What is Europe?

In 2002 I transplanted myself, due to an impulse of and from the heart to the northern aspect of Europe from the cultural decay of San Francisco, California, USA. My heart is still in San Francisco, but not in its current iteration. One of my great-grandfathers emigrated there from Kentucky in the 1850s, adding to the colorful characters having already arrived, and providing my paternal line with some roots and memories. Additionally, three of my grandparents arrived from Greece to San Francisco in the first decade of 1900, then gave birth to five children there.

Map of Europe. 1730
Emerson Kent

Since moving to Stockholm in 2002, I have visited many European cities which I wouldn’t have, had I not moved to Europe–cities in Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Czechia, Hungary, France, Spain, Croatia, Italy (very briefly in Venice), Malta, Greece, Denmark, Holland, Austria, perhaps others that I can’t bring quickly to mind.

I realize now I have always felt “European,” due to a number of factors: my father was steeped in the history and literature of Europe, and we had Europe, virtually, in our home through his declamations; I was a conscious entity throughout WWII; and, I collected stamps from throughout the world, especially European states and small regions which kept changing names and borders throughout the War and after. Additionally, my father was an active member of the San Francisco chapter of the Socialist Labor Party (he was clear in telling me that he was violently opposed to the Communists, being a ‘democratic’ socialist). We sometimes had loud people in the home arguing about events in Europe, especially in the USSR and Germany, as you can imagine. And, finally, both sides of my family have always loved the “classical” music of Europe, which is essential to sustain my spirit.

But, what IS Europe?

Well, Europe is old. It is both beautiful and grotesque, exemplifying the human condition, I suppose.

There is still some intellectual argument about the whole idea of Europe, a thing that doesn’t precisely exist, geographically, culturally.

There is a wonderful sculpture of Europa riding Zeus, as a bull, by Carl Milles at Millesgården in Lidingö, across the water from Stockholm City.

In Greek mythology, Europa was the mother of King Minos of Crete, a woman with Phoenician origin of high lineage, and after whom the continent Europe was named. The story of her abduction by Zeus in the form of a white bull was a Cretan story.

The notion of “Europe” as a distinct place in the world began around 2500 years ago with the ancient Greeks (of course), wanting, most simply put, to distinguish their world separately from that of the Persians. (I refer the reader to A Culture of Freedom: Ancient Greece and the Origins of Europe, by Christian Meier for a comprehensive and easily read discussion of “Europe.”)

One of the characteristics of this Europe of the Greeks is that it had no center.

The perspective was not that of someone looking out from his own palace, city, or empire, in every direction and dividing up the various countries (and people) from and towards that central position. Instead, the overall picture was determined from the point of view of someone well traveled, who was not tied to one location or ruler. The point of departure was the sea, or as Plato called it, the pond around which the Greeks squatted like frogs—a universal element belonging to everyone and no one. This view of the world captured the multitude of countries existing side by side, privileging none of them.

… (T)here are many reasons not to define Europe ethnically in terms of people, per se, but it terms of what uniquely permeated and challenged them, what opened up such a massive realm of possibilities for them, and enabled them… either to take possession of or exert decisive influence over the entire world… Lionel Jones speaks of the European miracle. What he means by that is… a discrete—European—culture.

…(I)n the Middle Ages it was essentially necessary to start from scratch. No matter how intensively people may have oriented themselves time and time again towards antiquity, since the Carolingian Renaissance, … it was a unique process of cultural formation in Europe (which) has continued since. (Source)

Neither being a scholar nor classically educated, I don’t have a clear history of things and events European in my noggin to draw upon. I have bits and pieces: Socrates and his pupil Plato, and the latter’s pupil, Aristotle; the French Revolution, the Catholic church and Martin Luther’s defection, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, etc.

As travel Europe, I see physical results of these ideas and events, mostly churches and general architecture, the arts and music, waterways, landscapes, many monuments to fallen soldiers and murdered peoples.


And the people. I am two people in any given country. I am American, and I feel, if not entirely European, a great affinity for the Europeans I see and meet. It helps to have had the experience of living five frightening and intense years in Brooklyn during my ages nine to fourteen and having gone to high school in Manhattan. I encountered many people with frankly European ethnicities—it was (still is?) part of their individual identities. Everyone in our working-class neighborhood was Irish, Italian, some residual Scandinavians, single representatives of a few others. But, we also were Americans, and proud of it.

What I love are what my father loved: the arts and music, the sciences, the literature to a limited degree, not having any language but English.

In the end, however, it is the values exemplified by the revered works of Europeans, infused as they have been by Ancient Greek and, later, Christian ideals. I cannot be a professed Christian because I don’t hanker for a savior and feel in charge of my own soul. But there is no denying that Jesus Christ as a teacher and exemplar has inspired the great works.

Having written the above I now have to make a choice: do I listen to Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor, or do I listen to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater?

Thanks for reading.

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate American living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles, memoirs, and creative writing.
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14 Responses to What is Europe?

  1. Eric Gandy says:

    Spending my first 20 formative years in England, I was indoctrinated with the attitude to Europe which is best summed up in the old weather report warning: “The continent is isolated due to heavy fog”. Brexit of course is a continuation of this mindset, which of course is linked to the fact that the British are an island people, surrounded and protected by water.
    What is Europe? A geo-political power? A trade organisation with political ambitions? A democratic ever-expanding project? A collection of nation states who fight to retain their own identity by promoting their own national characteristics and interests? A common culture or way of life, reflecting the values of the old world?
    This conglomeration of ideas is confusing and makes it impossible to identify oneself as a European. And why would anyone want to do this?
    Many young people, both in the peace movement after the war and today, see themselves as citizens of the world, which to me is a more peaceful and fruitful way of thinking.


  2. “I realize now I have always felt “European,” due to a number of factors”

    That is a difference for me. I’m an American mutt not only because of mixed ancestry. More importantly, most of my ancestry as a distinct heritage is lost to history. There is no part of my family that retained any memory whatsoever of the Old World. Most of my family has been in America for centuries with many lines going back to the colonial era. I grew up with no more sense of Europe than of Africa or Asia.

    That might be contributed to with my being a Midwesterner and so having spent much of my life in the center of a vast continent-wide country. The other thing about the Midwest is that it is the melting pot of America where ethnic cultures come to die and out of which the assimilated American is forged. This is because Standard American English is a product of the Midwest, specifically in the very area I now live and spent part of my childhood. So, I grew up speaking the most American of English.

    Even the BBC now uses this same Standard American English because it is what is expected by the global population of English speakers. That is the power of Hollywood. And Hollywood got its Standard American English from the Midwest. Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, etc all were born and raised around these parts before they headed out to the West Coast. And those blonde-headed surfer boys came from Midwestern stock of Scandinavians. So, it was through Hollywood that the Midwestern became the American.

    And in my childhood, that was simply my entire reality as I knew it. Europe hardly even existed in my imagination until well into adulthood.


    “The perspective was not that of someone looking out from his own palace, city, or empire, in every direction and dividing up the various countries (and people) from and towards that central position. Instead, the overall picture was determined from the point of view of someone well traveled, who was not tied to one location or ruler. The point of departure was the sea, or as Plato called it, the pond around which the Greeks squatted like frogs—a universal element belonging to everyone and no one. This view of the world captured the multitude of countries existing side by side, privileging none of them.”

    That sounds right to me. But one might want to consider the historical context.

    For early ‘Europe’, the center of the world was the Mediterranean. That meant that North Africa and the Levant were more a part of the ancient sense of Europe than was northern Europe and the British Isles. Many Greek thinkers and teachers weren’t ethnically Greek and came from other regions of the Mediterranean, as Greek colonies were all over the place. And the Roman Empire faced toward the east and south. Some Roman emperors were North African, as was Augustine.

    Whereas Europe was once centered on the waters of the Mediterranean, the European cultural imagination has since become landlocked in what is now considered to be the European continent, not that it is in reality separate geologiccally from Asia. The Germans who were once part of the Barbarian hordes, the ultimate outsiders, are presently considered among the defining features of what it means to be European. That is a major change.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Pavellas says:

      Your ending words ring true: I am part-way into the history of the “Holy Roman Empire,” 1000 years of European history. You deserve a longer response, but later.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Pavellas says:

      Each of my ten descendants (three generations) is an “American mutt.” My oldest ‘child’, aged 56, is the only one who identifies with her Greek heritage, but not as strongly as I. Your observations regarding old and new Europe seem spot on. In older days, being “Greek” meant primarily that you were Greek Orthodox and spoke Greek, although many non-Greeks also spoke it as the language of commerce and scholarship.


      • I find interesting those specific kind of earlier societies, often built on confederacies of diverse peoples or else on colonial trade networks. Similar to the Greeks, to be Celtic didn’t require any ethnic birthright or family lineage, much less pseudo-genetic ideas about race. It was first and foremost about culture.

        A similar thing was seen with some Native Americans. Daniel Boone fought and lost a son to the Shawnee. But at one point was captured and adopted into a Shawnee family to replace a son they had lost, as was their custom. For the rest of his life, those Shawnee considered Boone to be Shawnee.

        As another example in the ancient Mediterranean world, consider the early Jews. It was hard to determine who was and wasn’t a Jew back then. There was no single population and various populations went by diverse names. Jews weren’t even the only population that had similar practices of food laws, circumcision, etc. Also, conversion to Judaism was common and there was no official record-keeping about who was and wasn’t Jewish.

        Yet another example is that of the Phoenicians. It’s not clear that many ‘Phoenicians’ ever identified as such. But the same might be true of many other populations that we know by their historical designations. Maybe most Jews didn’t have a clear shared identity until the Diaspora. That shouldn’t be surprising, as most Americans prior to the Civil War identified with their ethnicity or their regional culture, not with the United States as a nation-state or aspiring empire.



      • Ron Pavellas says:

        Very Interesting. It makes me want to search my own mind/soul/Nature to see what it is that makes me feel ‘at home’ or at least comfortable with some people and not others. That is, to intuit the nature of people with whom I could comfortably be in a ‘tribe’ (or not).

        Liked by 1 person

      • That is a thought to consider. Identity is complex. I have family from the South, both Upper and Deep. But I was unaware of this fact until I began doing genealogical research a few years back.

        My grandmother was born in Texas and grew up in Oklahoma and Mississippi. That line of the family began in colonial Virginia before slowly moving across the Deep South. The other side of my family were from Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, etc. They also go back centuries in America.

        My own immediate family moved to South Carolina where I lived from 7th grade to a semester of college. Long enough to pick up a slight Southern accent for a time. Yet I’ve never felt at home in the South.

        The Midwestern culture has somehow been internalized. Midwesterners are my people. And the Midwest is my home.

        My parents also identify as Midwestern, although they are Hoosiers and my mother had a Southern-style Hoosier accent into my early childhood before switching to Standard American as her profession was a speech pathologist who taught kids to speak ‘proper’ English. But I was talking to my dad about Iowa City, IA where my parents and I now live. He told me he doesn’t quite feel at home here.

        The Indiana of my parents’ youth had (and still has) more of that Southern liberty culture, along with its internal hypocrisies (from having high concentrations of sundown towns to being the center of the Second Klan). OTOH eastern Iowa is a mix of German-and-Scandinavian Midwest and New England-style college towns. We are a bit more moderate and socially liberal than Hoosiers, and we have less issues about the individual as opposed to community.

        My parents are conservatives because they grew up in Indiana. And I’m liberal because my most influential early years were spent in Iowa. Both Midwest but worlds apart in some ways.


      • Ron Pavellas says:

        I think I know what ‘conservative’ means, but I’m not at all sure what ‘liberal’ means anymore.


      • I’ve given that a lot of thought over the years. It’s one of the topics I’ve written most about. Liberalism is very different.

        Our entire American society was built on liberalism, not only or primarily ‘classical’ liberalism in the conservative sense. Many of the revolutionary and founding generation were quite progressive in their liberalism. Even Edmund Burke, adopted by modern conservatives, was a progressive reformer in his day. Before their could be a counter-revolution, there had to be a revolution. As such, Burke’s reactionary side was a later expression in older age of his own liberal nature. But my mind has shifted recently on this and I’ve been wondering if the two are twins borne out of the same political upheaval.

        I’ve argued that liberalism and conservatism, in a different sense, aren’t opposing ideologies. Liberalism is the entire paradigm of our society, in which even conservatism operates. So conservatism is wholly defined by its reaction to liberalism. But liberalism isn’t defined by conservatism in the same way. I’d emphasize that reaction is the true opposite of liberalism, its dark shadow. And as such, conservatism as reaction isn’t about traditionalism any more than is liberalism. Traditionalism, in the Western context, is a separate pre-Enlightenment paradigm of the ancien regime. If there were the equivalent of traditionalists in our non-traditional society, it would be liberals who would be better able to play the role in their defense of the dominant liberal paradigm.

        Liberalism essentially means what it has always meant. But the reactionary shadow of liberalism always confuses the matter. Even ‘liberals’ get pulled into reaction under the right or rather wrong conditions of fear and anxiety. Liberalism is hard, maybe impossible, to maintain as a permanent cognitive state. It requires high tolerance levels of cognitive load and ambiguity that isn’t possible under greater stress and duress. Research has found that alcohol intoxication, in its decreasing complex cognitive functioning, increases conservative-mindedness even in liberals. The same pattern was found with those on the political left who watched repeated videos of the 9/11 attacks, as opposed to hearing it on the radio, in that they became stronger supporters of the Republican War on Terror.

        This is why people speak of liberal politics as trying to herd cats. Liberals are among the first to betray liberalism, that is to say it is easy to turn a liberal reactionary. And I’d argue that a reactionary in our post-Enlightenment society, is just another variety of liberal. The main difference between a liberal and a conservative is this: Does an individual get temporarily pulled into reaction on occasion? Or do they get permanently stuck in the reactionary mind?


      • Ron Pavellas says:

        I tend to consider “conservative” and “liberal” in the general sense, more than just in the political sense, maybe not even including the political sense. A liberal, I guess I was raised to perceive, is one who is interested in all aspects of the world, chooses a limited number, by necessity, to focus his reasonably disciplined efforts on (there are other things to do, like earning a living, raising and protecting a family, etc.), and reaches working conclusions which are always subject to reconsideration pending new information and experience. Open-minded, consciously learning, seeking principles to live by which are constructive and not harmful to the common good, etc. I agree that “conservative” is not necessarily in opposition to any of these ideas, or ways. “Intellectuals” are not liberal, by and large. They have a body of (limited) knowledge which they seek to protect and to impose on others. They “know” what’s right, and you’re not. Conservatives I see more as ‘libertarian.’ Leave things alone, don’t try to change so much, preserve what works and what is beautiful and good. There are, of course, conservative “intellectuals,” as well, who know better than you and I. The “besserwissers.”


      • I tend to take a psychological approach as well. But I have a different take on it than you. Not that I necessarily disagree with the general drift of your view. I would add more layers to it and throw out many caveats.

        The reactionary, as I see it, is first and foremost a psychological state of mind. And as the shadow of our society, I see the reactionary as useful to show the deeper mechanisms behind and the dark corners within the liberal mentality as worldview and paradigm.

        I’ve come to my view by reading the social science research on personality types/traits and political persuasion. Many studies show a more complex and strange reality to the human mind than what gets portrayed in the mainstream self-descriptions by liberals and conservatives.


      • Ron Pavellas says:

        I can’t say I’m beyond labels because I use them all the time, in general conversation. But I find myself more and more avoiding labeling in the political realm because there seems to be no general understanding or agreement on what any given label means, even among those who adopt the same label. Historical definitions are to me, just that–historical. Irrespective of labels, I see in the political realm those who are are dependent, actually and psychologically, on the “government.” These people want more of it. In opposition are those, as RWR stated, who see the government as the problem. Crossing through these and other groupings are those who advocate a robust military posture, and those who prefer a more defensive posture (I am in this latter camp). There are those who are all heart and want “the government” to take care of all the suffering in the world, or at least throw money at it so they can feel good; and those who want to keep all our tax money at home, and not in “foreign aid” and the United Nations. Others want “the government” to advance in space travel, want “the government” to take care of all the homeless, destitute, and troubled people (but not in their backyard); others want just to be left alone to advance their personal interests in their own way without myriad rules and regulations from “the government” to impede and frustrate them. Others want no tax money to go to activities they see as immoral, and on and on. I don’t see labels such as ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’, and ‘reactionary’ as useful in this stew of ‘principles’ (where any may truly exist) and personal desires and antipathies. I’m hunkering down. As for the human mind, it is still beyond useful description and location, still being studied and debated. https://pathetic.org/poem/1315716468


      • I didn’t explain my views well. And my views have changed much over time, especially in wrestling with the likes of Jaynes. I have no strong opinion about labels in general, for or against. Sometimes they’re useful and other times not. But I tend to take a nuanced view of labels. Even historical definitions tend to get complicated the more one digs into the history. For example, during the early modern revolutionary era, there were defenders of the ancien regime pointing out that conservatives were counter-revolutionaries, that is to say reactionaries rather than traditionalists.

        Nor are conservatives libertarians. The original libertarians were a part of the European leftist workers movement, along with socialists, anarchists, and Marxists. Conservatives who say they’re against government tend to only be against certain kinds of government such as social democracies with public welfare while being all for plutocratic authoritarianism with corporate welfare (e.g., Ronald Reagan), and for the latter often the bigger the better. I know a right-wing libertarian who became a strong supporter of Trump, the most authoritarian politician seen in recent American politics.

        Combine that with the social science showing how easy it is to turn liberals reactionary in defense of right-wing governance and one quickly realizes there is something strange going on here that doesn’t fit mainstream conceptions, historical or ahistorical. Few people, left or right, have consistent positions on almost anything. That is to say change the context and their ‘minds’ will follow. A large number of liberals and leftists, even former anarchists, suddenly threw their support behind early 20th century fascists when the economy turned bad. History is filled with that kind of thing.

        We humans aren’t ideological creatures and so our ideologies tend to be more about identity politics. Our political views tend to be superficial, rationalizations we tell others and stories we tell ourselves; i.e., bullshit. I see this very much in terms of Jaynes’ post-bicameral mind. Liberalism and reaction first show themselves in the societies that reconstituted themselves following the Bronze Age collapse. That was an era when nostalgia came to the fore, as Jaynes so powerfully shows, and nostalgia is a key element of the reactionary mind, as Corey Robin explains. Nostalgia requires a historical sense of time, something that once existed and was lost. And liberalism is built on envisioning a different future.

        Plato manages to embody both the liberal and the reactionary. He was a counter-revolutionary against Athenian democracy. And he was also a utopian dreamer that proposed a vision of society far more radical than what he criticized. He had this in common with the later Jacobins, another variety of reactionaries as anti-democratic utopians. This represents a schizophrenic split within humanity and explains why it is so easy to get people to switch ideologies when the conditions drastically change, from economic depressions to terrorist attacks. We all have a bit of each in us, as potentials. So it seems to me.


        Liked by 1 person

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