A new book edited by Catriona Seth (right) and Rotraud von Kulessa shows how the great European thinkers of the Enlightenment approached the question of Europe’s political and economic future. Seth is Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature at All Souls College, University of Oxford.
Students and academics at Oxford University have translated extracts from 18th century thinkers from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and England for a new book called The Idea of Europe. Enlightenment Perspectives. It was symbolically published on Friday 23 June – the anniversary of the Brexit vote.
Some of the extracts are eerily similar to modern debates about the future of the European Union.
Among the ideas discussed by Enlightenment thinkers was whether there should be political unity, whether this union should be backed up by a common army, and whether trading links should be the basis for an association.
Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre, writing his Project for Perpetual Peace in Europe in 1713, even used the phrase “European Union”, which he saw as the solution to ending war.
He wrote: ‘The European Union is enough for Europe, sufficient to conserve her perpetual peace, and will be powerful enough to preserve its borders and its trade despite those who would try to impede them.’
Seth says: ‘With the future of the European Union uncertain, the issues raised in this book have never been more critical.'
‘The texts show that many men and women of letters thought about the future of the continent and how they could bring peace to Europe.'
‘We are at a time when the European ideal is being reconsidered, so we thought this was the perfect time to look back to learn how people into the past thought Europe might function.’
The authors of the texts include major Enlightenment figures like Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Kant, Staël and Hume, as well as those whom history has forgotten.
They showcase reflections - mainly from the long eighteenth century - about Europe, its history, its diversity, but also that which unites a very varied geographical group.
William Robertson wrote in 1769: ‘The progress of commerce had considerable influence in polishing the manners of the European nations, and in establishing among them order, equal laws and humanity.’
Friedrich Schlegel wrote in 1803 that “the true Europe is yet to emerge.”
In 1778, Johannes von Müller (1778) predicted: “Times are coming when Europe may no longer be at the centre of the world. […] Europe is perhaps playing her last act.”
Most of the texts were translated by Oxford students as part of their degree course, with help from their tutors. 121 students took part in the translation.
‘It was a great opportunity for students from first years to finalists to help with this book as part of their translation classes,’ said Professor Seth.
‘The translation involved undergraduates, graduates and fellows in French, German, Spanish and Italian, and for many students this will be the first time their work has been in print.’
The book has been published as ‘open access’ by Open Book Publishers – it can be read for free here: https://www.openbookpublishers.com/product/637/the-idea-of-europe--enlightenment-perspectives