Culture & Ideas Ideas

Debate: Whither the European mind?

10 September 2010
Philosophie Magazine Paris

The idea of a declining Europe, which has been reinforced by poor demographic and economic indicators, has become a fashionable talking point. But writing in the colums of France’s Philosophie Magazine, Alexandre Lacroix insists that the vitality of a civilisation is also measured in terms of the strength of its creative initiative.


Have we entered an era where, like the citizens of the declining Roman Empire, we are about to write the last glorious and violent chapter of our history? Superficial, hedonistic cynics spoiled by creature comforts and disdainful of everything except ourselves with no more faith in the laws of God or humankind, do we not deserve to be overtaken by other younger, more ambitious and stronger societies? It is tempting to liken today’s Europeans to the decadent Romans, but we should be wary of the easy pathos and reactionary posturing that often characterises this analogy. The three remarks that follow will attempt to outline the philosophical issues raised by this debate.

Remark No. 1: The myth of a declining Europe is as old as the history of the continent itself.

Although he lived in the eighth century BCE, Homer wrote his epics about a much earlier period, the Trojan War, which is usually dated to the 12th century BCE. Like most of his contemporaries, Homer’s imagination was inspired by by the past glory of the Mycenian civilisation (1600–1200 BCE), which was destroeyd by Dorian invaders who came from the North.

Homer’s characters – Ulysses, Achilles, Agamemnon etc. – are defined by noble qualities to the point where they are supposed to belong to a superior race of beings. But at the same time, we should bear in mind that Homer was the first historian, and it is on this basis that his work paved the way for a myth of decline, which has since become an obsession in European culture.

At the end of the Middle Ages, nostalgia for a Golden Age reappeared in the writings of Dante and Machiavelli, but this time round, the focus was on the former power of the Roman Empire. In the Enlightenment, Montesquieu also took an interest in the decadent culture of Ancient Rome, but with the intention of criticising the authoritarian excesses of the Caesars, and indirectly attacking the monarchy of his own period.

Closer to our times, in the aftermath of WWI, the historians Oswald Spengler and Arnold J. Toynbee announced that Western civilisation had become tainted by surreptitious death wish, which was leading it to dig its own grave. From Homer to Toynbee, all of these writers have sung the praises of past greatness and announced impending catastrophe, but it is important to bear in mind that in so doing, their sole aim was to rediscover a source of inspiration that would restore the positive trajectory of history.

Remark No. 2: Today the myth of decline is expressed in the formal language of figures and economics

The major innovation in our period is that we no longer rely on gifted writers to hold a mirror up to our weakness, but on sterile spreadsheets produced by institutes of statistics, and in particular Eurostat and the World Bank. There is no denying that these figures do have an engaging eloquence which is unique to them, and difficult to resist.

The 500 million inhabitants of the European Union (EU) form a population characterised by rapid aging and the world’s lowest levels of demographic growth (– 0.05% in Germany and  0.7% in Italy in 2008). And it is not particularly large: the EU only accounts for 7.3% of the current global population. European economic growth is also in decline: an average of just 0.2 % in the 27 EU member states since the start of this year, – 4.2% in 2009 (in stark contrast to 10% growth in China, 8% in Brazil and 6.5% in India). In 2008, 17% of Europeans were living below the poverty line and this figure stood at 20% for children and teenagers…Not only has the EU lost virtually all of the industry on its territory, but the best of what remains is being bought up  foreign investors.

However, an evaluation of nations that focuses solely on budgetary and accounting criteria overlooks other dimensions like the quality of life, access to education and healthcare, the rule of law, the existence of a judiciary that is not corrupt, transport infrastructure etc.

Let’s imagine, as Plotinus did, that our souls exist before our birth. And imagine that you are one of these souls embarked on an astral journey towards incarnation when you are stopped by an angel who offers you a choice: you can decide if you want to be born in India, China, Brazil, Indonesia or Europe. Which destination would you choose? Where do you think you would have the best chance of a life of freedom untroubled by the fear of violence, whether it be propagated by the state or society? So where has this reverie taken you? Have you made your choice? Could it be that you have not completely recovered from a belief in Europe ?

Remark No. 3  The reduction of the myth of European decline to the description of an economic problem is in itself a troubling symptom of decline

Here we should take our cue from the final pages of Spengler’s Decline of the West, published in 1918: “Economic thought and action are one aspect of life, and every economic life is the expression of the life of a mind.” In other words, the prosperity or stagnation of an economy is simply the reflection of a certain state of culture or state of mind.

A year later, in 1919, Paul Valéry hammered this point home in his essay Crisis of the Mind, which famously begins: “We later civilisations... we too know that we are mortal.” The argument that follows this observation is less well known but equally interesting. Observing the spectacle of a Europe that had been ruined by war Valéry remarks: “the impact of economic crisis is fully visible; but the intellectual crisis, which is more subtle and more deceptive in its appearance (since it takes place in the very realm of dissimulation)... this crisis will hardly allow us to grasp its true extent, its phase.” Valéry goes on to warn that we must distinguish between strengths and quantities! The ranking of world regions on the basis of statistical criteria – population, surface area, raw materials, income etc. – tends to overlook the fact that every civilisation that has changed the course of history, whether it be Ancient Egypt, the Age of Pericles or the Enlightenment in Europe, has been marked by a surge of creativity, the promotion of art and science, and an intense life of the mind.

In his seminal text The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology written in 1935-1936, German philospopher Edmund Husserl affirmed that the privileged status of reason provided the foundation for the greatness of Europe. In particular, he claimed that the Greek project, which was to understand all of the phenomena of the world, had resulted in the rise of our civilisation. And this observation also applies to the Enlightenment, where reason overcame the oppression of the Ancien Régime and paved the way for the emergence of modern science. However, Husserl also points out that “in the latter half of the 19th centruy, the all encompassing vision of the world which was the vision of modern man, became determined and largely blinded by positive sciences and the “prosperity” that they brought with them.” This separation of natural and human sciences in the 19th century had very serious consequences, because it marked a break with the objectives of the Greek project. Philosophy, psychology, sociology, and political science were rejected as literary and subjective. The proper focus of reason, whose expression was henceforth to be restricted to mathematics, was the hard sciences. But mathematics cannot offer a solution for human suffering nor can it provide us with a destiny! The reduction of reason to mathematical calculation effectively deprived Europeans of their founding project, which had disolved in itself. “Simple factual sciences have created a humanity that is simply composed of facts,” which brings us to our conclusion: the fact that the decline of today’s Europe is not simply a question of statistics is perhaps a matter for more serious concern than the numbers themselves, because it shows that somewhere along the way, we have set aside the life of the mind.

Translated by Mark McGovern