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A Book Review… A Hefty Work, But Worth Its Heft

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Michael Burleigh, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War. Harper Collins: 2005.

Each of us comes to a substantial historical work such as this with particular predispositions and preconceptions relevant to the subject matter and the manner in which it will be presented. If we are seeking anything other than self-congratulation and confirmation of prejudices in the process, a work such as Burleigh’s ought to disperse the former and modify the latter. It does.
Burleigh moves us toward significantly greater comprehension of issues we either were merely aware of or antecedently thought we were in control of. And the issues are most important ones. In ten chapters the author engages us with pivotal movements in European history from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution through the Restoration, nineteenth-century nationalism and political messianism, the birth of “new men and sacred violence” in Russia, the struggles over the “deification of the state,” the nearly insurmountable moral and political problems forced upon society by industrialism, to “Apocalypse 1914.”
Earthly Powers is 530 pages long, including 44 pages of footnotes and bibliography. The “Introduction,” which is quite engaging, itself consists of 22 pages, and 46 substantial footnotes. As our Scandinavian neighbors would say confronting it, “Uff da!” It is a hefty work, but worth the heft.
In the “Introduction” we are early brought to what Lord Bacon might call “prerogative conceptions,” that is, basic ideas that inform the actions of most of the significant “reformers” in the drama of modern European history. Central among these is the proposition that human nature is good, but has been corrupted by social circumstances, and therefore education will provide the absolution required to remit the punishment due to this “original sin.”
De Tocqueville, for instance, noted that “the Revolution seemed to be striving for the regeneration of the human race even more than for the reform of France…it took on that appearance of a religious revolution which so astonished contemporaries.”
We are also brought by the author to the peculiarly strong post-Augustinian critique of Eric Voegelin who, writing about National Socialism, one of the political or secular religions of the twentieth century, noted that one should approach the regime “on the assumption that there is evil in the world, and, moreover, that evil is not only a deficient mode of being, a negative element, but also a real substance and force that is active in the world.”
Voegelin concluded: “Resistance against a satanical substance that is not only morally but also religiously evil can only be derived from an equally strong, religiously good force. One cannot fight a satanical force with morality and humanity alone.”
Perhaps more familiar to most Catholic readers is the figure of Christopher Dawson who, Burleigh points out, speaking in 1932 to an audience that included Mussolini and Hermann Goering, criticized the “pan-racial theorists who subordinate civilization to skull-measurements.” Dawson went on in his 1935 work Religion and the Modern State to point out that the pretentiously omni-competent modern state attempted “to colonize areas of existence that ‘the statesmen of the past would no more have dared meddle with than the course of the seasons or the movements of the stars’.”
We are also brought to the significant work of the journalist Frederick Voigt who, in his 1934 book Unto Caesar noted that both Marxism and National Socialism were “secular religions,” both of which have “enthroned the modern Caesar, collective man” (emphasis mine).
Perhaps Voigt could not quite foresee the mob-terrorist form that “collective man” would take in nominal democracies in the age of social media.
Perhaps because we live in this mob-terrorist world, perhaps because this reviewer grew up reading Dostoyevsky, Burleigh’s chapter on “New Men and Sacred Violence in Late-Nineteenth-Century Russia” appears to be of particular significance. It sets before us not just the fanatic partisan of various utopian causes, but the equally noxious nihilist — the terrorist of ideas. For instance: Dmitry Karakozov, a member of Hell (sic), the “inner core” of the regicidal Organisation (sic) failed in his attempt to assassinate the Tsar. When the courageous Tsar asked him just what he wanted, Karakozov replied, “Nothing, nothing.”
Burleigh points out that “violence committed by ‘people’s criminals’ in the name of ‘people’s justice’” is a “pathology by no means unique to nineteenth-century Russia, since remote salivation [perhaps “salvation” also] over violence seems to be a more general inheritance.” And this was written 15 years before our present occasions for “remote salivation.”
Central as a model for fictional characters in Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed was the actual anarchist-nihilist character Sergey Nechaev, whose career Burleigh outlines. He was typical of a type of “new men” who had been sprung loose from peasant or menial backgrounds and, with other deracinated souls formed what came to be called the “intelligentsia.”
“Intoxicated with ill-digested abstract ideas and often seething with social resentment,” Burleigh writes, “the intelligentsia became progressively detached from conventional society.” This “new man” “was a monolithic personality, a tyro of enormous will, a little poorly digested utilitarian knowledge, no capacity for self-doubt, and blinkered singularity of purpose.”
The desire for revolutionary change, by revolver, arson, and explosives, found outlets in various secret societies and was expressed in statements such as that quoted by Burleigh from the Revolutionary Catechism, produced at least in part by Nechaev:
“In the depths of his being, not only in words, but in deed, he [the new revolutionary man] has broken every tie with the civil order and with the entire educated world, with all laws, conventions, generally accepted conditions, and with the morality of this world. He is its implacable enemy, and if he continues to live in it, that is only the more certainly to destroy it.”
Perhaps the best way to meet the “new man” of the Nechaev sort is in the central personalities in Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed. (Sometimes translated as The Demons: The passage about the Gadarene swine from Luke 8 stands as an introduction to the novel.) They seek to destabilize and corrupt society by various means, even though they realize that a generation or two of vice may be needed initially, we are told, “monstrous, abject vice by which a man is transformed into a loathsome, cruel, egotistic reptile.”
One need not, however, look back in 150-year-old fiction for such characters. Circumspice (look around).
Part of the destabilization of society and, concomitantly, the churches, is attributable to the process of industrialization, with which Burleigh deals in chapter 9. Despite the well-intentioned but sporadic, inconsistent, often simply ad hoc attempts of the churches to bring Christian principles to bear on the new social conditions of “modern man,” the latter comes adrift “im dickicht der stadte” (“In the jungle of the cities,” as Brecht’s play has it).
The thickness, the complexity, the specialization of modern commercial-industrial-technological society seems, to use Max Weber’s words cited by Burleigh, to reduce religion to dealing with unanswerable metaphysical questions. Burleigh does an honest job with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and the antecedent ameliorative efforts of “Social Catholicism.”
Yet one is drawn back to the initial musings of Romano Guardini in the Letters from Lake Como (1923-1925) for a broader, deeper sense of how man and nature had been irretrievably metamorphosed by technology and its industrial application. Guardini wrote that “a great process of dying had set in around me.”
And then, “Apocalypse 1914,” which engendered the birth of ghastly new forms of political religion induced by “mass despair,” and reparable, it seems only by various forms of authoritarianism.
Throughout the process of reading and reviewing Earthly Powers, I have been haunted by the memory of Franz Joseph Haydn’s “poco adagio cantabile” from opus 76, string quartet n. 3. Haydn apparently thought of this melody as the most beautiful composition that had been given him, and he played it several times on the piano the night before he died.
This piece, in its peculiar transit since its composition in the 1790s, seemed emblematic of the course of European history since that time. It was bowdlerized in mid-nineteenth century Germany…and I first heard it as a boy in the 1930s or 1940s, over a basic home radio, as “Deutschland! Deutschland! Uber Alles!”

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