THE EUROPEAN CONTRIBUTION TO UNIVERSAL CULTURE
* THE MEANING OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION *
Armando Martins Janeira
It would not be easy to distinguish in what every country has contributed towards the amount of values that constitutes today’s humanism. It would be incorrect to speak of an English or a Russian humanism for example, because humanism supposes such a large, complete and harmonious ensemble of values that no country alone has produced one. And if one nation was ever to be near doing it, it would be China.
Humanism demands a broader view, and the large humanist horizons become visible only when we embrace in one look at least the whole culture of a continent. But even here, the inter-influences are so great that it would not be correct to talk of humanism of Europe, Asia, America or Africa. Nevertheless it is also true that when we look at this vast unity, the continent, we find particular features, some original traits which cannot be confounded. It is in this sense that we will speak here of the peculiar humanist features discernible in the cultural body of a continent.
In Europe, we can see that the development of civilization, in the past, owed more to some small highly progressive communities than to great populous nations. The first focus of European culture was Greece, and there it reached in the fifth century before Christ the highest peaks of artistic creations and thought. Athen’s philosophers have taught the Western world until our days to reason clearly, to value the dignity of man, to live with joy as free men; Athen’s writers and artists created a literature and an art which shone with such luminous beauty, vast imagination and deep human interest that it could spread its influence until China and Japan and would permanently inspire Western thought forever. The Greek excelled not only in the field of literature, art and science but also in the domain of politics: they were the first to create a democratic government, which was so skilful and efficient that this tiny people were able in the fields of Marathon, in the Pass of Thermopilae, in the naval battle of Salamis and in the fields of Plataea, to defeat the great empire of Persia. Greek weakness came through division and war among the main Greek cities for political supremacy. After this, the less civilized of all Greeks, the Macedonians, have taken hold of all Greece and, with Alexander, a Greek general, have brought the culture of Greece as far as India.
Rome took over when the vast empire of Alexander, after his death, was divided and ruined by long wars. Rome expanded its power all over the world then known: it left us the lesson of an organized and efficient administration, an elaborate and complete system of law, a way of thinking in universal lines. About the value of Roman creation in the field of thought and literature the opinions of the historians are divided: some go as far as affirming that Roman literature is essentially a version of Greek originals. Even in the art of war, which Romans widely practised for many centuries, they created nothing original, made no technical improvements. (1)
In the Middle Ages, Christian Europe had a historical experience in which it went nearer, as in no other epoch, the Asian experience: the religious preoccupations dominated all others, religion was the main influence in art, in thought, in ordinary life. Mediaeval Europe, like Asia, despised real life and the material world, absorbed as it was in the contemplation of an atemporal world. From this vague dream of mystic alienation Europe was awaken by the stark realities of the Era of Discovery and by the pagan cheerfulness of the Renaissance. But even during this period of latent, deep elaboration of Western civilization the fundamental qualities of courage and prudence, joy and sacrifice, dignity and humility, realism and perseverance for an ideal, found their right place in the scale of human values.
After this deep work of incubation, the secular literatures, rationalistic philosophy, science and a new art, the baroque, could be born in the great intellectual revolution that stirred Europe. The Italian Renaissance could rise, from the middle of the fourteenth to the middle of the sixteenth century, with a power and brilliance which were unknown since the great times of Athens. Florence, where Dante a few decades before had announced the Resorgimento, became the intellectual capital of Europe. The movement spread to other small cities of Italy and in Venice produced later one of the most remarkable painting schools of the Renaissance. All these artists were gifted to the highest degree with the versatility characteristic of the Latin race - many of them were alternatively painters, sculptors, poets and philosophers: Michael Angelo made statues, frescoes and wrote beautiful sonnets; Leonardo da Vinci, besides being a painter, was an architect, a man of science and a mechanician whose bold ideas found achievement only in our times of aviation and space travel; Verrochio was a painter, sculptor, lapidary, silversmith, musician and engineer.
The intelligent rulers, made powerful by the prosperous trade between the Italian cities with the East, protected and encouraged the great artists. The mecenate of Popes and political rulers who had a refined taste and knew how to esteem art, were the main stimuli at a time when the works of art otherwise would have no value.
The enthusiasm of the Italian Renaissance has spread to all Christian Europe and gave rise in other countries to a cultural renewal. Great writers and artists appeared everywhere animated by the Italian example.
On the other hand, with no influence from the Italian masters, springing from the natural qualities of the people and rising out of social and political conditions similar to those of the Italian cities - local autonomy, local liberties jealously kept, commercial and industrial prosperity (in which textiles take an important part) of a rising bourgeoisie proud of its economic power - an astonishing wave of great painting appears in the North of Europe, in Flanders and in the Netherlands. Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp become the hearth of a new painting, admirable in its vivid realism, strong sense of atmosphere, delicate nuance, skilful technique. Without proclaiming a revolution or new theories of art, without any rebellious reaction against the poet, the Flemish painters evolved from the medieval tradition into an art which was true to the native character, natural and sincere in its expressions of everyday life. This art is very different from the one produced in the Italian cities. But it developed under similar conditions of democratic liberty, economic prosperity, local autonomy and cooperative liberties and the mecenatic protection of the dukes of Burgundy who, alike the Medici in Florence, favoured and animated great artists. In Flanders humanism did not break with the past nor did it turn flurriedly to Greco-Roman thought; it was rather oriented toward cultivating the traditional Christian values together with the new ideas, as we see in Erasm, one of the most enlightened minds of Renaissance Europe.
In Germany, the cities of the Hanseatic League, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, enjoyed a freedom and affluence similar to the Italian and Flemish cities. The expansion of trade, the perfect work of the craftsmen had brought them extraordinary wealth. Cologne, Augsburg, Lübeck, were rich and magnificent. Nuremberg was “the Florence of Germany”. There, Albrecht Dürer was born in 1471 and there he has produced his famous drawings and engravings. Holbein, who would live later in England to become painter of Henry VIII, was born in Augsburg in 1497. The amazing beauty of German primitive painters and the skill of German craftsmen worked in the atmosphere of exaltation of the works of man and refined taste which was the common to the civilized countries of Europe.
The discovery of maritime routes by the Portuguese has dried the source of wealth of the Italian and the German Hanseatic cities. Antwerp became in the North the depot for the trade of spices which the Portuguese ships brought from the Orient. Lisbon became an emporium; Geneva and Venice lost for ever their power and wealth.
When the Portuguese reached India, in 1498, bringing for the first time a direct and definitive contact between West and East, a new era in history had opened.
Portugal brought the enterprising spirit of Europe to the beaches of Africa, in Asia to the cities of India, of China, of Japan passing by Ceylon and spreading commercial factories till the Moluccas; in America to Brazil; Portuguese ships touched almost every land and with the voyage of a Portuguese, Magalhães, the first travel around the world gave the European adventure the dimensions of a true planetary epopee.
The Portuguese were succeeded, first, by the Spaniards. The world was divided between the king of Portugal and the King of Spain by the Pope - a typical sign of Western vanity and short-sightedness only equalled by Western audacity and enterprising drive. Where the Portuguese had not gone the Spaniards went - to North and Central America, to the Andes, to the Philippine archipelago.
No other European nation approached the early success of Spain and Portugal overseas, writes W. H. McNeill. (2)
When in and out of Europe the immense Portuguese and Spanish empires begun to disintegrate, the Dutch became the masters of the sea. Amsterdam replaced Lisbon and Antwerp as the European center of the spice trade.
Holland reached the peak of her economic power and intellectual irradiation in the second half of the seventeenth century.She was then the most liberal and enlightened country in Europe. There rises a form of parliamentarism and wisdom similar to the British political system. There the Jews expelled from Portugal and Spain have taken refuge. In this atmosphere of freedom and affluence were produced some of the greatest works of European painting, namely those of Rembrandt, by many considered the greatest of all painters.
The Dutch have tried, frequently with success, to replace the Portuguese in various countries in the East and Far East, in Africa, in Brazil. They did not stay long in most of those territories, as they were expelled by the same Portuguese, like in Brazil and Angola, or by the French and the English. In South Africa, they founded the cape colony in 1652, in what is today Indonesia they built an empire which lasted until after the last world war.
The next century is French. France was in the eighteenth century the strongest and most populous country in Europe, with 20 million people. The radiation of French spirit with its peculiar enhancement on reason, its power of simplifying and synthesizing to the essential in order to understand and seize reality and to devise the universal, has spread all over Europe. France ruled in the realm of literature, art and thought, and French became the language of culture, spoken in the polite society of all countries of Europe.
After France comes England. The British Empire was the one laid on wider and more solid bases. It organized a vast part of the world under the aegis of Pax Britannica: a tolerance and liberal spirit which could govern all races, religions, national cultures and customs, under a most efficient administration. The pragmatism and realism of English character, its perseverance and a certain diffidence of theoretical systems and abstract ideas, and even certain poverty of imagination have given the British empire a solidity, a continuity, a flexibility of adaptation to the changing conditions of every territory or dominion, which has permitted its duration in a vast part of the world.
There is no proportion between the national power needed for such a vast enterprise which brought the effective power of Great Britain all over the world and the limited experiences of Portugal, Spain or Holland. The scope has been widening from century to century, and thus also the national power which fostered the expanding enterprise. From the prosperous, small, independent cities of Athens and Florence the torch-light of civilization passes to every time larger and more powerful nations as if the increasingly heavier task required stronger hands to carry it into a known world gradually larger.
But we should not confuse political fulfilment with cultural achievement. Italy can bear comparison in this field with many a country greater in territory and political power, and Athens is above them all.
The fact that creative cultural genius has no relation to the extent of political power was confirmed, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, by Germany. We see there a profusion of small kingdoms, whose brilliant courts were hearths of culture. In the courts of Hannover, Munich, Mannheim, Weimar and Vienna, German composers, encouraged by their princely protectors, achieved the synthesis of French and Italian schools and developed music to the class of a great, universal art. The great German musical poems, indifferent to then prevalent preoccupations of pure reason, either building on vast lyrical conceptions animated by a dense atmosphere of primitive, Germanic myths, of reviving the ancient concepts of tragedy, have found a new international art to express the ideas of liberty and living joy proceeding from the Mediterranean civilization. Music helped the unification of Germany and affirmed her supremacy on this field over Europe.
This particular feature should be emphasized because it marks the main distinct trait of Europe in face of Asia - while Asian civilization have been produced by countries of large populations and vast territory, in Europe independent cities or small countries frequently had the lead.
Another main trait is the existence in the West of an inner force toward expansion. In the origin of the movement of the Discoveries must have been the desire of trading and the religious fervour to expand the Christian faith. The opinions of historians conflict on the true reason why the Portuguese, a small country with scarcely one million people, against all odds and hardships, embarked in the huge adventure of cutting through unknown seas a route to the other side of the world. For this enterprise all the scientific knowledge available was not enough. The observation of the stars, the study of the oceanic currents and the seasonal winds, the mapping of the discovered lands widened the limits of geography, of cosmography, of the nautical sciences. New instruments were invented, the main of which the astrolabe, in order to make possible the sailing in high seas, away from the sight of land. The Portuguese were the first men who learned how to determine the position of a ship by means of the stars. For the long trips which lasted months they had to invent new types of ships, capable of sailing against the wind. All this enormous effort is characteristic of the Western audacious and stubborn determination to find the way to the East. A vast explosion of energies, with nothing equal in the past, starting from Europe, began to transform during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the whole civilized world. The magnitude of this tide of renewal can be imagined when we consider the vast amount of changes in the old values and in the creation of new ones, the effervescence of conflicting ideas and aspirations, startling inventions, great economic and social changes which accelerated the pace of history and enlarged the field of human action.
The great enterprise for world unity and the universality of man had truly begun. How much of human curiosity and wonder before the unknown was driving the sixteenth century navigators towards their goal can easily be imagined by twentieth century man’s enthusiasm for space travelling and urge to unveil the secrets of new planets. The motto of those resolute men was: “Navigare necesse est, vivere non est necesse”: - to navigate is necessary, to live is not necessary. This is an eloquent expression of Western moral strength: man must surpass himself, must do every effort to go beyond his capacity. Implicit here is also a meaning of human communication, of widening the limits of the world known and bringing all men and all nations together into a wave of scientific and technical progress that will end with all the ills and miseries of the past.
By what has been said we can now discern some essential traits of European humanism. The first is its sense of history. European man lives within history. He is deeply conscious of the past, the present for him is charged with the past; as a man of action, he is pledged to the future. Hence a sense of solidarity with the past generations and the conviction of being working for the happiness of the men of the future. Besides, there is here more than a national spirit of belonging to certain community or to a particular people. There is the consciousness of contributing to lifting the condition of man. Because European man, as Ortega y Gasset has noted, has always lived within two historical spaces: a denser and more restricted society, his country or nation, and a wider and less dense society, Europe. Every country here cuts out its individuality, and the profile of Europe is made of this rich diversity. Since the Middle Ages, the great lines of a common culture, first based on Latin humanities, after in the enterprise of discovery, science, inter-related economy, social intercourse, have accentuated the continental features of Europe.
Another essential characteristic of European culture is it’s dynamism. While the East emphasizes the importance of quietude, the West praises movement. The Western history has developed at a progressively quicker pace since the Renaissance. When we consider the advancement of science, technology and economy since the Industrial Revolution, specially since the last war, we are taken by a feeling of wonder. Movement in the West is wished and valued speed in all man’s activities, and effort in the constant battle of man with the external world, have not only economic but also moral value, they are a measure of determination, courage, persistence.
From the whole of European culture emerges a clear affirmation of man. Man is an absolute value, made at the image of God; his life is sacred and even his death is constructive, creative of immortality. In European civilization the common people have a greater participation in economic and political life; the goods which are the main object of trade are popular textiles and foods, and not spices nor rare jewels. From this affirmative concept of man came the idea of liberty and the ideas of a just government to organize and protect that liberty. By contrast, in the East, the individual does not exist, dissolved as he is in the mass, at the mercy of the good-will or caprice of an autocratic ruler, and lost in cyclical time. The Western concept of man is one of optimism and exaltation of human qualities of action measured by reason and stirred up by the risk of adventure.
To the idea of dignity of man Greek philosophy, Christianity, science and technique carried their contribution, each one in generous proportion. “It is arbitrary and false, writes Ortega y Gasset, to design formally Western civilization as Christian. Christianity is not an exclusive principle of our civilization, it acts also in other civilizations and, on the other hand, Westerners have not lived exclusively of their faith in God, but also of that other faith, which has moulded them in a radically different way and independently from religious faith. I mean faith in science and in reason”. (3)
Probably, among all the traits that distinguish the West from the East, faith in reason is the most outstanding one. It was this faith that brought to the developments of pure science and to the constructive application of scientific knowledge to all the aspects of life.
Faith in reason also leads to that self-confidence indispensable for action. Planned, constructive action was the consequence of lucid calculation; the true value of action could be assessed through the keen sense of history.
Thus the West has explored human capacities for rational creativeness and human possibilities for action to a degree unknown in any other civilization. The East has deepened the powers of intuition, the exploration of the sides of human nature which are unknowable by reason; through its static approach to the enquiry of truth, through deep concentration and long meditation, the East has reached a degree of wisdom and a state of harmony between man and the universe - not in the rare case of exceptionally gifted men, but as a common ideal and social behaviour - which is only found in a few isolated individual cases in the West.
But the exploration of reason and action proved to be much more beneficial to the world at large, as it became the force through which the West completely changed the world. From it, world progress received its initial impulse.
The Western consciousness of the primary value of action is evident in the existence of epic poetry. Epic poetry, which is the highest form of poetry, only appears in the West with a terse and objective quality, as an exalting chant of the greatest exploits of man. In India, the epic is subjective and nebulous and absorbed in the fantastic world of the gods. In China and Japan, a true epic poetry does not exist. The epic is the expression of human action at its peak, of the forces of man at the highest point of tension, applied to the achievement of the greatest things. When this heroic tension is disrupted and the forces assembled for action break and ruin ensues, we have tragedy. In the epic the unity of action dominates reality and creates a new world; in tragedy the sovereign powers in collision split reality, the world of values is divided and thereby inevitably destroyed. Tragedy is also characteristic of the West; there is no tragic drama but in Western literatures. Because both epic and tragic forms are the highest literary forms of action and of historical consciousness, and so they only exist in Western culture.
This primacy of action and the inner tendency to achieve action at the highest level of human possibilities, so characteristic of Western man, explains the great Western achievements as well as the recurring states of crisis. The anguish for the possession of the absolute, the yearning for conforming individual action to intimate convictions, to fight for absolute truth, is a typical and noble characteristic of the greatest Western men.
We see it better exemplified in the fight for the liberty of holding religious beliefs, or in the conflict between science and religion.
Michael Servetus, Spanish theologian and physician, author of the book On the Errors of the Trinity, in which he claims that “God is one and indivisible” was persecuted and condemned by both Catholic and Protestant Church; he managed to escape from the Inquisition, to fall into the hands of the agents of Calvin, the Protestant “Pope” and dictator of Geneva, who burnt him at stake in 1543.
Giordano Bruno, outstanding Italian philosopher who displayed a brilliant intellectual activity in Italy, France, England and Germany, was persecuted and imprisoned by the Calvinists and burnt at stake by the Roman Inquisition in 1600.
The lot of Galileo Galilei, who lived between 1564 and 1642, was not so terrible. Galileo is the father of modern mechanics and physics, and the first to use a telescope to observe the stars; he developed the ideas of Nicolaus Copernicus, who laid the foundation for planetary astronomy and whose work could not be printed in Nuremberg due to the opposition of Luther and Melanchton. On account of his scientific ideas, Galileo was persecuted under “Vehement suspicion of heresy”, obliged to declare “abjure, curse and detest” all his past work, and condemned by Roman Inquisition to life imprisonment in his house. Nevertheless the main ideas of Copernicus and Galileo, that sun, not earth, is the center of the universe, was not entirely new, it had already been defended by Greek philosophers in the third century before Christ.
But not only Catholic and Protestant religions. Jewish religion also is guilty of having excommunicated for his heretic ideas, Spinoza, the greatest of all modern philosophers, born in Amsterdam of Portuguese parents, who were refugees from the Portuguese Inquisition. Some of the Jewish authorities of Amsterdam were as intolerant as the Catholic Inquisition from whom they had fled.
This polarity between individual and society, this mortal fight between individual belief and established religion is characteristic of the Western world. Only in the West the relation between man and God is an absolute one; only in the West we see the fight between orthodox creed and heresy. The great number of heresies which arose from the interpretation of the Old and New Testament proves the richness of thought contained in this extraordinary book. When we look, under this aspect, at the Koran, we are surprised to see that along thirteen centuries like a barren soil it gave rise to no heresy. For the Moslem everything is contained in the Koran, not only religion, but also moral conduct, customs, rites, social sports etc. Hence the peculiar quality of Moslem humanism - creating an upright man, who draws his entireness out of the revealed prescriptions and of his near relationship to nature. Like the ancient Greek, the Arab feels himself one with the universe and can seize the subtle ties which attach man to things. This wholeness and integrity, originated in a total adherence to the Koran, is a spring of force as well as of spiritual limitation.
The tension and strength of the religious feeling in the West went unfortunately much further than the sacrifice of isolated men to official ideas or prejudices which later proved to be wrong: it took the wide form of religious wars. These wars take such a large place in European history that if we passed over them in silence it will be impossible to understand it. This means that vehemence and tension peculiar to Western man were stronger than the force of God’s ideals in his faithful. The Crusades, the religious wars brought much suffering, bloodshed and social anarchy and persecution in Germany, France, Netherlands, with the counterpart of the Inquisition in the countries which remained united in Catholicism.
Besides, the existence of a centralizes Church, with a Pope possessing a secular power, gave rise to constant interference and struggle between the religious authorities in one side and Kings and Parliaments in the other. The Pope could depose and excommunicate Kings as he did to Elisabeth Queen of England, in 1570; the political rulers used religion as a weapon to foster their political ambitions, as it happened when Louis XIV of France supported the Catholic of Scotland and Ireland against the English King.
The fiercest of all religious wars were those fought between Christians and Muslims. Some authors contend that one of the main reasons why the Portuguese sailed to the Orient was to continue there the sacred wars engaged in North Africa and in the Holy Land. And still the inter-actions between the Christian and the Moslem world, in the social and cultural fields, have a most important part in the history of Europe.
When we seriously think of it, it is astounding that in the name of God so much blood was spread over Europe. Wars were made for so futile a motive as when, in the seventeenth century, the “raskolnikis” put literally fire to all Russia because they wanted the benediction given with three fingers, not with only two.
But besides this panorama of ferocious and short-sighted fanaticism, we must not forget that from this intellectual tension and collision of ideas, from the interaction of religious beliefs and social struggles, new multiple potentialities were awaken, an increased variety of ideas, and energies, new institutions and higher aspirations fertilized the civilization of Europe.
In the Orient, especially in the Far East, religion is neither earnest nor austere, there is a tradition of tolerance which allowed men and gods to live in a quiet familiarity or indifference, for “the Asians joke with their gods and have fun in their company”. The Far Eastern history lacks the liveliness and variety of the political and intellectual movements which in Europe spring from the diversity and vehemence of religious belief. In this respect Far Eastern history presents a somewhat monotonous spectacle of the minor vicissitudes of great, uniform systems which are essentially stable. (4)
It happened sometimes, like in Kyoto, between 891 and 1185, that the monks, particularly those of the Tendai monastery, of Mount Hiei, descended upon the city in armed bands making demonstration of force with the purpose of imposing on the helpless court their claims of more power of property.
But this is not a case of religious intolerance or fanaticism, but simply an example of ambition of political power, similar to many others occurred anywhere when a religious community felt strong enough to hold an opportunity to impose their will.
Religion, in the East is not a source of inner conflict as in the West: the conflict of good and evil does not take in the Oriental soul such a dramatic acuity, because the sense of irremediable sin does not exist. And this is strange, because religion in the Orient takes a much larger part of intellectual life than in the West - all Eastern philosophical thought is contained in religion; in Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic countries, all art before Western influences were felt is a religious art: there is a cultural homogeneity based on religion. This brings us to think that the core of inner conflict in the Western soul lies as much on a religious as on a profane anguish towards an absolute which embraces all the spiritual needs of man. And this urgency is so deep in Western man that metaphysic anguish does not always take a religious form, as it happened in our times with Simone Weil, who died of voluntary under-nourishment “on account of an excessive sense of responsibility in which are mixed the Sartrian solidarity and the communion with the saints”.
Summing up the characteristics of European humanism: the ecumenical nature and validity of European culture, its inner force towards expansion and its ability to express itself through universal forms; the predominance of the knowledge and of the exploration of the material world over the inner one (which distinguishes Western from Asian humanism), but still giving the inner world an important part (which distinguishes it from American humanism). The harmonious combination of reason and sentiment; a common moral background originated in Christianity, irreconcilable with the philosophic thought and the scientific moral that have been developed afterwards; the European incapacity to bring up to date the traditional morals, and hence an imbalance between religious feeling and intellect, provocative of a metaphysical despair, painful but fertile in the field of speculative and artistic thought; a love for nature which delights in its lyrical contemplation but is never able to completely integrate into it - dualism from which poetry and science have created great works; an epic exaltation which inspires courage for risk and adventure, greed and ambition for gold and fame; a pagan attachment to life and at the same time a supreme contempt of it for the sake of an ideal. Under all this an infinite richness and variety of works, thoughts and emotions, a tendency toward spiritual harmony and also a permanent state of tension of thought and toward action, and finally a deep yearning for unity which is the spring of European greatest achievements and greatest historical convulsions. ( ).