Back in June, I started Johannes Fried’s biography of Charlemagne, the man often referred to as “the father of Europe.” Now in October I have just finished the work.
The man, if not his treatment by Fried, reminded me of Constantine the Emperor by David Potter.
It makes sense to consider these two emperors together. In both Constantine and Charlemagne, we have heads of state who endeavor to combine the Christian Church and the governing of the state in ways which stand out in history as transformative. Their legacies echo through the centuries, even though their ways of thinking about themselves and their roles seem so foreign to us in our modern, Progressive, secular humanist context.
But it would be overly simplistic to project too much on the likes of Charlemagne from our current mode of thinking and organizing. While it may be inescapable that we interpret him through the hindsight of twelve-hundred-years, we should take care to not throw babies out with bathwater, or relegate his aspiring Christian governance to shrewd political calculation and self-promotion.
City of God
Charlemagne thought very differently about his responsibilities as king and emperor in large part due to the influence of Augustine’s City of God. Moreover, the situation facing Charlemagne was like that which confronted Constantine – one where violent and depraved pagans threatened Christendom with not secularism but a form of rule informed and guided by their cruel, capricious, and merciless mythologies.
“The father of Europe” was not faced with a choice between seemingly enlightened and sophisticated secularism on the one hand and Christian theocracy on the other – not with Viking raids from the north and Muslim conquests to the south.
Moreover, we do well to consider what else a Christian ruler could have done in those circumstances. Perhaps our forebears saw matters more clearly than we do in our day.
When threats from communist China and radical Islam still threaten us, our leaders too often seem content to slough them off. The presumption is that godlessness in the West will prevail due to temporary technological superiority, or some innate supremacy in renouncing religion.
What if Charlemagne had the right of it, though? At least in some important ways, though certainly not all respects, I think he did.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and Charlemagne understood this in light of a Christian faith which was sometimes of questionable sincerity and certain imperfection. And we for our part would be wise to study him to glean lessons for better or worse in a large-scale attempt to apply Augustine to the task of ruling a growing and already numerous people across a broad swathe of territory.
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