Professor Anthony Grayling



monograph · Do Europeans Exist?


On Being European

Professor Anthony Grayling



Is there such a thing as a European culture, a European mind, a European sensibility, a European character? Is there such a thing as a European? The answer is emphatically Yes. It is Yes because what defines a European is the status of being a product and an inheritor of the European tradition, with all its riches of thought, art, literature, music, science and social development.

Anywhere from the Atlantic coast of Ireland to the Urals in Russia, an individual with a reasonably good education will recognize the names Homer, Plato, Augustine, Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Descartes, Rembrandt, Newton, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Byron, van Gogh, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Proust – and many more. The art and music of Europe speak with a single voice, in a single language, to all who live within the four thousand kilometer space between Ireland and the Urals. And this art and music of Europe speaks to the entire non-European world also, as identifiably the mark of Europe: not just to the parts of the world that Europe traded with and colonized from the beginning of globalization in the fifteenth century CE, but to the entire world – as witness the fact that without any sense of incongruity one can Schubert played in the conservatoire of Shanghai, see Shakespeare performed in Tokyo, hear a lecture on Kant in Seoul, and discuss Descartes in Delhi.

This last point says as much about European identity as the awareness that Europeans themselves have of inheriting and sharing with all their fellow Europeans a single great self-defining tradition. From outside the geographical confines of Europe the richly textured history of European culture appears as a single history. In that history borders and boundaries are irrelevant to the fluid interplay of ideas, art and music that gives Europe its distinctive place in world history. Even the internal wars of Europe speak of the proximities that bind its peoples together, for they were internecine quarrels, very bitter at times, the jostling and rivalry of familiars, and all the more painful for being so.

We speak without strain or surprise of Dutch painters in Italy, Russian writers at the spas of Germany, French and English exiles in the Netherlands, any of them perhaps reading a Greek philosopher (Plato) or a Latin poet (Ovid), watching a play by a Norwegian playwright (Ibsen) or listening to an Austrian orchestra (the Vienna Philharmonic) play music by a Polish composer (Chopin) – none of this seeming in the least unusual, which it would do if the accidental nationalities of the authors, thinkers, composers and performers were of any relevance. They are not relevant. The fact that they are not is proof of the shared nature of what embodies that heritage. Accordingly it defines Europe as much as its extensive northern plains and its high southern mountains, its great peninsulas into the Mediterranean and the arch of Scandinavia into the Arctic.

There is of course diversity and difference in Europe; mention of the hot Mediterranean and the frozen Arctic, thoughts of the soft rain of Ireland and the Siberian tundra visible from the Urals, reminds one that there are other differences too. Stereotypes of national character abound, and they are not without foundation. There is assuredly such a thing as national character, distinguishing English people from French, Germans from Spaniards. There are differences of taste, of cuisine, of course of language. But these are not essential. The stereotype that matters is the one that distinguishes Europeans from, say, Chinese: and this is a product of the unitary shared cultural history that gives Europe its internal bonds. China likewise has a powerful and long-reaching cultural history which has brought into a single polity a region as large, and with a linguistic diversity as great, as Europe itself – something that some historical European empires nearly did.

But the facts of political history, though too active in causing too many wars that scar Europe’s past, are not the relevant ones. The Roman Empire and its ghostlier diminished avatar as Christendom maintained Latin as a universal language for educated people until the eighteenth century, a highly unifying legacy. Although the ghostly avatar of the Roman Empire’s successor nearly expunged the learning and literature of classical antiquity, its recovery in the Renaissance brought back into focus the common inheritance of Europe in the philosophy of Greece and the high civilization of Rome.

For many centuries the main study in the schools of Europe was the classics, that is, the literature, philosophy and history of ancient Greece and Rome. This was a fine education – in government, military strategy, ethics, political theory, examples of good and bad rule, the changing nature of social conditions, educational theory, institutions of law, and much besides. Aristotle and Cicero, Homer, Aeschylus and Vergil, the ancient myths and legends, the examples of Horatio and Mucius Scaevola, had enormous influence on the mind of Europe.

The ethical life of Europe is often thought to derive from the religious outlook introduced nearly a thousand years after the age of Plato, but it was in fact Greek thought – not least the outlook of Stoicism which was the viewpoint of educated people throughout the Hellenic and Roman eras – from which it developed. One chief source was the Roman Republican commitment to the virtues of probity, honour, duty, restraint, respect, friendship and generosity that Cicero, Seneca, Virgil, Horace, and many others wrote about and ceaselessly enjoined.

‘European values’ thus have their roots in Greek and Roman values; how much more so does the philosophy, literature, art and music – the forces that shape the civilized mind – derive from the classical past. It is not possible to read the paintings on the wall of any major European gallery without knowing the continent’s mythology and history. The literatures of the major European languages are richly soaked in the tradition from which they derive. And because it is a shared tradition – informing and inspiring all the European literatures – the work they do in shaping the European sensibility is likewise a unifying one.

It would be no exaggeration to say that ‘Europeans are Greeks and Romans’ and by this mean that we are defined by the following words – and therefore concepts – of classical Greek and Latin origin: democracy, liberalism, values, history, morality, comedy, tragedy, literature, music, academy, memory, politics, ethics, populace, geography, energy, exploration, hegemony, theory, mathematics, science, theatre, medicine, gymnasium, climate, bureaucracy, dialect, analogy, psychology, method, nostalgia, encyclopaedia, education, paradox, empiricism, polemic, rhetoric, dinosaur, telescope, system, school, trophy, type, fantasy, photography…indeed, take almost any word denoting political and social institutions, ideas, learning, science and technology, medicine, and culture, and it derives from the language – and therefore the ideas and the history – of Greece and Rome.

As an act of piety the Emperor Justinian closed the schools of Athens – the institutions founded by Plato, Aristotle and others – in 529 CE, because they taught ‘pagan’ learning. A new tradition was added to the thus temporarily suppressed classical tradition, and it made its own contribution; but it was eventually leavened and then, by the recovery of the classical outlook in the Renaissance, overtaken by it, and the promise of the earlier history of that tradition came fully into its own.

The world-view forged by Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as a result, gave birth to modern times. Copernicus, Galileo, Gassendi, Roche, Huygens, Boyle and Newton are the principal names of a period of extraordinary genius in the rise of natural science, made possible by the loosening of the grip of doctrinal orthodoxy which had for many centuries barred the way to enquiry. The modern scientific world view, created by Europe and exported to every corner of the world, is now the functionally dominant world view: airplanes, computers, electronic communication and modern medicine are among its distinguishing marks. It is true that the majority of people in the world still see the world as pre-seventeenth century people did, but whereas then the religious outlook was functionally dominant and scientific views were functionally marginal, matters are now the other way round. This was the achievement of the European mind.

There is a flavor to the European way of conducting matters economic and political which is distinctive, and shared only by those other parts of the world which are offshoots of Europe itself. There is a sense of being at home anywhere in Europe which any European feels while travelling about the continent, or living and working in other parts of it. One of the great successes of the European Union project has been – in addition to the peace it has brought: a magnificent achievement, given the scarred past – to bring Europeans, as individuals, into a more intimate sense of the shared purpose and destiny of their home continent. To say that is to say that there is such a thing as a European identity, and that therefore there is such a thing as a European. The writer of these words feels – knows – that he is a European: and where there is one, there are more: indeed, several hundred millions of them.



ac-grayling-home“Professor Anthony Grayling”


Philosopher and Master of New College of the Humanities


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