Ian Winchester

Civilization and the European Origins of the Great Interrogations

To see Europe and the unity of European culture clearly from Canada is harder than one might think. The dominance of our next-door neighbour, the United States, tends to make seeing everything else through a glass darkly.

Having only recently given up our own Scandinavia, the Netherlands and the Baltic states, the Canadian personal and cultural connections to Europe are, or ought to be, immediate and strong. Ninety seven percent of the citizens of the United States were born there. In Canada the number is only about sixty percent.

Most Canadian families have relatives in Europe whom they visit frequently or who are visited by them. Most Canadian higher education in the arts, the sciences and the humanities takes it for granted that Europe is a crucial educational inspiration or destination. Our symphony orchestras hire European conductors as frequently as they hire our own. Our ballet companies, though now dominated by Canadian trained dancers, often hire Europeans as artistic directors or choreographers. Our largest city, Toronto, has more citizens who were born abroad, mainly from Europe, than in Canada. Thus it is with some dismay that a Canadian notices the tendency of America, of American writers, American films, and American scholars, perhaps unwittingly, to ignore Europe or to take it for granted or even to denigrate its cultural achievement or unthinkingly diminish its present place in the world.

Many of us cheered our former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, when he attempted to forge a closer connection with the European community. This was not only because it would have given us a counterweight to the overwhelming dominance of the United States in North American business and its strong intrusion in the culture of Canada, including the French culture of Quebec, but because it felt natural for us to be allied to Europe and to European culture. What the world sees as "American" civilization, Canadians see as European civilization having embraced the world, though we cannot deny the American twist.

There is an obvious sense in which the present civilization which dominates the world is an extension of European civilization. At least Spengler and especially Toynbee have noted this long ago. Asia, the Americas and Africa, India and Arabia are all now contributing to this civilization and take it for granted, though most of them are acquainted with its dark side, a side we are trying to forget.

Over the last thousand years, European civilization maintained an ebb and flow of contact with large parts of the rest of the world, not only through its means of communication--- wallking, horseback, boats and latterly, trains and planes, mail, telegraph, telephone and e-mail---but most importantly through its approach to knowledge, its ways of asking and answering questions. If a naive North American were to say "What a fractured place Europe is, what lack of commonality, what petty differences", the correct reply might be "But look at the unity of its culture". That unity is to be sought in the central ways of asking and answering questions to which the whole of European civilization has contributed for the last thousand years.

We can, I suggest, see the main phases of European civilization since 1000 A.D. as dominated by three overwhelming ways of asking and answering questions. I mean the ways of the "interrogation of God", the "interrogation of Nature" and the "interrogation of Man". These three great "interrogations" were largely due to Europe's having invented or developed a vast system of universities in the first four centuries of the millenium that has just passed. It was the university institutions which, picking up on Greek antecedents, institutionalized the interrogation of the things we held most important: God, nature and mankind. It is the legacy of these ways of asking and answering questions which is the main legacy of Europe to the world and so the main legacy to the one civilization which now covers the globe. I don't mean to say that only the univesities contributed. But while Spinoza, Hume, Descartes, Leibniz, Locke (off and on) and Galileo (off and on) were not in the university, they were of it either directly or indirectly. Shakespeare and Goethe would have been inconceivable without the universities, their manner of asking and answering questions and their dominant obsessions. So would Faraday.

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