Cases for considering the European Tradition: Islam and America

This post is intended to explore and expand on my previous post discussing The European Tradition. I have also since writing it considered an important correction which should be made to some of the analysis in this post which I have detailed in the new post “Note of correction to “Cases for considering the European Tradition: Islam and America”

For this purpose, I am going to take two case studies to examine the potential and limitations of change in a tradition, in this case the European tradition.

There is much talk about the increasing presence of Islam in Europe. The question for this post is, can the presence of Islam contribute to the European tradition?

First, it must be stated that Islam is not part of the European tradition. Its origins are not European and its goals have not been to strengthen Europe. From that fact one can deduce that the incorporation of Islam into Europe is not in itself an addition to the European tradition but an addition of something foreign to that tradition. The story of Islam in Europe is rather part of a history of the Islamic tradition, as well as the traditions of any people who hold to that belief. If a European converts to Islam, they are joining another tradition. These are simple statements of facts.

The question is then, can Islam contribute to the European tradition? In order for Islam to contribute to the European tradition, it would have to do so on the grounds of that tradition, not in spite of those grounds or in opposition to them. Are there tenants of Islam which would strengthen the pre-existing goals and values of Europe without undermining their tradition? That is not a question which will be addressed in this post.

It might be worth considering the introduction of Christianity into Europe, which instigated a break with Greek and Roman religion and the basis of their values. The case of Rome is both complicated and illumining in this regard. Because of Rome’s nature as an expansionist empire, the region of Judea was incorporated into the Roman empire. While the provinces of Rome were generally not granted equal rights of citizenship, there was nonetheless a regional incorporation into the empire.

This is worth considering in relation to Islam in Europe today. One might be tempted to say that the incorporation of Muslim peoples into Europe today is equivalent of the incorporation spoken of above, and that the tenants of liberalism justify such an incorporation, but there are certain important differences. Most importantly is the difference of the incorporation of land into the Roman empire. The reason for this is that geography and tradition are intimately linked, in that not all policies can be effectively applied upon every location because the conditions which affect locations differ. This means that measures for social organization will differ in various locations as well as the ideas which contribute to effectively dealing with those conditions including value-systems.

Another important consideration is that Rome did not adopt Judaism but Christianity which later arose within the new boarders of the Roman empire. In addition, the developing Christianity was not simply a re-branding of Judaism for Rome but instead made reference to the new climate, including certain gospels of the New Testament being written in Greek, as well as Epistles to the Romans becoming part of the Christian gospels.

It should also be considered that after Christianity became the state religion of Rome, the empire fell within a hundred years. That means that the story of Christianity is intimately entwined with the fall of Rome and the origins of a new era in the West. It must also be considered that neither Rome nor other regions of pagan Europe adopted Christianity as a replacement for their current practices but rather transformed Christianity, evinced in Church iconography as well as its assimilation in Northern countries most clearly evinced in the Epic tradition with such examples as Beowulf and the Icelandic Sagas. Also, insofar as Europe was not unified before Charlemagne, one cannot even speak of a European tradition proper before the inception of Christianity but rather things like Germanic, Celtic, Icelandic, and so on.

I would like to round this post off by saying a few words about America, as it demonstrates an interesting case for thinking about the European condition. When answering the question, is the United States European? The answer must be ambivalent and somewhat equivocal. To be clear, I am speaking about the political entity of the united states and not the continent.

First, the origins of America was the colonization of European powers by European peoples. This is of primary importance. But when the United States declared independence from Britain, they were effectively severing important ties from Europe and its condition. This does not automatically qualify the United States as being non-European, because it could simply be a growth of the European idea. What it did do was increase the potential for America to become something non-European.

To explain, the declaration of independence as well as the constitution of the United States is founded in large part upon ideas which developed in Europe and by those with ancestry to Europe, but the act of independence made possible the development of new ideas upon the continent to be something which is not European, namely American. That means, by carving out the potential of a new trajectory, the Americans made it possible to become something other than European. To this must be added the difference of geography as well as the presence of other peoples on the continent, most importantly the natives of America. The natives have played a significant role in the development of American ideas, evinced clearly in foundational works of American literature such as The Last of the Mohicans. The case is the same with the significant presence of Africans in America, whose history and narratives have also played a significant role in the development of American consciousness. Most importantly, this was a consciousness which developed separately and as something other than that of Europe proper.

These considerations have been intended to aid the consideration of what tradition is and how it develops with particular focus on the European Tradition.


Some Thoughts on Purpose in Life

When asking the question about the meaning or purpose of human life, one must be clear about what humans are capable of. A meaningful account of human capability cannot assert that humans are capable of anything or anything they can imagine, because in reality we always operate within limits of circumstances, qualities, and effects.

What I mean by that is that as humans we have certain biological qualities and the world has certain physical qualities and forms, and all of the elements in existence have a given way of interacting with each other. Even if one wishes to change biology, there are not only certain limits to such a possibility but a set of necessary procedures which must take place in order to enact a change.

All of that is to say, human purpose, if there is to be a purpose at all, whether innate or self-given, must be within the realms of the potential. This can be taken a step further by relating it to what Heidegger calls ‘thrownness’ (Geworfenheit). Your purpose, and the purpose of every living human at any given time, is also necessarily in a relationship with your specific circumstances.

These circumstances can be understood in degrees. It can be understood in terms of the knowledge and skills you currently possess, the temporal location you currently inhabit, the qualities of the society you currently inhabit, the means within that society to accomplish various acts as well as the degree to which you personally are capable of utilizing those means, and so on in this manner.

In this sense, so far from our potential and our purpose being an astounding ‘anything’, it is in truth quite limited.

I would like to change gears for a moment and mention some things of relevance to life in industrial and post-industrial societies. Life and potential in these societies is to a large extent shaped by policies which seek to channel human effort and exertion. The most apparent form of this is through a regular life course through the school system which not only sets the tasks which will be performed but also the extent of the information which a student will be exposed to.

A student at school does not simply learn a set of skills and acquire a base of information which can subsequently be freely applied to a receptive environment. Not only curriculums but the manner in which students are taught are intended to be matched to pre-existing conditions and institutions within society. This in turn contributes to a process of autopoiesis, or societal self-replication.

The implication to which I am pointing in the above consideration is that, within the limits of human potential, a society, through its decision-making structures which are then applied in its institutions, makes value judgements about which information about the world will be imbued to coming generations as well as which skills can be most valuably applied by them in the world.

The school system is, of course, not the only way in which humans and in particular children gain knowledge and skills which impact their subsequent self-direction in the world, but it is surely the most prominent and organized mode of teaching and social organization in respect to the early stages of development.

Much more could be said about various institutions in society, laws, regulations, effects of various taxes, as well as about the influence and impact of parenting strategies and the media, but what has already been said has contributed some of the tools necessary for making such inquiries. Other considerations could certainly be relevant particularly as concerns learning, such as, is one passive or active? That is to say, is one merely a receptor or a participant in the creation of knowledge? Such a consideration certainly has a large impact on questions of self-determination and therefore the potential for purpose in life.

To return to the general question of purpose in human life: Purpose implies potential. That potential will be either self-guided or else channelled by certain pressures and forces within the world. In either case, that direction is based upon value judgements about what the ends of our actions will be.

To give an example, if one merely works to sustain oneself, then the ends of one’s life is merely to survive. If one survives for the sake of something more, then it is towards that or those things to which one’s purpose is directed.

But even that does not conclude a full consideration of our purpose, because the aims that either we may have or others may have for us, nor the immediate events of our lives, do nor bracket our presence and effects in the world. Our presence and our actions also impact the world to degrees beyond our intentions and awareness. For example, we may have impacts on the people we meet either by the way we treat them or even how they perceive us. We may, through changes we effect in the environment, impact the effects which emanate from the environment, whether one is speaking in physical terms or in terms of an atmosphere of ideas.

These are all factors which must be taken into account in any serious consideration of purpose in human life.


Europe, A History of Progress? Pt. 2

Part 1:

The Enlightenment philosophers of the Scientific Revolution and Age of Enlightenment continued to make defer to God with relation to all of their ideas, but particularly those of morality. With an argument that possesses echoes of Francis Bacon’s formulation of God’s will in nature, John Locke wrote: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker” (Two Treaties on Government, Book II, Chapter 2, Section 6)

The ideal of liberty would continue to guide the vision of an enlightened society until the French Revolution and beyond. As an absolute ideal, liberty knows no bounds and any idea of boundaries can be seen as a restraint upon that liberty.

Many of the Romantic artists were either admirers of the French Revolution or at least passionate devotees of liberty. In the realm of art and aesthetics they unseated the Classical and Neoclassical notion that beauty, and thus the artist’s ability to conjure forth that beauty, is an objective quality which follows a defined set of principles, among them symmetry, proportion, and harmony. Instead, the Romantics claimed that art was the result of individual genius making manifest his inner inspiration.

The independence of art from given rules was taken further and then famously championed by Théophile Gautier with the formulation “L’art pour l’art” or “Art for the sake of art”. The implications of this slogan were that art was separated from any guiding principle, any core set of values which become manifest through creation and inspire by those witness that creation. Consider this in light of Percy Shelley’s remark in his Defence of Poetry that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Europe was on a trajectory towards positivism, having first passed through the Critique of Pure Reason.  But an issue lurked in the background which would haunt thinkers in the later years of the 19th century which stemmed from the fact that an empirical method cannot discover values  as values do not appear in observable facts but are an aspect of human relation to those facts.

After the spread and contemplation of the ideas of Darwin, the European mind would enter into a state of crisis regarding belief in the existence of God. The implications of this crisis can be illustrated by the words which Dostoevsky gives to his character Kirilov in his work Demons part 3, chapter 6, II: “If there’s no God, then everything is my will, and I’m bound to express my self-will.”

The question was then, where does the free will discover the foundation of values by which the self is guided in the world? In order for there to be progress, there must be a value towards which one is oriented and so can judge the difference between that progress and its opposite, deterioration.

Europe, A History of Progress? Pt. 1

There is always a case to me made that human history is progressive insofar as it is in the nature of humanity, through education, to pass down skills and knowledge to the next generation which are successively refined and put to use in forming the environment into a more hospitable place.

Therefore, a progressive history could be written which takes as its focus particularly the development of knowledge and skills over successive generations, thus making a case for a history of progress.

The development of philosophy in Classic Greece, particularly what is called either Socratic philosophy or political philosophy, would form an important step in the development of human knowledge. Why should political philosophy take precedence over a focus on something akin to early science which was a coterminous development? My answer is that despite the paramount importance of developments in science and other skills such as architecture and engineering, political philosophy brought with it a consciousness of how individuals and states would organize their affairs, which goals they would focus on, and what kind of a people would be consciously cultivated to achieve those goals in succeeding generations. In other words, political philosophy was the means by which humanity took conscious control of its own destiny.

From the time of philosophy’s birth there arose an issue regarding the philosophical viability of values and whether relativism was not a more clear-thinking way of understanding the basis of value judgements. This issue was at the heart of all of Socrates’ discussions with the sophists in the works of Plato. In a number of works, but most importantly The Republic and the Phaedo, Socrates ultimately relies on “salutary” myths to defend a moral position. (The most explicit discussion of this is in The Republic, Book II, 376e-377d, alternately Book II as a whole.)

One may even notice certain similarities between the myths often told by Socrates, in the Phaedo and Gorgias, for example, and the account of the Christian afterlife. What should then might be considered is the status of Christianity in Europe. The Gospel of John begins with the phrase “Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγοςgenerally translated “In the beginning existed the word and the word existed with the god and a god was the word.”, but what is being translated here as “word” is the Greek word “λόγος” or “logos”, which by that time had a distinct history in the region derived from its centrality in philosophy. Logos was used as and explained to mean reason. The implications of this were, of course, that God was understood to be identical with reason. It has been argued that this accounts for the centrality of philosophy in Western civilization.

A watershed moment in the philosophy history of Europe was the Renaissance. Among other things, we have the divorce of logos from the authority of the bible, instigated, among others, by Niccolo Machiavelli when he wrote, in Book 1, Chapter LVIII: “I neither do, nor ever shall judge it a fault, to support opinion by arguments, where it is not sought to impose them by violence or authority”. We also know that Machiavelli was both familiar to and an influence upon, among others, Francis Bacon, due to the numerous references to him in his essays and The Advancement of Learning. Francis Bacon, in turn, contributed to a shift in the understanding of reason in Europe when he wrote:

“For our Saviour saith, “You err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God;” laying before us two books or volumes to study, if we will be secured from error: first the Scriptures, revealing the will of God, and then the creatures expressing His power; whereof the latter is a key unto the former: not only opening our understanding to conceive the true sense of the Scriptures by the general notions of reason and rules of speech, but chiefly opening our belief, in drawing us into a due meditation of the omnipotency of God, which is chiefly signed and engraven upon His works.” (The Advancement of Learning VI, 16)

The bolded quote gives one a deeper understanding of Bacon’s intention with the empirical method, namely to advance the education of humanity through the reading of “His works”, ie. the phenomenal world.

Link to part 2:

Periodizing Eras of European History

Periodizing the eras of European history is a useful way of studying and understanding European history as it helps one to remember more monumental chunks of that history and make simple associations among the elements within those chunks.

It can also be misleading for a number of reasons. Not all works or events within a given period will necessarily share an enough similarity to make their grouping easily understood.

An example of that issue is in the period of the Renaissance, if one compares for example the work of Desiderius Erasmus with that of his Italian contemporaries. What is most apparently lacking in the former is the spirit of classical antiquity, in particular that of Rome, which makes the word Renaissance (Rinascimento) so apt for the Italians and, for example, the works of Montaigne.

Another criticism of the periodization of history is that it obscures continuity between eras, perhaps even causes important influences to be lost or forgotten as they do not fit into the constructed scheme.

For an example of this one could point to the relatively unheard of, at least by non-Italians, Sicilian vernacular poetry which would come to have a great influence on Petrarch and Dante, among others. It was also a member of the Sicilian school, Giacomo da Lentini, who is credited with the creation of the sonnet.

The most glaring issue, from my perspective, with this method of classification is highlighted by the period of roughly the mid-16th through the 17th century for which a number of different categories are used, namely the Renaissance, Reformation, Baroque, and the Scientific Revolution. The problem is that these diverse trends can be hard to square in the mind of students of European history.

It is true that, for example, Baroque refers mainly to an artistic style, whereas the Reformation refers to a split and reorganization within the church system of Europe, so that one might say there is really no issue at all. Insofar as it is the reality, it is true, but the problem is rather that by breaking a single period into a number of independent trends, the student risks being unable to conceptualize the period as a whole.

So, while such periodization is entirely acceptable for highlighting specific events and trends in a period, it becomes less helpful for seeing a time as a unity. Such a defect might be remedied by seeing the Baroque as tied to the Counter-Reformation within the catholic church. Nonetheless one must be careful that by the use of periodization one does not rather obscure than illuminate what is under consideration.

Still, despite these and many other criticisms, I would defend the practice of periodizing history if only because it is a useful aid, if accompanied by some minor cautions, to learning about and discussing the history of Europe. It operates as a schema to which additional considerations and nuances can easily be added.

The European Tradition

This post is intended for an open discussion rather than a definitive statement.

One helpful way of conceptualizing the European Tradition is through a historical and developing canon of great works, whether literary, artistic, or philosophic.

Another question might be, does a work need to possess certain ideas or qualities in order to be considered part of the European tradition?

My own answer would be a somewhat ambivalent yes. In order to be part of the European tradition, a work must be in conscious dialogue with that tradition and on behalf of that tradition and therefore not on behalf of another tradition foreign to Europe. A marginal case might be a work which is in dialogue with the living customs and traditions of Europe in a local and geographical level, yet still on behalf of that tradition and not on behalf of a tradition foreign to Europe.

Because in our modern day, Europe and other western societies have developed under the influence of many great works, even dialogue on the local level which mean to be conscious of the European tradition would do well to be conscious of precedents in great works, thinkers, and actors from the past.


The Central Importance of Beauty

The pursuit of beauty has lately gone out of fashion, whereas for thousands of years it was held to be one of the highest values. This movement away from beauty has gone even so far as to view beauty with suspicion and even open hostility, laying the blame upon its pursuit for those who do not or cannot live up to its ideals. As a result and to everyone’s loss, tactics have been mobilized against beauty, such as claiming its total subjectivity, and little by little standards of beauty have begun to vanish. This can be seen most acutely in the state of modern architecture, but even in modern art.

What must needs therefore be done is to inform people what beauty is and why it is important. To begin with, beauty relates to our highest ideals and natural human goods. A beautiful person, for example, exhibits the qualities of health and strength and is therefore capable. In matters of personality, beauty is envinced by courage and intelligence. These are ideals which humans benefit by living up to and looking up to, in oneself and in others.

Beautiful forms are often expressions of order or harmony and thus give structure and clarity to the mind which in turn helps us to overcome our doubts and indecision.

Beauty inherently leaves room for variation. In its classical form, it is characterized by a graceful arrangement across which the eyes may glide without any glaring elements which would shock or jar the senses, but beauty can also take the form of the picturesque, where the surprising is artfully arranged to fill the observer with delight and awaken in him longing, excitement, and even fond memories. The sublime is likewise a form which beauty might take, with the effect that the observer is overcome by the grandeur of what lies before him. The scene may be one of mystery or magnificence which awakens the mind with wonder at our very existence.

It is the work of beauty, as the core of art, to inspire and let the witnesses know that there is more to life than their animal needs and remind them that they too are capable of pursuing higher goals if only they would set out with passion and determination.

Beauty as a value is antithetical to the economic mindset, as in beauty value is understood in terms of natural wealth. An uncultivated piece of nature is economically unproductive, but the joy and meaning it can bring to one’s life is beyond measure. If one was made to forego all proximity to beauty and live out one’s days in an entirely industrial landscape of warehouses and concrete, every sum of money would instantly lose all worth.

The pursuit of beauty means making the world into more than it was when we found it, and in this we can take inspiration from the work of Capability Brown:

and we must ask ourselves why, when there is already so much cause for despair in the world, one would waste one’s effort to contribute to it further rather than spending one’s time cultivating the world into a place worth living.

Finally, we must all come to better understand what is meant by tradition, another concept which is sorely misunderstood in our time. Tradition is not a meaningless reptition of formalistic techniques or empty rituals. Tradition is the sum of all meaning expressed in the past, whether in art, thought, or action. To be engaged with tradition is to be engaged in a meaningful dialogue with both the past on behalf of the present and the present on behalf of the past.