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The Idea of Europe

Catriona Seth
Rotraud von Kulessa

37. The Diversity and Unity of Europe

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1Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803),i was a German poet, philosopher and translator. He developed his philosophy of history in a treatise called Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Humanity, 1784–1791). Here he shows that Europe’s diversity is often a strength. The thinker is also conscious of eurocentrism and defends the idea of cultural relativity.

2Why does Europe distinguish itself in the differences between its nations, in the variety of its customs and art, and most of all in the influences that it has exerted over every other part of the world? I am well aware that many factors have come together, and that we will not be able to pick them all apart here; in physical terms, however, it is undeniable that its landscape, segmented and multi-form, has sparked and catalysed this process. When the peoples of Asia travelled here at different times and along different paths: what bays and coves, how many rivers, each flowing in a different way, what a variety of small mountain ranges they found here! They could be together and apart, interact with one another and leave each other in peace once more; this multifaceted small continent thus became, in microcosm, the market and gathering place of all the earth’s peoples. The Mediterranean Sea, the only one of its kind, how much it has come to define Europe as a whole! So that one can almost say that this sea alone has formed the bridge of all ancient and medieval civilisations, and fostered their advancement. The Baltic Sea is by far its inferior because it lies further north, between harsh nations and barren lands, a side street of the global market as it were; but at the same time the eye with which the whole of northern Europe sees. Without it, most of its surrounding countries would be barbaric, cold, and uninhabitable. The same goes for the demarcation between Spain and France, for the Channel that separates the latter from England, for the shape of England, Italy, and of ancient Greece. If one were to alter the borders of these countries, remove a strait here, close off another there, for centuries the formation and destruction of the world, the fate of whole peoples and continents, would take a different course. […]

3I do not wish to stray any further into Europe. It is so rich and mixed in forms: in so many different ways has it varied nature through its art and culture that I will not venture to generalize about its subtly intermingled nations.

4Johann Gottfried Herder,
Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Humanity (1784–1791).

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