The National Conservativism Conference (NatCon) was held in Brussels this past March. As speeches followed each other, and background conversations brought the like-minded together, fault lines began coming to light (the best taxonomy of which was published in The Critic). The belief in classical liberalism as a core ideological commitment (rather than an occasional instrument in the service of greater goods); a certain willingness to let the (universally shared) condemnation of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine give wings to neocon interventionist sentimentalism; an understanding of the nation-state as opposed to the legacy of imperial structures were, to my mind, the three mainstays of what can be described as the conference’s old guard.
We will explore the third of these, which may be specifically identified with the anglo-liberal wing of that old guard, since most continental Europeans were more willing to fathom a possible conquest, rather than a necessary abolition, of the EU (or to imagine some future, alternative union between Europeans).
Soon after NatCon came Greece’s national day on the 25th of March, commemorating the struggle that ended with that country’s victory over the Ottoman sultan. The national mythos of Greek independence is relevant to the nationalism vs. empire debate. It combines old prophetic traditions of the so-called Romeiko—an apocalyptic restoration of Byzantium, the mediaeval ethos and eastern Christendom—on the one hand, with modern romantic nationalism, the recovery of Hellenic antiquity (as in Adamantios Korais and Lord Byron’s poetry) and the political project of the nation-state, on the other.
There is plenty of precedent for such a synthesis. Italian statehood, for example, appealed to the administrative unity of that peninsula during the Roman empire (distinct from the provinces), and has historically been repeatedly pursued within an overarching imperial umbrella. This is the case from the fifth-century Ostrogoth Theodoric the Great’s Regnum Italiae, under the mandate of Emperor Zeno, through the fourteenth-century Cola di Rienzo—who tried to unify Italy and also sought connections with the Holy Roman Empire (becoming a romantic hero to whom Wagner dedicated an opera)—to the nineteenth-century Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel II, when Italian unification found support in Napoleon III, who fought the Austrians.
Spain also developed a clear sense of nationhood, with the need for its own, local political expression, within wider imperial structures. This was articulated early on in the work of the 13th century King Alfonso X, who believed in the Holy Roman Empire as much as in the clear delimitation of European nations (each with its own Biblical patriarch, a tradition hearkening back to the pre-Christian Book of Jubilees). The idea was most clearly implemented centuries later (notwithstanding his failures) by Philip II, who believed in the empire as a coordination of states, and not itself a state. He sought to retain the integrity of those political communities under his administration, from the Incan state to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, which constitutes a recognition of their nationhood.
Even the Protestant Reformation, so often identified with the rejection of imperial and papal transnational order and with the rise of the Westphalian system, might have contained currents (albeit atypical, non-iconoclastic, esoteric ones) yearning to articulate a new imperial unity outside the Habsburg fold, in the person of Frederick V Palatine Elector, “the winter king.” For their part, some popes worked against the Holy Roman Empire in support of narrower, national interests (Clement VII, for example).
Therefore, it is not as simple as claiming a Protestant emphasis on the Bible led to national sovereignty, in contrast to which Catholicism’s Latin legacy retained the transnational dimension. True, the ideal of empire is clearly pagan and Roman, whereas the scriptures are critical of imperial conquest and, specifically, of pagan Rome, as Protestant defenders of local princely rights rightly saw. But, modern nation-statism often appealed to Greek city-states and the Roman Republic, whereas ‘empire’ based its legitimacy on universal religious allegiance, which is supported by scriptural prophecies regarding the coming together of nations (Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, John’s Apocalypse).
Both the champions of an imperial and of a national world order, then, were and are sons to a mixed heritage, knowingly or not. What we have is a dichotomy between nation and empire, crossed with one between Hellenic and Hebrew (Greco-Roman and Biblical) ideas. The following will explore the deeper compatibility of Europe’s Greco-Roman and Biblical inheritances, as well as of national political entities and broader universal commitments.
In searching for a source, rather than a synthesis—an original unity underlying what we have come to think of as opposites—we actually find one already articulated in the Bible itself. The Bible did not come about in a context unaffected by Greek philosophy and Roman politics. The most relevant scripture in this context is 1 Maccabees 8. As an aside, I would suggest that any ideology using the name “national conservatism,” or something similar, at least in the West, must treat Plato’s Laws and the Book of Maccabees as its principle referents.
1 Maccabees 8 deserves a very lengthy discussion, but suffice it to note that, in the context of Judah Maccabee’s revolt against Seleucid rule, he appeals to fellow nations, namely Sparta and Rome, endorsing Rome’s mixed republican constitution (as John Milbank once noted in a Tweet):
They [the Romans] helped some men to become kings, while they deposed others; they had become a world power. In spite of all this, no Roman ever tried to advance his own position by wearing a crown or putting on royal robes. They created a senate, and each day 320 senators came together to deliberate about the affairs of the people and their well-being. Each year they entrusted to one man the responsibility of governing them and controlling their whole territory. Everyone obeyed this one man, and there was no envy or jealousy among them. (1 Maccabees 8, 13-16)
Roman conduct and governmental structures up until this point in history are being praised in scripture. Indeed, so is Roman power. This is a remarkable fact, one which is often ignored when the Christianization of Rome or the attempt by Christians to model their societies on Greco-Roman civic structures is presented as an arbitrary, or outright discordant, result of historical happenstance. Of course, things would take a negative turn and Roman imperial rule, when it arrived, would become despotic. But that should not lead us to ignore the ideal formulated in Maccabees.
The chapter goes on as follows: “Judas Maccabee, his brothers, and the Jewish people have sent us here to make a mutual defence treaty with you [the Romans], so that we may be officially recorded as your friends and allies.” The words “and the Jewish people” land us on the notion of popular, national sovereignty—a supposedly modern concept that, we are told, is antithetical to the Biblically-based mediaeval worldview. (Of course, “the people” is here indexed to a mission it cannot simply cast off by the exercise of democratic, popular will without thereby losing its reason for being.) The point is that 1 Maccabees contradicts that overzealous, reactionary intellectual current which pathologizes every modern political idea as genuinely innovative and, therefore, genuinely fractious with respect to inherited tradition.
The Romans accept the treaty, and a record of it is “engraved on bronze tables and sent to Jerusalem,” reading,
May things go well forever for the Romans and for the Jewish nation on land and sea! May they never have enemies, and may they never go to war! But if war is declared first against Rome or any of her allies anywhere, the Jewish nation will come to her aid with wholehearted support, as the situation may require. And to those at war with her, the Jews shall not give or supply food, arms, money, or ships, as was agreed in Rome. The Jews must carry out their obligations without receiving anything in return. (1 Maccabees 8, 21-26)
A lot of Christian Biblical commentary sees ancient Israel as a Church, rather than a nation, membership in which was equivalent to conversion (and indeed, many outsiders join its assembly in the course of Biblical narrative). Theologically, however, this risks making nonsense of the use of “nationhood” as a providential vehicle through which to spread faith in the true God (as well as of the distinction between Noachide and Mosaic law). It is also difficult to reconcile with the conversion of foreign kings like Nebuchadnezzar, who do not seem to become Israelites, as well as with Maccabees, in which a national alliance or covenant is built on shared moral righteousness of nations who remain distinct from Israel (or specifically from the Jewish nation).
In this line, Isaiah contains an explicit statement of national plurality within conversion to a common faith. The Prophet foresees Egyptians taking a vow to the Lord after being smote and healed by Him (19:21-22), just as Israel suffered exile and captivity. Transnational linkage is described as a “highway” uniting Egypt to Assyria (19:23), and titles identified with Israel as the Lord’s nation are applied to these other two, who form a unity with Israel (“In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria”): “Whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel mine inheritance.” (19:24-25)
These are traditional enemies of Israel who have served as symbols for sin (slavery in Egypt and deportation by Assyria are usually connected to the tyranny of sin upon the soul). And yet, in Isaiah, we see them becoming God’s own—without having to become Israel; without compromising either Israel’s uniqueness or ceasing to be themselves.
We will again encounter the vision of diverse nations united in holiness in John’s Apocalypse (21). Crucially, the heavenly city that unites the nations does not seem to require a centralising political agency: “But I saw no temple in it, for the Lord Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (Apocalypse 21:22).
In this sense, the Heavenly city is a commonwealth or an empire of moral authority. To take this further, it seems to be lacking in definite spatial coordinates, for it has no need of the sun and the moon, because the Lamb is its light, and there is never any night in it. The outside world and its diversity, namely the nations, are not abolished, but are transformed by its light: “And the nations of those who are saved shall walk in its light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honour into it” (21:24). Here, “walking” bespeaks actual, outward existence, whereas glory and honour, as intangibles, are within this transcendent city.
The earlier language used in describing the one to whom Christ gives authority to rule over the nations with a “rod of iron” (2:27), like a global imperial regent, does not, then, result in a literal global hegemon. This passage describes shattering the nations like pottery, which parallels the breaking up of Egypt in Isaiah 19, but just as in Isaiah, the chastisement results in the restoration of the nations.
The key is that national difference need not lead to an agonistic war of all against all, so long as there is agreement on transcendent truth. This makes sense, because the only way for different nations to understand each other as legitimate is to grant that they are all particular expressions of the same universal principle: that their legal systems manifest the principle of justice, that their cultural forms manifest the principle of beauty, that their communities manifest the principle of loving sociability, etc.
Neither is this a concession to the accident of human diversity, as though this were an unfortunate reality we have to deal with, against which we should, ideally, prefer the greater stability of a shared, homogenous global culture. Rather, it is the case that we cannot understand universals unless they are expressed in multiple forms. If we all only spoke one language, we would surely confuse its grammar and words for the ability to communicate as such. If every circle we had ever seen were blue, we might think that the colour blue was somehow mysteriously a part of the definition of circularity itself. Crucially, diversity allows us to know unity.
The above has sought to argue for 1) the coherence of Europe’s Greco-Roman legacy with Biblical scripture (of course much more could be said in this regard), and 2) the broader idea that harmony between diverse units (in this case, nations) requires adherence to a common transcendent principle (as in the national covenants of Maccabees, Isaiah, and, in a sense, John’s Apocalypse).
But if nations are justified to the degree that they recognize a common truth that is beyond their particularity, then empires are correspondingly justified to the degree that they do not tyrannise their subordinates. In Part II of this discussion, we will focus on the concept of empire, both in scripture and in European history, especially the mediaeval reworking of Roman imperium.