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Euro State of Mind

The advent of the euro raises fundamental questions: Will the new currency unify Europe? What holds Europe together? How can Europe cohere as a community?

One thinks first of conquerors: Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Hitler. But their empires crumbled, and the geography kept changing. Europe ended in the Germanic forests at one time and in the Urals at another. It had no natural boundaries, not even in the West, where the British still say they are setting off for Europe when they drive their cars to France.

Europe is actually a state of mind. It began as a myth, the abduction of Europa, daughter of Agenor in Tyre, and it evolved into a way of life based on the sense of belonging to a common civilization. This mentalité collective developed through the civilizing process itself, the shared experience of living under Roman law, Christian religion, and the secular culture developed in the Age of Enlightenment.

That common culture fell apart in the nineteenth century, when Europe broke up into nation-states; but its principles endured. Having been articulated by philosophers everywhere, from Kant in Königsberg to Filangieri in Naples, they were proclaimed in 1789 by the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights…. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” They were reaffirmed by the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man adopted by the United Nations in 1948. They still stand as the foundation of the Europe that has risen again at the end of the twentieth century.

Henry Kissinger’s famous boutade—“If I call Europe, what number do I call?”—misses the point, because Europe corresponds to a set of symbols and a system of values. The euro is one of them, but its value will fluctuate erratically, whereas the values of the Enlightenment are rooted deeply in the past.

Which past? Whose past? For the last two centuries, Europe tore itself in pieces; and it is still coming apart at the edges, in Ireland, Russia, and the Balkans. Many things contributed to its dissolution, industrial revolutions and class struggles among them. But the most destructive force, the only one capable of mobilizing masses and hurling them against each other, was nationalism. The quarter-century of warfare that began in 1792 put an end to Europe as a way of life and a mode of thinking shared by everyone in the educated elite. To make contact with their common past, Europeans must therefore take a great leap backward over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and reconsider the European dimension of life in the age of the Enlightenment.

Not that anyone would want to revive the eighteenth century. At that time, the vast majority of Europeans lived in misery. Most of them east of the Elbe were serfs; most to the west lived in a state of intellectual serf-dom, unable to read or to assert the rational maturity (Mündigkeit) that Kant identified with Enlightenment. The Enlightenment itself was a complex movement, full of contradictions and countercurrents. It never commanded the allegiance of a majority among the elite, and it cannot be equated with all of intellectual life in the eighteenth century. But it championed the values that lie at the heart of the European Community today, and it did so in a way that offers an alternative to nationalism—that is, it developed a pan-European mode of existence known at the time as cosmopolitanism.

So much of the modern sense of self derives from identification with the nation that we can hardly imagine cosmopolitanism as a way of life. The eighteenth century provides instruction about that experience. Consider Prince Eugene of Savoy, for example. An Italian Frenchman who fought for Austria, he combined three languages in the signature of his name: Eugenio von Savoie. Frederick II of Prussia said that he spoke French to gentlemen and German to horses, while George I spoke German to his British subjects. Nationality had little meaning for such monarchs or for anyone else who commanded troops and directed diplomacy in the eighteenth century. War belonged to the game of balance of power, a matter of sieges and seasonal campaigns aimed at the capture of strategic positions rather than the conquest of nations.

It was a royal game, played in the name of dynasties: hence the Wars of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714), the Polish Succession (1733–1738), and the Austrian Succession (1740–1748). Armies had no common uniform or flag. The foot soldiers included large proportions of foreigners, and the officers identified more with their opposite numbers among the enemy than with the men who fought under them. If captured, they were often swapped for prisoners of the same rank on the other side and returned home at the end of the summer, when the fighting stopped and the opera season began.

Of course, soldiers often suffered: 34,000 men lay dead or wounded in ten square miles after the Battle of Malplaquet (1709), the bloodiest engagement before Borodino in 1812 (75,000 casualties). But they did not fight for a cause or to annihilate an enemy, and civilians sometimes cheered for the other side. Voltaire congratulated Frederick II for defeating the French at Rossbach (1757), and Sterne remarked in his Sentimental Journey (1768), “I had left London [for Paris] with so much precipitation that it never entered my mind we were at war with France.” The first stirrings of national sentiment can be detected in Britain and France during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), but Samuel Johnson expressed a common view when he defined patriotism in his Dictionary (1747–1755) as “the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

An ideological interlude in the history of war took place between 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia marked the end of religion as a crucial element in international relations, and 1792, when the outbreak of the revolutionary wars signaled the beginning of wars between nations. During this period of relative civility, the most civilized people thought of themselves as European and did not worry about national boundaries or even carry passports. They took grand tours, which led from London to Paris and Rome or through Amsterdam to Vienna or points north. Along the way they stopped in châteaux and town houses, where they received hospitality from other “persons of quality” who spoke the same language (French) and shared the same code of conduct—a matter of mastering not only the art of conversation but also body language: how to sit a horse, walk through a garden, enter a room, take a place at a table (no easy feat if you were wearing a sword), raise a glass of wine (by the stem with the thumb and two fingers, not three), and take tea (from the saucer, not the cup in some refined circles).

Cosmopolitanism belonged to this social code. It set off persons of quality from the unwashed masses, whose mental horizon did not extend beyond the territory that could be viewed from the tower of their church: hence l’esprit de clocher and campanilismo to denote the narrow-minded. The cosmopolitan took in all of Europe, sometimes even all humanity, in his view of the world. The term could be used pejoratively, as indicated by the dictionary of the Académie Française: “COSMOPOLITAN. Someone who does not adopt any fatherland. A cosmopolitan is not a good citizen.” Even the Encyclopédie noted that “One sometimes uses this term in joking, to signify a man who has no fixed abode or a man who is not a foreigner anywhere.” Adventurers like Casanova, Cagliostro, and Mesmer gave it a bad name, for they took grand tours of their own, living by their wits and the gullibility of their victims.

Having tramped around Europe with these chevaliers d’industrie in his youth, Rousseau condemned the cosmopolitan in The Social Contract as someone who “pretends to love the whole world in order to have the right to love no one.” By contrast in this as in so many other things, Voltaire embodied the positive variety of cosmopolitanism. His estate at Ferney on the border between France and Geneva was the grandest stop on the grand tour. Flanked by busts of Locke and Newton, he received visitors from every corner of the Continent—and at least three hundred from Britain—so many secular pilgrims hungry for a meal or a bon mot that he described himself as “the innkeeper of Europe.” He was described by others as “the uncrowned king of Europe,” because he exerted a new kind of power, the ability to command public opinion on a European scale.

Voltaire’s kingdom was actually a republic, the Republic of Letters. It extended everywhere and was open to everyone, or at least everyone connected with literature. With Pierre Bayle’s Nouvelles de la République des lettres (1684–1687), it took on a tincture that distinguished it from its ancestor, the Gelehrtenrepublik (republic of learning) of the sixteenth century. Under Bayle, it promoted the critical use of reason. Under Voltaire, it became engaged in the crusade against l’infâme—that is, against intolerance and injustice in general and the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Not that everyone paid allegiance to Voltaire. Pietists in Germany, Josephinists in Austria, Jansenists in Italy, Lockeans in Eng-land all subscribed to different versions of enlightenment. But enlightenment everywhere became identified with a cosmopolitan Republic of Letters.

This republic had institutions: coffeehouses, Masonic lodges, salons, and academies, dozens of them, extending all the way to St. Petersburg and bound together by correspondence networks. Writers located at nodal points in the system, like Samuel Formey, secretary of the Berlin Academy, spread messages on a vast scale and at remarkable speed. (Letters sometimes traveled faster in the eighteenth century than they do today.) Voltaire himself commanded one of the most powerful networks of all time, and he used it to pull strings everywhere in Europe. Artful doses of wit raised laughs in all the salons of Paris and all the courts of Germany. Carefully orchestrated denunciations of atrocities—the judicial mur-ders of Calas, La Barre, Lally-Tollendal, and Montbailli—turned laughter into indignation. And direct appeals to the great—Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great (187 letters exchanged with her alone)—sometimes brought direct results.

This kind of enlightenment worked from the top down, but it could not succeed at a lower level unless it had some affinity with the general culture of educated Europeans—culture in the broadest sense, a way of being in the world. Like Norbert Elias, Voltaire understood this culture as a civilizing process, which operated on a European scale: “Europeans are what the Greeks once were. They make war among themselves, but in the midst of these disputes, they conserve so much propriety and politeness that when a Frenchman, an Englishman, and a German meet, they seem to have been born in the same city.”

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