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What Notre Dame Says about Civilization

(Chesnot/Getty Images)

“The destruction of Notre Dame has shaken our complacent belief in the permanence of things and the ability for our culture to last without care and cultivation. It reveals and reminds us that life is a fragile thing, and even the strongest bastions dedicated to the eternal can still be brought down.”

April 15 will always be the day that Notre Dame burned. It will always be the day that the gift given to us by the past went up in flames. We should be thankful that the rose windows, the altars, the Pieta, and the organ survived and that the stone structure, art, and holy relics have been saved. We should not be in denial, however: much has still been lost. The roof is completely gone, the spire has collapsed, and much of the cathedral stands devastated. It is hard to write about, especially having been there and witnessed the glories and the wonder of the place for myself. The destruction of Notre Dame has shaken our complacent belief in the permanence of things and the ability for our culture to last without care and cultivation. It reveals and reminds us that life is a fragile thing, and even the strongest bastions dedicated to the eternal can still be brought down.

It is difficult to shake the feeling that our generation has squandered a precious patrimony, a piece of our culture that will be nigh on impossible to replace. As Douglas Murray so eloquently wrote in the Spectator: “Though politicians may imagine that ages are judged on the minutiae of government policy, they are not. They are judged on what they leave behind: most of all on how they treat what the past has handed into their care. Even if today’s disaster was simply the most freakish of accidents, ours would still be the era that lost Notre Dame.

Culture anchors us and gives expression to the need to feel connected to the community of souls, bound by chords that reverberate up and down the ages, weaving together to create the song of human experience.

We are not simply atomized individuals wandering around aimlessly, choosing from an endless buffet of lifestyle options, browsing our lives away in an endless, apparently eternal now. We are linked to those gone before and those who come after through our culture. For Franz Rosenzweig, religion answers the need we have to believe in immortality: of the continuation of the meaning of our lives beyond death. This longing for immortality is expressed in art, music, philosophy, literature, and architecture. This springs from the metaphysical root of Christianity in the case of Notre Dame and Europe’s other high medieval monuments. Culture anchors us and gives expression to the need to feel connected to the community of souls, bound by chords that reverberate up and down the ages, weaving together to create the song of human experience. We have a responsibility to those yet to be born to ensure that they also have a chance to witness the soul-uplifting beauty of places like Notre Dame, places which deserve our reverence and love and which comprise part of the fabric of our culture.

We have failed in this, and have since the 1960’s, when what Roger Scruton calls the culture of repudiation took hold. From then on, the Left dismissed, “every aspect of our cultural capital,” accusing those who defended Western culture of all the now regrettably familiar “isms” of hatred and wrong-think. This culture of repudiation has been evident in the attempts to paint Western history as uniquely awful, as the home of the history of human brutality. This is not to excuse the evils of Western history, but the undoubted good cannot also be discarded without killing what it is that makes us who we are.

The fact that the burning of Notre Dame elicited such stunned and anguished reactions from the people of Paris and from around the world is arguably a cause for hope. It suggests that the culture of repudiation has not sunk too deep. It suggests that people still, at some level, realize what really matters. Notre Dame was testament in soaring stone and marble to the idea that life is more than just the fleeting present. The images from inside the cathedral of the cross undamaged and the altar unburnt are signs that there is always reason to hope—and that despair is only for those who have given up the will to live and affirm the potential for good in our world and in our lives.

Even so, the sight of the burning cathedral is something that none will ever forget. And nor should they. For those who’ve never had the opportunity to witness it in all its splendor for themselves, the opportunity is now lost forever. Those who can appreciate what this means will weep for the loss to themselves and their children: the opportunity to share in the story of our past, grounded in the sacred, now in ashes. For those who were fortunate enough to stand in wonder at the cathedral and bear witness to its celebration of the God who inspired its creation, the loss of such a thing is even harder to bear. The memories make the burnt, blackened, and wounded shell a sight that is almost too painful to look at. It is hard not to wonder whether the sight of the collapsing spire symbolized the teetering nature of our civilization, buckling under the weight of its own contradictions, cleaved from its foundations in the faith that gave it life, disorientated by the “dictatorship of relativism” that rules in the void left after the cultural death of God.

But this is what civilizations who believe that they should continue do: they remember the past, they pay reverence to the good, the true, and the beautiful, conserve for the present, and hand down to the future. When churches burned in ages before, people mourned, and then rebuilt. While it is right that we should mourn, we should turn ourselves to the task of rebuilding what was lost, and preserving what remains for those who will follow. Notre Dame and buildings like it are part of who we are. If we believe that our civilization is worth conserving and handing down to our descendants, it is our duty to revere and preserve these manifestations of our souls’ longing for transcendence. Our attitude to these buildings, grounded in the sacred, reflects our attitude to ourselves and to our civilization. It is hard not to feel that with the loss of the hope of eternity grounded in the sacred that the reason for the continuation of our civilization also disappears. It seems that there is some sense of this across Europe, even if it’s only a dim intuition, and that sense also adds to the desolation people felt in themselves at the desolation of the cathedral.

Those who come after us will judge our time and those who occupy it as we judge the past. How do we want to be remembered? I would argue that we should wish to leave a world behind that encourages them not to judge us too harshly. To do so, we must rebuild, preserve, and aim at redeeming the time, as Russell Kirk put it. Earlier I likened the ties that bind generations together to chords that reverberate down the years. Our attitude to Notre Dame, and buildings like it, will decide whether the melody of our civilization continues, or whether it fades into silence, never to be heard again beyond a few scattered fragments, a few disjointed notes. The choice is ours.

Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.

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Miriam Wells
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Miriam Wells

You killed us all in WW1 and 2 and rhen whinge about Europeans not wanting to continue.