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The European Ideal

As the world progressed towards modernity, the nations of Europe fought vigorously to attain security in their identities and, swept along by the phenomenon of imperialism, to relate those identities to the wider world. In order to come to terms with this, intense debate and speculation was undertaken in order to define what Europe was by juxtaposing it with and pitting it against what it was not, the intent being to demonstrate that European civilisation was unique and superior in the world and, most importantly, that its identity was more than a matter of mere geography.

Based both in fact and fiction, the apparent need to achieve delineation gave rise to theories which held issues of race, gender, sexuality, class and religion to be central and paramount in defining the European identity and likewise in deciding bases for exclusion; such theories were heroically ambitious (if usually unsound) as the diverse, polyglot entity which comprised Europe was by no means cohesive, nor was knowledge of the wider world exhaustive. Nominally separate, however, there is no question that the nations which formed 19th century Europe demonstrated some cultural consistency and that they were tentative companions in a unique situation. Moreover, they did not stigmatise one another with concepts of exoticism in the same manner as was applied to non-Europeans. In this regard it is prudent to acknowledge that somewhere deep in its collective subconsciousness, Europe represented something more than a geographical term.

In order to trace the origin of modern European thought and so to denote the common elements of European civilisation, further analysis is required. To that end, the following will trace the general progress of European society toward the modern era. Thereafter, exceptional cases (i.e. the ‘others’) will be scrutinised and their relation to these general trends expounded upon. All dates are CE/AD unless otherwise stated. As a general note, the concept of the ‘Other’ was largely developed by Edward Said, in ‘Orientalism’ (1979).

The Seat of Christianity
Definitions of Europe as the heart of Christendom and the epitome of Christian society were prevalent in preceding centuries; correspondingly, throughout the medieval and early modern periods the papacy sat atop a rigid hierarchy of monarchs, tiers of hereditary aristocracy and peasantry. During its heyday, the Catholic Church was seen (due to its longevity and perceived spirituality) to be the continent’s greatest stabilising influence and as such its doctrines were almost universally adhered to. 1 At this time, the foe was represented diversely by Muslims (whether Moors in Africa and Spain or Turks and Saracens in the near east), pagans of numerous traditions, heretical Christians or Jews. As such, it is reasonable to assert that until the later modern period the conceptualisation of Europe was thoroughly centred in religion.2

Europe had previously endured many heresies and survived numerous crises, although in retrospect they all culminated to increase anxiety and tarnish Christian idealism. The schism between Orthodox and Catholic Churches (1054) and consistent failure to achieve unity, sparring between popes and Holy Roman Emperors (i.e. between religious and secular authorities), the Avignon Papacy scandal (1309-1377), the overall failure of successive popes to establish effective crusades (c. 1095-1500s), the related fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire (1453), the system of ‘indulgences’ and European domestic political woes all conspired to denigrate an institution which now to embodied materialism and endemic corruption.3 Consequently, the ideals of the Reformation (c. 1517-1578), most notably increased individuality in thought and Christian spirituality,4 were sown in fertile ground.

Although Christendom’s legacy would continue to influence European civilisation (to the extent that even in modern times fundamental Christian ethics remained essentially unchanged),5 the basis of its power - unconditional acceptance of its tenets - had been undermined. While neither spiritual pluralism nor atheism was deemed acceptable, the Thirty Years’ War and subsequent Treaty of Westphalia circuitously removed religion as the primary motive for diplomatic relations and placed a corresponding degree of emphasis on statecraft (laying the foundation for the ardent nationalism exhibited in the later modern era).6 In broad terms, the diminution of Christendom created a spiritual vacuum which, in the centuries to come, myriad other ideologies would come to fill with mixed success.

The Seat of Reason
The Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution (c. 1500-1700) it engendered were marked by revolutionary discoveries which overturned centuries of Aristotelian and papal doctrine (both strongly identified with medieval thought)7 and fundamentally altered perceptions of human instinct, intellect and spirituality. Of particular note were the heliocentric cosmological model proposed by Mikolaj Kopernik (1473-1543, b. Torun, Poland) and the realisation of the Earth’s rotation by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642, b. Pisa, Italy), both of which de-centralised the Earth (and therefore humankind) in the eyes of learned Europeans. Likewise, Isaac Newton’s (1642-1727, b. Woolsthorphe, England) conception of universal physical laws made the world seem much less arbitrary, more comprehensible and therefore more easily controlled. God, hitherto believed to intervene in terrestrial affairs, was now conceived as an intangible and inscrutable mechanist.8

The Enlightenment (c. 1650-1800) epitomised reverence for reason. Encouraged by superior education, expanding individual liberties and wealth, growth in the arts and sciences, European philosophes held that formal debate and reason (without regard for courtoisie, unnatural courtly manners) were the ideal vehicles of social change. Communication cultivated a communal mentality in the well-travelled and educated, increasing the inter-connectivity of Europe’s political society.9 While this ought not to be confused for egalitarian thought exchange, much progress toward modern civil society was made. Slowly, views turned away from Thomas Hobbes’ (1588-1679, b. Westport, England) analysis of society as “a war of every man against every man.”10

The Enlightenment broadly focused on analysing the relationship between individuals and their societies. From John Locke’s (1632-1704, b. Bristol, England) oligarchic (and therefore anti-monarchical) denunciation of royal ‘paternal’ authority11 to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1788, b. Geneva, Switzerland) proto-democratic assertion of humanity’s inherent quality of freedom,12 the Enlightenment paved the way for the revolutionary period to come; outspoken individuals communicated their ideologies to receptive masses in what has been described as “an age of enlightenment… not yet an enlightened age.”13 Much unlike the religiosity of centuries past, the later 18th and early 19th centuries were considered a golden age of reason and progressive secularity.14

The Seat of Nationalism
Beginning in late 18th century France, revolutionary movements spread throughout Europe. These attempted to embody progressive ideals and to depose ailing feudal orders. In many regards they represented the actualisation of Enlightenment philosophy: abolition of birth privileges, establishment of a constitution and specified human rights, subordination of church to state, reform of archaic judicial and administrative systems and promotion of bourgeois interests.15 Encapsulating nationalism with a potent cocktail of symbols and rhetoric, revolutionary festivals created a “terrified joy”16 that spread by both arms and idealism first throughout France and then the entire continent. The concept of a national myth was also born here; the French Revolution, like all European nationalist movements, was perceived to be a realisation of commonality rather than the contrived political unity it actually was (due to broad disparity of language and custom).17

Eventually the unity - encircled by its enemies and falling away from the control of the moderate Girondins - came to be dominated by the markedly more aggressive Jacobins. The destruction of L’Ancien Regime (culminating in the execution of Louis XVI in 1793) finally eradicated the ‘Divine Right of Kings’ which had survived since the denigration of the concept of Christendom (which, in combination with longevity, provided legitimacy for monarchical rule). Now the nation, theoretically represented by the entire populace, was held to be sacred.18 Despite the monarchist backlash which followed the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic Wars, nationalism and the concept of popular sovereignty had also become permanent features of the European identity.

The Seat of Modernity
Industrialisation and growing international economic and military tensions began to undermine the confidence hitherto invested in the capacities of rational thought in the latter half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Irrationalism, which stressed the instinctual, primal side of human nature, came to the fore. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900, b. Röcken, Prussia) was the primary exponent of this ideology, condemning both civil society and Christian morality as life-negating and unnatural impositions which hindered the progress of great individuals.19 Max Weber (1864-1920, b. Erfurt, Germany), felt that western civilisation had uniquely and entirely dispensed with myth and tradition. Although he ascribed Europe’s enormous technological success to waning spirituality, this “disenchantment of the world”20 seemed to deprive existence of meaning. As Europe grew more introspective, pure reason seemed an inadequate way of accounting for humanity’s darker qualities.

Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939, b. Freiburg, Moravia) analysis of the ambivalent and simultaneous drives towards pleasure and self-destruction seemed particularly astute in a climate of fear and decadence; amidst the pressures of modernity, abuse of alcohol and other narcotics was rampant.21 Many forecast the downfall of western civilisation and described the state of society as a process of degeneration,22 both of physical bodies, due to the spread of disease and abundance of physiological ailments, especially obesity, constipation and dyspepsia (due to over-consumption), as well as neurasthenia (from stress) and of spirit, due to the aforementioned anxieties. The distinction of being the most ‘modern’ of civilisations was less cheerfully regarded, but a defining characteristic nonetheless.


The Other

Broadly speaking, this socio-political structure represented European civilisation in the modern era. The European collective (for there was much in common) imagined itself as the centre of the world, the beacon of morality, reason and progress. It is, however, readily evident that this imagined homogeneity was, rather, the embodiment of the dominant ideal. As previously stated, much definition was achieved by juxtaposing Europe against its antithesis. With that in mind, the pursuant analysis outlines the most significant departures from ideal projections of European society in terms of gender, sexuality, race, culture, religion and social status.

Gender, Sexuality and Social Status
Medical science until the modern era was largely reliant on ancient Greek concepts of biology, which made little distinction between the genders (and as such most prior discrimination was religiously-oriented). Indeed, until the mid-18th century no significant comparison had been made between genitalia or skeletal structures and it was assumed that female genitals were merely an inversion of those possessed by their male counterparts. In terms of attire and demeanour, there was little distinction between upper-class members of either gender during the 17th and early 18th centuries. However, broad cultural trends (including resentment of the ‘effeminate’ aristocracy) led to a dramatic about-face on the issue of gender distinction.23

Where women (especially the salonniéres) had participated in the early Enlightenment, this came to be seen as an exclusively male pursuit. Rousseau was amongst their most vocal critics, stating that “it will always be the lot of [the female] sex to govern [the male],” but that this authority was to be “solely exercised within the conjugal union.”24 It was thought that only men possessed the strength and ruthlessness necessary to survive the world of politics and commerce, as the relatively diminutive female stature was frequently tied to emotional and intellectual weakness. Moreover, it was argued that female biology demanded women devote themselves to childbirth and nurturing. The female sphere was a private, domestic one to which men could return to be rejuvenated, both physically and spiritually.25

Contravening this image was the prostitute - crass and devoid of morality. Paradoxically, however, prostitution was also seen as a necessary element of society; without them, so the reasoning went, lust would corrupt the uncontaminated private sphere.26 Prostitutes were, then, a kind of drain via which negative qualities could be removed from idyllic society. In this manner, the 19th century conception of women became polarised between the chaste middle class wife and the vulgar lower class whore. The former represented an ideal projection of European civilisation, the latter a necessary but denigrated intruder (harmonisation of bourgeois and general European values meant that the lowest traits of sensuality and depravity were attributed to the lower classes, including domestic servants). In general, women were included in the conception of the European identity only as long as they adhered to the prescribed gender role. Homosexual behaviour in either gender violated this boundary and was broadly considered a deviant psychological condition.27

Race, Culture and Religion
The need to come to terms with other customs and races largely arose during the 18th and 19th centuries - the zenith of European imperialism. The separation of the world into ‘Orient’ and ‘Occident’ (or east and west) created a zone of commonality in Europe and, elsewhere, a vast sphere wherein all things exotic could dwell.28 It is important to note that conceptions of foreign lands and their occupants were formed well in advance of conquest, which lead to persistent and frequently erroneous assumptions, many of which reflected European lusts which ran contrary to the ideal of European civilisation. In this manner, these “porno-tropics for the European imagination29 and their occupants also functioned as a proverbial sewer drain, releasing and sating forbidden desires.

Politically, the situation was little different. In order to conquer and rule other peoples, it was first necessary to demonstrate their inferiority. European technological progress seemed to provide a basis for this and the mere fact of European domination was evidence enough for many who espoused Social Darwinism.30 Social theories, prevalent in the 18th century, held that Orientals functioned in a fundamentally different manner. The continuity of feudal-style institutions in Asia suggested to some that the concept of popular sovereignty was uniquely European and that others needed to be firmly ruled; that “they must not only see the stick but actually feel it on their shoulders.”31

At the furthest extreme of prejudice, ostensibly scientific racism (which increasingly gained sway during the 19th century) held that non-European races were biologically inferior and incapable of functioning as did Europeans. In order to dehumanise them, it was often thought necessary to equate them with bestial qualities. To this end, anatomical studies made in the 18th and 19th centuries drew closer parallels between non-Europeans (most especially Africans) and primates than to human beings, most famously in the case of the ‘Hottentot’ woman Saartje Bartman (who was ascribed gender-crossing - yet sexualised - qualities of aggression beside her demureness and femininity).32

Jews - irredeemably considered to be outsiders - endured a unique and particularly isolating position in Europe. Dispersed throughout the continent, they were first reviled as a seemingly-subversive element within Christendom during medieval times. The religious argument against Judaism would never be quelled; if anything, it provided a foundation for later ‘scientific’ discrimination as the refusal of Jews to convert en masse suggested inherent racial flaws to militant evangelists. 33 During the height of racial nationalistic fervour, they were seen to lack the racial ties that came naturally to others; many authors expounded on physiological differences (particularly skin colour and facial features). The Dreyfus Affair, representing the culmination of centuries of anti-Jewish mythology and then anti-Semitic pseudo-science and conspiracy theory, demonstrated the pervasive resentment of foreign elements, even in Europe’s most diverse republic. Consequently, the long-suffering Jew was perhaps the best example of the ‘Other’ functioning as a scapegoat.34


Synopsis

All of these myriad ‘Others’ represent elements of European society which, for various reasons, were considered exotic. The reason for this is relatively simple. More than a mere geographical expression, Europe was the home of a general - albeit protean - set of values and ideals which, in the imagination of its populace, held it to be separate and above the rest of the world. To the contrary, however, there existed many permutations of the main ideal and Europe’s populace was never wholly secure in its own identity. Indeed, the sense of individuality which came to the fore in the modern era was largely achieved by exclusion. Deeper than a simple fear of that which was different, European ambition demanded an external entity upon which to project its fears, insecurities and forbidden desires; in assigning traits to foreign bodies, inconsistencies and anxieties regarding its own culture could be laid to rest.

Bibliography:

Books:

  • Adams, R.Q.J. and Winks, Robin W.: “Europe 1890-1945: Crisis and Conflict” (New York, USA: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  • Brown, Peter. “The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200-1000” (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2003).
  • Cannistraro, Philip V, Reich, John J.: “The Western Perspective: A History of Civilisation in the West (volume C: 1789-present)” (Orlando, Florida, UDA: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999).
  • Cohen, Mark R.: “Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages” (New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press, 1994).
  • Fausto-Sterling, Anne, Terry, Jennifer (ed.) and Urla, Jacqueline (ed.): “Gender, Race and Nation: the Comparative Anatomy of Hottentot Women in Europe 1815-1817” in “Deviant Bodies” (Indiana University Press: 1995).
  • Forth, Christopher: “The Dreyfus Affair and the Crisis of French Manhood” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).
  • Harris, Jonathan Gil: “Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic” (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1998).
  • Kant, Immanuel (author), Guess, Raymond (ed.), Nisbet, H.B. (translator), Reiss, H.S. (ed.), Skinner, Quentin (ed.): “Kant: Political Writings” (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
  • Lusebrink, Hans Jürgen and Reichardt, Rolf: “The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom” (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997).
  • McClintock, Anne: “Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest” (New York, USA: Routledge, 1995).
  • Newsinger, John: “Elgin in China” in “New Left Review 15” (May-June 2002).
  • Ozouf, Mona: “The Festival of the Federation” in “Festivals and the French Revolution” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).
  • Parker, Geoffrey. “Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe” (London, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 2002).
  • Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H. “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004).
  • Phillips, Kim M. and Reay, Barry: “Sexualities in History” (New York, USA: Routledge, 2002).
  • Porter, Roy: “Addicted to Modernity: Nervousness in the Early Consumer Society” (University of Exeter Press: Exeter Studies in History, 1992).
  • Post, Ken: “Revolution and the European Experience, 1789-1914” (London, Great Britain: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999).
  • Said, Edward: “Orientalism” (New York, USA: Vintage, 1979).

  • Internet Sources:
  • Paul Halsall, Fordham University: “Internet History Sourcebooks Project” <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/> (last updated 29/7/2001, accessed 25/3/2004).
  • Richard Bear, University of Oregon: “Renascence Editions” <http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rbear/hobbes/leviathan2.html> (last updated 30/9/2003, accessed 24/3/2004).
  • Footnotes:

  • 1 Brown, Peter: “The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, AD 200-1000” (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pages 4-20.
  • 2 Cohen, Mark R.: “Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages” (New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press, 1994), pages 152-153.
  • 3 Paul Halsall, Fordham University: “Internet History Sourcebooks Project” (last updated 29/7/2001, accessed 2/5/2004).
  • 4 Parker, Geoffrey: “Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe” (London, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 2002), pages 224-226.
  • 5 Post, Ken: “Revolution and the European Experience, 1789-1914” (London, Great Britain: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999), pages 6-7.
  • 6 Parker, Geoffrey: “Empire, War and Faith in Early Modern Europe” (London, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 2002), pages 33-36.
  • 7 Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H.: “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), page 410-412.
  • 8 Ibid, page 422.
  • 9 Ibid, pages 427-445.
  • 10 Thomas Hobbes: “Leviathan” (1651), reproduced by Richard Bear, University of Oregon: “Renascence Editions” <http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rbear/hobbes/leviathan2.html> (last updated 30/9/2003, accessed 24/3/2004).
  • 11 Cannistraro, Philip V, Reich, John J.: “The Western Perspective: A History of Civilisation in the West (volume C: 1789-present)” (Orlando, Florida, UDA: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999), page 692.
  • 12 Ibid, page 701.
  • 13 Kant, Immanuel (author), Guess, Raymond (ed.), Nisbet, H.B. (translator), Reiss, H.S. (ed.), Skinner, Quentin (ed.): “Kant: Political Writings” (UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), page 50.
  • 14 Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H.: “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), pages 429-432.
  • 15 Ibid, pages 474-476.
  • 16 Ozouf, Mona: “The Festival of the Federation” in “Festivals and the French Revolution” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), page 37.
  • 17 Ibid, page 34.
  • 18 Lusebrink, Hans Jürgen and Reichardt, Rolf: “The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom” (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), page 39.
  • 19 Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H.: “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), page 696-699.
  • 20 Ibid, page 708.
  • 21 Porter, Roy: “Addicted to Modernity: Nervousness in the Early Consumer Society” (University of Exeter Press: Exeter Studies in History, 1992), pages 180-190.
  • 22 Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H.: “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), page 731.
  • 23 Ibid, page 443.
  • 24 Post, Ken: “Revolution and the European Experience, 1789-1914” (London, Great Britain: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999), page 15.
  • 25 Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H.: “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), pages 606-608.
  • 26 Cannistraro, Philip V, Reich, John J.: “The Western Perspective: A History of Civilisation in the West (volume C: 1789-present)” (Orlando, Florida, UDA: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999), pages 885-886.
  • 27 Phillips, Kim M. and Reay, Barry: “Sexualities in History” (New York, USA: Routledge, 2002), page 15.
  • 28 Said, Edward: “Orientalism” (New York, USA: Vintage, 1979), page 12.
  • 29 McClintock, Anne: “Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest” (New York, USA: Routledge, 1995), page 22.
  • 30 Perry, Marvin, Chase, Myrvin, Jacob, James R, Jacob, Margaret C, Von Laue, Theodore H.: “Western Civilisation: Ideas, Politics & Society (7th edition)” (Boston, USA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), pages 671-672.
  • 31 Newsinger, John: “Elgin in China” in “New Left Review 15, May-June 2002,” page 137.
  • 32 Fausto-Sterling, Anne, Terry, Jennifer (ed.) and Urla, Jacqueline (ed.): “Gender, Race and Nation: the Comparative Anatomy of Hottentot Women in Europe 1815-1817” in “Deviant Bodies” (Indiana University Press: 1995), page 32.
  • 33 Harris, Jonathan Gil: “Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic” (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 1998), page 14-15.
  • 34 Forth, Christopher: “The Dreyfus Affair and the Crisis of French Manhood” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), pages 21-23.
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