europe had a state religion, and although some practised religious toleration, none permitted religious freedom. In the Muslim world, religious minorities were sometimes tolerated, but never allowed to proselytise. Indian states were divided into limited numbers of officially sanctioned religious communities. The same was true in China, which even today recognises only a set list of religious affiliations. Aside from a small number of free ports and pirate havens, the United States was for centuries the only place in the world where people could practise any religion they chose, or choose to practice none at all.
American notions of spiritual self-determination eventually filtered back to the rest of the world, first to the British dominions, then to Britain itself, and only in the twentieth century to continental Europe. Towards the end of the organic development of Western civilisation, before the twentieth-century wave of Americanisation, Europeans had come to accept that an Italian Catholic or a German Lutheran could repudiate God and have no religion at all. But can an Italian become a Mormon and still be authentically Italian? Can you be a French Jehovah’s Witness? Is a Muslim Hollander of Indonesian descent still on the hook for European colonialism? We’re only now starting to find out.
Quo vadimus? Where are we going? The United States and its fellow travellers in the English-speaking world have passed many prophets in our flight from the West, but none of them have been able to convince us to return. And why would we? The Western civilisation from which we sprang led either to French fatalism or Nazi nihilism (take your pick). It produced great beauty, but at the cost of great suffering, and it is not at all clear that you can have one without the other. Nor is it clear that we have the power to choose. After all, did St Peter?
Some East European politicians (and their West European supporters) want to see a return to Western civilisation. Having missed out on many of the golden years of Western civilisation, perhaps East Europeans want their own opportunity to have a time of “sweetness and light”. But it’s too late. Romantic or reactionary politicians in Eastern Europe (again, take your pick) may pose as defenders of the late lamented Christian West, but most of their children prefer to build their futures in the actually existing Godless West.
That West—the old “West” of Western Europe—is today the soulless cadaver of a civilisation that has lost its God without finding religion. The contrast here between atheist Western Europe and the vibrantly spiritual United States couldn’t be clearer. As Europeans embrace secular religions like environmentalism and gender fluidity with an intolerant zeal, Americans treat these as just two among dozens of competing faiths. A green transsexual from Eastern Europe might feel equally comfortable in Europe or America, but an Orthodox Christian from Eastern Europe would more likely resettle in the United States.
Thus, although Donald Trump has been likened to the authoritarian traditionalists of Eastern Europe, it is hard to see the New York real estate developer, Twitter celebrity and reality television star as the latter-day prophet who will lead America back to its Western Christian roots. It is much easier to see Trump as the ultimate postmodern president. If anyone can hold two opposing ideas in his head at the same time, it is Donald Trump. Sometimes it seems he doesn’t need any ideas at all.
Trump is not some kind of aberration of American civilisation. He is absolutely emblematic of American civilisation. Goethe would see in him a complete lack of historical memory. Arnold would see in him the height of American Philistinism. Wells would see in him an intellect “unhampered and unilluminated” by any traditions whatsoever. We may not like the idea that Trump is us, but how many of us spend our evenings reading the classics of Western civilisation? And how many spend them watching reality television?
American civilisation lacks both the Faustian will to power and the Christian willingness to sacrifice, but it possesses unprecedented levels of personal independence and intellectual flexibility. These ensure that America won’t take one direction on the road from Rome, but many. Indeed, some Americans will even follow St Peter back to Rome. Others will choose roads that lead to Jerusalem or Mecca or Nirvana. Most Americans will walk several different roads over the course of their lives, and a few will open up entirely new ones.
As a result, it’s impossible to say exactly where American civilisation might be going. At least we can take comfort from the certainty that it’s not going to get there anytime soon. The classical Greek civilisation that emerged in the epic poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey lasted at least seven centuries before it was absorbed into the expanding Roman polity. The Roman civilisation of the western Mediterranean spanned nine centuries from the expulsion of the Etruscan kings in 509 BC to the Gothic sack of Rome in 410 AD. Western civilisation is traditionally dated from the coronation of Charlemagne in 800, which would give eleven centuries until the onset of its fatal illness in 1914.
American civilisation got its start just 400 years ago, and is only now approaching maturity. Today, the United States is a global superpower with the largest economy in the world, growing both economically and demographically, and at the cutting edge of the world’s technological frontier. The broader American civilisation that is centred on the United States faces many challenges, but no serious threats. The possibility that China might soon have the power to force American ships out of its coastal waters should not be parlayed into a civilisational crisis. Russian Facebook advertising will not bring down the republic.
The timeline of American civilisation has not yet been marked out, but it seems safe to say that the end is not nigh. Civilisational pessimists have much to answer for. Civilisation catastrophists are just plain panic-mongering. American civilisation is young and growing. It may not be growing in ways that suit everyone’s tastes, but that is no cause for alarm. Quite the contrary. The fact that American civilisation is growing in so many different directions at the same time makes it much more robust then past civilisations, even while ensuring that it will always offend someone. It has always offended European sensibilities, but Europe is the past. America is the future, and it will be for a long time to come.
Salvatore Babones is an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, and an associate professor at the University of Sydney