October 08, 2009

Among the most subversive aspects of the Enlightenment Project is its insistence on the radical incompatibility of Christianity with the Classical and Germanic traditions. In his Regensburg Address (2006), Pope Benedict correctly insisted that Europe was created by the uniting of the Classical and the Biblical, a process culminating in the conversion of the Germans. As with Classical and Christian, the influencing was a two-way street, described well by James C. Russell as The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity (1994). German art portrayed gentle Jesus, meek and mild, as a warrior chief. Jesus”€™ lordship was interpreted in the light of German tradition, as we find it in Tacitus’s Germania.

On the field of battle it is a disgrace for a chief to be surpassed in valor by his followers and for the followers not to equal the valor of their chief. To leave a battle alive after their chief has fallen means livelong infamy and shame. To defend and protect him, and to let him get the credit for their own acts of heroism, are the most solemn obligations of their allegiance.

Tacitus’s description is confirmed by the great Anglo-Saxon poem, The Battle of Maldon (14). The English chief allows marauding Vikings to land so that the ensuing battle will be more glorious. After he is slain, a few cowards ride away to everlasting shame, but most of his followers fight to the death in the hopeless but glorious struggle. German converts re-interpreted spreading the faith as following the lord Jesus into battle and understood martyrdom as the German virtue of preferring death to deserting their liege.

Despite the humorous title, David Gless in From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents (1998) makes a powerful case for the validity of a grand narrative informed by the notion that what is distinctive and vital in the West derives from the assimilation and mutual interaction of Classical, Christian, and German. When great periods of creativity and freedom appear in Europe and America, they are often associated with those who value the three traditions, not as inassimilable entities, but as containing complementary elements which are essential for human fulfillment and societal greatness.

All three traditions were formative and creative in the High Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the American Founding. When Dante writes about his political ideas in Monarchia, for instance, he describes an empire that is Roman, Christian, and German. Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) described the Classical, Christian and German (or Common Law) traditions behind the American Revolution (though he also began the bad habit of privileging one tradition over the others, in his case, English Whig thought.) As Carl Richard noticed in The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (1994),

To the founders, there was but one worthy tradition, the tradition of liberty, and they would not have understood the modern historian’s need to distinguish between the classical and Whig traditions and to measure the influence of one against the other.


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