Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Good Europeans?

Shane Weller

What are the most distinctive achievements of European civilization? According to the Bulgarian-born thinker Tzvetan Todorov, they are rationality, justice, democracy, individual freedom, secularism, and tolerance. To this list, one might add science, the glories of European art, literature, and music, humanism, and a rich and varied philosophical tradition. To focus solely on those achievements would, however, be to tell only part of the story. For there is a far darker side to European civilization, one that includes wars of religion, colonialism, racism, genocide, totalitarianism, and the belief that the natural environment is there to be exploited. Similarly, as I discovered when I began to explore the long history of the idea of Europe, the advocates of a European civilization beyond any national culture have been far from consistently on the side of the better angels of our nature.

When it first emerged, in classical Greece, the idea of Europe served primarily to distinguish the European mentality from the Asian. The former was seen as independent and creative, the latter as servile and fixed. It is thus ironic, to say the least, that the Greek myth of Europa involved the abduction of an Asian princess, suggesting that what Europe needed most in order to flourish was the violent expropriation of that which lay beyond its borders. In imperial Rome, the myth of Europa was reworked to capture the spirit of a new colonizing civilization. In medieval Europe, the idea of Christendom was slowly replaced by that of Europe, the latter being deployed in the struggle against what was viewed as one more Asiatic threat: Islam. In the early modern period, following the discovery of the New World and the founding of the first colonies, Europe was increasingly identified with civilization as such, in opposition to the perceived barbarism of all that was not European.

Following the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which brought to a close the horrific Thirty Years’ War, the idea of Europe played a major role in the new Enlightenment thinking that swept across Western Europe. Again, however, it was a supremacist conception of Europe that prevailed. In the entry on Europe in Diderot and D’Alembert’s celebrated Encyclopaedia, for instance, Europe was described as surpassing all other parts of the world on account of its ‘diverse genius’. The question of diversity would soon become a vexed one, however. For, in the course of the nineteenth century, ideas of Europe were increasingly informed by the emerging race theory, with homo europaeus being adjudged as in every way superior to the so-called ‘dark’ and ‘savage’ races encountered on other continents. At the end of that century, in his novella Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad exposed the appalling violence committed against the colonized in Africa in the name of European civilization. In Conrad’s story, the embodiment of that ‘civilizing’ mission is a certain Mr Kurtz. Sent to Africa by the ‘International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs’ to write a report for ‘future guidance’, Kurtz reaches the appalling conclusion that the European colonialists should simply ‘Exterminate all the brutes!’ As Conrad pointedly observes, ‘All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.’

As I continued my journey through the history of the idea of Europe, I held to the hope that at least the twentieth century would offer a more ethically inspiring vision. After all, great cosmopolitans such as Stefan Zweig were among the champions of the European as the antidote to dangerous nationalisms. And yet, following the horrors of both the First and the Second World Wars, the idea of a politically united Europe was, I discovered, championed not only as a means to ensure peace on the continent, but also to enable Europe to stand up economically and politically to perceived threats from the East (Russia and then China) and the West (America). Even today, advocates of European civilization speak of it as being threatened by Asia and America, and call for European unity in order to stand tall on the geopolitical stage. A particularly disturbing moment in my explorations of the discourse on Europe was when I discovered that one of the greatest advocates of a united Europe in the post-war era was one Oswald Mosley, former leader of the British Union of Fascists.

Since the Enlightenment, those who have championed the idea of Europe have repeatedly done so in the name of cosmopolitanism. And yet, the history of the idea of Europe also reveals just how steeped in nationalist ideas the advocates of a united Europe have often been. To take just one example among many, Victor Hugo, one of the great nineteenth-century champions of a United States of Europe, envisaged Paris as Europe’s capital and French as its language.

At the end of my journey through the long history of the idea of Europe, I had to acknowledge that it is far from being simply the history of an open-minded, cosmopolitan, internationalist idea. Rather, it has been shaped time and again by forms of Eurocentrism, Euro-supremacism, and Euro-universalism. European ideas, European ‘man’, and European civilization have repeatedly been taken as models for the universal, as though nothing but the European has any lasting value.

If there is one lesson above all others to be learned from the history of the idea of Europe, it is perhaps that in order to live up to the best that European civilization has achieved, conceptions of Europe need in the future to be considerably more self-critical. Above all, they need to be open to the thought that there is as much to be learned from cultures and civilizations beyond Europe’s frontiers as from within them. In short, we need to embrace a cultural diversity that includes the European but is never again dominated by it.

The Idea of Europe by Shane Weller

About The Author

Shane Weller

Shane Weller is Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Kent. His publications include Modernism and Nihilism (2011) and Language and Negativity in European Modern...

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