“Memory” is a much abused word. But so too is the word “love,” which doesn’t mean it can’t be used in its fullest sense. It’s the force of “memory,” transmitted within the bosom of the family, that enables a community to endure, despite all that seeks its dissolution. It’s the long “memory” of the Chinese, the Japanese, the Jews, and other such peoples that has enabled them to surmount the perils and persecutions to which every people is heir. To their disadvantage, due to the rupture of their history, Europeans have been deprived of their memory.
I am reminded of this rupture every time students ask me to speak about Europe’s future. For whenever the word “Europe” is pronounced, it evokes a host of ambiguities. To some, it evokes the European Union, either positively — or negatively insofar as it’s not a “power.” To avoid confusion, I always specify that the Europe of which I speak is not Europe in its political sense. Guided by Epictetus’s principle of distinguishing between “that which depends on us and that which doesn’t depend on us,” I know that it depends on me to base my life on authentic European values, whereas I have no say on what politics Europe pursues. I also know that without an animating idea, there is no coherent action, [political or otherwise].
This animating idea is rooted in the consciousness of Europe’s civilization, a consciousness that transcends its regions and nations. You can be a Breton or a Provençal, French and European, son of the same civilization which has endured over the ages, since its first crystallization in the Homeric poems.
“A civilization,” Fernand Braudel says, “is a continuity, even when it profoundly changes, such as when adopting a new religion, for it incorporates its old values in the new, retaining its substance.” To this continuity, we are obliged to be who we are.
In this vein, Will Durant observed that “The old is preserved in the new, and everything changes except the essence. History, like life, must be continuous or die.”
Another way to think about “civilization” might be “cultural continuity.” This is the basic idea that both Venner and Durant are speaking to. A friend commented to me that the World Wars of the last century make far more sense when thought of as the last major civil wars of the European powers.
If that’s true, then what Europe is working through today is whether it can survive as a civilization after these devastating conflicts.