Introducing this week’s theme: Old ideas for a new Europe

We have asked a diverse group of political activists and intellectuals to offer their reflections on these three old ideas - flourishing, solidarity and care for the soul – from the perspective of their activities and experiences.

Darian Meacham Francesco Tava
22 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.

The aim of our partnership with openDemocracy over the past months is succinctly expressed in the name that we gave to it, “Europe, the Very Idea.”

We endeavor to explore Europe as a philosophical concept and project, and to ask what use this philosophical investigation could be to concrete political discourse and problem solving. There is a certain audacity in this endeavor. It’s contained in the Very Idea part of our title.

What use could philosophical reflections, with their abstractions and idealism, be in times of economic and political crisis, when what is needed, surely, is not reflection, but hard-headed and indeed realistic actions.

We answer that philosophy can be at once completely abstract and concrete. Ideas, as one of our contributors Michael Hauser points out, are very real and stubborn things, and must be deployed in times of crisis if they are to matter.

The focus of our week as front page editors is on three very old and stubborn ideas, ideas that won’t go away no matter how derided they are by those who call themselves political realists, those who forget Carl von Clauswitz’s famous dictum that politics is the art of the possible and not simply an exercise in mitigating hopes and dampening expectations, preparing the population for tougher times ahead. The cornerstones of our week at the digital helm are the ideas of flourishing, solidarity and care for the soul.  

Why these ideas? All three resist being subsumed into a discourse where progress equals growth. Flourishing refers to living the good life - a life that cannot be measured in labour productivity or competitiveness, or material consumption, but instead points toward the exercise or at least the real material freedom to exercise our full human physical, mental and spiritual capacities. The good life must of course have a material basis, but cannot be reduced to it.

Solidarity in its strongest sense entails a kind of reciprocal trust that we have in others, that they will act to ensure our capacity to flourish as we do theirs. But solidarity in its strong sense can also demand a sacrifice, a willingness to put ourselves at risk and in danger for the sake of another, who would do the same for us.

It is care for the soul that binds all three of these ideas together. It indicates a rigorous investigation of what it is to live the good life, how the world should be structured in order to ensure the possibility of human flourishing. It also carries a critique of the ways in which the institutions and boundaries that we build separate us from others, often arbitrarily, or for reasons that are not concordant with the impetus toward flourishing.       

These ideas have a rich and fruitful history in philosophy and political thought. We have chosen to give particular focus to one key episode in that history, the thought of the Czech philosopher and political dissident, Jan Patočka. Our reasons for focusing on Patočka are varied, but have in large part to do with his living a philosophical life as a form of political dissidence against the prevailing norms of his time.

Patočka’s thought, we believe, also provides some resources for conceiving of the European project not as a positive programme of laws and institutions, but rather as a critical exigency, a way of thinking and of questioning that could eventually be called care for the soul, while maintaining a close proximity to the concepts of flourishing and solidarity. The relevance of Patočka’s thinking on Europe comes to the fore in the contributions by Niccolo Milanese, Martin Cajthaml and ourselves to this week’s proceedings.    

You might expect us just to invite a group of philosophers to contribute to this week’s contributions. We did not (a few slipped in anyway). Instead we have asked a diverse group of political activists and intellectuals to offer their reflections on these three old ideas - flourishing, solidarity and care for the soul – from the perspective of their activities and experiences. We have also asked some of our inspirational undergraduate and Masters students to offer their reflections on the importance of these ideas.   

In order to clarify in the best possible way our intent, we begin this editorial week with a new article written by us, in which we explain why it is still worth dealing with “care for the soul”, “flourishing”, and “solidarity”.  We hope this will guide the reader in the direction we mean to take over the following few days.

On Tuesday, we get into the core of the project. Duncan McCann, researcher at the New Economics Foundation, explores in his article how monetary systems, far from being neutral means, can play a major role in structuring the society that has adopted them, opening and closing possibilities for human activity and flourishing.

An accompanying insight into economics and social life will be provided by Athenian Lawyer and political activist, Vassilis Karamitsanis, who examines the question of flourishing from the perspective of crisis-ravaged Athens. But Karamitsanis reveals a city far from wallowing in tragedy. Giving an overview of the last three decades in his beloved city, he looks to what systems of support and even resistance have emerged amidst savage unemployment, depression and even hunger. And what lessons might Athen's fabled democratic citizens have for the rest of Europe. 

On Wednesday we turn from flourishing to care for the soul and concreteness of ideas. Michael Hauser, Czech philosopher and founder of the civic organization Socialistický kruh (Socialist Circle), emphasizes in his contribution the decline of confidence which is characterising the European project. Is there any chance to invert this negative trend? According to him, the loss of the security previously provided by traditional political structures represents not only a risk, but also a chance for people to bring ideas such as solidarity, justice, and freedom back into politics in a new sense. 

Chair of European Alternatives Niccolo Milanese also refers to the current Europe situation and crisis, recalling the figure of Patočka, and highlighting how his philosophical and also political message can be interpreted as an attempt to understand the European Union and its crisis in the light of a wider context: European history, as Patočka envisaged and criticised it. The Czech Philosopher Martin Cathjami offers an account of Patočka’s concept of care for the soul in relation to contemporary European politics. 

On Thursday, Gáspár Miklós Tamás, Hungarian intellectual and president of the Left-Greens, discusses workers’ solidarity movements and their relation to contemporary solidarity movements that are emerging in Europe. 

On Friday we republish our initial project manifesto Life after Europe and the critique of it offered by Simon Glendinning, professor of European Studies at the LSE. We take the opportunity to respond and continue what we think to be a constructive dialogue.

The last word goes to our students in Bristol and Milan who had the opportunity to study our three core concepts – Flourishing, Solidarity and Care for the Soul – at UWE, Bristol and the University of Milan over the past year. They offer their thoughts and reflections. The future of these ideas will, after all, be in their hands.  


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