Heine’s prophecy and our mission
Below are remarks I recently gave to Directors of academic programs and institutes on human flourishing and civic life in the U.S. and U.K. — Robert George
People sometimes ask why I—and my colleagues at the James Madison Program at Princeton and the Witherspoon Institute and at other programs and institutes with which we are involved around the country—are so committed to our work and so feverish in carrying it out. The question is heightened, and in a way made poignant, by what is happening in our country now. The riots in the streets. The cultural changes, which seem to be coming at us so extraordinarily rapidly. The “cancel culture.” The attacks on basic civil liberties. The incivility. The tribalism. The extreme polarization. The contempt people seem to have for others. The doubting and denying that our nation and civilization are worth preserving. Many people are wondering what to do—including the young men and women we serve at our institutes and in our programs.
All of this has gotten me thinking about the 19th century German Jewish Christian poet Heinrich Heine. Now you may be wondering, why does all this make the professor think of a 19th century German poet? I’ll explain. Heine predicted in 1834 what came to pass in the 1930’s and 40s in Germany. How could a man in 1834 have foreseen the rise of violent totalitarians and the plunging of Europe into vicious tyranny and the world into war a hundred years later? Well, let me quote Heine’s prophecy. Then I’ll say a word about why I think this is so relevant to us, and state the lesson that’s in it for the work to which we have dedicated ourselves. Here is what Heine wrote in 1834:
Christianity, and this is its greatest merit, has somewhat mitigated the brutal German love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which the Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman [the cross, Christianity] is fragile. And the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes. And then Thor, with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the gothic cathedrals.
Do not smile at the advice, the advice of a dreamer who warns you against Kantians, Fichteans, and philosophers of nature. Do not smile at the visionary who anticipates the same revolution in the realm of the visible that has already taken place in the realm of the spirit. Thought precedes action, as lightning precedes thunder. German thunder is of true Teutonic character. It is not nimble, but rumbles ponderously. Yet it will come. And when you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the history of the world, then you will know that the German thunderbolt has fallen. At that uproar, the eagles of the air will drop dead. The lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll.
Try to imagine in 1834 foreseeing something worse than the French Revolution with all the bloodshed of the guillotine. The mass madness and mass murder. The mind-numbing inhumanity. Yet Heine said that the day would come when the abolition of the Christian worldview—the destruction of the Christian understanding of humanity, of human nature, of the human good, of human dignity, of human destiny—would result in something that would make the French Revolution look like an “innocent idyll.” Which is exactly, of course, what Hitler and the Nazis did in Germany and across Europe–revalorizing Teutonic pagan “virtues” and even expressly reviving ancient pagan symbols, practices, and rituals. They “shattered that subduing talisman, the cross” and Thor “smashed the cathedrals.” Of course, Heine didn’t identify somebody named “Hitler” or a party called “the Nazis,” but he knew that something like them would arise. His key insight was this: He saw that what happens in the domain of the invisible—in the minds, the hearts, the souls of people—eventually plays itself out in the realm of the visible. “Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder.”
What we are seeing in the streets now and more broadly in the culture—and what we’re going to see in the universities in the fall (if or when students return)—didn’t and doesn’t just happen. There is an ideology, a set of beliefs, a worldview—a way of looking at and interpreting the world—there is an anthropology, a moral philosophy, that have long been in place in the minds and hearts of opinion shaping elites and influencers that now plays out in the realm of the visible. The time to have fought was a long time ago in the realm of the intellect, the invisible domain of the spirit.
But we mustn’t despair. Quite the opposite. Because two can play at this game. Transformations in intellect—in the mind, in the heart, in the spirit—can have good as well as bad consequences. Good thinking, good education, good formation can produce good results every bit as much as bad thinking, bad ideas, bad formation will produce evil results. Yes, our task is difficult. I get that. It is, nevertheless, our task. It is our calling, our vocation, our mission in our institutes and programs to provide that true education, that good, deep, critical, independent thinking, that excellent formation, that will overcome what is wrong, what is inhuman and degrading, what undermines the fulfillment and flourishing of our precious fellow human beings. Our work now, if we do it well, will produce down the line in the domain of the visible, the fruit of transformations in the realm of the invisible.