The soul of Europe – how to use culture


Picture of Erhard Busek
Erhard Busek

One often hears that culture is the basis of Europe, and that without culture one cannot understand our continent. In reality, Europeans these days are talking about currency systems, unemployment, new technologies, immigration and security. These seem much more urgent issues than the role allocated to the humanities and culture, which are reserved for exhibitions, festivals and tourism.

On the other hand, culture is vital for the protection of human rights and for mutual understanding. Understanding history is the basis for constitutions, human rights and international law, and is therefore imperative for the future of Europe. The volatile situation in Ukraine and Russia, in the Balkans and the Middle East as well as the complexity of borders and religious tolerance are all problems we now have to face. These issues are an enormous challenge for the humanities and culture.

Odo Marquard, a German philosopher, argued in favour of a compensatory role for the humanities when facing Max Weber’s modern world of the rationalistic disenchantment with our lives and the very earthly consequences of secularisation. His idea seems to provide a new spiritual home for our puzzled and often cynical minds. But the concept cannot work for two reasons.

What we must do is spread knowledge about the cultural situation, our differences and what we share

First, cultural events and philosophy cannot heal the disenchantment over urban life, ecological degradation, social and cultural fragmentation, or the economic crisis. These issues will be addressed by appropriate political and social action, by creating new frameworks for living, working, democratic participation and cultural life. Thinking that philosophy should compensate for or even substitute politics could be a much too dangerous road into the future.

Second, the consequences of secularisation – alienating for many – cannot be compensated for by aesthetics, philosophy or reasoning. One of the most serious shortcomings of the Enlightenment was the confusion of religious needs and desires with an appropriate political role for religion in newly secular societies. Although for a long time it looked like the issue had disappeared, it is today re-emerging and gaining significance as indicated by the popularity of new age movements and religious sects.

What we must do next is spread knowledge about the cultural situation, our differences and what we share. For this, we need more investment for cultural education in schools and for cultural institutions like theatres and concert halls. Austria’s experience, I would say, shows that the identity of the country was very much created by culture. We are always saying we are a cultural nation, and though I do not know if it is really true, it is necessary to develop a cultural policy in which we look to the sources of our culture and what is in common with our neighbours. Investment in culture is an investment in our common future.

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