European Affairs

The Idea of Europe. An Essay. By George Steiner     Print Email
By Jacqueline Grapin, Founder of the European Institute

jacquelinegrapin2013George Steiner’s “Idea of Europe” [1] challenges us. It is a small book, almost a pamphlet. But it is a monument of culture and a challenging and erudite meditation on the idea of Europe and what makes it distinctive. Particularly what makes Europe different from America.

It should probably be compulsory reading for all students in Europe and in the U.S. The Overlook Press, in New York, should be thanked for the initiative of publishing under this title, the Tenth Nexus Lecture of the Intellectual Summit, delivered in 2003, and already a classic.

Anyone who has had the opportunity to listen to George Steiner’s lectures at the University of Geneva, Oxford or Harvard University, or the University of Cambridge (England), where he now lives, never forgets it. He deals with huge topics in a way that makes them simpler than you would think, more important than you had thought, and as poetic as you would wish.

The French born American professor of English and comparative literature asserts the complexity of European culture, simplistically characterized by cafes and walkable streets and concludes: “Europe is the place where Goethe’s garden almost borders on Buchenwald, where the house of Corneille abuts on the marketplace in which Joan of Arc was hideously done to death. (…) There is something wrong in all the rightness. As if even the perspectives of depth were only a façade”.

Steiner reminds the reader that “the tension between Jew and Greek obsesses” the Pauline formulation of Christianity as “the Church Fathers are anxiously alert to the dual magnetism of pagan Athens and Hebrew Jerusalem.” Thus says Steiner, the idea of Europe is indeed a “tale of two cities.”

Because the idea of Europe has been so enmeshed with the ethos of Christianity, Steiner wonders about the future of Europe after Christianity’s loss of cultural dominance. “We may have been asking some of the wrong questions. (…) It may be that the future of the idea of Europe, if it has one, depends less on central banking and agricultural subsidies, on investment in technology or common tariffs, than we are instructed to believe. It may be that the OECD or NATO, the further extension of the Euro or of parliamentary bureaucracies on the model of Luxembourg are not the primary dynamics of the European vision.”

For Steiner “nothing threatens Europe more radically – ‘at the roots’ – than the detergent, exponential tide of Anglo-American, and of the uniform values and world-image which that devouring Esperanto brings with it.” Steiner quotes Weber, who “foresaw the Americanization, the reduction to managerial bureaucracy of the life of the mind in Europe.” For him the computer, the culture of populism and the mass-market speak Anglo-American from the night-clubs of Portugal to the fast-foods emporia of Vladivostok. “Europe will indeed perish if it does not fight for its languages, local traditions and social autonomies.”

Perhaps Steiner could be challenged on his wholesale castigation of the New American World. Instead of fighting the emergence of Americanization, should not the Europeans try to incorporate the best of their values and their humanist traditions in the globalization process?

Today Christianity is a fading force. But “a post-Christian Europe may emerge”, says Steiner, “though slowly and in ways difficult to predict, from the shadows of religious persecution. In a world now in the grip of murderous fundamentalism, be it that of the American South or Midwest, be it that of Islam, western Europe may have the imperative privilege of hammering out, or enacting a secular humanism. If it can purge itself of its own dark heritage, by confronting that heritage unflinchingly, the Europe of Montaigne and Erasmus, of Voltaire and of Immanuel Kant may, once again, give guidance.”

To achieve this, “it is vital that Europe reaffirms certain convictions and audacities of soul resulting from its ancestral culture as the Americanization of the planet – with all its benefits and generosities – has obscured them. Combining these traditions and incorporating them peacefully in the overall evolution of the world is one of the important issues of our time.”

[1] Hardcover/ $20.00 Published by The Overlook Press