Lipgens, Walter: Redefining European Civilization

From Walter Lipgens, A History of European Integration, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1982.

romains1The outbreak of the First World War left many people horrified at the bloodbath it caused among the civilized and supposedly progressive nations, and they demanded better guarantees of peace for the future. One of the first to react in this way was Jules Romains, who in 1915 called ‘this war … an armed conflict at the heart of a homogeneous civilization’ and spoke of a ‘fratricidal war’.(29) Yet only after the war was over did people become conscious of the full extent of the catastrophe, realizing that the war had brought a loss of welfare and security for winners as well as losers, and that it meant the same thing for all European nations. No one put it more forcefully than Paul Valéry, whose book, La Crise de l’esprit, published in 1919, was widely read and was translated into every major language.

We civilized peoples of Europe now know that we are mortal. We had heard of entire worlds that disappeared completely, of empires that suddenly foundered with all their inhabitants and artefacts … their gods and their laws … But these disasters, after all, did not concern us. Elam, Nineveh, Babylon were only glamorous names … Now we see that the abyss of history has room for everyone … Everyone is aware of the danger. An unprecedented shudder has seized Europe to its very marrow. Europe has felt in its nerve-centres that it has become unrecognizable, that it has ceased to resemble itself, that it was about to lose consciousness … Then, as if in desperate defence of its very nature, its physiological substance, the fullness of its memories came flooding back in confusion … In response to this same anguish, civilized Europe has experienced the swift revival of its inexhaustible wealth of ideas…(30)

There had thus begun among the more thoughtful intellectuals a passionate search for a self-awareness of Europe, a look back at the past, and a thorough investigation into what European civilization really consisted of, a conscious rediscovery of the unity of European values as an indispensable preliminary to the political unification which was beginning to seem imperative. Valéry himself, speaking at Zurich in 1922, gave his well-known formulation of the essential basis of European unity: what had enabled the small European part of the human race, living on a narrow segment of the globe compared with the total habitable area, to achieve for over a thousand years and by its own efforts all the essential progress of civilization was the combination of Greek rationalism, Roman law, and the striving for individual responsibility inculcated by the Christian Gospel. Many people began, like Keyserling in his Spectrum of Europe, to understand ‘the different elements shown by the spectrum as essential components of a single body… in view of the growing proximity and overwhelming numbers of non-European humanity’.(31) In opposition to nationalist parochialism there evolved in various fields of knowledge a European point of view: it cropped up here and there in the 1920s and after the Second World War it made considerable headway. It was manifested in law in the efforts to subordinate a sovereignty based on positivism to a common law of nature, in theology in a rapprochement between the Church and secular civilization, in the rise of the ecumenical movement, and in other ways.(32)

Historians began to point out that the decentralized aristocratic society of Europe in early centuries had shared common values and a common social structure before the slow emergence of nations as language-based entities; that Europe, with all its intellectual currents, styles, and achievements, social structures and developments, had formed a civilized community for centuries; and that its educated classes had always been conscious of this before the growth of nationalism in the second half of the nineteenth century caused people to speak in a retrograde fashion of separate ‘national cultures’. In liberating itself from an anachronistic, pre-dated view of history based on nation states, historical science has since shown how much European history since its inception has consisted of fruitful exchanges between ideas and realities common to the whole Continent on the one hand, and local or regional peculiarities and realities on the other.(33) One thing became clearer: from Castile to Poland and from Scotland to Hungary there circulated during the Middle Ages and since, through the centuries of the modern age, a stream of connections and developments, of styles and phases, of art and literature, of philosophical and political ideas, of unity and diversity. All the great intellectual and social currents continually flowed through all the peoples who formed part of this civilized world; they were common to all Europeans and to them only. In music, painting, and sculpture, in poetry and learning all important forms, materials, and themes, appearing in various parts of Europe, were modified to suit national differences and transmitted in a similar cycle of style and development. In this sense too of exercising a common influence Europe remained a unity even when, during the nineteenth century, some of the educated classes ceased to base their values on Christian beliefs, while as one of the consequences of the industrial revolution the franchise was extended to the mass of the population. Just as in the past all the great movements had, each in its day, swept through the whole of Europe – Cluniac reform of the monasteries, Scholasticism, the Crusades, the founding of cities, humanism, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution – this is no less true of the movements and schools of thought of the nineteenth century which apart from temporary delays were able to range freely across the whole of Europe. Such were liberalism, conservatism, and Socialism, romanticism and realism, industrialization and democratization, loss of faith or recovery of faith, and finally nationalism, which was least of all a ‘national speciality’ but rather an international phenomenon that affected the whole Continent.

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