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.”

Politeness lay at the heart of the Enlightenment’s appeal to the general public. Hume, Lessing, Beccaria, nearly all the philosophes except Rousseau identified politeness with the conquest of superstition and barbarity. For the Voltaireans—but not their successors in the next generation, like the young Chateaubriand—Christianity was not merely unreasonable; it was also vulgar. It derived from the crude world of the ancient Hebrews. No gentleman, they thought, could take it seriously. It was an offense to taste.

The appeal to taste, a key word in the treatises as well as the correspondence of the philosophes, complemented the appeal to reason. This dual strategy made the Enlightenment a force in eighteenth-century Europe, because at that time the gentleman was beginning to displace the aristocrat as an ideal social type. There was room for both in the genteel code of conduct, and both supplied demand for the new trade in luxury goods. Ladies in London, Stockholm, and Budapest learned the latest styles by studying dolls sent out every month from the couturiers of the rue Saint Honoré. Palates were educated everywhere, thanks to treatises on the new art of gastronomie and new foods, like pralines (from the table of the duc de Praslin) and mayonnaise (invented by the chef of the duc de Richelieu at the siege of Fort Mahon). New kinds of furniture—the commode, the secrétaire—new hair styles, porcelain, decorative arts of all kinds united the mixed elites of Europe in a common material culture.

The well-to-do paid for their luxuries in different kinds of coins, but they frequently kept their books in the units of currency that went back to Carolingian times. In Britain, France, and Italy, the pound, livre, or libra equaled twenty shillings, sous, or soldi, which in turn were worth twelve pence, deniers, or denari—all abbreviated as L.-s.-d. Merchants dealt in bills of exchange, essentially promissory notes, which functioned like paper money and were used to settle accounts over vast distances.

For example, F. Courtener, a bookseller in Moscow, wrote the following bill of exchange authorizing his Parisian merchant banker to pay for a shipment of books that he had received from a Swiss publisher:

Moscow, 1 June 1792

Good for L. 2539 tournois

Twelve months from the date of the present, I will pay against this, my sole [bill] of exchange to the order of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel the sum of Two Thousand, Five Hundred, Thirty-Nine livres tournois in specie at the current rate for value received in merchandise.

F. Courtener

The elites of Europe also shared a common language. French replaced Latin for the first time as the lingua franca of diplomacy in the Treaty of Rastadt (1714). By 1774 even the Russians and the Turks used French when they agreed on the text of a treaty. French tutors spread the language among the rich everywhere from St. Petersburg to Naples, while the poor, even in France, remained divided by endless, mutually incomprehensible dialects. When Gibbon was a student in Lausanne, it seemed natural for him to begin writing history in French, “because I think in French.” The same consideration prompted Pushkin to write his first poetry in French, which he called “the language of Europe.” Frederick II, who perfected his French under the tutelage of Voltaire, ordered the Academy of Sciences in Berlin to publish its transactions in French, “la langue universelle,” in 1743. By 1782, when the academy sponsored its famous essay contest on the universality of the French language, Europe had been Frenchified.

Linguistic cosmopolitanism meant that publishing and bookselling operated on a European scale. Printers turned out books in French from shops in London, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Dresden, Geneva, and many other cities outside France. The best French newspapers—La Gazette d’Amsterdam, La Gazette de Leyde, Le Courrier de l’Europe—also were produced outside the kingdom. If reading them resulted in what Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community,” it was European before it was nationalistic. Voltaire’s readers probably echoed his own sentiments: “I belong to Europe.”

All the media contributed to this collective consciousness, even word of mouth. The art of conversation had been perfected in the Parisian salons of the seventeenth century. It served as a model for small talk in elegant circles everywhere, as the Italo-French man of letters Louis Caraccioli explained in Paris le modèle des nations étrangères, ou l’Europe française. In it, a French marquis exclaims, “Italians, English, Germans, Spanish, Poles, Russians, Swedes, Portuguese…you are all my brothers.”

Fraternity was a European-wide phenomenon before the Revolution incorporated it into the national culture of France. Of course, it did not extend below the elite: only gentlemen thought of themselves as united in a common way of life, and their participation in a European civilization did not preclude citizenship in a local community with its own culture expressed in an idiom of its own. Identity in the eighteenth century was segmental: a gentleman belonged to a family, a corporate body, a town or region, and a country as well as to Europe. Which segment took priority in his mind varied from person to person. Squire Western can hardly be equated with Western civilization.

Yet the elites were opening up and expanding throughout the West. The new rich rubbed elbows with the gentlefolk in shops where a new consumer culture was taking root. Even artisans occasionally bought watches and wore swords. Even servant girls owned several dresses, often made of calico and dyed in bright colors, unlike the heavy black and brown woolens worn by domestics in the seventeenth century. The common people consumed the new luxury products imported from abroad—coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar, and tobacco. Those from the middle ranks of society spent some of their new wealth and their new leisure in coffeehouses, an institution open to anyone who could pay the fare.

After its creation in Constantinople in 1560, the coffeehouse proliferated in all European cities from the mid-seventeenth century. It first appeared in London in 1660. By 1663, London had 82 coffee houses; by 1734, 551. Because of their free talk and virtuosi, they became known as “tattling universities.” They also served as centers for political cabals, for they provided pamphlets and newspapers as well as drink. The first London daily began publication in 1702—long after the first daily newspaper in Germany (Leipzig, 1660) but long before the first in France (Paris, 1777). Print, talk, and coffee combined to create a powerful new force everywhere in Europe: public opinion, and public opinion took a radical turn in all the great cities.

It took many forms, and came from many sources, but it converged around one idea that resonated everywhere: happiness. Europeans came to believe that they should enjoy life on earth instead of enduring it in order to win a place in paradise after death. Expanding economies brought the new consumer goods within the range of many middle-class budgets. Even peasants enjoyed better conditions: a warmer climate succeeded the “little ice age” of the seventeenth century; new crops—turnips, potatoes, beets—produced relief from chronic famines; and life expectancy probably improved by about ten years between 1700 and 1800. Of course, ideas did not grow out of the ground like turnips, but improved conditions and a sunnier climate of opinion made the Enlightenment thinkable among the general public.

Among the elite, notions of happiness had spread from daring thought experiments conducted by esprits forts and libertins in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The natural world appeared in the works of Giordano Bruno, René Descartes, and Baruch Spinoza as a rational order and a source of potential pleasure rather than a vale of tears. Libertinism became identified with free thought as well as free love. The greatest lover of the century embodied both principles and strutted them on the stage in Molière’s Don Juan. To be sure, Molière punished his hero with hell-fire, but the punishment looked less convincing in Mozart’s version of the story, an opera buffa. And when Goldoni reworked it, he made Don Juan die of natural causes: lightning rather than divine anger.

In 1776, happiness ceased to be a privilege of the aristocracy. It became a right of man, proclaimed to the world in the American Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Happiness rather than property. The substitution of one term for another opened the way for the right of equal access to the good things in life. The French constitution of 1793 reaffirmed the rights of 1789, “equality, liberty, security, property”; but it subordinated them to a principle announced in its first article: “The purpose of society is the common happiness.” From social welfare to socialism, the distance was not great, and it was covered between 1793 and 1848.

Of course 1848 looks impossibly remote in the age of the euro. Does the age of the Enlightenment have any relevance for the predicament of Europe in 2002? Not directly, but the eighteenth century can serve as a reminder that the nation was not always a fundamental unit of existence, and the principles of the Enlightenment are still alive today. What else can one invoke if one wants to protest against intolerance and torture, discrimination and censorship, abuses and injustice of all kinds? This argument, however, seems vulnerable to two objections.

First, the elitist character of the Enlightenment may undercut commitment to its values. If the Republic of Letters was not democratic, why celebrate its cosmopolitanism as an inspiration for a democratic Europe? Answer: the Frenchified, aristocratic Europe of the eighteenth century does not provide a model for the European Community today. It merely shows that Europeans once felt united by a common way of life. But could not this sense of participation in a shared civilization spread to all segments of society? Could not English serve as a lingua franca today just as well as French did two centuries ago? It need not obliterate other languages. There is plenty of room for other varieties of culture to flourish between the extremes of cosmopolitanism and campanilismo. Elitism provided a strategy for Voltaire in his fight against l’infâme, but there were other strategies available at that time, some of them democratic, some revolutionary, as the French proved in 1789.

Second, the Enlightenment may be accused of Eurocentrism, or worse—of perpetrating cultural hegemony in the guise of universalism. Answer: the Enlightenment certainly coincided with a second age of discovery, and enlightened explorers like Cook extended European empires. But philosophers like Raynal protested against the oppression of colonial peoples and especially against slavery. The colonized often turned European principles against their masters and found congruent principles within their own traditions. The rejection of human rights in the name of “Asiatic values” has served the purposes of Asiatic dictators, and the defenders of democracy in Asia have drawn on the Enlightenment heritage of Europe without compromising their commitment to values of their own.

President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea adopted this position when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2000:

In Asia, long before the West, the respect for hu-man dignity was written into systems of thought, and intellectual traditions upholding the concept of “demos” took root. “The people are heaven, the will of the people is the will of heaven, revere the people as you would heaven.” This was the central tenet in the political thoughts of China and Korea as early as three thousand years ago. Five centuries later in India, Buddhism rose to preach the supreme importance of one’s dignity and rights as a human being.

There were also ruling ideologies and institutions that placed the people first. Mencius, disciple of Confucius, said: “The king is son of heaven. Heaven sent him to serve the people with just rule. If he fails and oppresses the people, the people have the right, on behalf of heaven, to dispose of him.”

And this, two thousand years before John Locke expounded the theory of the social contract and civic sovereignty.

To understand principles as rooted in history is not to deny their validity. To point out their cultural dimension is not to relativize them out of existence. On the contrary, Europeans can take heart from the fact that Europe existed as a cultural entity long be-fore it became a monetary zone. If they heed their history, they will find grounds for defending human rights—not that history teaches lessons, but rather that it shows how the civilizing process entailed a struggle against barbarism. That struggle still goes on, and Europeans still have cause to cry, Écrasons l’infâme!

This Issue

February 28, 2002