My wife and I were in London recently, staying at a hotel literally in the shadow of the dome of Christopher Wren’s magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral. In the crypt of the cathedral is Wren’s tomb, along with its marvelous inscription, “If you seek his monument, look around you.”
St. Paul’s replaced the medieval Gothic cathedral that burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, a fire that virtually destroyed London and its many churches. Wren designed many new churches, most of them still standing today, which replaced the fire-ruined older churches. But St. Paul’s, which almost miraculously escaped destruction from German bombing in World War II, was his masterpiece.
In the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire it was generally believed by English Protestants that Catholic arsonists has initiated the awful conflagration. This was a belief that persisted for a century or two. Nobody believes it today, but in 1666 we had not yet arrived at an era of Catholic-Protestant good feelings.
This gives us a clue as to why King Charles II, who had strong Catholic sympathies, pretended to be a Protestant until he was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed in 1685. His brother and successor, James II, was imprudent enough to be openly Catholic in a Catholic-hating country. Not surprisingly he was kicked off the throne in 1688, the year of the “Glorious Revolution.”
Catholic stupidity contributed greatly to the demise of Catholicism in England. For example, the persecution of Protestants by Queen Mary (“Bloody Mary”); the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth by Pope Pius V; the Gunpowder Plot by Guy Fawkes and other good Catholics (1605). And then the indiscreetly open Catholicism of James II.
The crypt of St. Paul’s is only incidentally given over to Christopher Wren. Mostly it’s given over to English military heroes, above all two men who fought successfully against Napoleon – Nelson and Wellington. I have the impression that England thinks of Nelson as the greater man of the two, a dubious judgment. But in an age of Romanticism Nelson was the more romantic of the two. After all, he was struck down at the moment of this greatest triumph, the Battle of Trafalgar. What could be more romantic than that? He was rather like Lincoln, also struck down at the moment of his triumph. Though Washington was a greater man than Lincoln, everybody loves Lincoln more.
In any case, wandering around the crypt of St. Paul’s and looking at the monuments to many men who lived and died for their country, you might assume that the message is, “The individual is nothing, England everything.” But that’s not quite it. The message is: “England is everything, and to the degree that the man lived and died for England, he too counts.”
There may be some exceptions to the rule, but in general individuals obtain meaning in life by belonging to what may be called a moral community, or perhaps a sacred community. Individuals are nothing, or almost nothing; mere specks of dust in an immense and silent universe.
But the moral community – be it tribe, city-state, religion, nation, a political movement (e.g., Communism, Nazism, feminism, LGBT-ism, environmentalism) – is not at all a speck of dust. It is an immense thing. Immensely important. And by being part of this moral community the teeny-weeny individual acquires a borrowed, but real, importance.
For centuries in the West, the Catholic Church was this sacred community. Individuals felt they were important because they, little though they may be, belonged to this great thing, the Church. But then came the Protestant Reformation, and though Christian beliefs and Christian morals persisted for the most part, the great moral community, the Church, was shattered. And with the shattering of this sacred community individuals in Protestant countries could no longer be quite sure that their lives counted for anything.
And so people turned soon to a new moral community, the nation. Protestantism and nationalism flourished side by side. Because nationalism, carried to extremes, led to two world wars in the 20th century, it’s no longer in good repute, especially among Europeans. In America, where nationalism has produced no such horrible consequences (to the contrary, it was nationalism that united us after the Civil War), nationalism is still in relatively good repute, and still flourishes in conjunction with conservative Protestantism and with a somewhat Protestantized conservative Catholicism.
Of course, our American cultural elites (persons for example who were educated at our very best colleges) tend to have a cosmopolitan outlook, and therefore shy away from nationalism. It wasn’t long ago that Donald Trump, that bête noire of our cultural elites, got in trouble for announcing that he is a nationalist.
In England, I found that people now talk about only one thing besides sports, Brexit. In that great cosmopolitan city, London, people are, not surprisingly, anti-Brexit. But in the villages and small towns of England they are pro-Brexit; at least they were so when the national referendum on withdrawing from the EU was held in June 2016.
My guess – and I cannot say this is more than a guess – is that pro-Brexit voters are interested in holding on to England as a moral community. Who can blame them? They once had Christianity, more precisely Catholicism. But this disintegrated over the centuries, until today the Church of England – the official national church, the church of the Queen, a church that has done its best to keep up with the times, ordaining female bishops and gay priests – finds its houses of worship almost empty every Sunday.
The religion of nationalism is a poor thing compared to the Christian religion, especially Catholicism. But it’s better than nothing. Nelson and Wellington and other heroes in the crypt of St. Paul’s had something bigger than themselves to live and die for. Those who, rejecting nationalism, prefer to live in a cosmopolitan world, will find that they have little to live for but the making and spending of money, and nothing at all to die for.
*Image: American Progress by John Gast, 1872 [Autry Museum of the American West, Los Angeles, CA]