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More on EU Cultural Identity More on EU Cultural Identity
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-05-21 08:08:05
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In perusing both Franck Biancheri and Francesco Tampoia’s articles on EU cultural identity, it struck me that while in some way they complement each other, they also reveal some common premises which I believe are worth analyzing briefly.

Biancheri’s article points out that there is a progression of identity which historically begins with blood (the family and the tribe) continues with soil (the nation and the Empire) and ends with values (the global nation of nations which is the US or EU or one still to come?). This is slightly reminiscent of Hegel’s rational historical progression: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The final synthesis in turn becomes a thesis and the cycle repeats itself on a larger more comprehensive scale.

Therefore nobody knows the future identity of Europe since the process is still ongoing. What is worth noticing in this Hegelian scheme is that it assumes all along that the process is inevitable and to a certain extent deterministic. History goes forward as Hegel’s philosophy describes it and progress is inevitable and in fact necessary. There is a further assumption: that what comes at the end of an historical synthesis is always the best of all possible worlds.

What came before, in the thesis period, may be necessary for the final synthesis but inferior in as much as it still needs to be synthesized. For example, humanism was a synthesis of antiquity which combined with the antithesis of Christianity (Athens and Jerusalem, so to speak) begets Italian Humanism and Renaissance. But there is a further synthesis and it is the one brought about by the Enlightenment. There reason becomes pure reason: it takes the Renaissance but it combines it with the myth of science as giving all the answers to the existential predicament of Man and arrives at another synthesis thought to be by far superior to that of the Renaissance. It would be enough to read Voltaire.

To be sure there is also Montesquieu who while privileging reason nonetheless retains the Christian tradition and its humanism as integral part of the cultural identity of Europe but that kind of synthesis is all but ignored nowadays. What obtains is the Enlightenment as the non plus ultra of reason, as the last progress of human reason toward greater and greater synthesis. It all fits neatly: blood, soil and values. Those values of course become more and more universal as greater and greater synthesis are achieved and the further those syntheses get from the particulars from which they sprang.

Universal values buttressed by democracy (majority opinion, right or wrong) as guaranteed by the State become the ultimate paradigm of a philosophy which, beginning with Descartes, paradoxically puts everything in doubt except its own method of putting everything in doubt.

But there is another paradigm, and it is that of Giambattista Vico (See his New Science) who speaks of corsi and ricorsi or the cycles of history: the age of gods, of heroes (the poetical) and of men (age or reason) and who while acknowledging an historical progression from the first one to the last cycle never forgets the roots of reason (the poetical, the religious, the mythical) and in fact alerts us that to forget those roots is to end up with what he aptly brands as “the barbarism of the intellect.” That is the kind of barbarism which can in one hour rationally plan an holocaust and then execute it in three short years. That phenomenon is not considered progress by Vico but the sort of regress that makes the physical barbarism of the barbarians look good in comparison.

In Vico, “progress” is neither inevitable nor necessary. In fact his philosophy sees the trampling of so-called “primitive” cultures in the name of unstoppable progress as nothing but historical regress. Here the poetical, the mythical, is integral part of reason if nothing else in the sense that reason is always aware of its roots in the human mind and can by fantasia retrace those roots.

When Francesco Tampoia and Franck Biancheri tell us that there is no such thing as a European cultural identity because such an identity has to be continually deconstructed a la Derrida, I would answer yes and no. Yes, as Vico intimates we need to deconstruct the pure reason of the Enlightenment and constantly search for its root which go back to the pre-Socratics and indeed to the point at which Man is human. No, it is not true that two thousand years of Christianity can be simply bracketed as synonymous with obscurantism and bigotry, for it was the synthesis of Christianity with antiquity which brought about Jefferson’s concept of “inalienable rights” as enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He did not dream them at night and placed them in the Declaration of Independence the day after.

For indeed Rome in all its splendor and glory never conceived of inalienable human rights. That concept could only have sprung from the Christian tradition in synthesis with antiquity. Those rights are not dispensed and defended by any state but are integral part of human dignity which springs from the fact that we are children of the same Father. To forget that reality is to ultimately misconstrue one’s identity as Westerners (Americans, north and south being part of that Western identity for the most part) and arrive at a false identity, one that has forgotten its roots, albeit a future one. Futurism will not do I am afraid, what is needed is “back to the future.”

George Santayana, an avowed atheist used to advice people to read carefully the history of Christianity in Europe if they would ever hope to understand what makes it tick. Which is to say, without knowledge of one’s history and one’s cultural roots regression is possible and the present Pope may have a point in reminding us that such regression may be going on as we speak.

Let me illustrate the above with some more concrete and personal examples as it relates to myself and my good friend Francesco Tampoia. For to arrive at the universally human and to universal principles we ought not forget the particulars of the human condition or we’ll find ourselves once again within Vico’s barbarism of the intellect. A few days ago while visiting Rome I had my wallet picked in its metro. My dismay was not so much at the loss of money but at the loss of the important documents that it contained. Some relatives consoled me with the idea that thieves in Rome are” professional” and would eventually return the documents to my address in Florida. It has not happened. Obviously there are amateurs too.

What concerned me most was that somebody might assume my identity by ransacking the personal data the wallet contained. It also occurred to me that my identity did not reside in that wallet, that Emanuel Paparella would remain such even if somebody went around with a mask parading as such. But then another terrible consideration occurred to me: that Pirandello too had a point: if one parades long enough with the mask of somebody else’s identity he may become that mask and lose his/her identity in the process. This brought me back to the most important aspect of Vico’s philosophy which is “self-knowledge” as distinct from knowledge of mathematics, metaphysics and natural science.

In some way Francesco Tampoia’s identity too was stolen when an editor of the Ovi on-line magazine, where the article on the identity of Europe appeared, inadvertently placed somebody else's name on the article he had written. What is intriguing to me is that Francesco, faced with that existential situation, did not say: oh well my identity is under deconstruction and it does not matter who expressed those thoughts, the important thing is that they are being expressed.

He protested the mistake, and rightly so I would add, and the next day the right name (his) appeared on the article with an apology from the editor. His identity had been restored. Mine unfortunately has remained in Rome perhaps floating on the Tiber but, as mentioned, my identity, like that of Francesco Tampoia and that of the European Union, and any institution worth its salt goes beyond mere legal documents.

I have written a book on the subject titled A New Europe in Search of its Soul (see EUobserver bookstore). One of its proposal is that, passing from the microcosm of one’s personal experience to the macrocosm of political entities, it is a disservice to the European Union as a polity to deprive her of her past identity by whose light she may better forge a genuine future identity; for better or for worse, Christianity is and remains part of that identity and as Tony Judt likes to put it: those cultural phenomena belonging to its past cannot be simply misremembered; by which he means celebrated or monumentalized while ignoring their historical lessons.


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