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The Idea of Europe

Catriona Seth
Rotraud von Kulessa


Texte intégral

Didier Robert de Vaugondy, Universal Atlas (1737), map no. 14.
© Bibliothèques-Médiathèques de Metz ATR 5132.

125 March 2017 marked the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which laid the foundations for the future European Economic Community. In 1957, representatives of six countries—the three Benelux nations, West Germany, France and Italy—met in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, on the Capitol, to set up an international agreement. The twelve signatories, who were academics, lawyers and diplomats, some of whom had been members of the resistance or imprisoned during the war, aimed to reinforce the ties between their lands and, through commercial exchanges, to stabilise the continent. Not quite six decades later, the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union at a time when the consortium’s twenty-eight member states (twenty-seven after Brexit) are being buffeted by increasing criticisms of the project and of the ideals which led to its formation. Scepticism seems to be the order of the day, wherever you turn your eyes. It is sometimes fuelled by populisms which seek, through a return to particularisms and nationalisms, to pander to a part of the population which globalisation has left feeling stranded.

2Observing the current challenges—many of them political—by which different European countries are confronted, European researchers who work on the eighteenth century decided to turn to earlier expressions of common values and past evocations of questions which remain valid today. Many men and women of letters envisaged the future of the continent in particular to try and bring peace to Europe. The texts which follow, signed by major Enlightenment figures such as Rousseau, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Kant, Hume or Germaine de Staël, as well as those whom history has forgotten, showcase the reflections of thinkers—mainly from the long eighteenth century—about Europe, its history, its diversity, but also that which unites a very varied geographical group. They underline the historical origins of a projected European Union with texts like the 1713 Project for Perpetual Peace in Europe. The Abbé de Saint-Pierre, its author, attempted to propose an innovative solution to the violent convulsions suffered by his country—France—and by neighbouring states at the time of the war of Spanish succession: a union, rather than a balance of powers, and the association of Turkey or the Maghreb within commercial networks, rather than their exclusion. He speaks out in favour of what he calls a ‘Treaty of Supreme Policy, or European Arbitrage, to keep all the parts of Europe united in a single Body’.

3Like him, there are others who proposed ideas, recounted past events, or imagined possible developments. Sometimes they are wrong, as hindsight shows. On occasion, they express ideas which we do not always share or which now appear outdated. One thing they have in common is to have wanted to think about what makes Europe, in its diversity and singularity, and about ways to envisage its future and to celebrate its diversity. Often they have wished, beyond party politics, for closer ties among European nations and greater intellectual and commercial collaboration.

4If, at the start of the nineteenth century, the idea of the existence of national characters and identities remained a potent one, thinkers like Germaine de Staël—to whom the Prince de Ligne wrote: ‘It is truly to you that one could write as an address: To the genius of Europe’—or Victor Hugo, who considered an American-style federal union, frequently stressed the importance of European unity to defuse future conflicts. In his famous speech to the 1849 Peace Congress, as he foresaw a time when a war between Paris and London, Saint Petersburg and Berlin or Vienna and Turin would seem as absurd and impossible as between Rouen and Amiens or Boston and Philadelphia, Victor Hugo heralded a radiant future: ‘A day will come when France, you Russia, you Italy, you England, you Germany, you all, nations of the continent, without losing your distinct qualities and your glorious individuality, you will merge into a superior unity and you will constitute European fraternity just as Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy, Lorraine, Alsace, all our provinces merged into France’. He called what corresponds to the vision of contemporary federalists the ‘United States of Europe’. He imagined technical progress going hand-in-hand with this fraternal advance: ‘Thanks to the railways, Europe will soon be no larger than France was in the Middle Ages! Thanks to steamboats, it is now possible to cross the Ocean more easily than one used to cross the Mediterranean! Soon man will travel round the earth like the Gods of Homer crossing the heavens in three strides. In but a few years, the electric wire of concord will surround the globe and embrace the world.’

5Hugo’s optimism would have been sorely challenged by the rise of populism and fear of foreigners which at times compromise relations in current western societies, but it still resonates with those of us who refuse to be beaten by the spirit of suspicion and identify with a common heritage and ambitions, celebrating our differences as occasions for sharing and learning. At a time when we need to rethink Europe, its aims and contours, it is surely wise to look at what men and women proposed in the past. We should listen to Edward Gibbon, for whom the true philosopher thinks on the scale of Europe and does not allow himself to be limited by national frontiers, or examine Benjamin Constant’s suggestions of ways to bring about the end of wars. The aspirations of enlightened thinkers, even when they are marked by the period in which they were conceived or by an outmoded eurocentrism, deserve a hearing. We are their heirs. Those who come after us will be fully justified in asking us to account for this intellectual inheritance.

  • 1 Extracts that are not derived from English-language editions have been translated by the contribut (...)
  • 2 Rotraud von Kulessa and Catriona Seth (eds.), L'idée de l’ Europe au Siècle des Lumières (Cambridg (...)

6This anthology is the result of an international collaboration. Its English version is the product of a crowdsourced translation, mainly thanks to the enthusiasm and talents of Oxford students and their tutors who met the challenge in record time with good humour and great skill.1 The texts offer diverse approaches and ideas. They can be read in any order. The book can be shared without moderation throughout Europe and beyond. Its original version was in French.2 There will soon be a German translation too!

7We would like to extend our warm thanks to the colleagues, students and friends who made this possible by their invaluable contributions. Nicolas Brucker (Metz), Denis de Casabianca (Marseille), Carole Dornier (Caen), Fabio Forner (Verona), Marie-Claire Hoock-Demarle (Paris), Juan Ibeas (Vitoria), Frank Reiser (Freiburg), Ritchie Robertson (Oxford and Göttingen), Lydia Vázquez (Vitoria), the Société française d’étude du XVIIIe siècle, the University of Augsburg and the University of Oxford were involved from the start.

A Note on the English Version

  • 3 Caroline Warman, et al. (eds.), Tolerance: The Beacon of the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Open Book P (...)

8After the January 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the French Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (SFEDS), horrified by the events and the climate of suspicion and fear which was being promoted in some parts of society, drew up an anthology of Enlightenment texts on the theme of Tolerance and sold it at a loss-making nominal price through newsagents in order to reach out to a wide audience. Caroline Warman, from Jesus College, Oxford, told me this was a fantastic achievement. When I suggested it would be even better if it could circulate more widely, for instance, by means of translations, she immediately offered to take the responsibility for crowdsourcing English versions of the texts. Thanks to students from all across the University of Oxford and their tutors, this was achieved and the book was launched on the first anniversary of the Parisian killings.3

9Many of us who study languages or speak more than one tongue are among those who feel that the European ideal remains a valid one, though it has been increasingly under attack. We wanted to show that questions about the degree of cooperation between countries, whether it should be formal or informal, which aspects of international law should be involved, but also the very natural tendency to adopt fashions—in dress, speech, mores—from our neighbours have been hotly debated for centuries.

10The initial French anthology involved colleagues from various countries and with all sorts of research specialisms. The English version draws on Caroline Warman’s experience and extends it: undergraduates, graduates and tutors, not only in French, but also in Spanish, German and Italian were all involved in preparing the extracts, many of which had never appeared in English. Others have been retranslated as an exercise out of which many of us gained both experience and enjoyment. Some of our wonderful students even translated texts from two different languages. All through the process I was struck by the enthusiasm and engagement of all the participants and I was at several points overwhelmed by offers or spontaneous translations—which sometimes meant a couple of drafts had to be merged for the one finally printed. These new translations do not pretend to offer definitive versions but they should allow the reader to discover interesting extracts and to reflect on past ideas, some of which still resonate nowadays.

11So… three cheers for our wonderful students whose names follow: Thomas Abbott, Anousha Al-Masud, Gregory Alexander, Amber Bal, Lucy Balazs, Matthew Bannatyne, Frances Barrett, Sarah Barron, Demelza Batchelor, Lucasta Bath, Elicia Begg, Lily Begg, Anna Bellettato, Max Bhugra-Schmid, Imogen Bowyer, Roberta Brandter, Heather Cant, Anushka Chakravarti, Aidan Chivers, Lydia Cockburn, Cristina Conde Tkatchenko, Emma Corris, Flavia Cresswell-Turner, Joseph Cullen, Annabelle Dance, Lara Davies, Sarah Davies, Sam Davis, Holly Dempster-Edwards, Johanna Dieffenbacher, Catherine Drewry, Callum Duff, Niamh Elain, Florence Engleback, Amira Fateh, Xena Fawkes, Georgina Fooks, Rosie Fraser, Johanna Gewolker, Lucy Gibbons, Natasha Gibbs, Emma Gilpin, Miranda Gold, Alexander Goodchild, Conal Grealis, Megan Griffin, Isabella Grive, Marina Hackett, Elliott Harman, Victoria Hart, Imogen Haworth, Katie Holmes, Katherine Howell, Minying Huang, Megan Husain, Katarzyna Jaroszewicz, Seung Jung, Joseph Kelly, Charlotte Kendrick, Thalia Kent-Egan, Johanna von Kietzell, Beth Lamarra, Amy Layton, Caroline Lear, Joshua Lee-Tritton, Guosheng Liu, Jonah Lloyd, Isobel Losseff, George Mackenzie, Lily MacTaggart, Krystofer Mackie, Lydia Martin, Carmen Martínez, Ollie Matthews, Róisín McCallion, Lara McNeil, Waqas Mirza, Charlotte Molony, Lara Morgenstern, Samuel Moss, Emily Niblo, Jenna Noronha, Elizabeth Norton, Jemma Paek, India Phillips, Alma Prelec, Hannah Pritchard, Livvy Procter, Sam Purnell, Anastasia Putt, Nicole Rayment, Edward Rawlinson, Olivia Reneaud-Jensen, Adam Rhaiti, Colette Rocheteau, William Rooney, Meris Ryan-Goff, Charlotte Ryland, Mobeen Salih, Harry Sampson, Bennett Sanderson, Jeanne Sauvage, Tina Shan, Marianna Spring, Hector Stinton, Georgiana Sutherland, Miriam Swallow Adler, Emily Taplin, Isabel Taylor, Samuel Thomas, Alexander Thompson, Martin Trpovski, Alexander Tucker, Anne-Jacqueline Uren, Laure Villa, Alex Ward, Lydia Welham, Emily Williams, Charlotte Willis, Iwo Wojcik.

12The following Oxford colleagues also took part:

13French: Sara-Louise Cooper, Tim Farrant, Jessica Goodman, Sarah Jones, Katherine Lunn-Rockliffe, Ian Machlachlan, Jake Wadham, Caroline Warman, Seth Whidden.

14German: Alex Lloyd, David Murray, Charlie Louth, Kevin Hilliard. Italian: Ela Tandello. Spanish: Diana Berruezo Sánchez, Laura Lonsdale, Lucy O’Sullivan, Annabel Rowntree, Olivia Vázquez-Medina.

15Fellows, tutors and/or students from the following Oxford Colleges were involved: All Souls, Christ Church, Exeter, Hertford, Jesus, Keble, Lady Margaret Hall, Lincoln, Magdalen, Merton, New College, Oriel, Pembroke, St Anne’s, St Catherine’s, St Edmund Hall, St Hilda’s, St Hugh’s, St John’s, St Peter’s, Somerville, Trinity, Wadham, Worcester.

16We express our gratitude to Susan Seth (Saint-Arailles), Rose Simpson (Aberystwyth) and William Ohm (Toronto), who gave us extra support for our translations.

17General thanks are also due to: Sandra Beaumont, Dena Goodman, Simon Kemp, Henrike Lähnemann, Ivana Lohrey, Stuart Parkes, Eva Rothenberger and, of course, all the staff at Open Book.


1 Extracts that are not derived from English-language editions have been translated by the contributors to this volume The spelling has been modernised.

2 Rotraud von Kulessa and Catriona Seth (eds.), L'idée de l’ Europe au Siècle des Lumières (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2017),

3 Caroline Warman, et al. (eds.), Tolerance: The Beacon of the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2016),

Table des illustrations

Légende Didier Robert de Vaugondy, Universal Atlas (1737), map no. 14.© Bibliothèques-Médiathèques de Metz ATR 5132.
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