The Soul of Europe. A Plea

Ramona M. Kordesch for the Order of St. George in October 2022

In his much-acclaimed speech on the future of Europe in 2022, Karl von Habsburg called for “the uncovering of the European soul”, referring, among others, to Robert Schumann, who, as the founding father of the European Union, called for the integration of moral values into politics in a special way. To this end, he drew on the religious and transcendental philosophical concept of the soul as an organising force and formative or shaping life principle of human societies. As formulated by Aristotle and affirmed by various representatives of a holistic anthropology, soul and body form a substantial unity. The fact that the politeia, the community, and its constitution are also permeated by a soul, in the form of a collective psyche, has been known since Plato and explained to the enlightened mind by Hegel. As a cultural being, man develops his soul life by absorbing tradition, which comes to him through the environment of human society and its cultural and moral constitution. In view of the far-reaching individualisation and pluralisation of Western societies of the post-industrial type, the question of the existence and nature of a European soul is objectively necessary. This is due to the fact that Europe is more a historical-cultural than a geographical concept. The doomsday version of Western culture advocated by Oswald Sprengler and much recited especially among Christian-Catholic thinkers is primarily characterised by the dissolution of consciousness about moral values that are not (!) up for grabs. A cultural morphology of this reading summarises the occidental nation states as a “Faustian culture” whose ossified world views, pushed into complete privacy, are confronted with a new, as yet undetermined world order.

The attention to the great constants of the explicitly Christian heritage in Europe has sometimes not gone beyond its founding fathers, since European unification has taken place primarily from an economic point of view, to the exclusion of the question of the spiritual foundations of such a community. While European ideals, such as the promotion of peace, European values and the well-being of its citizens, freedom, security and the rule of law could be named without internal borders, the debate about a soul of Europe as a common foundation, not least due to the abandonment of the Invocatio Dei, the proof of man’s responsibility before God, in the European constitution, was absorbed into the Charter of Fundamental Rights of 2000 and has not been continued since. At the same time, the absolute profanity that developed in the Occident is profoundly alien to the cultures of the world. The cultural transformation of the continent, but also the imperatives of its history, point to the high value of the liberal-democratic constitutional state, which is preceded by the existence of values that cannot be manipulated by anyone. Thus, the state lives on preconditions for which it cannot guarantee itself, because they are predetermined by and depend on the moral substance of the individual and the homogeneity of society.

This dare, the “dilemma of the preamble”, is the very guarantee of freedom that distinguishes the European spirit and gives it its distinguished character. For example, the idea of the image of God has become the basis of human rights, the inviolability of which is filled with the idea of a creator God to whom we are responsible. In this respect, the Christian heritage is essentially codified here in its special kind of validity. A recourse to the soul of Europe is also advisable before the challenges of the crises of our time, whose attempted solutions are connected with the concept of ecological and social sustainability. In this context, the concrete action of responsibility for the ecosystem in which we live, i.e. our obligation towards creation for the benefit of future generations, will be a central point of reference. This obligation is essentially reflected in the discourse of modern civil societies, which, in demonstrating their ideals – and this is a primeval European contribution to the necessary further development of global social systems – also combine the will to serve them. The willingness to commit oneself to society and its beneficial development does not require any reference to God at all, but in the idea of Christian charity as the first commandment, it finds a history of tradition that is essential for the development of the production of the common good and philanthropy in Europe.

Thus, the shaping of modern societies, which have to re-arrange themselves before the challenge of globality, proves to be prerequisite-rich. Turning to the soul of Europe in search of a post-conventional morality cannot do without authentic cultural resources-mindful of the principles that have made us successful as a whole. For this, one does not need to strain “the sacred”, but one does need respect for the social achievements of religion in Europe, which one can expect even from those who are not themselves prepared to follow it.

Author: Dr. Ramona M. Kordesch is a Roman Catholic theologian and business ethicist. She is Director of the Austrian Council for Sustainable Development based in Vienna and a researcher at the Leadership Excellence Institute of Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance.