There is a pervasive metaphor circulating in our time concerning the problematic future of the West in what Samuel Huntington called “the clash of civilizations” between a distracted and indifferent Occident and a resurgent Islam. It operates as a historical analogy that appears to have lodged in Western consciousness, namely, the fate of Imperial Rome, which succumbed to the twin forces of economic collapse from within and barbarian invasions from without.
The correlation was introduced most powerfully into Western historical discourse by Oswald Spengler who, in The Decline of the West, published in the wake of the First World War, developed the notion of historical “contemporaneity.” According to Spengler, this needs to be understood as a function of “corresponding phases” and “chronological parallels” between civilizations, so that, in the evolution of historical periods, the Pyramids would be “contemporary” with the Gothic cathedrals. In this sense we would be “contemporary” with late fourth century-early fifth century Rome. As Spengler put it, we are a civilization “los[ing] its desire to be, and, as in Imperial Rome, wish[ing] itself out of the overlong daylight and back into the darkness…”
Of course, such apocalyptic predictions have been made many times before, perhaps most famously by Horace in Epode 16 where he notes that Rome is about to do what its enemies never could, namely, destroy itself: “Let us be on our way, all citizens,/or those above the dull-witted herd: defeatists and weaklings/can rest indolently on their unlucky beds.” But Horace was quilling his premonitory lines many centuries before the slowly-gestating cataclysm came to pass and seemed to be indulging a standard poetic trope of the end of days. After Spengler, given two world wars, a host of comparatively lesser conflicts (though with enormous casualties) and the events of our own bloody century, it is clear that we are no longer dealing with a poetic fancy or an orthodox meme of historical speculation.
Pope Benedict XVI’s critical essay, “If Europe Hates Itself,” written in his former incarnation as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and mourning the apparent disintegration of Europe, brings Spengler’s thesis into the present moment. The Pope soberly declares that “Europe appears to be on the way out. There is a strange lack of desire for a future.” He is alluding primarily to the demographic fact that Europe has ceased to reproduce itself and is crawling toward self-extinction. The original locus of the democratic West has grown moribund, which would also explain its inability to recognize that it is under sustained attack by a triumphalist Islam or to mobilize its legal and political resources to resist the assault upon its physical and cultural integrity. “We are forced,” Benedict continues, “to make comparisons with the Roman Empire at the time of its decline: it still worked as a great historical framework, but in practice it was already living off those who would dissolve it, since it had no more vital energy.”
Edward Gibbon, we recall, attributed the fall of Rome to both “the triumph of barbarism” and the devitalizing effect of Christianity. Yet it was the militant expression of Christian civilization that later prevented the premature end of the still nascent West. Failing the victory at the Battle of Tours in 732, “Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran,” Gibbon wrote, belatedly giving Western Christendom its due, “would now be taught in the schools of Oxford” and the revelation of Mohammed would have been carried “to…the highlands of Scotland.” It was a very close call.
Today we are facing a similar menace even if the morphology of the conflict has changed. Sporadic outbursts of terrorism allied with the furtive and consistent infiltration of the cultural groundwork—including Oxford and Scotland—are gradually tilting the balance in favor of the Muslim advance into the Western heartland. At the same time Western resilience has atrophied and seems unable to produce a modern counterpart of Charles Martel—Charles the Hammer—determined to meet the enemy on its own bellicose terms. “It is unfortunate that in these dark days,” writes Robert Spencer, “we don’t seem to have any leaders who will stand up for freedom of expression.” In fact, we don’t seem to have any leaders who are prepared to stand up in any meaningful way whatsoever for the nations they were elected to serve and protect. “Every reasonable politician,” said Geert Wilders in a speech delivered in Berlin on October 2 of this year, “has a political obligation to preserve [Judeo-Christian and humanist values] against ideologies that threaten them.” It seems, however, that reason is now at a discount and a “reasonable politician” has become, at best, a living oxymoron or, at worst, a dead man talking.
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