The making of Europe


The making of Europe

Anthony Pagden talks to Tim Black about the development of the idea of Europe.

Anthony Pagden

Topics Long-reads Politics

What is Europe? Geography does not offer the easy answers you think it might. The boundaries shift too much, the edges smudge, the centre decentres. Take the Mediterranean, for example. Today it is seen as the barrier between Europe and not-Europe, an entry point for the wanted, and a bulwark against the unwanted. Yet, for the Ancients, it was Europe’s focal point, the centre of their trading and warring universe. And for the Romans, to the extent that they had an idea of Europe, it would both have extended into North Africa, reaching the Atlas mountains, and included lands to the west of what we now think of as the Middle East.

The myths of Europe’s founding are, likewise, tellingly obscure in their geographical and tribal slippage. In Ancient Greek mythology, Europa, having been raped by Zeus in bull-form, was left on the shore of Crete to bear the offspring and, eventually, the continent, that carried her name. She was, it’s worth remembering, the daughter of the King of Tyre on the coast of Sidon – in other words, she was from what we now know as Lebanon.

Again and again, Europe escapes from geographical definition, its roots often lying far outside what we now think of as Europe. It is better thought of not so much as a strict geographical entity, than as a cultural accretion, a build-up of stories, myth and, increasingly, tradition. It is, as Anthony Pagden tells me, better to think of Europe as an idea.

And Pagden should know. A former professor of cultural history at the European University Institute in Florence, and now a professor of history and political philosophy at University of California, Los Angeles, Pagden recently undertook a magisterial defence of the Enlightenment, that most aggressively universal of European projects. And he is now working on a history of the idea of Europe, which will be published later this year.

Pagden tells me there are two key elements to the formation of the idea of Europe. ‘The first was the Greek idea that there exists a division in the world, between Asia, Africa and Europe, that could, in a sense, be used to classify people in larger groups than the tribe. You don’t really find such a mode of classification elsewhere. Admittedly, it was much criticised – Herodotus thought it was ridiculous to divide the world up in this way. But, still, the Greeks believed that people from these regions were crucially different from one another. The reason? Climate.

‘Climate, they believed, made people into extreme characters – extremely lethargic, for example, or extremely overactive. Predictably, it’s the Greeks who strike the perfect balance, who are in the middle, as the most rational of all. So you get a form of Eurocentrism, which is based on early medical claims about the way the body’s humours operate in response to certain climatic conditions.’ As Pagden notes elsewhere, it is on this basis that Strabo, the 1st-century philosopher and geographer, claims that ‘Europe is both varied in form and admirably adapted by nature for the development of excellence in men and governments’.

But it’s what Pagden identifies as the second key factor in the development of the idea of Europe that has had the deepest, long-term impact: namely, the Roman Empire. ‘The Romans occupied an area that far exceeds what we now think of as Europe – what is now Europe was merely the heartlands of the Roman Empire. The empire was a very broadly pragmatic, multicultural, multinational society that, while it certainly privileged social groups over one another, tended to think of itself as a whole, a whole guided by the rule of law. So there’s one law for everyone, albeit this isn’t codified as such until much, much later, in the 6th century, as Corpus Juris Civilis, when the western part of the Roman Empire is in a state of disintegration. But what’s important for the idea of Europe is the existence of this single body of law. And, crucially, a common language – Latin. And eventually, because of the success of Roman policies of integration, that gives the empire a unity. And it’s that unity that subsequent generations constantly refer back to. And the last stage in this formation of a unity is, of course, Christianity, which comes in as a single religion, although not until the third and fourth centuries, from Constantine I onwards.’

So, from the Roman Empire, what we now think of as Europe acquired certain commonalities: in law, in language, and, crucially, in religion. Indeed, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau remarked in 1761: ‘Europe, even now, is indebted more to Christianity than to any other influence for the union… which survives among her members.’ Of course, there is fracturing and disunity, too. Latin’s role as the common language of Europe erodes from the 4th century onwards, Christianity bifurcates at several points, and local legal customs, tolerated by the Romans, persist.

But, as Pagden asserts, ‘you’ve got at least a coherent structure, and a belief in the fact that there exists a common European entity, which, from the Roman Empire onwards, never ever goes away. In the 9th century, Charlemagne tries to revive the European empire. He talks about himself as such, taking on the title of Pater Europae (Father of Europe). There is a sense, at this point, that Europe becomes Europe, although in Charlemagne’s case, it’s only the German heartlands and a part of France. Nevertheless, there is a sense of this central territorial core, with a cultural substance comprising Christianity and the legacy of Rome. And this idea of Europe persists across the centuries. Indeed, until the 20th century, there is this constant ambition, although largely fantastical, to bring back the unity that once existed under the Roman Empire.’

An ancient legacy

The Classical world seems to infuse accounts of the concept of Europe. Just how essential is Greco-Roman culture to a sense of Europe? ‘There’s a wonderful quote from John Stuart Mill’, says Pagden: ‘”The Battle of Marathon, even as an event in British history, is more important than the Battle of Hastings”. Without it, Mill is saying, the Greeks would have been overrun, and nothing of Hellenic culture would have permeated over to the West. It would have been a completely different world.’ Pagden calls it a ‘a self-conscious legacy’, ‘a self-conscious indebtedness to the various things that make up the Greco-Roman’.

And what are the principal elements of this legacy? ‘Obviously something that comes out looking like democracy; a rule that is independent of any attachment to divinity, so an incipient separation of church and state… That of course is a long-fought-out battle during the Middle Ages, but the origins lie in the claim that the source of authority lies in the law, and the law is made by men for men, by human beings for human beings – the Greek idea of nomos – and that it’s made collectively.

‘Then there’s the centrality of empirical science, which starts with Aristotle… In a sense, you can see this legacy in Europe’s technological advantages during the 19th century over the rest of the world. Then there are more obvious things, such as the literary forms which we use, from the novel and drama to poetry – all Greek in origin.’ Not that Pagden is an unabashed Greco-phile. ‘I’m not suggesting the Greeks were miracle workers – they will have had their sources elsewhere as well.’ He adds: ‘This is a continuous human history.’

‘Urbanisation is another key component’, says Pagden, drawing attention to the significance of the Ancient city states. ‘The whole idea of a political community is based on a word – polis – which also means “the city”. So for Aristotle, and his successors, men are made for life in the polis – man is a zoon politikon. Cities are political centres, but they’re centred on a real place. In Rome, res publica, of course, means the public thing, and we often think of this as what will become the idea of the common wealth, but it’s also, literally for the Romans, the place. It was Rome itself. It was the bricks and mortar, the streets. That’s another aspect of the idea of Europe. Life lived in cities is crucial.’

Pagden summarises the legacy: ‘So there’s the rule of law, a law made by men for men, and it’s a process located in some sort of urban centre; and there’s the significance of some sort of scientific enquiry, the principle that you never accept what you’re told at face value. “An unexamined life”, to quote the famous phrase of Socrates, “is not worth living”. Those are the elements I think, if you believe in a metahistorical account, that are crucial. And they are the ones that have guided Europe ever since.’

Europe: a universal?

Listening to Pagden extol the virtues of Europe as a cultural entity, as an idea, from its Greco-Roman origins to its Enlightenment apogee, seems almost anachronistic given the low esteem in which Europe, and by association, the West, now holds itself. ‘Yes’, admits Pagden, ‘we are going through a period, quite understandably, after the collapse of the great European empires during the 20th century, when there’s a great deal of anti-Europeanism in Europe, as well as elsewhere. There’s a great deal of handwringing about our culpability, which is certainly real, and about the need to make up for the damage done to non-European peoples, which is also very real. In the process, what tends to get overlooked is the fact that for all the damage that certain parts of European culture have done to other parts of the world, the claims that those others are making are couched in European terms. So wherever you turn, wherever you look, whatever part of the political spectrum you occupy, there is no political system, there is no conception of the law, there is no conception of time or space, which isn’t, in some sense, of European origin.

‘This, of course, has a lot to do with the fact that these things have been forcibly exported. Now the only exception to this is somewhere like China, which of course has been entirely independent until the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century. And it does have a very rich culture of its own. But even then, what’s happened in China, is that the Chinese have embraced European norms, European ways of thinking, European science, with alacrity.’

But is there not a stronger sense in which thought developed in Europe has a universal application?, I ask. Take the Haitian revolution in the 1790s. As a slave revolt against the newly formed French republic, the supposed embodiment of the rights of man, the Haitian revolution is often seen as a refutation of the Enlightenment’s claims to universality. But what tends to be overlooked is that Toussaint L’Ouverture, the revolt’s leader, attacked the French republic and the institution of slavery in Enlightenment terms, for withholding from some the ‘Natural liberty [that] is the right which nature has given everyone to dispose of himself according to his will’, to quote one of L’Ouverture’s great inspirations, the French Enlightenment thinker, Guillaume Raynal.

‘Absolutely’, says Pagden. ‘I was listening to a lecture the other night from somebody going on and on about the exclusion of African-Americans from political science and philosophy departments across the United States and so on – and some of his claims were justified. But what never seemed to have occurred to him is that all of the claims he was making were being made in terms of a set of values, rights and entitlements that were exclusively European ones.

‘So L’Ouverture wouldn’t have dreamed for a moment that he was trying to create a Afro-Caribbean culture, or make Afro-Caribbean claims. No, what he was doing was asserting the rights of a Frenchman, as defined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Haitian Revolution was a French Revolution in the French Revolution. It is made in the name of a slave population, but it’s not made in the name of a culture which is essentially different from the French one. The Haitian revolution is making a claim upon France to uphold what it claims to be its revolutionary principles.

‘When the word universal is used’, Pagden continues, ‘there tends to be an assumption that these values will be shared by everyone everywhere, no matter what their background – I’m a little more sceptical of that. I claim that these European values have generally been found to be desirable, generally found to be useful, if you like. It is not that because something is European that it is universal. It is the fact that it has been accepted that makes it universal.’

So what does Pagden make of the critique of so-called Eurocentrism? ‘The Eurocentric argument is, for a large part, true’, he says. ‘Certain voices have been shut out, not so much the voices of those who were colonised, but voices from Asia. The Asian contribution to the world has been much more marginalised than perhaps it should have been. So on one level, critics of Eurocentrism have a point, but to claim that everything that is essentially European is essentially destructive, that once something that has come into being and has been embraced by a large number of people, that it must be wrong because of its origins is an entirely false argument.’

Is there a strong element of Western and European self-loathing in the Eurocentric argument? ‘Yes, there is. This sentiment is confined to an elite, a liberal elite, and even then, a liberal academic elite – this hand-wringing, this sense of how terrible we are. It comes from very honourable sources. But there’s a certain level of self-righteousness. A sense that I am a good person because I condemn Eurocentrism. I am part of this, but I can cleanse myself because I condemn it. There’s a great deal of that, I’m afraid, chiefly within the academy.’

The EU and the idea of Europe

Many today tend to conflate the idea of Europe, a cultural entity, with the European Union, a political entity. Pagden says that Europe, the idea and the culture, and the EU can certainly be ‘disaggregated’. But to what extent has the EU built on, and drawn from Europe as a cultural entity?

‘Well it’s tried, although I’m not sure it’s tried hard enough. The most obvious problem is evident in the European anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. The lyric, by Friedrich Schiller, is written in German, but in the EU’s world, the anthem can’t have words, because the anthem can’t be in a particular language. Then there’s the flag, which is quite effective, as it goes, a Charlemagne prize, which has always struck me as rather bizarre. But they don’t really add up to very much. These symbols, such as they are, have a considerably greater impact on people on the fringes of Europe, on people wishing to become European. I can remember seeing the Ode to Joy being played on a TV in a cafe in the Ukraine at the beginning of the current crisis, and everyone getting up to stand.’

Speaking to Pagden, one gets a sense of the chasm between the idea of Europe, and its culturally threadbare, partial embodiment in the EU. ‘The European project began as an attempt, with the European Economic Community, to use economics for political ends – a perfectly intelligent strategy to take. But it never really tackled the question of what the consequences of this might be, partly because, as the development of the EU shows, if you leave aside the earlier declarations about a united states of Europe by the likes of Jean Monnet, the pragmatic concerns were very limited. Each step was taken with no awareness of what might come next. There’s no real sense that now we’ve created these arrangements though this or that treaty, of what the implications are, and how we should start thinking of a common European project and so on.

‘There’s a famous quote from Monnet which, given what we know about the man, he certainly never said: “If I had to start the European project again, I’d start with culture.” Perhaps if some kind of attempt had been made to win over people to it as a project, and not merely as a set of pragmatic arrangements to prevent warfare in the future, etc, things might be very different.’

Anthony Pagden is professor of political science and history at the University of California, Los Angeles. His most recent books include The Enlightenment – And Why It Still Matters (2013), and The Burdens of Empire: 1539 to the Present (2015).

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Long-reads Politics


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