History has shown us that there exists an antithesis between two traditions; that of ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’. Civilisation, which resides in the hearts of the French, the Americans and the English, embodies the notion of ‘progress’; the betterment of humanity and a missionary notion of westernisation. 

By contrast the idea of ‘culture’, more rooted in historic Germanic or Italian sensibility, for example, is internalised in ‘that’ country’s pride and nature.

Civilisational countries presuppose a set of recognised values and these become universal; exported. The civilisational emphasises the commonality amongst peoples; the Germanic notion sees particularity as the leitmotif. This, however, is not to be seen in a chauvinistic or nationalist way. 

It reflects a history of acquired destiny. Civilisational states show a history of (relative) isolation; their borders determined and settled. On the other hand, ‘cultural’ states have witnessed the flowing and ebbing of empire building and dissolution; the borders shifting and swelling and morphing like a Heraclitan river. 

They may also have achieved independence and nationality at a later stage. Therefore, Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’, which sees the liberal world opposed to an Islamic one misses the real divide.  More nuanced is a view which sees historical societies embedded in historicism versus ahistorical or cyclical societies. 

That is, the ‘end of history’ Hegelian forms versus the cyclical traditional society. Spirit and destiny work as a bulwark to colonial ungrounded progressivism. There within can be seen the large tensions and fragility of pseudo- statal organisations such as the EU.

Within it the liberal largesse of the centralised metropolis dominates the civilisational state; the metropolitan elites often oblivious to the countryside. The city-rural divide indicative of the Janus- faced nature of civilisational states. Countries such as Hungary and Poland are in essence ‘cultural’ states forced into a diabolical pact with the Mephistopheles in Brussels. 

Therefore, the civilisational entities espouse external ideals such as reason, technological advancement, science. Cultural states embody the sentiments of a nation, its ’soul’, to particular values. For Spengler this difference was symptomatic of historical stages- where, in a cyclical fashion, cultures fade into civilisation, the decadent stage. Civilisations are the ‘old age’ of dying cultures until, finally, the soul of the culture becomes ‘forgotten’.

We have in this era of liberal ascendancy a phenomenon of infantile iconoclasm. We see the progenitor Christianity, having given birth to liberalism, being devoured, Kronos like, by the very liberality which it passed down. Statues toppled, streets renamed, as the cadres of the cultural revolution destroy the vestiges of the culture of their own nations. However, the dawn of iconoclasm is nothing new; it accompanies the rigidity of proselytizing ideologies. 

It is in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the French Revolution, and the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The background to these modern tendencies arises from a degeneration of the intellectual ever since the Renaissance and Enlightenment candle snuffers put out the light of intuitive intellectualism and metaphysics.

This was carried out in the use of reason as the guiding light of a new secular cult of progress. From antiquity, ideas were often synthesised along the Silk Road routes, for example. Classical Greece mixed with the incense of Zoroastrianism and Islam. Christianity exchanged iconography with Buddhism. Tradition was born and renewed in this cyclical dialectic.

The coming of rationalism and the rise of the individual (as a requisite for modern industrialisation) established the need for a utilitarian conception of science and society. The metaphysical epistemology discarded for the efficiency mode. In this tradition was a burden, a wound on civilisation, hence the iconoclasm of the modern. 

Aligned to the clash of the civilisational/culture states is their particular views of history. The modern sees all the ills in society as being ‘from’ history. For traditional societies history was cyclical, ‘tolerated’; history had a metahistorical foundation which fitted into a fixed view of the cosmos.

They were founded on Nietzsche’s ‘amor fati’, that sense of fate and destiny, which meant a toleration for events and pressures. Therefore, the arrival of Genghis Khan was interpreted by Christians as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Ezekiel, the coming of a new David.

However, by the seventeenth century ideas of a Christian linear view of history began to emerge. It is then that modern man gets tied up in what Mircea Eliade described as ‘the terror’ of history. Progress is seen as essential and linked to a new scientific world view. It becomes linear.

Therein history becomes superfluous and can be discarded. The terrors of history; the wars, the atrocities can be justified in ‘historicism’ as a means to an end. The ‘Universal Spirit’ of Hegel, the golden age of Marx, ‘the end of history’ liberal utopia, the redemption of Christ.

The problem for modern man is that freedom is more and more restricted; that is the modern man cannot ‘make’ history as this making becomes confined to fewer and fewer elite groups. Consequently, the moderns fiction of freedom becomes an historical trap- the end of history is just one more five-year plan away, just one more cultural revolution nearer, another election, to paradise.

It is this feeling of ‘powerlessness’, of the restriction of freedoms by technology and progress, that produces the fracture and dissonance within the modern, who, dragged along by historicism, has no way of escaping history. Whilst earlier civilisations found solace is the repetition of agricultural seasons, the annual renewing of life, the chance to start over, modern man is shackled to the boat to the promised land. This produces a formless existence, without teleology, and an angry, destructive society where the source of all ills is random events in history; slavery, colonies, individuals.

Therefore, history must be shattered and its icons demolished; for the new partisans of the twenty first century, without faith, without an escape from history, become nihilistic.

In ‘A Canticle for Liebowitz’ by Walter M. Miller, an eerily prescient scenario of nuclear war results in an era of the ‘Simplification’, a back to zero levelling down and renunciation of ‘knowledge’. A hidden Order of Albertian monks attempt to preserve the remnants of civilisation whilst two states,

‘The Asian Coalition’ and the ‘Atlantic Confederacy’ bring the world to nuclear war again. The book is an ominous read for the present situation- the three stages of the book corresponding to the three stages of history; the age of faith, the age of reason and the contemporary nihilist age.

One of the main themes, amidst this cyclical recurrence, is the preservation of knowledge from the onslaught of the modern. In the contemporary world this can be seen in the struggle to preserve the Reliquaries, or shrines, of Saints. The incredible story of the Reliquary of St Maurus would make ‘The Raiders of the Lost Ark’ seem like a sequel to ‘The Sound of Music’. It is a story of biblical proportions.

A Benedictine monk of the sixth century, St Maurus, founded the Glenfeuil Monastery in France and was renowned for miraculous feats. However, it was his remains, sealed in a complex medieval Reliquary of gold and diamonds, the size of a large antique table, depicting the apostles, which became the focus of a two-thousand-year-old mystery. The shrine, reputed to hold, as well as the remains of St Maurus, those also of St John the Baptist, was built in the thirteenth century by the wealthy Rumigny family and laid in the St John the Baptist’s Church in Florennes.

File:Reliquary of St. Maurus - 1.JPG - Wikimedia Commons

From then on it survived the plundering, fires and attacks on Monasteries. It lay hidden and silent in the sacristy despite the attacks of the French Revolution and resurfaced in 1838 when it was bought by Alfred de Beaufort for 2500 francs from the local church council.

The Beaufort’s moved the Reliquary to Petschau (now Becov nad Teplou, Czech Republic) in 1889. Unfortunately, the huge fortress in West Bohemia sat in the region of the ill-fated Sudetenland and in 1945 the Beaufort family, who had been members of the Nazi party in Germany, were forced to flee the castle following the Benes decrees. However, the Beauforts, wary of the communist iconoclasts, hid the Reliquary below the floor of the chapel. The oaken core, decorated with gilded copper figurines, golden filigree and an assortment of jewellery stones and ancient gems was, unbeknown to the country, the second most valuable antique of the Czech realm, after the Crown jewels, but it lay rotting in the soil.

An American treasure hunter, Danny Douglas, perhaps in liaison with Beaufort-Spontin, attempted to purchase in 1984 a ‘secret’ object, location unknown, from the Czech state for 250,000 dollars. But, incredibly, just days before the signing of a contract, Czech investigators dug up the floor of the chapel and discovered one of the greatest jewels of the Middle Ages, along with 100 bottles of vintage French cognac.  The Reliquary now sits again, atop of the hill, its magnificence restored, and on public display. 

One of the most beautiful scenes depicted on the Reliquary is an enamel and gold figural showing the ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’, where Abraham is commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. His willingness to obey God is rewarded when, just as Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, God substitutes a Ram for Isaac. In this faith is rewarded; Kierkegaard’s blind ‘leap’ into faith rewarded, and reason vanquished.

Now, the physical chasse or shrine ‘becomes’ a Reliquary of knowledge, an object of faith against reason, saved from the age of the nihilist. It is its ‘representation’ which overcomes its physicality; buried amongst the bones of the saints is the relic of the metaphysic, of Nietzsche’s ‘Overman’, of the ‘last men’ safeguarding the history of knowledge.

As society now shifts from culture to civilisation to nihilism, where the Church of England cannot define a woman, where society resembles Bentham’s panopticon, the protectors of tradition are reduced to fear and trembling.  In the descent into nihilism, the jailors have led the people back down into Plato’s cave.

Brian Patrick Bolger studied at the LSE. He has taught Political Philosophy and Applied Linguistics in Universities across Europe. His articles have appeared in magazines such as ‘The Montreal Review’, ‘The Salisbury Review’, ‘The European Conservative’,  ‘The Village’ 

Posted by Brian Patrick Bolger

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