Observing Antithetical Tendencies poses the question: in what could the explanation be seen to lie for the grand phenomenon that for centuries has already been customarily referred to as the ‘Renaissance’? After all, Christianity was acknowledged as the supreme virtue in the Byzantine Empire and Russia as well, and even there the awareness existed of the pagan prehistory that preceded Christianity, yet enrapturement regarding the heritage of antiquity took on a special meaning only in Western Europe. The author of this essay reflects upon what might be a suitable explanation for this singular ‘Rebirth’.
The introduction discusses in what sense the western part of the Roman Empire, which had ceased to exist as a unitary state in 476, differed from the Byzantine Empire, where everything had remained the same: it turns out that values, which were considered self-evident in the East, were represented in the West only in embryonic form or as relicts.
The author believes that the different paths of development of the Eastern and Western parts derived from this very situation: everything existed in the East and only stagnation could follow. The most important aspects had been destroyed in the West and for this reason, the West had to deal with restoring what had been lost and achieving what was missing.
The West does not even have a unitary religion and there is no satisfactory text of the Scriptures. The orientation towards the future is expressed in the aspiration to eliminate this deficiency. Yet at the same time, the glory of the long past empire is remembered and its reinstatement is dreamed of: the orientation to the past is manifested here.
The first high point is reached in the year 800, when Charlemagne is crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The ruler of the new great power sees to it that leaned men who have arrived from elsewhere repair sacred books to make them fit for use, and educate clergymen. A truly Christian way of life is inconceivable without this. Yet at the same time, Charlemagne feels that he is the new Augustus, and for this reason Virgils and Horaces have to surround him as well. The educated members of the emperor’s retinue bear the names of pagan luminaries while attempting to emulate the activities of the great minds of long ago. Most generally, this is customarily known as the ‘Carolingian Renaissance’.
Shortly after the death of Charlemagne, the vast state disintegrated into parts and the ruler of the eastern part of the former empire started bearing the title of emperor of the Holy Roman Nation. He became the most important ruler in Europe of that time. Two opposing tendencies started manifesting themselves as the mutual opposition of the emperor and the pope. In the 11th century, the pope was undoubtedly mightier than the emperor, but two hundred years later, the scales already started turning in favour of the emperor.
Starting in the 16th century, the king of France emerged as the emperor’s opponent: they competed for dominance in order to determine which state would be the one, under the aegis of which Europe should unite. Century after century, France’s position became ever more important. French culture operated during the Enlightenment as the undisputed hegemon, and at the start of the 19th century, Napoleon united almost all of Europe politically as well. Alas, French ascendancy lasted a very short time. After the fall of Napoleon, Europe dedicated itself to ‘finishing’ the French Revolution, that is the creation of a just society.
The essay ends with a summary of the operation of opposing orientations: the orientation to the future, that is preparation for actual life in the kingdom of heaven, brought Christians to the recognition that the kingdom of heaven has to be brought to Earth. The orientation to the past, however, the aspiration to restore the Roman Empire, has produced the European Union as its end result.