Europe, the cradle of Western civilization, is a haven for displaced persons fleeing from barbaric practices in degrading conflicts. But no civilization prospers in the absence of criticism. How civilized is the West itself actually, now we no longer know the humanist inheritance, education focuses on cursory knowledge and fresh ideas from outside are missing? Are there really no barbarians anymore or do we fall slowly into barbarism - by lethargy overwhelmed and fearful for our future?

These and other questions were asked at the conference on November 14 in Amsterdam.

"As a political scientist I know that conflict is important in politics. But the brainless today is terrible. How do we ever get out of here?"
Robert Putnam (NRC Handelsblad October 2015).


Erodes the Western ideal of civilization? On this theme, the NEXUS Institute organized the conference


With among others

Robert Putnam, Amin Gemayel and Anne Applebaum, Ahmed Gaaloul (about his motives to study the jihadi extremism), Azza El-Kholy (speaks harsh words about our supposed
), Amos Oz (introduced his book of Jude), Zeev Sternhell (refers to his personal experiences under Nazism to explain his position in the Palestinian conflict), Michael Shermer (talks about his interest in moral issues); Leon Wieseltier (reflects on the influence of technology on our society and on the responsibility that we have as human beings), and Abderrahmane Sissako (stresses with the film 'Timbuktu' the existence of different visions and Islam

image thanks to NEXUS Institute

The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy portrays a fictional city grown decadent in times of plenty within a Roman Empire, in which the emperor, senators, rhetors and citizens almost eagerly look forward to the arrival of the barbarians. Then the barbarians do not come, and the disappointment is felt deeply. Cavafy’s description of this imaginary city ends with the following haunting lines:

And now, what’s to become of us without barbarians.
Those people were a solution of some kind
(Translated by Daniel Mendelsohn)

The arrival of the barbarians would have offered a way out of the spiritual emptiness, lethargy, boredom and laziness that the city had fallen prey to. Poetically, Cavafy has illustrated the argument put forward by Edward Gibbon in his superb historical epic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788): that Roman civilization primarily withered as a result of decay from within, waiting for the barbarians that eventually came. The Nexus Conference 2015 addresses this theme within our society: how powerful is our current ideal of civilization?

In 1794, in his eighth letter in On the Aesthetic Education of Man, while enjoying the blossoming of a new European civilization, the result of Enlightenment ideals coming to fruition, Friedrich Schiller unexpectedly posed a painful question: ‘Whence then is it that we remain still barbarians?’ A few decades later, his old friend Goethe gave the following answer in a conversation  with Johan Peter Eckermann in 1831: ‘[the historian Barthold] Niebuhr was right in predicting an era of barbarism. It is already here and we are in the midst of it; for wherein does barbarism consist unless in not appreciating what is excellent?’ A few years later, in Democracy in America (1840), Alexis de Tocqueville observed: ‘Because Roman civilization perished through barbarian invasions, we are perhaps too much inclined to think that that is the only way a civilization can die.

Innocent people, who are beheaded or burned alive in front of running cameras – and these atrocities are thereupon sent into the world for everyone to see; editors, who are murdered in cold blood for their satirical cartoons; fanatics, who torture and desire to die as martyrs for their cause. Modern slavery, organized rape, a superpower that invades other states for more Lebensraum. We hear the news of so much cruelty, so much violence, so much barbarism in disbelief, disgust, bewilderment and fear. Our European  history is similarly marked by bonfires, guillotines, torture and martyrs, sla- very and raids; but this is past, it happened long ago, it is over. We are proud to  be civilized.

       At least, so we think. Just as we thought at the beginning of the twentieth century, when European culture reached its zenith and we were completely unaware of how easily and how quickly European civilization would enter the realms of the greatest barbarity. A savagery, to which the most uncon- ceivable evil of Auschwitz and the Gulag will always be connected. And to this day, we still do not really understand, we still do not really have an answer to the questions that Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Thomas Mann,  Albert Camus and George Steiner were bound to ask: how come that a developed civilization may lapse into new forms of barbarism? Whence this evil? Whence nihilism? How come that the humanities failed to humanize us? What went wrong with reason?

       Only a few months before his voluntary death, Primo Levi wrote two paragraphs in The Drowned and the Saved (1986) that now read as his testament, a testimony and warning to those among us, who consider themselves living in a civilized society:


For us to speak with the young becomes ever more difficult. We see it as a duty, and at the same time as a risk: the risk of appearing anachronistic, of not being listened to. We must be listened to: above and beyond our personal experiences, we have collectively been the witnesses of a fundamental, unexpected event, fundamental precisely because unexpected, not foreseen by anyone. It took place in the  teeth of all forecasts; it happened in Europe. Incredibly, it happened that an entire civilized people, just issued form the fervid cultural flowering of Weimar, followed a buffoon whose figure today inspires laughter, and yet Adolf Hitler was obeyed and his praises were sung right up to the catastrophe. It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.

      It can happen, and it can happen everywhere. I do not intend to nor can I say that it will happen; as I pointed out earlier, it is not very probable that all the factors that unleashed the Nazi madness will again occur simultaneously but pre- cursory signs loom before us. Violence, ‘useful’ or ‘useless’, is there before our eyes:  it snakes either through sporadic and private episodes, or government lawlessness, both in what we call the first and second worlds, that is to say, the parliamentary democracies and countries in the Communist area. In the Third World, it is endemic or epidemic. It only awaits its new buffoons (there is no dearth of candidates) to organize it, legalize it, declare it necessary and mandatory and contaminate the world. Few countries can be considered immune to a future tide of violence generated by intolerance, lust for power, economic difficulties, religious or political fanaticism, and racialist attritions. It is therefore necessary to sharpen our senses, distrust the prophets, the enchanters, those who speak and write ‘beautiful words’ unsupported by intelligent reason.

Translated by Raymond Rosenthal 

Mindful of these words and of the critical observations by Schiller, Goethe and De Tocqueville, we would be wise not to let us solely be dazzled by the barbaric conditions at the borders of Europe for the survival of our civilization. Rather, we need to start asking ourselves some uncomfortable and critical questions.

Why are there still barbarians?

In his treatise On Human Dignity (1487), the European humanist Pico della Mirandola put the following words on the nature and destiny of man into the mouth of the Supreme Being: ‘We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.’ If this is true, then man is free and may choose his own path in life. But then, how come that people have a barbaric inclination, a tendency to fall back into barbarism? Who are today the barbarians? What feeds barbarism?

Is it justified to describe Islam as a seedbed for barbarism, now so many fanatics act in the name of this religion? Then again, how to handle the simple fact that so many of these Muslim extremists and jihadists are born and bred in Europe? Why were they not receptive to the European ideal of civilization? What feeds fanaticism, ferocity and self-destruction? And what is our response to the still unanswered question, raised by the stained past of our twentieth-century history: how come that a developed culture may lapse, seemingly easily and rapidly, into the most horrific forms of barbarity? Where does the disloyalty of intellectuals and the connivance of scientists originate? Why are aestheticism and barbarism in line, why are they neighbours, as Thomas Mann argued in his novel Doctor Faustus (1947)? And from where springs murderous nihilism? Are Nietzsche’s ‘death of God’ and barbarity interconnected? What symptoms are indicative for a culture in decline? And what would Schiller, Goethe and De Tocqueville — if they would be with us in this present world — be able to see that we are not (yet) able to see?

How civilized are we?

What protects us from a relapse into barbarism? What protects us from savagery? The answer to these questions is always the same word, a word that has become the shibboleth for a just and peaceful society: civilization.

      Then again, what is civilization? In his small yet brilliant text The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1646), the Spanish author Baltasar Gracián summarizes it concisely: ‘Man is born a barbarian, and only raises himself above the beast by culture. Culture therefore makes the man; the more a man, the higher.’ With these words, Gracián wanted to elucidate the fact that everyone without a sense of what matters for human dignity is a barbarian; to emphasize that anyone has to cultivate the virtues and spiritual values that enable a harmonious existence with one’s neighbour. This ideal is also echoed in Goethe’s vision: ‘Civilization is a permanent exercise in respect. Respect for the divine, the earth, for our fellow men and so for our own dignity.’

      If this is what civilization and culture comprise, what are in that case the values that we cultivate today? Are these universal values or does the post-modern (‘post-cultural’, in the words of George Steiner) era exclude a universal interpretation? And what is the foundation of our morality? Every now and then we find a reference to ‘the sources of our civilization’,  to Judaism, Christianity, Greek philosophy and the social and legal organization of the Romans. Have these wells of culture not already run dry, taking into account that these traditions are barely upheld in our time? Religion, art and philosophy are traditionally considered carriers of civilization. Given the limited relevance ascribed to the arts and culture in our society in general, we may also question the influence of these so-called ‘civilizing forces’. Nevertheless, we recognize unquestionably the dominance of science and technology in our world and as part of our worldview. May it be that Nietzsche was right, when wondering about this dominance in the unpublished fragments of The Dawn (1880): ‘An age of barbarism is about to begin, the sciences will serve it!’ Will reason, or rationalism, provide a solution? Is this the pillar upon which we may build our ideal of civilization?

      In the meantime, political and social discontent are noticeably on the rise in our current society. Nationalist and fascist movements generate politics of fear again, and trust in political elites is steadily declining. The horrible results to which these phenomena could lead are notorious and accordingly, the question remains what might restore confidence in European politics.

      In a gloomy letter from May 1960 on social developments in Europe, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, publisher of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, which was banned in the Soviet Union, wrote to the author about the era of the Fourth Reich that in his eyes had come into being: ‘The “Fourth Reich” is the era of compromise, money and intellectual poverty.’ The fact is, we live in a plutocracy; our media and educational system in particular cultivate stupidity. What is the subsequent impact on our culture? And what can be changed, if this is ‘what people want’? And if even our education does not offer a spiritual and intellectual formation, then what does?

Grand narratives, great ideals; those are the essential characteristics of every culture, because with these narratives and through these ideals people relate with each other and to their history and, at least for a moment, feel raised above and beyond their personal experiences, relieved from their daily concerns by a vision of how the future could be. Even so, Robert Musil, working in the interbellum on his novel The Man without Qualities, which remained unfinished, noted down as central message that we had entered an age without a Grand Narrative or Binding Ideal: ‘Each era must have a guideline, a raison d’être, a balance between theory and ethics, God etc. As yet, the Age of Empiricism has failed.’      


Do we still retain a Grand Narrative or are we tired of narratives? Do we still believe in an ideal of culture, in an ideal civilization, and what are we willing to do for it? Or are we also waiting, prosperous yet apprehensive, for the barbarians?


Rob Riemen Founder and president Nexus Institute