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May 17, 2022

The impressive force of Europe

Besides Neagu Djuvara, Lucian Boia is today’s most successful historian in Romania. Following the steps of the French school of history of mentalities and of multidisciplinary researches on the imaginary, Boia imposed himself first of all as a historian of the imaginary, pointing out that our vision upon the past was thoroughly influenced by myths – lay ones – of the most varied genres.

In other words, people sometimes prefer to lie to themselves regarding the past to find better motivation for their present concerns.
AsWinston Smith, lead character of Orwell’s novel `1984′ used to say: “He who controls the past controls the future”. The character was referring in that case to the use of history to justify totalitarian dictatorship; nonetheless, such myths may be found in any society. Let us not think though that Lucian Boia is merely a demystifying sarcastic, who attempts to remove various Romanian heroes off their fake pedestals. It is true that he suggests a more relaxed relativism and a more appreciable historic pluralism. It is precisely to avoid the idolizing of pretended historical truths – that can be detoured by certain people, with precise political purpose – and to realize how difficult it is to actually re-enact the past. At the same time, Boia promotes an increased attention granted to these less rational aspects of human existence: beliefs of all kinds, myths, archetypes, utopia imaginary, etc.

In a recent conference he had held in Cluj on the topic of the evolution of Europe, the historian complained on the fact that the European Union has much more bureaucracy than mythology today. It is not just a well-inspired pun, but also a reality that should give us food for thought. Yet, not even Lucian Boia, usually skeptical regarding futurology – was able to mention what mythology could today’s Europe use in order to strengthen its unity and avoid dissolution.

Let us remember, first of all, the spirit the group we call today European Union was founded in. It was, first of all, an attempt to overcome that terrible state of conflict created by the development of nation – states. This how The League of Nations was founded in 1920, following the Peace Conference in Paris after WWI, and its successor, the present UNO. Although these international institutions were aiming world peace, not European Unity, they did not only play the part of “gendarme of the world” (mostly inefficient in many cases), but they also cultivated a different political culture, less tolerant with the discretionary use of force in relations between states.
Europe, though, the epicentre of two crushing world wars in no more than a quarter of a century, felt there was a need for more than mere alliances, which depend anyway on circumstances and continuous changes of political positions. The economical dimension mattered as well, in a world that had entered the wave of globalization. But the decisive factor was the new moral philosophy, that promoted individual rights to such extent than to manage more than protecting them of frequently useless dramas of the increasingly murderous wars. This way, Europe sought its spiritual resources in order to put into practice this new humanist ideal. Precisely through seeking these values in the history of its culture, they discovered that, spiritually speaking, Europe is more like a common space. It was unavoidable as well, due to the importance Christianity had had here. Although Christian faith was not born in Europe, the old continent did not experience the withdrawal of Christianity as it happened in the Middle East, mostly due to the Islamic expansion. With its achievements and failures, Christian civilization stabilized for a long time on this continent, that, through military and diplomatic forces, has even defended at certain times Christians outside Europe – one thing it fails to do nowadays – and at he same time it generated succesive waves of evangelic missions to all corners of the world.

Frequently, these were anything but innocent actions; imperialistic and colonialistic intentions were a decisive engine and results were at least questionable, at least partially. “Christian” mythology was, therefore, the one that unified Europe. In the meantime, this mythology was secularized as the result of a quite complex process. In a certain sense, this secularization reaffirmed a certain unity by promoting a set of values that was attractive to many people.

Actually, common values are not the ones missing; mythology is – in the wider perspective seen by Lucian Boia. But our historian was wondering, too, whether it is not a specific feature of
today’s Europe – this relative overhaul of appealing to myths. Perhaps this is a source of force, not merely a weakness – it is less mystified than other civilization, and by this, it is a pattern for all. It would be deceitful, though, to consider that skepticism accompanying such demystifying approach is a source of sufficient power for the future. Europe needs values, yet these values are not mere museum exhibits; they require plenty of sacrifice, devotion, loyalty, much moral effort.
French revolutionaries of 1789 attempted to replace Christian mythology with a lay and rational one. Yet, irrationality took its revenge and spasmodically returned in the history of the continent afterwards. Now, we need a mythology that is more alive and comprehensive, that would not circumscribe ideologically human beings as if placing them on a Procrustean bed. This combination of demystifying realism, obstinate faith in moral effort and capacious humanism could be the impressive force of Europe in the future.

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