The Loss of European Spiritual Identity - II

In his Philosophical Discourse on Modernity Jurgen Habermas attributes the failure of the Enlightenment to the intrusion of foreign elements which derailed its original program of full human emancipation. He finds nothing wrong with the project itself, aside from the fact that it was prematurely abandoned for a romantic return to some form of pseudo-religion, such as the worship of nature in the 19th century, the era of Romanticism. Undoubtedly there is something unfinished about the Enlightenment, but contrary to what Habermas believes, it is not the execution of the project that failed to reach a conclusion but the concept itself. Many question nowadays the very principle of rationality that directed Enlightenment thought. This may sound paradoxical, for indeed it is the adoption of reason by the Greeks and the subsequent synthesis with Christianity as achieved by Augustine and Aquinas that distinguishes European culture from all others and defines its spiritual identity.

To be sure, the real culprit was not reason or rationality but rationalism, which was unknown to the Greeks. Rationalism is a modern invention inaugurated by Descartes and consisting in a separation of the particular from the universal and assigning supremacy to the universal while misguidedly assuming that a rationality constituted by the human mind could function as the same comprehensive principle that it had been for the Greeks. To the contrary, a rationality of purely subjective origin produces mere abstract, empty concepts in theory and pursues limited human objectives in practice, mostly narrowly focused upon economic and political concerns. Einstein had it on target: our era is characterized by perfection of means and confusion of goals.

Indeed, in developed societies where economic concerns have become all-important and dominant, the protection of sub-national identities and minority groups are at risk. One place where any obstacle to economic development has been successfully eliminated is the United States, usually mentioned as a model of federalism encompassing many nationalities. Many EU politicians advocate a United States of Europe. That may sound progressive, but it remains a chimera given that the nationalistic and regional identities are still very strong in Europe; nor is it desirable.

It would be a mistake for the EU to imitate the US and attempt a repetition of a mega-nation which would translate into a super-power bent on power and the forcible exportation of democracy (an oxymoron if there ever was one). The price that will have to be paid will be further erosion of Europe’s original spiritual unifying principles, the very roots of its cultural identity, and the embracing of a bland mixture of varied cultures leveled to its least common denominator. Soccer games heralded as a unifying principle may indeed be emblematic of that mistake. What some Europeans fail to grasp is that what keeps so many ethnic nationalities and groups together in the US is a constitution which guarantees certain basic rights transcending nationality and even the very power of the State in as much as they are conceived as inalienable. Those enshrined ideals make “a pluribus unum” possible, as the dollar bill proclaims.

As the recent conflicts in the Balkans have shown only too well, it will prove quite difficult for Europeans with different languages reflecting diverse cultures to create a United States of Europe, nor should they. As it is, all the worst features of American popular culture are imitated, even by those who are anti-Americans, while the best is largely unknown or ignored. That is not to deny that one of the major achievements of the European Union has been the preventing of a major destructive conflict on the continent at the level of a world war for the last sixty years or so. However, to count on mere political-economic motives to completely free Europe from its past destructive legacies may be a miscalculation. Calling oneself a Newropean will not do the trick either. It would suffice to take a hard look at the xenophobia that has raised its ugly head and pervades the EU especially its most affluent countries. Superficially it seems directed at immigrants coming from outside Europe but often the real target is a neighboring country.

What seems to be lacking within this economic, political, educational coordination that is the EU is a deeper kind of integration based on an inclusive spiritual idea. How is this to be achieved in a secular democratic society pledged to protect the rights of all its citizens and their diversity? A nostalgic return to the Greek-Christian synthesis and the Christendom of medieval times (at times imposed politically) will not do and is not even desirable. That was a synthesis meant for Europeans Christians (many of them forced to get baptized by their kings who found it politically convenient to switch from paganism to Christianity), not for non-Christians, not to speak of the non-Europeans which are now counted into the millions in Europe.

In any case, it is undeniable that at present no spiritual foundation for a genuine unification exists. The present proposed Constitution which nobody even calls constitution any longer but a compact, mentions a fuzzy kind of spiritual heritage almost as an after-thought. Many Europeans don’t seem to be too concerned about such an absence, if indeed they even perceive it. And yet, some kind of new synthesis is needed. Unfortunately, it will not even be envisioned, never mind implemented, unless Europeans, begin a serious reflection and a debate on the original idea to which Europe owes it cultural unity and identity. That carries the risk of being perceived as an old European, maybe even an anti-modern and anti-progressive, rather than a “Newropean,” but I would suggest that without that original idea, which precedes Christianity itself, a crucial novantiqua synthesis will not be perceived either and Europeans will be sadly condemned to repeat their history. 

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