Is Machiavelli alive and well in Silicon Valley?

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Floundering might be the word which springs to mind as we look at the spectacle of poor Mark Zuckerberg trying to cope with – or, depending on your point of view, making excuses for – the failure of Facebook to protect us from predators of one kind or another.

For Mr. Zuckerberg the search for a solution seemed to be in the same territory from which the creature which has made him one of the wealthiest men in the world has come – technology. Totally absent from his horizon was the one feature in the landscape where the solution ultimately must lie. We suspect that it may be AWOL for the same reason that it was also absent from all the imagination and energy which went into Dr. Frankenstein’s creation more than two centuries ago. There are indeed those who see Dr. Zuckerberg’s – I’m hazarding a guess that at this stage he has picked up a few honorary doctorates along the way – creation as something of a mirror image of Mary Shelly’s.

Sadly, unlike Mary Shelly’s monster, which was embodied only in fiction, a wise and salutary tale about the folly of a man who gave life to a powerful man-like instrument he could not control, Mark Zuckerberg’s creation is a real nuts and bolts, now apparently out-of-control, creation.

There seems to exist a multiplicity of black holes in the universe of modern technology. As the Netflix series, Black Mirror, worryingly illustrates for us, our lives can be sucked into these in any number of ways with the most dire personal and social consequences imaginable.

The unifying element which should offer us protection from most of these black holes is embodied in the single phrase, moral sense. The absence of this sense in the integral structure of all the myriad of pursuits of modern man is the source of many of the woes which accompany them in the form of unintended consequences. “Unintended” may modify culpability for those consequences but if our poverty of intention stems for our neglect of serious and responsible reflection, then culpability is present as darkness is present with night.

But let us not be personal about this. Mark Zuckerberg is a child of his time and if we can learn anything from his predicament it will be by looking beyond his and his company’s problem to the bigger picture.

Zuckerberg has now apologised to Facebook’s users for the “breach of trust”. What “trust” really means in the world of big tech is anyone’s guess. This breach allowed University of Cambridge researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, to harvest the details of about 270,000 people who took part in something as seemingly innocuous as an online quiz. A former Facebook manager has warned now that hundreds of millions of users are likely to have had their private information used by firms in ways that they know nothing about.

But all the talk about this is now about control, technical control, regulation and more regulation. Does anyone really understand any more why we regulate? If the moral sense which the modern world  now lacks were a real force in our society our need for regulation, controls and all the rest would be much less. If all we have are external regulations and controls we are lost souls.

A “reckoning is coming” for Facebook and its fellow tech giants, said The Sunday Times – and “not before time”. The issue in this scandal is not whether harvested Facebook data enabled Trump to steal the US election. “It did not – however much liberals would love to overturn the result.” Rather, it’s that Facebook has failed to protect the personal data of its users. The company has been “unforgivably lax” about third-party use of this information, agreed  The Times. It has arrogantly shirked “the responsibilities that come with power”, and been wilfully blind to the consequences of its inaction until problems have reached the headlines.

The black hole into which the private information of “hundreds of millions of users” has plummeted may be the least of the threats to the common good emanating from Facebook’s army of busy bees. Joseph Ratzinger, one of the greatest moral voices of our time, back in 2005, just a year after Facebook moved from being a glint in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye to its launch in 2004, gave a prescient address at Subiaco in Italy.

In that address Ratzinger – who would become Pope Benedict XVI a few weeks alter – spoke of  the  “disquieting… possibilities of self-manipulation that man has acquired. He has plumbed the depths of being, has deciphered the components of the human being, and is now capable, so to speak, of constructing man himself, who thus no longer comes into the world as a gift of the Creator, but as a product of our action, a product that, therefore, can also be selected according to the exigencies established by ourselves.”

As we know, there are plenty of people who are concerned about the manipulative characteristics deliberately built in to modern technology – from the colour coding of iPhone screens to the subtle designs of homepages across the internet. Others are concerned about the contribution which Facebook, for example, contributes to the cancer of gender confusion sweeping across our culture with its amoral subscribing to a bewildering plethora of genders.

If our world, our cultures and our civilization suffers from a moral malaise it did not begin – nor will it end –  with technology and the power it places in the hands of men. In one understanding its roots are of course immemorial and the struggle it demands of us is endemic in our nature. But in recorded history we can also see a turning point at which western civilization fell deeper into the mire of confusion of which Facebook’s amorality is just another modern manifestation.

The turning point which occurred at the dawn of the modern age – and the falsehood at its heart – led Machiavelli to offer his advice to those who exercise power in this world. The spirit of this advice is also responsible for the destructive elements at work in forces of modern technology. This is not to deny any of the good elements. I use Facebook and will continue to do so.

Dr. Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation, his masterful study of how our civilization has reached the point at which it now stands, explains that Machiavelli’s ideas about human nature influenced the rejections of the Christian (and Aristotelian, and Platonic) claim about the inseparability of morality and politics. In the Florentine’s view, efforts expended in trying to live virtuously could only seem quixotically futile, aspirations to create a correlative moral community unrealistic. In his views about human nature, Machiavelli would find successors in Hobbes, Hume, and many other thinkers.

If in the following quote from Gregory’s book, we substitute in our mind the wielders of technological power for the wielders of political power we will see how Machiavelli is alive and well in Silicon Valley.

In theory, at least, Machiavelli’s practical distinction between the demands of political life and moral norms severed the exercise of power from teleological virtue ethics in public affairs, the “realism” of the former contrasted with the “idealism” of the latter. Successful and therefore good politics was unavoidably immoral, and immoral politics was the norm.“ No longer aspiring to encompass traditional morality, politics becomes instead “the art of the possible”—and as people grow accustomed to new human realities, their views change concerning what is and is not possible. What his contemporaries and Reformation-era successors who offered advice to princes continued to regard as the telos of human nature within an inherited Christian worldview, Machiavelli consequentially disdained as the “imaginary world.” Human beings are what they are; the world is as it is; the effective exercise of power requires the abrogation of morality; successful rulers override the virtues with virtu. One could exercise power or be moral, but not both.

But while “successful rulers override the virtues with virtu“, Silicone Valley overrides all morality with science and technology.

Ratzinger, who like Tiresias, perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—explained in his Subiaco address, how in the modern world the principle is now valid, according to which, man’s capacity is measured by his action. What one knows how to do, may also be done. There no longer exists a knowing how to do separated from a being able to do, because it would be against freedom, which is the absolute supreme value. But man knows how to do many things, and knows increasingly how to do more things; and if this knowing how to do does not find its measure in a moral norm, it becomes, as we can already see, a power of destruction.

Man knows how to clone men, and so he does it. Man knows how to use men as a store of organs for other men, and so he does it; he does it because this seems to be an exigency of his freedom. Man knows how to construct atomic bombs and so he makes them, being, in line of principle, also disposed to use them. In the end, terrorism is also based on this modality of man’s self-authorization, and not on the teachings of the Koran.

Until we escape from the delusion that we are masters of this universe, that we are orphans in this world and that we are answerable to no one but ourselves, then our fate will be to succumb to our inept regulations and continue to weave our way around them and wriggle our way out of them. This is the miserable human condition to which we condemn ourselves to by our arrogance.

 

 

Sleepwalking over a precipice?

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Dreaming dreams is one thing. Living in them is another. Visions of our future do not have a great history. A much better pathway to the future is along the trajectory on which our history has already put us. The Irishman’s advice to the straying traveler who is looking for directions, “If  I was you Sir, I wouldn’t start from here at all,” is about as practical as most visionary Geo-political pursuits are. Martin Luther King had a dream. It was a noble vision, and while it brought African Americans some way along the freedom road, it has left in its wake more disappointment than achievement. The quality of life he dreamed of for his people is still just that, a dream.

The European Union is built on a dream. It is a dream which was also generated by an admirable ideal – peace among men and an end to war. But with each decade that passes, as the project stumbles from crisis to crisis, the warning signs are more and more evident that the visionary foundations of its structure are illusory and woefully inadequate for the gigantic and cumbersome edifice it dreams of becoming.

The cultural differences between the peoples of Britain and continental Europe are at the heart of Brexit. Rooted as they are in “the Anglo-Saxon way” and pragmatic as they have always been, the British majority have called time on the European dream. They are pursuing their democraticly and constitutionally exercised decision with characteristic doggedness – despite the scorn of their neighbours across the Irish Sea and the English Channel.

And yet, in spite the sinister rumblings of regional nationalism in Spain, the signals of discontent coming from Poland and Hungary, the sizable minorities in France, Netherlands and Austria, all unhappy with a perceived overreach by the patronizing bureaucracy of this visionary Union, its leadership persists in proclaiming its ideology of the Communion of all Europe’s people. Just now it is Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission, and Emmanuel Marcon, France’s new President, are the latest victims of European myopia.

Back in 2013 it was José Manuel Barroso, then the President of the Commission, when he gave a speech calling for a “new narrative” for Europe. But it wasn’t really a new narrative, it was really a call for the great and the good of the Union to step up to the plate and proclaim the ideal again for the generation of the new millennium. He just wanted to use the old wineskin of the Union into which he would put some newly fermented wine. We have been warned about what that can lead to.

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José Manuel Barroso
Anne Applebaum, in a survey of a recent batch of books on the predicament of Europe in the New York Review of Books, recalls this speech.

Barroso, she writes—like many, many others—saw which way the wind was blowing even then. Europe’s leaders seemed technocratic and remote—and they knew it. Europe’s political institutions were unpopular. The euro crisis had left numerous people angry and resentful. Worse, younger Europeans seemed not to get the point of the union at all. Barroso made a proposal:

I think we need, in the beginning of the XXI century, namely for the new generation that is not so much identified with this narrative of Europe, to continue to tell the story of Europe. Like a book: it cannot only stay in the first pages, even if the first pages were extremely beautiful. We have to continue our narrative, continue to write the book of the present and of the future. This is why we need a new narrative for Europe.

Barosso’s initiative recruited artists, writers, and scientists from across the continent who signed a declaration: “In light of the current global trends, the values of human dignity and democracy must be reaffirmed.” A book was published, The Mind and Body of Europe: A New Narrative. Debates and dialogues were held throughout the continent and the objective was to create a strong sense of European federal identity.

But this is precisely how dreamers – we call them idealists when we think we like them – work and get political life wrong. Real practical politics grows out of real life, not out of dreamed up grandiose schemes.

Applebaum writes that while it’s easy for Anglo-Saxons to laugh, many modern European states were created by precisely this kind of top-down campaign—”think of the unification of Italy or Germany in the nineteenth century, or the resurrection of Poland after World War I.”

They were, and they were not. In all those cases there was a bottom up force at work as well as a top down design. This has never really been true for Europe. Even the United States of America, which might be the closest model on which the European Union could base itself, would be a very false template to use. The United States was forged out of living political realities – an over-reaching and uncomprehending imperial authority – and a subsequent immigrant colonisation with which the new Republic had great trouble controlling. It was unable to hold itself together without creating rivers of blood among the indigenous people and the sacrifice of 750,000 lives in a civil war which is still reverberating under the surface.

And as Barosso found out, dreamt-up intellectual projects without roots in the native soil did not work for his “new narrative”. While Barroso’s project had some of the elements, Applebaum observes, of a popular national movement: intellectual and artistic support, a consistent idea, an inspiring concept, it was not popular and it died the death of most dreams.

In her reading of the books she reviews Applebaum detects no more agreement between them than was evident among the great and good that Barosso vainly tried to enlist to the cause of Europe.

With a little glimmer of the light which Pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, aka, Joseph Ratzinger, shed on this subject she notes that the problem isn’t one of national differences. The issues that separate the authors she reviews “are temperamental, ideological, and even, one might say, eschatological.” And there’s the rub. The heart has gone out of Europe. The only coherent identity which Europe ever had as an entity has been abandoned.

In Values in a Time of Upheaval: Meeting the Challenges of the Future, Ratzinger noted how

At the beginning of the 1960s it was still possible for Arnold Toynbee to express his optimism about the victory of European culture. He wrote that of the twenty-eight cultures that had been identified (around the planet), eighteen were already dead; and of the ten that still existed, nine had already visibly collapsed, so that only one—ours, the European—remained. Who would dare to say that today? And what is “our” culture, which allegedly still remains? Is the civilization of technology and commerce that has spread victoriously throughout the world our “European culture”?

Now, he says, in the very hour of its most extreme “success”, Europe seems to have become empty from within. Its life seems threatened by a crisis of circulation, and it almost seems to need a transfusion of blood—but that would destroy its own identity. In keeping with this dying of the elemental forces that expressed the soul, the reduced number of births makes one suspect that Europe is also dying out in ethnic terms.

Even in the 1960s Toynbee conceded that the “Western world” was in a crisis. He identified roots of that crisis in the falling away from religion to embrace a cult of technology, of the nation, and of militarism. Ultimately, Ratzinger reminds us, Toynbee identified the crisis as secularism. “But if we can name the cause of the crisis, we can also indicate the path to healing: the religious element must be reintroduced. Toynbee holds that this element includes the religious patrimony of all cultures, but especially what remains of Western Christianity.”

Ratzinger talks of the collapse of Communism and implies that this brought with it a kind of false dawn of a new age. For him the real catastrophe that the Communist regimes left behind was not economic, it was the devastation of souls, the destruction of moral consciousness. He holds that the fundamental contemporary problem for Europe and for the world is the almost total silence about the moral and religious problems that were the real heart of the Communist aberration.

Christian ideals are real ideals, not dreams. They are the very stuff of life and death, of human conception, birth, living with our feet on the ground but with our heads, through the medium of body and soul, in Heaven. This was part of the original inspiration of the practical political men who set the European Union on its path. This has been wilfully abandoned.

As Ratzinger puts it: The initial enthusiasm for a return to the great constant elements of the Christian heritage soon evaporated, and European unification proceeded almost exclusively from the economic perspective. Scant attention was paid to the question of the intellectual foundations of such a community.

Applebaum concludes her assessment of our prospects recalling an observation by a
European diplomat of her acquaintance who likes to compare Europe and the US to the Western and Eastern halves of the old Roman Empire. The West imploded, with drama, violence and crazy Caesars; the Byzantine East lingered on, bureaucratic, stodgy, and predictable, for many centuries. It’s not exactly an optimistic precedent for Europeans, but it’s a comforting one.

It might be comforting until we remember the ultimate fate of that stodgy old empire. It was overrun by Islam. The book which Applebaum does not include in her review is Douglas Murray’s best-selling The Strange Death of Europe, published in May. She might have done and had she it might have shattered any comfort her diplomat friend was seeking to convey to us.

Our European masters may not be just dreaming. They may be sleepwalking and leading us over a precipice.

On recession, regression and renaissance

They said it would take ten years. It did, just about that. I’m no measurer of economic development and progress but it does seem that the Great Recession is over and the waters of a kind of prosperity are lapping the shore once more. In Ireland we are more or less on out feet again, if some recent headlines are to be taken at face value.

“New property millionaires are being created at a rate of a dozen a week. There are now close to 4,000 homeowners in Ireland whose property is worth €1m or more”. Not to mention the spectacle of cranes flying over the City of Dublin. It is now ranked fifth in the world for prime retail rent growth.

That headline and those cranes might be a two-edged sword and doubtless will be causing some to cross their fingers in the hope that it is not a sign of a boom before the next bust.

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A Dublin skyline

But what about the more crippling recession – or rather, regression? Any sign of remission there? It is a regression wider, deeper and ultimately more damaging than any in the material order and it is still draining the blood from the living tissue our civilization. We now live in nations where values have become so fragmented and have been so weakened by their fragmentation that they no longer seem up to the task of holding our societies and communities together.

However, there are voices calling us to our senses. Eugene Vodvolaskyn, Russian academic philologist and novelist is one. Joseph Ratzinger, emeritus Pope Benedict XVII, is another. Philosopher Roger Scruton is a third. There are more – but where are their disciples, without whom they will just be voices crying in the wilderness.

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Eugene Vodvolaskyn

All three of these see a two-fold development in our culture which is near the heart of the disintegration which threatens us: excessive individualism and secularization. It is twofold because the one leads to the other. Indeed, like malign cells in the body, they complement each other and feed off all around them. Excessive individualism has no room for the Other – and certainly no room for God. Secularism, by eliminating God, has nowhere to lead us except to worship the Self.

Scruton in his book, On Human Nature, reminds us of how Milton conjured the truth of our condition from the raw materials of Genesis, and in doing so set a standard for art which was truly human. We might add Dante, Shakespeare and Cervantes, like Milton, inheritors of the treasures of the High Middle Ages who have never been surpassed in their vision of what is is to be human and divine. Modern man and much of his literature, his philosophy, his politics, in his flight from God is a wrecker.

“Take away religion, take away philosophy, take away the higher aims of art,” Scruton writes, “and you deprive ordinary people of the ways in which they can represent their apartness. Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead. Biological reductionism nurtures this ‘living down,’ which is why people so readily fall for it. It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic. It abolishes our kind — and with it our kindness” (P.49).

Pinpointing these two maladies as key issues to be faced if our civilization is to be rescued from this regression, Vodvolaskyn traces the degeneration in this way:

“In the modern age, the individual required recognition. Faith required lack of faith so that the believer would have a choice and so that faith wouldn’t be a mere everyday habit. This train gathered speed but didn’t stop. It kept moving even after reaching its station. It now seems to have gone pretty far beyond its destination. The cult of the individual now places us outside divine and human community. The harmony in which a person once found himself with God during the Middle Ages has been destroyed, and God no longer stands at the center of the human consciousness.”

Vodvolaskyn echoes the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his famous “Warning to the West“, given after his exile from Russia.  Humanism of the modern age, the former tells us, takes it that the human being is the measure of all things. While, he says, the same could be said of the Middle Ages, there is one vital qualification. “For medieval man there was one correction: The person is the measure of all things, if it is understood that the measure was given by God.”

Roger Scruton adds that thinkers in the eighteenth century compounded the degeneration. He rightly points out that our academic political philosophy has its roots in the Enlightenment, in the conception of Citiznship that emerged with the social contract. That contract replaced inherited authority with popular choice as the principle of political legitimacy. Not surprisingly, he says, it has had little time for piety, which—if acknowledged at all—is confined to the private sphere” (P 126).

The concept and definition of “person”, explored by Scruton in his book, is a key to the entire crisis. Our civilization has now such a garbled concept of the person, its nature and dignity, its unified essence as body and soul, that it has all but shipwrecked us on the rocks exposed by the receding waters.

Without the correction supplied by medieval man, in Vodvolaskyn’s view, humanism becomes inhuman. With excessive individualism, the rights set down for the individual multiply. The Russian foresees a demand inevitably coming for a right to cross the street against a red light. Take that literally or metaphorically. Ultimately, he argues, because our concept of rights is anti-humane at its core, it activates the mechanism for self-destruction. “The right to suicide turns out to be our most exemplary liberty.”

Ireland, not too long ago was still a safe place to negotiate the world, to raise a family, to pursue the good life. It was holding on, albeit somewhat superficially, to the more metaphysical world view characteristic of the Middle Ages which Vodvolaskyn identifies. It is no longer so, at least in the urbanised and materialistic sectors of its population. While there are still many there who feel that true value and virtue have been swept away by fickle modernity, there are many others rejoicing and celebrating the change.

What has happened to Ireland is what is likely to happen to any cluster of humanity whose moral compass is put in the hands of entertainers, celebrities and a political class whose members care more about their media image and so-called legacy than about the true good of the people.

Ireland may be fast approaching a cultural condition illustrated by Vodvolaskyn in the following anecdote. He recounts an encounter, some 20 years ago, with a Dutch pastor, an advocate of The Netherland’s culture of tolerance, who took him on a tour of Amsterdam.

“The Dutch people are tolerant, he told me, and hence in Amsterdam, there are no ethnic or religious minorities, an achievement made possible by the fact that although a majority of residents are of Dutch descent, only around 25 percent call themselves Christian. His enumeration of the achievements of Dutch tolerance concluded with an account of the removal of a stanza about the help of God from the national anthem of the Netherlands. As you can understand, explained the pastor, various people have various gods, and they can be offended that the anthem names only the Christian God. This is a triumph for tolerance, isn’t it? Listening to him, I thought, if this is a triumph, what would catastrophe be like?”

That was before the spectre of jihad made its appearance on Dutch soil. One wonders what the pastor is thinking today.

Vodvolaskyn, in an essay entitled ‘The New Middle Age’, published in First Things over a year ago, as a philologist might be inclined to do, identified the world as a text.

“As in the Middle Ages, the world itself is becoming a text, though the texts vary in these two cases. The medieval world was a text written by God that excluded the ill-considered and the accidental. The Holy Scripture, which gave meaning to the signs that were generously scattered in daily life, was this world’s key. Now the world is a text that has any number of individual meanings that can be documented. Think of the blogger who describes, minute by minute, a day that has passed.”

But the modern age, with its false humanism, centered exclusively on man, repudiated the Christian vision. The progressivist delusion clouded the picture and abandoned the vision of a unified world where the past and the present were one force.

Vodvolaskyn, being Russian, looks at the modern world from that perspective. But he is also profoundly Christian and fully aware of the historic unity of spirit which Christianity brought to what we call the West. He is also deeply optimistic about the potential which this spirit still has to transform and renew the now decaying civilization in which we find ourselves.

Both Vodvolaskyn and Joseph Ratzinger – surely not only one of the greatest popes of the modern age but also one of its wisest political philosophers – see that the changes that have to come have to take place in our hearts as well as in our culture and in our reason-based political institutions. For both of them utopian dreams are paths to disaster for mankind – as they have shown themselves to be from Cromwell’s time up to the age of ISIS.

Ratzinger points out in Values In A Time of Upheaval:

“The enthusiastic messianism of an eschatological and revolutionary character is absolutely foreign to the New Testament. History is, so to speak, the kingdom where reason rules. Although politics does not bring about the kingdom of God, it must be concerned for the right kingdom of human beings, that is, it must create the preconditions for peace at home and abroad and for a rule of law that will permit everyone to ‘lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way’ (1 Tim. 2: 2). One could say that this also implies the demand of religious freedom. Similarly, the text is confident that reason can recognize the essential moral foundations of human existence and can implement these in the political domain.”

Scruton, for his part, warns us of the totalitarian traps which the modern philosophies of Peter Singer and Derek Parfit , both icons of progressivism, set for us with their consequentialist moral reasoning.

“Both philosophers overlook the actual record of consequentialist reasoning. Modern history presents case after case of inspired people led by visions of ‘the best,’ believing that all rational beings would adopt those visions if only they would think about them clearly. The Communist Manifesto is one such Vision. It gives a picture of ‘the best’ and argues that all would work for it, the bourgeoisie included, if only they understood the impeccable arguments for its implementation. Those who stand in the way of revolution are self-interested; but they are also irrational and would change sides if they thought seriously about principles that everyone could will to be laws. Since their interests prevent them from thinking in that way, violent revolution is both necessary and inevitable.”  (P97)

Vodvolaskyn argues for a conservative project and thinks that if the West is able to move beyond its geopolitical disagreements with Russia, it will see one possible future for our common European civilization. One of his fears, which he elaborates in another more recent essay, is that if Russia attempts this by means of a harsh dictatorship of the majority, then it will fail and destabilize society no less than, say, “the dictatorship of the minority that we can observe at times in the West.”

Today as ever, he holds,—contrary to progressive conceits—it is possible for a society to recognize a place for religion and uphold traditional notions of marriage and family. For Scruton it is not only possible. It is essential. In his book he subscribes to the “deep insight” shared by Burke, Maistre and Hegel, that the destiny of political order and the destiny of the family are connected. “Families, and the relationships embraced by them, are nonaccidental features of interpersonal life.”

Contemporary progressivism’s deconstruction of the family is at the heart of our society’s catastrophic regression.

But piling hope upon Vodvolaskyn’s hope, we look for a new Renaissance. But this renaissance will not be a rediscovery of the ancient world. It will be a rediscovery of the treasures of the Middle Ages, cast aside so dismissively by those who consider the word medieval just another expletive. Western Europe, Russia, and the United States, he maintains, represent various branches of a single tree. The basic systemic feature of this civilization is Christianity, both as a religious practice and as a specific kind of culture. If European civilization is fated to survive, it will require a rediscovery of Christianity. And that will, he says, take place both on the level of persons, of  nation-states and at a pan-European level.

Once more, we live in hope.