The Loss of European Spiritual Identity

The renowned Church historian Ernst Troeltsch once boldly declared that Europe had ceased to be Christian in the 18th century. Of course such a statement referred not to individuals but to the cultural identity of Europe as a whole. Some post-modern thinkers not only would wholly agree with that statement but would also point out that indeed the 18th century is the watershed separating Christendom, so called, or the old Europe, and the new modern Europe. This New Europe, after World War II has finally transformed itself in the European Union and is based on purely neutral, that is to say, non-ideological, economic, scientific, educational foundations. This leads to a crucial question: are those foundations reliable and solid enough by themselves, or is there something sorely missing? Is the absence of spiritual foundations a sign that a more perfect union transcending nationalism will forever elude the European Union?

Some post-modern philosophers attribute the problem of modernity to a mistake made at the beginning of Western culture, to Plato in particular. They assume a continuity between modern rationalism and the principles of reason as formulated by the ancient Greeks. Others draw a distinction between the original principles of rationality and their modern interpretation. They trace the root of that distinction, with its dramatic political implications, to the modern turn toward the human subject as the only source of truth and its consequent pragmatism. This turn was initiated, to be precise, by RenË Descartes, widely considered the father of modern Western philosophy.

What post-modern thinkers reject is not only Enlightenment rationalism, but also the original Greek form of rationality. For them rationality is little more than behavioral attitudes, a sort of incessant self-correction and perfectibility patterned after the experimentalism and self-correction of science. This is considered progress. In fact, it is branded as deterministic inevitable progress: the newest is always the best. Allegedly, it does away with disastrous and destructive universalist totalizing ideologies, the grand scheme of things a la Hegel, the grand narrations, often at war with each other. The argument is this: it is better to be more modest in one’s goals and humbly attend to immediate social and economic needs. Welcome Epicurus and Lucretius, away with Plato’s grandiose Forms.

What is conveniently side-stepped are some fundamental issues at which we shall look a bit more closely. Indeed, the ineluctable fact is that Europeans no longer agree on spiritual values; those values that, despite political conflicts, were in place prior to the Enlightenment. It took the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka (who in turn greatly influenced Havel) to dare propose, in the middle of the 20th century, a return to an idea that used to be characteristic of the European tradition since the Greeks but in the 20th century is seen as a scandal and an anomaly: the care of the soul by way of a great respect for truth and the intellectual life, holistically conceived.

Plato had claimed that it is through that life that we, as human beings endowed with a soul, partake of the life of the Ideas and share the life of the gods themselves. Later, Christians adopt this notion but change its direction. For Christians, theoria, or contemplation, remains the fundamental principle of any viable culture. Bereft of it, a civilization is left with nothing but a sort of aimless and blind praxis leading to its eventual destruction. Christopher Dawson for one explored and clarified this idea in his famous The Making of Europe.

So, the next question is this: can such a principle as advocated by Plato play a role in the spiritual unification of Europe? Which is to say, must the commitment to reason abandon a sort of rationalistic universalism that opposes it to an anti-rationalist particularism? To deepen a bit more: is not abstract rationalism and its irrationalist reaction responsible for much of the ominous nihilism which Nietzsche, for one, claimed hovers over Europe like a menacing specter? Has it not, in fact, corrupted the very principle of reason that, up to the Enlightenment, had constituted Europe’s spiritual identity? Has it not turned wisdom against itself?

Prior to World War II, the philosopher who most acutely perceived the spiritual crisis that rationalism has caused in Europe was Edmund Husserl. In a famous lecture delivered in Prague on the very eve of one of the darkest chapters of modern European history, he said this: “I too am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism. That, however, must not be interpreted as meaning that rationality as such is an evil or that in the totality of human existence it is of minor importance. The rationality of which alone we are speaking is rationality in that noble genuine sense, the Greek sense, that became an ideal in the classical period of Greek philosophy.”

All we need to do is give a cursory look at Husserl’s philosophy of phenomenology to be convinced that Husserl regarded modern objectivism as the quintessential expression of this rationalism. It reduces the world, which for the Greeks was a spiritual structure, into an object, and reason into an instrument for manipulating matter.

One may ask, how then did Husserl view the spiritual identity of Europe? He advocated that the particular must be fully reintegrated with the universal, an idea that Kierkegaard too had proposed. Husserl says:  

Clearly the title Europe designates the unity of a spiritual life and creative activity--no matter how inimical the European nations may be toward each other, still they have a special inner affinity of spirit that permeates all of them and transcends their national differences…There is an innate entelechy that thoroughly controls the changes in the European image and directs it toward an ideal image of life and of being. The spirited telos of the European in which is included the particular telos of separate nations and individual persons, has an infinity; it is an infinite idea toward which in secret the collective spiritual becoming, so to speak, strives.

But the question persists: is it possible at this point in its history to revive the spiritual idea of Europe? An idea that, despite its violent historical conflicts still ongoing in Bosnia, has kept its people united within an unrestricted diversity? Food for thought, to be duly digested by those of us who, like Husserl, are perceptive enough to sense the spiritual crisis he was talking about. 



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