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Heretical Europe: Jan Patočka as symbol of dissident contingency

Post-Europe, for Patočka, must be acutely aware of its own contingency even when it proclaims (above all when it proclaims) the sanctity of universal principles.

Niccoló Milanese
25 March 2015
Europe, the Very Idea

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.


Claude Lorraine’s Coast scene with Europa and the bull, detail (1634). Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.

Claude Lorraine’s Coast scene with Europa and the bull, detail (1634). Wikicommons. Some rights reserved.The term ‘euro-skepticism’, as it is usually deployed, creates a kind of idiocy in public debate by assimilating many diverse positions. We can sketch at least three possible positions (all of which would require further clarification).

One thing would be to be opposed to the European Union in principle – opposed to the very possibility of a Union between European peoples or countries. Nationalists we can assume would fall into this category, although there are nuances here (one could be nationalist and in favour of the United Nations, but not the European Union, for example, or opposed to all kinds of internationalism).

Another thing would be criticism of the current European Union and its policies, which we can assume is a very widely held view at the moment, but does not equate to denying the possibility of the EU as such – indeed, criticism of this kind could be taken to be an affirmation of the possibility and desirability of an alternative European Union.

A third thing again would be to adopt a skeptical approach in general to all politics, following diverse philosophical, religious and scientific traditions which all assert the importance of doubt and questioning in our search for truth or justice.

What is more, there is a further distinction between Europe and the European Union which gets lost both in public debate and in the European Union’s own narrative for ideological reasons. The European Union is a unique and difficult to define political institution (an ‘unidentified political object’ as former President Jose Barroso described it). Europe, on the other hand, is a mythical figure, a geographical signifier with no clear boundaries, perhaps a ‘civilisation’, a subject of history and an object of political, philosophical, ethical and poetic reflection and imagination for thousands of years.

The European Union often talks about itself as ‘Europe’ (something highly frustrating to all those people who consider themselves European but not yet part of the European Union, but also for all those who want to maintain some autonomy for the rich intellectual European tradition).

But it is one thing to be critical or skeptical of the European Union as a political institution; quite another thing to be critical of Europe as a civilization, historical figure or even literary motif. As is often the case in confused public debate, which smacks of ideological mystification, the distinction is currently exploited best by right-wing populists. The UKIP MEP Roger Helmer is very proud of his car-bumper sticker reading ‘Love Europe, hate the EU’ (no doubt benefiting from the lack of border controls in mainland Europe as he drives around showing it off).

Patočka shines a light

Amidst all this confusion and obfuscation, the person and symbol of Jan Patočka stands for me as a lightening rod. Heretical and skeptical in the best theological, philosophical and political senses, dying under political repression, Socrates-like for challenging the state’s claims to absolute truth and organizing resistance against it, Patočka’s thought and biography are sufficiently charged and grounded in European history and reflection to light up the insufficiency of our current European debate, and to provide some terms which can help us.

Patočka’s historiography of Europe-after-Europe, or Post-Europe, allows us to take a stance that is at once highly critical of Europe’s bloody and murderous history, and acknowledges that the consequences of history bestow upon us a particular responsibility as Europeans who inherit this past. This is all the more so when we in have many ways benefited from the violence that was inflicted on others. We can think that the European Union or some version of it is the most responsible political mechanism for addressing this conflicted and contradictory history, a history which goes well beyond questions of war and peace to include colonialism, the destructiveness of European technological and economic progress, and deep anti-human components of European thought.

Patočka’s thought helps us to see the European Union as a potential consequence of European history, without identifying Europe and the European Union, nor seeing the EU as the ultimate point in a historical teleology of progress or reconciliation. The EU – like any political construct – is fully open for political critique and contestation in Patočka’s thought, and it is justified not in terms of political progress, but rather in terms of ethical responsibility.

During these hard times for pro-Europeans, when the inadequacies of the Union and indeed the disastrous consequences of its current policies both outside and inside its borders seem all too apparent, Patočka’s position is sufficiently complex to acknowledge the ethical and moral contradictions of politics, whilst also asserting that it is our duty to keep on travelling towards a European ideal we know we can never totally reach.

Even more important, Patočka’s anti-totalitarianism, expressed politically in his insistence on human rights and democracy through the Charter 77 movement, and profoundly in his philosophical writing, belies all those who claim to have, or call for, ‘final’ answers to political problems. Patočka’s insistence on human rights – often seen to be in some kind of tension with his ‘asubjective’ phenomenological approach -  is at once an insistence on human contingency and radical liberty. The Charter states “The idea of human rights is nothing other than the conviction that even states, even society as a whole, are subject to the sovereignty of moral sentiment: that they recognize something unconditional that is higher than they are, something that is binding even on them, sacred, inviolable.”

Patočka relates this absolute character of human rights to the Greek idea of ‘care for the soul’, and his point seems to be that human rights are prior to our existence in the world and protect the humanity of human kind: they are the guarantee of the very possibility of our caring for our souls, because they guarantee the possibility of self-expression, the right to assembly, the right to a free press. These human rights protect the possibilities we have to pursue our self-care individually and collectively, which is something never totally achieved.

Here there is an important break with what Patočka takes to be the Platonic ideal of care-for-the-soul, in which it is possible for humans to become god-like in knowing what the ideal human life is. Patočka’s heretical Christianity, his analysis of the mysterium tremendum, that the truth of God cannot totally be revealed, means that no one, and no state, can have a definitive answer to moral, ethical or political questions, and thus must leave space for contestation, experimentation and alternatives to appear.

If we relate this to the current European Union, and its policies in many areas but most noticeably the ‘moralising’ that has gone on around the debt-crisis and austerity, we could draw many lessons about the risks of totalitarian tendencies in Europe and the vital importance of maintaining democratic and human rights. Post-Europe, for Patočka, must be acutely aware of its own contingency even when it proclaims (above all when it proclaims) the sanctity of universal principles.

The deeply Christian commitment of Patočka’s thought is its most problematic aspect for those of us who want to use his terms in a secular or atheistic way in the pursuit of Europe, something that seems ever more important in an age of renewed religious wars. But Patočka’s heretical approach to Christianity, as well as his engagement with other religions of the book, are also perhaps a reminder that in insisting on secularity in the public sphere, there is a risk that we become more dogmatic than ever before, each in our silos: heresy relies on the possibility of dissidence, and Patočka’s vision of solidarity is one where vibrant public debate--also on spiritual life--is the most authentic way of living together.

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