Europa, Quo Vadis? – Part I

Europa, Quo Vadis? – Part I

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“Mere praxis is not light” (Pope Benedict XVI)

A book written by Pope Benedict XVI, before he became Pope, whose title translates from the Italian as Europe: Its Spiritual Foundation of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, ought to be read by every European of whatever faith or no faith to better understand the roots of a crisis that lies in the very soul and cultural identity of Modern European Man.

This book explores the issue of secular salvation within modern European society. It was published shortly before Cardinal Ratzinger’s elevation to the Papacy. It is basically the expansion of a lecture he gave on May 13, 2004, in the library of the Italian Senate, i.e., the Sala Capitolare del Chiostro della Minerva. He was invited there by Marcello Pera, who besides being the president of the Italian Senate at the time, is also a professional philosopher.

The general theme of the book is this: modern Western Civilization finds itself in a crisis which many political and cultural pundits see as the crisis of the EU Constitution, or perhaps as the demise of the NATO alliance, or the war in Iraq, or global terrorism, or the entrance of Turkey in the EU. In reality the roots of the crisis lie much deeper, in the very soul and cultural identity of Europe, a continent that besides being a geographical place is also an idea which has developed over many centuries.

The very title of the book alerts the attentive reader that we are dealing here not only with geography, history and spirituality but with cultural anthropology and philosophy of history. Those roots lie in the spiritual emptiness in the heart of Europe, in its low birth rates (there are now more old than young people in Europe), in its failure to understand its own origins and uniqueness and to forge new paradigms for its future. It is as if this new polity called the European Union were being asked “Quo vadis, Europa?” This European Pope has chosen the name of Saint Benedict who is none other than the founder of Western monasticism and the patron saint of Europe. Few have commented on the historical significance of such a choice, and yet it seems to me crucial for understanding the mind-set of a Pope who, contrary to the conventional wisdom, will not be a mere clone of John-Paul II.

Were I to choose an appropriate metaphor to describe this spiritual emptiness of modern European man to which the Pope refers, I would have recourse to a horrific scene in a dark cave in the deepest part of Dante’s hell where Dante and Virgil encounter a man, the so called lantern man, holding his own head in his right hand and “doing light unto himself.” (Inferno XXVIII). Historically the man is the French poet Bertrand del Born, a man for whom action is everything; the kind of activism which does not need truth as its underpinning and that assumes that somehow one can act first and ask questions later; that one needs not ask first what is a just action, and what is justice, not in a relativistic mode but in an absolute way.

Appropriately Dante places him in the circle of the disseminators of discord. He epitomizes quite well, seven hundred years ahead of its time, modern man running full speed ahead in the grip of political ideologies of inevitable deterministic progress that promise to change the world without ever asking what is good and what is not good for the world or what is indeed the ultimate Good. The result is not light but more dissensions and wars. By showing us a man who holds his own head to make light unto himself, Dante shows us the man who enlightened himself by a reason devoid of any sense of transcendence, thus turning upside down the biblical statement that “the truth shall make you free.”

On the contrary, this man believes that it is frenetic action and praxis (one thinks of the futurism of a Marinetti) that yields truth, or better, partial, relativistic, particular truths. The sorry fruits of this positivistic-rationalistic mind-set which within modernity begins with Descartes and continues with the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Hegelian and Marxist philosophy, all the way to modern times, are the lagers and the gulags of the 20th century underpinned by ideologies galore that promise a secular salvation of sort and paradise on earth.