Light From The East
I’ve been in Budapest for six weeks now. I went to Warsaw late last week for a conference, and ran into a fellow American who is also living here. We compared notes, and agreed that the difference between what life in Orban’s Hungary is actually like, versus what the Western media tell us it’s like, is jaw-dropping. This man said, “It makes me wonder how much truth we are getting about other countries.” Yep.
The conference in Warsaw was to mark the launching of Collegium Intermarium, a new classical, Catholic, conservative-oriented college aiming mostly to train lawyers. The Associated Press covered the opening of the Warsaw conference; you can see Your Working Boy there on the photo. From the College’s website:
Collegium Intermarium aims to restore the classical idea of a university, creating an academic community deeply rooted in European tradition and culture. Education and research are conducted with respect for the achievements of previous generations and with hope and optimism for the future.
Collegium Intermarium was established as an answer to the crisis of academic life. At a time when the sense of order, purpose, and meaning is fading away, our university has a fixed point of reference – unchanging ideas of Truth, Good, and Beauty. When there is less and less room for free academic debate, the Collegium is a space for scholars and students who are not afraid to pose serious questions. Taking up courageous challenges is not only a privilege, but the duty of everyone who co-creates the community of the university. When education has become mass, one-dimensional, and widespread, we remind about the true goal of education – integral human development. In the reality of the university, its condition is a direct cooperation between master and student. The Collegium brings together the elites of the Intermarium countries, whose nations were for decades deprived of the opportunity to create their own academic institutions. It is not only a place to talk about the common culture and the diversity of traditions of our region – but above all about scientific, social, and economic cooperation both today and in the future. Our university is also a haven for all those who, in their search for freedom and order, are not afraid to refer to the achievements of previous generations, including the foundations of our civilization – Roman law, Greek love of truth, and the living heritage of Christianity. Upholding the classical idea of the university, Collegium Intermarium invites you to study and participate in postgraduate courses that develop the knowledge and skills of professionals.
The foundation for the functioning of the university is to ensure free academic debate, without which it is impossible to fulfill the fundamental mission of science – the search for truth through unhindered exploration of the surrounding world. Collegium Intermarium will always be open to suggestions, advice, and constructive criticism from the academic world and all people of goodwill. We believe that peer review and self-monitoring contribute to the dynamic development of healthy intellectual exchange, raising the level of public debate and increasing the knowledge in society. The university is committed to actively defending its students and lecturers against harassing attacks that limit academic debate and any attempt to ideologically censor or intimidate members of the academic community. Collegium Intermarium will not compromise on the quality of teaching, professed values and search for truth. It rejects paradigms or ideologies that are contrary to reliable research and honest teaching. At the same time, the university wants to make a measurable contribution to the culture and quality of public life. The university’s mission includes broad civic engagement. We strive to ensure that social life is set in the context of the highest philosophical, historical, ethical, and legal ideals, and that public debate is based on well-established principles and values and thoughtful reflection rather than momentary, short-term, and impulsive insights.
Astonishing, isn’t it? A college that actually wants to be a real college, rooted in the Western tradition, and not apologize for it. Go Poland! This is a Benedict Option move: the building of an institution within which the life of virtue (intellectual and spiritual) can continue despite the darkness of the age.
As you might expect, there were lots of conversations over coffee about the crisis of education in the West. I had several of them in which I would relate some anecdote, and then listen as my shocked Polish interlocutor would say something like, “But that’s what happened under Communism!” Yep, I know; I wrote the book.
(Funny side comment: I met former Czech president Vaclav Klaus. I handed him my card, he looked at it, and said, “American Conservative. You American conservatives are spending too much time fighting Brezhnev communism, and not enough fighting the communism we have today.” I told him I agreed, and wrote a book about it, which I would send to him when I got back to Budapest.)
In conversation with one Polish scholar, I brought up this recent case:
The scholar said that back in Stalinist times, entire academic fields were nearly destroyed in Poland (for example, sociology) because they were deemed “bourgeois”. This scholar mentioned a particular scientific field (I want to say “genetics,” but I can’t remember with certainty). It’s happening today, in the United States. Remember when the Nazis extolled “Aryan physics,” and two German Nobelists denounced Einstein and his “Jewish science”? Keep that in mind when you read a scientist praising “black thought” for its role in freeing us from “the white supremacist traditions of scientists.”
In the bad old twentieth-century totalitarianism days, scientists and scholars fled to the free West to work. Their contribution to knowledge is staggering. Now, in the age of soft totalitarianism (which I describe in Live Not By Lies), I wonder if scholars are going to reverse course, and head East, to places like Collegium Intermarium.
And to places like Matthias Corvinus Collegium, in Budapest. It’s a conservative-oriented university that is doing serious outreach to sympathetic American and Western European academics, bringing them over to teach and to see what academic life is like at MCC. I’ve met some really interesting people via MCC — for example, University of Dallas political theorist Gladden Pappin was just in town, and went on to Warsaw for the event — and all of us, when we talk by ourselves, rave about what MCC is doing to build a sense of community among conservative scholars, who are feeling outcast and under siege in their home institutions. Based on these conversations I’ve had with Westerners I’ve met through MCC (Budapest is a relatively small place, and we overlap), it’s hard to overstate how valuable it is to be in a physical place where you don’t have to watch every damn word you say out of fear that this is the thing that is going to get you fired, and end your career.
Two or three years ago, I was in Budapest to give a speech at a conference on religious liberty. At the last minute, an invitation came from Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s office to us speakers, inviting us over for a meet and greet at the Palace. I figured it would amount to shaking hands and having a photo made, then off we would go. It wasn’t. Orban sat with us — mostly scholars and public intellectuals, but a couple of journalists like me — for about an hour and a half, discoursing in excellent English about serious political and intellectual matters. In the end, he said to all of us that he wants us conservatives to consider Budapest “your intellectual home.” I thought those were nice words, but only that. Well, it turns out that in places like MCC and the Danube Institute (where I’m on a visiting fellowship), that’s actually happening.
And it’s not just conservatives. MCC recently invited a well-known left-wing American scholar, someone who has stood up publicly against woke totalitarianism. I don’t know him personally, but he reached out to me to ask me if this was something he should do. “Absolutely,” I said. “You will be able to have open debates and exchanges at MCC that you can’t have at your own university, and haven’t been able to have for a while. It’s not like what you’ve heard in our media.”
You will say: “It’s all very good to speak of MCC as a place for open academic debate, but don’t forget that the Orban government kicked out George Soros’s Central European University.” Yes, it did. The story, as told by Franklin Foer in a 2019 Atlantic Monthly story, is not a pretty one. It must be considered in a broader context, though. Western journalists tend to assume that what’s happening in Western universities is good, or at least neutral. Similarly with Western liberal trends. If the only thing you read are Western media reports, you would think that George Soros is a kindly liberal uncle who has been abused — antisemitically abused — by Viktor Orban and his toughs. What few Americans realize is that Soros has used and is using his billions to fund organizations intended to remake Central Europe according to the Western model. His “open society” sounds good on paper, but if you think that the atmosphere (culturally, professionally, etc.) present and emerging in the West today is “open,” you are deluded. As far as I can tell, Orban understands this. He understands that the liberalism advocated by Soros and his many allies in academia and the media is, in fact, left-wing illiberalism — and that the only way to resist it is through illiberal right-wing initiatives.
I have never interviewed Orban or any of his advisers about this — I will try to before I leave Budapest later this summer — but my guess is that they understood well that cultural and political revolution starts with elites. As I write in Live Not By Lies:
In our populist era, politicians and talk-radio polemicists can rile up a crowd by denouncing elites. Nevertheless, in most societies, intellectual and cultural elites determine its long-term direction. “[T]he key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks,” writes sociologist James Davison Hunter. Though a revolutionary idea might emerge from the masses, says Hunter, “it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites” working through their “well-developed networks and powerful institutions.”
This is why it is critically important to keep an eye on intellectual discourse. Those who do not will leave the gates unguarded. As the Polish dissident and émigré Czesław Miłosz put it, “It was only toward the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.”
We are in a difficult period in our culture and civilization. In my ideal world, Soros’s university would still be here, and so would MCC, and other universities, all contributing to the common good. But we live in a world in which liberal Western universities, and academic discourse, has been taken over by lunatics who proclaim things like “black thought” and “white supremacist traditions in science.” The list is legion. We live in a world in which the authentically liberal light is going out in institution after institution. One can easily imagine Viktor Orban wondering what would happen to his country if an elite trained in Soros’s unabashedly progressive values (e.g., he’s strongly pro-LGBT, supports the legalization and normalization of prostitution, etc.) emerged to run Hungary’s institutions.
Many of us, including myself, wish to believe that we are in a fight for liberalism. Alas, that fight is pretty much over, at least at the institutional level. Despite what you read in the American media, the fight now is between rival illiberalisms. In Paris recently, I had lunch with someone from Sciences Po, the prestigious Institute of Political Studies, which produces French elites. This person was in despair, saying that wokeness was conquering every department. You will not read this in the American media. You will read about Viktor Orban having driven CEU out of Hungary. The same thing is happening in many universities all over the West, from the left, but it’s happening under the cover of business as usual, and without much protest from the left. We have to fight the battle we’re actually in, as opposed to the one we prefer to be in. Conservative scholars and public intellectuals in the US and Western Europe will find resources, support, and community over here, in the former Communist countries of Europe, that are scarcer on the ground in our home countries. History has taken a surprising turn, has it not?
I’ll quote once more from the Collegium Intermarium site:
Our roots are our strength
We cannot be afraid to refer to the achievements of previous generations. Without rooting ourselves in the experiences of those who preceded us and relying on them, we are weaker when facing the challenges of today.
Today, we are almost openly trying to erase the achievements of our civilization from our consciousness – as in the “House of European History” in Brussels, which ignores entire historical epochs, including Antiquity and the Middle Ages. In this situation, we must remember the words of St. Bernard, canon of Chartres Cathedral, who used to say that, “we are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, and if we see more and farther than them, it is not through our own abilities and strength, but thanks to this, that they raised us up. ”
In experiencing academic life, we should draw from the sources of our civilization without hesitation or fear.
We must rediscover the Roman idea of law that harmoniously combines the general with the specific. Recognizing the importance of the universal law of nations, it sees good in the diversity of traditions and customs of individual countries. It fully supports the concept that a permanent legal order is not only based on a one-dimensional understanding of rights, but also on the duty and responsibility of its citizens.
Collegium Intermarium is a place where the Greek tradition of the Love of Wisdom will be maintained and replicated. The Greeks were the first to not only describe the material reality, but also systematize the knowledge about the non-material reality, which today is so often approached with reserve or indifference. Meanwhile, without openness to logos, including objective norms governing relations between people, it is difficult to talk about the real development of a person and society.
Our university will also openly draw from Christian revelation and Christian culture which has been organically developing over the centuries – they are not merely symbols of the past, but also the present and future representations of European identity.
Against the new tyranny
Allan Bloom, writing about the crisis of the university in the book “Closed Mind”, pointed out that true tyranny does not only mean restricting the freedom of speech by administrative or penal measures. True tyranny exists when it is possible to erase from people’s consciousness the notion that a different reality may exist.
Collegium Intermarium is established precisely to show that a different university is possible. It is to serve as a model and inspiration, to depressurize the system. It will truly be a Free University of Central Europe – not only in name but also in spirit.
The future of Western civilization, if it exists, is being born in Central Europe.