Do you remember playing with a kaleidoscope? This old toy was, in fact, an optical instrument, cylinder in shape, with bits of coloured glasses, beads and mirrors hidden inside. Each time you would give it a shake, a new design was formed as if by magic. The impossibility of predicting the result was great fun and the endless possibilities captivating.

Comparing the political map of Europe throughout the centuries always reminded me of the old kaleidoscope: a conflict, a war, a treaty or a marriage would alter, provisionally, always provisionally, borders and the balance of power. In the last fifty years we were led to believe that it was possible to build a new colourful and multi-layered pattern; the result – the European Union – though hard to achieve, would be everlasting.

Embracing the many different languages, mores, religions and cultures, in 2004, George Steiner published The Idea of Europe (George Steiner, A Ideia de Europa, Lisboa, Gradiva, 2004, 55 pp.). In this essay he focus in what he believes are some of the fundamental identity traits common to all the different populations who inhabit this very fluid and imprecise space that we like to call Europe; by the force of a common will, this new kaleidoscopical construction – the EU – would achieve what centuries of wars, marriages, invasions and conquests were never able to do: a unity that acknowledged and respected differences. Steiner’s optimistic essay pin points and underlines five main ideas.

First:  Europe was planned and dreamt in coffee shops. This is a reminder that, since the last years of the 18th Century throughout Europe in different ways and with more or less exclusions (class, gender), many forms of sociability and public life occurred in coffee shops, café terraces and pubs. Around a pot of tea, a cup of coffee, a glass of wine or a pint of beer, a public sphere(in the sense discussed by Habermas) was built in these informal gatherings; there, you would easily find men discussing philosophy, talking politics, plotting a revolution, commenting on sports or merely meddling in neighbours life and local affairs.

Second: Europe was always and still is easily travelled by foot. Daily news show us refugee camps established in Italy, Greece, Spain, the Balkans and in France; they are stopping points in a long via sacra mainly travelled by foot. The relatively easy geography has always invited wandering, journeys and pilgrimages. The territory of Europe is a human built landscape, the result of these crisscrossing paths. How could culture – language, rhetoric, philosophy, poetry and music – not show it? Thought develops according to the rhythm of steps, arguments progresses in walks around the square (as Socrates and his disciples showed us), and some of the most significant European literary works take place during a voyage (from Homer, to Chaucer and Joyce). Steiner reminds us that is not by chance that we call poetic feet to the poetic cadence (in French l’enjambement, in Portuguese o pé poético). Music depends on compasses (from the Latin com + passus, meaning with steps) and the recourse to musical repetition (da capo) ensures, as it does in discourse, that the path already travelled is not forgotten.

Third: European cities and towns build in a quasi-obsessive way collective memory. Statues in squares and street signs celebrate great men, awesome achievements; they tell us names, dates and events. Everybody knows Trafalgar Square in London, Place Victor Hugo in Paris and Praça Marquês de Pombal or Alameda D. Afonso Henriques in Lisbon. Memory almost becomes a burden; luckily we all know as well that memory is built on forgetfulness and, most importantly, we know that memory is always the result of interpretations and/or manipulations. Every now and then the statue is destroyed or replaced; the monument gets a new meaning, the name of the street is altered. It does not really matter because time and the new name will built a new memory.

Fourth: European culture is doubly and strongly rooted in classical (Greek and Roman) and Hebrew/Christian traditions. Music, poetry, theatre, mathematics, philosophy, scientific vocabulary and law originated in the Mediterranean cultures – with many significant contributions from the Arabic culture. Political and Ethical thought, the rights and duties of citizens, the questioning of the problematic relationships between the word and the world, between ideal and real have been present since Antiquity; rethinking them, renovating them have been the work of many European thinkers throughout the centuries and they have been endlessly questioned and reproduced in schools and universities. No matter what religion was professed and even when no religion was admitted, European culture is a secularization of a Book teaching in the way that questions the relations between the self, the other and the transcendence.

Lastly, a fifth idea that is inseparable from the previous ones: European culture is deeply aware of an end; or, as Steiner phrased it, European culture has a deep scatological conscience. And yes, it could not be otherwise: in the words of the Bible, God created the world from nothing. And nothing is an foreign concept for any other culture. The Greeks and the ancient Romans, Hindus and Chinese always admit a unique and permanent chaos from which the gods create a certain order; after a certain cycle, each and all of us return to this original chaos in an endless cycle of repetitions and transformations. Time is only a gap between each new beginning and its outcome. Now, postulating the existence of anything is to admit the existence of an alpha and, of course, an omega that give meaning to the course of existence, individual and/or collective. Of course, one can imagine very diverse endings: the unearthly paradise, the Fifth Empire, the realization of socialism, the idea of Europe or the Federation of Galaxies. Believing one of them is the key to action and reflection about the past, about the present and the future, about what we valued and what we reject. From the inaugural nothing, the arrow of time, linear and upward, unique and unrepeatable, necessarily leads to a particular purpose, in a dialectical way that accounts each and every one, because the human being becomes the engine of the action.

At the end of the essay, Steiner reminds us that the kaleidoscope does not offer a still image. Good, I would say! It’s time to ask ourselves again about the meaning of our Europe. And if these five ideas are not enough, they may be a good starting point for a reflection based not merely on fear.


This post was originally written in Portuguese. Click here for the original text.