European Culture

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Originally posted 2023-01-11 20:01:19.

Multiculturalism has become prevalent in Europe over the last fifty years. In many places it has supplanted European culture itself. In part this has been a result of the end of European Empires, a consequence of the wars of the 20th century and an understandable sense of repentance for the excesses of an Imperial past. We are embarrassed by a history that painted huge areas of the globe pink, or whatever colour our particular nation applied.

At the same time, across Western Europe, we have seen the rise of a sense of cultural equivalency, which holds that all cultures are of equal worth, and should be equally respected: according to this, European culture was no great shakes, just one of many.

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Do we have grounds to contest this, and to claim that our European culture is not equivalent, but superior to others? And if we do, what are the things that make our European culture so unique and valuable?

Amongst the most important are, surely the Rights of Man: the right to choose whom we will be ruled by, freedom of association and freedom of speech; the absolute equality, before law, of men and women, the right to choose a religious belief and to choose one’s life partner; the right to a fair trial, and not to be locked up indefinitely without charge; the abolition of slavery and serfdom and, last but certainly not least, the right to change or modify the laws that govern our society, by democratic mandate. There are many others, but without the above, the very idea of European culture is reduced to a parody of quaint accordion music, good wine and nice pastries.

These values are not new. We developed them, and built European culture upon them, over hundreds of years. While many of our ideas originate much earlier, the parturition took place in Italy, six centuries ago, at what we now call the Renaissance—although in fact, ‘Naissance’ might be more apt, since there has never been a culture like ours. It is unique in human history.

These values constitute a code, which was first developed in Europe but which has, by many means both fair and foul, been carried across the globe. This code is not itself religious, but secular. It sees religious observance not as a tenet of the culture itself, but as a function of the rights of free speech and association, which are central to it.

Nor is the code that underpins our culture set in stone. The Akkadian king Hammurabi, famously, was the first to do this, nearly four thousand years ago and we have been plagued by literal-minded pests ever since. Instead, ours changes as we require it to change. Many of the tenets that we now call central, like the abolition of slavery, were not always part of it. We added them in. This makes it dynamic, exactly like the free market economy that supports it. It is also evolutionary, adapting and re-inventing itself all the time. This is the inverse of rigid and inherently backward-looking cultures that base their codes on books written many hundreds of years ago, which ceased to be relevant the day the Renaissance dawned.

The inherent value of European culture: the individual.

European culture, wherever it is being practised, is founded upon the inherent value of the individual human. This appreciation of individuality is what the Renaissance was all about, a point hammered home in Jacob Burckhardt’s eponymous work. That is why it is only then that we begin to learn the names of the artists of the day. With few exceptions, the identities of Medieval European visual artists are unknown. The Renaissance changed all that: artists were individuals to be celebrated, and indeed their very idiosyncrasies, which were often radical, were tolerated and even lionised.

We would not have Shakira or Tom Cruise, Steinbeck or Shakespeare, Bach or Beethoven, had it not been for Dante, Giotto and Donatello, in other words.

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The Renaissance in Italy took root in politically fertile ground. This was where Nicolo Machiavelli, that often, but wrongly, maligned chronicler of Realpolitik, learned his lessons. Renaissance princes were not held in power by armies or divine right, but by their abilities as politicians and their popularity with those they governed. Perhaps the best-known of all such men, Lorenzo di Medici, encapsulated the essence of the individual at the helm of state, an essence which every successful politician of the modern era must replicate in order to win the fickle favour of the masses.

It was his individualism that so irritated the mad monk Savonarola, a book-bearing demagogue who harked back to a pre-Renaissance belief that the individual was nothing, and God’s order was immutable and sacrosanct. He hated the new European Culture. We are not without our Savonarolas today.

Though the Medici eventually fell out of favour, and indeed, even though it was almost crushed by reactionary, and established socio-political orders, Renaissance culture grew stronger, eventually consuming every other that it touched, and, so far, overwhelming every challenge.

The success of European culture is largely due to the economic system that it evolved: free market capitalism. The basis of this system is that it encourages individuals to get rich, and if possible, famous too, any way they can. Everything else flows from that.

So European culture is at once a set of socio-political ideals and an economic system that absolutely celebrates individual human beings and protects their rights. All, every one, of the great artistic, scientific, political and social achievements of the last six centuries have been made possible by European culture. It is galling to see it disregarded or derided as it often is.

Admittedly, there have been many mistakes and failures; many dreadful wars and countless individual abuses. In the main, however, Post-Renaissance European culture has been, and remains, staggeringly successful.

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A willingness to integrate values or memes from outside has always been a major contributor to that success. Marco Polo brought us pasta, and had Manet not been influenced by Japanese wood block prints, we would not have Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, or David Hockney. We happily pinched algebra from the Persians and the guitar from the Arabs. In every field, our culture is a magpie, relentlessly plundering others for ideas and themes.

European culture

The combination of these factors has made us both strong and vulnerable. Our culture is robust because it is dynamic. Its constant evolution and self-renewal—a function of its foundation upon the individual and the absence of immutable codes—has kept it fresh, vibrant, and strong.

Savonarola was right: the Renaissance signalled the end of the old sureties. Philosophy overthrew religion as our tool to understand the Universe and, in turn, it was made redundant by Scientific Method, which knows no absolute certainties. A proof always runs the risk, no matter how slight, of someday being overturned. This is totally different from a culture in which what is written, and only that, is true, and can never be altered or challenged. It is unsettling as well as exhilarating, a cultural roller-coaster ride.

We are strongly predisposed to regard the new as valuable in itself. Again, this is a product of our fascination with the individual. We seek new voices, new ideas, new stimuli, all the time. Individuals and their ideas–as opposed to the hegemony of codified opinion–fascinate us. Because we live inside the culture we don’t see this as anything unusual, but it is.

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Consider Egypt. For three thousand years its culture remained practically unchanged. Half-way through that, more or less, the Pharaoh Akhenaten upset the apple-cart. He threw out the old, polytheistic religion and established a new one, a monotheism that worshipped the sun-disc, the Aten. He built a new city and religious centre at Amarna to celebrate this cult. And what happened? A few years after Akhenaten’s death, the whole lot was obliterated. The culture was destroyed, the imagery effaced and Amarna was razed to the ground. Why? The people didn’t want the new. They wanted the familiar, old culture back.

Traditional Egyptian wall-painting depicting the old Gods. Osiris is seated, attended by Hathor, Aset and Nephthys.

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This story is repeated over and over again throughout history. Humans do not embrace change readily, and the fact that we do makes our culture unique.

However, our very openness also renders us vulnerable. We presume that outside cultural influences can, and will, be consumed, as we adopt that which we find useful and reject the rest. In other words, that new elements, indeed whole cultures, may be brought into ours, diluted, morphed and assimilated, to the greater good—and profit—of all concerned.

We think that we will come to no harm through this, because we assume that the benefits of our culture will be both obvious to, and welcomed by, anyone who comes into contact with it. That this might not be the case never occurs to us. We are the cultural equivalent of a large dog who thinks everyone wants to be licked. But against us stand the Savonarolas, the legions of book-thumping priests, mullahs and others who deeply hate us for devouring their cultures, and sweeping the ground of certainty from under their feet.

European culture

We can indeed be insensitive. We never stop to consider the people whose cultures we are plundering, whose memes we are assimilating. We just assume that they will accept that the rules we live by, the principles set out above, apply to them as much as to the rest of us. That they too must learn to tolerate other cultures and religions, and accept that their faith is just one in a melting-pot of equivalent beliefs and non-beliefs. That each individual has the right to choose, without coercion, and to comment without persecution, and these rights are more important than all the religious texts ever written.

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Without tolerance, our culture could not exist. The semen of the Renaissance fertilised the nascent egg of Reformation. Though the labour was long and painful, our individualistic, materialistic culture was born out of the successful resolution of religious conflict, and the midwife was secular tolerance. We insist that people have the right to believe in anything they want, from Wicca to Communism, without fear of retribution.

Tolerance of all religions, whatever they may be, implies secularism, or at the very least a kind of religious equivalency, that says you can believe anything you like as long as you don’t interfere with others believing what they like. The implication is that no-one can be sure which, if any, of the religions is correct. Furthermore, we tolerate a panoply of them because we place something higher than any specific belief: the individual’s right to choose. It also implies that, since we cannot say that any one set of religiously-derived rules or laws is better than any other, then the rules and laws that we decide for ourselves, by consensus, must always take precedence over religious ones. It doesn’t matter what anyone claims might be ‘God’s Law’, since everyone is subject to secular law first. Religious tolerance in our culture, therefore, is derived from our belief in the rights of the individual human and we have built a structure of law to enshrine this.

Myriad horrors, from the massacres of Protestants in Paris, the persecution of Catholics in England, the indelible stain of the Holocaust, the tragedy of Srebrenica, to religiously-inspired conflicts all over the world right now, are proof indeed that the child of those long birthing pains, our secularist culture, certainly in this regard, is superior to any theocracy.

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History tells us that static cultures all, eventually, collapse. Even Egypt fell. The day that Rome faltered in its expansion was the day its death began. Make no mistake; the old ‘Evil Empire’ of the Soviet Bloc was not destroyed by superior military might or because we got to the moon first, but because it lacked the ability to renew itself or adapt to new conditions. Cathartic destruction is the inevitable end, sooner or later, of every such monolithic, immutable culture. On this count, too, our culture is superior.

So there remains a question: how do we, who so value the rights of individuals, yet who believe in tolerance, counter the absolutist demands of those who, like Savonarola, reject our culture and seek to replace its dynamic stability with false certitudes, despite the fact that what they would replace our culture with is absolutely doomed to fail? Not only that, but on its way to failure it would, if the Soviet experience is anything to go by, result in the deaths of millions?

This tension, between the vibrant dynamism of our culture and the dead weight of  authoritarianism, is difficult for us to deal with. It conflicts with our cultural predisposition to tolerate the beliefs of others and defend their right to express an opinion.

European Culture

Yet this presumes that the person whose right to an opinion one is defending will repay the compliment, and defend one’s own right to a different one. Unfortunately, far from it; if the proponents of authoritarianism gain power, the first thing they do is make free speech and legitimate criticism illegal. The 20th century alone yielded a rich crop, and there is no sign of them diminishing.

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Perhaps, while the modern Savonarolas and the groups they animate remain small minorities they may be ignored. But democracy, as we apply it, has always favoured the vocal and organised minority, and it is naïve to imagine that everyone who uses democratic process has its best interests in mind. A system developed to defend the individual must always be vigilant of attempts to subvert it, by organised groups which do not necessarily accept its central tenets. The old British Labour Party, whose internal procedures were once commendably democratic, found this out the hard way when Militant Tendency almost over-ran it in the 1980s.

European culture
John Collier. Lady Godiva.


A minority does not need to become the majority in order to achieve its ends; being motivated and knowing how to manipulate the system makes up for numbers.

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When I was growing up, I lived on a hill overlooking an RAF base. Every day during the school holidays I would watch as pairs of Lightning fighters blasted vertically into the sky, after-burners blazing a streak of orange, on their way to intercept Soviet spy-planes. I remember seeing huge arrays of Bloodhound surface-to-air missiles pointing east as I travelled on a family holiday to London. One day I went into my primary school to find posters saying ‘Better Dead Than Red’ pasted up everywhere. And since my home was between the RAF base, an army camp and a Naval Air Station, we all knew that if ‘they’ pressed the ‘button’, we were going to be incinerated thee minutes after the siren went off.

No amount of revisionism can give people like me back the years blighted by childhood nightmares of mushroom clouds. When the Berlin Wall came crashing down, it was to a great sigh of relief from all over the world, in which I shared. Freedom is indeed a precious thing that we undervalue at our peril.

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While it was pre-eminent during the Cold War era, Soviet socialism was never the only authoritarianism we had to worry about, just the most immediate. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the re-integration of many of its satellite states into modern Europe, the others have both grown and become more obvious.

The menace today comes not from a recently invented, materialist, political ideology, but from a much older one, which also has large parts of the globe under its thrall. One which, as well as this, has always hated Europe. Indeed one could fairly argue that its very invention was a reaction to the Roman Empire, which, if nothing else, was European.

European culture
Polish Winged Hussars destroy the Ottoman hordes and lift the Siege of Vienna, 1683. They saved European culture.

This culture waged relentless, brutal, incessant war for 1000 — yes one thousand — years against Europe with the specific aim of defeating it, colonising it and rubbing its culture and religion out. Only the incredible, last-gasp rally of Europe when its armies, massively outnumbered, defeated the Ottoman Turk forces outside the gates of Vienna in 1683, saved us. The last great charge of the Winged Hussars was not in vain. These men saved European culture from the blackest of nights.

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Had this enemy culture prevailed, Europe would have perished. While our culture had by then already been exported to the Americas and parts of Asia, its place of birth, the fount of the culture and its ideas, would have been snuffed out. The Enlightenment might never have happened; science may never have allowed us real understanding, at last; secular democracy might never have appeared and even the Industrial Revolution might have been stillborn.

Had this culture prevailed, it would have set the stamp of victory on centuries of killing, plundering and piracy in the name of its god and prophet. No culture on Earth has ever been more hostile to Europe, its secular democracy or its culture. And despite being defeated on field of battle, in science and technology, in its economic power, in creativity and everything else, that culture still intends to destroy Europe completely.

That culture is called Islam.

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