The Common Heritage of America and Europe

By Russell Kirk

“Western civilization,” “North Atlantic community,” “the unity of the free world”—such phrases are employed nowadays by our publicists and our politicians so frequently and loosely that, to a good many of us in America, the words have ceased to signify much. Yet the United States of America is engaged in a tremendous defense of an ancient culture in which our country participates. We sense that, in this time when the fountains of the great deep are broken up, we are resisting as best we can a barbarous force: the power of a totalitarianism which would put an end to our civilization. It is high time, I think, that we began to come to a better understanding of the cause which is ours.

Nearly a generation ago, in “The Revolt of the Masses,” José Ortega y Gassett wrote that American civilization could not long survive any catastrophe to European society. Ortega was right. American culture, and the American civil social order, are derived from principles and establishments that arose in Europe. We are part of a great continuity and essence, bound up with an ancient culture. In conscience and in self-interest, we dare not abandon our fellow-sharers in that cultured inheritance.

The Christian Religion

The principal elements of this common patrimony of American and European civilization are the Christian faith, the Roman and medieval heritage of ordered liberty, and the great body of Western literature. It is a legacy of belief, not a legacy of blood. So far as race and nationality are concerned, the continuity between Europe and America is very confused and imperfect.

The most valuable thing in our common inheritance is the Christian religion. As one of the most perceptive of American philosophers and critics, Irving Babbitt, wrote more than two decades ago, economics moves upward into politics, politics into ethics, ethics into theology. This is no less true in the United States of America than in ancient Egypt or modern India. And the United States is a Christian nation, notwithstanding the opinion to the contrary expressed by Thomas Jefferson in his message to the Bey of Tunis. The church attendance figures seem to confirm this, in our time; but it is not the statistics which really signify. What matters, so far as the civil social order is concerned, is that the great majority of Americans voluntarily subscribe to the faith we call Christianity. In the things which most nearly concern the private life and the public good, they draw their moral and intellectual sustenance from the Old World. The prophets of Israel, the words of Christ and His disciples, the writings of the fathers of the Church, the treatises of the Schoolmen, the discourses of the great divines of Reformation and Counter-Reformation—these are the springs of American conviction on the most important of questions, as they are of European conviction. They underlie even the beliefs of those Americans and Europeans who deny the validity of Christianity.

In its immediate influence upon culture, perhaps the most important aspect of the genius of Christianity is its account of human personality: the doctrine of the immortal soul, the belief in the unique character of every human person, the concept of human dignity, the sanction for rights and duties, the obligation to exercise Christian charity, the insistence upon private responsibility. Both European and American civilization have been erected upon the foundation of the dignity of man—upon the assumption that man is made for eternity, and that he possesses dignity because he has some share in an order more than temporal and more than human.

Christianity has always been an immense moving force among Americans. The student who endeavors to ignore the role of Christianity in European and American culture is as foolish as a physician would be if he endeavored to ignore the patient’s personality. Christianity, with its Judaic and Greek roots, is the core of our civilization—its vitality, indeed. Even the virulent totalist ideologies of our century are influenced by Christianity—inspired by a misunderstanding of Christian doctrines, or a reaction against Christian principles; hate it though they may, the ideologues cannot break altogether with the Christian religion.

Law and Justice

The second article in our common patrimony is our theory and practice of ordered liberty; our system of law and politics. This is derived from Roman and from medieval Christian sources—and more remotely, through both the Roman and Christian traditions, from Greek philosophy. To the Roman and medieval ideas of justice, and to the Roman and medieval experience of society, there has been added a modern body of theory and experience—although too often we moderns, including the scholars among us, exaggerate the importance of “liberal” contributions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some of which latter contributions have not very stoutly withstood the severe tests of our twentieth-century time of troubles. The doctrines of natural law; the idea of a polity, a just and balanced commonwealth; the principle of a government of laws, not of men; the understanding that justice means “to each his own”; the whole complex of reverence for the reign of law—these passed directly from Europe into American theory and practice. Cicero, more than any other single figure, influenced the theory of both European and American politics—and through theory, our political institutions. The fact that Cicero is little read in our schools nowadays does not destroy the work his writings accomplished over the centuries.

To this general European heritage, the English added their common law and their prudent, prescriptive politics; and the English experience became directly part of the American social order. The founders of the American Republic, especially the lawyers and colonial representatives among them, took for granted this English pattern of politics, only modifying it slightly to suit the new nation—and even then modifying it not in favor of some newfangled abstract scheme, but rather on the model of the Roman Republic. So America has in common with Europe a coherent legacy of justice and order and freedom, a balancing of things public and things private, derived from Greek and Roman philosophy, Roman jurisprudence, Judaic moral law, and the Christian and medieval understanding of personal freedom and personal responsibility. The principle that power must be effectively counterbalanced and curbed and hedged, for instance, exists throughout Western Europe and America, however much it may be violated in practice from time to time. It has been so in America since the beginning of civilization in this continent.

A Noble Literature

The third principle article in our common heritage is the body of literature of our European-American civilization. The great works of imagination and reason join us in an intellectual community. They, far more than the endeavors of the United Nations Organizations, transcend the barriers of nationalism. The philosophers and the poets of 3,000 years have formed the mind and the character of Americans as well as Europeans. The most influential of all books, of course, has been the Bible. Homer, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Cicero, Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, St. Augustine, the Schoolmen, Dante, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Bossuet, Cervantes, Milton, Johnson, Goethe, Coleridge, and all the rest are the general property of civilized people in the West. The best of American letters is part and parcel of the achievement of European literature. Novelists like Hawthorne, and historians like Henry Adams, though possessing characteristics distinctly American, nevertheless stand in the grand tradition of our common Western literature.

Civilization in Doubt

In all essential respects, Europe and America have a common faith, a common history, a common system of law and politics, and a common body of great literature. They make one civilization. Until the terrible events of our own century, at least, a native of Romania and a resident of Alaska, let us say, had more in common than two Indian villagers—supposing one to be a Hindu and the other a Moslem—living within a few yards of each other. The general assumptions of the Romanian and the Alaskan concerning the nature of things, the character of man, and the principles of justice have been, in essence, much the same.

So it was in the Western world for some centuries: these cultural ties outlived dynasties, empires, and even philosophies, injured now and then by war fanaticism, yet rising with renewed vigor after each period of violence. We cannot be confident, nevertheless, that our common civilization will endure forever. It is possible to exhaust moral and intellectual capital; a society that relies entirely upon its inheritance finds itself bankrupt. With civilization, as with the human body, conservation and renewal are possible only if there is healthful change regularly. It is by no means certain that our present common civilization is providing for its own future. We moderns pay a great deal of attention to material and technological means; we pay very little to theological, moral, and social or to the cultural ends or to the cultural instruments by which any generation must fulfill its part in the contract of eternal society.

Twentieth-century man, in Europe and in America, tends to be contemptuous of the past; but he contributes little enough of his own, except in applied science and technology, toward the preservation of culture, let alone its improvement.

Here, then, I venture some words of misgiving as to the future of our common inheritance of civilization. The facile optimism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is much diminished in Europe and America nowadays; but this does not mean that naïve notions of inevitable Progress have been replaced by much serious reflection on the problem of how to conserve and renew our common cultural patrimony. The present threat to our civilization comes as much from indifference, apathy, and selfishness as it does from the totalist powers; and pessimism for pessimism’s sake is as bad as optimism for optimism’s sake. It seems to me that there are grim symptoms discernible of an absolute decline of the higher culture in both America and Europe; and also symptoms of a decay of the ties that join together the civilizations of Europeans and Americans.

American Ideals

Although for a good while it has been the fashion of European intellectuals to sigh or snarl over the allegedly increasing barbarism of America, I doubt very much whether the decay of the higher culture is proceeding faster in America than in Europe; indeed, in a number of respects the contrary seems to be true. The average American workingman, for instance, has much more knowledge of, and respect for, religious teachings than has his English or French counterpart. The average American scholar is less liable to be swept away by ideology than is the European intellectual. The American people at large, in our time, are much more strongly attached to their inherited political institutions than are any other people in the world, even the English.

In any age, there are a good many people in rebellion against their cultural inheritance. In our time, the number of such persons has become alarming. A spirit of defiance or harsh criticism which may be healthful, when confined to a creative minority, can become perilous if it is taken up by a popular majority. To the people who rebel against their cultural inheritance, that legacy seems a burden, rather than a foundation. I doubt whether there are more of these rebels in America than elsewhere in the world; but cultural restoration, like charity, begins at home; and so I venture to touch here upon some signs of the American neglect of the common inheritance of civilization.

So far as our Christian heritage is concerned, there exists little danger that Christianity may cease to be popular in America. The peril, rather, is that Christianity may become altogether too popular for its own good. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed, there is a tendency in the American democracy to re-fashion religion on a “democratic” pattern—to deny all intermediary powers between God and man, and to emphasize the social virtues of religious faith at the expense of salvation through grace. Atheism, agnosticism, and anti-clericalism, even at the height of their nineteenth-century vogue, never exercised much real influence in America. These attitudes now are confined principally to eccentrics and to certain members of university and college faculties of the sort that the Irish call “sp’iled praists” and the Scots call “stickit ministers.” And financially, at least, the American churches are in a healthy condition.

The Quality of Faith

Yet the quality of American religious faith is another matter. Many of the clergy tend markedly toward a sentimental and humanitarian application of religious doctrines to the reform of society, at the expense of the supernatural element in religion and the personal element in morality. There also exists a tendency toward making the church into a club and a means of communal self-praise. Christian hope and Christian charity both suffer under this attitude. Yet a healthy reaction against this sentimental and convivial excess seems to have set in: there is a revival of orthodox theology and Christian discipline in the seminaries. America never will build her equivalent of the Gothic cathedrals of Europe, nor will the American churches ever be so much the center of all life as were the medieval churches. But Christian theology and Christian morals probably are not going to yield much more ground to twentieth-century indifference and apathy and vulgarization.

Decline of Law

As for our legacy of ordered liberty, however, I think there is cause for misgiving among us. I do not refer to the laments of the anti-anti-Communists, nor to certain foreign criticisms of American politics. Representative government and civil rights are in no really immediate danger. The disturbing symptoms which I have in mind are a growing disregard of the first principles of justice and jurisprudence, even among judges and lawyers; and the tendency toward concentration of power in Federal and state executive branches and bureaucracies.

The cause of this drift may be found, in part, in the gradual substitution of “practical” standards for the doctrines of natural law, in jurisprudence, and in political theory. Our schools of law, with few exceptions, have encouraged this tendency. We may yet see the triumph of what Professor Eric Voegelin calls “theoretical illiteracy.” This affliction exists at every level of American society, and the ascendancy in this century of the bodies of doctrine called instrumentalism and positivism has something to do with the trouble. With this is joined a tendency of our jurists to substitute their own notions of social expediency for the reign of authority and precedent. Certain recent criticisms of Supreme Court decisions by judge Learned Hand and Dr. Edwin S. Corwin describe this latter drift better than I could.

According to a lawyer-friend of mine, passion, prejudice, and private interest exert an increasing influence upon our courts. These are the consequences of theoretical illiteracy and lack of respect for precedent and tradition. This decay of understanding of the reign of law extends to obscure quarters. A university student of considerable natural intelligence recently inquired of me why all American checks and balances in politics were desirable. Why could we not simply train up an elite of governmental administrators, he asked, trust to their good-will and ability, and let them manage the concerns of the nation—diplomatic, domestic, and economic?

This growing naïveté, which amounts to an ignorance of the essence of European and American political theory, too often is unchallenged by the pragmatic and technical approaches popular in many of our schools of public administration and governmental research at our universities. It also reflects a wondrous ignorance of human nature and statecraft. It is the attitude which the late Lord Percy of Newcastle called “totalist democracy”—a trust in an abstraction called The People combined with an unquestioning faith in The Expert. It amounts to the negation of many centuries of historical and political experience.

Our theoretical illiteracy in politics and jurisprudence, produced in part by the failure of twentieth-century American schooling, is paralleled by a decline of appreciation of humane letters. We have not succeeded in reversing this drift—not by the “Great Books” movement (which has serious faults of its own), not by the amorphous “survey of humanities” and “world literature” and “survey of civilization” courses in our colleges and universities.

Deterioration of Learning

The study of great literature, in our Western culture, has aspired to an ethical end through an intellectual means. The improvement of the private human reason for the private person’s own sake, and the incidental improvement of society thereby, was the object of the traditional literary disciplines. Both the aim and the discipline itself are badly neglected in twentieth-century America. An obsessive vocationalism has done mischief to the higher learning—and, for that matter, to secondary schooling; while the “Progressive” methods injured in other ways the old disciplines. Such slogans as “education for living,” “learning by doing,” “schooling for social reconstruction,” “life adjustment,” and “schools to serve the community” have been employed for a generation as weapons against any genuine training of imagination and reason. Among the consequences has been the steady reduction of leadership—moral and intellectual talent—in America. The founders of the American Republic learned the first principles of human nature and society from the Bible, Cicero, Plutarch, and Shakespeare. But the present generation of school children is expected, instead, to “learn to live with all the world”—through a rash of scissors-and-paste “projects.”

When poetry is replaced by “communications skills,” and narrative history by doctrinaire social generalizations, the whole intricate inheritance of general culture is threatened. There are professors of education who seriously argue that no young person ought to read a book more than fifty years old. The imaginative and rational disciplines, so painfully created over centuries, can be immeasurably injured by a generation or two of neglect and contempt.

I repeat that these disquieting signs of the decay of our common culture are not peculiar to the United States. Despite our American liking for material change, we never have had much taste for novelty in morals, politics, and the fabric of civilization. An able Scottish editor writes to me that in his opinion—and he had traveled in this country—America still is characterized by vitality, diversity, and simplicity of life. I think this is true, and that we need not despair for our culture.

Change and Continuity

Yet we live in an age in which the expectation of change seems to be greater than the expectation of continuity. The patrimony of a civilization can be lost at the very moment of that civilization’s material triumph. In any culture worthy of the name, men must be something better than the flies of a summer; generation must link with generation. Some men among us are doing whatever is in their power to preserve and reinvigorate our common heritage. This is not a work that can be accomplished through positive law or the creation of international commissions. Yet if a people forget the ashes of their fathers and the temples of their gods, the consequences soon will be felt in the laws and in international affairs. Without cultural community between America and Europe, there is little point in political alliance. If we have no real civilization, no enduring cultural bonds, to unite us against Soviet totalism, we may as well let the alleged Communist culture have its way with us.