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

Comments

By James Keddie, Q...
on

This passage from Gibbon might be said to cut both ways on the merits of European union:

The division of Europe into a number of independent states, connected, however, with each other by the general resemblance of religion, language, and manners, is productive of the most beneficial consequences to the liberty of mankind. A modern tyrant, who should find no resistance either in his own breast, or in his people, would soon experience a gentle restraint from the example of his equals, the dread of present censure, the advice of his allies, and the apprehension of his enemies. The object of his displeasure, escaping from the narrow limits of his dominions, would easily obtain, in a happier climate, a secure refuge, a new fortune adequate to his merit, the freedom of complaint, and perhaps the means of revenge.

But the empire of the Romans filled the world, and when the empire fell into the hands of a single person, the world became a safe and dreary prison for his enemies. The slave of Imperial despotism, whether he was condemned to drag his gilded chain in Rome and the senate, or to wear out a life of exile on the barren rock of Seriphus, or the frozen bank of the Danube, expected his fate in silent despair. To resist was fatal, and it was impossible to fly. ...

By Kievian
on

These fascinating documents from The Age of Enlightenment seem to cover familiar territory but the attempt by the uk to leave the EU ws supported mostly by people who dislike and distrust foreigners even in the avsence of evidence that those from the EU are harmful. It wil be interesting to see if anyone then foresaw outbreaks of racial intolerance triggered by migration within the EU and the consequences. If they did it may be worth looking to see if anyone had any ideas for combatting sentiments which show us a very unnattractive side to our character.

By Nel
on

The elephant in the room that everyone is missing: those Enlightenment thinkers were living in a Europe that was completely Christian, that had its law and literature and morals and even military tactics rooted firmly in Christian ethics, morality and value system. They were NOT talking about non-Christian culture. They were talking about a Europe which saw itself as under a Christian God.

We cannot take views from 200 years ago and apply them to a Europe that is post-Christian, unable to imagine any value higher than pleasure and personal profit that it worth making any sacrifice for; that does not reproduce and destroys its own children; that has a globalized economy; that has forgotten the lessons of history and deludes itself that 'we can all just get along' with people who have nothing in common with Europeans, who hate European culture and values (which are now largely Enlightenment values), and who are keen to destroy and take over Europe just as soon as its Enlightenment values lead it to such a state of decay that it is weak enough to take over.

It's a whole different world, and the threat to the survival of Europe is both internal - a failure of reverence for life and higher values than personal pleasure and profit - and external, from cultures that have nothing in common with European culture, and want nothing in common with it.

By RH Findlay
on

"The division of Europe into a number of independent states, connected, however, with each other by the general resemblance of religion, language, and manners, is productive of the most beneficial consequences to the liberty of mankind. A modern tyrant, who should find no resistance either in his own breast, or in his people, would soon experience a gentle restraint from the example of his equals, the dread of present censure, the advice of his allies, and the apprehension of his enemies."

The War of the Cousins, 1914-1918, that shattered a stable and peaceful Europe, bound by general resemblance of religion, language and manners?

As for the UK's exit from the EU. When you have owned 25% of the world and have had lots of battleships, how can you possibly tolerate being a mere partner in Europe?

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