Havel, Vaclav: Europe as task

by Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic

An Address in Aachen on May 15, 1996. Full text, Published by permission

I RECENTLY tried to ascertain where Europe’s name came from. I was somewhat surprised to find that its many see its primeval roots in the Akkadian world ‘erebu’ which means twilight or sunset. Asia, on the other hand, is believed to have derived its name from Akkadian ‘asu’, meaning daybreak.

At first sight this discovery does not appear very encouraging; the word twilight has been traditionally linked in our minds with the notions of end, extinction, defeat, ruin or approaching death. In certain respects, this conventional linkage is valid: twilight indeed brings with it the end of something, at least the end of one day and the hustle and bustle that filled it. But it does not mean defeat, doom or the end of time. Far from it: it is just a punctuation mark in the eternal cycle of nature and life in which something ends simply so that something else may begin. For a human being, this means, for instance, that the time of labour that is external, largely physical and directed toward the world around comes to an end, to be replaced by a time of quiet contemplation, of reflection, evaluation, introspection, of endeavor that is directed inward. From time immemorial it has been in the evening that people would reflect on what they have done during the preceding day and on the meaning these efforts may have had and pause to look at things in perspective, to regain their strength and to make resolutions for the following day. In somewhat simplified terms, one may say that while dawn and broad daylight are the time of hands, twilight is the time of the mind.

The rather gloomy associations we tend to attach to the word twilight may be the fruit of a typically modern cult of beginnings and starts, progress and growth, inventions, rises and advancements, of a cult of industriousness, outward activity, expansion and energy, that is, of the typically modern blind faith in quantitative indices. Dawn, daybreak, sunrise, ‘the morning of nations’ and similar words, metaphors or phrases are popular these days, while sunset, quiet, pause or nightfall evoke in us unjustly only connotations of stagnation, decline, disintegration or nothingness.

We are unfair to twilight. We are unfair to the phenomenon that possibly gave our continent its name.

Time of contemplation and self reflection

IT IS TRUE that a certain phase in the history of Europe appears to be drawing to a close.

The extraordinary fortunate combination of the spirit of classical antiquity, Jewish religiosity, Christianity and the fresh energy of the former so-called barbarian tribes eventually led to the historically unprecedented European advancement that has gradually brought humanity countless things of value, influencing the entire planetary civilization of our time. Europe seems to have introduced the categories of time and historicity, to have discovered evolution and ultimately what we call progress as well. Maybe the whole of known European history will, when seen from a distance of centuries, appear as a single day full of vigorous activity, great human efforts, great discoveries of the human mind, great energies and the ethos of expansion linked thereto. From the secret of Being and salvation to the secret of matter, from the treasures hidden on faraway continents to political values such as the dignity and liberty of the human being, the rule of law and the equality of citizens before the law -all these are areas in which Europe has accomplished a remarkable work of discovery which Europe then spread further, often to the benefit of the world as a whole, yet often as well to the world’s detriment. The history of Europe has not only been a history of the furtherance of the concepts of salvation, freedom, progress and humanity, it has also been a history of harsh suppression of other cultures, of conquest, plundering, colonization and the export of highly dubious articles, from among which I would mention just one that is dangerous indeed and whose effects I personally experienced, that is, communist ideology. And if the world owes such good and useful things as democracy, the notion of human rights or television and computer to the European spirit of progress, rise and continuous quest, it also owes that same European spirit much of its gigantic social differences, the arrogant anthropocentric treatment of our planet, the cult of consumerism as well as the piles of highly destructive weapons that are often found in the hands of very dubious regimes. In this century, this ambiguous European expansion reached its sad climax in two World Wars into which our continent plunged the world.

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