Is racism a drift of ethnocentrism?
According to the ethnocentric viewpoint, a group considers its own reality, its set of values, its own “vision of the world” (Weltanschauung), as the objective and universal criteria to approach and “judge” other human realities, cultures and ways of life. Upholding one’s reality and vision of the world as central leads to defining oneself as the paramount expression of humanity. It is well-known that many peoples define themselves through such expressions as “the race of men” almost as if they alone fully represented mankind’s humanity, thereby measuring the humanity of others – their customs, culture, language, belief system, etc. – according to their own categories, elevated to a universal criterion and considered as the highest expression of mankind. This way, the judgment passed on others by those who hold an ethnocentric viewpoint becomes a judgment of conformity, meaning that the value and/or disvalue of the others is considered proportional to the closeness to or distance from one’s own way of life, values, culture and customs. The classification values and criteria of the reality of a group or civilization are thus considered universal and absolute even though they are cultural products, and change according to geographical and historical conditions. In the Hellenic world, for example, belonging depended on sharing the same language, culture and gods, while in communities where religion was paramount, as with the Jews, Christians and Muslims, identity and belonging were defined by that very religion: “the people of God,” “the community of believers (Umma)”, that bring together those who share the same faith and belong as one. “Joining” or “exiting” the community of faith depended on one’s adhesion to or rejection of a given faith.
By defining their identity coordinates, peoples, as well as any other non-ephemeral organic community, actually established the limits of inclusion or exclusion. By doing this they were actually setting the boundaries of civilization, the line separating the civilized from the barbarians. In the Greek as well as in the Roman worlds, the “barbarian” was not a term that identified a specific people but one that defined the “other” with all the differences and specificities this implied. The barbarian was the “non-Greek,” the “non-Roman.” It was the catch-all term Greeks used to describe the civilized Persians and Egyptians as well as other coarser and less advanced peoples.
Claude Lévi Strauss overturned the valuation criteria by considering the affirmation of the dichotomy civilized / non-civilized, human / savage, cultured / barbarian as “the most remarkable attitude and feature of these savages,” highlighting a viewpoint that is characteristic of the savage himself “who does not relativize the facts inherent to his group of belonging, who does not think in a decentralised way.” But this “savageness,” which arises from the fact that his given identity, vision of life and specific customs are not relativized, leads to the universalisation of the particular and the elevation of the relative as an absolute. This is the infantile disorder of all peoples and is, at the same time, part of the development of any individual. During his lifetime man faces the difficulties of this process consisting in breaking free from his identity givens which are often experienced as being “natural,” granted, immediate, without alternatives.
Ethnocentrism however is not an unavoidable fate, nor is it an exclusive or exclusionary condition. In a community, sense of belonging and identity awareness can cohabit with the recognition of and encounter with other cultures and peoples. Diversity can be accepted as a value and not as a non-value, and acceptance of complexity and plurality allows a community to relativize non only its specific condition of life but, for that matter, all conditions and identities.
The ability to grasp the peculiarities of single cultures through the knowledge of specific milieus, conditions of development and relations between the peoples of the Mediterranean and the Near East – but also of more distant places from Africa to India – combines, starting from the Persian Wars, with a deeper reflection on one’s own specificity, albeit not without an ideological streak arising from the conflict with the Persian empire.
While ethnocentrism may carry within a potential racist drift – one’s specificity intended as the foundation to the right to command – racism intended as such developed as a doctrine endowed with scientific claims starting from the second-half of the 18th-century and its subsequent discriminatory logic in the first part of the 20th. This was achieved initially through discriminatory race laws and successively with the physical annihilation of the discriminated. This was the extreme consequence of the premises and logic of racism: the otherness that is seen as a non-value must be isolated, emarginated, pursued, destroyed; just as a virus must be identified, removed from the healthy body, neutralised so as to not cause further harm. Destroyed.
In Armenians-Aryans, “The blood myth”, the race laws of 1938 and the Armenians in Italy, NYC, Nova publishers science, 2016, pp. 6-8.
What is racism and what is it for?
For racists, men are divided into various races expressed through specific psycho-physical features, which are the two sides of the same identity consisting of the form (body) and the substance (spirit). Racists believed physical characteristics were the necessary and consequent manifestations of a certain spirit, of a given psyche, which, in turn, find expression and representation exclusively through certain facial and physical features: the body is the mirror of the soul and vice versa. A further element providing meaning and continuity – i.e. an identity and a history to the race – to this notion lay in the conviction that racial features were handed down from father to son in time and across generations through a process that led to the creation of a “race.”
Let us briefly recapitulate the issues we have outlined, starting with the initial one. The initial, and obvious, consideration to be made is that no human group presents the same features, whether they be psychic, characterial or pertaining to its alleged “style” or soul. While we may observe, at the most, physical features that are more recurrent than others in the bodily structure of people (height, skin and eye color, etc.), claiming we could define the “soul” or “psyche” of the so-called Lapp or Italian races, would amount to slipping into ideology. It would be akin to making arbitrary, doubtful and entirely subjective constructions or myths, and to upholding “power ideas” to give substance to subjective and emotionally charged models of references in turn capable of driving action by relying on mythical and/or ideological categories of thought.
We can also reject the commonly accepted assumption of the correspondence between the body and the psyche by taking a closer look at the analyses carried out by the racists themselves. In reality, the idea of race initially served, in the 18th-century, to classify elements of the physical and natural world, such as plants and animals. It was only in the 19th-century that such criteria were improperly applied to define the characteristic features of so-called human races, from physical aspects such as skin and hair color, cranium size, all the way to even the single components of the face, such as the nose, lips and eyebrows.
An undue and indissoluble tie was thus established binding physical features with elements such as the psyche and the character, which were soon elevated to universal status becoming the common heritage of a continent, of Africans, of Asiatics, of the white and black races.
But the single factor that mattered most to racists didn’t pertain to the spiritual sphere, to the human and cultural sphere proper. According to racists what truly defined race was the physical aspect, from which the cultural aspects (way of life) derived. The human and cultural spheres derived from the biological one (corporeity) according to an exquisitely deterministic rationale. Pseudo-scientists, advocates of pseudo-sciences such as physiognomy and phrenology, claimed they could define the character, psyche, ideals or miseries of single individuals by their facial traits or skull size, craniums being either dolichocephalic (elongated) o brachiocephalic (short). There were other arbitrary variants, too, like the facial angle conceived by Peter Camper, who believed that the differences in the angles (more or less straight or acute) as measured from a straight line drawn from the lips to the forehead could reveal the mysteries of the human soul: the well-shaped dolichocephalic skull of a white man, with blond hair and blue eyes, indicated kinship to a good race. The element presented as the incontrovertible evidence of the existence of races would be the one positing the existence of three races: the white, the black and the yellow. But this classification, too, didn’t actually mirror reality, not only because Orientals, in particular the Chinese and the Japanese, actually have white and not “yellow” skins but also because there are significant variants of the white man and the African, without considering the Indio people and the native Americans who cannot be included in the “three” races mentioned earlier. But whatever it may, the only “race” that mattered in terms of value was the white race, with the “yellow” and especially the “black” considered as subaltern races.
This also explains why racism historically developed – at least in its earliest and not openly declared forms – as an attempt to give a justification to colonialism and the slave trade, to the reduction of men who lived free in their ancestral lands to exploited and dominated colonial subjects or, worse, to human beings deprived of the right to decide over their own lives and destiny, forcefully removed from their homes and enslaved.
In the modern era, this question arose in the 16th-century disputaziones regarding the fate to be reserved to the Indios considering that their nature and value as human beings were still unclear to the Spanish masters. The issue was to be resolved in a 1537 encyclical entitled Sublimis Deus where Pope Paul III, the maximum authority in Christendom, peremptorily declared that the native peoples of South America were, indeed, veri homines, “real men”.
One of the progenitors of racism was the trade of human beings, enslaved and transported from Africa to meet the demand for a servile labor force. These human beings came at zero cost because they were “goods” that had been plundered in their territories of origin, in Africa. This ignoble practice engendered racist theories according to which the exploitation of millions of men and women could be justified because it involved not fully-fledged human beings but slaves, not by accident but by nature, as affirmed in a famous and controversial Aristotelian thesis.
In other terms – and herein lies the crux of the matter – any race theory, doctrine or myth conceals and refers to an attempt to justify a people’s domination over another, starting with the assumption that races exist and respect a value scale expressed at various levels – from power to aesthetics – legitimizing the government of the better over the less endowed, who also happen to be the less civilized, “beautiful” and capable.
Thus, the core of any race theory can be expressed in the following way: as there are races that have been hierarchically ordained, those that best represent and enshrine the ideal of man – physically and culturally – have the natural right to govern the world according to their higher culture, superior operative, administrative and technological skills and, last but not least, “military” and destructive might.
The domination of one or more peoples over the others, colonialism, slavery, and racial segregation are thereby legitimized – or supposedly legitimized – by these assumptions.
If we were to set racism not against its constituent backdrop of power and domination we would gain a misleading view of it that would be of no help in gaining insight on the historical phenomenon that tragically affected European politics in the 19th– and 20th-centuries and, in particular, on that form of racism, going by the name of anti-Semitism, which led in just a few years to the murder of various millions in the heart of civilized Europe.
From Armenians-Aryans, “The blood myth”, the race laws of 1938 and the Armenians in Italy, NYC, Nova publishers science, pp.10-13.
Purple classicism: The role of the Phoenicians in the birth of the European civilization
Seen from another perspective, the notion of classicism appeared inadequate to define and be identified with western civilization. If by the term “classical world” we wished to indicate the ambits of culture, research, arts, exploration, sciences, if we intended by it all that civilization was grounded on, then the classical world cannot be identified exclusively with the West. Not only because realities such as Greece – with which the classical world has come to be identified – have often been the outcome of the welding of different cultures, but also because the civilizing effects from other parts of the world have been ignored in and removed from European cultural history. In other terms, the classical world, which continues to be pointed out as the source of a significant part of western civilization, was never really an exclusively Graeco-Roman achievement, but the outcome of a significantly more complex network of relations involving numerous peoples and cultures.
Phoenician temple of Baalbek
In this light, a paradigmatic case was represented by the Phoenicians, a people that for nearly one-thousand years played a key role in various ambits of Mediterranean history. Outstanding navigators, traders, explorers, and colonists, for the Phoenicians the sea was the unifying element of their life and history. Stretching from present-day Lebanon to a small part of Syria (from the Gulf of Alessandretta to the Strip of Gaza), their birthplace, Phoenicia, featured a political organization made up of free, self-governing “city states”, often linked to each other by religious ties and federative agreements, not unlike the Greek model.
The Phoenician key cities of Tyre, Sidon, Tripoli and Byblos were behind the colonization process that affected a significant portion of the Mediterranean basin, the western coast of Africa to Gibraltar, but also the coast of Southern Spain and several large islands, namely western Cyprus, Sicily and Sardinia. The Phoenicians also colonized the Atlantic coasts of Morocco and Spain, thanks above all to the expansionary drive of Carthage.
According to tradition, Tyre’s firs colony was Cadiz – the Gadir of the Phoenicians and the Gades of the Romans. This coastal colony, as all Phoenician colonies, traditionally dated back to the 12th-century BC. Here lay the base of Hannibal’s Italian campaign; at Gadir, at the westernmost edge of Phoenicia and the then known world, the Carthaginians held their last stand in Spain.
The most acclaimed western colony of Phoenicia was Qart Hadasht, the “New City”, and mistress of the seas like her mother city Tyre of which Ezekiel said “Your domain was on the high seas”. Defined by Polybius (XVIII,35,9) at the eve of the third Punic War as “the richest in the world” and by Appian as the second or third most powerful city after Rome, Carthage was the only Phoenician colony whose foundational myth was mentioned in Virgil’s Aeneid.
Along the lines of Greek colonialism, Carthage would in turn become the founder of other colonies and, after the demise of Tyre in 573 BC, emerge as a point of reference as well as protector of the Phoenician sphere of the Mediterranean.
Scholars largely agree that Phoenicians left no written record of their own. What we know of them comes above all from their competitors, namely Jews, Greeks and Romans, who, it should be observed, handed down accounts of the Phoenicians at the time they were vying with each other for economic and military supremacy.
Homer tells us Phoenicians were traders and pirates, besides being the Greeks’ toughest commercial rivals in the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians also formed the backbone of the Persian imperial fleet that clashed with the Greeks at the Battles of Artemisium, Salamis and Eurymedon.
The Phoenicians’ lasting legacy was, however, their ability in trade. While Pliny claims it was the Carthaginians who invented trade (Naturalis Historia, VII, 199), commercial activities by Phoenicians in the Mediterranean and the western coast of the Atlantic had actually started a few centuries prior to the foundation of Carthage, around the same time or just before that of Rome as testified in other sources.
The name itself the Greeks gave them was connected to an activity involving the manufacturing and sale of clothing and textiles in Tyrian purple, which was extremely difficult to make and very expensive and, therefore, available only in imperial courts and among the wealthy aristocracy of the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians, were therefore those who produced and traded fabrics in Tyrian purple, a dye obtained from the secretion produced by several species of predatory sea snails in the family Muricidae.The Phoenicians were the forerunners of free enterprise who already in Homeric times operated in full autonomy. As merchants and navigators, they relied on a wide web of contacts, markets and colonies they themselves had set up in a geographic space stretching from Anatolia to the Atlantic, across the entire Mediterranean.
The Phoenicians transported and traded merchandise they themselves produced or collected in the trading posts they visited: from the islands of northern Europe, where metals abounded, they collected tin, copper and silver; from the Atlantic coast of Africa, they gathered ivory, gold and exotic animals. But in reality, there was precious little the Phoenicians didn’t buy, transport, sell and barter: from glass to wine, pottery oil and salt. Not to mention tuna, which was mainly fished in Sardinia where, in addition to the lucrative cereal business, the Phoenicians also traded along the metal, salt and tuna “routes”. It is no coincidence that many almadraba sites on the island were connected to ancient Phoenician settlements.
The holds of a number of Phoenician shipwrecks along the Italian coastline contained mixed cargo consisting of a wide variety of goods, especially Greek and Etruscan amphoras and pottery.
The Phoenicians’ natural element was the sea. What Appian said of the Carthaginians, defined by the historian as thalassobiotoi, “inhabitants on the sea”, certainly applied to the Phoenicians as well. They dwelled on ships, which were their real homes: From the 10-metre-long boats to the trireme and the large cargo ships that could transport large quantities of merchandise. On their ships, the Phoenicians navigated, explored, traded and fought as undisputed masters of what the Greeks called the techne nautike, of the nautical technique or art of navigation. Even the sea combat among triremes involved extreme dexterity and consisted in essentially two maneuvers: the penetration (diekplous) and the encirclement (periplous) of the enemy fleet – tactics that required perfect training on the part of the rowers and sailors whose concerted action was aimed at ramming and sinking the enemy ship with their ships’ rostrum.
The trireme was essentially a surface torpedo that rammed the flank of the enemy ship and sunk it. The lethal weapon was thus the trireme itself, its ability to pick up speed and its force of impact and penetration, which was ensured by the prowess of the rowers and sailors. Many scholars believe it was the Phoenicians the original constructors of the trireme notwithstanding Thucydides’ claim that it was the Corinthians who first built one in Greece.
It is a fact well known that Phoenician and Punic ships were a model of nautical engineering. Polybius gives an account of two famous events during the first Punic war when the Romans were successful in capturing two quinqueremes, which they then used as a model to copy (I, 20, 59). Appian reports of an episode occurring during the third Punic war that he couldn’t quite explain. The incident concerned the unexpected sortie of a flotilla of 50 warships from the military port of besieged Carthage. For the Romans, too, the event was inexplicable because barely a few weeks earlier they had seen with their own eyes that the naval blockade was working and that the military arsenals of Carthage were empty. The treaty of 201 BC had in fact imposed on the Carthaginians a military fleet of no more than 10 warships. As archeological evidence would show, the explanation for the appearance out of the blue of those ships lay in the ability of Carthaginians to build prefabricated vessels that could be rapidly assembled, ready for use.
The Phoenicians’ seafaring ability didn’t depend exclusively on the technical excellence of their ships, but also on their outstanding sailing skills, which allowed them to navigate across the seas of the known world. “The Phoenicians were the first to rely on the observation of stars to navigate”, Pliny wrote. While Strabo (XVI, 23) greatly admired the Phoenician seamen’s ability – especially the sailors from Sidon – to sail at night, which they were able to do by combining the study of astronomy with mathematical calculations. The constellations they relied on were essentially the Great Bear and the Little Bear because their stars rarely “dipped in the ocean” as we read in Homer and Virgil, meaning that they remained visible at all latitudes. For the Phoenicians, a Fidissima Nautis, a “highly reliable guide”, was the Little Bear which, as Silius Italicus pointed out, was also known as the Phoinike, the “Phoenician Star”.
Full grasp of the marine environment, ability as shipbuilders, navigational skills aided by mathematical calculations and astronomical observation which allowed them to sail at night and engage routes that were not accessible to others, allowed the Phoenicians to record a series of extraordinary achievements. Such feats included the periplus of Africa – of which Herodotus has provided us with a fascinating account – and the exploration of the cold seas of Northern Europe, which were practically unknown to the Greeks and Etruscans. Records have also survived of the outstanding exploits of the Phoenician commanders in the fleet of pharaoh Necho II (609-504 BC), such as Himilco and Hanno the Navigator.
But the Phoenicians’ wasn’t just a “practical” knowhow arising from a distillation of age-old experience. Strabo recalls that the Greeks learned from the Phoenicians the astronomy and mathematics the latter developed and applied during nocturnal navigation. The Phoenicians had established a link between observation, research, application and verification of the results that enabled them to reconsider the theoretical given according to a procedure that lay at the base of modern research.
It has been poignantly sustained that “nothing stopped the Phoenicians”: They were unfazed by extreme distances, by the conditions of the sea, by the hostility of the populations encountered. Himilco was the first known admiral to have explored the Atlantic coasts of Europe, probably sent out by the Carthaginian senate on a mission to establish commercial routes with the Cassiterides, metal-rich islands located south of England.
But the Phoenicians were inventors and innovators not only in the area of commercial navigation. Greek authors including Herodotus (V, 85), Diodorus Siculus (V, 74, 1) and Pliny, in his Natural History (V, 13, 67), agree that the Phoenicians were the inventors of the alphabet. It was an invention that revolutionized the history of humanity in the Mediterranean and successively in the world because it marked the shift from the cuneiform, a writing consisting of some 600 signs taught to and mastered by a small elite after a long and difficult process, to an easily comprehensible standard set of 22 consonants: “It was an invention that allowed a very broad segment of the population to gain access to writing and therefore to knowledge, consequently enabling more witnesses to write history”.
When centuries later writing combined with paper – a Chinese invention the Arabs successively developed – the simplified representation of knowledge made accessible to all through the alphabet would be able to rely on a formidable tool of conservation. For paper was at the same time also an extraordinary means for the diffusion of the fruits of knowledge and human knowhow.
The representation, conservation and diffusion of language, that is, of human knowledge and thought, were the essential preconditions allowing a given culture and civilization to develop and have conscience and memory of itself. History has shown us that such preconditions were set by the three peoples that were commonly considered as quintessentially anti-Western: the Phoenician, Chinese and Arab.
If the Phoenicians were viewed as the builders of a maritime civilization and the inventors of the written word, they could also be considered, at least according to the Punic version, as constructors of a land civilization.
In stressing to senators the threat that Carthage continued to pose despite having been twice defeated already, Cato the Elder took with him to the senate a basket of figs, pointing out that they had been freshly picked in Carthage just three days earlier. What Cato wished to drive home was that Carthage was near, prosperous and dangerous. The Roman senate got the message and took steps to start a fresh war against Carthage, the third, which led to its ultimate annihilation.
After the first Punic War and the loss of western Sicily, followed soon after by the occupation of Sardinia, seized by the Romans with a coup de main, Carthage went about rebuilding its navy in southern Spain, which acted as an operative base for its economic and commercial interests. This was taken by Rome as a pretext for its second conflict with Carthage, which ended with the Battle of Zama and the consequent decline of Carthage both in terms of territorial extension and strategic importance. Following the second Punic War, Carthage lost all its Mediterranean possessions, maintaining a hold only in the African interior. Once again, Carthaginians showed great resilience. They reshaped their economy by strengthening agriculture in the African territory, achieving results that were in many ways astounding. Diodorus Siculus tells of vast expanses of farmed lands around Carthage that looked more like gardens than agricultural fields. The Roman senate was so impressed by Carthaginian agriculture that it commissioned a Latin translation of the 28 volumes of Mago’s work on agronomy.
Authoritative Greek and Roman authors acknowledged the value of both the Eastern and Western Phoenicians. Aristotle considered the Carthaginian political system similar to the Spartan’s, while Cicero attributed Carthage’s 600-year domination to the political principles it upheld.
The contribution of the Phoenicians was not limited to nautical technique, invention, exploration, or Trans-Mediterranean and intercontinental trade, but also impacted law, a field that Greeks and Romans always believed was theirs. Michael Sommer writes: “The Greek word poinikazein (‘to write like a phoenician’) appears in an epigraph. The term approximately meant ‘to draw up a statute’, while a poinikistas was an expert appointed by the public authorities to draft laws. If a language was trustworthy, it was because the Phoenicians lay at the origins of their polis and legal tradition.
The millenary history of the Phoenicians proved just how futile was the category of “West” to explain historical events in the ancient and contemporary contexts. The Phoenicians were present across the Mediterranean, and if their lands of origin lay in the east, it was they alone who colonized the Atlantic coasts of Spain and northern Africa. Even Hannibal’s military campaign against Rome was seen from the Roman side as the attack of an enemy hailing “from the remotest regions of the world, from the straits of the ocean and the pillars of Hercules”, and from the Punic perspective as the feat of a military leader who came from the West “to wipe out the name of Rome and bring freedom to the world”.
In the light of the observations made thus far, we can agree with Michael Sommer that the “classicistic perspective from which ancient Mediterranean civilization was viewed appeared to be scientifically outdated and even tarnished by a degree of Eurocentrism”. The Greek and Roman world was strongly impacted by other cultural influences, among which that which was autonomously exerted by the Phoenicians, who for centuries played a key role in navigation, exploration, astronomy, trade, etc., contributing significantly to developing those endeavors. Thus, “the paradigm of a Mediterranean world divided in East and West” appears to be inadequate, thanks also to the presence of such spheres of influences: “It was the Phoenicians who showed that the time had come to replace this paradigm with new models strongly focused on multipolar connections and single players” The Myth of western civilization, pp.159-170
The many christians religions of West
…starting with the Edict of Constantine, which turned Christianity into a religio licita, that is, a religious creed recognized and admitted in the empire, and successively under Theodosius when it was elected as the imperial religion, Christianity emerged as the religion of Europe and Europe as the Christian continent. The history of Europe and, thanks to its political, military and economic dominance, the history of the world were made to start with Christianity: The birth of Christ represented a dramatic caesura in the flow of time by establishing a before and an after, an ante and a post Christum. The universally acknowledged chronology was set with the birth of Christ, so that we are presently in the 21st-century because of an event – the birth of Christ – that gave new meaning to time.
In just a few centuries, Christianity not only emerged as Europe’s religion but also as its culture. It would influence and shape all aspects of life, both private and public, and the history of Europe would become the history of its “Christian centuries”.
In reality, identifying Europe or Euro-America, as it has been defined, that is the liberal-democratic West, with Christianity, is somewhat complicated. Although Europe and the United States are, at least formally, two Christian continents, it would be more appropriate to affirm that in Europe, in the United States and in other western contexts, such as Canada and Australia, various forms of Christianity have emerged over time. These forms of Christianity have coexisted in contrast with each other and even clashed violently, reciprocally excommunicating each other.
The contrasts within the community of the followers of Jesus emerged soon after the death of the Master and concerned various aspects ranging from the choice of which segment of society should be the beneficiary of the Christian Good News, to doctrine, that is, the elements on which faith should be built on, to liturgy, to the organization of the community of faithful and to its internal hierarchy, which would shape and orientate doctrine and discipline of the “people of God” of their leaders, that is, their clergy in its various orders and rank.
Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum keeps a 1560 print of the “Tree of Heresies”. A tree is portrayed, whose roots go deep in the body of Satan, with branches bearing 120 inscriptions, almost if they were fruits, listing as many heresies.
Tree of Heresies, Rijk Museum, Amsterdam
Under the print, on the two sides, are two sentences, respectively by Irenaeus and Augustine of Hippo, against Simon Magus, the protoheretic, the first of all the heretics
On the upper part of the tree, on the last branch on the right, there is the face of a man wearing a Turkish turban with the following writing: “Mohammedanism in the East and in the South”, while on the last branch on the left there is the effigy of a man with tiara, with the writing “Papism in the West and in the North”.
There should be no surprise that Calvinist Holland, strongly opposed to Philip II of Spain, champion of Catholicism at its most intransigent, would be hostile to the Pope in Rome, guide of all Catholics. What surprises, though, is the placing of the Pope of Rome on the same level of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam who, also surprisingly, is considered a heretic.
According to this perspective that spread in Europe in the middle ages and beyond, Islam would appear to be a Christian heresy. Consequently, if we were to consider Christianity, in its various articulations and doctrines, both orthodox and heterodox, as the religion of the West, we would also have to include in its fold Islam as well. From this point of view, that clash of civilizations Samuel Huntington envisages – the clash between Christianity and Islam – would become a contrast within Christianity, as I will try to point out further ahead.
Even a necessarily brief reconstruction of what heresy and being heretic meant in early Christianity by relying on an hermeneutical method that continued to be used until modern times, would shed light on just how complicated connecting the West and Christianity would be; how it is no more than a bold simplification.
The notion of Christianity, too, is somewhat complex, to the extent that in terms of theology, doctrine, liturgy and church organization, it would be more appropriate to speak about multifaceted aspects of that we know is the Christian religion. These are manifestations that over the past two millennia have been considered alternative and incompatible. For this reason, it would be more appropriate to view Christianity as an articulated and differentiated movement requiring to be considered pluralistically: Not “Chritianity” but “Christianities”.
These are considerations that could engender a traditional and orthodox reply of this kind: “Christians, all Christians, recognize themselves in Jesus and His salvific mission, in His teachings testified in the four gospels of the canon and the mission of the apostles”.
In reality, the bitter and highly contentious debate that divided the early Christians and led to the decisive Council of Nicaea in AD 325, centered around the key Christological issue of the divine nature of God the Son and his relationship to God the Father.
The Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenic council of Christianity, was attended by some 300 bishops from principally the eastern regions of the Empire and took place in the imperial palace in the presence of emperor Constantine, who convened the assembly and ultimately influenced its proceedings by expressing himself in favor of the consubstantiality (omousia) of Father and Son, a doctrine that differed from that sustained by Arius and his followers who believed Father and Son were two distinct beings
The Nicaean Council sustained that “the Son is not only like (homoios) but identical to the father (tauton)”, a doctrine that was backed and ratified by Costantine who sent out to “the governors of provinces an imperial mandate […] through letters sent to each of them, commanding them to fulfil […] instructions completely.”.
In the Life of Constantine the great by Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea who held views that had points of contact with the Arian doctrine, it was reported that Constantine considered the Council rulings as expressions of the divine will (III, XX). For the emperor, heresy was a form “of rebellion and insubordination” (III, LX) and to this end prohibited heretics to gather assemblies, even in private, and confiscated their meeting places (III, LXV). “The books of these persons [were] hunted out” and those who continued in their “forbidden evil practices” were caught (III, LXV-LXVI). The Council rulings were influenced by imperial authority and sanctioned with the ecclesial punishment of excommunication. In this light, excommunicated dissenters could be exiled by the state, while dissenting bishops could lose their bishoprics.
The very harsh measures imposed by the Council of Nicaea on those who opposed the doctrine, upheld by Costantine, of the identity of substance of Father and Son, reduced the number of dissenting bishops to just two.
The righteous doctrine emerging at Nicaea would thus become not only the most widespread, the one supported by the large majority of the clergy – the doctrine of the Great Church – but also the doctrine shared and protected by political power.
The contrasts and divisions within the early Christian community, some of which would remain unresolved all the way to the modern age, were engendered not only by doctrine but also by a wide range of issues concerning the liturgical calendar or the organization of the church. A question that caused tension and led to confrontation regarded, for example, the lapsi, that is, those who had committed apostasy but wished to return to the church following the persecutions triggered by the edict of emperor Decius.
Within the Church, some bishops, like Cyprian, were more indulgent with regard to the lapsi, while others, like Novatian, took up a more intransigent stance by not allowing any of those who had lapsed to be reconciled, upholding a position that would lead to a schism.
But contention within the community of Christians concerned principally doctrine and theology, which would become a recurrent feature throughout the history of Christianity. Doctrinal and theological issues did not exclusively concern the figure of Jesus Christ, his message, and the earliest organizational structure of the Church, but widened to include basic questions such as the nature of God and creation, life after death and the resurrection of the flesh, to mention some of the questions raised by that complex movement going under the name of Gnosticism.
The doctrines believed to be heretical and those proclaimed to be orthodox by the Great Church – i.e. the Roman Apostolic church – and the schisms, intended as the separation from the latter in the name of the “righteous doctrine”, that is, of orthodoxy, are a recurrent feature in the history of Christianity, which has never been at any time in history a unitary phenomenon. If we were to insist on the Christian roots of Europe, we should be insisting on different and often alternative roots.
In Christianity, right from the outset the overcoming of the alternative between orthodoxy and heresy, between the doctrines of the Great Church and those put forward by theologians and communities considered to be heterodox and schismatic, never occurred through dialectical confrontation or doctrinal clarification. The ascendency of an option over the other, of orthodoxy over heterodoxy, almost invariably took place against a backdrop of power relations, where the dominant doctrine was always identified with orthodoxy and linked to those who held power. This occurred also when in other geographical contexts the same doctrinal position was considered heretic and schismatic, as transpiring in Europe during the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants.
There were, nevertheless, several criteria that could be relied upon to uphold orthodoxy and ensure one was in line with the “righteous doctrine” as opposed to the other doctrines. Chief among these criteria – one that was endorsed by all Christian churches – was kinship to tradition. Tradition was about the spreading of the “good news” preached by Jesus Christ and believed to be, at the same time, the word of God. But the latter could be spread only by the legitimate representatives and bearers of the holy word: The prophets, Jesus Christ and the apostles. Towards the end of the 2nd-century BC, Irenaeus of Lyon introduced in the lexicon of Christian doctrine the expression apostolike paradosis, the “tradition of the apostles”, meaning that the one and only church originated from the apostles and continued through the bishops, their successors, who perpetuated the mission.
Tertullian would take up, develop and codify the notion of tradition, which can best be expressed in the formula: “ea regula… quam ecclesia ab apostolis, apostoli a Christo, Christus a Deo tradidit”.
Tradition substantiated the appropriate handing down of the original message, which was therefore conserved unaltered in its fullness. The apostles were the guardians of the message of Christ: Through the Gospels, they canonized the message and through their successors, the bishops, they perpetuated it. Thanks to a scrupulous handing down of the divine word and thanks to the chain of ministers and their successors, the true Catholic church – the universal and apostolic church founded by the apostles of Christ – was thus established. In the Roman apostolic church, the tradition of teaching and priesthood was definite, consistent and certified.
On the contrary, heretical doctrines were considered recent and of dubious origin, and the diffusion of doctrine by churches that had no authority in handing down the word of God and in representing the community of faithful was entirely arbitrary.
From The Myth of western civilization. The west as an ideological category and political myth, NYC, Nova publishers science, 2021, pp.116-125.
Arab science and modern Europe
Christianity heralded a new chronology; a new history, a new vision for man and of life and, therefore, a new existential perspective at the core of which lay the evangelic message, as understood by the Roman Catholic Church, and a reality whose existence was justified by a dubious interpretation of a phrase attributed to Jesus Christ. During the long centuries of that “age of obscurity” labelled as the middle ages – a period conventionally running from the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD) to the discovery of America (1492) – “pagan” culture in its multifarious diversity went out of the picture, especially during the high medieval period, from libraries, from schools, from the memory of European man. The revival of Greek culture and its numerous manifestations would take place only in the Renaissance, when a sharp break from the medieval period occurred, and Greek and Roman tradition became the driving force in all ambits of speculation and endeavor.
But the Renaissance didn’t come from nowhere and it certainly didn’t create the scientific method or the “classical” and humanistic approach to human aspiration out of nothing. It would be more appropriate – as has been pointed out – to speak of the “renaissance” of an academic tradition that had been lost in Europe for a long time. That resurrection was possible thanks not least to the discovery of Greek and Arabic texts and of their Latin translations, just as had occurred earlier when Islamic scholars discovered those works from Ancient Greece that had apparently been lost. Key to this reawakening would also be the successive conquest of Spain, which allowed the scientists of the Renaissance to gain access to the founts of knowledge that were the libraries of cities like Toledo, Cordoba and Granada.
Interest for Greek culture and science first, and crucially, emerged in the Arab world, specifically in the Abbasid Empire. It was here under Al-Mansur, the second Abbasid Caliph and founder of Baghdad, that scholarly research flourished, supported and best exemplified by the Translation Movement whose purpose was the translation of Greek works into Arabic.
In reality, the languages involved in this monumental endeavor, which started in the first-half of the 9th-century and would last for nearly two centuries, were not only Greek and Arab in a straightforward two-way direction. Several Greek texts had previously been translated in other languages, in Syriac, for example, and then into Arabic. Other texts came from an altogether different geographical and cultural setting like India, where research on algebra and astronomy had progressed significantly, or Persia, where scholarly inquiry in various fields had been promoted initially by the Achaemenid and successively by the Parthian and Sassanid rulers.
There existed in the Sassanid empire several versions of a legend according to which Alexander the Great, after having conquered the Persian empire of Darius III Codomannus, commissioned the translation in Greek of the sources of Persian knowledge and wisdom, which he then destroyed: “Alexander, the king of the Greeks, departed from a city of Byzantines called Macedonia to invade Persia […]. He had copies made of everything that was kept in the archival treasures of Persepolis and had them translated in Byzantine and Coptic. And after all that he required had been copied, he ordered all that was written in Persian to be burned”. Therefore, the translations from Greek to Arabic were presented in Abbasid Persia as Persian thought appropriated by the Greeks.
Many languages were involved in that truly impressive Translation Movement: Sanskrit, Pahlavi (Middle Persian), Syriac, Armenian and, naturally, Greek and Arabic. A number of texts that were translated in Arabic were the outcome of translations of works coming from a wide geographical area spanning from Greece to China and from Egypt to Afghanistan. A key role in the Translation Movement was played by works written in Greek, which dealt with an astounding range of disciplines.
The Translation Movement, promoted by the early Abbasid Caliphs, revitalized Hellenism in all its multifarious aspects, giving new life to its contents in a different historical and cultural context. Each translation is an interpretation, a reworking and a rewriting, where the interpreter doesn’t only offer a new form but opens the way to fresh hermeneutical point of views.
Each translation is not only a new rendition of a text but is also a reaching beyond, and is in some ways the outcome of the encounter of two realities and of two personalities that conceal themselves in the original and translated text. The center of the Translation Movement from Greek to Arab was in the Baghdad of al-Maʾmūn, in what was known as the Bayt al-Ḥikma, “the House of Wisdom,” which was probably a place that really existed, most likely a library or a place where research and translation were carried out. Such venues of scholarly pursuit, however, existed throughout the Abbasid capital, prompting Jim al-Khalīlī to suggest that it would have been better to consider the whole of Baghdad the Madīnat al-Ḥikma, the “City of Wisdom”.
There was to be a sequel to the Translation Movement. The conquest of Muslim Spain by the Christians, in fact, allowed Europe to gain access to the treasures of knowledge accumulated by the Islamic world. If Baghdad had been the irradiation center of a flourishing activity of translation from the Greek to the Arabic, cities like Toledo now became the centers for the translation of the great Arabic texts into Latin.
The works of translators such as those belonging to the Escuela de traductores of Toledo enabled Europe to gain access not only to texts of the Greek world but also to the Arabic translations of works coming from most of the civilized world, that is, from the whole of the East.
The reemergence of the sciences as well as humanist scholarship during the latter part of the “Dark Ages”, a period known as the medieval period, would provide the background to the Renaissance, which developed thanks also to the crucial contribution of Greek and “oriental” civilizations – with key input coming from Persia, from Mesopotamia, from India, from the Jews, from Egypt, from China and, of course, from the Arab world.
Dimitri Gutas believes that “the study of Greek works after the classical period can hardly be pursued without their correspondence in Arabic, which thus emerged as the second classical language, well before Latin”. Indeed, that very Arab language that for 700 years was the language of science in the world.
The Translation Movement was promoted not only by the Abbasid kings but also by private individuals and patrons principally from the capital. In two centuries, the movement involved hundreds of translators who closely liaised with thousands of people who hunted, carried and copied books, who catalogued and conserved them. It was a multiethnic and multireligious endeavor, involving Arab, Persian, Egyptian, Armenian, Indian, Mesopotamian intellectuals as well as persons professing a wide range of religions, namely Muslims, Hindus, Mazdeans, Jews and Christians of various denominations.
It is important to note that “the approach of the educated Arab world to Greek thought at the time of the translations was active and not passive,” as Cristina d’Ancona writes. It wasn’t just a straightforward reception or reformulation of Greek thought but an evolutive reinterpretation of it. In fact, the same works were often retranslated two or more times because the accretion of the knowledge the translation brought about in many areas prompted a better understanding of the texts and of their reinterpretation and revisitation in Arabic, de facto making the first translations obsolete. It was an extraordinary example of unfettered research and debate involving differing orientations and point of views in a range of disciplines of knowledge, both in humanistic and scientific studies: During the reign of al-Maʾmūn something new occurred in the academic world. The coming together for the first time of the scientific traditions of the world, gave to Baghdad scholars a vision of reality that had never been so wide. The differences in the translations of Persian, Indian and Greek astronomical texts meant, for example, that not everyone could be right at the same time.
This movement of cultural encounter and exchange that started in Bagdad under Caliph al-Maʾmūn – who according to tradition rediscovered and spread Greek thought after having spoken with Aristotle in a dream – also occurred in other places where the Islamic and Christian worlds met, namely in Sicily and in Spain, where the Venetians also operated.
The Translation Movement, which was a revitalization and regeneration of Greek civilization, went well beyond futile classifications between humanistic and scientific cultures, between the science of man and the science of nature, de facto proclaiming an integrated and comprehensive vision of man and science.
In the specific area of science, the Arabs didn’t limit their action to translating the Greek texts, but also reconsidered the discourse on nature and the ends of science: “The heritage the Arabo-Islamic civilization received from Greek antiquity led to the development of scientific inquiry, but also to the philosophical discourse around science […] This epistemological component that Arab scholars revived, contributed significantly to forging their approach. Those who were intellectually more Greek, after the Greeks, were the Muslims”.
In 1068, Ṣā‘id al-Andalusī of Toledo wrote the Kitāb ṭabaqāt al ʼUmam, the earliest known history of science, where nations were classified according to their scientific achievements and listed on the basis of the individual contribution each made to the progress of man. Of the Greeks he wrote: “The Greek philosophers are the most eminent among men by rank and the most scholarly in the zeal they have shown in the various fields of knowledge: not only in the science of mathematics, logic, physics and metaphysics, but also in the government of family and society.”
Briefly, if we were to establish a continuity between classical thought – as developed in Greece over a period of one-thousand years in the areas of humanism and science and as partly handed down to the Roman world – and modernity, we simply cannot ignore the role played by the Arabo-Islamic world in the process.
The “Arab world” was not about being part of an ethnic group but was intended as a politico-cultural kinship where a crucial role was played by the Arabic language, which by the time of ʿAbd al-Malik (685-705) had become the politico-administrative as well as cultural language of the empire: a medium used from Saana to Zaragoza and from Samarkand to Marrakech.
The Arabs were not merely collectors/translators/transmitters of Greek humanist and scientific thought, a task they carried out above all in the 8th– and 9th-centuries of our era in the period known as “the age of translation”. If according to the foundational legend, the Translation Movement had initiated following al-Maʾmūn’s dream in which he had conversed with Aristotle about the nature of good, that process had actually started with al-Manṣūr, great-grandfather of al-Maʾmūn’s, who had solicited a systematic translation of writings from other cultures, namely of Greece, India, Persia and Mesopotamia.
The initial contacts with the Greek world went back to the Omayyad caliphs at the time Islam first developed. Soon after the death of the Prophet (632), Islam, driven by the four “rightly guided” Caliphs, spread across three continents, from Afghanistan to the Pyrenees. In several territories, namely Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Persia itself, there continued to survive scientific centers of Greek, Syriac or Persian inspiration, while in cities like Alexandria, Gondishapur, Antioch, Nisibis, Harran, Galenic medicine was practiced, and Euclid’s Elements was read alongside other manuals not only of astronomy and physics but also of Greek philosophy and grammar.
Other factors as well contributed to stimulating research and the dissemination of knowledge: for example, the widespread presence in the Arab world of schools of varying levels, including institutions that could be considered as history’s earliest universities. Although a common curriculum did not apply and the teaching of religion was a key feature especially at the primary levels, there was no doubt that schools played an important role .
Another driver of scientific development was the assimilation and development of paper-making techniques acquired from Chinese craftsmen. Learning how to make paper represented, most certainly, “a factor of acceleration in the circulation of information”, for within one century – from the end of the 9th– to the end of the 10th-centuries – paper had all but replaced papyrus and parchment. By the 10th-century, thanks to what is known as the Dār al-ʿIlm (“House of Knowledge”), an institution regulated under the laws of mortmain (waqf), libraries had become widely accessible, while the task of copyists greatly facilitated by the diffusion of paper.
Arab scholars in widely ranging disciplines were not transmitters of knowledge, part of an alien body that had emerged between Hellenistic and Renaissance of Europe, but were at the same time researchers, innovators and forerunners. As scientists, they were innovators and transmitters and, therefore, teachers and guides, according to al-Ghazālī’s conception of learning: “It has been said that in the process of learning the first step is silence, followed by listening, then retention, then doing, and finally imparting”.
In the specific domain of the sciences, the contribution of the Arabs was crucial: Chemistry first developed in the Islamic medieval world while it was the Arabs who invented algebra as a separate discipline from arithmetic and geometry. The earliest comprehensive study of ophthalmology was accomplished in 9th-century Baghdad. And it has also been said that without the contribution of Arab astronomers – namely Nasir al-Din Tusi and the scientists of the Maragheh observatory – Copernicus “could have easily continued pursuing the family tradition in the copper trade from which his name originates”.
For every Muslim, “the noblest of sciences is the knowledge of God”. Religious science, Al Ghazali affirms, was to be preferred for it healed the soul rather than the body, the health of which was fleeting. One of the principal features of God was that of being a creator and “Lord of the Worlds”, and the principal evidence of his existence was the existence of the world, which, inasmuch as creation, would be inconceivable without its creator. Thus, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) started his Decisive Treatise, Determining the Nature of the Connection between Religion and Philosophy with just this argument, sustaining the legitimacy of philosophy, which was “none other than the speculation on existing creatures and reflection on how, on the basis of the consideration that they are created, proof is given of their Creator”. For this reason, he sustains that philosophical and theological research must lead to the same results, and should this not occur, it is possible to “affirm definitely that whenever the conclusion of a demonstration is in conflict with the apparent meaning of Scripture, that apparent meaning admits of allegorical interpretation according to the rules for such interpretation in Arabic”.
While Averroes’ position cannot be automatically considered to be in line with Islamic orthodoxy, dogmatic belief that the universe was a divine creation, and a manifestation of God’s will, was clearly affirmed in the Quran. Knowledge of the world of matter, conceived as a created whole, meant being aware of one of the manifestations of God besides being the best, clearest and most universal evidence of his existence.
Briefly, if we were once again to rely on ambiguous categories such as “classical culture” intended as a series of acquisitions essential for the development of European civilization and the so-called “western world”, we should reconsider several clichés.
What we call “classical culture” was in reality the result of the interaction and achievements of a plurality of peoples over the centuries, above all in the scientific and technological milieus.
The recurrent idea we come across from Plato to Hegel, according to which the Greeks evolved in an original way the knowledge they received from other peoples, like the Egyptians and Chaldeans, applied in all areas where research, teaching, exchange and debate occured. It applied, for example, during our middle ages thanks to the outstanding development of science, technology, philosophical speculation and logic in the Muslim empire. Starting from the 8th-century, Arabic-speaking philosophers, historians, astronomers, chemists, doctors, mathematicians, engineers, architects, physicists and logicians didn’t just collect the results of the research carried out in the Greek, Persian, Indian, Egyptian, Chinese and Chaldean worlds. These results, they studied, compared and developed and in doing so went beyond.
At the dawn of modernity, the outcome of 700 years of study and research brought about an accumulation of knowledge that went far beyond that which the Arabs first came into contact with in the early part of their history.
The Myth of western civilization, pp.159-170
“Operation Barbarossa” and the defense of the west
SS propaganda poster depicting the Soviet Union as a dragon with the symbols of communism and Judaism
On the night of 24 June 1941, the largest invasion in history was launched. It involved the mobilization of three million land and air combatants over a frontier of nearly 2.000 km stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Known under the code name of Barbarossa, the operation consisted in Nazi Germany attacking Communist Russia, the aim being the annihilation of the Soviet empire and the consequent redefinition of the geopolitical structure of Eastern Europe, of Germany itself and therefore of Europe as a whole.
If we were to distinguish the accidental and contingent causes from the historical motivations of this extraordinary initiative, we could say that while the paramount objective of national-socialism’s international policy was to accomplish the reunification of all German-speaking peoples under one Reich, just as crucial was the he creation in the east a Lebensraum, a living space that was considered vital for the future of the German nation. East of Germany lay not only the Slavic world but, above all, an empire – the USSR – that to the Germans was the epitomical enemy, in historical, ideological, political and cultural terms, as best expressed in the formula “Jewish and Asiatic communism,” the most insidious and dangerous of races.
The attack became a viable option in the summer of 1941 following the substantial lull in the western front where German order was virtually unchallenged; Great Britain was on the backfoot, constrained within its territorial waters, incapable of having an operational and decisive role in continental Europe.
Germany was successful in bringing to their side even as military allies significant segments of populations in Europe and the Near east. It is interesting to observe the combination of ideological motivations, propaganda, the promise of colonial expansion in the territories of western Russia and the prospect of a new political and strategic order the Germans used to convince them. Many fought as volunteers in the Wermacht or in the Waffen SS, “armed” SS formations that played a key role during the war, especially on the eastern front. Numbering up to one million, these elite troops belonged to some twenty nationalities: French, Belgian, Danish, Dutch, Flemish, Romanian, Hungarian, Norwegian, Ukrainian, Swedish, Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Azeris, Armenians, Cossack, Albanian, Croatian, Indian, and so on.
The campaign against the USSR was presented ideologically as the battle for Europe and the West, and the international army fighting alongside the Germans was seen as the first of an Aryan and anticommunist Europe, one which would establish a new order. This new European order would emerge under the banner of the swastika but would ensure nations such as the Armenian, Azeri, Ukrainian, Tartar, Cossack, etc., to rid themselves of communist rule and achieve an independence that was secured by the German Reich, presented as Primus inter pares in a European confederation that would have united the Aryan races that had fought against “Asiatic” Bolshevism.
Strategic prospects, political objectives, ideological motivations and propaganda often combined to justify not only the military campaign but also a new political geography founded on German racial doctrine and its multiple historical, anthropological, scientific orientations. The “right” of the Germans to expand eastwards was justified by series of arguments pertaining to various fields of knowledge. Take, for example, Hans Hörbiger’s nonsensical theory of the Welteislehre, “universal ice”, which posited that an asteroid, striking earth, had provoked the glaciation of Northern Europe thereby forcing Nordic peoples to leave their homes in search for better conditions of life elsewhere, mainly in southern and eastern Europe and even further adrift in India. This process was known as Germanisirung (Germanization), or the diffusion of Germanic peoples and cultures. Others call this phenomenon “diffusionism,” which means the same thing.
Now, these somewhat bizarre theories were fully endorsed by the highest echelons of national-socialism, starting with Hitler and Himmler. For the most part groundless or backed by the flimsiest of evidence, such theories were developed by at best extravagant characters who drew from folklore, sagas, legends, such as that of Atlantis. Yet these often outlandish theories were espoused by hosts of cowardly and willing scientists and academicians.
A case in point was Ahnenerbe, literally “Ancestral Heritage”, which was created by Himmler with the purpose of “searching and exploring the space, action, spirit and heritage of the Nordic and Germanic races” (H. Himmler, Germanien, February 1939). Its first director, Herman Wirth, sustained a bizarre theory according to which in ancestral times there was in Atlantis an Aryan people who lived in a matriarchal society and upheld a “monotheistic” religion centered on the worship of a solar deity. But then a catastrophic weather event triggered a diaspora that scattered the population across three continents. Wherever the Aryans went – from India to Japan, from Mexico to Persia – they brought their Weltanschauung, their worldwiew.
Walther Wüst was appointed as Ahnenerbe’s new president in 1937. His academic qualifications were better than his predecessor’s but more importantly he did not believe the Aryans were organized in a matriarchal society nor that they were peaceful sun worshippers. Wüst had fully endorsed the official guidelines of the German racial creed. He was perfectly in line with the doctrine according to which there existed a Nordic, Germanic, population that probably due to a climatic event left their original homeland and spread around the world. Proof of this was that wherever there was a “superior” culture or race there also must have been a Nordic and Germanic presence, based on the assumption that all forms of Civilization worthy of the name must have solely descended from a presumed Nordic and Aryan people. In a speech delivered in Munich on 13 August 1920, Hitler affirmed that “Aryan migrants gave Egypt its high civilization just as they gave it to Persia and Greece.” Of this Aryan immigration on which world civilization is supposed to rest, no explanation is provided as to how and when it occurred. But, above all, no concrete historical evidence is ever given except that which is liberally drawn from myths, sagas, legends or from events and theories that were often invented from scratch.
The fantastical theory of Germanization and diffusionism in tandem with the prospect of an Aryan and anticommunist European order were the cornerstones of Nazi propaganda in the campaign against the USSR, which was viewed as a “Crusade” to defend “Western Civilization” against Asiatic Bolshevism-
In addition to the claim of a Lebensraum, a space to the east essential for the growth and survival of the German peoples, the attack on the USSR was further justified as the continuation of the historical process of German expansionism to the East. Himmler’s SS, in particular, saw themselves as a new Teutonic Order whose mission was to expand and defend the Reich’s eastern borders. Figures like Henry I the Fowler of Saxony (to whom issue n. 7 of the review Germanien was dedicated in 1936) were reinterpreted as the forerunners of the expansion to the East, seen as the essential trait of Germany’s socio-economical requirements and historical vocation. Another key tenet of the Nazi propaganda that sustained Operation Barbarossa was the presumed and mostly invented historical presence, through war of conquests, of Germanic peoples in territories under Soviet rule. Crimea and Ukraine, for example, had been conquered by the Goths, a Germanic people. There was even talk of establishing in Crimea and in parts of Ukraine an autonomous republic for peoples of German language and culture called Gotengau, literally “Region of the Goths.”
The declared aim of “Operation Barbarossa” was to defeat the USSR, change its government replacing it with one that was politically closer to Germany, in the process establishing a number of new independent states like Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Crimea, etc., that would become the Reich’s satellites. The principal objective was however that of occupying and colonizing with German peoples all Russian lands west of the Urals. This task was to be carried out by soldier-farmers belonging to the SS organization who in farms and villages specifically built for them would not only colonize, protect and control the territory but oversee the enslavement of millions of Slavs reduced to becoming mere workforce in a regime of apartheid along the lines of the model much loved by Nazi intellectuals that was adopted by the Spartans over the Helots.
These warrior-farmers would have colonized western Russia and defended that which would have become the West’s eastern borders.
Is western democracy compatible with christianity?
Christianity is compatible with all forms of government – the government of kings, of the best or of the people, as long as those who govern are Christians and abide by the precepts of Christianity, which in the Catholic hemisphere are one with the doctrine of the Church. One point, though, is clear: The political dimension that pertains to the mundane sphere is subaltern to the religious dimension that pertains to the sphere of the sacred. Inasmuch as it is subaltern, politics must comply with the precepts of religion and cannot claim autonomy in terms of principles or action. Throughout the middle ages the contention between papacy and empire would focus on the issue concerning the paramountcy between the spiritual sphere represented by the Church and its highest exponent the pope and the political sphere represented by the empire and the emperor. The excommunication of the emperor was a weapon the pope could wield to deprive the former’s communion with the Church and the Christians. Through this institutional act of religious censure, the pope severed Christendom’s obedience to a sovereign who was no longer fully a Christian sovereign.
Roman Catholicism’s censure of the ideologies arising from modern revolutions is well-known. Political doctrines like liberalism, socialism, anarchism and communism had all been condemned by Catholicism. It was only with the message addressed “to the People of the Entire World on the Subject of Democracy and a Lasting Peace” of 24 December 1944, that the pope declared democracy a political system that, in certain conditions, was compatible with Christianity.
In that Christmas message of 1944, which was broadcast on Vatican Radio, pope Pius XII said: “It is scarcely necessary to recall that, according to the teaching of the Church, ‘it is not forbidden to prefer temperate, popular forms of government, without prejudice, however, to Catholic teaching on the origin and use of authority,’ and that ‘the Church does not disapprove of any of the various forms of government, provided they be per se capable of securing the good of the citizens’”, citing Libertas, Leo XIII’s Encyclical of 20 June 1888.
Pius XI, the successor of Ambrogio Ratti who as Pius XI had referred to Mussolini as “the man of Providence,” while aware that the planetary role of the United States, also as the world’s leading democracy, could herald the installation of “temperate, popular forms of government”, he immediately specified that all such governments must nevertheless comply with “the absolute order of beings and purposes” which cannot have any other origin than in “a personal God, our Creator”. Pope Pius XII also hoped that power be entrusted to “men chosen for their solid Christian convictions”.
Thus, the Catholic Church, which elects its leader, the pope, according to a majority vote, rejected that very same method if it were applied to legitimize choices that contradicted “the absolute order of beings and purposes,” that is, if they went against Church doctrine.
At this point we should ask a question that may even appear to be naïve: How should Catholic citizens comport themselves when the democratic state they belong to applied laws and systems of government that were contrary to Church doctrine, which alone represented “the absolute order of beings and purposes”?
The events of the past 75 years well answer this question. Focusing exclusively on events occurring after World War II in Western Europe, which is the territory that is historically identified with Catholicism and the so-called West, we have seen how the Catholic Roman Apostolic Church has reacted strongly, and with all the means it had at its disposal, against laws it believed were not in line with Christian doctrine, that is, with the catechism of the Catholic Church. The Church has tried to oppose these laws through initiatives of its own, through its leading exponents and cultural and religious movements and through Christian-inspired political parties such as Democrazia Cristiana (DC), which dominated Italian politics from 1943 to 1994.
The Catholic Church has tried and continues to oppose laws and conduct that support divorce, the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, the free decision to end one’s life through euthanasia, civil unions and same-sex marriage. In Italy, for example, the Christian Democratic Party, which was a declaredly Christian party, promoted referendums against divorce, which had been instituted in Italy by Law 898 of 1 December 1970 governing “the dissolution of marriage”, and against Law n. 194 of 22 May 1978 on the voluntary termination of pregnancy. Both referendums failed in their intent and the strongly contrasted laws remain in force.
It is perfectly legitimate in a democratic state to change or quash laws if the legal system allows it. Widely utilized is the referendum, a tool that allows democracies to gauge the opinion of citizens on a range of issues. Just as legitimate is the refusal on the part of individuals to avail themselves of laws that would allow them divorce or to abort, if such practices were against their religious or moral convictions.
Less understandable is on the other hand the claim on the part of citizen groups, which are generally a minority, to influence state law governing family and civil rights and the choices on the issue of finis vitae.
In a laic and non-confessional state, founded on pluralism and religious freedom, such is the liberal-democratic state, the Church cannot stake claims and demands in the name of God and Holy Writ, in the name, that is, of a divine law that emanated directly from God.
The issue is somehow eluded by advancing under a different guise the characteristics of a religiously inspired right that although not formalized in a law is taken as having been expressed by Catholic Church doctrine.
To oppose laws such as those mentioned earlier – laws governing divorce, same-sex marriage, abortion and euthanasia – the Catholic Church, legal experts, politicians and Catholic intellectuals, have relied on arguments such as natural law, the right to life, moral law, personal conscience and value. An analysis of these criteria of legitimization is not possible in this venue because the topic is far too wide and complex. However, it is worth noting that all these motives can be traced back to the postulates of Christianity as they are interpreted by Catholic Church doctrine. For example, natural law is mostly that which was understood by St. Thomas, who defined it the “participation in the eternal law by rational creatures,” meaning that a human law was just if it derived from a natural law, which in turn referred to a higher divine order. Thomas in this light explicitly developed a thesis by Augustine of Hippo who sustained that “an unjust law is no law at all” .
At the same time, the “right to life” is intended as the right and duty of the individual and society to preserve all forms of life including those that have no sensibility or conscience, from the embryo that is a few weeks old to an individual who is in a state of irreversible coma. This presumed right to life reflects the presence of God in all forms of embryonic and merely mechanic life, as that which is found in irreversible coma. Consequently, even the atheist citizen who is in a state of irreversible illness or suffering doesn’t have the right to stop suffering by taking recourse to euthanasia because the theory of the presence of God in all forms of human life is not considered as a theory belonging to a specific cultural and religious group, as a vision sustained by a cultural milieu, but is elevated to the status of absolute truth that must apply to all. A truth incontrovertible, universally applicable and mandatory.
It should be observed that this modern claim to the right to life was in blatant contrast with church history itself. When imperial power demanded sacrifices be made to the gods and the emperor’s divinity be acknowledged, Christians who were thus obliged to abjure their monotheistic faith were duty bound to confess their faith and choose martyrdom and die witnessing their faith in Christ. The martyr has always been considered an example of the perfect Christian.
Without considering that in the Christian Church there have been female saints and martyrs, like Maria Goretti, who have chosen to die rather than give up their virginity to the aggressor.
However, the underlying issue we refer to is cited above and articulated plainly in Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, which evokes the Church’s traditional stance: “There is no power but from God” and must comply with its author. Article 47 of the encyclical reads: “But it must not be imagined that authority known no bounds. Since its starting point is the permission to govern in accordance with right reason, there is no escaping the conclusion that it derives its binding force from moral order, which in turn has God as its origin and end”.
Immediately afterwards a radio message delivered by Pope Pius XII in December 1944, which is cited above, states:
“The absolute order of living beings and man’s very destiny”, which fundamentally correspond to reality as embodied in the Christian faith, “can have no origin save in God Who is our Creator, it follows that the dignity of the State’s authority is due to its sharing to some extent in the authority of God Himself.” In other words, according to the often-mentioned criterion of conformity, it is asserted that secular political authority is worthy of recognition and respect in as far as it conforms to divine will. The implication of this theory is a rejection of any doctrine or political system, first and foremost democracy, which does not recognize divine transcendence: in its principles, its values and its morality.
A contemporary document of more recent days, which is also one of the lengthiest and methodical encyclicals ever written by a pontiff, John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (March 25, 1995) is highly noteworthy in terms of the Church’s position on democracy. Overall it is meaningful in terms of the actual relationship between civil law and divine law, and it also addresses the question of how a Christian, but not only a Christian, is called upon to behave when faced with a State law judged to be in contrast to the moral law that derives from God.
L’Evangelium Vitae is an encyclical and as such speaks to all Roman Catholics and establishes guidelines for behavior that binds them to the value and the defense of life. One might have expected an encyclical concerning human life and published at the end of the last century, which bore witness to two world wars and at least four attempts at genocide, to address primarily the defense of life for the millions of people who were victims of the wars, the various persecutions, of the social injustice and of the economic exploitation that every day claim thousands of victims, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Instead, the two subjects that monopolize a great deal of the nearly one hundred pages of Evangelium Vitae are abortion and euthanasia. From the very beginning, the encyclical emphasizes “the relativism of the individual’s earthly life”, in that it “is not an ‘ultimate’ but a ‘penultimate’ reality”. The ultimate reality naturally would be life after death, “eternal life” and on the basis of this premise “penultimate reality” would correspond to human life that starts with birth and ends with death.
Abortion is repeatedly defined as an “abominable crime”, which incurs the penalty of latae sententiae, i.e. automatic excommunication. Euthanasia is considered a form of suicide, a manifestation of the “culture of death”, which claims it can “take control of death” in order to “eliminate all pain”. Among the various arguments set forth to support the theses expounded in Evangelium Vitae concerning abortion and euthanasia, the subject of sovereignty is of particular interest. In other words, who holds the responsibility of deciding and determining the laws that govern the life of the embryo and the choice of putting an end to one’s existence when, for example, a person must endure a condition of extreme suffering and a progressive degeneration of his/her psycho-physical state? Such conditions would merely lead to a vegetative state with no signs of awareness.
In a democratic context, the answer appears obvious. Democracy is a form of government that literally means power (kratos) of the people (demos): or, if you will, of the citizens. The people hold the power, establish the state’s rules of government, define its limits, e.g. the duration of mandates for office holders, and the constitutional principles themselves. In democracy, the latter are founded on its citizens’ freedom, both in the public and the private sphere, and on the equality of citizens first and foremost before the law. The holder of power, the people, the community of citizens, enjoys a broad decision-making autonomy whose limits are set by the people themselves, in compliance with the rules of democracy, of the State’s system and of its international agreements. The rules that govern and organize the citizens’ lives are selected by means of alternative proposals, comparison, discussion and a choice based on the majority. The decision hinges on the comparison among various options; in fact, in antiquity, democracy was defined as a “civilization of the word”.
The choice is deemed “just” not because it complies with a presumption of truth but because it is functional to the community’s interests, well-being and development. The choice is “just” because it is useful to the collective interest and believed to be the most incisive and suitable in a given context. Should a community’s priorities change, new elements of evaluation emerge or determined circumstances evolve, the choices and rules might even undergo a radical transformation. In a democratic system a good ruler is a collective body which directly or via representation, is able to identify solutions that at different times and circumstances and according the objectives set are the most favorable to the general interest.
Sovereignty is characterized in completely different terms in a theocentric or theocratic perspective. As previously discussed in this study, in Abrahamitic monotheism, in Judaism first, in Christianity and Islam later, one God as the creator of every form of life, is also the creator of the world order over which he exercises absolute control. In a theocratic perspective power belongs to God and rulers can act only as an expression of God’s will and in conformity to it. Thus, in their encyclicals and in their stances Popes have repeated that any form of government is acceptable on the condition that it is compliant with morality, i.e. Christian doctrine as set forth by Church doctrine or the Magisterium. This attributes to the Church the indisputable right to establish the legitimacy or censorship of political power, as it did at the threshold of the modern age.
It is not the intention of this study to dwell on this point; its aim rather is to consider what this theocentric vision entails, for instance, in “vital” issues like abortion and euthanasia. These matters are particularly important as many liberal-democratic countries in the old and new West have taken stances that are essentially contrary to the Church’s doctrine.
Evangelium Vitae repeatedly reiterates the “fundamental principle of the inviolability of life” on the part of man. This principle, according to which, I am not the owner of my own life but, from a Christian’s viewpoint, derives from a sort of fundamental rule, is referred to several times in Evangelium Vitae: “It is I (God) who bring both death and life”. The main reason that abortion and euthanasia are not permitted is that they are held to be contrary to the “Law of God”. One could object to this kind of judgement as it is inconceivable that those who do not believe in God or belong to another religion should abide by precepts of the Roman Catholic Church, one of the hundreds of Christian denominations, which have in the last two millennia laid claim to the exclusive possession of the truth and which have fought against one another. However, aside from this objection which a lay person could make in a multi-religious and multi-cultural context, such as those found in contemporary European and American liberal-democratic societies, there is another question to be dealt with. How should Christians or in general “people of good will” act in the face of a State’s law which makes practices such as abortion or euthanasia licit, which perhaps have been sanctioned by means of a popular referendum and decided by an overwhelming majority?
With regard to abortion, Evangelium Vitae says: “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church”.
The encyclical reaffirms that the “right to life” cannot be “questioned on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people – even if it is the majority”.
Regarding the doctrine condemning euthanasia in that it is “contrary to the Law of God” it states: “This doctrine is based on the natural law and the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church’s Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium”. The only acceptable law is the “Law of God” interpreted, transmitted and taught through the Church’s Magisterium.
Human laws have no value and are not valid if they are contrary to the “Law of God”, therefore shall not be recognized since “we must obey God rather than men”. It follows that “it is never licit to conform” with a law that is intrinsically unjust like abortion and euthanasia!
Taking into account these premises, a judgement of democracy appears evident: it is acceptable only insofar as it conforms to the “Law of God”, since a series of subjects such as the ones mentioned above, cannot be settled either by man or by parliamentary majorities.
Evangelium Vitae is in no way conciliatory towards democracy: “Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or panacea for immorality. Fundamentally, democracy is a ‘system’ and as such is a means and not an end. Its ‘moral’ value is not automatic, but depends on conformity to the moral law to which it, like every other form of human behavior, must be subject: in other words, its morality depends on the morality of the ends which it pursues and of the means which it employs”.
Since it would not be politically correct in a liberal-democratic context to assert that democracy must conform to the “Law of God”, the term “conformity with moral law” is used to denote the “law of nature” – considered a synonym of the “Law of God”.
In addition, it is affirmed that democracy “is a ‘system’ and as such is a means not an end”. This seems to suggest that by this “means” the democratic system can impart judgements on a variety of subjects that are not “moral” in themselves, but which can contain a higher or lower degree of morality based on their conformity to the moral law, i.e. the “Law of God”.
Describing democracy as a system seems reductive and, on the other hand, an obvious thought. Every political system result in an “orderly” series of rules based on common principles, reciprocal relationships and functions that indeed make it a system capable of achieving that government’s objectives: for one, a peaceful and organized coexistence, the minimum common denominator for any form of government.
Democracy is not a system that can be imbued with indiscriminate subjects, for it is a form of government in which “sovereignty belongs to the people”, as declared in article 1 of the Constitution of the Italian Republic
Modern democracies, e.g. the English, American and French, adopted this form of government from Greece as they identified with its premises (popular sovereignty), in its principles (liberty, equality and solidarity among citizens) and in its procedures (division of powers and exercise of power by the community at large). Religious pluralism lies at the root of ancient democracy as it does of modern democracy. It is, therefore, inconceivable that one of the democracy’s religions should dominate all others and that those who define themselves as representatives, as is true in the Catholic Church, claim the right to issue a license that legitimates laws and one that an exempts citizens from respecting them.
The presumption that the West can be identified as having Christianity embody its cultural and religious dimension and, at the same time, being governed by a liberal democracy as its political system, does not appear to be well-founded. To begin with, the main characters are not well-matched: the “people of God” cannot be compared to the “sovereignty of the people” and the “law of man” is not aligned with the “Law of God”.
From The Myth of western civilization. The west as an ideological category and political myth, NYC, Nova publishers science, 2021, pp.243-254.