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Does the EU still have a Spiritual Identity? A Revisiting Does the EU still have a Spiritual Identity? A Revisiting
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-03-08 10:18:23
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A brand new Europe was created after World War II: the European Union. A union based on purely neutral, that is to say, non-ideological, economic, scientific, educational foundations. This leads to a crucial question: are those foundations reliable and solid enough by themselves, or is there something sorely missing? Is the absence of spiritual foundations a sign that a more perfect union transcending nationalism and economic-political considerations will forever elude the European Union?

Some post-modern philosophers attribute the problem of modernity to a mistake made at the beginning of Western culture, to Plato in particular. They assume a continuity between modern rationalism and the principles of reason as formulated by the ancient Greeks. Others draw a distinction between the original principles of rationality and their modern interpretation. They trace the root of that distinction, with its dramatic political implications, to the modern turn toward the human subject as the only source of truth and its consequent pragmatism. This turn was initiated, to be precise, by Renè Descartes, widely considered the father of modern Western philosophy.

What some post-modern thinkers reject is not only Enlightenment rationalism, but also the original Greek form of rationality. For them rationality is little more than behavioral attitudes, a sort of incessant self-correction and perfectibility patterned after the experimentalism and self-correction of science. This is considered progress. In fact, it is branded as a deterministic inevitable sort of progress: the newest is always the best. Allegedly, it does away with disastrous and destructive universalist totalizing ideologies, the grand scheme of things a la Hegel, the grand narrations, often at war with each other. The argument is this: it is better to be more modest in one’s goals and humbly attend to immediate social and economic needs. Welcome Epicurus and Lucretius, away with Plato’s grandiose Forms.

Indeed, Europeans no longer agree on spiritual values; those values that, despite political conflicts, were in place prior to the Enlightenment. It took the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka (who in turn greatly influenced Havel) to dare propose, in the middle of the 20th century, a return to an idea that used to be characteristic of the European tradition since the Greeks but in the 20th century is seen as a scandal and an anachronistic anomaly: the care of the soul by way of a great respect for truth and the intellectual life, holistically conceived. Plato had claimed that it is through that life that we, as human beings endowed with a soul, partake of the life of the Ideas and share the life of the gods themselves. Later, Christians adopt this notion but change its direction. For Christians, theoria, or contemplation, remains the fundamental principle of any viable culture. Bereft of it, a civilization is left with nothing but a sort of aimless and blind praxis leading to its eventual destruction. Christopher Dawson for one explored and clarified this idea in his famous The Making of Europe.

So, the next question is this: can such a principle as advocated by Plato, play a role in the spiritual unification of Europe? Which is to say, must the commitment to reason abandon a rationalistic universalism to oppose to it an anti-rationalist particularism? To deepen a bit more: is not abstract rationalism and its irrationalist reaction responsible for much of the ominous nihilism which Nietzsche, for one, claimed hovers over Europe like a menacing specter? Has it not, in fact, corrupted the very principle of reason that, up to the Enlightenment, had constituted the core of Europe’s spiritual identity? Has it not turned wisdom against itself?

Prior to World War II, the philosopher who most acutely perceived the spiritual crisis that rationalism has caused in Europe was Edmund Husserl. In a famous lecture delivered in Prague on the very eve of one of the darkest chapters of modern European history, he said this: “I too am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism. That, however, must not be interpreted as meaning that rationality as such is an evil or that in the totality of human existence it is of minor importance. The rationality of which alone we are speaking is rationality in that noble genuine sense, the Greek sense, that became an ideal in the classical period of Greek philosophy.”

All we need to do is give a cursory look at Husserl’s philosophy of phenomenology to be convinced that Husserl regarded modern objectivism as the quintessential expression of this rationalism. It reduces the world, which for the Greeks was a spiritual structure, into an object, and reason into an instrument for manipulating matter. One may ask, how then did Husserl view the spiritual identity of Europe? He advocated that the particular must be fully reintegrated with the universal, an idea that Kierkegaard too had proposed. Husserl says:  “Clearly the title Europe designates the unity of a spiritual life and creative activity--no matter how inimical the European nations may be toward each other, still they have a special inner affinity of spirit that permeates all of them and transcends their national differences…There is an innate entelechy that thoroughly controls the changes in the European image and directs it toward an ideal image of life and of being. The spirited telos of the European in which is included the particular telos of separate nations and individual persons, has an infinity; it is an infinite idea toward which in secret the collective spiritual becoming, so to speak, strives.” But the question persists: is it possible at this point in its history to revive the spiritual idea of Europe? An idea that, despite its violent historical conflicts, has kept its people united within an unrestricted diversity?

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. Is it even desirable?

It would indeed 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.  Soccer games heralded as a unifying principle may indeed be emblematic of that mistake. What some Europeans fail to clearly grasp is that what keeps so many ethnic nationalities and groups together in the US is not that we all drink Coca Cola, but 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 in American culture 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, not to speak of the regional independence movements.

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,  but I would suggest that without that original idea, which precedes Christianity itself, a crucial novantiqua synthesis will not be perceived either and Europeans may be sadly condemned to repeat their history. 

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 privilege praxis and a purely pragmatic notion of rationality 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 integrity and respect for indigenous literatures. 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, even more so than America,  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 that sense they have misguidedly imitated Henry Ford’s notion that “history is bunk.”  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 cultural roots, for a good many of them,  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. The founding fathers of the European Union must be twisting in their graves and if they could speak they would probably ask: Europa quo vadis? Indeed, a spiritual compass is urgently needed.

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Get it off your chest
 (comments policy)

Thanos2011-03-08 17:38:07
Let's return to basics!

Michalis Melidonis2011-03-08 18:46:20
The South s p e a k about
spirit and ideas.

But the North Europe
f e e l it! :-)

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