The paradox of Europe

The values that once contributed to our greatest achievements now also enhance our doubts about the future. To preserve the European advantage in history we must overcome our toxic uncertainty and again formulate a positive vision, says Balázs Orbán, Director of the Migration Research Institute.

The story of Europe is even more interesting than its future. We Europeans always think in historical contexts. We like to reflect on where we are coming from and where we are heading to. Depending on our ‘historical mood’, we sometimes tend to see our future bright, while at other times covered in dark clouds without silver linings.

Europe is the origin of many of humanity’s greatest achievements. When the continent is filled with optimism, geographical discoveries, scientific breakthroughs and cultural references emerge from our civilization which only in decades can reshape the face of the whole mankind.

When we lose this optimism, we start to reflect on our own values and we usually like to question their validity. When we do so, the spectre of ‘declinism’ starts to haunt the continent.

This kind of pessimism was amplified in the centuries after the fall of Roman Empire or before and after the Second World War. It seems this phenomenon emerged in the post-Cold War period too. While other civilizations in South East Asia or in the Middle East as they gain more economic importance slowly gain confidence as well, the West seems to stagnate economically and seemingly started to doubt itself and its values.

Europe has never been a homogenous world power. The ‘lion’s share’ of leading the continent wandered from one Great Power to another. Rome, the Vatican, The Holy Roman Empire, Spain, Great Britain and the EU all took their part in evolving the continent from centuries to centuries. In the times between the transformation of these great powers,

Europe always showed its pessimistic face to the world. The myth of ‘declinism’ is an inherent part of European culture.

But what is the reason behind Europe’s Janus-faced attitude towards its future? It’s a hackneyed proverb that the European culture stands on three pillars. Roman law, Greek philosophy and Judaeo-Christian tradition. If we examine these pillars closely, we can understand the uniqueness of European culture. We find, that the special value of personality is the key feature that differentiates European culture from its counterparts.

This feature can be found in all three pillars. Although the Jewish religion originates from the Middle East, even in its early form it was more ‘understanding’ and ‘humane’ with more personal concerns than other religions of the era and the region. Christianity and the New Testament extended the value of personality universally to the whole of mankind. Greek philosophy made the human factor the measure of the universe, and Roman legal tradition laid down the bases for the institutional defence of this uniqueness of personality.

The value of personality gives Europeans a special stance in the world which can paradoxically be an unquestionable vantage point and a reason for uncertainty at the same time.

We have the freedom as individuals to constantly question the framework of our way of thinking and the way we see the world around us. This gives us the ability to achieve previously unprecedented individual and collective achievements but it also makes us question our own values at the same time. When this ‘self-torturing’ doubtfulness becomes dominant, Europe always seems to lose its way.

This kind of traction loss is once again experienced in the early 21st century. Facing our counterpart’s success, we start to question the correctness of our own structures. But we always need to bear in mind, that we are only able to do this, because our own European civilization makes it possible for us to do it.

Our values that once contributed to our greatest achievements now also enhance our doubts about our future.

However as time passes civilizational values also tend to change. This is the greatest intellectual challenge of our time -- with Central and East Europe at the forefront of the issue. Although these countries were undeniably part of Western cultural development for centuries, under Communism we were mercilessly cut off from the geopolitical convergence. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, when our region could once again join the Old Europe at first we did not know how to relate to the changed values of the West.

Now we can see two alternatives: full acceptance with being absolutely uncritical of our civilization's post-modern cultural patterns or being a pattern creator ourselves. Those European countries that have chosen the second path were generally more successful in history. The major advantage of the second choice is that it starts with an understanding process which helps us to interpret what's happening in Western culture. In a sense, Central and East European countries have currently started a crucial process of reflecting on our own European values.

For the West to preserve its position in the history of mankind it must again formulate a positive vision, by overcoming this toxic uncertainty and once again realizing that its values were the reason for our historical success.

So instead of turning compulsively towards new ideas we have to learn to trust again those values that made us great in the first place.

(On the cover: Jacques-Louis David's The Oath of the Horatii, oil on canvas, 1785)

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