The Cube and the Cathedral

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Although he is frequently described as a Catholic theologian, George Weigel’s best-known work is a biography of the late Karol Wojtya, titled Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II (1999). A senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., Weigel has also written numerous articles and books best described as Catholic apologetics. Thus the present work, The Cube and the Cathedral, while ranging widely across the disciplines of history, current affairs, theology and philosophy, is essentially a defense of Christian civilization in Europe, and more particularly of the Roman Catholic patrimony upon which that civilization was built. What it lacks in originality, The Cube and the Cathedral more than makes up for in its incisive critique of Europe’s post-World War II abandonment of that patrimony.

Weigel’s book might better be described as an extended essay than an academic study of its subject. It does not progress systematically but rather by digressions and regressions. There are twenty-four titled chapters, though these are not numbered, nor is there a table of contents. Weigel cites a number of secondary sources, but these are not at all obtrusive and are documented in a brief set of endnotes. The Cube and the Cathedral is, therefore, intended for a broad audience of readers, especially those interested in the politics and history of modern Europe and the lessons its current “crisis of civilization” might hold for the United States.

A number of American writers (as well as some Europeans), even those with no particular religious position to defend, have regarded the rise of European secularism in the post-World War II era as symptomatic of a cultural malaise which threatens not only European identity but its very survival as a distinct civilization. Weigel enters the discussion with a memorable juxtaposition of symbolic imagesthe cube and the cathedral. The cube in question is the Grande Arche de la Défense in Paris, a colossal “human rights” monument completed in 1990 and intended to mark the bicentenary of the French Revolution. In fact, the Grande Arche is not so much an arch as an open cube of some forty stories faced in modernist glass and marble. Weigel notes that when he visited the Grande Arche in 1997, he was struck by the claim made in most of the Paris guidebooks that the Grande Arche is sufficiently gigantic to house within its cubic frame the entirety of the cathedral of Notre Dame. Indeed, in its grandiose geometrical purity, the Grande Arche is an aggressively secular symbol, one that seems to suggest that the age of faith represented by the cathedral of Notre Dame is now defunct.

Given the political and social symbolism of the Grande Arche, Weigel began to meditate upon the central question of The Cube and the Cathedral: “Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundations of democracy? The culture that built this . . . essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced . . . the holy ’unsameness’ of Notre-Dame and the other great Gothic cathedrals of Europe?” For Weigel, the Grande Arche represents a secularity now become the dominant motif of European culture and politics but is associated as well with the monolithic bureaucratic pretensions of the European Union, a potential superstate whose constitution omits any reference to the Christian origins of European civilization. Weigel’s book assumes from the outset that the civilization that produced the Grande Arche is a civilization in a state of crisis.

The symptoms of “crisis” are manifold, at least from the American perspective. Dozens of articles and books have charted Europe’s precipitately declining birthrates and noted its all but empty churches. Others have puzzled over Europe’s flight from genuinely democratic political conflict into the safety of bureaucratic proceduralism and lamented its increasingly materialistic vision of social order. In seeking causes for these changes, Weigel considers a number of possible answers, only to reject them as superficial. It is not enough to point to the devastating demoralizing effects of two world wars; it is insufficient to look to the Holocaust as the definitive factor in the shaping of the postmodern European guilty conscience (and thus its failure of self-confidence). For him, a more satisfying answer to the problem must lie deeper.

Turning his attention to the early decades of the twentieth century, Weigel agrees with those historians who have seen World War I as the turning point in modern European history. It was, as he describes it in a chapter titled “The Trapgate of 1914,” the “moment when European civilization began to destroy itself.” In asking how the Great War could have happened, how the rage for self-mutilation could have started and continued for so long, Weigel turns to the nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietszche (1844-1900), the “true prophet” of the age following upon his death....

(The entire section is 2077 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

America 192, no. 21 (June 20, 2005): 25-26.

The American Spectator 38, no. 4 (May, 2005): 64-68.

Booklist 101, no. 14 (March 15, 2005): 1251.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 2 (January 15, 2005): 114.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 10 (March 7, 2005): 62-63.

Weekly Standard 10, no. 30 (April 25, 2005): 39.