If Europe gives up rationalism, it will end in a vicious circle

Martin Ulč


Ivo Budil


Interview between Martin Ulč and the Czech historian and anthropologist Professor Ivo Budil, on the “Old World” versus new geopolitical constellations.

Martin Ulč: Western modernity is characterized, among other things, by the gradual extinction and disintegration of what some call “true religion.” The desire of the Western spirit gradually moved from the Gothic cathedral to science and technology. Can traditional institutions be defended?

Prof. Budil: Western society is completely secular today. In this state, nothing will most likely change. There is no society in the global world that has returned from secularism to religion.  God is really dead. Fundamentalist Islam, which is a notable exception, is essentially a defensive political religion that closes Islamic society to technological progress and thus weakens it. It spreads only because of the stagnation and internal decay of the West, which is losing its vitality and power. If political Islam were confronted with the imperial West of the nineteenth century with predatory and predatory instincts, today the main centers of the Islamic world would be ruled by Western colonial administration.

The cultural war we are waging in the name of human nature and tradition against the so-called destructive anti-civilization forces must be selective and empathetic. Lifestyle changes often reflect people’s natural response to the demands of the modern way of life, so it makes no sense to be angry with such changes.  As the French demographer Emmanuel Todd has shown, the traditional family is a nostalgic ahistorical concept that never existed. Partnerships and family relationships adapt to historical changes and are not related to the moral state of society. On the other hand, the woke movement and similar activist movements, represented today by the Pirate party in the Czech Republic, are a true reactionary rebellion against the rationalist and emancipatory legacy of the Enlightenment, and therefore require our vigorous response.

Where do you see the innermost causes of civilization’s ups and downs?

Civilization and human society are a random mix of genes, ethnicity, culture, and environmental and geographical factors. It is never clear in advance, which constellations will dominate. Ernest Gellner argues that the two greatest upheavals in human history, the Neolithic and Industrial Revolutions, were the result of an unlikely concatenation of events that did not follow at all from any historical or social laws.

Communism was a very strong political religion, but the Soviet Union lost the Cold War in the 1980s…

Back in the 1970s, the Soviet Union seemed to stand up to the global confrontation with the West. The United States found itself on the defense after the defeat in Vietnam, the Watergate affair, the oil crisis and the Iranian Islamic Revolution. It was dilettantism and the mistakes of Soviet leaders, especially Mikhail Gorbachev, that led to the collapse of communism, which was nevertheless based on a mistaken ideology.

Where do you see the weaknesses of Marx’s ideology?

Karl Marx was inspiring, when he pointed out the importance of economic relations in human society. This was not an original thesis, we encounter it in many earlier thinkers.  But only Marx systematically described how a specific economic interest and the associated exercise of power manifests itself in all aspects of human existence. In this respect, it is no coincidence that Karl Marx appeared at a time of industrial revolution, when there was a huge economic boom and when the material conditions of human life changed radically. Unlike authors such as Georges Sorel, Marx underestimated the enormous role of myths and motivating legends in human behavior. He himself succumbed to naive utopianism, which eventually became fatal to Marxism as a political religion, because his utopian visions differed too much from the reality of everyday life. If Marxism were pragmatically deprived of this utopian aspiration, as happened in China or Vietnam, it would in principle be compatible with the authoritarian concept of modernity.

What do you think of Stanislav Komárek (Notes from the Orient), who twenty years ago predicted the onset of the Chinese millennium?

Napoleon Bonaparte spoke of worldwide Chinese hegemony, and 17th and 18th century China was a desirable and in many ways unmatched civilian model for many Europeans. I do not know whether we will have another Chinese millennium, but I do know that over the past two millennia, China has been the world’s leading civilization, except for a brief episode of the Industrial Revolution and Western imperialism, making up about a third of the world’s gross domestic product. In second place was the Indian subcontinent with about 25 percent. What we are witnessing is the restoration of Chinese power, not its sudden and surprising rise. China’s development is cyclical and unlike anything we know from Western historical experience. After the overthrow of Mongol rule and the rise of the Ming Dynasty in 1368, a totalitarian and state-centralist regime was established, reminiscent of Maoism. It was not until the 15th century that economic life and prosperity were gradually liberalized, impressing European visitors.

How do you view the potential of Europe?

If we abandon the tradition of rationalism and scientific and technological progress, our cognitive potential will decline dramatically and we may end up in a vicious circle of backwardness and poverty, like much of Latin America. The case of Central Asia is alarming. The most educated and richest empires of Eurasia, such as Khorezm, used to be located here. In the early Middle Ages, Al Bírúní was able to calculate the dimensions of the globe and speculated about the existence of America. It was a truly forgotten Central Asian Enlightenment, followed by a long decline. Muhammad Khan Shah Fat Ali Shah, who ascended the throne in 1798, received the third edition of the British Encyclopedia as a gift, after which he extended the royal title to “The Most Impressive Lord and Ruler of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.” This is a catastrophic cognitive fall to the level of the cargo cult. And just look at Afghanistan or central Pakistan today.

What do you think about the demographic decline of the countryside?

The phenomenon of megacities surrounded by depopulated and impoverished countryside can be daunting, but it is not inevitable. In France, for example, there was a massive exodus of people from smaller farms to large cities during the 1950s and 1960s. TGV highways and motorways were then built in France and transport infrastructure repaired, so that, for example, the Ardéche and the Massif Central were once again populated by young families with children who commuted easily to work in the cities. I can imagine that a high-speed train or motorway will be built in Šumava for you, so you will be in Prague in half an hour.

Prof. Ivo Budil works at the Metropolitan University of Prague as a professor of anthropology. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Science and Philosophy of Charles University in Prague, Dean Emeritus of the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen. He is the author of fifteen professional books and two novels.

Martin Ulč is a translator and high school teacher.

published: 31. 1. 2022

Datum publikace:
31. 1. 2022
Autor článku:
Martin Ulč