The Lost Soul of Europe

Clyfford Still's 1944-N No. 2
Clyfford Still’s 1944-N No. 2. For Still, art was dead in the aftermath of World War II, for it was based on European ‘dogma, authority, tradition. The totalitarian hegemony of this tradition I despise, its presumptions I reject’ (MOMA)

What has happened to Europe? What of our glorious post-war project to bring together our cultured peoples after centuries of war, that brave experiment not merely in statecraft, but in post-state statecraft, to redefine government, and seize peace to our hearts? It has persevered and grown for over sixty years, launching exuberantly into the new Millennium with the Euro, but now she finds herself beset on all sides by vast forces including geopolitics, security, technology and global finance. Worst of all, Europe seems to have lost its soul. Not merely its raison d’etre, but its spirit, its ambition. What is missing?

A Crisis of Legitimacy

In 2011, Juergen Habermas published The Crisis of the European Union: A Response (Polity, 2012; also in shorter form at, at a time when the European project perhaps faced its most stark choices, and structural challenges. The asymmetries of the constellation of sovereign nations had produced the crisis, exacerbating a sense of democratic illegitimacy. Habermas argued against a spreading defeatism, suggesting that the structures were fundamentally sound, but required some work on a number of areas, including ‘civic solidarity’. In particular, Europe, he wrote, needed to ‘…abandon their accustomed combination of public relations and incrementalism steered by experts and brace themselves for a risky, and above all inspired, struggle within the broad public.’ (P. 51-2)

The failure of solidarity is at the core of this crisis of legitimacy. The crux of the struggle is as old as philosophy itself, between faith and reason, between the anachronism of religion and the ascendant Enlightenment. It is also, strangely perhaps, about our investment in technology. In the post-war years, great thinkers such as Hannah Arendt and Friedrich Hayek attempted to plot a way for the world to avoid the catastrophe of The Holocaust. More than any event before or since, it seems (perhaps with apologies to the French Revolution), The Holocaust galvanised human philosophy and focused the Western Liberal tradition in particular to reassert itself. The European integration project arose alongside the emergence of the United Nations and International Law, shared statements of right, liberation and self-determination for the peoples of former colonies, and a rejection of State hubris.

The Cold War and its Aftermath

The Cold War of course dominated the first forty years after World War II, but even that was ostensibly about competing visions of liberalism. The Communists argued that no man should be subjugated by the other, while the Capitalists argued that only hierarchy could protect the rights of all. The truth of each position was, perhaps naturally, buffeted by a combination of political expediency and the power politics of competitive defensive realism, and a deal of cynicism eventually infected both sides. By 1989, it seemed no longer a question of which side would win, but rather which could stave off defeat for the longest time.

It is arguable that, just as the fall of Communism happened in 1989, the fall of Capitalism waited until 2008. It remains to be seen whether China and her hybrid model assumed the mantle at that stage or later, but China’s economy will see it surpass the US by around 2029, at current course and speed. In the mean time, Europe frets over its future, and fissures all too readily appear in her great alliance. Migration is a concern, driving social, security, and geopolitical risks. There are social concerns because of religious radicalism (both Christian and Islamic) and the polarization that followed the September 11th 2001 attacks in the USA. The coincidence of the emergence of 24 hour news cycles, mass market broadcast media, and social media accelerated the polarization, and perhaps intensified it. Security is a concern as attacks on major centres such as London, Berlin, Brussels, and Paris have heightened fears. Geopolitics is a concern as an emboldened Russia returns to the fray, sniping around Estonia and Finland, annexing Crimea, and perpetuating conflict in Syria, much as Stalin did in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

Inequality and the Rejection of Solidarity

The rejection of Syrian, Afghan and African migrants by at least a large minority, if not an actual majority, of Europeans is a rejection of the universal principles of solidarity declared after the Second World War. Many in Europe scoff at the naked xenophobia of the Trump White House, dismissing it as populist and myopic, while at the same time passively supporting European measures to ‘repatriate’ Syrian refugees from Greece to Turkey. The asymmetries of European power are once more on full display. Having humiliated Greece, Portugal and Ireland in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, yet more humiliation is heaped upon Greece, along with Italy this time as they bear the full brunt of misfortunate geography. And therein lies the second failure of solidarity: with fellow EU member states.

We can go further into the inequalities of modern Europe both between and within national borders. Social security systems remain imbalanced; health care entitlements and protections vary dramatically. These systems might be expected to deviate, coming as they do from economies at varying stages of maturity, but they have led to entirely predictable movements of people that have caused destabilization both in the areas of departure and arrival. Within countries themselves, urbanization in every country has seen vast areas of underdevelopment in rural communities. Divisions sprout everywhere, with rich pitched against poor, young against old, foreign versus native, educated versus not, Christian and not, and any other othering that is going.

Faith, Reason and Liberalism

Deeper still, however, lies a philosophical burden that our societies have carried with them for longer than we would care to acknowledge: the division of faith and reason. Practical reason has become, in our modern age, theological in its righteousness. Science has a monopoly on truth. By extension, all other systems of belief – notwithstanding the acknowledged shortcomings of our science – are deemed to be at best of a second order, and all too often discounted as childish myths. In an earlier work, An Awareness of What Is Missing (Polity, 2010), Habermas traces the birth of both faith and reason to what Karl Jaspers had called The Axial Age, an important period of human intellectual development from around the 8th to the 3rd century BCE. Reason, Habermas suggests, was that strain of thought that ultimately led to the Enlightenment; Faith was (in Hegel’s formulation) a kind of ‘‘representational thinking’ which is subordinate to philosophy.’ (Id., p.18).

Practical reason, Habermas argued, could easily make the case for our modern systems of law and individual freedoms. However, he continues, ‘…the decision to engage in action based on solidarity when faced with threats which can be averted only by collective efforts calls for more than insight into good reasons.’ This was what Kant had identified as ‘the weakness of rational morality.’ Reason then failed when it could not maintain a common cause across the polity, ‘an awareness of what is missing, of what cries out to heaven.’ (Id., p.18-19)

And so there we have it. The rise of the individual, traced so well by Larry Siedentop in his Inventing the Individual (Penguin, 2015), begat our modern liberalism, and by extension perhaps our downfall! Our most basic structures of social order, including community, tribe and family, were supplanted by a combination of the State and free markets, in a trade off between power and immediacy. This is not to say that such a trade was in some sense corrupt; though that it not to say it was not a wrong turn. Our current polarization may have been exacerbated by technology and the internet, but those inventions found willing hosts. The challenge of organised religion meanwhile has been to ‘…open itself up to the normatively grounded expectation that it should recognise for reasons of its own the neutrality of the State towards worldviews, the equal freedom of all religious communities, and the independence of the institutionalized sciences…[This] is a matter of religion consciousness becoming reflexive when confronted with the necessity of relating its articles of faith to competing systems of belief and to the scientific monopoly on the production of factual knowledge.’ (Id., p.21)

Heidegger’s Yearning for an Epiphany

In an interview with Der Spiegel in 1966, ten years before he died, Martin Heidegger agreed with his interviewer’s suggestion that mankind was in the process of bringing about ‘an absolutely technical state,’ an entirely deterministic world, and therefore one devoid of meaning: a nihilist dystopia, populated by automatons and other machines. ‘Only a god can save us,’ Heidegger replied. Philosophy, he went on, could no longer save the world. ‘And what takes the place of philosophy?’ asked the interviewer. ‘Cybernetics,’ replied Heidegger. This was no mere statement on technology, but on the entire technocratic system, modern western liberalism, neoliberalism, the whole shebang. It’s referring to what Dany-Robert Dufour called the art of shrinking heads, what Tim Morton called this primitive artificial intelligence of ‘…industrial capitalism, with the vampire-like downward causality of the emergent machine level, with its related machine-like qualities of abstract value, sucking away at the humans on the levels beneath.’ (Morton, Tim, Hyperobjects, 2013, p. 5)

Where will this god come from? Heidegger suggests it requires new kinds of thinking to ready ourselves for this new saviour. But He’s not there right now, and we are in decline as a result. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical on Faith and Reason, Fides et Ratio, appealed ‘…to philosophers, and to all teachers of philosophy, asking them to have the courage to recover, in the flow of an enduringly valid philosophical tradition, the range of authentic wisdom and truth—metaphysical truth included—which is proper to philosophical enquiry.’ Whether or not the doctrine of the Catholic Church was, as Hegel suggested, ‘representational thinking’, clearly the Pope was making a play for its persistence. Rather than waiting for a new god per Heidegger, the suggestion – like the entirely predictable ending to a dull Hollywood rom-com – is that he who we desire has been in front of us the whole time, if we’d only cared to notice.

3 thoughts on “The Lost Soul of Europe”

  1. We’re interested in some of the same and similar writers. I’ve read Siedentop and Morton. I’m also familiar with Jasper’s ideas from numerous sources. Are you familiar with Marshall McLuhan, E.R. Dodds, Eric Havelock, Walter J. Ong, Julian Jaynes, Jean Gebser, Bruno Snell, and/or Iain McGilcrhist? The development of individuality, the egoic mind, and consciousness are a major focus for me.

    1. McLuhan yes, the rest not so much. I think you’re more on the psychoanalytic side of things. Freud / Lacan etc.? My work on technology has brought me in to ontology, economics, critical theory and art history (!), and a bunch of other stuff, though not really the psych stuff.

      1. I can’t say I have any particular interest in Freud, Lacan, or anyone else along those lines. I’d rather go with Carl Jung and the interesting relationship he had with anthropologists, such as how his book on personality types influenced some of Franz Boas’ students, some of whom in turn influenced Julian Jaynes with his multiple focus on anthropology, philology, and brain science.

        By the way, philology is an interesting field. Jaynes was in many ways simply extending upon previous philological theories about the ancient world. Philologists don’t focus on psychology, per se, though they are very interested in how language and art relates to the human mind, specifically the human mind of the past. Marshall McLuhan could be seen as carrying on the philological project. The Boas-influenced linguistic relativity also has much in common with philology. Jaynes’ argument was linguistic relativity, though he didn’t realize it.

        Jaynes and the philologists did have much interest in art history, combined with textual analysis of ancient writings. For example, Jaynes observed that there was no pornographic art until the late Bronze Age when the first signs of a new mindset began to appear. This was the same historical moment when also appeared written laws (literally written in stone), moralistic rules, standing armies, brutal torture as punishment, large centralized governments, etc. For millennia before that, there were advanced civilizations that, as far as we can tell, lacked such features. So, a detail of art history such as carvings of figures in sexual positions can indicate something deeper going on.

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