Can Europe Make It?

Socratic citizenship in twenty-first century Europe

Here we have the formulation of the political aspect of ‘care for the soul’, the extension of this striving for truth into the realm of politics. This, according to Patočka, is the Greek heritage of Europe.

Daniel Leufer
2 July 2014

As Europe wallows in economic crisis and the voices of Eurosceptics resound across the continent, the future of the European project is precarious. From many quarters, debate about the future of European Union has been reduced to the false dichotomy of ‘stay or go’: either accept the neoliberal status quo or get out. As Chantal Mouffe points out in a recent interview, so strong is the identification between ‘Europe’ and the current neoliberal approach of the EU that the possibility of a debate about Europe in the name of Europe hardly seems to be an option. Euro-critics are almost automatically labelled Eurosceptics as if there were no place for a serious renegotiation of the goals and methods of the EU itself.

For those of us who support not only the continued existence of the EU, but even advocate its strengthening, the challenge we face is how to criticize the EU without condemning the European project as such. Some have pointed out that this will require the strengthening and increased democratization of the European Parliament and the abolition of the behind-closed-doors approach of the EU’s upper echelons. Others claim that the situation requires a horizontal or bottom-up approach, one which relies on citizens’ initiatives rather than depending on the dictates of bureaucracy. Both suggestions highlight important aspects of the problem faced by a pro-European Euro-criticism: on the one hand, the structural need for greater possibilities of democratic involvement and transparency; on the other, the need for a deeper engagement and sense of belonging between European citizens and the union which purports to represent their interests.

However, as important as these two aspects of the situation are, it could be argued that they both point to something even more fundamental which is in need of clarification: the idea of Europe, that is, Europe as a philosophical idea.

If we are concerned with establishing an open and inclusive European identity or with thinking of the European project beyond the terms of a neoliberal market economy, serious consideration must be given to the philosophical meaning of Europe. What I would like to offer in this article is one way of thinking through the philosophical idea of Europe, hopefully thereby shedding light on what underlies some contemporary debates. 

Although talk about the ‘true idea’ of Europe or of Europe as a philosophical idea can seem to reek of intellectual elitism, Eurocentrism, or even to evoke unpleasant reminders of the colonial past, the fact remains that we live in Europe, we live with the past of Europe, and the future of Europe can only be a European future. To speak of Europe as a philosophical idea does not mean to resort to some sort of naive and abstract essentialism, but rather to try to take account of what the Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka, called the European ‘heritage’.

Photograph of Jan Patočka

Jan Patočka. Jindřich Přibík/Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Jan Patočka and the Idea of Europe

For Patočka, Europe is fundamentally an idea which opens up a possibility of human communal existence. This idea emerged in Greece with the birth of philosophy and has battled for its existence, with varying degrees of success, for over 2,000 years. Writing under the oppressive conditions of 1970s communist Czechoslovakia, Patočka was a witness to one of the more miserable chapters of European history, and it was in contrast to this that he attempted to formulate his thoughts about the true meaning of the idea of Europe.

Patočka claimed that in order to understand the contemporary plight of Europe, we must look back to its origins in ancient Greece. As the reality of Europe seems once again to have fallen far below any idea or ideal, following Patočka back to these origins seems a fitting undertaking. Perhaps, as Patočka suggested, a look at these origins will help us to better understand our present predicament.

Europe, according to Patočka, is inextricably bound up with what he thinks of as its Greek heritage: ‘the care for the soul’. Now, any invocation of a notion such as the soul in contemporary political debates is likely to cause an almost unanimous cringe among secularists. However, Patočka’s use of the term is not meant to invoke any kind of nostalgia for a spiritual past, but rather to draw attention to what he sees as one of the key notions in the development of the idea of Europe, and one which is thus still relevant today.

Broadly speaking, the soul for the ancient Greeks was that part of the human being which had access to the realm of the divine. Before the emergence of philosophy, truth was something which belonged solely to the gods, something to which man had access only indirectly through oracles or soothsayers. With the birth of philosophy, human beings had started to break away from passively accepted certainties of myth and tradition and begun to take responsibility for the meaning of their lives and the world around them. When human beings attempted to gain direct access to truth, that part of them which was capable of such a transgression into the realm of the divine was the soul. What ‘care for the soul’ means then is precisely this project of living a responsible life in search of truth.

However, by rejecting the easy certainties of myth and tradition, the project of ‘care for the soul’ also put human beings into a precarious existential position. Without the authority of tradition to fall back on, these early philosophers were forced to justify their existence and their actions by virtue of their intellectual powers alone. Whereas the athlete in training could rely on the expertise of the trainer, the philosophers who set out to ‘train’ their soul had no previous expertise to rely on, but had to seek the good of the soul on their own terms. Beginning with the early philosophers such as Anaximander and Heraclitus, this search for truth took on many different forms, many of them, such as that outlined by Democritus, advocating political disengagement and intellectual isolation in order to seek out the true good of the soul.

The Socratic heritage of Europe

For Patočka, however, it is only with Socrates and Plato that ‘care for the soul’ moves beyond an individual search for truth to become truly political and thus to lay the foundations for the European project itself. Following the Peloponnesian War, Athenian society had fallen into a state of miserable corruption, first under the reign of the Thirty Tyrants, and then under the hypocrisy and secret tyranny of the restored ‘democracy’. Despite an initial unwillingness to engage in politics, the death of Socrates pushed Plato into the dangerous realm of the political as a necessary moment of ‘care for the soul’. Following Glaucon’s description of perfect justice and injustice in Book II of the Republic, we can see that Plato represents Socrates as the man of perfect justice: his entire effort is in the service of the common good. But precisely as such, this is perceived by the public to be an attempt to ‘corrupt’ Athenian society. On the other hand, Socrates’ accusers represent perfect injustice: they act in the name of nothing other than their own self-interest, and yet they deceive the public into believing that they are paragons of virtue.

What Plato saw in the trial and death of Socrates was the utter corruption of Athenian political life: Socrates, the man of perfect justice, was deemed unjust and put to death, while those whose injustice ran deepest reaped the rewards of public life. It thus became clear to Plato that it is not sufficient for the philosopher to simply contemplate the Good and the True in intellectual isolation; ‘care for the soul’ had to be extended to the level of the community: philosophy had to become political.

The heritage of Socrates, what his life and death bequeathed to all of his successors, was the demand to create a society of true justice, a society in which truth could be pursued without that pursuit threatening the life of the philosopher or the authority of the state, a society in which Socrates would not have to die.

Here we have the formulation of the political aspect of ‘care for the soul’, the extension of this striving for truth into the realm of politics. This, according to Patočka, is the Greek heritage of Europe.

As such, the idea or ideal of Europe is precisely the following: in a minimal sense, it would be a society in which truth can be pursued without the lives of those who pursue truth being endangered; or, to put it more positively, a society which allows for, facilitates, and even encourages an open and endless Socratic questioning of the common good. For Patočka, it is this very ideal which underlies the entire European project and therefore it is this ideal to which any concrete European endeavour must be compared. 

Socrates in the twenty-first century

Now, apart from being a novel interpretation of the origins of the European project, what does this tell us about our current situation? Well, the first thing to note is that Patočka claims that Europe, as the project of ‘care for the soul’ on a grand scale, is over.

According to Patočka, Europe as a philosophical idea came to an end with the First World War and had little chance of being recovered. From Patočka’s (admittedly grim) perspective in communist Czechoslovakia, the European project had taken two different directions, neither of which corresponded to the true idea of Europe: on the one hand, the flagrant injustice of totalitarianism behind the Iron Curtain; on the other, the economically driven liberal democracy of the western European countries.

Little needs to be said to convince one that the Czechoslovak communist party failed to live up to the ideal of the state of true justice. The harassment and intimidation to which Patočka, Vaclav Havel and the other signatories of Charter 77 were subjected is enough to show that such a totalitarian regime was no more hospitable to public philosophizing than Athens in the time of Socrates.

On the other side of the continent the question is more complex. Patočka himself seems to reject any political system which places economic concerns as its highest principle. He makes the argument that when mere economics is made the highest principle of a political order, what follows is a nihilistic perspective which can lead to the most unjust actions being performed under the auspices of a concern for the common good.

In this bleak vision of liberal democracy, private interest masquerades as a concern for the common good, while those in power demand ever more sacrifices from those under their power, all in the name of progress, growth and the economy (as an analysis of recent austerity measures, this seems remarkably fitting). As has been pointed out, this is precisely one of the problems which pro-Europe Euro-critics have raised. If the EU is founded upon nothing but the appeasement of banks and markets, we end up in what Patočka sees as a situation of political nihilism which cannot but alienate the people which such a system supposedly serves.

Now, according to the minimum requirements of the ‘state of true justice’, namely, that Socrates would not have to die, it could be argued that post-war liberal democracy lives up to the Patočkian ‘idea of Europe’. However, although Socrates would probably not be put to death in Merkel’s Germany, Berlusconi’s Italy, or even Thatcher’s Britain, it is highly unlikely that he would be very welcome in any of these societies or that he would flourish there.

In fact, if we extend this notion beyond the basic requirement that Socrates would not be put to death and demand that a truly just society should be one which encourages and facilitates something like mass Socratic political engagement, it looks as though the current EU would fall short of the requirements of the ‘idea of Europe’ too. As long as constant democratic engagement is seen as merely a hindrance to smooth economic functioning, the EU can legitimately be said to be turning its back on the very philosophical and political idea which underlies the European project.

What Socrates represents politically are the following: a tenacious belief in the Good as transcending any contingent worldly goods and an unlimited desire to debate questions of the Good until agreement has been found. On both counts it seems that the current structure of the EU fails to meet the requirements of facilitating what could be called ‘Socratic citizenship’. The common good according to the current system seems to be almost exclusively defined in neoliberal, and thus economic, terms. Economic growth, or stability in the worst case, is put before all other goals and used to justify crippling austerity measures which serve only to alienate people further.

The big decisions are being made outside the reach of democratic consensus, or, in disgraceful situations such as the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty, in direct contradiction to the express will of the people.

The ceaseless quest for the common good

If we reject this neoliberal conception of the common good, the obvious question which comes to the fore is: what do we replace it with? Given that questions about the common good seem hostile to consensus, it is understandable that one is sceptical of the possibility of resolving them in the public sphere. For a long time questions of economic growth seemed to do perfectly well as a replacement for questions of the common good, as long, that is, as the ‘growth equals good’ equation held up.

As faith in the neoliberal model fades, however, explicit discussion of questions of the common good must be brought to the fore. Finding consensus on questions of the common good is by no means an easy task even in a country with a relatively homogenous culture, let alone in twenty-first century Europe which boasts a diversity of cultures and opinions never seen before in its history. However, rather than shy away from the seeming insolubility of such questions in an increasingly diverse Europe, why not take this insolubility as the key to a solution?

We need not take the ultimate insolubility of questions of the common good as a sign that they should not be asked; rather, following a Socratic model, why not see this as precisely the condition of a Europe which lives up to its philosophical idea? Just as endless debate about questions of the Good characterized Socrates as a human being, let us take the indeterminacy of the common good, and debate about it, as the cornerstone of a European Union which moves beyond neoliberal calculation of the common good. Admittedly, such a suggestion is highly idealistic, and idealistic in the strong Socratic sense.

However, without something like an idea of Europe which people can believe in, what hope do we have of convincing people that the EU can be something more than a sometimes convenient, and often harmful, economistic conglomeration?

If we follow Patočka’s account of the genesis of Europe as a philosophical idea, we see clearly that Europe was born in breaking away from certainty, embracing indeterminacy, and seeing the problematicity of the question of the Good as the condition for a truly responsible life.

Europe as a philosophical idea is something which defies definitive determinations, and, as such, demands from all who participate in it a relentless commitment to questioning and re-questioning the Good, both on a personal and a communal level. So long as the EU fails to encourage something like Socratic citizenship, it fails to live up to the high idea from which it was born.

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Europe: the very idea, an openDemocracy editorial partnership supported by Social Science in the City, a public engagement initiative at the University of the West of England

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