The Winding Road of European History

This was my final paper for my European Civilizations class, discussing what I learned over the the course of the quarter.

It is very tempting to view the history of European civilization as a relentless progression towards a perfect society. This temptation is particularly strong for those of us here in the United States, a nation whose own founding document begins, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” This ‘more perfect union’ is envisioned as the natural successor an uninterrupted line of societies dating back to biblical times, from Moses to Jesus to Rome, through to modern Europe and across the Atlantic to the New World. This view, however, is not an accurate assessment of ‘how we got here today’, since it ignores the very parts of history that were responsible for shaping the meaning of a ‘civilized European society’.

The landmark events in European history cannot be viewed as singular turning points, but rather as culminations of centuries of tension, stretched to breaking point. Take, for example, the Protestant Reformation. It destroyed the last vestiges of the Christian European empire that had existed, more or less, since the age of Constantine. For the adherents to the Roman Church after the Reformation had run its course, it would be known as a terrible schism. But this view of history ignores the fact that the Church had been snuffing out heresy all throughout the continent for several centuries before the schism, and there were even those who the Church agreed with that held ideologies remarkably similar to that of the successful reformers, such as Martin Luther.

While thinkers try to distinguish between heretics and schismatics, with enough hindsight we’re led to question whether the true distinction might not be one of ideology, but rather an ex post facto judgment of success. The line separating heretics from schismatics from saints and prophets is razor-thin, and certainly more bent than straight. Even Peter Abelard, held as the founder of the field of Theology, was accused by the Church of heresy. If he had not been acquitted by trial, he likely would be but another entry in the Catholic Church’s extensive archives of persecution, rather than being accepted as a visionary and a scholar worth reading a millennium after his life. To Protestants, Martin Luther is likewise revered, but to Catholics at the time his views were anathema – the response to the same words he published differed vastly depending on who was asked, and when.

The enmeshment of classical and biblical philosophy is another example we encountered of the tale of European civilization being collapsed down to the seminal moments. Christianity had existed in Pagan Rome for nearly four centuries before St. Augustine penned his Confessions or his treatise on The City of God, yet Augustine is the single person credited with allowing the two traditions to co-exist. We’re supposed to accept that, all of a sudden, a great reconciliation occurred. Of course, in the time preceding that union, there existed two competing theological traditions in the empire – competing in the sense that they offered two explanations for how their adherents ought to behave. Their compatibility was not inherent, but rather one of acceptance – the ideologies could only safely co-exist once the apparent cognitive dissonance had been resolved.

The notion that “history is written by the victor” seems to govern much of our understanding of European history. Imagine that the Ottomans had successfully invaded the Italian peninsula in the sixteenth century, or if they defeated the Habsburgs in Eastern Europe. They certainly would not be remembered as `the infidel`, and the crusader knights who fought them would not be celebrated as saints. As facts cannot be contingent upon any kind of ex-post facto investigation, we must accept that our interpretation of mere facts is insufficient to explain the historical realities that are under investigation. Also the words on the page might not change, their meaning certainly shifts over time – and that can be misleading when attempting to understand the way the world was at the time they were originally written, published, and responded to.

Another oft-misremembered figure we encountered in the class was King John, whom we grappled with as the issuer of the Magna Carta and challenger to Pope Innocent III. While his incompetence certainly has not been forgotten by modern history, he is (incorrectly) granted posthumous credit for issuing the Magna Carta, which is today remembered as the first ‘Bill of Rights’, although the promises it made were never intended to be fulfilled and indeed the entire charter was nullified by the Pope. In addition to the sociological content of the document, its examination is revealing about what was needed to satiate angry medieval barons, as it represents the ultimate capitulation to the power of the non-princely nobility at the time. Indeed, it was so extreme that the Pope felt compelled to nullify it, lest it serve as an example to the nobility in other principates – the threat it represented not only to the King’s power, but also the churches, was very real.

I personally believe that all of this managed to surprise me (and thus provide an opportunity to learn) because we have a tendency to ascribe simplified statements and motives to historical figures that gloss over the vast majority of their works. For example, though John Locke makes an argument for religious toleration (and his notions of liberty form the basis for a lot of modern philosophy on the subject), he excludes toleration for ‘atheists’ and those who swear allegiance to a theocratic leader of different faiths (Muslims, specifically). Thus, Locke’s notion of toleration is far more narrow than is accepted today – essentially, Locke only believed those who are Christian (and almost certainly limited to those holding Protestant beliefs) could be entrusted to form the bedrock of a stable society. By examining the rest of the text, however, one can discover that, at the time, it was unfathomable that a sane person would choose to refute the existence of God – when Locke says ‘atheist’, he is really referring to what we would call a sociopath! By delving deeper than the bullet points, we can learn that Locke’s philosophy existed in a different context than our own, and as such his notions of ‘toleration’ need to be interpreted as they were when they were authored and published. Especially when trying to understand the past, rather than derive philosophical meaning, it is crucial to interpret writings through the lens of the ideas that were so common that they could be left unsaid at the time. An atheist today is not the same as an atheist hundred and fifty years ago, though the word is unchanged. This distinction is crucial, lest we mislead ourselves as to what the past was truly like – while we can certainly learn from it today, there are great differences that must be accounted for.

All of the anecdotes above adhere to the same general form – that of truth being sacrificed for the sake of narrative. Particularly in the west, we frequently rewrite the history of ourselves to conform with the story we wish to tell of who we are. If we currently believe the purpose of a state coincides with the Lockean conception thereof, we can weave a tale such that Locke’s thinking appears to be a foregone conclusion – and in that manner, we lose the context that made his writings so meaningful. For documents that have survived hundreds of years, many of the important conclusions we can draw rely on understanding what was not said, what could have been taken for granted at the time, as well as what made the document worth penning in the first place. Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration and John of Viterbo’s On the Government of Cities in particular need to be understood within a broader historical context, and ironically the easiest way to understand the ‘full story’ is to return to the entirety of the texts, rather than the snippets that are convenient to quote, say when authoring a paper.

The danger I’ve constantly had to steer myself away from is that of viewing the history of European society with a diachronic lens – of viewing it as the product of itself and itself alone. European history of course has been shaped by natural events, by interactions with outside societies, and most of all by coincidence. If religions seek to provide answers for the things we cannot know, history must exist to explain to us how the present emerged – not as a parable or the culmination of a divine creator, but as the fusion of the actions of society, its neighbors, and nature. It is only in that most complete context that history becomes visible – a collection of facts that reveals truth, rather than a narrative.

Perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned from this class can be distilled to the notion that the line between being repressed by the establishment and reforming it is very fine indeed. Furthermore, where an even or individual lies with respect to that line can only be determined in hindsight, as ultimate success in challenging the prevailing theology and politics is demonstrated to not be a product of an ideology’s validity, but rather one of historical fact. This runs entirely counter to any notion of Western exceptionalism or inevitability I had held previously – if the ideas we take for granted now have gone in and out of vogue, then we can’t presume that they are the ‘natural’ culmination of our history, but rather that it is luck that they are what we accept and adhere to today. If all that separates heroes and heretics is timing, then it is the peculiarities of our timeline that are to thank for our present condition, rather than anything inherent in us as a people.

As I said in my statement at the start of term, I’m a firm believer that this sort of true understanding is absolutely crucial if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. At a time of growing discontent, where fiery rhetoric has become the norm and people are questioning the very principles upon which our society has been founded, we can find solace in knowing “this has happened before”, and wisdom from examining the past. By discarding the comforting stories we tell about ourselves and delving into the contextualized realities of history, we might find guidance as we leave behind a history of our own.