Our Take A View
from Europe: Denying Its Own Past
Krzysztof Rak and
Dare we use the big words? Compromises in essential matters cannot be achieved. Peace between good and evil cannot be arranged. A common European home cannot be erected if Europe's heritage is denied. Attempts to deny it weaken the European identity and threaten the unity of our continent.
The outline of European integration has been flawed from the beginning. The founding fathers of the European Union mistakenly placed in the center of attention economic and political matters instead of spiritual and moral ones. They wagered that economic growth and prosperity, the rule of law and parliamentary democracy, would provide sufficient links for the Europeans to feel that they are a part of a common enterprise. However, when European integration began to transcend economic matters and embraced other areas of social life, the missing balance between economic and political issues on the one hand and fundamental values on the other became more and more obvious. This happened in Maastricht in 1992 and in Amsterdam in 1997.
Only in Nice (2002) did the German Christian Democrats attempt a more decisive step. In the German-language preamble to the Charter of Fundamental Rights, one encounters an appeal to the “spiritual, religious, and moral heritage of the EU (the charter's texts in other languages worded it as “the spiritual and moral heritage of the EU”). Five years later the Berlin declaration (allegedly the new foundation for European unity and a compass of future integration) studiously forgets to mention religious heritage.
The Berlin Declaration's implicit denial of the assumption of the transcendent dimension of man in all of European history makes it alien to that history.
To put it bluntly, a manifesto of relativism was signed in Berlin. The sources of the declaration that was accepted there go back not merely to the left-liberal ideology of political correctness that dominates EU discourse, or to the Enlightenment-based ideological proclamations. Careful reading of the declaration sends us back to the thought of the Greek Sophists of twenty-five centuries ago.
The first sentence of the first chapter resonates with the European humanistic tradition and seems to be universally acceptable, yet in our view it contains the gist of the prolem of which it is an example. It states: "In the European Union we put to practice our common ideals: for us, the central point of reference is man" ("Fuer uns steht der Mensch im Mittelpunkt"). This statement is not accompanied by any reference to the trascendent world, and therefore it is a striking repetition of the formula first articulated by Protagoras of Thrace (5th c. BC): “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not.”
The traditional academic interpretation of Protagoras has been that his goal was not a deification of man. His thesis was that there is no reality per se, and therefore no content to such concepts as the essence of things, substances, ideas, the ultimate cause, or the gods. There is no foundation and no inherent order either in reality or in the human mind; therefore only man can become the measure of all things. However, that measure changes depending on which men are called to provide it. There is no certain knowledge or unassailable principles.The Berlin declaration carries similar connotations and invokes similar dangers. It contains no reference to God, religion, or values independent of historic time. Can such a declaration be a proper crowning of the history of European humanism over the last twenty-five centuries? Its implicit denial of the assumption of the transcendent dimension of man in all of European history makes it alien to that history. While Protagoras's relativism has been present throughout that history, it has played a marginal role. By and large, European thought has assumed that human dignity is grounded in such concepts as “soul” and/or “divinity.” In Christianity human beings gained access to dignity through the crucifixion of God/man. Europe was largely built on this idea that has dominated European thinking until a century or two ago. The nineteenth century was particularly destructive to this vision of Europe. In the twentieth century the secularization of Europe was followed by a rise of the theory of superior human beings whose privileged ethnicity or class allowed them to murder tens of millions of undeserving others.The shock of the Second World War turned many away from that route. For a brief moment, the constitutional tradition of many states began to be reexamined. In 1949 the German nation adopted a constitution whose preamble spoke of “an awareness of our responsibility before God and man.” This kind of invocatio Dei expressed a belief that political power has limits and that a reference to transcendent values could limit man's power over other men.
In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the European elites have again forgotten this lesson of recent history. An intellectual amnesia compels them to reject an experience that always points to the same thing. Without a transcendent foundation it has never been possible to form a long-lasting human community. To create a European Union against the beliefs of Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, Descartes, Leibnitz, Kant, Bergon and so many others amounts to building sand castles. The two antitranscendent attempts in the twentieth century to create a system of values gave existential proof of the futility of such projects. What is the point of trying to erect a third one based on the political and economic rights of man? Is this route not a method of bringing to naught the most important political project of contemporary Europe?
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The Sarmatian Review
Last updated 9/15/07