Desacralisation of the world. Europe’s modern history from a conservative perspective

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The Enlightenment initiated the process of desacralisation of the world. As a reaction to this process, voices started to be heard at the end of the eighteenth century that the Enlightenment worldview – rationalistic and even mechanistic – is a threat rather than a promise. Czeslaw Milosz writes in The Land of Ulro that three writers defended the pre-Enlightenment world with particular zeal: Swedenborg, Goethe and Blake. Blake rejected the notion of progress and the desire for human perfection which he perceived as the signs of arrogance and pride. He saw in the Industrial Revolution the seeds of Satan’s future kingdom. Bacon, Locke, and Newton were for Blake an anti-trinity.

Imagination holds the central place in Blake’s system of thought. Only imagination reaches the realm of transcendence from where all sense and meaning are coming. Imagination allows us to see the spiritual reality which, according to Blake, is superior to other forms of reality. Blake banishes those who are devoid of the faculty of imagination to a desert, the land of Ulro, where everything is relative and meaningless. This is the land of ”scholars, advocates of Newtonian physics, philosophers, also almost all the painters and poets. As well as their successors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, until the present “(Czeslaw Milosz The Land of Ulro).

Novalis also looks backwards. In Christianity or Europe, he blames Reformation for initiating the process of man becoming alienated from his spiritual side:

The initial personal hatred of the Catholic faith gradually passed over into hatred of the Bible, of the Christian faith, and finally of religion in general. Still further, the hatred of religion extended itself quite naturally and consistently to all objects of enthusiasm. It made imagination and emotion heretical, as well as morality and the love of art, the future and the past. With some difficulty it placed man first in the order of created things, and reduced the infinite creative music of the universe to the monotonous clatter of a monstrous mill, which, driven by the stream of chance and floating thereon, was supposed to be a mill in the abstract, without Builder or Miller, in fact an actual perpetuum mobile, and the mill that milled of itself.

Reformation destroyed medieval universalism and the cultural and political unity of Europe. Pope ceased to be God’s vicegerent for the whole world, Rome ceased to be the centre of the world, or axis mundi, the place of transcendence in which heaven and earth meet in one spot. One was allowed to read the Bible on one’s own, which led to different interpretations of the holy text and, ultimately, to its irrelevance. Lutheranism removed wonder and mystery out of religion.

Humanists played a similar role. They wanted a religion with a minimal set of dogmas and ceremonies. They contributed to the erosion of the position of the Church. One can see them as predecessors of deists of the Enlightenment who saw in God a watchmaker rather than the loving father.

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Enlightenment thinkers were satisfied with the natural order of things and did not seek divine sanction and legitimacy for the world. The characteristic feature of Enlightenment is the abundance of utopias. The starting point of any utopia is the negation of the Fall and the original sin which apparently contaminates human nature. Enlightenment thinkers believed that it would be enough to change external conditions to reveal the natural goodness of man and his ability to arrange his environment according to rational principles. They gave man the right to correct natural and social order. The emancipation of the human mind meant that man’s humility before God was not justified any longer. Reason was believed to be able to eradicate evil. Critics of the Enlightenment say that this vision of the perfect society is full of over-simplifications, reductive, overly rationalistic and one-dimensional. Speculative models ignore the complexity of reality, the multiplicity of conflicting motives in people’s lives, with their spontaneity and randomness, and the weight of tradition. The world of utopias of this kind is therefore based on false premises. Their harmony is artificial and unrealisable in the real world. Attempts to realise utopias invariably end in human suffering and misery. Nikolai Berdyaev warns that:

Utopias seem to be much more achievable than we formerly believed them to be. Now we find ourselves presented with another alarming question: how do we prevent utopias from coming into existence? … Perhaps a new century will begin, in which intellectuals and the privileged will dream of ways that eliminate utopias and return to a society less perfect and freer.

Totalitarian states created by national socialists and communists should be seen as a warning from history. They turned individual human beings into manure for a new, perfect society. Totalitarian order strips a person of its individuality and harmonises an individual with a leader, a collective, a mass, an idea. A person becomes an empty vessel and all sense and meaning comes from a leader of a collective entity.

It is rather surprising that war criminals produced by totalitarian regimes were often ordinary men and women.  Hannah Arendt writes about Eichmann that:

Half a dozen psychiatrists had certified Eichmann as “normal.” “More normal at any rate, than I am after having examined him,” one of them was said to have exclaimed, while another had found that Eichmann’s whole psychological outlook, including his relation with his wife and children, his mother and father, his brothers and sisters and friends, was “not only normal, but most desirable.

Stanislav Vincenz blames the French Revolution for elevating violence to the sphere of politics. The French Revolution, in which the philosophy of the Enlightenment comes into fruition, is an important point in the process of desacralisation. New laws demanded the death of the king who personified the existing political order. The demarcation line between sacrum and profanum was crossed and politics became emancipated and desacralised. All sorts of social experiments were now possible. Politics imposed itself on the common good which was now determined by a narrow group of revolutionary fanatics. Revolutionary order was based on institutionalised violence which sometimes took form of state terror whose aim was to pacify its own citizens.

Vincenz writes in In the Upper Highlands:

The new revolutionary laws are indeed splendid, Papa was dethroned and had his head chopped off. His place was taken by a drunkard from the street who gives people Papa’s wine and bread.

 

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The regicide was a form of deicide. Destruction of a political order also meant the re-valuation of all values and even their reversal. The aim of the revolution was a new social order. The state took the place of God as a source of new sacrum. Social unity was achieved through the physical elimination of groups considered as enemies of the state and the intimidation of the rest. Vincenz describes freedom as “liberte – an office to cut  people’s heads off … and who does it? Herod of officialdom, his salary grows and grows and he is paid for each head separately”.

Vincenz’s aversion to revolution is more understandable in the broader context of politics. The French Revolution is the result of the belief in the magical power of politics. The myth of the revolution offers an easy path to the creation of a new order of eternal bliss although it requires a denial of Christian values. During the French Revolution, politics assumed the leading role in society and its importance has been growing ever since, until it filled all aspects of life in totalitarian societies. Vincenz rejects the supposedly simplistic idea of a radical change of the society through politics. His proposal is of quite another kind. Vincenz stresses the longing of humanity for transcendence. Politics only brings problems – political engagement is not for decent people.

The French revolution turned European politics upside down, while the romantic movement played a similar role in European culture.

Milosz writes in The Land of Ulro:

We have to go back there, to that time in the history of Europe when its destiny still hung in the balance, before the split into the world of science – cold and indifferent to values, and the inner world of man. This split can be perceived first at the end of the eighteenth century and then it becomes the main trait of the Romantic crisis of European culture.

 

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Romanticism destroyed the ideal of harmony in culture and introduced into it elements of chaos. Its rejection of the idea of unity went so far that even individuals lacked a sense of identity. Literary characters are often doubles, people without shadows, the living dead, and superfluous men – people torn between conflicting desires, suspended between heaven and earth, and between self-adulation and self-hatred. There is no balance either in Nature, either.  Landscape in painting ceases to be a pleasing background and moves to the fore, dominating the human figure placed in the world of chaos and chance. Romanticism was a reaction to the advancing rationalism and the disappearance of sacrum during the period of Enlightenment, when moral norms were losing divine sanction and religious categories were being replaced by secular ones. Rationalism stripped the world of mystery and deprived an individual of free will, turning him into a slave of biology and politics. European culture had been demythologised. Conflict became the central characteristics of human relationships and of man’s place in the world. Even an individual personality ceased to be a coherent whole.

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Novalis writes in Christianity or Europe:

The learned man is by instinct the enemy of the clergy. The learned man and the clerical classes, once they are separated, must struggle to the death, for they strive for one and the same position. This separation advanced ever further, and the learned man gained the more ground the more the history of European humanity approached the age of triumphant erudition, whereas knowledge and faith entered into more decisive opposition.

This phenomenon, called by Max Weber disenchantment (die Entzauberung der Welt), could lead, according to its critics, to chaos, profanation of all areas of sacrum and, ultimately, to the psychological decay of man. It was only natural that people reacted to the feeling of emptiness by sacralising the domains other than religion – science, art, politics, and economics. The harmonious world arranged on the basis of religion was replaced by a supposedly happier and better world of secular humanism and we still live in this world.

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