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Editorial: Europe from its Foundations to the 21st Century
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-07-02 11:21:10
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Europa quo vadis? Europe, where art thou going?

Europa, nosce te ipsum? Europe, do you know yourself?

The two questions above asked in the 21st century in the year of our Lord 2012, seem to me to be quite fitting and timely, given the current economic predicament of the polity dubbed European Union. We need not go into the complex details of the ominous signs of a union, initially considered the most noble political experiment ever devised in the history of human kind, that seems to be coming apart at the seams. They are well known, and can be easily gathered  from our daily newspapers.

The above questions allude of course to the famous Greek myth of the goddess Europa abducted by Zeus in the form of a black bull. There are many paintings of such a myth. One contemplates in it a beautiful goddess riding a bull on the sea venturing on a journey that is yet unknown while her attendants look upon the event in dismay and wave a desperate goodbye. They must surely have been wondering where she might possibly be heading to, as she navigates the rough sea on the back of a bull. The perplexity of this bizarre scene is also ours. We ask: where is this polity called the EU headed to? As the song aptly announces: the answer my friend, is blowing in the wind.

Only two weeks ago on 7 June 2012 I contributed an essay titled “Has the European Union’s Political Experiment Failed? (see http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/8731) which reported on a debate conducted in Toronto, Canada on 25 May 2012 under this premise: be it resolved the European experiment has failed. Josef Joffe, the publisher-editor of the German weekly Die Zeit opened the debate with this bleak pessimistic assessment: “Europe has transcended a thousand years of war; but 27 nation-states will never grow into one.” He then went on to advise the goddess Europa that she return to terra firma, get rid of her fantasies of adventurous journeys to the beyond, and simply settle down modestly into a more regular kind of life, the routine everyday life of “homo economicus.” In other words, what we need is fewer ideas on justice or freedom and more ideas on which markets to export our goods. Nowadays, the goods are much more important that the common good. He then switched metaphor and offered the spectacle of 27 climbers attempting to climb Mount Everest. Only two or three are well prepared and fit for the ascent; the rest are unprepared. The tragedy that will occur is that all of them will be dragged into some crevasse and lose their lives. This may happen even if the two or three fit and prepared climbers are selected as leaders of the expedition.

It couldn’t be clearer: this is a union of disparate nations with disparate languages and cultures, mostly unprepared and unfit for the arduous dangerous political climb leading to the summit of full integration or genuine confederacy. We can well imagine who those two or three fit members of the union might be: Germany, France and perhaps the UK. The rest of the unfit majority will eventually doom the expedition. This should have been foreseen right from the start.

But of course what Mr. Joffe forgot to remind us of is that such an expedition has been ongoing for sixty some years now and that there was an original carefully thought-out plan or a visionary project on how to reach the summit. It was provided by the founding fathers of the EU. This begs the question: do we know, or better, do we remember what that plan was? I would advise that we refresh our memory in this regard. So, I boldly propose a different premise for a future debate on the European Union which I sincerely hope will take place in the pages of Ovi magazine. The debate can be framed thus: “be it resolved that the European experiment has not failed. The original EU project to climb the arduous mountain of integration and assimilation, social justice and genuine democracy has been found too difficult and has never been tried.” 

The rest of this introduction to the thematic issue Europe from its Foundations to the 21th Century, will attempt to explain what the above suggested debating framework is predicated upon: the fact that the EU cannot be reduced to a mere economic political union of nations attempting to achieve the summit of modern progress and prosperity. In other words Europe, as Thanos Kalamidas, the editor of this magazine has repeatedly proposed, is much more than an ongoing modern economic unity guaranteeing peace and prosperity for two generations now. Of course that would constitute an achievement in itself, but Europe is also much more. It is exactly, the reductionist operation of considering the EU a mere economic union buttressed by a powerful euro, that might doom the whole experiment to an unprecedented failure. Let me further explain.

In 2005 I wrote a book which was a collection of essays on Europe, its history, its cultural development and identity, the very philosophical idea of Europe and the constitution of the EU. The book is titled: A New Europe in Search of its Soul. It began with three quotes. The first one is by Paul Valèry: “As far as I am concerned, any people who have been influence throughout history by Greece, Rome and Christianity are Europeans.” The second one was by one of the founding fathers of the European Union, Robert Schuman: “The place where I feel most European is a cathedral.” The third one is in the form of a warning, or a prophecy if you will, by the late Pope John Paul II in a speech he delivered at the European Parliament on October 11, 1988: “If the religious and Christian substratum of this continent is marginalized in its role as inspiration of ethical and social efficacy, we would be negating not only the past heritage of Europe but a future worthy of European Man—and by that I mean every European Man, be he a believer or a non believer.”

What all those quotes have in common is the idea that beneath the economic issue within the EU, now in a crisis, there is another more urgent issue: that of cultural identity. The problem resides in the abandonment and/or the neglect of the original vision of the EU founding fathers as elucidated by them some sixty years ago. Such a vision was based on general Christian values and it included economic Christian values as well as more secular values. The three founding fathers I am referring to here are Schuman, De Gasperi and Aedenauer who were all practitioners of their faith. Their vision of social justice was inspired by the Papal social encyclicals and the classical Christian view of social justice. The question naturally arises: is it reasonable to return to the Christian ideals of the EU founding fathers? For a more in depth look at this issue of the original issue of the founding fathers see my essay posted in Ovi in June 2, 2008 and titled “A Hard Look at the EU’s cultural Identity” (http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/3068) as well as the essay posted in August 22, 2009 titled “Impressions of Italy and the EU: Now and Then.”

What seems to be lacking within the economic, political, educational coordination of present day united Europe 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 either, 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 many countries of Europe.

In any case, it is undeniable that at present no spiritual foundation for a genuine unification exists. The 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. Unfortunately, the prophetic words of the former pope John Paul II to the European parliament in 1988 that to ignore such a legacy is to ensure a non viable future for European man were all but ignored. Some kind of new synthesis is needed. One can safely declare that 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 of course carries the risk of being perceived as an old European, maybe even an anti-modern and anti-progressive, rather than a “Newropean,” but I would suggest that without that original idea, which precedes Christianity itself, a crucial novantiqua synthesis will not be perceived either and Europeans will then 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 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 it must be pointed out that to start with praxis is to put the cart before the horse.

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. If the European Union were to be reduced to an economic union, its leveling effect on European culture would be devastating. We would end with banalities such as: we are all Europeans because we all go to soccer games on Sunday! 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 silver lining in all this is that contemporary Europeans have preserved their diverse languages, customs, and histories, even at the regional level which points to an appreciation for tradition and heritage, indispensable elements for a strong cultural identity. But the whole continent 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 identifying themselves as “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.

I’d like to suggest that a new awareness of cultural identity would make 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 have been mentioned in the EU's constitution. Its Constitution ought to have had a preamble with a vision that inspires the people. That vision cannot be only economic and political but is necessarily a spiritual one as the founding fathers well knew. Without that kind of cement the whole edifice will eventually crumble and the way to nihilism and eventual disintegration would be open. The antidote to that kind of cynicism and despair is what Ignazio Silone called “the conspiracy of hope,” alive and well among all Europeans who understand that not by bread alone do humans live.


An addendum: In looking over my contributions to Ovi dedicated to the idea of Europe I notice no less than thirty one essays. The very first contribution submitted on May 21, 2007, some five years ago, was on the EU cultural identity. For the sake of Ovi readers who may wish to deepen their knowledge of this important thematic issue let me enumerate them chronologically. They can easily be retrieved by placing the original title in the search section of the magazine.

On the EU Cultural Identity (May 21, 2007).

Levinas’s Challenge to the Modern European Identity (May 25, 2007).

Dante’s Vision of a United Europe (July 5, 2007)

Europa as the Return of the Gods (July 8, 2007)

The EU Constitution: the Cart before the Horse (October, 2007)

Europa Quo Vadis? (October 15, 2007)

Two Forgotten Communities of the European Cultural Identity (October 29, 2007)

New Paradigms of the Idea of Europe (December 3, 2007)

Christopher Dawson and the Making of Europe ( January 28, 2008)

A Hard Look at the European Union’s Cultural Identity (June 2, 2008)

Constitution of Treaty? (August 18, 2008)

New Paradigms for the Idea of Europe vis a vis The Treaty of Lisbon (June 29, 2009)

Impressions of Italy and the EU: Now and Then (August 22, 2009)

Truth, Freedom and the Press, and the EU Parliament (October 16, 2009)

Toward a Post-Secular Europe: a Revisiting (October 23, 2009)

Some Musings on Religion and Freedom of Speech in the EU (November 10, 2009)

The Tragic Loss of the European Spiritual Identity: a Revisiting (May 24, 2010)

Does the EU still have a Spiritual Identity? A Revisiting (March 8, 2011)

Is Secularism the only Viable Cultural Alternative for the EU? (15 March, 2011)

Alcide De Gasperi’s Humanistic Vision of the European Union (July 12, 2011)

On the Christian Cultural Values of the EU Founding Fathers (July 15, 2011)

Global Neo-liberalism vs. Christian Economic Values and the EU crisis (July 20, 2011)

We Have Found the Enemy and it’s Us (August 2, 2011)

Is Fascism Returning to Western Civilization (August 10, 2011)

Can Western Civilization’s Center Hold? (August 30, 2011)

The Loss of Utopia and the Search for a New Social Paradigm (November 2, 2011)

Greece and Italy: Putting Humpty Dumpty Back Together Again? (November 11, 2011)

Socialism/Capitalism: Either/Or or Both/And? (November 22, 2011)

The Challenge of Habermas’ New Social Paradigm (November 28, 2011)

The End of Italy and Dante’s New-Old Social Paradigm (December 2, 2011)

Has the European Union’s Political Experiment Failed? (June 7, 2012)


The above link will take you to the “invitation to the reader” as found in Professor Paparella’s book A New Europe in Search of its Soul. It has three parts. It was originally published, before the appearance of the book by Newropean Magazine in May 2005.

Professor Emanuel Paparella’s contributions to Ovi magazine dedicated to the idea of Europe can be found collected in a book published by Ovi magazine with the name “Europe beyond the Euro.” You can find and download the book it in the pages of the Ovi bookshop.

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