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The Idea of Europe

 | 
Catriona Seth
, 
Rotraud von Kulessa

14. Europe’s True Wealth is its Cultural Heritage

Texte intégral

1In his 1756 historiographical Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations (Essay on the Mores and the Spirit of the Nations), Voltaire (1694–1778)i stresses the wealth of the cultural inheritance of the continent, which he describes as a part of a world ‘incomparably more populated, more civilised, richer and more enlightened’than it was during the Roman Empire, even though Italy alone has lost some of its radiance. He mentions the fear he shares with other contemporary thinkers like Montesquieu that the world’s population might be decreasing, and criticizes clerical celibacy, which he considered to be an aberration.

2Let one consider, from Petersburg to Madrid, the prodigious number of superb towns built on sites which were deserts six hundred years ago; let one pay attention to the immense forests which covered the earth from the banks of the Danube to the Baltic sea, and even to the middle of France. It is quite obvious that when many lands have been reclaimed, there are many men. Whatever one might say, agriculture and commerce are more widespread than they were previously. […]

3In what a flourishing state Europe would be without the continuous wars which trouble it for very minor interests and often for tiny whims! How high a degree of perfection might the farming of land not have reached, and how much more succour and comfort the manufacturing arts might have spread in civil life, if such a surprising number of useless men and women had not been entombed in monasteries! A new humanity which has been introduced into the scourge of war and which softens its horrors helped contribute to saving people from a destruction which appears to threaten them at all times. The multitude of soldiers continually maintained by all princes is, in truth, a quite deplorable evil. And yet, as has already been remarked, this evil produces good: people no longer take part in the war their masters wage; citizens of besieged towns often pass from one domination to another, without a single inhabitant having lost his or her life: they are simply the prize for he who had the most soldiers, canons and money.

4Civil wars long brought desolation to Germany, England, France; but such distress was soon repaired and the flourishing state of these lands proves that the industry of men has gone much farther than their fury. The same is not true of Persia, for instance, which has fallen prey to devastations for the past forty years; but if it unites under a wise prince, it will regain its solidity in less time than it took to lose it. […]

5When a nation knows the arts, when it is not subjugated and transported by foreigners, it can easily emerge from its ruins and it always recovers.

6Voltaire, Essay on the Mores and the Spirit of Nations (1756).

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