Many philosophical and political thinkers claim that at the moment Europe is undergoing a profound spiritual crisis of orientation. Like many others, Werner Weidenfels sees the origin of the current crisis in the fact that Europe is not capable of “giving a convincing answer to the question of its own identity and its values”. What is Europe, then? Paul Valéry once said: “Europe is a peninsula of Asia”. In fact, there is no clear natural border between Asia and its Western subcontinent. Since antiquity there have been attempts by geographers to divide Europe off from Asia using, variously, the Ural Mountains, the Don River or, later, the Wolga River as borders.
All of these attempts must be seen as acts of desperation. Thus, the only guarantor of European identity as a product of history is – as Ortega y Gasset pointed out – nothing but our common European culture. Yet the cultural landscape would seem to be much like the geographical one: Together with an immense diversity of landscapes, we find a great diversity of cultural manifestations. If one only considers the great number of languages that are spoken in Europe today, the idea that there is such a thing as a common European identity – the notion that one could even form a more or less consistent concept of “Europe” –seems illusionary, even presumptuous.
Man Deserves To Be Respected
But is not the very assumption that we can adequately conceptualize reality and grasp it through ideas in itself typical of Europe and its intellectual history? Is not the very belief in the reality of reason and the rational structure of reality – which is deeply ingrained in occidental self-awareness – the element itself that constitutes the European identity? Indeed, numerous thinkers from Hegel to Husserl to Ortega have been convinced of this and regarded Europe and its history as a philosophical project. Above this, the close connection between European rationality and European humanism may be of special importance for today’s Europe.
Already the stoics of ancient Greece believed that man could be distinguished from other living beings by his privileged access to the rationality which inhabits the world; a belief which lead to the recognition of the uniqueness and dignity of every human person, and thus to a first form of Humanism with a cosmopolitan bend: Man – be he the citizen of a polis or a barbarian – deserves to be respected, because every single person participates by virtue of his own ability to think and to judge in the one universal reason, the so-called “logos” which is the common ground of humanity and nature.
The ancient belief in the uniqueness of each individual person was greatly strengthened in the course of European history by the Judeo-Christian belief that man was made in God’s image. Since, from this perspective, each human individual is, to quote Ranke, “equal to God”, each human person has inalienable rights with regard to his fellow men and over and against each sort of organization. In the words of the theologian Wolfgang Huber: “The highest value is human dignity anchored in the fact that the human being was created by God.… This gives rise both to the idea that no-one should be denied the right to have rights and to an approach to human rights that links freedom and equality”.
Looking For Universally Valid European Values
Here another feature of European culture becomes obvious: the importance of the individual. “Europeans are”, according to Ortega y Gasset, “the kind of human beings who have invested all the labour and devotion of their history into the creation of personality”. Indeed, European history presents itself as a process of a continuous deepening of individuality. The individualization of the national cultures that characterize Europe today – a process initiated by the fall of the Roman Empire – is part and parcel of this process, which is truly a pan-European movement. This is obvious from the development of national cultures running parallel with the development of the central European institution which pushes and promotes this deepening of individualization: the university.
It is decisive for the dynamics of European history that the process of individualization was not in opposition to the realization of general ideas, i.e. the realization of democracy, human rights and social justice. If, on the one hand we realize that European societies today are faced with an increasing loss of solidarity and, on the other hand that the European unification process has got stuck, we will have to focus on what has been the glue for Europe and thus has to show the way forwards. This transforms the question of European identity into the concrete question of universally valid European values. But do we have common values? And are they typical European values? Can we justify them in face of European history? A challenge for the philosophy of the history of the 21st Century is to find an answer to this question.