Valery, Paul: The European

[an extract] From History and Politics , transl. Denis Folliot and Jackson Mathews; © Princeton University Press; published by permission.

I SHALL NOW risk -with many reservation and the infinite scruples we must have when we wish to make a provisional statement of something not susceptible of true accuracy- I shall risk proposing a tentative definition. It is not a logical definition I am about to work out for you. It is a way of seeing, a point of view which recognizes that there are many others neither more nor less legitimate.

Well then, I shall consider as European all those peoples who in the course of history have undergone the three influences I shall name.

The first is that of Rome. Wherever the Roman Empire has ruled and its power has asserted itself; and further, wherever the Empire has been the object of fear, admiration, and envy; wherever the weight of the Roman sword has been felt; wherever the majesty of Roman institutions and laws, or the apparatus and dignity of its magistrature have been recognized or copied, and sometimes even incongruously aped -there is something European. Rome is the eternal model of organized and stable power.

I do not know the reasons for this great achievement; it is useless to seek them now, as it is idle to wonder what would have become of Europe if it had not become Roman.

The fact alone matters to us, the fact of the astonishingly durable imprint that was left on so many races and generations by this superstitious and systematic power, oddly permeated by the spirit of law, of military discipline, religion, and formalism… the first power to impose on conquered peoples the benefits of tolerance and good administration.

Then came Christianity. You know how gradually spread throughout the area of the Roman conquest. If we discount the New World )which was not so much Christianized as peopled by Christians) and Russia (which for the greater part was unaware of Roman law and the empire of Caesar) we see that the area covered by religion of Christ still coincides almost exactly with the domain of the Empire’s authority. These two very different conquests yet have a kind of resemblance, and that resemblance is important to us. The policy of the Romans, growing ever more supple and ingenious with the increasing weakness of the central power, that is to say, with the extent and heterogeneity of the Empire, brought about a remarkable innovation in the practice of one people dominating many.

Just as the City par excellence in the end took to its bosom practically all beliefs, naturalizing the most distant and incongruous gods and the most diverse cults, so the imperial government, conscious of the prestige attaching to the Roman name, did not hesitate to confer the title and privileges of civis romanus on men of all races and all tongues. So, by the deeds of that same Rome, the gods ceased to be associated with one tribe, and locality, one mountain, temple, or town, and became universal and to some extent common. And moreover, race, language, and the fact of being victor or victim, conqueror or conquered, gave way to a uniform juridical and political status inaccessible to no one. The emperor himself could be a Gaul, a Sarmatian, a Syrian, and could sacrifice to very strange gods. … This was a great political innovation.

But Christianity, at St. Peter testifies, although it was one of the very few religions to be looked on with disfavor in Rome… Christianity, born of the Jewish people, itself spread to the gentiles of every race; through baptism it conferred on them the new dignity of Christians, as Rome conferred its citizenship on its former enemies. It gradually spread throughout the area of Roman power, adapting itself to the forms of the Empire, even adopting its administrative divisions (in the fifth century, civitas meant the episcopal city). It took all it could from Rome, and fixed its capital there rather than in Jerusalem. It borrowed Rome’s language. A man born in Bordeaux could be a Roman citizen and even a magistrate and at the same time a bishop of the new religion. The same Gaul could be imperial prefect and in pure Latin write beautiful hymns to the glory of the Son of God born a Jew and a subject of Herod. There, already, we have almost a complete European. A common law, a common God; one and the same temporal judge, one and the same Judge in eternity.

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