In favour of creating a European political philosophy

Article published on Oct. 15, 2003
community published
Article published on Oct. 15, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The construction of a political Europe raises a philosophical question of utmost importance – what is to become of our political communities?

Does philosophy have a role in the debate on Europe? It is important to remember that philosophy can provide methodology as well as thesis; therefore, I would like to propose that it has much to offer the debate. Firstly, the fundamental issue has been how exactly to define the concept of ‘Europe’, whose history is intrinsic to that of Western civilization. Secondly, there is the doubt in the relevance of a political regime being applied to Europe. While trying to avoid digression, the current burning political project of constructing a European Constitution demands the intellectuals to provide some useful conclusions to the decision- makers. By deeply engraving the work of ‘thought’ into history currently in the making, the continuum between that which is strictly philosophical and that which is strictly political is blurred. This leads me to believe that political philosophers have much to teach us about European identity and self-awareness by clearing our false tracks which have been made for want of a more obvious procedure to take. The philosophers almost hunt down ideas belonging to the status quo and, in doing so, as pioneers of new ideas they are given the authority to participate in the debate.

Traditions in conflict

First of all there is the historical problem of Europe: a kind of ‘conflict of traditions’ which dates back to the time of ancient history. Heavily supported by an acute knowledge of this period of time, Rémi Brague produced an essential piece of work which grasps the spreading tale of European self-awareness. In his own work, Léo Strauss had already underlined the conflict between Athens (and its resulting notions of philosophy and paganism) and Jerusalem (incarnating the authority of the Jewish and after Christian faiths), and its constructive and destructive effects on the West.

Paul Valéry admirably explains this triple identity:

“of all the places where the names of Caesar, Gaius, Trajan and Virgile, of Moïse and St Paul, of all the places where the names of Aristotle, Plato or Euclide remain with any significance and simultaneous authority, this place has to be Europe. Every race, every land that has successively been conquered by the Romans, the Christians and whose spirit, subjected to the discipline of the Greeks is absolutely European”

When Europe’s distant history is called to mind, Greece is usually the only country involved, yet the ‘Old World’ was shaped by multiple bodies divided across three centres, the resulting mixture of which has and will always be accompanied by problems. For readers curious about Europe, your task is to plan out your own path using those of the three main Western civilizations. It will be a lengthy work!

Europe as a nation and a democracy: an impossible debate?

In his “Cours familier de philosophy politique” (An informal lesson on political philosophy), Pierre Manent shows that the political future of Europe, necessarily formed under democratic regime, is intimately linked to the future of the ‘nation’. Moreover, if on one hand the nation permits the blossom of democracy in Europe, it paradoxically becomes a target for the enemies of democracy as a consequence.

According to P.Manent, this bipartition has determined the terms of debate between the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ Europeans: “Firstly those who are sensitive primarily to the tenuousness of the link between democracy and nation will be very sceptical and apprehensive towards the ‘construction of Europe’. In European institutions they will tend to see the invasion of a foreign and oligarchic machine which deprives them of their so-called self government. Whilst those who are sensitive primarily to the anti-democratic and aggressive form that nationalism took in the 20th Century will tend to see the nation – particularly with regards to its sovereignty- as sliding down the chute to redundancy.

Europe, an impassable horizon

We find ourselves confronted by a second major problem, which presents itself, especially in the case of France, that is that in practice this contradictory debate cannot actually take place. The reality of it is that discussing Europe in today’s France is difficult. It is impossible to doubt Europe without being proclaimed ‘reactionary’ or ‘nationalistic’ by the media or by the majority ‘golden’ political parties who have already taken decisions before even having been subjected to argument. The bizarre consequence is that the pro-European consensus has now become an ‘impassable horizon’.

I would even suggest that it is unimaginable to say no to Europe without gaining the stigma belonging to ‘an enemy to reason’. For it can be understood that a person who says no to Europe is of a marginalised – even ill intentioned- viewpoint, inspired by passionate and therefore irrational motives. This intellectual terrorism allows no place for informed opposition. As a result it has no outspoken enemies, thus the space is left open for a caricature, namely Jean-Mari le Pen, the French bogeyman of anti-European sentiment.

For me this is the paradox of paradoxes. If I tried myself to plan out Europe using intuition and personal desire, I doubt my ability to find a rational, well founded road to take because of the sheer impossibility of debating these issues without officially becoming a provocateur. In a general sense, I am sorry to realise that the debate has become contextually impossible in France; on one side a generation of elites has passed its expiry date, on the other a new generation is largely affected by ‘incuriosity’ (Marcel Gauchet) – and consequently many of them are ignorant.

A debate proposed by innovative literature

It is doubtful that an intellectual European community actually exists. It is possible to find certain arbitrary affinities between major countries that form the European Union. In the philosophical sphere, the most obvious link is of course the one between Germany and France; from Hegel to Habermas through to Heidegger and Gadamer, the link has never ceased to fuel intellectual debate. However, the inter-State links do not manage to break from the confinement of small scholarly communities.

It is also possible to view things differently and consider that, inside European nations, a body of remarkable work that is part of our heritage is waiting for us to read and challenge. A debate proposed by modern, innovative literature will lead to the political debate introduced by a new generation which seems to be concerned with the kind of European political communities that are being cultivated. In short, a ‘conflict of interpretations’ which would allow this post-1970 generation to seize the questions asked in these books, with the aspiration to translate them into a large scale political project.