Notre Dame and ‘Western Civilization’

My first view of Notre Dame, 2012

In the days following the fire that consumed Notre-Dame de Paris’s roof and a certain amount of the cathedral’s west end, people have been making commentary, some of which, I understand, is to the effect that Notre Dame is a symbol of ‘western civilization’. Some of these people, I am given to understand by the outraged on Twitter, are right-wing, racist fanatics. I seem to miss the fanatics themselves but only see the outrage, so I sometimes wonder if the outrage is worth it?

Anyway, some of this outrage is fuelled not simply against racist leveraging of ‘western civilization’ but of the idea itself. Before I get rolling, I’d like to say up front that, although I believe that ‘western civilization’ is a Thing, I do not think it superior other civilizations or cultures. All civilizations and cultures are flawed and fallen, mixing good and bad.

One argument against Notre Dame as a symbol for ‘western civilization’ that I observed was that Gothic architecture owes much to Islamic architecture. Whether or not pointy arches were a moment of independent genius on the part of Suger’s architects and of the Islamic world I cannot say. Nonetheless, for the purposes of my ensuing argument, I will take it as given that pointy arches were first noted by Europeans in Spain when folk were going on pilgrimages and then adopted by architects in northern France.

This, and any other piece of detail, engineering, mathematics, etc., that was borrowed from the Islamic world does not suddenly nullify the fact that Gothic architecture is a thing from western Europe, and pretty much everywhere else it has gone, western Europeans or their descendants brought it with them, such as Gothic Cyprus.

In fact, if we accept the argument that the pointed arch is a direct borrowing into Gothic architecture from Islamic architecture, this in no way impinges on the idea of western civilization. I suspect that many people who object to ‘western civilization’ these days are more worried about Gibbon and the Enlightenment than what came before. If we acknowledge what came before, we see that Latin Christendom is a Thing.

When I say that Latin Christendom is a Thing, I mean that loosely connected group of polities that includes bishoprics that acknowledge the Bishop of Rome as their supreme head, use the Latin language in liturgy, law, theology, philosophy, sometimes poetry, and who think of themselves as somehow being part of the Same Thing, a Thing that is not the Greek-speaking Roman Thing to the East or the Arabic-speaking Islamic Thing to the South.

An example of the fact that Latin Christendom, internally, is a Thing can be found in the careers of two Archbishops of Canterbury. Lanfranc was born in Pavia. He went on to be schoolmaster at Bec, in Normandy, then prior, then abbot at Caen. In 1070, he became Archbishop of Canterbury. The next Archbishop was Anselm, from Aosta before becoming a monk of Bec, then prior, then abbot of Bec, then Archbishop of Canterbury, who spent a considerable portion of his episcopate in exile in Italy. These men crossed boundaries in an age before passports because there was a common cultural framework that united Pavia, Aosta, Bec, and Canterbury.

Through evangelization and conquest, Latin Christendom expanded itself in various directions.

But whatever Latin Christendom was — and the western European world that was to succeed it in the age of the nation-state — it was not hermetically sealed. Part of what makes Latin Christendom itself is its interaction with the non-Latin civilizations that surround it. Scholastic Aristotelianism needs Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes); the study of Aristotle needs, chronologically first, the translations out of Arabic and then out of Greek; Palermo’s glorious art and architecture are clearly indebted to east Roman (‘Byzantine’) and Islamic influences; an early medieval Archbishop of Canterbury was from Syria; the Latin liturgy in Rome was forever changed by Syrian and Palestinian refugees in the seventh century; I suspect Maximus the Confessor, himself a Palestinian, had a greater impact on Latin thought than often suspected; ‘western’ medicine relies heavily on Arabic learning; various strands of math come to the West out of the House of Islam.

It could go on.

This, of course, focusses Latin Christendom, but only because Latin Christendom provides us with the boundaries usually imagined by those who discuss it. Nonetheless, the world of the Byzantine commonwealth would also be an interesting starting place as well.

Whatever is meant by western civilization, when I talk about it, I do not imagine it to be either superior or hermetically sealed. In my field, many people are wary of suggesting you should study the Classics because they are the foundation of western civilization. Nevertheless, in saying that, I don’t think anyone imagines that Homer imagined himself part of a culture that included Britain. And it certainly not true that the inheritance of Rome is found only in ‘western civilization’ — a colleague who studies Islamic law says that there is new research arguing for the importance of Roman law in Islamic law. And the Great Mosque of Damascus is essentially a Roman basilica. We could go on — the interchanges and inheritances between cultures are numerous.

All of this to say — if Notre Dame is somehow a symbol, or even a triumph, of western civilization (the house is on fire!), this doesn’t mean that there is no cultural exchange that brings into play the greatness of others, nor does it mean that other cultures have no triumphs of their own (consider the Al-Aqsa Mosque) and are inferior. This is certainly never how I have viewed the world, and I believe that western civilization is a Thing.

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