Notre Dame and Civilization

NOTRE DAME is not a myth. Notre Dame is not a theory. Its interest does not spring from ignorance but from knowledge; from a culture complicated with a hundred controversies and revolutions. It is not featureless, but carved into an incredible forest and labyrinth of fascinating features, any one of which we could talk about for days. It is not great because there is little of it, but great because there is a great deal of it. . . . Notre Dame, on its merely human side, is mediaeval civilization.

~G.K. Chesterton: in “Fancies Versus Fads” (1923)

That last word is important: civilization. These days, no one really knows what the Middle Ages were like. They are scorned as a time of ignorance, poverty and oppression. It wasn’t like that, at all. It was a very high civilization – better than any contemporary and better than all that had come before it.

First and foremost, we must remember what it came out of – the destruction of the Roman Empire was a cataclysm such as the world had never seen before. Indian and Chinese civilization had suffered, many times, invasion and conquest. But the barbarians were easily absorbed into the Chinese and Indian civilizations and though there might have been some alterations in how things were done, the basics of each civilization endured. Indeed, were almost entirely unchanged. That is the real oddity of both Chinese and Indian civilization – for 2,000 years or more, there was no real change in how they worked. The underlying ideas behind them just kept going…in a rather sterile manner, but going. When Rome fell, the entire civilization which underlay it went with it.

Some of the barbarian invaders wanted what Rome had, but especially the latter barbarians who finally overthrew Rome were uninterested in any civilization. They were barbarians in the purest sense – only wanting wealth and adventure with no thought for the morrow. When there work was done (say, by about 700 AD) there was very little left. Books were rare as most libraries had been destroyed. Most of the Roman infrastructure (roads, bridges, aqueducts) were in ruins. War and disease and dropped the population to a fraction of what it had been during Rome’s height. And then, schooled by the Church, people got back to work – slowly building an entirely new civilization on the ruins of the old.

Notre Dame was not built by barbarians, but by people of a highly sophisticated civilization. The church, itself, attests to the technical skill of the civilization as well as to it’s artistic excellence. But beyond that, Europe was already filled with scholars expanding the frontiers of human knowledge – and unlike the sterile, nearly unchanging civilizations of the East, the Europeans were rapidly absorbing and adapting every good thing they could come across from other civilizations. These people were eager for knowledge and improvement and were willing to dare greatly. Not for these Europeans was any sort of stand-pat attitude. And Europeans were already greatly curious about the non-European world (Marco Polo made his journey to China in the 13th century, shortly after Notre Dame was completed). And as Chesterton pointed out, Notre Dame was an excellent, enduring symbol of what these highly civilized people were about.

And now its burned down – and the pity is that the civilized people who built it are long gone and replaced by barbarians, who despise Notre Dame because they both can’t understand it as well as being incapable of building something like it. They are very much like the Visigoths and Vandals who threw down Roman civilization in the 5th century. It is sad, I think, what is going to happen: a bunch of people who have no idea of anything are going to place themselves in charge of rebuilding Notre Dame and they are likely to create a savage monstrosity in it’s place. We can only hope that in some future year, civilized people will knock down what they are about to do, and replace the crude, barbaric result with something remotely as civilized as Notre Dame.