The Loss of European Spiritual Identity – III
What is this European original foundational spiritual idea that precedes even Christianity? Simply this: a commitment to theoria, the theoretical life which in its Greek etymology means the contemplative or reflective life in all its various aspects: the philosophical, the scientific, the aesthetic; in short the primacy of a holistic life of contemplation. All this sounds strange to modern and post-modern ears accustomed to hear praxis and a purely pragmatic notion of rationality emphasized over and above theory. Marx, for one, expressed such a mind-set in the 11th of the Theses on Feuerbach with this catch-all slogan: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, the point is to change it.” Indeed, but to start with praxis is to put the cart before the horse.
Unfortunately, postmodern theories, in an attempt to reject an extreme kind of rationalism, have also rejected the primacy of reason understood holistically and tied to the imaginative, which had ruled Western thought since the Greeks. Precisely the belief in that primacy, together with a common faith that could envision the transcendent, had been one of the spiritual foundations of Europe. It was that kind of devaluation and departure from foundational traditions that Husserl was decrying before World War II.
Here the question naturally arises: is it still possible to revive the ideals behind Europe’s spiritual identity? If this requires returning to a common Christian faith and to a pre-modern concept of reason, it will prove practically impossible. Science demands a more differentiated notion of reason than the one inherent in ancient and medieval thought. As for the common Christian faith that forged such a strong bond among Europe’s peoples, many Europeans have lost it, if they ever had it, and most recent immigrants, many of them Muslims never had it to begin with. This is not to forget that Moslem civilization in Spain during the Middle Ages was more developed and advanced than a Western civilization devastated by the Barbarians.
Does the above reflection intimate perhaps that Europe must be satisfied with a merely political, technical, scientific, and economic integration? Such a spiritually “neutral” union does indeed appear to be “enlightened” in as much as it avoids the unfortunate conflicts of the past. Furthermore, many Europeans today think that social and cultural differences obstruct or slow down the process of economic growth and social progress. Why, then, don’t all Europeans adopt English as the common language for science, business, and technology, leaving French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian languages to private life?
Again, this may sound strange to post-modern ears, but if the European Union were reduced to a means for smoothing out political and economic transactions among its member states, not only would the individual states, not to speak of regions, gradually lose their identity, they would also be doomed to play a very subordinate role on the world stage in the future. Even today, only a half century after the United States has economically and politically come to dominate the world, its powerful media and commercial enterprises have deeply affected the languages, the communications, and the cultural patterns of Europe. The effect is most visible in the smaller nations. Thus in the Low Countries the language of the news media has become infected with American idioms, bookstores are filled with American publications or translations thereof, television and cinema compete for the most recent American shows or films—all this at the expense of linguistic purity and respect for indigenous literature. The result is a general decline of native creativity. What is even more perplexing is that what is being imitated is not the best of American culture (which is there if one takes the trouble to look for it) but the worst and the mediocre.
Be that as it may, whoever controls the economy of another country is likely to control its culture as well, as Benjamin, Adorno and Marx have well taught us. Building a strong economy of one’s own, as Europe is doing at present, is a necessary step to resisting such domination. But that alone may not be sufficient. If the European Union were to be reduced to a mere economic union, its leveling effect on European culture would in the end be comparable to the one the United States has begun to exercise. We are all Americans because we all drink Coke; and we are all Europeans because we all go to soccer games on Sunday! To the contrary, Europe’s political and economic unification must be accompanied by a strong awareness of a distinctive cultural and spiritual identity. This is the reason why the dispute over Europe’s Christian heritage is so important. In writing the preamble to the EU constitution, the most significant element in the European tradition is erased at the peril of building on political sand, as Kurt Held reminded us in his essay on Europe titled The Origins of Europe with the Greek Discovery of the World,” with the following words: “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.”
The American techno-economic model of a political union is not suitable for Europe, especially of a Europe which has forgotten its spiritual roots and in the past has substituted them with political ideologies. Being a new country, with immigrants from various traditions, the United States had no choice but to build politically on a spiritually and culturally neutral foundation but the separation of Church and State is deceiving. Its spiritual roots remained strong and were in fact a unifying principle. This base enabled the United States to integrate the economy and the social institutions of its states into a strong and coherent unity that resulted in the most powerful nation in history. But the glue that held the uniform structure together were the ideals of the Enlightenment (ultimately based on a Judeo-Christian ethos) as enshrined in its Constitution. There is a lesson there for Europe to be pondered carefully before embracing anti-Americanism or, even worse, a slavish imitation of all the worst features of American culture.
Contemporary Europeans have preserved their diverse languages, customs, and histories, even at the regional level, and that points to an appreciation for tradition and heritage which is indispensable for a strong cultural identity. But, to reiterate, Europe needs a strong spiritual reintegration as well as a political-economic one. That requires that it assimilate essential parts of its spiritual heritage: the Greek sense of order and measure, the Roman respect for law, the biblical and Christian care for the other person, the humanitas of Renaissance humanism, the ideals of political equality and individual rights of the Enlightenment. The values left by each of these episodes of Western culture are not as transient as the cultures in which they matured. They belong permanently to Europe’s spiritual patrimony and ought to remain constitutive of its unity. None can be imposed in a democratic society. Yet none may be neglected either, the theoretical no more than the practical, the spiritual no less than the aesthetic.
In recent times Europeans, discouraged by the self-made disasters of two world wars, have been too easily inclined to turn their backs on the past, to dismiss it as no longer usable, and to move toward a different future declaring themselves “Newropeans” with a new identity. In the years after World War II, the model of that future was America. In recent years, Europeans have become more conscious of their specific identity and are beginning to intuit that such an identity resides in the past; it stems from a unique past, created by the hundreds of millions of men and women who for three millennia have lived on “that little cape on the continent of Asia” (Paul Valery) between the North Sea and the Mediterranean, between Ireland’s west coast and the Ural Mountains. It has given Europeans, in all their variety, a distinct communal face.
This new awareness of cultural identity makes Europeans view the entire continent and its many islands, not only their country of origin, as a common homeland with common purposes. This unity of spirit in a rich variety of expressions must be remembered in forging the new European unity and ought to be mentioned in the EU’s constitution. It ought to be remembered also by North Americans whose roots are indeed Europeans; in that sense they too are also Westerners and inheritor of Western civilization, albeit accepting and integrating other experiences such as the African, the Native American, the Latin-American, the Asian.