The Idea of Europe, George Steiner



The Idea of Europe
by George Steiner

Lightning-rods have to be grounded. Even the most abstract, speculative of ideas must be anchored in reality, in the substance of things. What, then, of ‘the idea of Europe’?

Europe is made up of coffee houses, of cafés. These extend from Pessoa’s favourite coffee house in Lisbon to the Odessa cafés haunted by Isaac Babel’s gangsters. They stretch from the Copenhagen cafés which Kierkegaard passed on his concentrated walks, to the counters of Palermo. No early or defining cafés in Moscow, which is already a suburb of Asia. Very few in England after a brief fashion in the eighteenth century. None in North America outside the gallican outpost of New Orleans. Draw the coffee-house map and you have one of the essential markers of the ‘idea of Europe’.

The café is a place for assignation and conspiracy, for intellectual debate and gossip, for the flâneur and the poet or metaphysician at his notebook. It is open to all, yet it is also a club, a freemasonry of political or artistic-literary recognition and programmatic presence. A cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a tea with rum secures a locale in which to work, to dream, to play chess or simply keep warm the whole day. It is the club of the spirit and the poste-restante of the homeless. In the Milan of Stendhal, in the Venice of Casanova, in the Paris of Baudelaire, the café housed what there was of political opposition, of clandestine liberalism. Three principal cafés in imperial and inter-war Vienna provided the agora, the locus of eloquence and rivalry, for competing schools of aesthetics and political economy, of psychoanalysis and philosophy. Those wishing to meet Freud or Karl Kraus, Musil or Carnap, knew precisely in which café to look, at which Stammtisch to take their place. Danton and Robespierre meet one last time at the Procope. When the lights go out in Europe, in August 1914, Jaurès is assassinated in a café. In a Geneva café, Lenin writes his treatise on empirio-criticism and plays chess with Trotsky.

Note the ontological differences. An English pub, an Irish bar have their own aura and mythologies. What would Irish literature be without the bars of Dublin? Where, if there had not been the Museum Tavern, would Dr. Watson have run into Sherlock Holmes? But these are not cafés. They have no chess-tables, no newspapers freely available to clients on their hangers. It is only very recently that coffee itself has become a public habit in Britain, and it retains its Italian halo. The American bar plays a vital role in American literature, in the iconic charisma of Scott Fitzgerald and Humphrey Bogart. The history of jazz is inseparable from it. But the American bar is a sanctuary of dim lightning, often of darkness. It throbs with music, often deafening. Its sociology, its psychological fabric are permeated by sexuality, by the presence, hoped for, dreamt of or actually of women. No one writes phenomenological tomes at the table of an American bar (cf. Sartre). Drinks have to be renewed if the client is to remain welcome. There are ‘bouncers’ to expel the unwanted. Each of these features defines an ethos radically different from that of the Café Central or the Deux Magots or Florian. “There will be mythology so long as there are beggars”, said Walter Benjamin, a passionate connoisseur of and pilgrim among cafés. So long as there are coffee houses, the ‘idea of Europe’ will have content.

Europe has been, is walked. This is capital. The cartography of Europe arises from the capacities, the perceived horizons of human feet. European men and women have walked their maps, from hamlet to hamlet, from village to village, from city to city. More often than not, distances are on a human scale, they can be mastered by the traveller on foot, by the pilgrim to Compostela, by the promeneur, be he solitaire or gregarious. There are stretches of arid, forbidding terrain; there are marshes; alps tower. But none of these constitute a terminal obstacle. Europe has no Death Valley, no Amazonia, no ‘outback’ intractable to the traveller.

This fact determines a seminal relationship between European humanity and its landscape. Metaphorically, but materially also, that landscape has been moulded, humanised by feet and hands. As in no other part of the globe the shores, fields, forests and hills of Europe, from La Coruña to St Petersburg, have been shaped not so much by geological as by human-historical time. At the glacier’s edge sits Manfred. Chateaubriand declaims on the rocky headlands. Our acres, be they under snow or in the yellow noon of summer, are those experienced by Bruegel or Monet or Van Gogh. The darkest woods have nymphs or fairies, literate ogres or picturesque hermits in them. The voyager seems never to be altogether out of reach of the church-bell in the next village. From time immemorial, rivers have had fords, fords also for oxen, ‘Oxfords’, and bridges to dance on as at Avignon. The beauties of Europe are wholly inseparable from the patina of humanised time.

Again, the difference from North America, let alone so much of Africa and Australia, is radical. One does not go on foot from one American town to the next. The deserts of the Australian interior, of the American south-west, the ‘great woods’ of the Pacific states or of Alaska, are virtually impassable. The magnificence of the Grand Canyon, of the Florida swamps, of Ayer’s Rock in the Australian vastness, is that of tectonic, geological dynamics almost menacingly irrelevant to man. Hence the feeling, often voiced by tourists to Europe from the New World or ‘down under’, that European landscapes are manicured, that their horizons suffocate. Hence the feeling that the American, South African and Australian ‘big skies’ are unknown to Europe. To an American eye, even European clouds can seem domesticated. They are so crowded with ancient deities in Tiepolo costumes.

Integral components of European thought and sensibility are, in the root sense of the word, pedestrian. Their cadence and sequence are those of the walker. In Greek philosophy and rhetoric, the peripatetics are, literally, those who travel on foot from polis to polis, whose teachings are itinerant. In western metrics and poetic conventions, the ‘foot’, the ‘beat’, the enjambment between verses or stanzas remind us of the close intimacies between the human body as it paces the earth and the arts of imagining. Much of the most incisive theorizing is generated by the act of walking. Immanuel Kant’s daily Fußgang, his chronometrically precise traverse of Koenigsberg, became legend. The meditations, the rhythms of perception in Rousseau are those of the promeneur. The extensive rambles of Kierkegaard through Copenhagen and its suburbs proved to be a public spectacle and the object of caricature. But it is these rambles, with their diversions, their abrupt changes of itinerary and gait, which are reflected in the syncopations of his prose.


The ambiguous weight of the past tense in the idea and substance of Europe derives from a primordial duality. This is my fourth axiom: the twofold inheritance of Athens and Jerusalem. This relationship, at once conflictual and syncretic, has engaged European theological, philosophic and political argument from the Church Fathers to Leon Chestov, from Pascal to Leo Strauss. The topos is as rich and urgent today as it ever was. To be a European is to attempt to negotiate – morally, intellectually and existentially – the rival ideals, claims, praxis of the city of Socrates and of that of Isaiah.

The seminal role of Hellas is manifest. Three myths, which are among the most ancient in our culture, tell of the origins and mystery of music. What is arresting is the perception in archaic Greece, via the tales of Orpheus, of the Sirens and of the murderous contest between Apollo and Marsyas, of the elements in music beyond rational humanity, of the power of music to madden and destroy. Our mathematics have been ‘Greek’ at least until the proposal of non-Euclidean geometries and the crisis of the axiomatic implicit in Gödel’s Proof of non-consistency. To think, to dream mathematically is to follow on Euclid and Archimedes, on the first conjectures as to paradoxical insolubility in Zeno. Plato bade no man enter his academy who was not a geometer. He himself, however, directed the western intellect towards universal questions of meaning, of morality, of law and of politics. As A.N. Whitehead famously put it, western philosophy is a footnote to Plato and, one would add, to Aristotle and Plotinus, to Parmenides and Heraclitus. The Socratic ideal of the examined life, the Platonic search for transcendent certitudes, the Aristotelian investigations into the problematic relations between word and world, have set out the road taken by Aquinas and Descartes, by Kant and by Heidegger. Thus these three pre-eminent dignities of the human intellect and of shaping sensibility – music, mathematics, metaphysics – underwrite Shelley’s statement that “we are all Greeks”.


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