“Upon the face of this aged queen of French cathedrals, beside every wrinkle, we find a scar.” These words are from Victor Hugo, and his classic novel Notre Dame de Paris (from which we get The Hunchback Of Notre Dame). This “sublime and majestic building” was begun in 1163 during the reign of King Louis VII, and finished more than a century later. Hugo explains that “the various marks of destruction” by the work of Time are not nearly as egregious as “that of Men, especially the ‘men of art,’ since they are the ones who have styled themselves architects.”
The Premodern World
So who were the original builders of Europe’s medieval shrines to the divine? We don’t know them as individuals. As historian William Manchester explains in his book on the subject, A World Lit Only by Fire:
In many ways the most significant dimensions of the medieval mind were invisible and silent. Even those with creative powers had no sense of self. We know nothing of the architects or builders. They were glorifying God. To them, their identity in this life was irrelevant.
Of course the skilled laborers and designers were quarrymen, stone masons, engineers, architects, and artists. And what a marvelous testament they gave to division of labor and specialization as the foundations of human peace and prosperity.
Upon completion of the Gothic masterpiece, Our Lady of Paris suffered many attempts to improve its façade. Hugo claims “these modern fashions, more and more silly and grotesque,” have done more damage than revolutionary crowds. This treasure was finally rescued from further defacement toward the end of the Renaissance.
And during that era, another massive project was being launched, a structure whose gravity would shake the earth. While the medieval builders are unknown, and possessed only first names, the designers of this new structure had surnames, and egos. They included Montesquieu, Voltaire, Locke, and Madison. And they replaced the building material of choice, the gray matter of stone, with the gray matter of neurons and synapses.
The Great Upheaval
It was a time when the power of the human mind was unleashed. After a millennium of dormancy, the wonders of spontaneous order spread like stardust throughout the universe. As historian Jay Winik reveals in his epic account of the late 18th century titled The Great Upheaval:
In a symbolic passing of the torch from the Old World to the New, Voltaire embraced the rustic republican Franklin in Paris, yet simultaneously worshipped Catherine the Great. In the end, this founding moment of our modern world is not simply a story of America, France, or Russia, or for that matter, any one nation. It is a global story, and it is an extraordinary tale.
While Russia regressed into repressive despotism, and France into tragic revolution, the promise of the Enlightenment coalesced into America’s Declaration of Independence. British philosopher G. K. Chesterton describes it as “perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just.”
The ground shaking edifice, the one that enshrines the ideals of the Declaration, is the American Constitution. And it was a stunning innovation; one whose engine was fueled by a uniquely modernist invention: connectivity. As psychiatry professor Jordan Peterson explains, “Every bit of new information challenges a previous conception, forcing it to dissolve into chaos before it can be reborn as something better.”
Time, Turmoil, and Torts
Like the architectural and moral center of Paris, the most enduring moral achievement of the Enlightenment quickly came under siege. In the three hundred years following their respective christenings, both were forced to endure changing times and cultural upheaval. But most appalling of all, defacement by their caretakers. In both cases the same forces were at work: the elites of expert planning.
As Hugo asks, “Who set cold white panes in place of that stained glass of gorgeous hue, which led the wondering gaze of our fathers to roam uncertain? An architect, on the plea of good taste, amputated it.”
And one might also ask, what has become of the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution, the one that guarantees federalism? Our progressive masters, on the plea of the common good, amputated it.
Both crimes evoke Hugo’s explanation: “Time is blind, man is stupid.” In the case of the postmodern defacers of the Constitution, whose stated intent is to amputate the preface to the Declaration of Independence, meaning repeal Natural Law, they justify it with their claim that human nature has evolved.
The Emergence of Ego
Victor Hugo, a 19th century Romantic, had a keen vision of Europe’s history, powerful communication skills, and a humanist outlook for the way things should and could be. His work has given voice to France’s premodern creative minds, because in their time that was not possible. To appeal from the supreme voice of the Church was heresy, and a treason. As Manchester explains about medieval times:
Any innovation was inconceivable; to suggest the possibility of one would have invited suspicion, and because the accused were guilty until proven innocent by surviving impossible ordeals, to be suspect was to be doomed.
This all changed with the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy. The upheaval it created, when blended with the mysticism of the Church, became the Renaissance. As Peterson tell us, “Michelangelo’s great perfect marble David cries out to its observer: “You could be more than you are.” And 18th century economist Adam Smith also gave voice, to specialization and the miracles of division of labor.
Instead of living a premodern life of determinist resignation to the divine G (almighty God), or a postmodern life of collectivist resignation to the profane g (almighty government), Hugo has taught us there is a better way. It is the affirmation that comes with a life of self-creation.