For once, it is my privilege not to deplore the decline of the West but to cheer the resistance movement. I am speaking specifically of the French initiative Academia Christiana, whose summer conference I was lucky enough to attend at a Normandy manor house in August 2021.
It was a rare pleasure to spend the weekend with both established conservative thinkers and bright young enthusiasts: antitheses of the ‘post-historical’ men and women who populate our cities. The human impression alone deserves to be recorded here. These were hundreds of people, in good condition and in the prime of life, and fully conversant with the causes and consequences of cultural decay. To see them practising martial arts and attending the Tridentine Mass in the morning, and, in the evening, enjoying local cuisine, loudly singing old French songs, and joyously talking about the future is something I will never forget—and I wish, perhaps in vain, that it could be repeated throughout Europe.
Although, in some ways, the European cultural crisis is more advanced in France than elsewhere, both patriotism and Christianity have deeper roots here than, for example, in Germany, where religion as well as a healthy national pride are in spectacular, perhaps fatal, decline. Still, it is to be hoped that the Academia Christiana may set a precedent for Catholic Spain, Italy, or Eastern Europe to follow.
Admittedly, such a niche enterprise is unlikely to reach the masses, as the degradation of our culture has progressed too far and the break with tradition is too complete. But on the other side of the political spectrum, too, those who are strongly, consciously averse to Christianity and tradition are relatively small in number (though they wield incomparable and disproportionate power). If, then, we can strengthen our ranks a little; if we can show that social disintegration is the consequence of left-wing liberalism; if we can educate young people through reason and human example, then all hope is not lost. Then, thanks to institutions like the Academia Christiana, unnoticed by the mainstream media, an alternative to Nietzsche’s ‘last man’ may emerge. What follows is my recent interview with Victor Aubert, the founder and director of the Academia Christiana.
Tell me about the origins of the Academia Christiana program. How did it start?
The project began in 2013, the year that the grassroots movement Manifs pour tous began. Launched by four students, the goal of Academia Christiana was both humble and ambitious: to encourage the younger generations to receive intellectual formation and to commit themselves to the common good. Many of us had been lucky either to have activist parents who could serve as role models or to have studied philosophy— which had made us aware of the need and urgency of service to others. In the face of a crumbling world, we were convinced that we could not stand by and do nothing. We had to take action.
In your many years of working with young adults from all over France, what has surprised you the most? Are there things you didn’t expect to learn?
As Christopher Lasch reminds us, “Uprootedness uproots everything, except the need for roots.” This is important and has led to a growing demand for training and formation. What’s interesting is that it is young people from working class backgrounds who grew up in the cultural vacuum of a decadent West who are often the most interested—and the most serious in their commitment. Contrary to the image we often have of a frivolous youth, many young people still aspire to greatness and depth. And in this search, they often have to turn away from those who do not take them seriously.
In recent years, interest in your program has soared. To what do you attribute this? What does this tell you about French society—and young people in general?
To my knowledge, we are the only ones addressing young people and trying to offer them something accessible, attractive, and substantive—to offer them a political education within a Christian framework. Those who were present at our first events now have their own families, which gives them a certain credibility. While the intellectual offer has been considerably enriched on the internet—notably via videos—our audience comes to us mostly to find fellowship, and to form friendships and a sense of community.
What is your professional and academic background? What were you doing before the Academia?
I was born into a non-practicing family, having grown up in a neighborhood of Paris with a high concentration of immigrants. I was thus not predestined to found the Academia Christiana. I converted to Catholicism at the age of 10, drifted away, and returned to the Church after a somewhat rowdy adolescence. As a twenty-year-old, I entered the seminary of the Fraternity of St. Peter, which I left after two years to resume my studies of philosophy in Paris. Now, at 32, I am the father of three children and teach French and philosophy at a school in Normandy.
Throughout the West, there seem to be two strange and contradictory trends: an aggressive atheism that seeks to remove all vestiges of religious belief from the public square and, on the other hand, a resurgence of religious belief and interest in tradition among young people. How do you explain this?
The aggressiveness of contemporary ideologies is almost a religion itself. Thus, I would say the religious sense has not disappeared entirely; rather, it has metamorphosized. The true God has been replaced by new idols: health, the environment, consumerism—and the media and judges embody the new clergy.
“But where the danger is, also grows the saving power,” says Hölderlin. The enthusiasm of the generation of ’68 did not produce more children. To a large degree, the younger generations are composed of individualistic consumers for whom any form of political or associative commitment is alien. But, at the same time, there are also young people who are thirsting for roots. Unfortunately, such young people can be found in the ranks of Daesh and among the ‘woke’—but also, thankfully, at Academia Christiana.
Some conservatives say we have lost everything of value and that there is nothing left to preserve. Instead, they say, we need cultural renewal and acts of restoration. What do you think? What is your diagnosis of our current predicament?
Academia Christiana does not really have an official position on this, but we are obviously moving towards cultural solutions—cultural combat, such as what is discussed in Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, the transmission of old knowledge to new generations, the search for autonomy, rootedness, and community. In this sense, David Engels’ Que faire? (What to do?) is an excellent example of the solutions that we propose to our participants. On a personal level, I believe that Europe is in a dormant stage, and that it is up to us to ‘wake up’ our peoples. Everything has to be rebuilt—and the work begins with oneself.
Where do you see Western Europe—and France, in particular—in five or ten years? What are the prospects for Western civilization? And what should we do?
I am one of those who believes in the inevitable collapse of capitalist civilization. But the biggest unknown is that of time. Like Olivier Rey, I think we must find our sense of limits, if there is to be a future for Europe and for our children. The most important thing seems to me to be to find hic and nunc that which makes us truly human. It is, moreover, a simple fact of our civilization in the face of barbarism—and the way forward must be through a renewed sense of friendship, community, roots, and faith.
To learn more and register for the Academia Christiana Université d’été (22-28 August 2022), visit academiachristiana.org/inscriptionudt2022.
David Engels is chair of Roman History at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and senior analyst at the Instytut Zachodni in Poznań. His 2013 book, Le déclin (Paris: L’artilleur) compared the crisis of the European Union to the decline of the Roman Republic. He has also edited the collection, Renovatio Europae (Berlin: MSC Verlagsbuchhandlung, 2019), a manifesto for a conservative reform of the European Union. His most recent book is Que faire? Vivre avec le déclin de l’Europe. He is a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative.
Victor Aubert is the founder and director of the Academia Christiana.
This interview appears in the Spring 2022 edition of The European Conservative, Number 22: 78-80.