With all the crises affecting the European Union lately, I thought I’d do a series of posts on Europe and its current situation. This first one is on the difficulty of defining the concept of Europe, which is in itself an essential concept to face all the issues that are taking place today. Hope you like it!
Every concept has a collection of meanings and connotations, which may increase, diminish, or be altered over time. The concept of Europe is no exception. It is generally considered a social construct, an image born of rhetoric used in a certain way within a specific social context (St. Pierre Hirtle, 1996), and as the rhetoric of its inhabitants changed over time, so did the concept. Even today, scholars have yet to find objective criteria by which to determine what is indeed considered Europe. The aim of this paper is to argue that the concept of Europe has yet to be defined positively because, throughout history, the concept appeared based on negative definitions, which have today become unclear too due to the ‘euroization’ and westernization of the world. To do so, the history of Europe will be divided into four periods loosely based on those pointed out by Triandafyllidou and Gropas (2015) in the second chapter of What is Europe?: The proto-Europe of Hellenistic times, the religious Europe of the Middle Ages, the civilizing Europe of the colonial expansion era and the modern Europe of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Proto-Europe: European culture was born in Greece, as were some of the core features attributed to Europe today (Knappert, 1995). From it arose Hellenistic Europe, born out of opposition with Asia and the barbarians at the north. These peoples were considered to have flaws of character, such as corruptness in the Asian case or general uncivilizedness in the case of the barbarians beyond the northern frontiers. Europeans, or rather Hellenes, as the term ‘Europe’ was not yet fully associated with these people, where therefore those who were free of these flaws and thus superior: Europe was not uncivilized or corrupt.
Europe in the Middle Ages: The idea of Europe acquired more strength in this era as, because of its ties with Christianity, it ‘acquired meaning by contrasting itself with the Arabs and the Islamic world’ (Triandafyllidou and Gropas, 2015, p. 33). Christian culture strongly influenced European philosophy, art, and science (Koch, 1994). ‘Europeans’ were joined as well in that they rejected any connections with the Middle East and presented themselves as opposed to the Jews. Europeans were therefore vastly different peoples who were united by religion, despite other differences they may have had, against those with different beliefs that clashed with the European church. It was the external pressure of these ‘infidels’ that confirmed Europe as a cultural, geographical and, to an extent, political body. Europe did not include non-believers.
Expanding Europe: During the imperialist era, the definition of Europe acquired a racial connotation, tied to that of the civilizing mission. The imperial metropoles assumed a sense of duty, a need of paternalistic aid in the regions they perceived as less-developed, as intrinsically different from Europe (Ashcroft et al., 2000 pp. 47-48). It was during this era that Edward Said’s Orientalism was considered to be on the rise, aiding the construction of European culture as a powerful ‘Other’ in contrast to the Orient (Said, 1978). Cultural and religious unity was also augmented through the internal persecution of minorities (Triandafyllidou and Gropas, 2015, p. 39). Europe was not the Orient, or in need of civilization.
Modern Europe: Pinpointing the limits of Europe today is more complicated than ever before. The periods of colonialist expansion and more recent globalization has resulted in the transportation and adoption (forced or otherwise) of elements of European origin in most of the globe. This means that, because the ‘other’ now contains little portions of what was once exclusively European, it cannot be considered fully ‘other’, as it has developed similarities with Europe. The core values attributed to Europe are still more or less the same, but the borders are more diffuse than ever. Geographic criteria have become mixed with cultural, political and subjective elements. Without a clear definition of what Europe is not, we have lost the main tool used in the past to give meaning to the term ‘Europe’ and must resort to subjective criteria, rather than the more-or-less objective criteria used in the past.
Throughout the evolution of the concept of Europe and the changes it has gone through since its appearance, Europe has been defined in terms of an ’Other’, and as the other shifted so did the socially constructed concept of Europe. If Europe is most easily delimited through a negative definition and we can no longer determine what it is not, it is not surprising that the borders of Europe have become blurred, and that our search for what truly makes one ‘European’ is no closer to its end than before.
Ashcroft, B., Griffiths, C. & Tiffin, H. 2000. Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, London: Routledge.
Knappert, Jan. (1995). The Greek origin of European Culture. International Journal on World Peace, 12(3), 39-47.
Koch, Carl. (1994). The Catholic Church: Journey, Wisdom, and Mission. Early Middle Ages. Minnesota, St. Mary’s Press.
Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.
Triandafyllidou, Anna & Gropas, Ruby. (2015). What is Europe? Ontario, Canada. Palgrave.
St. Pierre Hirtle, Jeannine. (1996). Coming to Terms: Social Constructivism. The English Journal, 85(1), 91-92.