Commentary Magazine


The Intellectual History of Europe, by Friedrich Heer

Historical Ambivalence

The Intellectual History of Europe.
by Friedrich Heer.
Translated by Jonathan Steinberg. World. 558 pp. $12.95.

Professor Heer—who teaches at the University of Vienna—has been kind enough to provide us with a guide to an inordinately compact and perplexing book. This introduction, which figured as an epilogue in the original German edition of 1953, specifies the main themes, twelve in number, which run through his work. Of these the first alone need be quoted in extenso:

There has always been a struggle between “above” and “below” in Europe’s inner history. The “upper” culture of Christianity, educated humanism, and rationalism has struggled against a “lower” culture of the masses. This cultural “underground” included both the deeper levels of the individual personality and the customs, manners, and faith of the people. During the 19th century, which really means the era that ended for Europe in 1945, this struggle entered a new phase. For the first time, movements from below broke the surface of the upper culture. Whether these movements were rationalist or irrationalist, spiritualist or naturalist, they were marked by great fanaticism and enthusiasm. Their leaders were determined to create a new salvation from the midst of the people or from the depths of the human ego.

In short, the pre-Christian emotional life of the European masses—which found its expression in the Middle Ages in the “volcanic natures” of the great heretics and reformers—finally exploded in our own time in the abominations of Communism and Nazism. Encouraged by the tolerant attitude of democratic governments, the “underground” for a brief period was able to gain the mastery of Europe. Its political and military ravages have now been checked; but the future of the civilized European remains doubtful in the extreme.

In justice to Professor Heer’s own polemical passion, it is only fair to recall that he himself has suffered arrest at the hands of both the Nazis and the Russians and that Vienna a decade and a half ago was far less tranquil and far more exposed than it is today. One should also note that he is by no means unambiguously on the side of the “upper” culture. Although he views history in a Catholic perspective, he is highly critical of the Church’s policy during most of the contemporary era, and he reproaches the representatives of the “orthodoxies and the ruling systems” for their past unwillingness to engage in an open “dialogue with the enemy.” Much bloodshed and suffering, he implies, might have been spared if Europe’s monarchs and churchmen had adopted a more accommodating attitude.

At the very start, then, Professor Heer reveals his ambivalence toward his own enterprise. And the complexity is compounded by the fact that he discovers alongside Europe what he calls the “world of the Three Rings”—the world of Mediterranean culture, Judaic, Islamic, and Byzantine—whose permissiveness made it on occasion the ally of the “underground.” In his early chapters, this Southern sphere of tolerance and urbanity figures as culturally superior to Europe in the narrower sense; in one of his most telling passages he depicts how around 1200 the North European spokesmen of the “upper” culture concentrated their intellectual forces against the Mediterraneans in a “gravitational center represented roughly by the area covering Paris, Oxford, Brussels, Cologne, and Basel.” Somewhat later, however, he shifts the locale of this half-external menace from South to East: it now becomes the offshoot of Byzantium incarnate in Holy Russia. While Professor Heer is unable to withhold his admiration from the Medieval Southerners, he is far less openhearted toward the subsequent culture of the East, which he finds almost wholly negative.

Since the “enemy” is both Mediterranean-sophisticated and Northern-folkish, the work both of great souls such as Francis of Assisi and Joan of Arc, and of the brutish collective unconscious of the masses, the account of its successive manifestations covers an enormous range of cultural history. Still more, as one advances in Professor Heer’s book, it becomes apparent that most of what is exciting in Europe’s tradition is located in one sense or another on the wrong side of the barricades. Whether he himself is fully aware of the extent of his own ambivalence remains open to doubt. But it is certain that his account of the Albigensian Heresy is far more lively than what he has to say about St. Thomas Aquinas. And his analysis of the “theatrical” culture of the baroque—another tour de force of deft characterization—is far from flattering to this last effort at an all-inclusive synthesis. The figures that stand out most compellingly in his discussion are the extremists and the deviants—Luther, Pascal, and the rest; the custodians of “official” culture appear wooden and pallid.

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If Professor Heer had left the matter at that, all might have been well. A culturally supercilious and structurally exasperating book might have been rescued by its verve, its immense scholarship, and its generosity to those below the cultural dividing-line. But in a final chapter on the 19th century, the author has extended his account to modern times, where he has gone thoroughly off the track. (Here again it is only fair to add that a further volume dealing more fully with the contemporary age is promised.) When he reaches his contemporaries and near-contemporaries, Professor Heer carries his underlying thesis to outlandish lengths. He tells us in effect—we are back to his initial themes—that there is nothing intellectually novel about modernity: “When the new popular movements came out into the open, the most remarkable and exciting fact of all European intellectual history was unconsciously brought to light: despite a persecution lasting 1,000 years, not one ‘heretical’ idea, philosophy, or conviction had been exterminated.” They simply reappeared in secular and political disguise. And the same was true of even the most daring speculations of modern science: “Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle’ is an expression of a typical German-Protestant irrationalism. Einstein’s unified theory of the relations of space, time, energy, and matter . . . has its home in the world of the Three Rings.” Freud is simply a belated romantic. As for the popular manifestations of contemporary culture, the films (I imagine Professor Heer is referring to their spiritual ravages) have “killed more people than the machine-gun.” Fortunately, television had only begun its slaughter at the time his book was written.

For someone who regards the early 20th century as the great age of European thought, statements such as these make puzzling reading. And I become still more bemused when I recall that as a very young man I thought much as Professor Heer does. Although his specific formulations may sound novel and jarring, the underlying attitude in his book is not new at all: it is the cultural elitism of Europe’s beleaguered mandarins. Echoes of Ortega and Spengler resound through his work. Like them, he cannot resist the temptation to wrench a historical particular out of context and endow it with a portentous significance. Along with them, he thinks in terms of “Europe’s collapse.” We may read his work with profit—and even possibly enjoyment—as still another talented effort to fit the pieces of intellectual history into an aesthetically convincing design. But Professor Heer’s elitist lamentations will be of no use to us in approaching—indeed, will only confuse—the problem we face, as late 20th-century men, of sorting out what is still relevant and what is of merely antiquarian interest in our overwhelming cultural heritage.

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