By Robert P. George
December 3, 2020 11:40 AM
The poet perceived that action would follow thought
As we mark the 65th anniversary of National Review, was there ever a more appropriate time to stand athwart history yelling “Stop”?
We’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic whose economic and social consequences have been as devastating as its impact on public health. Our nation is ideologically polarized and culturally tribalized to the point at which each half of the country views the other half as enemies rather than fellow citizens with whom they happen to have disagreements. And this did not begin yesterday, or in 2016.
We have rioting, complete with burning and looting, in the streets and rampaging mobs on social media “canceling” people in academia and elsewhere who have the temerity to raise even the mildest and most tentative questions about their cherished dogmas.
Conspiracy-theorizing has become rampant — and even the objectively wildest of the alleged conspiracies take on a patina of plausibility in light of the crazy things that “respectable” people and “leading authorities” have come to believe, and to insist on other people’s believing. Just ask J. K. Rowling or Abigail Shrier.
Cultural changes, many undermining core values of our civilization, come with astonishing swiftness, altering even foundational institutions such as marriage and the family. Increasingly people doubt that our nation and civilization can survive — and some wonder whether they are even worth saving.
All of this has gotten me thinking about the 19th-century German-Jewish Christian poet Heinrich Heine.
Heine predicted in 1834 what came to pass in the 1930s 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 we need to glean from it. 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 my 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 terror and 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 biblical and natural-law 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 foresaw that something like them would arise. His key insight was this: He understood 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 — from the schools and universities to the news media and entertainment industry to the “woke” corporate boardrooms — 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 — an anthropology, a moral philosophy, that has 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 long 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.
Our task is difficult. I don’t deny it — quite the contrary. It is, nevertheless, our task. For those of us who educate — whether in classrooms or in print or online — it is our calling, our vocation. Our mission is to provide that true education — that good, deep, critical, independent thinking — that exposes tyranny when it presents itself in the garb of “liberation” or “equality,” and helps people to overcome what is destructive, what is inhuman and degrading, what undermines the fulfillment and flourishing of human beings and human communities at every level.
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.
This article appears as “Realms Visible and Invisible” in the December 17, 2020, print edition of National Review.