The Cube and the Cathedral

Europe, America, and Politics Without God


By George Weigel

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Why do Europeans and Americans see the world so differently? Why do Europeans and Americans have such different understandings of democracy and its discontents in the twenty-first century? Contrasting the civilization that produced the starkly modernist “cube” of the Great Arch of La Defense in Paris with the civilization that produced the “cathedral” of Notre-Dame, George Weigel argues that Europe’s embrace of a narrow secularism has led to a crisis of morale that is eroding Europe’s soul and threatening its future — with dire lessons for the rest of the democratic world. Weigel traces the origins of “Europe’s problem” to the atheistic humanism of the nineteenth-century European intellectual life, which set in motion a historical process that produced two world wars, three totalitarian systems, the Gulag, Auschwitz, the Cold War — and, most ominously, the Continent’s de-population, which is worse today than during the Black Death. And yet, many Europeans still insist — most recently, during the debate over a new EU constitution — that only a public square shorn of religiously-informed moral argument is safe for human rights and democracy. Precisely the opposite, Weigel suggests, is true: the people of the “cathedral” can give a compelling account of their commitment to everyone’s freedom; the people of the “cube” cannot. Can there be any true “politics” — any true deliberation about the common good, and any robust defense of freedom — without God? George Weigel makes a powerful case that the answer is “No,” because, in the final analysis, societies are only as great as their spiritual aspirations.


Praise for The Cube and the Cathedral
"An engagingly written book."
Wall Street Journal
"A finely honed reflection on post-Christian Europe."
Weekly Standard
"A sumptuous banquet, stuffed with enough ideas for several books. Even to summarize the argument is a formidable task; Mr. Weigel's prose is so rich."
New York Sun
"Mr. Weigel is a past master at penning lively and lucid studies of contemporary issues."
National Catholic Reporter
"Readers given to pondering European affairs will find much to pique thoughtful discussion."
Publishers Weekly
"Weigel's pithy polemic boldly assesses contemporary Europe. . . Sure to be much discussed—and possibly to be remarkably influential."
Kirkus Reviews
"Weigel has a nuanced and restrained vision for the role religion should have in public life—for him, it should be a strong and welcomed voice in democratic debates, but not a voice that drowns out all others. . . thoroughly readable."
Tulsa World
"A brisk look at the state of European culture and politics."
Washington Times
"George Weigel's impassioned essay on the strange death of European Christianity is at once an elegy and a warning—an elegy for a venerable culture that is being effaced by a vacuous secularism, and a warning to Americans that their assumptions about a shared 'Western civilization' are fast becoming obsolete on the Eastern side of the Atlantic."
—Niall Ferguson, author of Empire and Collossus
"In this elegant and highly readable book, George Weigel explains why Europe suddenly seems so distant from America, and why Americans have to be concerned with modern Europe's flight from politics, its demographic crisis, and its willful forgetfulness of its civilizational roots. One hopes that Weigel's book, like Tocqueville's reflections on America, will find a wide audience among those to whom he has held up a mirror. The Cube and the Cathedral is George Weigel at his best—learned yet sprightly, deeply serious yet buoyantly hopeful."
—Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law, Harvard University

Letters to a Young Catholic
The Courage To Be Catholic:
Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church
Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace
Catholicism and the Renewal of
American Democracy
American Interests, American Purpose:
Moral Reasoning and U.S. Foreign Policy
Freedom and Its Discontents:
Catholicism Confronts Modernity
Just War and the Gulf War
(with James Turner Johnson)
The Final Revolution:
The Resistance Church and the
Collapse of Communism
Soul of the World:
Notes on the Future of Public Catholicism
Witness to Hope:
The Biography of Pope John Paul II
The Truth of Catholicism

Amicis Cracoviensibus Meis In Corde Europae

Questions Atop the Cube
At the far western end of the axis that traverses Paris from the Louvre down the Champs Elysées and through the Arc de Triomphe, crossing the Seine at the Pont de Neuilly, is La Grande Arche de la Défense—like the more famous Pompidou Center, one of the grands projets of the late French president, François Mitterrand. Designed by Johann Otto von Spreckelsen, a Danish architect of sternly modernist sensibility, La Grande Arche is a colossal open cube: almost 40 stories tall, 348 feet wide, faced in glass and 2.47 acres of white Carrara marble. On a hot, sunny afternoon in August 1997, which is when I first saw it, La Grande Arche can be, quite literally, dazzling. A lift, definitely not for those inclined to vertigo, whisks the visitor up to a rooftop terrace, which offers an unparalleled view of the French capital, past the Tuilleries to the Louvre and on to the Ǐle de la Cité, Sainte Chapelle, and Notre-Dame.
The arch's three-story-high roof also houses the International Foundation for Human Rights. For François Mitterrand intended La Grande Arche as a human rights monument, something suitably gigantic to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Thus, in one guidebook, La Grande Arche was dubbed "Fraternity Arch." That same guidebook, like every other one I consulted, emphasized that the entire Cathedral of Notre-Dame—towers and spire included—would fit comfortably inside the Great Arch.
All of which raised some questions in my mind, as I walked along the terrace admiring one of the world's great cityscapes. Which culture, I wondered, would better protect human rights? Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundations of democracy? The culture that built this stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and holy "unsameness" of Notre-Dame and the other great Gothic cathedrals of Europe?

More Questions
Those questions have come back to me, time and again, as I've tried to understand what has happened in Europe—and what has happened to western Europe in particular—in recent decades: when I try to understand why Europe's approach to democracy and to the responsibilities of the democracies in world politics seems so different from many Americans' understanding of these issues. In the first years of the twenty-first century, and at a moment in history when the democratic ideal had energized much of the world, Americans suddenly seemed to be approaching a parting of the ways with many of our European friends in understanding the democratic project—its sources, its possibilities, and the threats to it. As an American acutely aware of the debt of gratitude my country owes to Europe, a widening rift between the United States and the countries and cultures from which America was born did not strike me as a happy prospect.
And still the questions came. They were intensified in the wake of 9/11, when, after an initial period of European solidarity with the United States, fundamental differences arose between the United States and its oldest allies on the question of how best to respond to the threat posed by international terrorism, especially terrorism that claimed a religious sanction from Islam. Yet as I explored these problems with European friends from both the long-established democracies of western Europe and the new democracies of east central Europe, it struck me that the rift between the United States and Europe on, say, the best means to disarm the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq touched only the surface of things.
How, for example, should one understand the fierce argument in Europe over whether a new constitutional treaty for the expanding European Union should include a reference to the Christian sources of European civilization? Why were so many European intellectuals and political leaders determined, or so it seemed, to airbrush fifteen hundred years of European history from their collective memory? Why did those same intellectuals and politicians deem any reference to the Christian sources of contemporary Europe's commitments to human rights and democracy a profound threat to human rights and democracy? Was there some connection between this internal European debate over Europe's constitution-making and the events that caught the attention of American headline writers and TV news anchormen—the harsh words between Europeans and Americans over Iraq; the portrait in the European press of Americans (and especially an American president) as religious fanatics intent on shooting up the world; the vastly different respect afforded the United Nations by Europeans and Americans?
These phenomena, I suggest, are related. Understanding them requires something more than a conventional political analysis. Political answers alone cannot account for what seems, from the western side of the Atlantic, Europe's crankiness—whether that crankiness be about the democracies' struggle against terrorism or the structures and processes of European integration. Nor can political answers alone explain the reasons behind perhaps the most urgent issue confronting Europe today—the fact that western Europe is committing a form of demographic suicide, its far below replacement-level birthrates creating enormous pressures on the European welfare state and a demographic vacuum into which Islamic immigrants are flowing in increasing numbers, often becoming radicalized in the process.
In the aftermath of 9/11, and especially during the debate that preceded and followed the Iraq War of 2003-2004, Americans became acutely aware that they have a "Europe problem." So, I have discovered, do some Europeans, including European intellectuals. My proposal—which in retrospect had its origins in my meditations atop the Grande Arche de la Défense—is that the "Europe problem" is best understood in moral and cultural terms. My further proposal is that this "problem," while it presents itself most acutely in western Europe, is not just one besetting America's European friends and allies. Their "Europe problem" is—or could be—America's problem too.
The "Europe problem," as I have come to think of it, is fundamentally a problem of cultural and civilizational morale. Over it hovers the question posed sharply, if unintentionally, by guidebooks that boast about the alleged superiority of La Grande Arche to Notre-Dame: the question of the cube and the cathedral, and their relationship to both the meaning of freedom and the future of democracy.

Martians and Venusians?
A widely discussed American analysis of America's Europe problem and Europe's America problem was advanced by Robert Kagan in Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (2003).1 Using a popular trope that he may have subsequently come to view with a bit of chagrin, Kagan argues that "on major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus."2 However fetching such a characterization may be in a sound bite world, it does scant justice to the seriousness of Kagan's argument.
To begin with, Kagan understands that not all Europeans are "from Venus"—Tony Blair comes to mind— nor are all Americans "from Mars." Yet Kagan insists that these stereotypes—Americans are from Mars, Europeans from Venus—disclose important truths. The United States and western Europe have different strategic visions: different understandings of how the world works, different understandings of the nature of power, different understandings of the causes of conflict in the world, different views of the role of international legal and political organizations in managing conflict, and different perceptions of the utility of military power in securing peace, freedom, and order in world affairs—and that's before we get to the policy differences that separate the United States and Europe on issues such as the path to peace in the Middle East, the International Criminal Court, the rebuilding of Iraq, and so forth.
Kagan suggests that these dramatically different strategic visions are not the by-products of national character, reminding us of Europe's bellicose past and America's traditional nervousness about international power politics and entangling alliances. Rather, on Kagan's view, these different strategic visions are the product of a great disparity of military power between the United States and Europe. That power gap did not just happen, though; the disparity in military power between the U.S. and Europe is itself the product of an ideological gap between the older, established democracies of western Europe and the United States—what Kagan terms "a different set of ideals and principles regarding the utility and morality of power."3 The ideological gap in turn is based on a different set of experiences in the twentieth century.
The European Continent's devastation by two world wars; its division during a Cold War that, had it broken out into hot war, would likely have destroyed Europe; the longer European experience of vulnerability to terrorism—all of this, Kagan suggests, led Europeans to a different set of perceptions about the threats to peace and freedom at work in the twenty-first-century world. Moreover, these experiences led many prominent Europeans to the conviction that security threats can and should be met, in the main, not by traditional applications of military "hard power," but by the further refinement of international legal and political instruments of conflict resolution. The most enthusiastic European "Venusians," like European Commission president and former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, see the present European Union as the model, indeed the prefigurement, of a world run by "soft power." As Prodi put it in a May 2001 speech in Paris, in Europe, "the rule of law has replaced the crude interplay of power . . . power politics have lost their influence; [therefore, by] making a success of [European] integration we are demonstrating to the world that it is possible to create a method for peace."4 This, Kagan suggests, has become Europe's new mission civilisatrice, its civilizing mission: Europe is to bring to the world the fulfillment of Immanuel Kant's vision of perpetual peace.5
Kagan understands that Europe's passion for this new mission is in part a function of the fear that dare not speak its name—that if the experience of an integrated, peaceful, post-Cold War Europe isn't universalizable, then it might not be a settled accomplishment for Europe, either. And that is to think the unthinkable in circumstances in which, as Kagan puts it, "the French are still not confident they can trust the Germans, and the Germans are still not sure they can trust themselves."6 That, in turn, helps explain why Europe's integration—intended by some to create a European superpower and an independent European foreign and defense policy—has gone hand in hand with a drastic decline, absolutely and relatively, in Europe's "hard power" capabilities.
There are many ironies in the fire here, and Kagan neatly sums them up:
Europe's rejection of power politics, its devaluing of military force as a tool of international relations, have depended on the presence of American military forces on European soil. Europe's new Kantian order could flourish only under the umbrella of American power exercised according to the rules of the old Hobbesian order. American power made it possible for Europeans to believe that power was no longer important. And now, in the final irony, the fact that United States military power has solved the European problem, especially the "German question," allows Europeans today to believe that American military power, and the "strategic culture" that has created and sustained it, are outmoded and dangerous.7
And that, in Kagan's view, leads to the "great paradox," namely, that Europe's emergence into posthistory has been made possible by the fact that the United States still lives in history: "Because Europe has neither the will nor the ability to guard its own paradise and keep it from being overrun, spiritually as well as physically, by a world that has yet to accept the rule of 'moral consciousness, ' it has become dependent on America's willingness to use its military might to deter or defeat those around the world who still believe in power politics."8
Which brief summary of his position will, I hope, drive home the point that Dr. Kagan does his argument insufficient justice when he reduces it to a matter of Martians versus Venusians.

True, but Insufficient
Yet for all its insight into why Europeans and Americans see the world and world politics so differently, Robert Kagan's analysis does not get us to the roots of the matter. Yes, western Europeans have ordered their institutions, their politics, and their national budgets according to a distinctive understanding of how the twenty-first century works—or should work. Yes, that different vision of the world and its possibilities is the product of experiences unlike those Americans underwent in the twentieth century. Yes, Europeans can find some historical warrant for believing that a world of perpetual peace is possible in Kant's idealism (and I mean "idealism" in both its philosophical and psychological senses).
But why did Europe turn out this way? Why did Europeans learn these things from their experience? And why have these lessons taken the political and ideological forms they have?
German commentator Josef Joffe and French political theorist Alain Finkielkraut get us a bit closer to an answer by focusing on the trauma of Europe's mid-twentieth century, the years when Europe seemed to lose its mind and its way. As Joffe wrote in late 2003, in an essay attempting to parse the antipathy many European intellectuals and activists feel toward both the United States and Israel, "Much of Western Europe has drawn its post-Holocaust identity from the rejection of the darkest part of the Continent's proud history. The battle cry of postwar Europe is 'Never Again!,' as Alain Finkielkraut has put it: a 'no' to fuehrers, duces, and caudillos, to colonialism, conquest, and discrimination against the 'Other.' To regain moral stature, Europeans have turned antifascism into a doctrine of worldly transcendence, with a secular decalogue that reads, in part: thou shalt not pray to the discredited gods of nationalism; thou shalt not practice power politics; thou shalt relinquish sovereignty and rejoice in cooperation."9
This is, as I say, closer to the heart of the matter: the embrace of the "end of politics" trumpeted by Romano Prodi and others is, in some part, a mundane quest for absolution from Europe's guilt at having produced the Holocaust (not to mention the Gulag, the Ukrainian terror famine, the Spanish Civil War, and World War I, which set the whole bloody business in motion). But why is this search for historical absolution ultramundane, so to speak? Moreover, does a political-psychological analysis about projected guilt over the Holocaust (and the rest of the parade of horribles) get us to the roots of what thoughtful Europeans and concerned Americans alike perceive as Europe's present malaise? I don't find that answer satisfactory in trying to understand certain other prominent, and disturbing, features of recent European life. Neither do some of my European friends.

❖ Why, in the aftermath of 1989, did Europeans fail to condemn communism as a moral and political monstrosity? Why was the only politically acceptable judgment on communism the anodyne observation that it "didn't work"?
❖ Why, to come to the present, do European statesmen insist on defending certain fictions in world politics: like the fiction that Yasser Arafat was interested in peace with Israel; or the fiction that the Kyoto protocol on climate change would be rigorously observed by the nations that signed the Kyoto agreement; or the fiction that the leaders of Iran are to be taken at their word when they pledge not to develop nuclear weapons; or the fiction that there is something meaningfully describable in political terms as an "international community," the highest expression of which is the U.N. Security Council as presently configured?
❖ What accounts for Europe's fideism, its will to believe, about international organizations? Why, as historian John Keegan put it, did Europeans in the early twenty-first century often espouse "a philosophy of international action that actually rejected action and took refuge in the belief that all conflicts of interest were to be settled by consultation, conciliation, and the intervention of international agencies"?10
❖ What accounts for disturbing currents of irrationality in contemporary European politics? Why did one of every five Germans (and one-third of those under 30) believe that the United States was responsible for 9/11, while some 300,000 French men and women made a best-seller out of L'Effroyable imposture (The Appalling Fraud), in which the author, Thierry Meyssan, argued that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed by the U.S. military, using remote-controlled airliners?11 Why did a rock concert crowd in Dublin in June 2004 applaud when Morrissey, an aging pop singer, announced the death of Ronald Reagan? Why did he receive an even larger ovation when he said that he only wished it had been George W. Bush who had died?12 Why did 25 percent of the French (and 30 percent of those under 35) tell pollsters that they wanted Saddam Hussein, an acknowledged mass murderer, to win the Iraq War? 13
❖ Why did voters in Spain give a de facto victory to appeasement in their March 2004 elections, days after al Qaeda operatives killed hundreds and wounded thousands by bombing a Madrid train station?


On Sale
Jul 31, 2008
Page Count
224 pages
Basic Books

George Weigel

About the Author

George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. The first volume of his biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, was a New York Times bestseller, and his writing appears in a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal. He lives in North Bethesda, Maryland.

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