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Histoire et Tradition des Européens: Preaching to the Choir?

Updated on July 6, 2020

At heart, Dominique Venner was more of a polemicist than a historian, before he shot himself in Notre Dame to protest mass immigration into Europe and the decline of European civilization. Or at least, this is reflected in the way that he approaches and structures his books, vastly different than that of the standard historian that one encounters. Venner is less concerned with minutiae than crafting a narrative, and although he does back up what he writes - sometimes imperfectly to my eyes, but he is not an idle rambler - it is a book which is designed to convince and to change opinions. His contestation is that Europe has an identity, a firmly rooted one, which is based upon a certain idea of love, a search for wisdom, will, a sense of tragedy, a glorification of the warrior and their rendezvous with unfortunatate destiny, an ideal of liberty and harmony between clan, city, and family, and a certain split-identity between its pagan traditions and Christian religion. He endeavors to show that this is based at its origin in the Odyssey and the Iliad, and extends this over the ages with intellectual developments such as the introduction of Christianity or the ideal of courtly love.

Does it work? I think at heart the book preaches to the choir, of those who would already be amenable to his views - those already on the far right of the political spectrum, and it is definitively aimed towards a French audience. But for others the appeal of the book is less, as it is clearly about constructing a narratives, emphasizing the parts of European history that Venner finds interesting, and ignoring much of the rest. It is a book which is a story - a well cited and argued story - but one where the ideal reader wants to listen. If he doesn't, then it becomes too easy to wander away, too easy to look at what isn't said, too easy to reject the tale that Venner writes, if not for one's own, but for at least to find shelter in suspicion and the comfort of what is already familar.

As with other books by Venner, Histoire et Traditions des Européens is not a purely chronological work, with its initial sections being devoted to the importance of tradition and defining Europe. Its initial chapter, "Aux frontières du royaume et du temps" (on the borders of the kingdom and of time) thus lays out what Venner views as the great spiritual, physical, and demographic problems which trouble Europe - defining the great ill of the time being the abandonment of intellectual and moral traditions which once defined Europeans, in favor of modernity, efficiency, and profit: In this troubled time, around the world people fall back to their ancestral roots, save for the Europeans. Venner's work thus aims to show that there is a genuine European civilization with its own intellectual and moral traditions which has existed - since, he claims, 30,000 years ago - and that there is a great necessity of a rétour aux sources, a return to sources and tradition.

Chapter 2 continues in much the same scene - Du nihilisme à la tradition (From Nihilism to tradition) lays out the value and importance of tradition in providing a structure, framework, for our lives and ideas - with an importance not on traditions, but rather on tradition, a heritage from the past that shapes our present. Venner opposes this to nihilism, which is fundamentally disconnected from life, nature, and all that is sacred - so that it is not modernity which is the opponent of tradition, but rather a lack of belief in life and its limits, where rationality and efficiency are the pillars. For Venner, it has been the march of Christianity which has destroyed what was once sacred in the world and theology has sought reason and logic to explain mysteries, until ultimately one arrived at its final culmination in the Enlightenment. It has resulted in a delocalization of people from their soil, removing them from their roots and their grounding in the land and its sacred rhythms and life.Faith in progress became a universal feature of Europeans, despite the existence of ancestral ideals stemming back to Homer about the individual and their nature in society which served as the base of existence - and one which is unique for European civilization, since each civilization has its own logic and own beliefs, and conflict is inevitable between this - but only modern universalism has sought to impose European civilization on the entire world. Even while this has been done, at home European civilization founders, in a comparison which Venner makes to Roma, where the Romans of the 4th century saw their ancient world and its ideologies stumbling into the abyss, and could do nothing save mourn its passing. Many pagan traditions however, would be incorporated into the new Christianity, making Europe into a pagan-Christian civilization quite distant from that which was originally preached in the deserts of Palestine. It is up to our time to restore the idea for Europeans of living in accordance with these immemorial ideas of their ancestors - not to live according to traditions, but to draw forth from history a grounding in tradition.

Central to Venner's argument about the age of European civilization are the cave paintings of Europe such as this one at Laussane - but there are cave paintings beyond Europe too. Coincidentally most European paintings are in France.
Central to Venner's argument about the age of European civilization are the cave paintings of Europe such as this one at Laussane - but there are cave paintings beyond Europe too. Coincidentally most European paintings are in France.

Chapter 3, Une histoire avant l'histoire - A history before history - focuses on the idea of long-term European connections, with an economic argument about trade during the time of the Ancient Greek bronze age being a sign of European unity, but stressing particularly cave paintings. For Venner, these show a remarkably stable and long lasting "civilization" which inhabited Europe for 20,000 years in remarkable stability. The Indo-Europeans are no disruption for Venner, but show a common linguistic sphere, and comparative mythology demonstrates similarities among many European religious beliefs and spiritual ideas, particularly in epochs and myths. One of the crucial myths of Venner is the idea of the "Hyperboreans" with a focus on the idea of a perfect northern land, which most civilizations thought was their origin - matching the idea of the origins of the Indo-Europeans somewhere in the Pontic-Caspian steppe region (although his quoting of the notably fanciful French astronomy Jean-Sylvain Bailly seems like quite an odd touch here...). Similarily for Venner the memory of the Indo-European conquest of Europe shows up in myths such as the Rape of the Sabine women or the Scandinavian Edda with the conquest of the Vanes (the pre-Indo-Europeans) by the Ases (the Indo-Europeans) - or the Greek legends with the Titans and the Olympians - and the invasion type of small bands of troops conquering and intermingly with the conquered, and establishing a new cultural fusion, is one that Venner sees as decisive in Europe and its patterns of expansion for much of its history.

Without doubt, the Odyssey and the Iliad are the oldest and some of the most significant texts in the Western literary canon
Without doubt, the Odyssey and the Iliad are the oldest and some of the most significant texts in the Western literary canon

Chapter 4, "Les poèmes fondateurs" (the foundational poems) goes to one of Venner's favorite subjects, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and how they are mirrored by later epics, such as the Chanson de Roland. A shared trait is a singular hero, heroic, chivalrous, but doomed and aware of his tragic destiny, in a feudal context as leaders of small bands of men, often associated with horses. Homer is a figure who gave the Greek world its equivalent of the bible, its sacred foundational text, one which gives ideals of heroes and heroines to be emulated, and which links together a conception of the unitary beauty of the body and soul.

To be or not to be - Être ou ne pas être, as is entitled chapter 5,defends the notion of different, distinct, cultures which cannot be easily transmuted into others, as Alexander the Great wished to do with his great plan for fusion of the Hellenic and Persian worlds - and that cosmopolitanism was an exception, not a natural state, to these cultures in the Hellenic world - that different cultures and people were separated, even when they lived in the same territories. It is the principle of order, harmony, and balance between peoples belonging to the same culture and blood, in their independent cities and groupings - and to conquer and mix as did the Romans is to invite destruction in the long term.

Chapter 6, Posterité d'Homer - Homer's Posterity speaks of the intellectual legacies that Homer and the later Greek philosophers have left to Western civilization - particularly Plato and his development of the dualism of the body and the soul. It moves on to discuss stoicism and the Romans, Once again Venner sees the Christianization of Europe - in this case only with the real entrenchment of Christian doctrine starting in the 16th century - with its strict moral commandments about sexuality and the body as a negative, taking away the previous unity of spirit and sensuality - and then led as an excessive over-correction to libertine ideas of the 20th century.

Chapter 7, "Héritages romans" - Roman Heritages - starts a more strictly chronological part of the book, starting by paying homage to the Roman idea of virtue, something which continues to echo throughout millennia in European history and ideals, and to the civic sense of duty so important to the Romans. Venner also identifies the early Roman Republic as a feudal state, one which shared this trait in common with many other European cultures, such as the Celtic or Germanic groups of the Middle Ages - with nobility always having been a defining European element up until the Early Modern Era, a group to occupy the summit of the state, to whom honor and dignity were all-important, and who governed and led in an intensely personal, rather than bureaucratic, style. Christianity tried to replace dignity and virtue with humility: it never completely succeeded.They built their castles as the new centers of power after the Fall of Rome, Venner identifies the decline of the nobility as an independent actor in France and Russia as key elements behind their revolution, without the moral force to resist revolutionary impulses - unlike in Imperial Germany

"Imaginaire authurien et chevalerie" - Arthurian imagination and chivalry" or Chapter 8, sees a vital component of the idea of European nobility and chivalry as bound up in the (very pagan influenced) fairy tales and story of the Round Table, with common European themes such as the stone from the sword and its political power expressed within. Chivalry and knighthood would continue to be a vital part of the European spirit despite Christianization, and the two were often in conflict as shown by the constant struggle between the Church and knights.

Another chapter which heavily refers to the middle ages is Chapter 9, "Royauté féminine et amour courtois",(Female royalty and courtly love), which begins by arguing for a fundamental difference between men and women which renders masculinity and femininity distinct. For Venner, the rise of feminism is an attempt to make women into men, with disastrous results for both sexes. Courtly love is propounded as having had a significant intellectual attraction, as shown by the numerous books published on this theme during the Middle Ages, one in opposition to the Church and its privileging of god above human relationships. The end of war and hence the removal of warrior masculinity is attributed by Venner as the reason for the rise of feminism, with an end to clear definitions between man and woman with the end of the warrior function of men.

Nihilisme et saccage de la nature - Nihilism and the desecration of nature. Chapter 10 decries the market economy and its soul-destroying effects, and the irreverence for nature and the unbounded faith in machines. European civilization had traditionally had a sacred reverence for nature, tightly bound up in religion - something which even Christianity had not been able to greatly alter at first, with its churches being built on the sites of previous temples and shrines, themselves at holy natural places. The Church struggled to change around a belief in the fairies and the good creatures of the forest into the forests as a place of danger and evil - and even some bishops spoke in favor of the woods, and European cathedrals doubtless owe inspiration from their forests.

Métaphysique de l'histoire - Metaphysique of history, chapter 11, returns to the origin, in praising the existence of organized communities which humans belong to, which are ultimately grouped into civilizations - and that although these civilizations may experience crises and struggle, in the end they often rise again, in a cyclical history. European civilization has lost its universality, its belief in its own superiority and that it can spread its ideals and assimilate the world in its guise. Much of the chapter looks at the fall of the Romans as a comparison, seeing their fall coming from their very expansion in 200 BC - with decadence coming to effect with Septimus Severus and the universalization of citizenship, and the end of the Roman nobility's purity of blood. Despite all of the problems which attend the world today, Venner cautions against assuming the inevitable: that history shows us that it is unpredictable, and the future is not fixed. History is thus not the study of what will come as a science; but an art of the memory of the past.

The final chapter, De l'éternité au présent - From eternity to today - concludes that humans and history is not determined by just functionality and efficiency, but rather by our ideals and beliefs, and that these make the idea of assimilating truly into other civilizations impossible - and that thus the Europeans must return to their roots and their own civilization and its values.

Review

Dominique Venner is a polemicist. He starts quite bluntly with what he wants to put forth - the importance of tradition and his belief in the failings of modern society and the need to look to European ancestors for tradition for the modern Europeans. After this, his historical information is intended to illustrate what the traditions are of Europe, and to back up and reinforce his points. This leads to two disagreements that one can have: whether the importance which he assigns to tradition is correct, and whether the historical evidence which he marshals in illustration what European tradition is is accurate. I tend to agree with Venner in that tradition provides a heritage and set of ideals for our lives, something which we cannot escape from and are better off embracing (and I feel that most people would accept at least the first set of ideas, if not necessarily the second), but I have grave doubts about the way which he presents elements of his historical argument.

To start with, the examples that he presents for certain historical examples to back his theory: after all there are plenty of examples of historical heroism in other civilizations, so when he uses them back arguments about European cultural norms promoting certain actions - such as the idea of dignity, duty, and honorable oath-keeping: these seem to be very universal traits, or at least are cultivated as such even if they are constantly betrayed, so attributing them with such reverence to Europe seems strange. He also plays loosely with some ideals, such as the idea that feminism came apart with a sudden removal of masculinity following the Second World War and the end of the warrior function - but this is despite that masculinity, as many scholars and books have pointed out, has constantly been perceived to be in crisis, probably since it first arose as a concept.

Venner tends to take the French and the Carolingian experience - those countries which formerly made up the empire of Charlemagne - as the normative European history. An example of this is his discussion of what he sees as a crucial European trait - courtly love, part of a European relationship between man and women which for him he dates back to Ancient Greece at the least. But all of his examples of this are from France or Britain, and there is nothing about the rest of the continent. Now, it very well could be that this way spread to other countries of Europe, but for Venner, the normative example of France is enough.

This makes sense to some extent, since Venner places the emphasis on peoples - the focus is not on Europe as a territory, but on the Europeans and the broad strokes of their tradition. Thus he can write off the Finns or the Hungarians or the Basques who do not speak Indo-European languages as exceptions, and his fundamental concern goes instead to the idea of peoples, not land.

At heart, Venner isn't concerned with making his narrative full proof and applying it to all Europeans - he is ultimately French and his argument is structured around France.This is a vital part of what makes Venner's argument less than convincing: his book claims to be about the history of all Europeans - and this is the History of all Europeans, with a capital H, focusing on their inherent facets and the roots of their civilization. And yet it comes off as parochial, and normative: that he is taking what small parts of Europe did, and projecting it across the continent, with the blithe assurance that these places were similar.

This is doubly ironic since Venner himself critiques strongly the tendency to take an excessively ambitious view about cultural diffusionism: he notes disparagingly a reference in a French cathedral where the tree-like design of the spire is supposedly due to Persian influence, dismissing the idea that a European stoneworker in the high Middle Ages would have had his design work of a cathedral influenced by something in far away Iran. But Venner's ideals are the same - that events in Greece or France have radiated outward all over Europe, and he does little to engage with how this happened, or different experiences throughout Europe. It makes Venner's work feel more like an opinion piece than a historical study - more like a polemical argument. The same can be said about his ideas of 30,000 years of European civilization, based on cave paintings - most cave paintings are in France and Spain, and so why are they linked together with Greek philosophy, ideals, and poems as the basis of European civilization despite the nearly 30,000 years of division which separate them? Venner seems prone to leaps of faith, and while they make sense, he lacks a bibliography, citations, or references to back them up.Instead he relies upon his own scattered examples and ideas - thrown together with a logic and order which is at times deeply confusing to the reader.

Most of Venner's books, at least at the end of his life - these are the ones which I have read, with Un Samouraï d'Occident, Le Choc de L'histoire, and now Histoire et traditions des Européens: 30.000 ans d'identité - revolve around quite similar ideas. They praise Homer as the basis of European civilization, lament some of the influences of Christianity, note European differences in mentality and archetypal European figures compared to other civilizations. It becomes repetitive to hear this restated again and again, at greater or lesser detail, down to even comments such as his admiration for Storm of Steel from Ernst Jünger, or comments about the difficult to truly destroy a civilization, with the rise of the Zapotecs in Mexico as the return of the Aztecs. For reading Venner's work, I recommend instead Un Samouraï d'Occident - which espouses similar themes, covering almost all of the material found in Histoire et traditions des Européens, but shorter, and more eloquently. This book by contrast, isn't quite a history book - lacking the sheer mass of arguments required to prove his point, but it lacks the élan and the power which his final work espoused. It is still an interesting work, one which gives different ideas and a different perspective on European history, but there are better works by Dominique Venner. Histoire et traditions de Européens is one which only works to convince when it is read to those who have already been converted.

2 stars for Histoire et traditions des Européens

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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