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Introduction to the Book Europa: an Idea and a Journey Introduction to the Book Europa: an Idea and a Journey
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2012-10-08 11:47:21
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Author’s note: what follows is the introduction to my book Europa: an Idea and a Journey which has been published recently. It is intended as more than a mere introduction. It is also an invitation to Ovi readers and others to go beyond the introduction and ponder some of the ideas contained in the book’s essays. 

At the turn of the new millennium I joined the on-line dialogue and debate on “The Future of the European Union.” It was inaugurated by Tony Blair and the then President of the EU Council Romano Prodi. They invited all Europhiles to participate with their own contributions and ideas and thus further the democratic spirit of the new still evolving polity. I began to routinely exchange observations, comments, reflections on various aspects of modern European culture and how it was perceived across the Atlantic. One of the hottest issues was that of the emerging EU Constitution. To make my notes more retrievable, I synthesized them under topic and issue headings. Most of them evolved into the articles and essays whose titles you see in the table of contents.

europe01_400At first glance those titles may appear somewhat disparate; there is nevertheless a fundamental guiding thread to the complexities of different viewpoints and perceptions of European culture and it is this: the awareness that an essay, besides elucidating a specific subject, is also a reflection of the self on the self, a revelation of the mind at work within, at times in contrast to the spirit of the age, as indeed is the case with any human artifact. Those artifacts in turn mirror the culture of a civilization as narrated and transmitted via language.

Man makes language and artifacts and symbols, but paradoxically, as Giambattista Vico and Carl Jung discovered, the opposite is also true: language and artifacts and symbols make Man. In preparing this book I began by eliminating any reference to the above mentioned transatlantic dialogue, but I soon changed my mind. It occurred to me that part of the uniqueness of a book of essay is to give the reader a glimpse as to where the self is coming from and where it is heading as it dialogues with other selves across the Atlantic. Moreover, what is unique is the fact that the dialogue occurs among ordinary citizens. In fact, all the essays in this book appeared first in the on-line international magazine Ovi, headquartered in Finland, over a period of five years (2007-2012). They were then gathered as a e-book in the magazine’s bookshop. They represent a dialogue with other concerned Europhiles, carried on in the comment section of the magazine. The culmination came in July 2012 when a thematic theme was published titled “Europe Beyond the Euro” to which I wrote the keynote address (the last essay in this book). I’d like to thank Thanos Kalamidas, the editor in chief of the magazine, for his professional assistance and for giving permission to republish those essays as a hard copy.

In these essays the reader will rarely find rigorously defined, systematically argued academic positions as underpinned by “clear and distinct ideas,” leading to unassailable logical philosophical conclusions. Rather, these reflections invite and challenge you, the reader, to relinquish the privileging of rationalism over the poetical, to involve your own imagination, to interact rather than merely react to the text, to attempt on your own the exploration and the discovery of new ground across disciplinary boundaries. For, it is at the edge of boundaries that life and knowledge, experience and theory, meet most fruitfully. Besides, rational logical arguments underpinned by “clear and distinct ideas,” are not congenial to the essay.

Etymologically, essay means “an attempt.” Both the author writing an essay and the reader reading it, need to find the courage to attempt something new keeping in mind that to pour new wine in old wineskins may mean losing the new wine. In reading and interacting with an essay, both author and readers are challenged to give up old comfortable assumptions without forgetting them and make an attempt, i.e., to carry on a brave novel exploration of the issues at hand from its origins to the present, beyond rigid disciplinary boundaries.

These essays will attempt to share the exploration of various aspects of the European cultural identity and its transatlantic dialogue on the same; an ongoing dialogue between cultures and civilizations which, if truth be told, begins way back in 1492. To assist you in that attempt, you will find interspersed throughout the book a “leitkultur,” i.e., cultural guides: charts and maps so to speak that will allow you, the reader, to navigate the stormy ocean of the transatlantic dialogue where the icebergs of nihilism and extreme rationalism float silently by in the tick of night.

Giambattista Vico will be mentioned often as one such guide, Dante is another one. Which is to say, those charts are metaphors for living people and their experience: the admirable and exemplary visionaries who were the original architects of a New Europe, mostly poets and philosophers, as mentioned throughout the book.

The essays, to be sure, issued out of a series of reflections. Some were at first jutted down as diary entries, others became articles of various length, and several of them became full length essays, still others were originally lectures delivered at various institutions of European Studies and Congresses on the EU in the United States or abroad (Florida University at Gainesville, January 2002, University of Miami, 24-25 April 2002; University of Nebraska at Omaha, 14-16 October 2002; First and Second International Conference on the Transatlantic Dialogue, Miami, 24-25 April 2002; April 26-30, 2004; Rollins College, Orlando, 4-6 March 2004), a couple were even translated and delivered in Italy between 2005-2010 while I was directing a summer study program there. One was published recently in an Italian Journal of Philosophy: Libro Aperto.  They all issued out of a passionate, ongoing interest in the development of Western Civilization with its deepest roots in European culture; to wit my doctoral dissertation at Yale University, related to a problematic aspect (that of the concept of Providence) of the philosophy of history and civilizations in Giambattista Vico’s New Science (1725).

Vico is considered by many scholars the culmination of Italian and European Humanism. This interest led me eventually to the writing of a book on the hermeneutics of Vico’s speculation on the interface of language, history and literature. Likewise, literary theory and criticism, and their nexus to cultural anthropology, otherwise known as hermeneutics, are prominently featured in this book’s ruminations, under the stimulus of the emergence of the European Union’s Constitution in 2002. In as much as a constitution is analogous to the vital signs of a body politics and reflects its value system, its analysis is essential for determining that body’s moral and social health as well as suggesting an appropriate diagnosis and prognosis.

But to return to the above mentioned existential philosophical aspects, these reflections, more than with the being of Man, are concerned with the ongoing journey of Man. A spiritual or intellectual journey may imaginatively originate at any point on the hermeneutical circle, to eventually return full circle to its place of origin.

This paradigm which believes that in the beginning there is the end and in the end there is the beginning, may at first appear cyclical and closed upon itself, merely immanent, a sort of Nietzschean eternal return, but in fact it is more like a forward, or even upward moving spiral. To be sure, on a spiral one can also move downward, as Dante’s descent into hell amply suggests, but even there it eventually leads to the other side of the earth and then upward, via the mountain of Purgatory, to the final destination in heaven, God’s vision. Indeed, for Dante the way up is the way down. This Vichian structure of the narration of Man’s journey is not always linear narration and may at times make the essays appear contradictory. But such is the story of Man, as imaginatively remembered and as narrated to oneself, beginning at any place of the hermeneutical circle.

Contrary to what one may think when entering the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s narration does not begin with the creation of Light by God but with the drunkenness of Noah. It is via narration, rather than via logical clear and distinct ideas standing behind words, that Man discovers that he is his own history and that while the cycles of the “story” may recur, they also move spiral-like toward a providential final purpose or “telos.” We may then be surprised to discover that transcendence and immanence are not mutually exclusive but complementary to each other. The mind’s restless cognitive operations reflect at least that much. The same inventor of the essay, Michel de Montaigne, some five centuries ago, jotted down this acute insight into the nature of his essays as they related to his own self: “If my soul could only find a footing I would not be essaying myself but resolving myself” (from essay “On Repentance”).

It is through the attempt to know the workings of our mind, that we may hope to arrive at self-knowledge and begin to realize that in the final analysis, the way to a recovery of transcendence and humanistic modes of thought in Western culture cannot possibly be an Hegelian-Marxian historical paradigm of inevitable progress, or its corollary, manifest destiny, allowing colonizers of various stripes to ride rough shod over native cultures, but rather a new humanistic Vichian-Joycean paradigm intimating “back to the future;” the awareness, that is, that paradoxically the emerging new Europe is neither old nor young, but novantiqua; that old stale unimaginative cultural paradigms rooted in a Machiavellian “real-politick mind-set” need to give way to a more Vichian poetic approach. For the journey into self-knowledge is integral part of our essential humanity, and not only as individual human beings, but also as people, nations and even entire civilizations and as humankind as a whole.

The microcosm reflects the macrocosm but the contrary is also true. This can only be so if there exists the universally human. In thinking about a title for the book I first came up with “Europa Nosce Te Ipsum,” Europe, Know Thyself. This led to another suggestive Latin saying: “Quo Vadis Europa.” which in turn furnished the inspiration for the book’s cover depicting the myth of Europa as Ovid narrates it and as countless painters have illustrated it. Ostensibly, the question “where are thou going” is posed to the goddess Europa who, as the mythological lore intimates, is about to begin a fateful journey on the back of a bull, none other than a disguised Zeus intent on abducting her.

That question too turns out to be a question of identity; for without self-knowledge, one will inevitably fall prey, along the way, to the seductive voices of false sirens and gods, even when they (like the mythical bull) arrive on time and promise an adventurous journey. Those voices (even when they seem to be the voice of Being itself) make it nearly impossible to focus with the mind’s eye on the final destination of one’s journey. For the question “Are you leaving and arriving on time?” hides a deeper, more crucial question: “On time for what?” Unfortunately, too many political-cultural leaders are running headlong toward the future nowadays in fast cars devoid of a rear-view mirror; and this is happening on both sides of the Atlantic.

This schematic initial presentation will hopefully provide an overview of the overarching issues explored in these essays. You too reader are invited to be an explorer and make a path as you journey on. Those issues deal with the idea of Europe, the Janus-like face of Western Civilization, the relevancy to European modernity of the poetic philosophy of Giambattista Vico, the duality of rationality and imagination within the Western philosophical tradition, the transmutation of old Machiavellian paradigms (the old wineskins) into new ones in which to pour the novantiqua wine of the new Europe; the ongoing threat of nihilism and relativism coupled with the consequent loss of the sense of the transcendent and of humanistic modes of thought; the nature of the Self confronting the Western philosophical tradition (see essay n. 2 on Levinas).

The horizon is vast, but keep in mind however that, as mentioned, this maze of cultural issues is to be kept within the framework of self-knowledge. For, besides empirical knowledge of the sciences, mathematical knowledge, and metaphysical knowledge, there is another overarching kind of knowledge: self-knowledge. If self-knowledge is adopted as the guiding thread of this book, then the question asked to the goddess Europa (quo vadis Europa?), can also be addressed to each one of us contemplating an inner journey. Such a journey is indispensable to any authentic action in the world. The essaying is indeed the attempt to answer that question truthfully, the first universal step of any journey of self-discovery, even when it remains a unique journey for each individual pilgrim and each individual nation.

Joseph Campbell used to enjoin to his audiences: “find your bliss!” The goddess Europa surely must have expected bliss or she would not have left a secure shore to head towards the unknown on the back of a bull. This metaphor is also valid for entire cultures. It is the injunction to search and to find one’s identity, rooted in one’s origins. And so I trust that these essay will prove helpful to their readers not so much for solving any particular philosophical problem, or worse, as a way of personally confirming their victimhood within the therapeutic society in which we live, but rather, as a navigating chart of sort, should they opt for leaving behind the desolate shores of pure rationalism, technocracy and consumerism, to sally forth on the high sea of the poetical for an adventurous imaginative journey of self-discovery.

The German philosopher Habermas has challenged some of its taken for granted assumptions in a seminal essay which envisions a post-secular Europe. He poses the above quoted challenging question to European culture’s conception of modernity as seen through the prism of secularism and its corollary aversion to religion’s role in the public agora. Habermas addresses the debate in terms of John Rawls’s concept of “public use of reason” and proposes that secular citizens in Europe learn to live, and the sooner the better, in a post-secular society; in so doing they will be following the example of religious citizens, who have already come to terms with the ethical expectations of democratic citizenship. So far secular citizens have not been expected to make a similar effort. He is not alone in that challenge. In the year 2000 an essay came out written by Shmuel Eisenstadt, an Israeli sociologist, titled “Multiple Modernities (see Daedalus 129: 1-30) which right from its outset challenged the taken for granted assumption that modernizing societies are convergent, as well as the notion that Europe is the lead society in that converging modernizing process.

This is what Eisenstadt writes on the very first page of the essay: “The notion of ‘multiple modernities’ denotes a certain view of the contemporary world—indeed of the history and characteristics of the modern era—that goes against the views long prevalent in scholarly ad general discourse. It goes against the view of the “classical” theories of modernization and of the convergence of industrial societies prevalent in the 1950s, and indeed against the classical sociological analysis of Marx, Durkheim, and (to a large extent) even of Weber, at least in one reading of his work. They all assumed, even if only implicitly, that the cultural program of modernity as it developed in modern Europe and the basic institutional constellations that emerge there would ultimately take over in all modernizing and modern societies; with the expansion of modernity, they would prevail throughout the world.”

In other words, Eisenstadt is saying that modernity can come in both secular and religious versions. This notion, of course, contradicts the theory that modernization necessarily implies secularization and that the United States is a mere exception to this rule made safe by the proverbial separation between State and Church. Rather, what Eisenstadt is suggesting is that the United States and Europe should be seen as two different versions of modernity. Which in turn leads to this crucial question: is secularization intrinsic or extrinsic to the modernization process? More to the point: is Europe secular because it is modern or is it secular because it is European? Depending on how one answers that question, one will assign exceptionalism to either the United States or Europe. In fact, they are two different ways of being modern. The Chinese wish to go one step further and even prove that one can be modern without being democratic. That experiment bears watching closely because it would sever the link between democracy and so called “free markets” and prove Marx right by revealing that indeed Western societies are what many outside the West believe they are: decadent materialistic societies paying lip service to democratic ideals and human rights but ultimately interested only in the selfish amassing of wealth and capital; which is to say, one can be prosperous without being democratic.

What the concept of multiple modernities implies is that Western (especially European) modernity is not the only conceivable one. It can come with indigenous differences. It would be enough to consider India, the largest democracy on earth which enshrines religion as part of its heritage and cultural patrimony. If one takes a careful look at the world outside the West one immediately notices that it is religion which defines the aspiration to an alternate modernity. That may well surprise the “enlightened” European mind, but there is such a thing as a Russian modernity inspired by Russian Orthodoxy, an Islamic modernity, a Hindu modernity, and what may surprise them even more, an integrally Catholic modernity. They are not illusions as the old classical secularization theory tended to imply.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of all might be that, as hinted above, that in many parts of the world the West is perceived in a pejorative way, as propagating a decadent. hedonistic culture of irreligious materialism. Such a perception is reinforced by both the influence of intellectuals, usually heavily secular, and the omnipresence of the Western mass media, much of whose content can indeed be defined as materialistic and irreligious. If that be true, it ought to be of great interest to the practice of diplomacy of Western democracies. At the very least, this crucial question ought to be asked and discussed: What are the consequences of taking seriously the empirical sociological fact that for the great majority of the world’s populations in the 21st century, it is not only possible, but quite normal to be both modern and religious? Might this question make a difference in the kind of paradigm that we construct in the West to understand a little better the nature of the modern world, be it European, American, Asian or African. Is it really “enlightened,” as the age of Enlightenment surely supposed in Europe, to isolate the vast field of the sociology of religion, or should it be restored to its rightful place in the overall global social agenda? 


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