Vivat America! (Nevertheless)

The call may sound rather strange. America? Isn’t that the country where a populist president divides his own countrymen like no one before him sowing the seeds of mistrust even in up to then friendly and allied nations? Isn’t Trump a new Attila, who threatens Iran with bombing his (non-military) cultural heritage? Isn’t this man responsible for making the current world situation more uncertain and tense than it has been since the Second World War? And doesn’t he, after his rise to power, even suspend one of the most important achievements of civilization: the distinction between lie and truth? Suddenly the maxim of all aspiring dictators applies: “It is me alone who decides what is true.”

Who could contradict these accusations?

Certainly not all those Americans – almost half the population – who don’t need a foreigner to teach them criticism as they themselves express it even more harshly. After all, until recently America was a country of democracy and enlightenment, to which Europe owed its security and the rest of the world an uninterrupted influx of inventions and cultural inspiration. With its brilliant scientists from all over the world, the country had become a cosmopolitan center, where, as it seemed, the most different people were allowed to coexist in peace, regardless of their origins, race and faith. What the world is currently experiencing is no less than a deliberate break with the past – a relapse into that shrill chauvinism which people believed to be dead forever. But the new president has called the specter out of its grave. At his public appearances, he monotonously repeats the same primitive mantra: I am the greatest, follow me then you will be greatest too.

The whole world is horrified and upset,

but is all this really so new? Certainly not! Because of our own history, we Europeans should know better.  Erasmus of Rotterdam had given the Renaissance its highest intellectual expression and was venerated throughout Europe as perhaps no other scholar before or after him. This man embodied the cosmopolitan attitude beyond all oppositions of ideology, faith and language. He wanted to overcome all national differences by making Latin the common language of Europe and religious tolerance the first commandment of civilized behavior. This homo universalis was admired even in the highest circles of the Church, although in the “The Praise of Folly” he poured the bitterest mockery on the priests. That was European enlightenment two centuries before the epoch actually so named.

But even during his lifetime Erasmus had to suffer that his life’s work fell into pieces. Tolerance and cosmopolitanism were suddenly rejected as hostile forces. Luther led the fight against the Church and against tolerance asserting himself as a German, and Calvin directed it even against that civilized freedom which the Renaissance had given to custom. The brigades of snoopers that monitored life in Geneva were even more intolerant than McCarthy in the early postwar America and Xi Jinping’s police state.

Two centuries later,

the enlightenment of the 18th century took a similar course. Voltaire and the Encyclopedists were generous cosmopolitans ever curious about foreign cultures and lore. For a time, they regarded classical China as a model state ruled by philosophers. This willingness to learn also from peoples beyond one’s own border proved to be a force that brought people together. The immediate effect was to spread throughout Europe French as the language of all educated people. Again – as at the time of Erasmus – this was the result of tolerance and openness. But Voltaire’s rule only lasted for a little longer than the first half of the 18th century, in the second half Rousseau took the lead – and from there a direct spiritual line directly leads to the French revolution and the bloody work of the guillotines. The model state proposed by Rousseau was Sparta, one of the cruelest dictatorships of antiquity, where the “Volonté générale” (the reason of state) had simply been dictated by the upper five to the lower ninety-five percent. Barely more than a decade after Voltaire’s death, the Enlightenment came to an inglorious end in the French Revolution, the immediate consequence of which was the final disintegration of Europe into individual nations that now constantly warred against each other. Europe now lay in ruins, torn apart both by religion and politics. French was, of course, no longer a common language – just as this had happened to Latin two centuries earlier.

On a smaller scale

but in an even more brutal way the same change from the brightness of tolerance and cosmopolitanism to the darkness of narrow-minded, intolerant chauvinism happened again during the last century.  Stefan Zweig and Egon Friedell occupy a unique position in the intellectual history of the German-speaking world during the prewar period. On the one hand, they are brilliant stylists. Both write a vibrant, often brilliantly sparkling, never obscure German – Zweig does so especially in “The World of Yesterday”, Friedell in his “Cultural History of the Modern Age”. We know that both were the declared enemies of ideological stubbornness and fanaticism; the very choice of their themes betrays tolerance and open-mindedness. But at the end of their lives both had to face a setback even worse than those caused centuries earlier by the fanaticism of the Protestants and the Counter-Reformers or the murderous regime of Robespierre. Hitler trampled on cosmopolitanism, for him the tolerant and the open-minded were simply traitors.

This is well-known European history,

which came in regular waves – roughly speaking from greatest spiritual brightness back into the most terrible darkness and again vice-versa. I have taken this little excursion into the great history for the sole purpose of justifying my “Vivat America!”, an exclamation hardly understandable in the year 2020. For in my view the grim Donald Trump too embodies reaction. With all his might he tries to destroy the preceding Enlightenment, which had unfolded at least as magnificently in the United States as it had on several occasions with us on the old continent.

William James,

arguably America’s greatest enlightener as psychologist, philosopher and religious scholar, I only mention in passing, since I testify my gratitude to him already in my book “Creative Reason”. At this place, I would like to refer especially to Will Durant, the philosopher and historian. Seen from Europe, the United States of the 19th and even during the first half of the 20th century appeared merely as a distant outpost of civilization – its own European civilization. But not seldom it is precisely such geological and spiritual outposts fringe where new things are born, because the mind is less constrained by prohibitions and conventions. Such intellectual freedom was, for instance, evident in the amazing work of William James on the “Variety of Religious Experience,” and the same intellectual force is again expressed by Durant in his magnificent ten volume work, “The Story of Civilization”. In no less than ten times a thousand pages, this man (later together with his wife Ariel) created a historical panorama starting from the beginnings of known history up to the early 19th century. Perhaps no other historian has ever attained so encompassing a view on all facets of political, cultural and economic history. Of course, Durant’s originality does not lie in the mere scope of his achievement – today, the best online encyclopedias summarize all the knowledge available in a much more detailed and constantly updated form. Nor is the fascination of his work based on special discoveries – I am not sure that any discoveries can be attributed to him at all. He only evaluated the literature available at his time and combined the dispersed members into coherent narratives and images. Some people therefore believe that they may dismiss him as a popularizer – an obvious nonsense, because in our time nobody can hope for popularity if he expects his readers to read ten thousand pages. On the other hand, even the greatest stupidities are greedily devoured when a twittering president condenses them in a few sentences. Even novelties may in themselves have little value. Whoever searches for nothing else in the science of history is in danger of being ridiculed by Nietzsche as a collector of philological earthworms. What is so fascinating about Durant is something entirely different: the accuracy and impartiality of his judgement. However, even this can be a thorn in the side of pedants and be disparaged as a lack of “seriousness”. A certain Wilfred M. McClay, for instance, denigrates Durant in the same breath with his contemporaries Lewis Mumford and Erich Fromm. “Mumford somehow has the air about him of a back number, a middle-brow sage whose work places him dangerously close to the likes of Will Durant, Erich Fromm, and Norman Cousins and hence beneath the consideration of serious thinkers(my italics). Some readers will perhaps dismiss my admiration for Durant as betraying a lack of “seriousness” too. I readily confess that when reading certain passages written by the great American my admiration even turns into enchantment.

In my view, William James Durant

must be ranked with the greatest minds of Enlightenment. Using a language devoid of secretiveness and artificial profundity, he succeeds in showing us the whole of mankind – without ever glossing over and distorting reality or allowing his judgement to be influenced either by political correctness or ideological bias. Villains and saints he treats with the same impartiality because, like Dostoevsky, he always strives for understanding what made people act rather in this than in a different way. But this never happens in a know-it-all or pedantic way, but with an unobtrusive yet always perceptible sense for the hidden comedy of human existence. A quotation I encountered twice in the ten thousand or so pages characterizes, so it seems to me, Durant’s attitude to his subject. “To the thinking man, history is a comedy,” he quotes the late 18th century British poet Horace Walpole, “but to the feeling man, it is a tragedy.” Durant manages to make the reader constantly switch between thinking and feeling, laughing and grieving, because together with the author he recognizes himself in the tales of history. Durant loves history which he presents to us in such a masterfully vivid and colorful way, because it is nothing else than a process of self-knowledge and self-exploration. He loves history even in its horror, for that too is a part of our own being. In this manner Durant joins the greatest enlighteners, because we find the same craving for self-knowledge in the wise mockeries of Erasmus, in the attacks of Voltaire or with Stefan Zweig. Let me add that Will Durant only died in 1981. The great America of the Enlightenment and a living democracy praised as a model all over the world, an America that attracted millions of immigrants since the 18th century, still existed some decades ago. It is the America I admire.

In the meantime, the transition from spiritual brightness

into an era of darkness, through which Europe passed several times, happened on the new continent as well. For example, in the science of history, which is increasingly developing into a branch of the natural sciences. Initially this gave research a great deal of impetus. Thanks to the incredibly refined methods of scientific archaeology, we learned a great deal more about the health of prehistoric people, their eating habits, population size and migratory movements. This has led to a strange phenomenon: in the humanities – not only in psychology and sociology, but also in the science of history – some texts now consist mainly of numbers. In the vain effort to make the humanities equal to the exact sciences, historians abandoned their object: the living human being, constantly renewing himself in a protein fashion, never completely predictable. It was hoped that humans as well as the human mind could finally be reduced to numbers and explained and manipulated by laws, just as the natural sciences have successfully done with the physical world for more than two centuries. When it became clear that this was not possible and that, unlike physics, chemistry, computer science etc., the humanities do not promise any monetary benefits the obvious conclusion was drawn. History – and the sciences of the mind in general – were dismissed as useless and in a few years were largely removed from the curricula of schools and universities. History – man’s knowledge of himself – is no longer part of present-day education.

How could this happen?

It seems daring to put into a short formula the change from Enlightenment to its opposite: the rise of intolerance and nationalist self-centeredness. But it occurs so regularly that there must be some common cause. To me it seems not unreasonable to seek a large measure of guilt among the elite of the educated themselves. In Luther’s time, Germany, England and France were the cash-cows, doomed to finance the intellectual superpower of the time, Renaissance Italy. Half of Europe was pressing to free itself from this dependence and heavy burden.

In the 18th century, it was no different: ninety percent of the population had the sole task of supporting the elite of the aristocracy, the clergy and a court that lived in hustle and bustle. “What is the third estate?” asked Abbé Sieyès shortly before the revolution broke out, and immediately added the answer himself: “Everything”. But in actual fact, the third estate was nothing, because the elite ruling the country had taken everything from it.

Hitler in Germany and Trump in the US

reacted to a similar situation. In the first case, the Great Depression of 1929 caused mass unemployment, while the US experiences economic decline since the 1970s. The outsourcing of well-paid industrial labor to cheap Asia resulted in a majority of people being fobbed off with low-paid jobs, most of which were no longer sufficed to feed a family. Trump is the spiritual representative of the white underclass that populates the industrial “rust belts” and sees itself reviled by the elite as “white trash”: a class that enjoys no education and feels itself simply abandoned. Trump’s voters are recruited from evangelical movements that don’t want to know anything about Darwin and the educated elite which they abhor as callous and arrogant. These people are as disturbed and insecure as the Germans were after the sudden economic collapse in 1929. Therefore, they are just as ready as the Germans at that time to listen to the promises of demagogues.

Cosmopolitanism, intellectual curiosity and tolerance – this should never be forgotten – are a luxury that only flourishes in times of security, when people are halfway satisfied with their lot. A “Vivat America!” into which the whole world will tune in, will only come to our lips when the country is reforming itself from within, but before that we should again read Enlighteners like James or Durant to find out how big America was still a short time ago.