Europe: A Brief History of Its Idea from Ancient Greece to Montesquieu


My name is Giuseppe, I am 26 years old. I work in a library. I have a degree in Classical Literature and now I am studying Philosophy. I live in Eboli, a small town in southern Italy.

The first clear description of modern Europe – of its culture and many other aspects – originates from a strange Persian character, Usbek. He had fled his country from cruel enemies who held a grudge against him. Once in Europe he started writing letters to his friends, in which he describes places and people he met during his travels. These letters contain the first portrait of modern Europe*. But before that the idea of Europe has already gone through many changes.

Europe vs. Asia in ancient Greek thought
The definition of Europe to be found in Ancient Greece is based on a strong contrast between what Europe is and what not. Most important in this was the contrast with the Asian continent – and it couldn’t have been otherwise because of the territorial contiguity. The first essential difference was made by Greek thought. It was here and then that “European rhetoric” was born.
According to the Ancient Greeks, Europe represents the spirit of freedom compared to Asian despotism. The thesis: Europe = freedom vs. Asia = tyranny has been re-elaborated by writers and philosophers ever since until the present day.

Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages the contraposition Europe/Asia was replaced – or at least accompanied – by the new terminology Christian/Pagan. The term Christianitas became part of the general vocabulary while the adjective European was reduced to a geographical significance (and no longer carried an ideological meaning).

After the 10th century: a new axis and the duplicity of the Greek spirit
The appearance of new populations (Franks and Germans) causes the shift of the European axis to the west. The Great Eastern Schism on a religious level; crusades and the projects of Western conquests one the political level, reinforce the west-east opposition. Now the term Frankish/Latin is opposed to Greek/Byzantine. This forces Greece out of the European sphere and makes it part of the Asian one. The Greek spirit is described as perfidious and treacherous by European chroniclers of the time. It is not a coincidence that Dante Alighieri places Ulysses and Diomede in Hell.

The discovery of America
The awareness of new worlds induces Europeans to define their continent more clearly in contrast to the others.

The overcoming of the term Christianitas and the political legitimation of the adjective “European” has to be attributed to Niccolò Machiavelli. The diplomatic efforts aimed at managing relations among European nations during the 15th and 16th century create the first European bureaucracy.

Persian Letters
And finally it’s time for Usbek and his friend Rica. In Usbek’s letters, the outlines of Europe are clear for the first time. Some letters, in particular, seem to grasp in advance the Europe of our time.
As in the following lines, taken from a letter to Rica:
“[…]You will scarcely believe that during the month I have been here I have not yet seen any one walking. There is no people in the world who hold more by their vehicles than the French: they run; they fly: the slow carriages of Asia, the measured step of our camels, would put them into a state of coma[…]”
Does this not sound like Paris, today, in the age of full-blown capitalism?

* This is the plot of Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes (1721)

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