In Praise of the European Spirit

Europe is going through one of the recurrent identity crises which have punctuated its long history. Some journalists and pundits contemptuously reject the very idea of a ‘European Civilisation’ and in a strange exercise of self-hatred, take full personal responsibility when the ghosts of slavery and colonisation are evoked. Yet, no other continent is prepared to face its worst demons and question its cultural and intellectual legacy in a period defined by confusion and uncertainty. This ability to question our innermost convictions and not shy away from potentially heated debates finds its origin in the theological ‘disputatio’, the Christian harbinger of the doctoral ‘viva’ well-known to nervous post-graduates.

Philosophy has played a major role in the building of our European identity, from the early works of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas down to the heyday of German and French philosophy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. English philosophy also brought its own distinctive contribution through its exponents of Logical Positivism, like Russell and Ayer, not to mention the unclassifiable genius of Austrian-born Wittgenstein. 

One common denominator of all European philosophers is undoubtedly their impassioned search for truth, motivated by a relentless curiosity regarding the place of man in the cosmos, combined with a committed determination to discover new moral and political principles better adapted to our ever changing historical circumstances. The legacy of the (European) Enlightenment remains, beyond any contemporary criticism, the very source of theories of liberation inspiring victimised individuals and oppressed communities, all over the world.

More than any other European city, Vienna stands as the epitome of multiculturalism and intellectual creativity. The birthplace of Freudian psychoanalysis, the Vienna Circle of Logical Empiricism and the Austrian School of Economics reflects the intense pluralistic approach of Viennese intellectuals. Modernity was born in Vienna. After their forced exile, scores of Viennese scholars and scientists went to teach in American universities along with the members of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, welcomed by Columbia University as early as 1935. Such a resilience is typical of a European spirit valiantly embodied by such inflexible figures as Galileo, Giordano Bruno, sent to the stake by the Roman Inquisition or Michel Servet who fell victim to the merciless theocrat, John Calvin.

In the twentieth-century, Stefan Zweig was probably the best representative of a type of European humanist, open to all cultures and deeply opposed to any kind of ideological censorship and political oppression. Born in 1881, during the golden years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Zweig saw his model of civilisation die twice over: the first time with the dissolution of his motherland in 1918 and the second time with the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. Exiled in Brazil, he committed suicide in February 1942, leaving a farewell letter opening with the following words: ‘Every day I learned to love this country more, and I would not have asked to rebuild my life in any other place after the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself.’

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