Rant Number 460 13 October 2011
There were once an ant and a grasshopper, Aesop tells us. In summertime the grasshopper chirped and sang and did bugger-all. The ant instead toiled and moiled with her grains of corn, steadily storing them away under the earth. The carefree grasshopper laughed and mocked all along. ‘Ant, you silly creature! Why not enjoy yourself, while slaving away like that? Food is all around. What is the point of working so hard? Life’s short. Carpe diem. Seize the moment. Have a good time here and now. It is all that matters.’
The ant, however, paid no heed and kept at it. Just as well. Winter came, the wise ant and her lot fed well off their store and survived, while the foolish grasshopper and his kind starved to death.
Europe today has plenty of ants and grasshoppers. German ants and Greek grasshoppers, for instance. The nations of Europe may not divide neatly into those two groups but clearly they all do have very different mentalities. Indeed, Europeans have different, very diverse national characters. So the current crisis is not just about the economy, stupid. It is about national character.
‘That alone which...enables any body of human beings to exist as a society is national character: that it is which causes one nation to succeed in what it attempts, another to fail; one nation to understand and aspire to elevated things, another to grovel in mean ones; which makes the greatness of one nation lasting, and dooms another to early and rapid decay’. Thus spoke not a Romantic, fanatic and reactionary nationalist but that high priest of liberalism, utilitarianism and feminism, Englishman J.S. Mill. Speaking like that in our time would be dangerous. It may well get you indicted as a racist. Yet, Mill’s reasoning takes you to the heart of the matter. Why do severe and hardy nations like Germany prosper and thrive, against all the odds, while happy-go-lucky Greece stares into the abyss? A good part of the answer is that Germans are ants and Greeks are grasshoppers, i.e. their national characters differ.
Against all the odds. From 1943 to 1945, day in, day out, Germans were systematically pounded into dust by fellow Germanic races, English and Americans. The German cities – plus innumerable civilians - literally died in the ferocious obliteration bombings carried out in the name of ‘civilisation’ and ‘morality’. By the war’s end vanquished Germany was back to the year zero. The Russians dismantled and took away all the industrial machinery in the East. Millions of men had been killed or made prisoners of war. The notorious, racist Morgenthau Plan, contrived by the eponymous, vengeful US Treasure Secretary, even envisaged dismembering Germany, demolishing its heavy industry and turning its people into shepherds and peasants, hewers of wood and drawers of water. But, despite all that, Germany rose again from its ashes. By 1960 everybody spoke of a German economic miracle. A natural miracle, actually. A miracle engendered by the kind of people Germans are, namely their national character.
Greece. No longer the ancient, glorious Hellas of Pericles, Plato and Aristotle, the land of art, drama, science, logic and philosophy, the cradle of Western civilisation, whose brave people stood up to the hectoring Persian empire but...another lot. National character has changed. The Greek grasshoppers have used EU membership as a bonanza of handouts, free cash and perks galore, while contributing little or nothing. The basket case you behold is the melancholy outcome.
European nations are not monolithic, fair enough. They contain heterogeneous elements. Italy, the priest’s homeland (groan...), is an example. The Northern League party gets a bad press as xenophobic but she has a point. Northern Italians, by and large, have a different mentality. Their history, ethnicity and values mark them out from Southerners. This is not a racial thing – Northern Italians of Southern stock have assimilated the local ethos, on the whole. Northerners work harder, are more organised, more disciplined, all that. Back to ants and grasshoppers – too many Southern Italians, I fear, are a bit like Greeks. The Northern League does not relish handing out endless handouts, hence its hankering after Padania, UDI, or their own national state. Not totally unreasonable, is it?
National character is rather blown upon in Little Britain, along with related virtues like patriotism, honour, loyalty, fortitude and the Christian religion. A book by a certain Peter Mandler (who he?) seeks to deconstruct Englishness. It sneers at the belief that a nation like the English may actually possess a ‘character’. The English gentleman cliche’ is a bit out of date, yes. (Could it be because the people who formerly aspired to ‘elevated things’ now grovel in ‘mean ones’?) John Bull was a bit of a caricature, assuredly. But even someone utterly unlike a gentleman like BBC boorish Jeremy Paxman can write a bestseller about the English. Beyond literature, such people and their distinctive mores and ethos are not a fiction. Indeed, only yesterday the people of this country were termed a Teutonic stock, ‘the Anglo-Saxons’ – the French still use that now quaint expression. Anyway, anyone who tells you that an Englishman and a Neapolitan share the same character belongs in a mental asylum.
Mandell Creighton, bishop of London, over a century ago in a lecture rhapsodised about the character of the English nation as ‘an adventurous spirit, practical sagacity, a resolve to succeed, willingness to seek his fortune in any way, courage to face dangers, cheerfulness under disaster...’and so homiletically on. I cannot imagine a C of E bishop today venturing to speak like that. That is because, pulpit rhetoric apart, the ‘early and rapid decay’ Mill prophesied has long set in. As the English nation grovels in increasingly mean things, so does the national church forsake the eternal verities of the Gospel to pursue sordid, sensual trivialities of the Zeitgeist. Verily, God is not mocked.
Whither Europe? With 26 as diverse and as contrasting national characters as ants and grasshoppers, are integration, unity, even survival possible? Can you meaningfully speak of a bond such as a European national character? Discuss. One thing the priest is dead sure of: behind the economy are people. So, it is not just the economic, stupid – it is national character.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli