Introducing three old ideas for a new Europe: flourishing, solidarity and care for the soul

These ideas--care for the soul, flourishing, solidarity--are ideas that according to Jan Patočka could be useful for reinterpreting our political space, in the face of a crisis which is shattering it.

Darian Meacham Francesco Tava
23 March 2015
Open Movements team


“O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?”


Plato, Apology of Socrates


Jan Patočka, 1971.

Jan Patočka, 1971. Wikicommons/Jindřich Přibík. Some rights reserved. Philosophy, the French Encyclopaedist and luminary Denis Diderot wrote, begins in incredulity. Politics, one might argue, is much the same. Diderot’s provocation was no doubt a play on the classic Greek dictum that philosophy begins in wonder. Several centuries later, in his What is Philosophy?, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote that philosophy begins in shame. This was perhaps as much a prescriptive statement as a descriptive one. The feeling, shame, that can drive us inward and into flight from the world can and should also have the opposite effect – it should drive us to question the concepts that mediate relations between institutions and people, between people and other people and between people and their own selves in our world. Indeed shame should lead us to question the fabric of our existence down to its very core.

Wonder, incredulity, shame

There is something of all three of these emotions in our project which has as its focus the philosophical idea of Europe and what reflection upon this idea can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.

For the political junkie, it’s hard not to feel a sense of wonder at the institutional and technocratic complexity and audacity involved in unifying a continent that literally consumed itself in the fires of war over a period of thirty years. The European project, in its various successive incarnations, has not only aimed to ensure that war would never again split the major powers of Europe, but also that peace would bring prosperity and a standard of living previously unattained to the European continent.

The European peace and the European social democratic welfare states did attain levels of prosperity and also equality – political, social and economic – that were unprecedented in modern industrial civilization. It is perhaps the residual wonder and promise of this project, flawed and imperfect as it was and remains, that leads to a sense of incredulity in the face of the dogmatic economic neoliberalism that has been the predominant feature of the European response to the current economic, political, and social crisis that now grips Europe, even threatening to dramatically alter the nature and character of the European project.

There is now an emerging new political reality in the European Union wherein its traditional supporters increasingly view the European Project with suspicion and growing alienation, while a new generation of right wing populists exploit fears of social and economic insecurity to promote euro- and xenophobic agendas.

Debt reduction through austerity at any cost--the mantra of a German-led Eurozone--has led to a politics of economic and social cannibalization of the southern European nations, and in particular Greece. When Greek politicians today speak of an underreported humanitarian crisis, it is not hyperbole, but hunger, mass unemployment, and disease that once again rear their heads within the European Union. Incredulity (and then resistance) is the appropriate response to the confusion of priority between markets and people.

Roma woman and child beg in front of the European Commission building.

Roma woman and child beg in front of the European Commission building. Demoted/Mircea Opris. All rights reserved.And yet, when one reads of cancer patients without basic drugs in Greece, hears of hungry children fainting in schools, comes face-to-face with a child begging for change on the Brussels or Paris metros, sees the corpses of economic refugees dragged from the sea on a daily basis, it is not just incredulity, but deep and pervasive shame that seems most appropriate. Philosophy and also politics does not end but must be spurred to vigilance by this sense of ignominy and disgrace of preventable suffering in the midst of opulent riches.

Flourishing, Solidarity, Care for the Soul     

It is in this context that it seems appropriate to turn to three, at first glance, archaic ideas to act as pivots for thinking into and perhaps out of the current situation of European crisis: flourishing, solidarity and care for the soul. Care for the soul might seem most out of place in modern political discourse, a spiritual and unscientific idea. But it’s a good place to start. The idea of caring for what should be seen as more important than mere momentary or monetary advantages, i.e. caring for what really matters in life, is an old, rather banal, and largely disregarded idea. Things change if, following Socrates, we argue that what is more important, what is really worth special care, is our own soul.

Socrates was probably the first philosopher who identified the soul with human subjectivity, with what we really are, and not with an external and divine force. He also added that this kind of soul should not primarily become an object of contemplation, or of theoretical knowledge, but rather of 'care'. In other words, the soul is not to be known, but it needs to be constantly improved through the caring action of the individual.

What is 'caring for the soul' and how does it correspond to a possible flourishing of human life? Normally people take care of their business, i.e. of their private affairs, aimed at a practical, measurable improvement of their general condition. In other words, people take care of their “lives”: that chaotic ensemble of needs, desires and fulfilments which animate our daily existence. What philosophy recommends is something different, that is taking care for our “deaths” (“melete thanatou”, Plato, Phaedo), i.e. practicing the most intimate part of our individuality, the unmentionable but still present instability of human existence.

Only by openly facing the criticality of existence, by measuring its smallness and limitedness, may people finally aim at a self-improvement. Put into a political context, this peculiar practice can easily acquire a shattering power, insofar as it tends to detach people from their immediate and positive daily tasks, revealing instead a deeper and unheard space of individuality, which inevitably threatens the stability of everyday life.

Of the many philosophers who have spoken about care for the soul, we have taken the Czech thinker Jan Patočka as a sort of hinge for our investigations. Our reason for this is that no one has been able to emphasize as strongly not only the personal and existential, but also, and especially, the political dimension that this caring for the soul and this recognition of our mortality may acquire.

For Patočka, indeed, facing our death, our own mortality fundamentally means rejecting the passive mortification which the political, with its will to power, tends to impose on us: “Mortification is death that seized our life behind our backs, draining it under the pretext of preserving it, of repeating its moments”. But the rejection of the mortification, in order to be truly effective, cannot be limited to the sphere of thought; on the contrary, it has to become a form of active struggle.

“Struggle [...] is first of all a suspension of what is mortifying in oneself [...]” (Phenomenology and the ‘Natural World’, 1967). In other words, once we are put in front of the injustices and of the inequalities that tragically mark our present, we should find the energy to switch from a state of stunned mortification, to a new condition in which we struggle to regain the importance that mortality has for human beings, refusing to consider suffering and painful death as something which can leave us indifferent, as something which can be reduced to numbers and statistics.

Speaking about the care for the soul, Patočka particularly emphasised how this idea should not be considered exclusively as a matter for the history of philosophy. On the contrary, according to the philosopher, this particular form of caring constitutes the “fundamental heritage of Europe” (Plato and Europe, 1973). Plato, in The Republic, had already made an analogy between the “soul” and the “polis”, inasmuch as they both consist in a multiplicity of elements which are in a permanent conflict against each other. Both the human being and the state could find a harmony only if their rational part was able to regulate the others. The polis that Patočka had to face, at the time he dealt with this topic, was one of political repression following the end of the Prague spring in 1968. There was no harmony between the parts then, but rather a harsh normalisation, in which all the dissenting elements within the state were subjected to a growing oppression, and banned from the public sphere.

Václav Havel, future president of Czech Republic, and close to Patočka in those years, described the life in the early 1970s in his country as a sort of “internal exile”, since the only chance for a person to preserve a space of freedom consisted in reducing it more and more, until it ended up corresponding to the sole inner being of the private citizen.

If on one hand this behaviour protected the individual from the pervading normalisation, on the other it also entailed a loss of the aforementioned analogy: the harmony of the soul had no more correspondence to the real condition of the state.

This split is at the origin of a political crisis which we can detect, in a new, even more complex situation, also in the present, when we take into consideration the general lack of interest in politics, the growing abstention from voting in contemporary democracies, and more generally the evident rift between peoples and the institutions that should represent them. This rift becomes particularly evident in the case of Europe, where the legitimacy of EU organisations is continuously called into question by populist movements, aiming to re-establish authorities based on more limited and also more attractive bases, like the national or regional state, religious or ethnic identities, and so forth.

In a context like the one described, care for the soul, in the sense that Patočka gave to this expression, consists in engaging in a struggle to regain the lost analogy between individual and institution. It means, in other words, to refuse the fact that what is true and good for the individual in its private life, loses all its legitimacy when put in the public space, outside of the limited boundaries of a private conscience. If life has to be truth-directed, as Aristotle already emphasized in his ethics, this life cannot be simply limited to a private sphere. This fundamental direction has to acquire also a political dimension. This also explains why the parrhesia, the ability of “telling everything”, without concealing anything, for convenience or for fear, i.e. the ability of both speaking freely and telling the truth, acquires an extraordinary importance within the context of political dissidence. In a situation of political normalisation and of internal exile, indeed, telling the truth means recovering that lost bond between the personal life of the individual and its public position in society. Taking care for the soul, or also “living in truth” (Havel), has this precise goal.

This activity or recovery is all but peaceful. Patočka often emphasises the bravery which is required in order to take care for the soul, in this radicalised sense of taking care for your death (i.e. of your inalienable humanity), as the only way to improve your life. Inherent in the possibility of human freedom in the element of constant danger, not only from oppressive authorities, but also from the radical questioning of one's own self and situation that care for the soul entails.

From the 1950s onwards Patočka comes to describe freedom not as a simple property, but rather as a dangerous process of liberation, which characterizes one’s entire life. A further question that should be raised here is whether this process is destined to be a lonely walk, or if a new kind of commonality can be established between those who go through this shattering experience. Trying to answer this question, Patočka introduced in the final pages of one of his most well-known works, the Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History, the idea of “solidarity”. But not a common idea of solidarity, i.e. not a simple feeling between people who discover they share the same positive beliefs, intentions, or responsibilities. Patočka speaks of a “solidarity of the shaken”, that is of a bond entirely build on the negative and shattering experience that facing one’s own mortality does entail. It is on this faint, and yet tragically strong basis that a new polis seems to be able to originate.

The idea of a new community, buildable on a negative basis, beyond stale ideologies, and also beyond the same concept of identity, which in a globalised society inevitably loses its centrality, constitutes a challenge as object of contention in philosophy and political theory. The question of whether a negative power, like the one which stems from political dissidence, can also be converted into a positive political agenda still has to be properly answered.

In the first phase of “Europe, the very Idea” we collected material regarding the situation of Europe from the perspective of the “post-” which characterizes the disenchanted insight of interpreters who strive to look for this strange phenomenon – that is Europe neither as something already durably established, nor as something inevitably lost and destined to dissolution.

With this second phase, we want now to focus our attention on these ideas--care for the soul, flourishing, solidarity--ideas that according to Patočka could have been useful (and maybe still are) to reinterpret the nature of our political space, in the face of a crisis which is shattering it. In order to do so we have asked a group of intellectuals and political activists to write contributions on these ideas, tracing their perdurable meaning and strength, but also reflecting on the particular practices and activities of those who are contributing.

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