French President Emmanuel Macron was quick to pledge himself towards the rebuilding of the damaged part of the cathedral, changing the topic of a pre-planned speech he meant to hold on the subject of the yellow vests.
Reaction to this disaster was quick and widespread, with many eulogizing on the meaning and importance of the cathedral as a symbol of France and indeed for all of Europe. An artefact of medieval and Christian Europe, immortalized by Victor Hugo as both a national symbol in the Romantic spirit and as a commemoration of the past of a people and a country.
Such rifts in the continuity of a people’s fate have the potential of revealing insights into nature of the present. The tragic nature of this event was capable of briefly covering over the disharmony within France, particularly the disaffection aroused by the President and the direction in which he is taking the country. Instead the people are unified in a ritual of national mourning directed towards a commonly cherished past whose destruction is dramatically visualized before their eyes. But is Macron’s pledge to rebuild the cathedral also a pledge to reknit the fraying threads of national unity and disintegration of national tradition?
Europe’s Current Political Climate
The past half decade in Europe has been characterized by a number of political conflicts, notably the migrant crisis, Brexit accompanied by broader disharmony within the EU, the Greek government-debt crisis. Common are warnings about extremism from both the media and political establishment and criticisms about mismanagement from anti-establishment voices reflected in the election of “populist” governments and the aforementioned yellow vest moment. Similarly, there is talk of deep political polarization in the USA and concern that general partisanship is endangering discussion between opposing political factions which increasingly see each other as “communists”, “globalists” (or “Marxists”) and “fascists”.
What is lacking is any clear value by which to orient themselves and strive in the world. The EU official states their values to be the “respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law“. All of these values are either negative values or at very most values which intentionally lack an imperative. The two exceptions are the stated value of equality and the right to education as declared in the EU’s charter of fundamental human rights.
These exceptions must be qualified by the explanation that equality in this context means equal treatment by political, legal, and social institutions and the right to education is qualified within the charter with “due respect for democratic principles and the right of parents to ensure the education and teaching of their children in conformity with their religious, philosophical and pedagogical convictions shall be respected, in accordance with the national laws governing the exercise of such freedom and right”. There is in the latter statement intended a validation of democratic and parental self-determination.
In fact, all of these values are in some fashion or another intended to facilitate self-determination, as even rule of the law is intended to facilitate the freedom of self-determination in the sense of the classical formula as freedom to do what one wishes so long as it does not interfere with another’s freedom.
I have not outlined the values expressed by the EU for the sake of either censure or approval. Nonetheless I wish to illustrate the fact that they lack guidance on what ends one is to exercise one’s freedom in accomplishing. This is left entirely up to individuals in their daily affairs and nations through the established political process.
Returning to the symbol of Notre-Dame. The cathedral was not a representation of undefined self-determination, but very concrete values, whether they be the notion of beauty which guided the building’s formation or those of Christianity, which was indeed already a unifying mechanism for Europe throughout the middle ages, centred around the catholic church.
A guiding value need not be an authoritarian imperative. To assume so is to assume a false alternative. A guiding value may take the form of a common goal which may unite a divided people.
Macron has also been vocal in his calls for deeper integration in Europe centred around the idea of a common European army and greater alignment of national economic policies. These proposals are similarly misguided. Not because they are necessarily and inherently flawed, a question on which I will currently refrain from judgement, but because they entail the same lack of purpose from which Europe is currently suffering. Business, besides potentially giving one a livelihood, says nothing about what one is to do with that livelihood, and likewise existential defence says nothing about what to do with the existence which is sustained.
One may reason and argue as long as one wishes for the necessity of such policies for the continued existence of the European Union, but without clear and defined values, all such reasons could fall on deaf ears if those who would hear them are already motivated by values and goals in which the EU plays no or even an antagonistic role.
This is the existential issue with which Europe deals and, as I have taken previous steps to outline, has dealt with since the turn of the turn of the twentieth century.
If you would like to hear my opinion on how to build a way forward then please check out my post on The Central Importance of Beauty.