The Spiritual Mob - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Spiritual Mob
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Interior of Basilica of Saint-Denis (Isogood_patrick/Shutterstock.com)

Not far from Germany’s border with the Netherlands, nestled between the meandering Lower Rhine Valley and the sodden marshland engirdling the city of Kleve, lies an avenue of stately chestnut trees straight out of a Barbizon School landscape, a thoroughfare that stretches for a shaded, exquisitely melancholy quarter-mile through flatlands and fen-sucked fogs before ending at the forbidding wrought-iron gates of Schloss Gnadenthal. One might expect that this hidden Schloss, erected in 1704 atop the ruins of an Augustinian monastery destroyed during the Eighty Years’ War, would resemble one of those romantic Rhineland citadels so memorably described in Longfellow’s Hyperion — “ancient castles, grim and hoar, that had taken root as it were on the cliffs” — but this proves not to be the case. Instead Gnadenthal soon reveals itself as a consummate example of a Lustschloss or maison de plaisance, a charming Baroque country retreat for the German landed gentry, replete with landscape gardens, pavilions, mirror lakes, and a magnificent two-story brick orangery. When Talleyrand pined for the “sweetness of life” that pervaded the eighteenth century before the French Revolution, that era which “shaped all the conquering arms against this elusive adversary called boredom,” he might well have been describing life at Schloss Gnadenthal under the ancien régime.

These days the venerable manor house serves as a utilitarian, mostly characterless conference and seminar hotel, described by various online reviewers as “more like a retirement home” and “no better than a 70s dorm room,” which is hardly surprising given that the structure, damaged by artillery fire during the Second World War, was repurposed first to house senior citizens and then as a detachment of United States Air Force personnel, before eventually being converted into a bog-standard hotel by the Paritätischer Wohlfahrtsverband, an independent German welfare organization. Yet in its mid-eighteenth-century heyday, when it was purchased by the prosperous Dutch–Prussian merchant, banker, and Catholic nobleman Thomas Franziskus de Cloots, the Schloss would have been an altogether idyllic place, easily living up to the name given to it by the Augustinian canons three centuries before: Vallis Gratiae, the “Val-de-Grâce” or “Valley of Grace,” called “Gnadenthal” in the rough German tongue.

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It was here, on June 24, 1755, that Johann Baptist Hermann Maria Baron de Cloots was born into the lap of luxury and indulgence. The young baron possessed a precocious intellect, which his father sought to channel by sending him toCatholic schools in Brussels and Mons, to the Collège du Plessisin Paris, and, finally, at the age of fourteen, to a military academyin Berlin. Along the way young Johann fell under the spell of hisuncle, the historian and philologist Cornelius de Pauw, contributorto Diderot’s Encyclopédie and author of Recherches philosophiques surles Américains, a nonsensical but influential tract that argued “theEuropeans who pass into America degenerate, as do the animals;a proof that the climate is unfavourable to the improvement ofeither man or animal,” a contention that was treated with theappropriate level of contempt in Jefferson’s renowned Notes on the State of Virginia. Cloots clearly preferred the life of the French philosophe to that of the Prussian cadet, and upon his father’sdeath he abandoned his military trainingand conveyed his vast library (and evenvaster inherited fortune) back to Paris, wherehe would henceforth go by the name JeanBaptiste Baron de Cloots du Val-de-Grâce.

In the City of Light, Cloots finally felt at home. He made the acquaintance of Enlightenment luminaries, including Rousseau and Voltaire, and wrote an obsequious play, Voltaire triomphant, to better ingratiate himself with the smart set. With the time and means to dedicate himself to scholarship, the baron would spend as many as fifteen hours a day with quill in hand, and by the end of 1781 he had finished a provocative treatise on Islam, La Certitude despreuves du mahométisme, written in response to the Catholic apologist Abbé Nicolas-Sylvestre Bergier’s Certitude despreuves du christianisme. Cloots’s blunt and inflammatory conclusion — “better a Muslim than a Christian” — was almost wholly obscured by his unfortunate writing style, that of a dilettantish autodidact. The historian Ian Coller, in Muslims and Citizens: Islam, Politics, and the French Revolution (2020), rightly chides Cloots’s reliance on a “vast and unkempt tangle of footnotes — and even footnotes to the footnotes — many running over numerous pages, and frequently banishing the main text to a single line” as “an apparatus worthy of Sterne, but without any detectable humor.” Cloots was evidently taking after the erudite, eccentric Cornelius de Pauw, but the baron from Val-de-Grâce was not content to live out his life as an armchair anthropologist as his uncle had. In the late 1780s, Cloots undertook a Grand Tour across Greece, Asia Minor, North Africa, and back through Spain, during which time he came to the acute realization that “liberty belongs to the entire human race.” Now Cloots was also following in the footsteps of another one of his intellectual idols, that “interesting madman” Rousseau. When he returned to Paris from his Mediterranean peregrinations, at the very moment the French Revolution was breaking out, Cloots found himself in a position to demonstrate just how interesting, and just how mad, he himself could be.

*****

It was on July 19, 1790, in the run-up to the massive inaugural Fêtede la Fédération, that Cloots entered the history books, not as an intolerant anti-religious provocateur, an Enlightenment salon gadfly, or an over-educated philosopher manqué, but as a fully fledged revolutionary. Cloots had arrived in front of the Salle du Manège, at the north end of the Tuileries Gardens, accompanied by thirty-six outlandishly dressed Italians, Spaniards, Englishmen, Dutchmen, even Turks, Arabs, and Chaldeans, plus some out-of-work servants and opera house extras to round it all out, most of whom had been hired for twelve francs each to participate in a bit of astroturfing avant la lettre. Asked what their purpose was at the French Revolutionaries’ official seat of deliberation, the visitors announced themselves as the Ambassade du Genre Humain, the “Embassy of the Human Race,” a delegation sent from “the oppressed nations of the universe.” “Wecome from Europe, we come from Asia, we come from America. We are Humanity,” they exclaimed, while their ringleader, Baron deCloots, rather immodestly appointed himself the official “Orator of the Human Race.”

Whatever they think of the People writ large, it is the individual writ small who is destined to be fed into the fiery furnace of revolutionary repression.

The President of the National Constituent Assembly, Jacques-François Menou, tactfully dismissed the envoy and his motley retinue, but in doing so made the profound mistake of flattering its members as “heralds of the new epoch.” This praise, plus the Assembly’s vote to abolish hereditary titles that very evening, was all the encouragement Cloots needed. After the Fête de la Fédération was over, he breathlessly and misleadingly described to his friend Fanny de Beauharnais how “in my capacity as ambassador of the human race, I was at the head of the foreigners in the palace galleries,” how “we have won, we have triumphed” and how this victory “transports us forward two thousand years, through the swift progress of reason.” Within two years Cloots had, however, definitely made his mark on the revolution, abandoning his own hereditary titles (though naturally not his assets), renaming himself Anacharsis Cloots (after an ancient Scythian sage who had been the subject of a 1788 novel by Jean-Jacques Barthélemy), attaining French citizenship, successfully running for a seat in the National Convention, joining in with the militant Jacobins, and putting up 12,000 livres of his own money to arm a company of militiamen to defend the nascent French Republic from the forces of reaction. “You can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them” — so Talleyrand’s famous quip goes, and it was clear that Cloots had no intention of sitting on his recently procured bayonets any more than he planned to rest on his laurels.

Stained Glass of St. Luke, 2020 (Bill Wilson) spectator.org At no point during his meteoric political rise, however, did Cloots neglect his most cherished cause célèbre — the eradication of organized religion. Rather, in his own words, “[I] redoubled my zeal against the pretended sovereigns of earth and heaven. I boldly preached that there is no god but Nature, no other sovereign but the human race — the people-god. The people is sufficient for itself. Nature kneels not before itself. Religion is the only obstacle to universal happiness. It is high time to destroy it.” Waging his iconoclastic war on two fronts, against the sovereigns of Earth and the Sovereign of Heaven, Anacharsis Cloots voted on January 15, 1793, in favor of the execution of the deposed King Louis XVI, and later that year organized the sordid ceremony that converted the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris into a temple of “reason” and “freedom,” filling the sacred space with busts of philosophers and parading an opera singer, gussied up like the Goddess of Liberty, up and down the aisles and ambulatories. As aristocrats and moderates were marched into the blood-stained hecatomb of revolutionary sacrifice, the churches were, in John S. C. Abbott’s telling, being systematically “stripped of their baptismal plate and other treasures, and the plunder was sent to the Convention. Processions paraded the streets, singing, derisively, Hallelujahs, and profaning with sacrilegious caricature all the ceremonies of religion. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was administered to an ass.” It was all going according to Cloots’s grand plan. “Here is the crisis of the universe,” he announced, a time when “we will make a holy war” as “free men [who] are Gods on earth.” The former baron would not rest, he continued, until an atheistic revolutionary republic had been established on the moon itself.

In Oswald Spengler’s 1933 Jahre der Entscheidung, the German philosopher of history categorized left-wing revolutionary movements as a

spiritual mob [geistige Mob], led by failures from all the academic professions, the mentally invalided and inhibited, from which the gangsters of the liberal and Bolshevik uprisings emerge. The “dictatorship of the proletariat,” that is, their own dictatorship achieved with the help of the proletariat, is supposed to be their revenge on the happy and well-off, a last resort to quench their sick vanity and vicious greed for power, both of which arise from a growing insecurity of self-esteem, the ultimate expression of corrupt and misguided instincts.

Spengler could very well have been writing about Anacharsis Cloots and his ilk, as opposed to the socialist revolutionaries of his own era. Today we can indeed recognize a veritable slew of mental illnesses at work in the curious case of Anacharsis Cloots — narcissistic personality disorder, grandiose delusional disorder, histrionic personality disorder, possibly the manic phase of a bipolar disorder, and almost certainly a negative father complex. The sheer theatricality of the bloody baron’s performances at least managed to amuse later historians like Georges Avenel (“the human race itself is at the gate. It is waiting. Make way!”), Thomas Carlyle (“strange things may happen when a whole People goes mumming and miming”), and even Roberto Calasso (“Cloots’ embassy, dispatched from the realm of operetta … gave the final impetus to the decapitation of those noble titles with whose aroma operetta would be spiced”). Yet while Cloots may have at times exhibited some thespian talents, I tend to view his performance not as an opéra bouffe but as a tragicazione sepolcrale, the sort of thing Karl Kraus had in mind when, in The Last Days of Mankind, he lamented those “unthinkable years, out of sight and out of mind, inaccessible to memory and preserved only in bloodstained dreams, when operetta figures played out the tragedy of mankind.”

Thanks to Cloots’s efforts, for the first time in history, though by no means the last, Rousseau’s conception of an ersatz, purely political “civil religion” was being put into practice. “The imposition of the civil religion,” Ryszard Legutko has propounded, “was primarily a political operation with implications similar to those that were later to be seen in highly ideological regimes: the sovereign could get rid of nonbelievers and even punish with death those who betrayed the new religious dogmas.” Among the first to pay the price would be those like the Martyrs of Compiègne, the eleven Discalced Carmelite nuns, three lay sisters, and two tertiaries sentenced to death during the Reign of Terror, merely for having persisted in living as a religious community despite a Revolutionary government order closing all women’s monasteries. It is an inviolable historical law, as Reiner Stach observed, that “every attempt tocreate an enthusiastic community out of a modern mass society has culminated in bloodbaths, terror, and crushing disillusionment.” Visionaries like Anacharsis Cloots will invoke the name of the“people-god” while elevating themselves to the status of “Gods on earth,” but whatever they think of the People writ large, it is the individual writ small, in his or her capacity as a martyr or victim of political injustice, who is destined to be fed into the fiery furnace of revolutionary repression like a trifling lump of sea coal, and always by self-styled humanitarians like Cloots.

In his 2018 book Skin in the Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb sensibly argued on behalf of localism, “simple practical rules,” and a “focus on our immediate environment,” and warned of the great danger of universalism, on the grounds that “the general and the abstract tend to attract self-righteous psychopaths … modernity likes the abstract over the particular; social justice warriors have been accused of ‘treating people as categories, not individuals.’ ” Cloots was in many ways the paradigmatic “self-righteous psychopath,” obsessed with imposing his sense of social justice — which naturally differed markedly from the sense of social justice possessed by, say, the Vendéen peasants and Carmelite nuns being devoured by the ravenous jaws of the Revolution — via guillotines and bayonets if necessary. Paul Johnson, in his incomparable philippic Intellectuals (1988), found that “there seems to be, in the life of many millenarian intellectuals, a sinister climacteric, a cerebral menopause, which might be termed the Flight of Reason.” By the end of 1793, Anacharsis Cloots had undoubtedly reached that point. Driven mad with messianic hubris, and holding himself out as the “personal enemy of Jesus,” Cloots’s own tragicomedy was fated to end poorly.

Cloots, that great friend of humanity, had thrown his lot in with the ultra-radical Hébertistes, also known as the “Exaggerators,” whose deputy Jean-Baptiste Carrier had infamously been involved in the genocidal suppression of the Vendéen uprising. When the Hébertistes met at the Cordeliers Club, ritually threw a veil over the bust of Liberty, and declared a state of insurrection against the National Convention, the better to establish an even more violent and unrestrained Reign of Terror, the powers that be finally had enough. The leaders of the breakaway faction, including Cloots, were sent to the Revolutionary Tribunal, where an appointment was made for them to be “shaved with the national razor,” as various wags described Joseph-Ignace Guillotin’s “simple mechanism” of death. Accused of being an insurrectionist and a member of a “foreign plot” (being of Prussian birth, after all), Cloots defended himself pathetically: “if I have sinned it is by too much candor and naïveté. Marat used to tell me ‘Cloots, tu esune foutue bête [Cloots, you are a damned stupid].’ ” On March 24, 1794, just as self-awareness seemed perhaps to be dawning on the former nobleman turned revolutionist, it was time to have his head cleanly separated from its body by the scythe of equality. It had been quite a journey from the Valley of Grace to the steps of the guillotine, and it had come to a suitably dramatic culmination.

*****

But the story of Anacharsis Cloots does actually not end on that grim day in early spring, when he and nineteen of his radical comrades met their collective and richly deserved fate as the Parisian crowd jeered the erstwhile Orator of the Human Race, joking afterwards that he and his fellow Hébertistes “died like cowards without balls.” Cloots’s story would come to prefigure that of untold numbers of revolutionaries to come, those who would profess an allegiance to rational universalism before turning, after the inevitable Flight from Reason, to bloody-minded sectarian factionalism in the pursuit of raw power, embracing a quasi-religious faith in their mission while demonstrating a penchant for mass violence. We can see evidence of Cloots’s legacy all around us, whether it is in what Legutko has called the “demon in democracy,” that “totalitarian temptation” permeating ostensibly free societies, in the never-ending war on religious liberty in both socialist and liberal societies, or in the orgies of violence and cultural destruction that now routinely wrack the American body politic, with rioters and demonstrators roaming urban neighborhoods and interstates chanting slogans like “no borders, no walls, no USA at all.”

In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel declared that the French Revolution’s sole “work and deed” was “death, and indeed a death that has no inner depth or fulfillment; … the coldest, shallowest of deaths, with no more significance than cleaving a cabbage head or swallowing a gulp of water.” This could be Anarcharsis Cloots’s epitaph, but as hard as it is to believe, this has proven an inspiring message to radicals the world over. Few today, even in France or Germany, would recognize the name Johann Baptist Hermann Maria Baron de Cloots, or Jean Baptiste Baron de Cloots du Val-de-Grâce, or the more familiar cognomen Anacharsis Cloots. Anacharsis who? But I suspect that Anacharsis Cloots will never die, not really. Indeed it is by his fruits, by his intellectual descendants who comprise the spiritual mob of our era, that we will continue to know him.

Anacharsis Cloots, that foutue bête, may have declared himself the “Orator of the Human Race,” but there were vast swathes of the human race that he wished to see consigned not just to the kitchen midden of history but to the blood-spattered charnel house of Revolution. For Cloots, history was supposed to end not in Immanuel Kant’s “kingdom of pure practical reason and its justice,” but in a literal shambles. Does such a person truly speak for the human race? No, and one’s gorge should rise at the very thought. A far better choice would be a figure such as Alexandre Lenoir, the self-taught archaeologist who bravely strove to preserve the vestiges of the French past even as the maniacal Cloots set about pulverizing them. Lenoir, outraged at the vandalism that occurred after the National Convention’s August 1, 1793, mandate that the tombs of “former kings” be obliterated, worked tirelessly to place endangered artwork out of harm’s way at the Couvent des Petits-Augustins:

From the Abbey of Saint Denis, which appeared to be destroyed by fire from the profoundest depths of its dreary vaults to the utmost summit of its towering roof, I recovered the magnificent Mausolea Louis XII, François I, and Henri II, but with grief I write it, these chef-d’oeuvres of art had already experienced the fury of the barbarians: it was in 1793, that I collected the shattered remains, which I may yet restore to their original form. The tomb of François I is already exhibited in all its splendor, and that of Louis XII is about to be erected in the Saloon of the Fifteenth Century; truly fortunate! should I become the means of inducing posterity to forget these criminal depredations.

The year Lenoir began his project in earnest was the year that Louis XVI was guillotined, Saint-Denis was desecrated, and Notre-Dame was secularized, yet the archaeologist persevered all the same. The following year, the Abbé Grégoire would issue his Rapport sur les destructions opérées par le vandalisme, which maintained that “barbarians and slaves despise the sciences and destroy artistic monuments; free men love and preserve them.” Truer words were rarely spoken by a French revolutionary.

One man — Alexandre Lenoir — had almost single-handedly managed to turn the tide, as visitors to the Basilica of Saint-Denis and the Musée national des Monuments Français can thankfully attest. Every single one of the monuments he rescued carries more weight than the entire corpus of Anacharsis Cloots’s spectacularly unfocused and self-destructive rhetorical drivel. What is more, Lenoir’s preservationist campaign would be indelibly imprinted on the French psyche, as evidenced by French President Emmanuel Macron’s unambiguous declaration, amidst the notorious outbreak of cultural vandalism that took place during the summer of 2020, that “the Republic won’t erase any name from its history. It will forget none of its artworks, it won’t take down statues.” It would be a very sick society indeed that, faced with the choice between vandals like Cloots and paragons of virtue like Lenoir, would opt for the former. And yet, while Macron spoke those reassuring words, left-wing politicians in the United States were cheering on the rampant desecration of memorials, and university professors of archaeology were advising rioters on how most efficiently to topple monuments. Thomas Carlyle’s wonderment at Cloots’s success comes to mind: “then is it verily, as in Herr Tieck’s Drama, a Verkehrte Welt, or World Topsyturvied!”

*****

It gets worse. On June 19, 2020, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s highly respected and long-serving chairman of European paintings, Keith Christiansen, posted on his personal Instagram feed an eighteenth-century drawing in pen and ink and wash on paper, one depicting Alexandre Lenoir as he interrupts the profanation of Saint-Denis, his arms thrown wide in a pose reminiscent of the central figure in Jacques-Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women. Alongside the illustration, the curator appended the comment, uncontroversial in any epoch other than our benighted own: “Alexandre Lenoir battling the revolutionary zealots bent on destroying the royal tombs in Saint Denis. How many great works of art have been lost to the desire to rid ourselves of a past of which we don’t approve. And how grateful we are to people like Lenoir, who realized that their value — both artistic and historical — extended beyond a defining moment of social and political upheaval and change.”

Illumination #1, 2020 (Bill Wilson) spectator.org

For this heresy Christiansen was subjected to intense criticism by those like the Art + Museum Transparency collective, which accused him of “making a dog whistle of an equation of #BLM activists with ‘revolutionary zealots.’ ” Max Hollein, the Met Museum’s director, cringingly apologized directly to the staff of the European paintings department, asserting that Christiansen’s entirely defensible Instagram post was “not only not appropriate and misguided in its judgment but simply wrong,” while telling the New York Times that “there is no doubt that the Met and its development is also connected with a logic of what is defined as white supremacy. Our ongoing efforts to not only diversify our collection but also our programs, narratives, contexts and staff will be further accelerated and will benefit in urgency and impact from this time.” Score one more for Anacharsis Cloots.

“Of all the needs of the human soul,” wrote Simone Weil in her 1949 essay “The Need for Roots: Prelude Towards a Declaration of Duties Towards Mankind,” “none is more vital than the past.” Lenoir grasped this, whereas Cloots, who fled his own past, and would have denied the existence of the human soul in any event, never could. And here we arrive at the border between the pre-modern and the modern. There was a time when, as Roberto Calasso poetically put it in The Celestial Hunter, “every thought” was “measured with the dead,” but in this modern world, predicated as it is on presentism, there is simply no room for anything but the concerns of the eternal present. Tom Wolfe perspicaciously observed that “most people, historically, have not lived their lives as if thinking, ‘I have only one life to live.’ Instead they have lived as if they are living their ancestors’ lives and their offspring’s lives.” Consider how architectural masterpieces like Milan’s Cathedral-Basilica of Santa Maria Nascente, the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter in Cologne, Westminster Abbey, and the Alhambra all took more than five hundred years to complete. Such a process could only unfold if the members of the societies involved felt themselves part of a cultural current that transcended individuals, generations, and regimes, a sense of enduring responsibility totally alien to our mercurial modern mores.

Henry James, in a notebook entry written in Oxford on September 29, 1894, expounded upon his masterly short tale “The Altar of the Dead,” wherein the main character

cherishes for the silent, for the patient, for the unreproaching dead, a tenderness in which all his private need of something, not of this world, to cherish, to be pious to, to make the object of a donation, finds a sacred, and almost a secret, expression. He is struck with the way they are forgotten, are unhallowed — unhonored, neglected, shoved out of sight; allowed to become much more than dead, even, than the fate that has overtaken them has made them. He is struck with the rudeness, the coldness, that surrounds their memory.

It was with good reason that Ernst Jünger regarded “the disappearance of ancestor worship as a characteristic of present-day decadence.” Cultural heritage preservationists like Alexandre Lenoir, by cherishing the silent, patient, unreproaching dead, can dispel a portion of the rudeness and coldness that saturates modern life. But in spite of those efforts, it feels like we are perched atop an inclined plane, the increasing steepness of which makes unavoidable a downward plunge into the sort of decadent “crisis of the universe” in which the Clootses of the world seem to revel and flourish, for a time at least.

It is absolutely crucial to regain that “sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future” of which Christopher Lasch wrote in his far-sighted The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979). Without it, all that is left is presentism, scientism, and an obsession with trivialities and mere survival. Elsewhere, in his equally valuable The Minimal Self: Psychic Survival in Troubled Times, Lasch cautioned that the “emphasis on the global dimensions of the survival issue — on the need for global controls and for the development of a ‘global mind’ — probably helps to undermine attachments to a particular place and thus to weaken still further the emotional basis on which any real interest in the future has to rest. Rootlessmen and women take no more interest in the future than they take in the past,” making them unable to “think constructively about the future instead of lapsing into cosmic panic and futuristic desperation,” a phenomenon very much in evidence when we consider popular reactions to, for example, fluctuations in global temperatures, or the 2019 novel coronavirus pandemic. Cosmic panic, desperation, and rootlessness lead to the likes of Anacharsis Cloots; historical continuity and a sense of belonging lead to the likes of Alexandre Lenoir. Choose accordingly.

In a September 2020 editorial published in the conservative daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán discussed his nation’s “struggle for spiritual sovereignty and intellectual freedom” and the ongoing “rebellion against political correctness, against the dictates of loopy liberal doctrine.” Hungarian conservatives, like their counterparts in Poland and elsewhere, have struggled to safeguard the “enveloping layers of tradition inherited from the lives of their great-grandparents, grandparents and parents” by, inter alia, facilitating the “integration of religion into the life of society, maintaining a spirit of tolerance for religious views … in order to strengthen justice, public morals and the common good.” In doing so, Orbán and his fellow Christian democrats have proven once and for all that “the doctrine that ‘democracy can only be liberal’ — that golden calf, that monumental fetish — has been toppled.”

Cosmic panic, desperation, and rootlessness lead to the likes of Anacharsis Cloots; historical continuity and a sense of belonging lead to the likes of Alexandre Lenoir.

Such developments are patently unacceptable from the standpoint of liberal international organizations, particularly those that have been infiltrated by “Soros-style networks,” organizations that purportedly seek to, in Orbán’s words, “lead us to the happiness provided by liberal world values, world peace and world governance,” but are far more accomplished at taking “aim at the very things that are most important to us, the cornerstones of the political order we wish for, the values at the core of conservative-Christian democratic heritage — such as the nation, the family and religious tradition.” (As the Holinshed Chronicles put it, “it is easie to raze, but hard to buylde.”)

*****

But Hungary and Poland are not the only nations seeking to escape the “deadly embrace” of culturally destructive liberalism, as evidenced by what UnHerd’s Aris Roussinoshas called the “irresistible rise of the civilization-state.” Countries including China, Russia, India, and Turkey (about three billion souls right there) are all seeking to “define their countries as distinctive civilisations with their own unique cultural values and political institutions” as they remold their “non-democratic, statist political systems as a source of strength rather than weakness, and upturning the liberal-democratic triumphalism of the late 20th century.

Bruno Maçães, formerly Portugal’s secretary of state for European affairs and now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, has similarly written about the “attack of the civilization-state,” noting how the liberal West, in its obsession with universalism, instead chose

not to be a civilization at all but something closer to an operating system. It would not embody a rich tapestry of traditions and customs or pursue a religious doctrine or vision. Its principles were meant to be broad and formal, no more than an abstract framework within which different cultural possibilities could be explored. By being rooted in tolerance and democracy, Western values were not to stand for one particular way of life against another. Tolerance and democracy do not tell you how to live — they establish procedures, according to which those big questions may later be decided.

These particular procedures and values, in their current etiolated and degenerate state, turn out to have very little purchase beyond the narrow ambit of Western liberal societies, and not always there either. “Europe,” concluded Maçães, “may have been convinced that it was building a universal civilization. As it turned out, it was merely building its own,” and not a very robust one at that. The universal harmony, the “republic of the united individuals of the world” that Anacharsis Cloots sought at bayonet point failed in his time, and appears less likely than ever to come about in our own or any other era. This may not bode well for liberal Western hegemony, but it will at least guarantee a world not wholly given over to the veneration of that monumental fetish that is Cloots’s mythical “people-god.”

This does not mean that our collective cultural patrimony is at all safe, for there is a great deal left to demolish and no lack of powerful figures who would, to paraphrase former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, give the vandals space to destroy. Admittedly, even the work of the preservationist Lenoir was not destined to last forever; the works that had been sheltered in the Couvent des Petits-Augustins were dispersed after the Bourbon restoration, and today the Musée national des Monuments Français mostly contains plaster casts of the original works. Still, his noble exertions undeniably inspired defenders of civilization for years to come, providing a template for people of conscience to follow. The writer Joseph Lavallée, in his appraisal of Lenoir’s crusade on behalf of France’s cultural heritage, commended how

The order, the art, the melancholy magic which Lenoir has exhibited in the arrangement of his Museum, give an idea at once of his mind, his genius, and his knowledge. His powerful hand seems as if supporting ages upon the brink of destruction, arranging each in its place, and preventing their annihilation, for the purpose of portraying their arts, their men of character, their tyrants, and frequently their ignorance: let us retrace with this artist the ages past.

And here we are provided with a fitting epitaph for the heroic Alexandre Lenoir, and more importantly an eminently reasonable clarion call for all those who grasp just how important the past is for the needs of the human soul, and just how destructive the forces of socialism, liberalism, scientism, secularism, and misguided utopianism have proven to be. It is precisely what is needed in yet another age that seems to be in revolt against all human sensibilities, but which just might be salvaged after all.

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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