New Paradigms of the Idea of Europe

Ivan Illich, a great advocate for intercultural communication, gifted us with a great insight. It is found in his book Tools for Conviviality. He wrote there that foreign languages ought to be pursued not so much to communicate with those native to them, but rather, so that we may listen to the particular silences found in the background of all languages, and thereby retrieve the original cultural humus from which they sprang. Notice the metaphor of the germinating seed in tandem with that of the historical journey, back to origins.

I would suggest that without an in-depth listening on both sides of the Atlantic pond, not only will the journey not begin, but any meaningful transatlantic dialogue may forever elude us. In this global village in which we live, there is an urgent need to return to the future for a novantiqua kind of civilization. It is good to have lights on a car to see what’s ahead, but a rear-view mirror is also necessary to avoid a disaster.

A fruitful dialogue is always underpinned by an exchange of ideas, the envisioning of new imaginative paradigms, and a courageous execution of those ideas and visions. Let us however be aware of Illich’s caveat: assuming that the soil is good, little will germinate and even less will be gathered in the spring, unless the seed has undergone the rigors and silence of winter. Within that silence we can hope to find the space and the courage for a convivial dialogue. Then we may hope to repair worn-out transatlantic bridges of understanding and retrieve shared values.

It may prove helpful to keep in mind a few memorable quotes of famous cultural guides and heroes in various fields and have them function as a leitmotif of sort. I have chosen four to begin with. The first one is by the poet Paul Valery who wrote this refrain in an essay on European identity: “As far as I am concerned, any people who have been influenced throughout history by Greece, Rome and Christianity are Europeans.” The second is from a statesman, the founder of the European Union Robert Shuman, who said: “I never feel so European as when I enter a cathedral.” The third is by the philosopher, Edmund Husserl, who in a lecture given at the University of Prague in 1935 stated this certainty of his: “I am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism.” Finally, the fourth one is by a scientist, Albert Einstein, who declared that “perfection of means and confusion of goals seems, in my opinion, the character of our age.”

The above quotes illuminate each other and shed light on some of the false assumptions that have ill served Western Civilization in our times. It is generally assumed that a culture war is presently going-on between the two sides of the North Atlantic and we need wise leaders to show us the way to the future. The confirmation for this premise is identified on this side of the North Atlantic in the perception of as a pervasive anti-Americanism currently present in Europe, while over there in Europe it is identified as anti-Eurocentrism, found especially in academic circles where one hears constant appeals to de-emphasize Eurocentric notions in the teaching of Civilizations, all in the name of political correctness, multiculturalism and relativism.

In Europe one hears pleas for a return to a more authentic European cultural identity that distances itself from a globalizing, pervasive, technological fix-all, market oriented popular American culture contemptuous of regional cultures; it is that fear that fuels the anti-global movement. The French poet Baudelaire already in the 19th century had warned us that “technology shall Americanize us all,” but he was no anti-American. By technology he meant a rationalistic mode of thinking contemptuous of the poetic and humanistic modes of thinking.

In any case, it seems to me that it is an erroneous assumption to conceive the two cultures as being on parallel universes, in different boats going their own direction toward different political destinies. To be sure there are cultural wars but they are internal more than external. They exist on both sides of the Atlantic. When in Europe I hear statements such as “you Americans…” I promptly interrupt and ask “which American?” If we recollect the first quote from Valery we may begin to perceive how misguided such an assumption is. It loses sight of the fact that, despite the particular cultural differences on both sides of the Atlantic, the roots and the trunk of the tree have a common origin. The mistakes are also similar, since before we were all “Americanized” by a penchant for the technological fix-all, we were all Cartesian rationalists.

We are in the same boat, and it is called Western Civilization; in it we shall float or sink together. That thought alone ought to unite, more than divide us. This is a civilization that goes back to the ancient Greeks who perceived themselves as Westerners vis à vis the Persians, the Romans, with Virgil as the grandfather of Europe and an empire that paves the way for the spread of Christianity and medieval Christendom and Scholastic philosophy in Europe, with a Dante advocating a United Europe in his political tract De Monarchia, the Judeo-Christian heritage, the Moslem influence in the Dark Ages, Germano-Saxon ideals of freedom, the synthesis of Graeco-Roman civilization and Christianity that is Humanism, the new beginning that is the Renaissance, the Enlightenment (that of Vico and Montesquieu as well as that of Voltaire)—all largely positive elements of Western Civilization.

When Valery says that anyone influenced by the universality of the idea of Europe is a European he does not mean it in a chauvinistic mode, nor as a geo-political reality, nor in Machiavellian-Nietzchean terms of “will-to-power,” or in terms of real-politik. He is simply stating a cultural reality shared by people in Australia and the Americas and even Africa and parts of Asia.

Contrast, if you will Valery’s statement with this one: “…by the favor of universal Enlightenment, it might become possible to dream, for the great European family, of going the way of the American Congress…what an outlook then of power, of glory, of well being, of prosperity! What a great and magnificent spectacle!” Notice if you will, the comparison with America; it looks as if the economic rat race has already taken off; notice also the stress on power and glory. I submit that this is the opposite of Valery’s idea of Europe. Try as you may, the word freedom is nowhere to be found in this statement proffered by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. That may explain why Beethoven withdrew his dedication from his Eroica symphony.

Indeed the cement for a genuine union of disparate people can only be found in the cultural sphere, and not in Machiavellian considerations of “real politick.” The lesson of Italian unification is instructive here: after it was achieved, Camillo Benso de Cavour, one of its architects, said: “now that we have made Italy let us make the Italians.” That was like putting the cart before the horse. Unfortunately, even nowadays cultural concerns are more often than not conspicuously absent from the pronouncements of our political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Gone are the Monets, the Shumans, the De Gasperis, the Adenauers, the De Gaulles, the Churchills of a generation ago with a vision of the spiritual boundaries of Europe and the assumption that Western Civilization is constituted by an idea.

Nevertheless, I would suggest that any European of any nationality and faith, or no faith, aware of her/his cultural roots, can also sincerely assert the second statement by Shuman. An atheist and an American such as George Santayana who left Harvard University to go and live and die in a monastery in Italy, did in fact assert it. As someone deeply concerned with the life of reason, he was acutely aware that one cannot understand the essence of Western Civilization by ignoring the positive contributions of its Christian heritage and reducing it to a shallow, and often slanderous, caricature. Which is not to deny other interrelated influences and shared values, such as democracy, free speech, free exchange of ideas, religious freedom, the philosophical and scientific spirit which have a common source in ancient Greece.

Europe in fact presents us with a Janus face: on one side Humanism which begins with Petrarch, on the other Enlightenment rationalism which begins with Descartes. This phenomenon needs to be recognized before we can even hope to recover lost humanistic modes of thinking, often misguidedly considered superseded or synthesized by the Enlightenment.

A common bank and a common army may be useful and even necessary, but they alone do not constitute the cement needed to hold together disparate people with different languages. Ideas and ideals are a sine qua non for a genuine union. Moreover, we ought to take heed of what Klaus Held warned us of a few years ago. At the end of a brilliant essay on the essence of European culture already analyzed in the Global Spiral and titled The Origins of Europe and the Greek Discovery of the World he writes that: “A European community grounded only in political and economic cooperation of the member states, would lack an intrinsic common bond and would be built upon sand.” And if indeed we are in the same boat running full speed ahead in the middle of the Atlantic, we need to ask: where are we coming from, where are we heading for, do we have a map and a compass, what are our shared values, what is our common identity as Westerners, what is our Leitkultur, what are our common dangers? Are there icebergs ahead? For indeed even luxury liners declared unsinkable even by God, have been known to sink, and as the Einstein quote powerfully suggests, it does no good to rearrange the furniture on the deck of the Titanic. Great civilizations have been known to vanish, Plato called one such “Atlantis.”

A bit closer to our times, Jacques Ellul also sounds the alarm in his The Betrayal of the West. Moreover, Jacques Derrida, in a lecture given at the University of Turin on the 20th of May 1990 asked this crucial question: “To what concept, to what real individual can we today ascribe the name of Europe?” He answers his own question in an essay he wrote later titled “L’autre cap suivi de la démocracie ajournée” where he envisions a future Europe (more of a promise than a reality) that conceives of itself as an idea around the guiding principle of “a mature sense of democracy” placed within the context of Western Civilization. He even suggests that this mature Europe ought to get rid of a geographical capital and opt for a polycentric network similar to medieval universities. As he puts it: “Europeans need to re-discover their spiritual frontiers beyond petty nationalities around the idea of philosophy, reason, monotheism, of the Jewish, the Greek, the Christian, Islamic memory, around Jerusalem, around Athens, Rome, Moscow, Paris.”

If nothing else, Derrida has revived the notion that more than a geo-political reality Europe is a still largely unexplored and unrealized idea. Several philosophers have in fact explored this idea that is Europe and have attempted to answer the question of its essence and identity. Unfortunately, not many on both sides of the Atlantic bother to read what they have to say on the subject.

I have already mentioned Dante, but within modern times, besides Deridda, we could include at a minimum the following contributors to this idea: Leibniz in the 17th century, who first identifies the proto-language (Germanic-Celtic) as the fountainhead for the union of the people of Europe, and then Kant who promotes universal values with an ethical component, followed by Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Croce, Ortega y Gasset. With the arrival of the new polity called the European Union in mid 20th century we have Adorno, Berdjaev, Habermas, Gadamer, Havel, Levinas.

Finally, let us analyze the above mentioned quote from Edmund Husserl. What is he alluding to by that “mistaken rationalism”? As a philosopher, he cannot possibly be talking about the life of the mind or the life of reason. Rather, he is talking about a calculating kind of rationalism devoid of imagination that ends up making trains run on time but never asks where those trains may be headed for. A rationalism that rationalizes what ought never to be rationalized, that begins with the ego but, as Lévinas teaches us, fails to realize that there is kernel inside the ego with an ethical component called the self, thus ending up with the logos without the mythos. The kind of reason which has produced political ideologies that substitute religious dogma (the mythos without the logos), identified by Vico as a cancerous growth of Western Civilization and dubbed by him “the barbarism of the intellect.” More particularly, Husserl is referring to the major shift which occurs in the 17th century with the advent of Cartesian rationalism, followed in the 18th century by the age of Enlightenment.

The problematic of the Enlightenment seems to be this: When Descartes in his Discourse on Method does away with humanistic modes of thought, he ushers in rationalism which eventually becomes modern relativism and nihilism. When truth is instrumentalized it undermines the very truths that rationality espouses. So, it appears that we Westerners were all “Cartesian rationalists” in the 18th century before we are “technocratic Americans” in the 19th with a fascination, on both sides of the Atlantic, with technological wonders, and an obsession with rational computerized fix-alls.

The currents of civilizations’ influences on one another are indeed mysterious. Perhaps E.F. Schumacher explains the matter best when he writes in his A Guide to the Perplexed that: “The change of Western man’s interest from ‘the slenderest knowledge that man may obtain of the highest things’ (Aquinas) to mathematically precise knowledge of lesser things marks a shift from what we might call ‘science for understanding’ to ‘science for manipulation.’ The purpose of the former was enlightenment of the person and his liberation; the purpose of the latter is power. ‘Knowledge itself is power,” said Francis Bacon, and Descartes promised men they would become ‘masters and possessors of nature.’ In its more sophisticated development, ‘science for manipulation’ tends almost inevitably to advance from the manipulation of nature to that of people.”(pp. 53-54).

The Enlightenment refuses to enlighten itself since it considers itself the culmination of full-fledged reason doing light unto itself; everything can be doubted except one’s own method. The concept, abstract reason, logical thinking is privileged at the expense of the poetical. It is reason eating its own tail with no outside point of reference and no reference to “common sense,” a sort of grammar of lunacy which begins innocuously enough with Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” The ability to hear the gods is lost. A sad condition indeed which Kierkegaard, in identifying the Hegelian totalizing tendency, calls “the sickness unto death.”

Vico who is the culmination of Italian Humanism, offers a corrective to Descartes with his “poetic philosophy.” He interprets wisdom and knowledge in a fresh new imaginative mode as “sapienza poetica,” (poetic wisdom) and alerts us that when reason detaches itself from “poetic wisdom” and refuses to retrace its steps back to the wonder of the child, it becomes pure rationalism or the “barbarism of the intellect,” perhaps best exemplified by Dante’s image of Bertrand del Born in a cave in hell, holding his own decapitated head as light unto himself. Vico on the other hand, keeps reason and imagination together, he blends the rational and the poetical to arrive at a new understanding of both image and idea, a synthesis that is novantiqua, in between Geist and Leiben which he calls “poetic wisdom.”

Closer to our times, Emmanuel Lévinas offers a corrective to the whole European philosophical tradition for what he considers its indifference to the ethical and its “totalizing of the other.” He indicts Western philosophers for an uncritical reliance on vast concepts such as Hegel’s “Spirit” or Heidegger’s “Being,” assimilating countless individuals to rational processes and negating their individuality. He argues that this taken-for-granted totalizing mode of doing philosophy in the West denies the face-to-face reality in which we—philosophers not excluded—interact with persons different from ourselves.

Vico, Havel and Levinas are modern examples of cultural guides for the construction of new paradigms, the new wineskins for the new Europe. The rest depends on our courage to take responsibility for our existential condition and do something about it.

Let me end with a thought from a Spanish Euro-parlamentarian, Raimond Obiols, who on March 4, 2002 wrote the following in the Debate on the Future of Europe: “We Europeans should not ourselves be overwhelmed by the pessimism caused by an inappropriate comparison with the role of the US as a political military superpower. We should set ourselves the target of building up civilian power, with a growing capacity for political, diplomatic, cultural and economic influence capable of exporting stability and equilibrium, encouraging and creating positive international consensus by intelligently employing Europe’s enormous potential for “soft power.” And this is how Mr. Obiols defines soft power: “hegemony by means of asserting values, cultural influence, leadership in knowledge and communications. Getting what one wants through attraction rather than coercion.”

Obviously, Mr. Obiols is proposing the substitution of a Humanistic imaginative paradigm to a tired old Machiavellian one, a peace oriented one to a power-oriented one. In the old days, the days of Thoreau, Gandhi and King it used to be called “soul power.” Havel has a similar insight when he declared in his Politics and Conscience way back in 1984 that “impersonal manipulative forces can be resisted only by one true power we all possess, our own humanity.” In effect, Havel is calling Europe back home to its true identity, to the recovery of its soul rooted in Christian Humanism. He is asking her: Quo vadis Europa?



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