In “A Certain Idea of France” (April), Peter Hitchens goes too far when he concludes that de Gaulle was “the last stand of a great lost cause” of a Europe of independent nations: “De Gaulle’s desire for a Europe of independent nations, including a resurgent France, was doomed too.” Ironically, his conclusion imitates the same historical determinism one hears from the Europhiles Hitchens deplores. They praise de Gaulle (even Mitterrand did that as president) but let the movement of history bury him.
Yet de Gaulle’s cause appeared to be doomed in his own time. In the 1950s, he seemed like yesterday’s man. Only 5 percent wanted him back. The Europhiles dominated, signing a treaty creating a supranational European defense force in 1952. In that era, many concluded that the age of independent nations was over. And yet de Gaulle returned and crushed the federalists. Historian Stanley Hoffmann soberly concluded in the 1970s that hoping for the resurrection of federalism was impossible.
Hitchens’s conclusion is the typical defeatism of British conservatism. He reduces conservatism to romanticism. He writes eloquently of the “lost” past but dispenses with the question of what from the past is transmissible, fertile, and eternal. He imitates Chateaubriand but ignores Barrès and Maurras. De Gaulle, however, imitated all three. Modernity did not doom France to mediocrity—it demanded a rediscovery of the nation’s genius. Hence de Gaulle sought to transmit the political and cultural wisdom of the past to address the problems of the present. Maurras’s epitaph of Chateaubriand should not be our epitaph of de Gaulle. He did not die in the “delights of despair.” He died in the Memoirs of Hope. Grandeur was not a lost cause, but France’s once and future king, even if May 1968 dethroned it.
The war against de Gaulle, the war of May 1968, has long since become a global war. That means—as the general himself said—that while a battle has been lost in one place, the war has not. De Gaulle’s cause is still our cause. He teaches that even in the depths of the abyss, we can never discount the possibility of a statesman emerging to hold up the light of renewal and show us what our pedestrian politics do not: la voie du salut.
princeton, new jersey
Peter Hitchens has written an excellent review of Julian Jackson’s De Gaulle. But his one-sided account of de Gaulle’s last years, notably the events of May 1968, omits important facts and risks both mischaracterizing France’s problems and understating the general’s continued relevance.
Hitchens presents the demonstrations of May 1968 as de Gaulle’s great defeat. But the events of May were more contested than that. His review omits the massive counter-demonstration of May 30 in support of de Gaulle, which was then followed by his greatest electoral triumph. France rejected May 1968 at the ballot box, and thus confirmed that Gaullism’s future was as a conservative party of the right. His successor as president, Georges Pompidou, built upon that legacy. By making a conservative claim for continuity with de Gaulle, the right’s leaders won far more electoral successes than the left. From Pompidou to Giscard d’Estaing to Chirac, right-wing leaders all harked back to de Gaulle’s heritage. Even Mitterrand campaigned with the slogan of continuity, “La force tranquille,” set on a poster of a small French village (complete with a church bell tower).
For decades, the largely conservative French electorate trusted their leaders to act in continuity with de Gaulle’s legacy. But they were betrayed—by Giscard d’Estaing’s ultra-liberalism, by Chirac’s opportunism, and finally by Sarkozy’s infatuation with the American alliance (whose objectives Hitchens ably identifies and denounces). May 1968 became a triumph for the left, not the right, because the leaders of the right abandoned to the left the very fields that could have furthered the patriotic mystique that de Gaulle’s will and personality had managed to preserve: education, culture, and local government. The right’s obsession with economic liberalism blinded it and turned these fields into playgrounds for liberal relativists.
The leaders of the right today are desperate to repair that broken trust and challenge the left on all fronts. Campaigning for European parliament, they speak forcefully of a “Europe of Nations” and a European culture rooted in its Christian and Greco-Roman heritage. They speak like de Gaulle. Moreover, the current surge of nationalist movements across Europe gives a posteriori justification to de Gaulle’s claim that there is no such thing as a European people, but only a European civilization to which Goethe, Dante, and Chateaubriand contributed because they were eminently German, Italian, and French. The hour is late, but de Gaulle is vindicated and remains a source for national and European renewal.
J. A. A. Pateron
In his otherwise irreproachable review of Julian Jackson’s Charles de Gaulle biography, Peter Hitchens writes that the general’s daughter Anne “suffered from Down syndrome.” Having three copies of chromosome 21 is not an illness, painful or otherwise, and those with the condition do not “suffer” from it. My twenty-three-year-old daughter Domenica is a person with Down syndrome: She would be amazed to be told that she is thereby “suffering.” This is a point of more than semantic significance. The false notion that Down syndrome is an affliction is a reason many mothers-to-be choose to abort their unborn child when tests reveal a third copy of chromosome 21. Such decisions should not be based on fear and ignorance.
dallington, east sussex, united kingdom
Peter Hitchens Replies:
Perhaps I am guilty of historical determinism, as Nathan Pinkoski suggests. A Marxist-Leninist past (such as I have) never entirely leaves those who experienced it. But is it defeatism to acknowledge the realities of a sinful world? I have been fascinated by and engaged in politics for much of my life, but have at length concluded that politics is a form of blasphemy.
The nobility of de Gaulle’s actions, and his indomitable persistence, are important to us even though they failed. But that they are important to us largely as a parable is notable. True greatness ceases to be ordinary historical fact and becomes parable. By doing so, it attains a significance that mere temporal actions and stories lack. It is not pessimism or defeatism to accept that de Gaulle’s attempt to reestablish France as a sovereign Christian nation was defeated and is likely to stay defeated. His apparent defeat in 1952 was as nothing to his actual defeat by the governments of Pompidou, Giscard d’Estaing, and Mitterrand. The lessons we learn from it are not political ones.
Jean-Baptiste Pateron reproves me for failing to mention the huge pro-de Gaulle demonstration of May 30, 1968. Unfortunately, a review of a book as vast as Jackson’s is an exercise in leaving things out. I omitted it because it seemed to have no lasting importance. De Gaulle as a person and political figure did not recover from the May events, and had no successor capable of carrying on his work. I agree with Pateron about conservatism’s collapse into mere economic liberalism. It is a fact, and I see no sign of it ceasing to be a fact anytime soon.
I agree almost totally with Dominic Lawson. I hesitated over using the word “suffer.” I will hesitate in future. His advocacy is moving and admirable, and yet I do not feel it is entirely wrong to suggest that those affected by this third copy of chromosome 21 lose some things as well as gain some things. Certainly Charles and Yvonne de Gaulle, in the era in which Anne was born and lived, had demands and limits placed on them as a result, which many of us might have found very testing.
Alexander Riley (“A Religion of Activism,” April) laments the current state of sociology, noting that today’s sociologists “typically ignore—or express contempt for—religion and the sacred in traditional forms.” Riley’s observations are on the mark, but there are two other important factors. First, in the social sciences, it is difficult to conduct controlled experiments and validate generalizable theories. Yet many social scientists today seem to have little understanding of the scope and limitations of their own scientific discipline. At most universities today, undergraduates can major in a social science without having to take a course in epistemology or the philosophy of science. Graduate programs are not much better. Without such an understanding, social scientists often overreach in drawing conclusions with activist policy prescriptions. A little more humility about their endeavors would go a long way toward limiting their activism.
Second, in their eagerness to be socially and politically relevant—or to advocate a particular social or political agenda—social scientists often make assumptions about what is just, moral, or utilitarian. In many instances, they do not seem aware of the assumptions they are making. Yet, how many of them have studied theories of justice or political philosophy or the pros and cons of various utilitarian approaches? Perhaps if they took the time to study these subjects, they would be somewhat more circumspect about the solutions for their own activist causes.
los angeles, california
I cannot share Alexander Riley’s enthusiasm for Émile Durkheim.
Durkheim’s sociology is tied to Auguste Comte’s positivism. According to Comte’s human science of sociology, reason can adequately provide the rules for social order without a Divine Creator’s help. Comte’s third stage of “positive” science supersedes the previous ages of philosophy and theology. Durkheim’s work remains within this positive orbit. It is true that Durkheim defined religion as a public institution and thus as necessary to a just and mature social order; but the sacred Durkheim sought to make happen is non-theistic. In Durkheim’s dialectic, society births religion, and religion symbolically embodies society coming to a mature consciousness of itself.
According to Durkheim, society needs religion, with its essential public nature, to create itself. Religion’s sources are ever-present, as the “sacred” is a created effect, generated by the community in its “religious” assembly and rites that make present the moral power of the “call” to the community to surrender to its “otherness.” But the sacred encountered in this call, whether it be a primitive “golden calf,” aboriginal ducks and kangaroos, or a Deist Supreme Being, remains in Durkheim’s positivism, essential for the generative energy it exudes, which can be explained by the human science of sociology. Durkheim’s sociology proceeds without faith’s insight into human society as the community of persons charged to become the earthly Imago Dei in time and place.
Finally, while Durkheim correctly understood the essential role religion has in forging the public social order, he still exaggerated religion’s tasks as understood in the classic philosophy/theology of a St. Thomas Aquinas or a Cicero. The Stoics and the Christian tradition portray religion as moral action belonging to the cardinal virtue of justice. Aquinas, quoting Cicero, defines religion as human action that “consists in offering service and ceremonial rites to a superior nature that men call divine.” Religion is hence defined as a transcending aspiration on the part of human persons acting in community to participate in a cosmic justice, so that the whole world could share in the just laws behind the flourishing order of the universe. The sacred that is encountered in religion in the classic tradition is the Creator and Divine Lawgiver, and the only possible source of all just order for societies.
Durkheim got it right when he declared that society needs religion, but his sociology cannot adequately explain why this is so, and indeed it works against religion’s reason for being—just human acknowledgment of the Divine. Because religion for him is not an obedient and humble worship of the Divine, his ideas, if implemented, would destroy any possibility for a flourishing and just social order.
Alexander Riley Replies:
I sadly shake my head in agreement with Curt Biren’s insightful remarks. Many contemporary sociologists know little philosophy of science. Many more are saturated in various “critical theory” attacks on science that reject the very possibility of its epistemological superiority as a mode of inquiry into the structure of the world. Students pay the price for the studied ignorance of their teachers.
Macon Boczek criticizes Durkheim for not basing his inquiry into religion on Stoicism and Christianity and for failing to prioritize religion’s psychological component. The logic of Durkheim’s argument is evolutionary, so he focuses on what he takes to be the most primitive form of religious life (totemism) because it would have influenced the emergence of later forms, just as the structure of early life can be discerned in later organisms descended from it. Those more recent religions will present features not present in the primordial ancestor, so Durkheim’s evolutionary science of the origins of religion cannot begin with them.
Durkheim’s view of religion is not entirely focused on its public face. Religious life consists of two elements: rites, which are collective and public, and beliefs, which are individual and collective, public and private, all at once. Religious beliefs take the form of sacred symbolism and myths tied to those symbols. These reside in the heads of believers, but they burst forth in the collective ritual life of the group. It is in the latter manifestation that they become charged with the energy of collective enthusiasm and thereby carve out a more secure position in the minds of individuals.
Durkheim cannot discuss the evidence of extra-natural forces driving religious process by virtue of the intellectual hat he wears. But his argument does not necessarily gainsay believers’ desire to see the source of religion’s potency as outside the natural world. In their wonderment, they recognize something that exceeds them. That force, in Durkheim’s empirical framework, is society itself, at least proximately. But the members of the cult cannot recognize the group as the object of veneration, as that is insufficiently awesome to command reverence. Durkheim the sociologist is appropriately silent on the question of a postulated ultimate source of that power.
Charlotte Allen (“Pelagius the Progressive,” April) argues there is a revisionist strand in historiography on Pelagius that is driven by a desire to justify our modern selves. This, she suggests, is the “true reason” behind my argument that we should abandon the terms “Pelagianism” and “Pelagian.” In fact, I am worried by our modern selves: We often complacently ignore history and its lessons.
My job involves teaching critical principles that demand awareness of the blindness to evidence engendered by confirmation bias and ideology. The evidence that Pelagius wrote nothing original and was simply translating into Latin the teachings of Eastern ascetics is clear. This raises the question of why it took 1,600 years for someone to point out that this means he cannot have invented a heresy. Manuscript evidence is equally clear. Two versions of Christianity were transmitted in Latin Christian literature from the fourth century onward; this evidence has also been ignored. While acknowledging that all historical writing reflects the concerns of its writer’s own time, it remains the case that a historian should defer neither to comfort nor shibboleth, but should participate in the collective pursuit of truth by putting forward evidence and responding to evidence set out by others. The myth of “Pelagianism” had demonstrable political effects in Britain and Ireland that I cannot ignore.
Larger historical questions concern me, such as what attracted people to a negative account of man. Extreme ideas characterized both sides in the contest over the anthropology and soteriology of Christianity in late antiquity, and I would argue that religious extremism is always the result of a failure of politics.
I would also note that the “Celtic history” in my job title refers to the linguistic category, not to the idea that there were Celts in Britain or Ireland or that there was a “Celtic Christianity,” ideas long since abandoned by scholars. Nor have I suggested that Pelagius was a saint. The idea that Pelagius had disciples was disseminated by his opponents, as was the idea that he denied the need for grace. We should not uncritically accept his opponents’ caricature as our frame of reference. The contest was about the nature of God’s grace, and it tells us about the changes that marked the shift from the classical to the medieval world.
university of cambridge
cambridge, united kingdom
Charlotte Allen Replies:
My description of Ali Bonner as a “lecturer in Celtic history” was lifted straight from her web page on the University of Cambridge’s site. My use of the term “St. Pelagius” to characterize her own characterization of Pelagius was strictly ironic (as the scare quotes indicate), and I did not mean to imply that she actually believes Pelagius was a saint. Nor did I mean to imply that Bonner subscribes to the “Celtic Christianity” idea that continues to prevail in certain segments of the popular imagination. As I observed as well, there has been a long-running scholarly debate over whether Pelagius himself deserved to be condemned as a heretic; many of his own contemporaries (the bishops attending the Synod of Diospolis in 415, for example) thought not.
My point was not to question whether Pelagius’s theories were in line with existing Christian ascetic tradition, but to show that Pelagius is currently being used as a stick with which to beat Augustine of Hippo, who is out of favor these days with progressive theologians. This is a purely modern—that is, twentieth- and twenty-first-century—preoccupation. Bonner may claim to be “worried by our modern selves,” but she could not be more modern when she ascribes strictly political motives to Augustine’s theology of sin, grace, and divine predestination: an attempt to establish the power of bishops like himself to “control . . . access to salvation,” as she writes in her book. Bonner contends that “Pelagianism” was a fabrication of the ecclesiastical authoritarians of the past 1,600 years. But she herself might be fairly accused of fabricating a different kind of “Pelagianism” more suitable to the imagined anti-authoritarianism of intellectuals in our own time.
A HUMBLE LIBERALISM
In this wise, carefully reasoned essay, Richard Garnett argues that liberalism is compatible with a “mild and equitable establishment” of religion (“Mild and Equitable Establishments,” April). Although this conclusion runs counter to a good deal in contemporary progressive thinking and constitutional jurisprudence, Garnett’s argument is persuasive. Indeed, as he also suggests early on, one might have gotten to the same conclusion more directly just by noting examples—Great Britain would be an obvious one—in which what we would regard as acceptably liberal regimes have continued to maintain an established church.
Garnett’s more methodical demonstration is nonetheless valuable, I think, because in developing his argument he sketches out an account of a humble, sensible liberalism that contrasts starkly with the more hubristic and totalistic versions on display today. If a liberal government could conform to the contours described by Garnett, it might avoid some of the resentment and criticism that liberalism currently provokes—as expressed in, among other places, the pages of this journal.
But is the kind of liberalism described by Garnett a viable possibility under present circumstances? Garnett acknowledges that his fourth and fifth steps, in which liberal government is charged with affirmatively maintaining conditions favorable to the practice of religion, possibly even by supporting a “mild and equitable establishment,” will provoke opposition from contemporary liberals. He is surely right about that. But I think every one of his features will be indignantly resisted by most liberals today. His first step, after all, asserts that “God has made known truths about himself and about the nature and destiny of human persons.” It seems that government is supposed to acknowledge and act upon this premise. How many liberals today—or at least how many “progressives”—will sign onto (or even respectfully consider) that proposition?
Maybe under other circumstances the kind of liberalism depicted by Garnett might be maintainable. Maybe liberal democracy even did approximate that model back in the days in which John Courtney Murray was writing. The hard question, I think, is whether there is something inherent in liberalism that inevitably leads it to degenerate into the more arrogant and expansive versions we see today. I confess that I am not sure what the answer to that question is.
university of san diego
san diego, california
Richard W. Garnett Replies:
Steven Smith asks whether a “humble, sensible liberalism” of the kind I endorsed in my essay—as opposed to the “more hubristic and totalistic versions on display today”—is a “viable possibility under present circumstances.” And he highlights what I agree is a hard question, namely, “whether there is something inherent in liberalism that inevitably leads it to degenerate into the more arrogant and expansive versions we see today.”
I agree, with regret, that many of our “present circumstances” are like the thorns in the Parable of the Sower and appear dead-set on choking whatever sensible versions of liberalism might otherwise manage to thrive, or at least survive, in the available soil. As for his hard question, my instinct is to resist deterministic genealogies and instead to cling—obstinately, perhaps—to the conviction, or at least the hope, that things could have turned out, and might still turn out, all right.