European axiological community – a unity impossible to deny

Deciding on the formula of contemporary European Union and prospective directions of further integration on the European continent will provoke various controversies. Disputes may arise as to determined political, social and economic solutions. Politicians will enter into disagreements about the role of the national element in the decision-making procedures in the unifying Europe. However, the only indisputable thing should be the fact that Europe constitutes a specific axiological community – a community based on the same fundamental values, principles, cultural patterns and experiences.

Europe’s roots – common to almost all countries of the continent – distinguish it from all other parts of the globe. Even America, despite being Europe’s progeny, has developed to be quite distinct from its motherland and has created a set of values and ideas foreign to Europeans.  The axiological unity and cohesion of Europe allows all its inhabitants – regardless of the language they speak and the culture they have been raised in – to comprehend one another, interpret their actions and behaviours correctly and also set common or similar goals. Let us subject the principal pillars of our European community – our axiology – to scrutiny:


1st pillar: Greek philosophy

The pillars of the European civilisation – or simply, the pillars of Europe – originate from Ancient Greece, the one that gave us its mythology and theatre, architecture and sculpture, Olympic Games and the belief that science and education are values in themselves. One needs to realise that the Greek quest for the primary cause and the pursuit of tens of philosophers for the principle of all things have laid the foundations of what we call technology and progress today. Contemporary development of civilisation continues the search for answers to the questions posed by Greek philosophers. A relentless impetus to uncover new mysteries that nature holds is a sign of European character that – over the years of colonisation – has turned into the element constituting most part of our globe; a universal impulse for the people of all cultures.

This Greek element is found first and foremost in the art of thinking and understanding – this element forms the essence of philosophy understood to be the mother of all sciences, the love of wisdom, unrestrained and unbridled rush for knowledge. No wonder that Alfred North Whitehead characterised the whole European philosophical tradition as consisting of footnotes to Plato. He discerned the permanence, the cohesion and the continuity of European philosophical thought in the issues taken up by ancient philosophers symbolised by Plato. If we take a look at the history of European philosophy until modern times, we can see that the references to the great Greek thinkers are its essential element, not so much universal, as natural and obvious. The task to continue solving problems posed by Greeks has been jointly shouldered by all Europeans alike: from Kant to Rousseau, from Cervantes to Tatarkiewicz, from Del Noce to Kierkegaard.

Their zest in thinking and aiming to understand the working of the world was not all; Greeks have set themselves the task of taming nature and imposing order on the social world so as to facilitate its functioning; thus their predilection to pursue politics and tackle issues that today would be classified as belonging to sociology, political studies and law. Ancient Greece is not only deemed to be the cradle of democracy, but also the birthplace of the very reflection on political systems and the idealistic search for the perfect one. Self-taught ignorant Americans can delude themselves about the universal character of democratic solutions, but it only shows their lack of any understanding of European history and the roots of democracy. If the rule of the demos is gaining momentum now, it is evident of the power of European values or a combination of that power and the the dexterity of Europeans in introducing their own values and order to other cultures.

2nd pillar: Roman law

Greek philosophy exerted influence on the Roman political and social thought and that in turn shaped the second pillar of European axiology, i.e., the Roman legal system. Roman law, deeply ingrained in customs, underwent a systematic codification in ancient times and its final form – Corpus Iuris Civilis by Justinian I the Great – came to be the foundation for the Medieval legal system and later the contemporary systems. And it comes as no surprise that every student of law in a country whose system is based on Roman law has to take a course in the history of that law precisely. It would be hard to imagine an arrangement in which the administrative and legal order, the organisation of the judiciary and deciding in conflicts in contemporary European countries were not based on norms and rules from Roman ancient times.

Specific laws of the civil code from ancient Roman times are still applicable even now and can be found in the codes of contemporary European countries, e.g. issues connected with family law, the relationship between spouses, ownership rights, differences between ownership and possession, definitions of legal entities etc. Roman law – it should be highlighted – gave rise to international law, but that was a process governed by different principles and rules. At that time, all international legal entities could not enjoy equal status, since such was only attributed to Romans – the only rulers and emperors of the world. And this way of self-perception was passed on from Romans to Europeans, and they in turn carried it on Christopher Columbus’ ships in their mission to civilise the belated people and, at the same time, to instil their values as better, more appropriate and simply “more true”.

3rd pillar: Christianity

Passing on the European vision of the world or introducing the Roman legal system haven’t been the only ways in which the realm or European civilisation was extended on the newly conquered lands. It was also done through planting the seed of Christianity, as the only genuine pass to eternal life and redemption. Christianity has formed the third European pillar and, notwithstanding its present condition on the Old Continent and the changed perception in the Enlightenment, denying its achievements should be considered a malignant lie to the reality and an attempt at rewriting the history of Europe. European monarchs have been – and in their majority still are – Christian kings and queens, and the Church has played a role not only in delineating the way to redemption and defining moral arrangements, but it also influenced foreign policy, international relationships, waging wars and signing peace treaties. Its position was severely undermined for the first time by Reformation, yet its most essential contributions were not obliterated, as some would desire.

It was Christianity that brought the idea of human dignity – later picked up by modernity and the Enlightenment and finally by the human rights doctrine. This inherently human trait is expressed in Christianity by the fact the man was created in God’s image. The man, as God’s creation, cannot be denied respect and the sacred right to live. Modern thought has accepted this idea but removed all Christian and transcendental elements from it. Dignitas hominis - in its contemporary form – has been based on humanity as such and interpreted through Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative, which says that humanity should never be treated as an instrument, but always as the aim in itself. But the Christian origin of this, so often recalled (mostly by the political left), should not be forgotten.

Egalitarian values and the very principle of equality similarly come from Christianity; especially from the early Christians – undoubtedly because most Christians of that time were often poor, excluded people – who considered all people equal, but equal only before God. Heedless of man’s social standing, birth or wealth – as they maintained – God saw his child-creation in every man. Of course, such egalitarian doctrine of early Christianity is a far cry from the French ideas on equality from the Age of Enlightenment, and even more so, from the contemporary egalitarianism. However, being blind to the contribution that ancient times and Christianity have made belies our heritage. And the idea of equality is today often recalled, especially when we talk of the rights of those still unprivileged.

And finally the maxim: “Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and give God what belongs to God” has shaped the Christian and European principle of the division between the sacrum and the profanum, the separation between the religious sphere and the secular sphere. A rule, that has formed the foundation of the systems of all contemporary European countries and was a model for others emulate, is also – what today may often be forgotten – the achievement of Christianity. Man can be active in both these spheres, but his position and the received roles in the sacrum sphere are subject to his individual will and, above all, allow him autonomy from the state-imposed obligations. This is how Christianity denies the claim that theocracy is a social order that disrupts the biblical rule of separation – a belief that has laid the foundations of the European reality.

4th pillar: Aristotelian and Thomistic vision of the world

What Europe owes a great deal to is the Aristotelian-Thomistic vision of the man and the world. The very core of this metaphysics is the duality of substance and form, accepted later by Thomas Aquinas and the scholastics. This hylomorphism, based on the condition that the only way to arrive at the order of all things is to contain all the substance in a specific form, has been fundamental to all our thinking of the man, the redemption, objects, art, nature, order, and chaos. The man is composed of the body and the soul, the substance element and the spiritual element. And such a perception also finds its reflection in the common thinking, universal mythology, social symbols etc.

The idea that the only instrument of perceiving the world is the mind also comes from ancient Greece, but was really disseminated and taken for a universal value in Thomistic interpretation. Thomas Aquinas sees the mind as the key to learning about the world; only some Truths of the Catholic Faith require to be understood as revelations, yet the knowledge thus acquired is never contrary to the mind. Aristotele and Thomas Aquinas glorified the mind, which is the very foundation of contemporary scientific knowledge. Every European student is familiarised with the basics of this Aristotelian-Thomistic vision of the world by studying the principles of logic, like the law of noncontradiction.  It’s hard not to notice this pillar when we talk about European axiology, and impossible to find a European civilised country where this rule has not become regulatory.

5th pillar: humanism           

Contemporary Europe – and more specifically: European thought – has placed the human being as the centre of its interest and its aim. Philosophical humanism is an intellectual position which treats the man as a sort of hub of the universe, the cause of things, the maker and the arch-maker. The world changes upon the actions of man, and that sanctifies its submission to the man, his aims, needs and desires. Humanism is an optimistic current because it sees the man as a self-improving being, which facilitates the development of the world and triggers the mechanisms of progress on its way to fulfilling its own goals.

Ethical humanism regards the man as the source of truth and morals – the man is elevated to be the law-maker, not only of the statute law but also in moral conflicts. Contemporary Europe is the realm of human thought and human ethics, where the man adapts legal, social and moral norms to his needs. It undoubtedly leads to conflicts with the religious point of view; and the projects which aim to find the primary cause of all creation is God are neglected. Contemporay European humanism remains persistently blind to the Christian roots of European axiology, but history shows that humanistic values do not have to oppose the Christian ones, of which the above mentioned Christian idea of dignitas and its adaptation by European Enlightenment is the best example.

Humanism laid foundations to the European educational and pedagogic systems, which unequivocally decided that the man should receive broad and comprehensive education in order to develop its intellect capacities to the full. Unfortunately, today this model is undermined by the American educational trends, which advocate a narrow field of specialisation instead. But we mustn’t forget that all European thinkers, scientists and influential people who have made their mark on have been humanists – people with a broad mindset and not skilled in one field, people of great understanding capacity of the world and others. In education, humanism is also seen as the rush to universal scholarisation, which was European invention after all!

6th pillar: liberal values

Europe also rests on liberal values that form another axiological pillar. The same liberal values that some think to be the cause of degeneration and the fall of moral values, the source of anarchy or social anomie; values which many see as the enemies of religion, tradition or family. It’s hard to imagine Europe without those values, and even harder to imagine one that has put an end to Nazism and Communism – two hecatombs that overpowered the minds of millions of Europeans. The following are the principles fundamental to European axiology and derived from modern classical liberalism: the principle of liberty, tolerance, representation and the rule of law (which nota bene refers back to the Greek tradition and imperial and republican Roman tradition in many respects).

Liberty – defined by John Locke – is a man’s right to act freely providing that his actions do not cause another person’s harm or suffering. Isaiah Berlin spoke of the idea of negative liberty, i.e. liberty lacking any restraints that the government or any unfair oppressor may impose, and positive liberty i.e. unrestrained human actions whose aim is the individual pursuit of happiness. The liberal principle of freedom, with all its individualism in tow, proclaims the individual to be liberated from the influence of any social group, state authority, religious hierarchy or any other entity. It raises the individual’s exclusive right to decide about themselves, set their aims and pronounce their goals and objectives. Could contemporary Europe be in opposition to the idea of liberty? Wouldn’t it go against the very European identity?

Liberty and tolerance combined guarantee not only man’s right to decide about himself and his life independently but even impose an obligation on the society to respect such individual decisions. Of course, there is not tolerance for such individual choices that violate the liberty of another, which the critics of liberalism often forget, directing wrong and primitive accusations when they compare liberal values to libertinism, wilfulness or anarchy. Such simplistic view of liberty and tolerance – the two values so naturally and essentially bound to the idea of dignitas – stems from insufficient eduction as well as from blind infatuation with all forms of collective perception of the world typical of primitive and barbarian societies. Liberty and tolerance are not without their limits – if one opposes these values, they should reach for the texts of classical liberals, who specialised in setting boundaries!

Their task was also devising such an organisation of the state and its system in order to ensure the widest scope of liberty and tolerance possible. That is how a liberal state came to be based on the principle of representation – so that every citizen had the right to contribute to the decision-making, elect authorities, express their dissatisfaction and objection – and on the principle of the rule of law – so that the authorities did not abuse their powers, every man felt safe and their liberties were secured with appropriate legal means. The second half of the 19th century completed the definition of a state with democratic ideas and since then the idea of liberal democracy has triumphed. We ought to be mindful of the fact that the liberal democracy that Americans were so eager to institute in Vietnam and Iraq is a European invention and not a universal principle elaborated by renowned scientist in some laboratories. We cannot possibly rule out that inherently European constructs will not work outside Europe, but remembering about their European origin and roots will help us strengthen the respect towards out achievements and solutions.

7th pillar: human rights

Similarly to liberal values, human rights are also a naturally European construct and another pillar of European axiology. The development of human rights doctrine without liberal values, Christian influences in the idea of human dignity and without Aristotelian-Thomistic and Cartesian rationalism would be unthinkable. Human rights – as their doctrinaires would have it – originate from the inherent human dignity and that is why they can be enjoyed by all people everywhere (the universal character of human rights) from the moment they were born (inherent character) and nobody can be deprived of them (inalienable character). Human rights are understood to be natural rights, i.e. their confirmation is not contingent upon any state authority, though – as is known – countless legal and international regulations have been instituted to protect them and also to enumerate them in three generations.

The sources of human rights are to be found on the European continent only and possibly in the United States of America (but immediate influence of American founding fathers by European axiology is clear). The English king John the Lackland, who in 1215 signed a document entitled Magna Carta Libertatum, sanctioned the tradition of writing down the human rights and created regulations for their unhindered execution, which is a paradox at which all monarchs round the world will grimace and shout in protest interminably. There are other contemporary systems for the protection of human rights – separate but complementary at the same time – around the world, like the universal system of the United Nations, the systems of Europe, both Americas, and Africa, finishing with the national systems. The European origin of human rights is, however, historically undeniable.

And this irrefutable European descent of human rights causes the most serious problems when these rights aren’t respected by countries outside Europe. Human rights organisations that promote and monitor their observance usually report on frequent violations in Asia and Africa. But the countries most notoriously violating human rights are China, North Korea or the Arab countries. Those who infringe upon human rights defend themselves saying that these rights are non-existent in their societies and are a purely European invention. But does it mean that Europe should not promote and disseminate its values? Isn’t it the more reason for Europeans to demand respecting these rights of countries that belong to the sphere of European values? Europe must stand guard to its fundamental axiology otherwise it may well soon have its whole system of values reduced to ashes by the guerrillas of foreign axiology systems.

8th pillar: the influence of totalitarianism

The last pillar that supports European axiology is the experience of totalitarian rule. The very place where Nazism and Communism were born typically leads to a conclusion that they sprang from Europe values. Such thinking must inevitably lead to considering the experience of defeating these systems also the achievement of the Old Continent. Stalinism and Adolf Hitler’s Nazism sometimes seem to be neo-barbarian formulas quite foreign to the European thought which came down on the continent out of nowhere; but their impulse to create a perfect world and shape a new man, their ultra-rational thinking and apparent progressivism undoubtedly reveal a truly European behaviour; a behaviour most clearly radical, extreme, distorted and utterly simplistic, but beyond the shadow of a doubt European. Such experience must be used to further the progress of Europe.

The sheer awareness of the roots of the two 20th century totalitarian systems should act as a word of advice and a safety precaution against prospective leaders and movements who aspire – not even directly – to a new totalitarian system. The lesson on caution that can be learned from the experience of totalitarianism strongly resembles the Aristotelian theory of the golden mean, i.e. moderation. Such alertness can also be learned from the experiences of other great European revolutionary movements: the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution. Slogans advocating a radical social reorganisation and upturning status quo ante, agitation to revolt and build a new world should inspire distrust and scepticism, and even hostility, and perhaps fear, in an educated European. The unfulfilled promises of self-taught radicals and revolutionaries should ultimately be buried in the ashes of the victims of their experiments.

The experiences of totalitarian rule must not only forewarn those who will witness the birth of prospective followers of Lenin, Hitler and Stalin, but also bear testimony to the defence of European values and European order. The history of anti-Facist and anti-Communist resistance shows that even though so many yield to the revolutionary and disruptive doctrines, the solid foundations of ideology reserve will help strike back against the totalitarian charge. The leaders of European totalitarian regimes, who aimed to destroy and eradicate European values and substitute them with entirely new and alien ones, have never prevented the true meaning of the European values from shining through. European fight against the totalitarian systems is telling of the solid rooting of European values in the cultures and traditions of all European countries, which sanctifies the existence of the common European axiology.

Unity does not mean uniformity

Common sources and common European axiology do not force on us its uniformity – which would be absurd, false and contrary to the real state of affairs. Unity and cohesion of the European system of values do not exclude the diversity of nations and cultures, traditions and interests. Europe’s strength stems from the fact that the same roots and soil produced different cultures with their own archetypes and topoi, their own heroes and leaders, their own religious, moral and political leaders, and finally led to different means of realisation of common values. Such a variety results from different geographical, historical, religious and social conditions that shaped the different cultures. It is thus natural and yet puzzling to see such multiple ways in which individual countries and societies implement the common values within one uniting European axiology and in the highly varying national conditions. Seen from that perspective, Europe’s unity, but only in terms of axiology, is a fact.

And as we can see such unity does not exclude diversity and dissimilarity of local cultures. Considering unity and diversity to be opposites is a logical error since each of them belongs to a different sphere. Not only does the European unity allow for the distinct and autonomous character of individual European nations, which exist based on the feeling of national distinctness and a sense of community with the most immediate surrounding, but also lends strength to this unified axiology by the multitude of ways in which it is expressed. Europe is an all-pervasive element that permeates the German, French, Polish and Swedish identities – an element that would be impossible to neutralise, because the national self of every German, French man and woman, Pole and Swede would be hard to imagine without it. So those who see it as a threat to the national communities are either cowardly life failures with inferiority complex, who dread all that’s different and seemingly foreign, or consciously incite sceptics against other nations and identities. European identity thus exists, but only as an inherent element of the national identities, and never one that is instead of them.