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The South Central Modern Language Association

European Identity
Author(s): Tzvetan Todorov and Nathan Bracher
Source: South Central Review, Vol. 25, No. 3, Intellectuals, Nationalisms, and European
Identity (Fall, 2008), pp. 3-15
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of The South Central Modern
Language Association
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40211275
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European Identity

Tzvetan Todorov

(Translated by Nathan Bracher,Texas A&M University)

today, the European union constitutes an economic as well as an ad-

ministrative and legal reality. We all know, however, that for the time
being Europe does not play an international political role of the first
order and that most of the key political issues are still the prerogative of
each country that comprises the EU. A considerable number of people
have already voiced their disappointment at seeing European politicians
gladly concerning themselves with removing trade barriers or various
bureaucratic regulations and with the subsequent effects of such poli-
cies, while losing sight of the very project of the European Union itself.
People have therefore wondered whether the political action of the EU
might regain a bit of its momentum by emphasizing and reinforcing its
cultural (or "civilizational") identity, with culture becoming the third
pillar of European construction along side of the EU's economic, legal,
and political institutions. People moreover hope that this cultural identity
might provide the moral or emotional force lacking elsewhere. Knowing
that today in Europe it is easier to build a consensus on the subject of
great cultural monuments than on administrative regulation or economic
decisions, people imagine defining this identity to be an easy task. All
Europeans are proud to hail from a part of the world where Montaigne
and Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Cervantes, Mozart and Goethe were
all born, and to adhere to the social and political principles commonly
referred to as "human rights."
The reasons for such an idea are understandable: the sense of a
common identity would give more force to the project of European
construction. To use the vocabulary of the eighteenth century, we could
say that a political idea will be more effective when it is carried not only
by common interest but also by shared desires. Desires, however, are
only kindled when we feel that something concerns our very identity.
To begin with, then, we would have to delineate the contents of such an
identity. This leads us to the question of the plurality of cultures and the
forms of their coexistence.

© South Central Review 25.3 (Fall 2008): 3-15.

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4 south central review

In Search of an Identity

In the past, there was no lack of attempts to designate Europe's intel-

lectual and cultural dimensions explicitly. Shortly after the First World
War, the poet and essayist Paul Valery thus propounded an interpretation
that enjoyed a certain influence. I call European, Valery argued, those
peoples who over the course of their history have let themselves be shaped
by three major influences, those symbolized by Rome, Jerusalem, and
Athens. From Rome comes the empire, with the organized power of a
state, law and political institutions, and citizenship. From Jerusalem, or
rather from Christianity, Europeans inherited subjective morality, self
examination, and universal justice. Finally, Athens gave Europe the love
of knowledge and of rational argumentation, the ideal of harmony, and
the idea of humans as the measure of all things. Valery concluded that
whoever claimed this threefold heritage could justly be considered as
Valery 's interpretation, which boasts more elegance than originality,
itself became the subject of numerous commentaries. One of them is the
work of an ardent European, the Swiss intellectual Denis de Rougemont.
In a number of writings dating in particular from the 1 950s and 1 960s, he
pleaded the cause of Europe, and in turn raised the question of identity.
The refinements that he brings to Valery's suggestions can be divided
into two sorts. First, the heritages identified by Valery are more rich and
complex than he had indicated. Rougement points out in particular two
additional consequences of Christian doctrine. Christianity breaks with
the cyclical conception of time that predominates in most pagan cultures
and in its place advances the idea of an irreversible time, thus giving
rise to the notions of history and progress. At the same time, Christian-
ity cultivates interest in material reality, another salient characteristic of
the Western world. As opposed to Judaism, Christianity is a religion of
incarnation. God has become human. As a result, the world of here and
now is not considered cursed, but deserves to be known. This historical
particularity allows us to understand why, several centuries later, human
beings have managed to examine attentively the world that surrounds
them and have made it the object of analysis and scientific knowledge.
Second, Rougement recalls that these three sources of influence have
not been the only ones to mark the history of the continent. Europeans got
their doctrines of good and evil from the Persian tradition; their idea of
love from Arab poets; their mysticism from the Celtic peoples that lived
on the continent during the same era as the Greeks and the Romans.
Having come this far, we may nevertheless have a few doubts about

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such a positive, even euphoric inte

should first of all recall that a cultu
created within it: rather, it includes t
as well. From this point of view, wh
countries and regions that make up
common. The first component of t
and there are many more than one
insignificant: no human being comes
ated. Brought up with the ideal of m
of ourselves as free subjects, we d
of this determination. However, it
The collective memory that one c
with that of its neighbor, even wh
event. On that score, the memory of
rather than the rule, since German s
the point of view of the victors. Oth
be attributed as clearly, have on th
interpretations. While Europe is u
unanimity disappears when one sp
some and a tyrant for others. Two hu
of Waterloo is not commemorated
Concerning communism, which is clo
lived under its rule cannot share t
what it was like from afar.
The great works that we like to ide
pean culture were created within par
quickly became known beyond the b
their influence did not stop at Europ
the very beginning, European artists
works coming from other horizon
Today, the traits of European cul
while non-European inventions hav
example, it is sometimes said that
genre - which is doubtless the cas
how could we imagine the novel to
or Latin American, or North Ame
African exemplars? The same is tr
and every other component of cul
ends up coming back transformed
the same time Europe hastens to tak
African masks to Chinese calligraphy

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magic realism of the Carib

of the mind have a univer
resource and are inclined to
tradition, they aspire to be
The plurality of national
why European identity lac
history of the countries in
by Valery, Rougemont, an
only ones. The idea of equ
European history, but tha
proselytism and the secular
do the revolutionary spiri
no more so than fanaticism
autonomy is a European ac
ism, and forcing other pe
also belong to the Europea
European tradition, as is
Europe repent of its sham
more numerous than thos
One could say that in Eur
well, for one of the charact
the use of critical thinkin
This trait can be the source
fication of what is proper
what is suitable for the pr
of that past and distort re
sion of history that confo
the moment.
The overly partial nature
collection of "positives" th
only reproach to be made
first referred to. The ver
on the history of the con
identity be reduced to only
immutable collective iden
that there is are usually p
want to give a substantive
the exclusion of those who
strategy adopted nowadays
They are fervently national
are fiercely opposed to any

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ever, they show themselves to be p

which they define as a pure herita
is Christian becomes for them ano
from the territory. They even gladly
ment, understood as a simple reject
excluding believers in Islam, since
inspire a similar level of devotion.
By choosing within Europe's mult
suit them, refusing to see the incess
those who identify a stable substan
onto the past
a judgment anchored
contemporary ideal by seeking out
the present-day ideal that leads u
the past, why bother with this searc
state frankly one's current vision
then slips away from culture towa
have a universal vocation. Such is
and human rights as well as for scien
today belongs to all of humanity.
On the one hand, then, on the lev
national and regional traditions p
diversity takes precedence over un
mon, immutable European cultural
on the social or economic level, or
tive structures, the European Unio
specificity of the states that compri
constitute a European state or a Euro
that already exist. On the other hand
tradition is dissolved in universalit
turns out to be problematic in itse
up on the idea of a European ident

Plurality as a Basis of Unity

My hypothesis would be as follows: the unity of European culture

resides in its manner of handling the different regional, national, religious,
and cultural identities that comprise it by granting them a new status and
taking advantage of this very plurality. The cultural identity of Europe
does not lead to wiping out particular cultures and local memories. It
consists not in a list of proper names nor in a repertory of general ideas,
but in the adoption of one common attitude in the face of diversity.

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It is during the Enlighte

atically perceived as a val
Montesquieu ends up plea
we aspire to unity, we m
stimulates competition. Th
of opportunities for hono
the harder. The zeal of ea
by the multiplicity of grou
rality but of the intoleranc
there be several religions
philosophiques (1734), Vo
only one religion in Engla
were two, they would be at
they are living happily in
by comparing the English
which of these three natio
those who can perceive th
The idea of plurality will
clearly by the Scottish ph
the Rise and Progress of th
reflected on European ident
heritage of the Roman em
is the first to find it not
the plurality of countries
remembered, human socie
sion and thus their cultural
makes it possible to better
the old adage would need
is division that gives streng
Hume's purpose in this es
a remarkable cultural deve
reflects on the conditions
of them as "a certain num
together by trade and polit
requirement: the states th
traits as well as political and
sufficiently comparable in s
could subject the others to
ance between unity and p
The advantage of plurality
member's ability to think

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their own country are led to subm

have a chance to compare several se
easily distinguish fads or prejudices
among states incites each one to do b
time engage in critical thinking
he was outside of France, and Ne
How is it that Europe has within it
states of comparable power? As d
sees the explanation in the conti
consider the surface of the globe, E
world, the one most divided by s
In support of his thesis, Hume c
ation and two counterexamples. T
is the case for Europe, Greece pro
of "the ties of language and simil
At the same time, because of com
city-state retained a high degree
the supremacy of the others. "Thei
their intelligence." The first counte
ing the time when it was domina
uniformity brought about a "dege
from which the continent was only
first between Catholics and Ortho
and Protestants, and finally, betwe
thus became the land of pluralism t
why both were able to cultivate
counterexample is that of China
burgeoning culture, but at one poin
this fact by the lack of internal pl
ing one single language, ruled by
same way of life," which is what fa
well as of popular opinion.
Modern historians are close to sa
The European Miracle, E. L. Jon
reasons for the "European mirac
dustrialization at the beginning of
that it brought, is the right balanc
diversity gave the Europeans a cert
of thought. It was a better result t
subdivision." On the one hand, th
a certain knowledge of the practice

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according to Edmund Burk

feels entirely exiled in any
great linguistic diversity, E
guages, which for many lon
is English. The result is tha
country rapidly spreads thoug
At the same time, the exis
prevents the establishment
power. Once again, this div
the continent and the relative isolation of its fertile lands. Division can
occasionally hamper development, but in general the advantages out-
weigh the drawbacks. Let us recall how Christopher Columbus succeeds
in setting out on his inaugural voyage: turned away by one ruler in Por-
tugal, the Genoan visits another (the king of England), then a third (the
king of France), and a fourth (in Spain) before finding Queen Isabella of
Castille to sponsor his expeditions. If Europe had been a unified empire,
the refusal of the first and only ruler would have meant the end of his
plans. Similarly, Galileo was forced to interrupt his research because of
persecution from the Catholic church, but his findings were immediately
taken up and used in Protestant lands. If the same religion had been in
control everywhere, scientific inquiry would have been stopped. The
censorship imposed in one country can be escaped by publishing in the
neighboring country: whether they be temporal or spiritual, leaders are
never completely in agreement among themselves.
For centuries, Europeans have been led to coordinate ideologies of dif-
fering origins and adapt them to each other. Greek thought comes to them
through the intermediary of Roman civilization, which therefore already
was involved in a process of reinterpretation. For its part, Christianity
was grafted on an earlier religion, Judaism, which it took and directed
in a different direction following its own designs. Here we come back
to Valery's basic intuition, but without reducing identity to one heritage
or another: what is revealing is rather their very plurality. When at the
time of the Renaissance there were so many attempts to combine and
harmonize these two major currents that were already hybrids, the pro-
cess involved an activity of conversion and conceptual adaptation that
nevertheless cannot conceal the multiplicity of sources. Thanks to this
learning process, Europeans prove to be capable of adapting rapidly to
changing circumstances. The advantage that they draw from this adap-
tive ability are clearly revealed at the time of their first contacts with the
indigenous populations of America: much more quickly than is the case
for their adversaries, they understand the social organization and mental

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universe of others, which allows t

conquest and colonization.
This internal plurality goes toget
ences. Europe has always borrow
(and has lent enormously as well).
countries in the Middle Ages, Euro
the ancient Greeks, whose influen
Byzantium, but also Indian and Chi
it possible to take advantage of an
the West. What Francis Bacon, at the
called the three greatest invention
gun powder, and the printing pre
finds its way to Europe from Chin
bian canal. But Europeans do not li
because of emulation between dif
spread everywhere rapidly. Fifteen y
major European countries use the p
remains the prerogative of central
The European continent bears the
according to the myth was kidnap
and abandoned on the island of Cr
sons. Herodotus, however, gives a
legend. According to him, Europa,
(the land corresponding to present
a god, but by quite ordinary men,
Crete, giving birth to a royal dynast
to live on a Mediterranean island t
continent. This way of giving a na
to foreshadow the future vocation
marginal becomes the emblem of the
eign birth, without roots, and an i
lived at the edges, far from the cen
Cretans made her their queen, the
origins and openness to others bec

Europe in the Western World

Until recently, the question of Europe was always situated within the
wider framework of the Western World, consisting of Western Europe
and North America, more specifically the United States. The United

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States is indeed tied to the

by its "founding fathers" w
Enlightenment. The politica
incorporates large swaths o
Second World War, the ide
importance, since American
enemy, the Communist exp
lite states. For those people
"popular democracies," the
an ideal political order, the
which we lived.
However, with the collapse of the Berlin wall and the disappearance of
the Soviet experiment, this latest interpretation of the idea of the Western
World has become obsolete. Indeed, from now on, the West no longer
faces a sole antagonist. It still has enemies, to be sure, but these enemies
are spread out in different parts of the world and no longer automatically
provoke the same reactions. Accordingly, there has been a split in the
West, now deprived of the Soviet menace, between the European Union
and the United States. The contrast between the two entities has of course
existed for a long time, and has often been analyzed by historians and
sociologists. Over the last fifteen years, however, it has taken on a new
form, both on the level of political action as well as on the level of un-
derlying ideals. On the scale of centuries, it is true that fifteen years does
not mean much, but on the scale of a lifetime, it counts. This blurring of
the concept of the Western World can be interpreted in many ways, but
it cannot be ignored.
Certain differences in the reactions to recent events can be explained
by the forms that internal plurality of the population takes on each side
of the Atlantic. The United States is inhabited by an even more heteroge-
neous population than that of Europe, but on the level of foreign policy
the United States, contrary to what is the case in Europe, forms a single
state, a nation-state. This difference has several consequences. A large
number of observers were struck by the fact that, at first, the presenta-
tion of the war in Iraq by American media was quite different from its
treatment in European media, even though to a great extent these two
regions of the world share the same values and concerns. It was impos-
sible to call the professional competence of reporters into question. The
contrast between unity and plurality counts, however. American reporters
produced uniform news reports that were consonant with the declarations
of their government. It was not so much that they had been subjected
to direct pressure. It was rather that they did not compare their views

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against opinions coming from elsewh

what in the eighteenth century used
common opinion of the society in whi
hand, benefited from what in other
ness: its diversity. The European Uni
countries, each of which is in turn d
News reported in Italy does not run th
or Germany, and vice versa. In this
and therefore, truth.
Another significant difference proba
each respective region relates to his
national pride than Americans, thanks
presence of the past in their memory.
responsible in the past for catastrop
ment of dictatorships, and the explo
may explain why the self-critical re
ropean countries than in American s
the reasons why the European Union
states no longer dream of empire. The
titude in the nineteenth and in the be
but they learned their lesson painf
support of American foreign policy
not of domination). We should there
choice by Europe not so much in som
a stronger presence of the past and its
was also a pragmatic concern: the E
occupation of Iraq was going to intensi
it (and they were right).
It cannot be said, however, that th
American public opinion or that this d
is reflected in governmental policies
of view of leaders is different from
that armed conflicts between memb
unthinkable, such is not the case for r
The recent terrorist bombings in M
that such a view of things was base
not miraculously deserted the huma
for such to be the case: dormant vo
which is neutral today, may tomorr
for the most part, European countr
own defense and prefer to shelter t

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sented by NATO, the North

American control. They h
reticent to follow American
of assuming the entire resp
to align themselves with th
enthusiasm. They have even
on terrorism," and acquiesce
force intended to ensure Eur
an army promoting Western
in Afghanistan today.
Nevertheless, while an ar
United States can be ruled o
their interests coincide on e
the USSR, the government
from a hegemonic and impe
are concerned by what happ
use of force is a legitimate
international equilibriums.
recent version of American
Congress by the governmen
principles. The first: the "s
"put an end to tyranny in o
defense, the country must no
but must rather conduct a po
uncertainty remains as to the
attack." The objective is the
defense of one country's in
which lets us suppose that, un
identity, the enemies in que
without being forced to do
The EU could follow anothe
to reconcile its peoples' cho
Europeans of our time have
among which they circulate
other in the recent past, and
rest of the planet. For that
no longer mobilizes Europe
seems to be taken for grant
ments of European countrie
economic, legal, and diplom
negotiation over the use of

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everyone concerned. Europeans cou

sort of politics that would shun hege
firm. However, the recourse to arm
as a matter of principle. Europeans
a world from which all motives fo
cally disappeared.
The politics that the European Union
of the world cannot have strict equal
can aspire to an ideal of equity. Th
the moral and not legal sense. As o
account the past and the future of
context and the needs and aptitud
territory, foreign nationals cannot
it must nevertheless not be forgotten
others, driven by the same ambitio
the EU can succeed in following th
to other regions of the world by i
between its many members.
To meet the challenges posed by th
demonization of the enemy that u
just as inadequate as the angelic pos
pean debate. Concerning the United
should be tempered by the acceptat
of its inevitably multipolar nature.
seek a state of coexistence and equ
be strong enough to prevent any atte
influential to maintain a state of d
the stability of compromise, made
the respect of international treaties,
tive use of force. For its part, Euro
for itself in the form of what I ca
power without any imperial undert
its capacity to strike the adversary in
a military force at its disposal, for
pacified, and this force should be i
coincide with those of any other part
Such a move, on the part of the Un
would be a true contribution to the

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