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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.