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Nationalism from Maccabees to Modernity, Part II: Angels over Empires by Carlos Perona Calvete

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Nationalism from Maccabees to Modernity, Part II:
Angels over Empires

"Vision of Ezekiel", a 35.5 × 21.6 cm etching on paper (dating: 1693-1783) after Bernard Picart, located in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

In Part I of this series, “Nationalism from Maccabees to Modernity: Covenants over Conquerors,” we discussed the coherence of Greco-Roman political thought with Biblical scripture. 

Ultimately, both traditions ground political unity and covenantal alliance in transcendent principles on the basis of which differentiated communities may relate harmoniously. They also guard against the reification of those principles into a homogenizing or centralizing presence.

To truly believe in a transcendent source (God) is to believe that harmony is inherent to reality, and that things can hold together without necessary coercion. The unity that holds a body together is not this or that organ; the fact that the head is above the rest of the body doesn’t mean it must administer the affairs of the kidneys, nor does the centrality of the heart mean that it controls the secretions of the liver.

We will now explore how medieval, European Christendom expressed these deeper waters of both Platonism and the Prophets, of Hellenic and Hebraic thought, by transforming the idea of Roman imperium.

The imperial ideal

It may be argued that empires are generally presented as instruments of punishment in the Bible—a necessity, but not one to be celebrated. Crucially, however, the Bible describes the imperium of the coming Messiah in terms similar to the boasts to political supremacy made by nearby Near Eastern polities. In Psalm 72:8-11, we read that 

He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth. They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.

Of course, the language of imperial dominion does not require literal, direct administration by a single state. It is identified with a work that lasts as long as history is to last: “abundance of peace so long as the moon endureth” (Psalm 72:7). The same point is made in the gospels, where the messiah’s kingship transcends the world (John 18:36) even though dominion is given over heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18). It would seem that rhetorical appeals to imperial power express an awareness concerning the transcendent unity of the human family. 

To this may be added the role of empires in building up common institutions to aid collaboration (granted, the construction of a highway connecting nations in Isaiah 19 does not seem to result from such, but in Daniel imperial projects do appear to pave the way for the spread of the faith, as the prophet’s own ministry at the Babylonian court indicates). This justifies our use of the term “empire” as the legitimate expression of agreement over the transcendent truths that guide political relations. 

The prophet stands in sorrow, as he anticipates coming destruction, but cannot do anything about the blindness and wantonness (Isaiah 6:9-12). “Isaiah” (1906), an illustration by Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1874–1925).

The prophetic tradition

However, in scripture, the historical-political form of specific empires is relativized in such a way as to upset their explicit claim to global sovereignty and direct control. Consider the prophet Daniel and his vision (7:1-3) of terrible beasts, stirred by the four winds of heaven, emerging from the sea (the waters being a symbol for instability, idolatry). Above them is the image of God, the Ancient One upon his throne (7:9). Indeed, this prophesied the coming of various states that would wreak havoc and oppress the faithful (probably Babylon, Persia, Macedonia, Rome), and we are told that they would succeed one another in time, which makes sense—violent oppressors must necessarily burn out; nor will they tolerate rivals. 

But this isn’t the whole story. Reading Daniel should remind us of Ezekiel, who also sees an enthroned image of God (Ezekiel 1:26) presiding over four creatures, like the four cherubim of the Ark of the Covenant. These angels have an earthly form, namely that of turning wheels (1:15-21), that may stand for temporal existence, and whose shape is self-contained and stable (relating to the wheels of the throne-chariot of the Ancient of Days). 

Crucially, then, it would seem that 1) the violent empires of the earth are a wrathful manifestation of peaceful angelic realities, which can also take a beneficent earthly form, and 2) whereas empires succeed each other in time, the four angels coexist, sharing a common, conscious subordination to that which transcends them, God, suggesting the earthly, political manifestation of these angelic realities can do likewise. This last point is really the main idea I want to extract from the comparison of Daniel 7 to Ezekiel 1. Indeed, Daniel himself is responsible for converting Nebuchadnezzar and so opening up the possibility of a righteous Babylonia, just as Joseph did for Pharaoh.

The imperial ideal, in a Christian context

It makes sense, then, that in a Christian context, the imperial ideal would become less internally rapacious and more outwardly pluralistic (albeit imperfectly, and temporally bound to a specific period). If earthly realities can be harmonious with each other by representing higher archetypes and submitting to a common transcendent sovereign, this implies that their internal parts can do likewise; there need be no internal homogenization for the same reason that there need be no external conflict. This is also potentially illustrated by the instability of the sea out of which the empires emerge in Daniel 7, compared to the stable ground on which the angelic wheels appear in Ezekiel 1. 

Of course, medieval, European thinking about empire concerns the Roman empire specifically, whose legitimacy rests on the account of Rome’s founding by the Trojans. This story parallels that of Israel in various ways, as does the career of the patriarch of Rome, the Trojan leader Aeneas, with respect to King David (which Dante touches on in Il Convivio). However, this would take us too far afield. We will limit ourselves to noting that medieval Europe turned the narrative basis for the idea of global dominion in Virgil’s Aeneid into a decentralized basis for European association. This occurred through the identification of a multitude of peoples and dynasties with Trojan notables (from the Franks and British to Asturias in Spain). Indeed, the Icelandic bard, Snorri Sturluson (to whom we owe so many of the Norse myths that have reached us)—drawing on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s histories of Britain—considered the historic Odin and Thor to be of partial Trojan descent, and therefore kindred to the people of Rome. Of course, being a Christian, he presents this narrative in the context of Biblical history and cosmology. 

Importantly, accounts of Trojan descent “record the translatio of Trojan Empire, not the expansion.” As Wilson-Okumara puts it: “the imperium they celebrate is not that of ultramarine conquest, but of national sovereignty.” For practical reasons, most appeals to Trojan-Roman prestige could not accompany overseas annexations (and even the preeminence of the Holy Roman Emperor as heir to Aeneas did not generally result in actual expansionism). Many of the genealogies tracing themselves back to Troy, therefore, were de facto distinguishing legitimacy (“the translatio” of Roman order) from the concept of global political dominion (“the expansion”). Imperium as universal order was thus parsed from imperialism as the direct exercise of jurisdiction over all peoples. 

And yet, this distinction is not wholly innovative; it is not a complete reworking of Virgil. Rather, it taps into the critique of imperial expansionist warfare that is latent in the Roman Homer’s work (a topic that deserves its own, separate exploration). Again, we are not dealing with artificial synthesis or superimposition, but with the coming into relief of a genuine coherence on the basis of the deeper, underlying principles of the tradition—in this case, coherence between Virgil’s deeper concept of empire or “ecumene,” and the medieval European ethos. 

Through the above theme of Trojan origins, during the Middle Ages, belonging to Rome became a matter of sharing in its past, not mere political annexation and military expansion. This fits with Deuteronomy’s emphasis on Israelite-Edomite ancestral ties, for example, drawing these peoples together while affirming the universality of a God that, it is believed, all nations will profess faith in. Plato makes a similar point in The Laws when he defends a Greek confederation over Persian imperialism, rejecting the “jumble of former peoples held together by a conquering power as in the Persian case” for a “federation of paradigmatic poleis” (per Eric Voegelin’s commentary in The Ecumenic Age), even as he clearly believes in a single, transcendent source of order common to all. 

“Chronicle of the Council of Constance” (between ca. 1460 and ca. 1465), a 39 x 29 cm colored pen and ink drawing by Ulrich von Richental (1360-1437/38) depicting the meeting of scholars, bishops, cardinals, and Pope John XXIII in Constance Cathedral.

Nations within empire

Extrapolating from this principle, we may suggest that cultural ties are being sought and developed, so that covenants are built on organic linkages rather than being imposed out of nowhere. A garden is cultivated, not constructed. This translates into asserting both the existence of a common European and wider Western cultural context, as well as the universality of certain principles. The EU’s most prominent voices tend to deny this reality, preferring to ignore the common heritage of European countries, pretending to constitute a somehow culturally neutral organization. They wantonly disregard how organic, cultural ties and universal principles provide the basis for good relations at the regional and global levels, respectively. 

The medieval understanding of Roman imperium as Trojan federation, so to speak, allowed a great deal of internal diversity among those claiming its mantle, and is therefore consonant with later developments (during the very late 1400s) in the Holy Roman Empire’s organization, such that its jurisdictions or imperial estates took on a definite territorial character, like internal borders. It also fits with the organization of the Council of Constance in 1414-1418 “into ‘national’ groups of bishops” which has been “widely acknowledged as marking the general acceptance of Europe as composed of distinct sovereign jurisdictions.” 

We should not reject this coming into relief of the nation, this emergence of the possibility for people to participate in a local, explicitly articulated national culture as aesthetic project, as work of art, to which they might contribute. It is consistent with older ideas, with the (providential, to judge from Daniel) end of overbearing political structures so that the imperial ideal could be internalized at the local level (for example by owning the Trojan mythos) and administrations could be decentralized. It was also bound to happen after a period of stability allowed local cultural forms to congeal and become “canonized” over generations. 

We may also begin to fathom multiple “empires,” different civilizational spheres that have adopted a non-expansionist self-understanding (a pluralized “translatio … not expansion” of imperial legitimacy), so that universality is expressed by analogy, not literal political domination. The empires that succeed each other in Daniel can coexist, in a different form, in Ezekiel. Again, the idea is that a certain religious understanding and historical trajectory can lead the imperial project towards becoming less internally rapacious and more externally pluralistic. 

To conclude: nationalism, however much criticism its historical forms deserve, is partly an unfolding of a trajectory that simultaneously reveals the truth of the imperial principle as a manifestation of an underlying unity that is best expressed if it retains the diversity of its members. We should not, therefore, reject the legacy of empire when defending the nation, nor the inverse. 

In abstract terms, the local emergence of coherent identities is just as much an expression of common, transcendent principles as the emergence of coordinating institutions that draw these coherent bodies together. Unity, or common principles, must be represented, so to speak, by 1) particular units that put those principles into practice and that, in being coherent, communicate the idea of unity to us, as well as by 2) the harmony between them, which communicates an encompassing unity. National wholes and imperial harmony are both necessary; the coherence of an entity and community between entities. By analogy, the human linguistic faculty can only be expressed by specific languages, but those languages will all have a word for “justice,” “love,” etc. 

This is our theoretical conclusion. We may now attempt to reiterate the more practical points made above. In part I, I couched this as a discussion of the “national conservative” idea, reorienting it in ways that reconcile some of the divisions that are appearing among its fellow travelers, but the above is equally applicable to other emerging political brands, like “post-liberalism” (whereas national conservatives may be excessively “anti-empire,” post-liberals may go too far in rejecting nationalism). 

The point should be to transcend easy dichotomies and make the most of our inheritance by showing the remarkable coherence of European and Western tradition, so that it may best serve us going forward, and so that we may do it justice. 

Awareness of genuine, historically emergent cultural ties at a regional level and, beyond this, adherence to common transcendent principles, are necessary if diverse nations are to forge stable forms of association. The institutional form that an overarching harmony among nations will take can vary (a post-liberal would more readily accept it having definite political content, for example). However, it should reflect 1) organic commonality from below and 2) transcendent unity from above, so to speak. 

This involves two cultural fronts: one to reinvigorate those elements of culture (from religious institutions to folklore), on the basis of which groups of nations may express a common heritage, and another to bring a clear vision of virtue into the public sphere, to which politics should conform.

Carlos Perona Calvete is a writer for The European Conservative. He has a background in International Relations and Organizational Behavior, has worked in the field of European project management, and is currently awaiting publication of a book in which he explores the metaphysics of political representation.