Klaus Held on Religion, Science and Democracy in European Culture

Klaus Held on Religion, Science and Democracy in European Culture

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Klaus Held, from the University of Wuppertal, has recently written a brilliant essay on the identity of European culture. It was translated into English by Sean Kirkland of Goucher college. It can be found in the journal Epoche’, Vol. 7, issue 1 (Fall 2002) and its title is The Origins of Europe with the Greek Discovery of the World. This essay ought to be a must for anybody seriously investigating the origins of European culture and concerned about its future.

Held begins his analysis by observing that it was by no means a mere coincidence that science and democracy arose in the same age among the same people, that is, among the ancient Greeks. Heraclitus is identified as the very first thinker who begins to seriously reflect upon the earliest scientific activity and at the same to contemplate communal life in the Greek polis. He credits him with the designation of the word “kosmos” as encompassing the whole world. He also designates the word “logos” as the relation among everything there is in the world and the openness to this relation among human cultures, Europe being merely one of those cultures. What however is unique to European culture is its readiness to remain open to the relation of belonging together, that is, the logos.

The next important insight comes from Parmenides and it is this: the human perception of things (noein) and the existence of things (einai) belong inextricably together. As far as Held is concerned these two insights of Heraclitus and Parmenides mark the beginning of European culture characterized by a basic openess to other cultures, a going out, so to speak, from one’s own culture to other foreign cultures and having as its foundation the life-world of humanity, that is to say, the “kosmos.” Thus begins a type of investigation which is characterized by freedom from bias (the measuring criterion of science) and called “historie” or exploration. At this point of origin scientific exploration is indistinguishable from philosophy.

The twin institution which is born together with science in ancient Greece is that of democracy which according to Held “can be spoken only where a free space in the general freedom of opinion among the citizens is expressly institutionalized.” These two institutions are the outward form of the “inaugural spirit of Europe.” At this point Held utters a warning, namely this: “The temptation of Europe, and in the modern period, for the whole Euro-American Western culture, lies in identifying the one world discovered here, a world of all human beings that provides a place for all their various life-worlds, with one of these worlds…namely equating the one shared world with our own European Western home world.”

Nevertheless, Held asserts that “no other developed culture has managed to perceive the proper claim of foreign life-world with such a lack of prejudice as that which occurs under modern international law.” It is this lack of bias that may eventually allow for the “europeazation of humanity”, which sounds like a very eurocentric assertion but remains valid if the proper openness to foreign cultures is maintained; for as Karl Jasper has aptly put it: “Europe is peculiar perhaps only in that it is, in possibility, everything.” Which is to say that Western Civilization (which includes the Americas and Australia and other places in the globe) distinguishes itself by the fact that it is never finished, it is always coming-to-be; there is always a next renaissance, a re-birth, on the next horizon; a new synthesis is always in the making. Europe’s self understanding is provided by foreign cultural forms.

Here Held arrives at what I would consider his most important insight concerning European cultural identity, and it is this: “…the Christianization first of the Roman Empire, then of the people pouring into the Mediterranean region from the other side of the Alps, constituted the second great beginning of European culture.” He is alluding to that great synthesis of Antiquity and Christianity culminating with Christian Humanism (prepared partly by Christian monks copying and preserving ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts) whose pioneers are Dante and Petrach, then soon afterward followed by the Italian Renaissance.

Constant change and re-birth constitutes in fact the paradigm of a religion that has as its most important symbol that of the Resurrection (‘Behold I make everything new”); a capacity to begin anew which (and this may surprise euro-fanatics) which Held individuates in “the founding fathers of North American democracy, who brought it from Europe in the 18th century; these men elevated federalism to the principle of the American democratic constitution, as is demonstrated in their ‘Federalist Papers.’…European culture, due to its openness in natality [i.e., re-birth] to the universal world as place for many particular life-worlds, has the chance to show the world how its own multiplicity can be kept alive.”

The essay in itself is a model of a lucid historical survey of a complex culture which manages to remain unbiased because it does not fall into mere Machiavellian considerations of “real-politik”. The question arises: “can this hoped-for model become a future reality or is it a mere chimera, an utopia, never to be reached?” In my opinion, it can happen on two conditions: 1) that the principle of federalism is respected and implemented on the political level, and here the EU can learn much from the US, 2) that Europe’s cultural identity as a “novantiqua,” that is to say, a synthesis of antiquity and Christianity is recognized and acknowledged as part of the cultural patrimony of Western Civilization. Held himself gives a dire warning in this regard: “A European Community grounded only in political and economic cooperation of the member states would lack an intrinsic common bond. It would be built upon sand.”