Commentary Magazine

Comes the Millennium

In New York City, the Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center is already booked solid for the night of December 31, 1999. In England, Her Majesty’s Government has appointed a “Millennium Commission,” one of whose members has endorsed a project to build a gigantic Ferris wheel looming 200 feet above Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. The editors of the Washington Post‘s “Sunday Style” section have declared Genghis Khan the “man of the millennium.” And, mutatis very much mutandis, Pope John Paul II has issued an apostolic letter, “The Coming Third Millennium,” asking the Catholic Church to prepare itself for a new “springtime” of missionary activity.

It cannot be said that John Paul’s letter has energized his own Church, much less the general culture. For whatever reasons—and, in the West, those reasons may well include a sense of exhaustion—the image of the “millennium year” has yet to seize the public imagination in a powerful way. But the intellectuals are stirring. One of them is Conor Cruise O’Brien, the Irish statesman and writer whose long and variegated career has taken him into the turbulent worlds of national politics (as a cabinet officer and a Labor member of the Irish Dail), international politics (as a special assistant to UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld), and journalism (as editor-in-chief of the London Observer and current contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly).

O’Brien’s special interest is the relationship between democracy, understood and appreciated as a child of the secular Enlightenment, and the enduring, “pre-modern” realities of nationalism and religion, which have done so much to shape and misshape the politics of modernity. In 1994, he was invited to deliver the prestigious Massey lectures for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and those five lectures have been gathered into a book under the foreboding title, On the Eve of the Millennium: The Future of Democracy Through an Age of Unreason.1

The book raises a number of interesting questions. How, for example, will democracies relieve their chronic defect, the politicians’ “craving for short-term popularity,” in an age dominated by the culture and technology of immediate gratification? Will the pornographic voyeurism the West indulges vis-à-vis its public figures erode the legitimacy of democratic institutions over time, as it once helped delegitimate the French monarchy? If “faith in progress” is essential to democratic self-governance, can such a faith be “more tentative and more humble” while calling forth the moral commitments that democracy requires? Can democracy survive the “cognitive degeneration” evident in political correctness, risk-averse politicians, the trivialization of public life, and the Western cult of lugubrious introspection?

Alas, it cannot be said that O’Brien probes these questions in a satisfying way. Take his special concern with the nexus among religion, nationalism, and democracy. There is much peremptory harrumphing here about the looming dangers of “fundamentalism,” but O’Brien pays no attention whatsoever to the way in which religious conviction shaped, for example, the democratic revolution that transformed the politics of Latin America, East Central Europe, and East Asia in the 1980’s. Nor does he offer any insight into the roles of religion and nationalism (religiously-informed or otherwise) in the revitalization of established democracies, or in the possible transformation of the world’s authoritarian, Islamic, and totalitarian states (like China, Indonesia, and Cuba). Thus a crucial question is not only left unanswered, but unasked: on the cusp of the third millennium, does the abiding political potency of religious conviction and nationalist sentiment require us to rethink our understanding of the relationship between the “Enlightenment heritage” and our political institutions and political culture?

It is also curious that, over the course of five lengthy lectures, O’Brien proffers no detailed definition of Enlightenment values or of the Enlightenment heritage he wishes to defend. He does make a useful (if unoriginal) distinction between the radical secularity of the French philosophes and the more benign attitude toward religion exhibited by the English and Scottish Enlightenments. But he does not pursue the question of whether this distinction reflects dramatically different attitudes toward the heritage of Western civilization. O’Brien has frequently described himself as a legatee of both Voltaire and Edmund Burke. But it is the Frenchman’s radical anticlericalism that is most noticeable in O’Brien’s failure to inquire whether the Enlightenment heritage might be connected in some fashion to the pre-Enlightenment history of the West. Jerusalem, Rome, the court of Charlemagne, the medieval schoolmen: none of these seems to have had very much to do with the “heritage” O’Brien wants to preserve into the third millennium. That was not, to put it gently, the view of Burke.

As with the past, so with the present: O’Brien devotes nary a single sentence to the crisis of the Enlightenment heritage embodied in contemporary Western philosophy. But here, surely, is an opportunity to examine whether one influential stream of Enlightenment thought has become self-mutilating. When democracy cannot defend its superiority on anything other than crudely utilitarian grounds, it is in serious trouble indeed. Yet that is precisely the situation into which the radical epistemological skepticism of today’s academy has put us. Is it because he cannot bear to think through the responsibility for this moral cul-de-sac that O’Brien ignores the issue?



Avoiding the really hard questions, O’Brien’s Massey Lectures are replete with what cigar-makers call “filler”: ill-informed cracks about American presidential politics; typically dismissive liberal clichés about a somnambulant Ronald Reagan; a strange obsession with the Clinton administration’s “Operation Restore Democracy” in Haiti. But O’Brien really loses his grip in the matter of Pope John Paul II, to whose purported wickedness he dedicates the first of his lectures.

O’Brien begins with a frankly apocalyptic charge: the Pope has created a “Rome-Riyadh axis” in order to unite “the religious of the world . . . for a final victory over the irreligious.” As evidence for this plot to inaugurate a new Dark Age, O’Brien adduces the World Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in September 1994. There, the Vatican played a major role in defeating the plans of the Clinton administration and its allies to increase the coercive power of the state in family planning and sex education throughout the world.

For O’Brien, who openly claims to “abhor” Pope John Paul II and who admits to praying daily for his immediate demise, Cairo signified something very ominous. It seems the last half of the second millennium has been “a time of disaster for the Catholic Church.” But now the Church will have its revenge: through the machinations of the Pope, official Catholicism has forged a tactical alliance with Islamic fundamentalism in order to roll back, and then rout, the Enlightenment heritage. To this end, the Pope is “not averse to giving hints” that he himself “might . . . in the year 2000, announce his acceptance of the Qu’ran and summon the faithful, through the papal muezzin, to join him in prayer at the Mosque of St. Peter.”

Such fevered inanities, which would be dismissed as the ravings of a madman had they issued from the likes of the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart, suggest why O’Brien is a poor guide to understanding the millennium now closing, or to assaying the human and democratic prospect beyond the year 2000.



Luckily, there are other guides. Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s massive study, Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years,2 asks us to consider the second millennium “from outside”: from the perspective of a group of “galactic museum-keepers” living tens of thousands of years in the future.

This may seem, at first blush, a cheap device to sneak multiculturalism and its attendant deprecations in through the front door. Yet in the hands of Fernández-Armesto, a Spaniard who wrote the most balanced biography of Columbus during the recent battles over the meaning of “1492,” and an Oxford don who styles himself “a committed advocate of the traditional humanist curriculum,” the view from the long-range future casts light upon phenomena that are typically left in the shadows. To be sure, Millennium does challenges the “rise of the West” historiography of contemporary giants like William H. McNeill and J.M. Roberts. But it does so without romanticizing other cultures or indulging in Claude Rains-style protestations of shock at the foibles of great figures from the once-sacrosanct Western pantheon.

Fernández-Armesto also eschews ideological explanations (like the classic liberal analyses of Macauley or Acton) for the churnings of history. Rather, what focuses his attention is “initiative,” the

capacity of some groups decisively to influence others—and, in particular, the ability of some peoples decisively to influence the rest of mankind—by generating and communicating ideas, creating or adapting technology, and undertaking exploration, colonization, or aggression.

Natural endowments (like population or resources) and cultural accomplishments (like technology) were once the prime determinants of a civilization’s relative position vis-à-vis its competitors; thus, at the beginning of our millennium, China’s demographic weight and technological prowess should have suggested the Middle Kingdom would be the power likely to dominate the planet. But over the past thousand years, the conviction, will, and capacity to project one’s culture outward—the determination to seize the historical initiative beyond one’s own shores—have made the crucial difference between leaders and led, conquerors and conquered.

This, Fernández-Armesto argues, is a genuine novum in human affairs. No one, in the year 1000, could have imagined that the Atlantic-based nations of Latin Christianity would dominate the last three centuries of the second millennium. But by the same token, no one should assume that the civilization of the Atlantic world has an open-ended claim to be the driving force of world history. Indeed, on Fernández-Armesto’s view of things, “initiative” has shifted once again, in the last quarter of the last century, to certain “technically-proficient communities of the Pacific seaboard”: there, he argues, we may find the “superior morale” that is essential to world-historical leadership.

Thus the Spanish historian, who has little truck with “mega-explanations” of the past, nonetheless finds a “thread in the labyrinth”: the relative position of cultures and their impact on history depends in no small part on the way peoples think about themselves and others. “History,” he writes, “is scattered with the debris of empires whose people talked themselves into decline and of victories won by superior morale.” It is a lesson the post-cold-war West, fraught with introspection and fretting over “imperial overstretch,” would do well to ponder.



Fernández-Armesto’s method is, by his own admission, somewhat quirky. But it pays dividends at a variety of levels of analysis. By viewing the past thousand years from the perspective of the “galactic museum-keepers” of the future, by utilizing a “pointillist technique,” and by indulging a “bias in favor of the unusual” in order to look at the conventionally important “from fresh directions,” he produces a steady flow of intriguing judgments, many of which amount to reversals of the common wisdom on a whole host of historical issues and events.

For instance:

  • Private enterprise, not governmental foresight, was the mainspring of the great West European empires. Moreover, the crucial “initiative” involved in Western expansion was to be found not among the scholars and artists of the Renaissance but in the cast of mind of navigators, explorers, and settlers. Their mentality, in turn, vindicated the chivalric tradition, as, going off “in search of the dénouement of their own romance,” they succeeded in thrusting their “small promontory of Asia” into the center of world affairs.
  • The indigenous peoples with whom European explorers and settlers came into contact and conflict were not hapless victims, doomed to failure in a no-win contest between modernity and primitivism. Rather, they were “active contestants” for power during the age of expansion. Thus, the Spanish conquerors of Mexico “were not drawn into a vacuum as if by an abhorrent nature but clashed with a competing culture that was also expanding rapidly and aggressively.”
  • The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation were not antitheses but “two aspects of a single, powerful urge to evangelism which dominated the history of the planet during the early-modern period.” Nor was early modernity a time of dramatic secularism; rather, the dynamics of Western expansion were one expression of “a civilization gripped by mission fever.”

At the close of his book, Fernández-Armesto succumbs to what he describes as a “deplorably obvious temptation” and assays a brief sketch of “how the next millennium might start to grow out of the last.” His forecasts fit no ready-made ideological niche. The Malthusian doomsayers and the more exuberant global democrats, he writes, will both be proved wrong: economic change and development will lower birth rates, but rival totalitarianisms will return, taking advantage of (and, in some instances, responding to) social pressures caused by the West’s descent into relativism and uncertainty. Great states, including the United States, will fragment. Cities will wither, as information technology, robotics, and energy efficiency combine to reverse a longstanding civilizational trend toward urbanization. Finally, shifts in historical initiative will become more rapid, so that even the impending Pacific age may be less enduring than the moment of Atlantic hegemony now coming to a close.



All of which makes for interesting conjecture. But as Fernández-Armesto readily admits, conjecture is simply that. Moreover, there are several aspects of his analysis that deserve closer scrutiny, not least for what they might suggest about the future.

Fernández-Armesto is on to something important when he argues that any shift in world-historical initiative from West to East will turn on a collapse of civilizational morale in the former. If ideas are indeed consequential, then the crisis of certainty among Western intellectuals—the conviction that certainty is itself chimerical and oppressive—could not but have deleterious effects on the West’s capacity and will to maintain its initiative. A culture that cannot give a compelling account of its convictions and purposes, to itself and to its rivals, is an unlikely candidate for world leadership.

But as Fernández-Armesto admits, “reveling in pessimism” is also an occupational hazard of historians, and those of us who are not members of that guild may, in fact, be better positioned to espy some counter-indicators. Perhaps the first has to do with what might be called “unsecularization.” According to several prominent tellings of the tale, modernity was supposed to result in thoroughgoing secularization. Yet two of the most culturally dynamic forces at the turn of the millennium are anything but secular.

Evangelical Protestantism, what the British sociologist David Martin has called a “third Wesleyan revolution,” is sweeping through Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of East Asia, carrying in its wake decidedly Western, indeed bourgeois, values and behaviors. Those values and behaviors, in turn, are generally supportive of Western economic and political institutions. Millions of lives in the third world are being transformed by this extraordinary phenomenon, as countless thousands were once transformed in early-industrial Britain and antebellum America.

Then there is the Catholic Church, transformed from the last bastion of the ancien régime into perhaps the world’s foremost institutional defender of basic human rights. Fernández-Armesto, considering the possible return of totalitarianism in the wake of Western angst and pusillanimity, finds some encouragement in the hope that the Catholic Church will maintain “what may become a unique commitment to moral absolutism in defense of human dignity, individual freedom, social justice, and the sanctity of life.” But the recent Catholic accomplishment is far more than a matter of resounding “thou shalt nots.” The Catholic case for human rights and democracy has been built, not over-against religious conviction, but on the foundation of religious orthodoxy. Thus, at least one path beyond the cul-de-sac of “uncertainty” and the consequent erosion of civilizational morale in the West has been identified. (Conor Cruise O’Brien to the contrary notwithstanding.)

Fernández-Armesto is also curiously inattentive to the fact that expectations about the protection of certain basic human rights—understood as immunities of persons from the coercive power of the state—are virtually universal in scope at the end of the second millennium. This, too, is a genuine novum. The human-rights revolution of the late 20th century had a decisive impact on the collapse of European Communism and traditional Latin American caudillism. Human-rights claims have also deeply influenced the recent outburst of democratic politics in East Asia. If the new authoritarianism proposed by some dictators and intellectuals in that region has found little resonance in the West, by the same token, Western political values and institutions continue to exert a magnetic attraction in the East. This, too, one would think, is one of the signs of the times worth pondering.

Two more points. Throughout Millennium, Fernández-Armesto stresses that initiative abroad requires at least a modicum of political stability and regime-legitimacy on the home front. But if that is the case, why is he so bullish on China and its leadership role in the third millennium? No one can doubt that explosive economic energy is being unleashed in China. By creating, over the next century, a vast middle class, that economic dynamism may eventually release the kind of liberalizing pressures that have already transformed the politics of South Korea and Taiwan. But regime-legitimacy and social control are maintained in China today only by brutalitarian methods: torture, slave labor, religious persecution, ethnic repression, female infanticide, the deliberate starvation of orphans. And would anyone seriously propose that the Chinese leadership has resolved the question of political succession? If the “rise of the East” depends in considerable part on the political stability of China, then the reversion of world-historical leadership eastward may be deferred longer than Fernández-Armesto expects.

Finally, although the collapse of civilizational morale evident in Western Europe these days does incline one to a certain pessimism about the future of the West, it is hard to know just how dynamic the newly assertive cultures in the Islamic world and in East Asia will continue to be. Islam has yet to show the capacity to resolve its longstanding conflicts with many aspects of modernity, not least the question of pluralism. And as for Confucian values and other manifestations of Asian religious traditions on display in every major American bookstore, these, at least in their present forms, have not displayed the capacity to transform other cultures in their own image and likeness.



On the edge of the third millennium, the culture formed by the complex interaction of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome remains the only civilizational force with demonstrably universal appeal. The lead society in the West, the United States, is showing impressive signs of cultural renewal and economic revitalization. To be sure, the continuing world-historical initiative of the West is no sure thing. But neither should one gainsay the possibility that there are considerable intellectual and moral resources left among the heirs of those people who turned a small promontory of Asia into the center of the world.


1 Free Press, 166 pp., $12.00.

2 Scribner, 8l6pp., $35.00.

About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the author most recently of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins).

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