At least since Nietzsche, modern European pagans of the more reckless jejune sort have been wont to proclaim that Christianity gutted Europe of her original, chthonic, manly, distinctive culture. The process took millennia, they say, but it has now been pretty much completed. Europe has been unmanned by the pale Galilean who had already sapped Rome and the wider Hellenic world with his flaccid Oriental mysteries, and lies now prone before her Mohammedan conquerors.
It’s a silly conceit. For one thing, the West began her precipitous Modern decline at exactly the moment that her formerly deep and utterly preponderant Christian faith began to weaken and splinter – thanks in no small part to that madman, Nietzsche himself (and to a few other madmen, such as Voltaire). For another, if Christianity really did gut Europe of such a vigorous exuberant cult, then … that cult must have been rather weak after all, mutatis mutandis – and so, by its own lights, deserving of death.
Introduction. Paul Johnson, usually acute, prejudices the case against Henrik Ibsen (1828 – 1906) in the chapter that he devotes to the instigator of modern drama in his Intellectuals (1993), where the author of Emperor and Galilean (1873) keeps company with the likes of Karl Marx, Berthold Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, and Lillian Hellman. Johnson can classify Ibsen under the pejorative label of an “intellectual” only by ignoring Ibsen’s text and concentrating on the biographical details, which indeed make their subject look like a contemptible piece of work. This criticism of Johnson by no means invalidates Johnson’s definition of an “intellectual.” On the contrary, Johnson has defined the “intellectual” brilliantly and his treatment of the phenomenon must bear instructively on any analysis of Ibsen’s play about Julian the Apostate. According to Johnson, the “intellectual,” who appears first in the person of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is a politically committed character for whom “a utopian, socialist future [is] plainly a substitute for a religious idealism in which he [cannot] believe.” An intellectual is often the master of a narrow slice of specialized knowledge who, however, feels “no incongruity in moving from [his] own discipline… to public affairs.” Yet when examined closely, even the specialized knowledge of the intellectual, his peculiar theory, tends to be unconvincing and perverse – a type of pleading by the person to himself to protect his theory from inconvenient facts and to preserve his vision of himself as someone qualified to “counsel humanity.” Writing specifically of Rousseau, Johnson remarks that intellectuals see themselves, not as “servants or interpreters of the gods but [as] substitutes” – that is, of both the gods or God and the sacerdotal clerisy. Johnson writes of that “most marked [of the] characteristics of the new secular intellectuals,” namely “the relish with which they subjected religion and its protagonists to critical scrutiny.”