Winning can be fatal. No loss is greater than victory secured by exhausting the moral resources of a people.
This summer of 2019 I tried to understand how France won World War I, ending the Great War with the most powerful military on the planet, and twenty years later was prostrate before the Nazi menace. The War to End All Wars did not end war, but did end France or at least the France of 1789.*
What did I learn? Beyond how much there is to know, I should learn French if nothing else, something simple, something everyone knows, but is hard to recollect when in a contest of ideas or values. Winning can kill as surely as defeat. The glory of Greece could sleep for centuries, but never die. The very name Constantinople, forbidden, is magical and Eastern Rome, Byzantium, has more imaginative power in defeat than the Third French Republic had in victory in 1919.
The Third French Republic suffered post-victory stress. France drove out the Germans, but the War in the West had been fought mostly on French soul and disproportionately with French lives. Woodrow Wilson who cursed everything he touched in America went global when he damned Europe by refusing to let the French finish off the German army and taste full victory. Yet maybe none of that mattered, because France seemed played out even in victory. What did secular France have in common with Catholic France? What did Republican values have in common with Joan of Arc?
A simple observation: the rulers and the ruled cannot long have different values and remain one nation.
Imagine a nation where religion, the traditional source of values, was mocked or ignored by the elite, but where secularism proved incapable of uniting the classes. The rulers could mock religion, but one cannot govern or inspire with an eye roll and a witty comment. Communism was a secularist religion with a fall, salvation history, the promise of acoming utopia and so might have revived a new secular France. Yet Communism, atheism’s Christian heresy, was showing itself to be awful in the Soviet Union and so by 1940 that option was dead. The Catholic lower classes fought and died to hold up Joan of Arc’s vision, but by 1920 the Catholic Atlas shrugged.
When a conflict begins, such as World War I, then a nation must ask if she fights: “What for? What is victory?” Perhaps that is easier to define, then “What is the France we wish to win?” One wonders, in the end, if the Third Republic, born in the defeat of the Second Empire in the Franco-Prussian War was not simply revenge. That is enough to start and sustain a war, but when victory comes then the question must be asked: “What is this winner? Who is this France?”
I do not think there was any answer to that question in 1920 and 1940’s defeat to the Nazi Germans did not help. France won the first war, lost the peace, and was damned to lose the Second. What, just now, is France? Is she a cog in the German European Union? Is she a championship football team?
Much has been lost, so what is left?
God knows. I do not, leaving it to the experts and the French themselves.
This much is plain and obvious. Winning, wining at all costs, can unite a people, but the victory then exposes the differences. This Republic, like our oldest ally the French Republic, would do well to stop, think about it, and unite. Perhaps, after all, a commonwealth with a Christian civic religion, tolerant of religious and non-religious minorities, is still the best option. Yet if that is to be true, then Christians must ourselves be true to our deepest principles and recall that winning might begin in the Cross.
God save this Republic.
Teaching great texts means you never know enough about anything and so have to keep learning about everything. I will start the term in Homer’s Greece and end up with our college seniors in a Shakespeare seminar with a last class on Tempest. Come visit the College.