Poets representing the old continent, philosophers theorising about a union of states: from Rimbaud to Husserl, passing through Kant, Europe appears, through philosophy and literature, as an idea, an objective, a feeling, even before a political institution. That is why, through philosophical thought and literary production, we can understand how intellectuals have contributed to theorising and spreading the idea of a united Europe, of a European identity.
Thinking about Europe. Let us be guided by philosophy and literature, by the authors who, with the power of thought and pen, have contributed to the creation or theorisation of an idea of Europe. Why talk about Europe from a philosophical point of view and – what might seem even more absurd – from a literary point of view? Perhaps because, far from being two abstract disciplines far removed from reality, philosophy and literature can help us to understand more immediately what Europe is. The European Union as a concept before being an institution, Europe as a feeling and as a product of thought, as a reality in which the political sphere is mixed with the existential, spiritual, emotional one.
In this article, therefore, we will adopt a twofold approach: a philosophical perspective, with the aim of analysing, albeit briefly and roughly, the elaborations and interpretations that philosophers from different periods have given to the concept of Europe; and literary perspective, which will take us to take a look at the representation of Europe in literary texts, especially in poetry.
Since we are talking about literature, it is interesting first of all to note that the roots of the name “Europe” come from literature, from Greek mythology. What does this name mean? It is in the verses of Ovid (43 BC – 17 AD) that we find the story of Europa and Zeus: the dactylic hexameters of the famous Roman poet accompany us in the legend of Europa, who, in the Metamorphoses – a mythological epic poem composed by Ovid between 2 and 8 AD – is presented as a young and charming Phoenician princess, whom Zeus attempted to seduce. Without dwelling on the details of the myth, let us note however that it is from poetry – Greek and Roman mythological poetry – that Europe draws its onomastic origins: it is, in short, thanks to poetry that we call our continent “Europe”.
If European political and institutional unity did not emerge until after World War II, it was, on the other hand, as early as the 18th century that Europe asserted its unity as a space for the circulation of ideas, thoughts, fashions, ways of life: in short, Europe as a cultural space, Europe as an intellectual space. The moment and the key element in the construction of an intellectual Europe is the Enlightenment, capable of making the geographical territory of Europe a place of circulation of ideas and books, thoughts and newspapers, works and culture. It was with the Enlightenment that literature took on a European dimension and that intellectuals asserted themselves on a scene beyond their own state, becoming European intellectuals, who travelled, discussed, advised politicians and diplomats, and played a leading role in European affairs. Thus, the feeling of belonging to the same culture, of having a common identity – a European identity – spreads: that starts from the awareness of sharing a common philosophical, artistic and literary tradition, albeit in its different national declinations. The Enlightenment is thus the fruit of European intellectual collaboration, it asserts itself as a trans-European current of thought, les Lumières in France, the Illuminismo in Italy, the Enlightenment in Great Britain, the Auflkärung in Kant’s Prussia. The Europe of the Enlightenment is the Europe of the philosophers, the Europe of the sciences and the arts, the Europe of human and citizens’ rights.
Mythologised or glorified, regretted or exalted, Europe becomes, especially in modernity, a true poetic object. In this regard, it is interesting to note how the representation of Europe in poetry almost always passes through the poet’s emotional involvement: Europe is first and foremost a place of attachment and feeling, before being a geographical space. Europe is the poet’s existential and emotional point of reference when he moves away from it. This is the case of Rimbaud, in his poem Bateau ivre (The Drunken boat): adrift on the high seas, lost in an unknown and frightening ocean, amidst storms and hurricanes that take him away from the European continent, the poet states “Je regrette l’Europe aux anciens parapets” (“I miss Europe with its ancient parapets”). With the element of “old parapets”, Rimbaud presents Europe in its oldness and long history, Europe as an old continent that the poet misses, recognising it as a historical and existential reference point.
Europe thus becomes a poetic object, with its evolving cities, its new discoveries, its technical and cultural developments, which are grafted onto the territory of the old continent. This is the case of Valery Larbaud, a French poet who lived between the 19th and 20th centuries, who – in his poem Ma muse – makes Europe a place of poetic inspiration: “Je chante l’Europe, ses chemins de fer et ses théâtres / Et ses constellations de cités” (“I sing of Europe, its railways and theaters / And its constellations of cities”).
If, as we have seen, through poetry we can observe a subjective representation of Europe, Europe as a place of feeling and emotional involvement, it is now through a philosophical approach that we can understand how the idea of Europe emerged, how philosophical thought came up with the idea of a union of states pursuing a common goal. For Kant, this goal is “perpetual peace”. In his essay Toward Perpetual Peace (1795), the Konisberg philosopher expounds the thesis that a union of states is the only way to avoid war, to overcome a state of nature in which countries would be in a state of war of all against all, the famous bellum omnium contra omnes. Of course, Kant’s project remains idealistic, almost utopian, because it hypotheses a federation of world states, which would include all the countries of the world: the of such a project is obvious, but we can nevertheless find two insights that underpin the logic and history of the European Union. On the one hand, the idea of a union of free states, whose common goal is to put an end to war, to make war itself impossible; on the other hand, the idea that such a union would primarily be an area of free movement of goods, an area of free trade.
Another interesting philosophical reflection on the idea of Europe comes from Edmund Husserl (1859- 1938), an Austrian philosopher known as the father of phenomenology, one of the most important philosophical currents of the first half of the 20th century. In his essay Crisis of European Sciences (1935- 1936), Husserl questions the meaning of Europe: why Europe? What is Europe? Well, Husserl’s answer is to say that Europe is first and foremost an idea, an intention, a goal. In other words, what unites Europe is its common goal, its common idea, even before its strictly physical geographic space. Husserl speaks precisely of Europe as a “philosophical form of existence”: Europe, the cradle of philosophy and abstract thought, is configured as a place of free and autonomous reason, of theoretical life and reflection, that is, as a place in which a different way of conceiving reality and existence has been elaborated.
An exceptional historical location, certainly, but also a responsibility. Well, are we capable of handling this responsibility? How to inherit and treasure such a historical and intellectual heritage? That is the question. We, the children of Europe and its freedom, are faced with this complex and delicate challenge. A prerequisite for being able to face it is an understanding of what Europe is, what European culture is: that is why having an idea of Europe is fundamental to being European citizens, and that is why philosophy and literature can help us to have a transversal and conscious look at reality.