The Curious Case of Brexit, Part 3: From Britain to Babylon

I’ve had long stays in Spain, Germany, and France, and have an intense scholarly and personal interest in the histories and cultures of all three countries. And yet I would sooner proclaim myself an Anglophile than a “-phile” of any of those other three, even though I’ve spent far less time in the UK. I engage with other countries on a more critical, less emotional level, but I can’t help but feel stirrings of romanticism in England that I don’t feel elsewhere. It is, of course, Shakespeare’s “sceptr’d isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, / This other Eden, demi-paradise….” The music of the British Invasion, which I discovered as a teenager, to me is no less evocative than anything by Blake or the Bard. All these things made my first visit to London a kind of pilgrimage. Inspired by the Kinks, that that most quintessentially English of British Invasion bands, I timed my exit from Waterloo Station to cross over the Thames at just the right moment, for as the song promised, “As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise.”

My training as a medievalist has led me to appreciate the depth of tradition embodied in the British political system. Western political thought rests on rather irrational assumptions, some of which I explored last week. The Enlightenment judged those assumptions to be bad, and the countries of continental Europe have largely attempted to paper over them since the French Revolution, but in the UK their continued presence has become part of the country’s distinct identity.

The pageantry associated with royalty is liturgical in its origins, a sublime expression of the belief that the State participates in the divine order through sacred ritual, a belief as old as government itself. Although the Christian Church claimed to be the sole universal vehicle for salvation, it never denied the State’s divine mandate, for as Paul said in Romans 13:1, “the powers that be are ordained of God.” The purpose of the State in traditional Christian thought was to safeguard the Church until the end of time, when the relationship between God and man would come to perfection in the new Jerusalem.

Throughout Christian history, though, there have occasionally arisen movements that see the new Jerusalem not as the perfect Church beyond time, but as an actual State to be established on Earth by God’s elect. Austrian political philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) grouped such movements together under the label “Gnosticism,” and theorized that such beliefs lay at the origin of all modern political ideologies.

The core belief of Gnosticism, according to Voegelin, is that divine guidance will lead humanity to establish a perfect, godly society in the here and now. Interpreting the Christian apocalypse in political terms, Gnostics viewed the present order of the world as “Babylon,” the immoral city that appears in Revelation 17 and must fall before the new Jerusalem can arrive. In England’s 17th-century civil wars, the Puritans declared it their mission to “dasheth the brats of Babylon against the stones,” after which “the inhabitants of Jerusalem, that is, the Saints of God” would build a new and better world. But first Babylon had to fall, so the “Saints of God” had to bring it down. They attempted to do so in 1649 when Puritan parliamentarians executed King Charles I and set up a republic in his place.

In opposition to the revolutionary millenarianism of the Puritans, Thomas Hobbes penned Leviathan in 1651, ascribing the origin of the State to human initiative and arguing that its purpose was to secure the material prosperity and bodily security of its inhabitants. Hobbes’s State would not promote morality for otherworldly ends, but merely for the purpose of maintaining worldly order; thus Hobbes denied the State its traditional role in the cosmic drama of history. In Voegelin’s analysis, what Hobbes really did with Leviathan was make possible a godless Gnosticism. If the State can be justified in and of itself, without reference to a transcendent order, then the State can say to man, “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). The State takes the place of God as the source of morality and meaning, while science (both natural and social) becomes the new revelation.

As an academic in 1930s Vienna, Voegelin was an outspoken critic of both Nazism and communism, which he saw as heirs to the Gnostic tradition: neither could build its new Jerusalem without first toppling the Babylon – the immoral world order – that stood in its way. For the Nazis, this was international Jewry; for the communists, bourgeois capitalism. Voegelin fled Austria in 1938, settling in the United States, where he passed away in 1985. I can’t be sure what he would have made of the collapse of Soviet communism, as I’m hardly an expert on Voegelin, but if I were to try extending his analysis to the present, then the managerial liberalism which prevailed in the West after 1989 would seem a sort of “Gnosticism Lite.” It affirms the eventual perfectibility of humanity, but denies that apocalyptic struggle is necessary to accomplish it. Instead, it can be done gradually by tinkering experts following theoretical “best practices.”

The European Union is without a doubt the most ambitious structure ever erected by managerial liberals. The EU’s commitment to “ever-closer union” rests on a teleology in which free trade between member states and deference to supranational regulatory bodies in Brussels would inevitably “generate a European identity to sit alongside and eventually supplant national identities.” I would argue that “European identity” is nothing new, as such an identity united the continent’s ruling classes during the medieval and early modern periods, but that identity was both explicitly Christian and exclusively aristocratic. From the coronation of Charlemagne until the French Revolution, Europe’s interrelated ruling families enforced a continent-wide social hierarchy that they believed to be part of a divinely-mandated cosmic order. In many ways, the UK is the last outpost of that classical European identity, as I hope to address in the next installment.


One thought on “The Curious Case of Brexit, Part 3: From Britain to Babylon

  1. Pingback: A Holiday Interlude: On Nostalgia, Nihilism, and Moderation | postwestphalian

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