‘Europe’ is a fascinating term. A word that everyone knows and that can be found in anyone’s’ mouths yet, one that never has the same significance depending on whoever is thinking it. Truly, from the Greek myth of Europa to the creation of the Treaty of Lisbon, Europe has coined many definitions: some may see it as a continent, as the place of a specific people, or even as political and economic union between its nation-states. But never these definitions go so far as to explicitly define what makes Europe so distinct, so European. Goethe for example, when praising the French Revolution, presented it as achieved in its most “reasonable, legitimate,and European” aspects. But it is the words of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas that eventually got our attention, as he claims that Europe, its identity, can be defined by the heritage of two specific elements: ‘the bible’ and the Greeks’. This postulate represents the starting point to the following research. All in all, it will be argued, in accordance with Levinas, that the Judeo-Christian and Athenian heritage, have played a determinant role in the making of Europe’s identity. After presenting in depth Levinas’ concept, this paper will then seek to demonstrate through empirical elements how the bible and the Greeks have historically helped in shaping Europe’s distinct philosophy. And thirdly, we shall look at whether or not the European Union today can be defined by the same postulate. However, although I will agree with Levinas’ claim, the paper notes that there are a variety of elements proving that Europe can presents elements going against the philosophies of Athens and Jerusalem. Nevertheless, both currents of ideas have been determinant in the making of Europe’s identity. Now perhaps, before exposing the following reflections, it would be wise to recognize to the reader, like Chateaubriand before me, that “I am not a theologian”. Nor am I an historian for that matter. I only brought here the fruit of my research and would gladly be open to receive further positions on this debate. Let us descent. 

The Bible and the Greek, an introduction to Emmanuel Levinas’ concept.

In a text published in 1986, Emmanuel Levinas (1986) came to postulate that “Europe, is the bible and the Greeks”. A rather, short sentence which, if not thoroughly defined could lead to multiple interpretations: it is in fact, the idea that the philosophy from the Judeo-Christian tradition, facing the Hellenic heritage or the Greeks, are at the basis of Europe’s own identity; its culture, its social structure, its morale and in short, its way of being Europe

First, by saying ‘the bible’, Levinas do not seek to designate a set of historic elements, like he explained (Levinas, 1992), but rather uses the term to indicate what he calls the ‘major directions’ coming out of this tradition. Looking at the philosophy emanating from Israel, Levinas claims that (1992) a specific perspective of man and his way of living in society emanates from the Judeo-Christian scripture: from the ten commandments notably, with the words ‘thou shalt not kill’, implying ‘thou shall love thy neighbor’ according to Levinas, presents a philosophy where it is possible for the individual to be responsible of the ‘other’, even though ‘he is originally none of his concern’, and perhaps ‘means nothing to him’ (1986). A philosophy of moral and charity. The Judeo-Christian tradition as such, proposes a rediscovery of the individual or the ‘self’, which, in relation with the other individuals, the ‘self’ recognizes in the face of the other, the latter’s own ‘uniqueness’ (1992), eventually placing the concern of the other before his own. For Levinas, and similar to Pope Francis (Vatican, 2014) in his address to the European Union years later, the Judeo-Christian philosophy reminds that human beings are nevertheless ‘beings in relation’, and as such, one’s rights and duties ‘are bound with those of others’ for ‘the common good of society’. In short, Levinas argues that the Judeo-Christian source of our culture, consist in a recognition of the ‘other’ and the ‘affirmation of a primordial link of responsibility’ towards him (2014). This moral ethic inherited by the ‘bible’, placing a sense of responsibility toward the other, whether it be a stranger, homeless or defenseless, would be at the source of European culture.

With the ‘Greeks’, Levinas considers that Europe would find its origins in the foundations of Athens’ social and political system. In his words (1982), what he regards by ‘the Greeks’ is ‘the way in which is expressed or strives to be expressed, in all the regions of the earth, the universality of the West, overcoming the local particularisms of the picturesque, folkloric, poetic or religious’. A sentence rejecting the presocratic or paganist aspects of the Greek tradition and placing what remains – the ideas centered around the characters of Solon, Pericles and others as brought by Plutarch, which we consider today as the source of democracy – not only at the center of European culture, but more largely, at the core of what we interpret as Western values. Greece would be a part of Europe, and via Europe, the Greek heritage becomes a core founding of the West. This ‘way’ distinctly presented by Athens, according to Levinas, (1992) expresses itself through two key elements: A concept of Isonomia, referring to a popular government placing equality in front of the law to all ‘citizens’; and the rule of the Greek tradition for dialectic, prioritizing the capacity for discussion when it comes to political decisions, of debates and a sphere of deliberation where the people interact. Indeed, Levinas speaks of an intervention of a third participant in the relation between the self and the other, a ‘sovereign judge’ – the people – ‘deciding among equals’. The dimension of justice excelled by the Greeks notably, distinct from the one of charity represented by the bible, establishes a set of social rules presenting a form of equality between all, notes Levinas in an interview further commenting his postulate. He also argues that this measure of equality between citizens further allows for a ‘language’ to be created, one that submit any decisions made by the State to the commentary of the people, whom if it so wishes, could seek to revise, approve or reject it. To Levinas these concepts would be at the source of Democracy, and in addition to the bible, would represent a point entry toward defining Europe. 

However, one must not see both currents of Athens and Jerusalem as entirely distinct to one another when looking at the postulate saying ‘Europe is the bible and the Greeks’; but rather, as two philosophies completing each other, eventually imbedding their values within European culture. It can be found that the Bible presents democratic values, and that the Greeks have shown to be ‘biblical’ too (1992). Indeed, Socrates for example has claimed that it would be better to be the victim than the one committing an injustice (via Plato, 2004), or that none does evil willingly; Plato in his ‘Republic’ (2007) even placed the idea of the good above all else, above the essence itself, and from which derive all other virtues of justice, equality and truth. As to the Judeo-Christian heritage, one can note that it promoted in its first legal codes found in the bible, democratic values of the separation of powers and accountability to the constitution: the Deuteronomic code that ancient historian Flavius Joseph (1874) already presented as a politeia, a form of government, is an example of such unprecedented democratic innovation. Dated from the 7th century prior our era, the code presents a project of reform of the religious, political and judiciary structures of the Hebrew system. In a study released in 1971, Theologian Norbert Lohfink (1971) presents that most concepts associated to our modern democratic governments – such as the separation of powers and the subordination of all instances of the government to the constitution or the authority of the law – would find their origins in this code. The idea is further defended by Levinson (2006): he notes that the Deuteronomy, with some of its chapters going over the different public instances – such as the local courts of justice and their rules of procedure, the supreme court of temple of Jerusalem, the king, the clergy – is made ‘so that no branch of power is superior to the others’. Rather, all branches are subordinated to the Deuteronomic Torah – the constitution. Levinson added the code had ‘no other equivalent in the ancient middle-east’, it even differs to the royal ideology of classical Greece’. Therefore, the philosophies deriving from the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Greeks, are not so distinct; an element which even Levinas acknowledged (1992). It does not mean however, that values deriving from the bible and the Greeks are the same, but rather in fact, complete each other. As an example, taking over the postulate by Levinas, thinkers such Attali and Salfati (2016) talk about a form of ‘interlocution between Athens and Jerusalem, leading to making of Europe what it has become’, a ‘social utopia promoting individual freedom’. It is François Ost (1999) in his research who eventually argues one can find a connecting line ‘from the birth of the Judeo-Christian tradition on Mount Sinaï, to the hill of the Pnyx in Athens, and finally to the Champs de Mars in France’, place of birth of the French revolution. It remains to empirically find how the bible and the Greeks have influenced and conceived European identity, and how the conception of European identity differs from other regions of the world.

The value of Human life, from the bible to Europe. 

Looking empirically at some elements of European history, we find indeed that, in conjunction with the undeniable heritage of the Greeks, the heritage of the Judeo-Christian tradition has contributed to shaping the European consciousness and its worldview. This inspiration of the philosophies from Athens and Jerusalem culminated in the crystallization of particular aspects of the European vision, notably the empowerment of its social spheres, whether it be political, judiciary, legislative or economic, and their common subordination to the ethic. European culture firstly perpetuates an effect of ethical prioritization of life in society, which finds its origins in the bible. The research led by American Assyriologist Jacob Finkelstein (1981) help in shedding some light into it. In his research, Finkelstein put in relation the Code of the Alliance, the oldest legal code in the bible, with legal dispositions we find in Medieval Europe, notably England, and finally with the great tradition of Cuneiform law that can be found with the Hammurabi code and the laws of Eshnunna. With this corpus, Finkelstein compared how each tradition respond to mundane cases such as a particular situation in which an animal may have hurt another animal, its owner, a free man, a slave or children. From it, Finkelstein notices that the biblical code introduces a certain distinction which is not present in the cuneiform codes. The Alliance code has indeed organized its principles around a central idea before treating of situations like this one: before treating of such situation, the code first treats of the fate of the slave, of capital crimes and of any harm done to the individual. Whereas after the mentioned case, it is now mention of what should be done in cases of theft or material and agricultural damages. Therefore, Finkelstein supports (1981) that the distinction that the code of the alliance introduces, absent in the cuneiform, is the separation between the affairs of men and the issues of goods. Hence, demonstrating the distinction between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the one of Mesopotamia, and if perpetuated within Europe, presents the influence from which European culture originates, as well as its distinction with other cultures. Moreover, if we look at the fate of the animal who harms or kill an individual, man, slave or child, Finkelstein notes that the Mesopotamian law does not stipulate its fate (1981). Whereas in the bible, whether the animal hurt or killed any type of individual; whether it has the reputation to be dangerous or if it was accidental; the animal has to be lapidated. Continuing his investigation, he finds that in medieval England, similar judicial dispositions to those of the code of the alliance existed. From the 13th century, an era under the influence of canon law and the bible, there are traces of trial and executions of animals having caused harm to human life. These trials rest on distinct perception of the value of human life, placing it as the most important element in society: unique and irreplaceable. As such, this conception of the value of the human person which prevails in modern western culture, correspond to the one in the biblical law, from which it derives by the same occasion. 

Moshe Greenberg (1960) prolongated this investigation as he focused on criminal law in terms of homicide. Looking once more at the cuneiform tradition, we find that homicide is actually punished either by the death penalty, or financial compensation to the family of the deceased, depending on the social class of the deceased. Yet following the Code of the Alliance, we find in contrary that homicide is never resolved by any financial compensation, nor that anyone is condemned to the death penalty if found guilty of a material crime. This demonstrate in the biblical logic that the value of human life cannot be measured materially, unlike Mesopotamian law. This distinction assumes that the legislator in the bible considers propriety and the individual as two conceptual categories very distinct and that, although compensation for material object that are finite and replaceable can occur, it cannot be the case regarding homicide as the human person is to be considered infinite and irreplaceable, namely unique. This notion of the sacrality of human life originates from the bible, and can later be found in the legal and philosophical European thought: it is deriving from the same philosophy that in the 20th century, European countries such as France decided to vote to abolish the death penalty. In his speech before the vote to abolish capital punishment in France, Minister of Justice, Robert Badinter (INA, 1981) reminded of the words of the famous public figure of the third Republic, Jean Jaures, who claimed that the ‘death penalty is contrary simultaneously to the spirit of Christianismand to the spirit of the revolution’. Hence, reminding of the influence of the bible in the making of the vote, and of its importance it has had in the making of French and European culture throughout history. Moreover, in making this decision via a vote from an assembly of representative, one that is elected by its people, and who can debate on the impact of a such a decision before choosing to accept or refuse this piece of legislation, shows that this process of decision making is undeniably inspired from what Levinas considered to be ‘the Greeks’ too. 

The Enlightenment, an age inspired by the spirit of Athens and Jerusalem. 

Yet the spirit of the Bible and the Greeks can also be found much sooner in the conception of European culture, notably with the philosophical current of the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution. It was previously noted how the philosophy of the Judeo-Christian tradition brought about notions of charity and equality toward the other, of liberty and primacy of the human person, but also of the separation between the instances of politics and religion. It was moreover demonstrated how some of these ideas had made their way through medieval Europe and our modern states. Philosopher and Historian Frederic Lenoir (2008) added to Levinas’ statement, that indeed the bible and its ideas have played an important role in the construction of Europe, with the Church, for example, transmitting to the continent essential elements such as hospices and orphanages. However, (2008) despite the fact that these ideas originate from the bible, they played such an innovative role, that in the construction of European culture, we find them often opposite the Church, defended by different philosophical currents up until the French Revolution. One of the reasons being that although the bible mentioned a separation of powers between religious and political, Lenoir recalls the Church did anything but play a simple religious role, as it kept a political hold in Europe even through the Renaissance. This political role as we can see with the “Inquisition”, has alienated the very value the Judeo-Christian tradition presented, and caused, according to Lenoir, a deep revolt in Europe, forcing the values of the bible to find refuge firstly in the movement of Humanism. Erasmus and della Mirandola were the first to remind the church of the basis of the message from the gospels (2008), notably with the notions of equality, liberty and fraternity. With the Enlightenment, thinkers have transferred and perpetuated the principles found in the gospel, only replacing God by reason, to present a universal philosophy proposing for a state to be neutral, guaranteeing the freedoms of speech and religion, and separating the religious from politics, so that there would be no domination of the former on the latter in this new society. Thus, the message of the Judeo-Christian tradition came back and played a determinant role in the creation of European culture, only this time through the principles outlined in the universal declaration of the rights of man and of the citizen (2008) during the French Revolution. Indeed, inspired by the enlightenment, the declaration sets the basis for a nation where all individuals are free and equal to the law, separating politics from religion, and has had a major impact in the development of individual liberty throughout Europe. Even François René de Chateaubriand (2019), a contemporary to the French Revolution, wrote in his ‘Genius of Christianity’ as he compared the French society to ancient Rome that, ‘if it wasn’t for the bible’, its moral and principles, ‘the philosophy of the enlightenment would have never been, and our society would have sunk’ (2019) like the Roman empire, devoid of such values. 

We also find traces of Athens’ influence in 18th century Europe. Indeed, Philosophers of the enlightenment began to reintroduce the ideas found with the Greeks, notably Montesquieu who, in his famous ‘Spirit of the Laws’ (2015), defends the democratic type of government as the soundest form of Republican regime against aristocracy. For in a Democracy, the people are at the same time both the sovereign and the subject (2015). He further notes this form of government as the purest because, with the Greeks, it is led by a principle of political virtue, where one’s ‘love for his country’ and as such, one’s ‘love for equality’ (2015) would push the elected decision-maker to subtract his interest from the balance and act for the greater good of the city. The idea from the Greek, and presented by Montesquieu was then taken by the new Republic of France following the French Revolution: it was Robespierre who in his famous address of the 17 Pluviose (1794)recalled of the Greeks, and presented this new regime as a Democracy, a ‘state where the people is sovereign’, where ‘guided by laws of its own doing, the people do by itself whatever it can, and leave to its delegate whatever it cannot do itself’. Robespierre added (1794) to his fellow citizens that, in order to interact in this new regime, all should follow the core principle of a democratic government, namely to ‘act according to virtue. The Political virtue, which brought to the Greeks before, so many miracles.’ The French Revolution representing a marker toward the beginning of modern Europe as its ideas later spread through the continent, this element therefore demonstrates that in accordance with Levinas, the tradition of the Greeks has indeed made its way through Europe, and via this element, played a determinant role in the shaping of European consciousness. It is for example, inspired with one’s understanding at the time of the heritage of Athenian democracy that the new Republic abolished the feudal system on August 4th, 1789, to install a regime where all the people would be equal and become sovereign. In short, the heritage brought by the Greeks has laid the foundation toward modern Europe. 

Is the EU of the bible and the Greeks too? 

It remains now to assess whether modern Europe can be defined as from the bible and the Greeks. In this final part, the main interest will be focused on the most distinct element of European politics and culture in our times, the European Union. Looking at the foundations of the EU with the notorious ‘Schuman Declaration’, Wilton (2015) has argued that the values of the bible played a determinant role behind the action of Robert Schuman, the so-called ‘father of a united Europe’, and the construction of the European project. In the aftermath of the Second World War, it is with the Schuman Declaration, an unprecedented proposal laid by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs to place the primary means of war, notably coal and steel under a common high authority that Schuman seeks to making war materially impossible and construct a stronger European cooperation. Wilton (2015) argues that with this proposition, it was for Schuman – a renown Christian Democrat – the ‘political expression of Christian values of forgiveness and reconciliation’ and ‘the precursor to permanent peace’. Moreover, he notes further central themes within Schuman’s speech which, all have their origin within the principles of the bible, such as the desire to finally reach peace after a century of war in Europe. Even more so unprecedented is the fact that his peace proposal was not by a military based solution, but by the sharing of economic means, to eventually form trust, solidarity, and prosperity among neighbors. A symbol of fraternity, of good intentions toward the other, in order to unite Europe. The proposal presented a sense of solidarity within Europe, but also of solidarity beyond Europe, notably Africa, to help contribute in ‘raising living standards and to promoting world peace’ (Schuman, 1950)s. Today, the EU’s decision to prioritize a civilian and humanitarian approach in its external intervention with countries in need has made it a very distinct political actor; Robert Kagan (POLITICO, 2002) to define the distinction between the EU and the US’ international approach, coined the postulate ‘Americans are from Mars, Europeans from Venus’, implying that the former prefers a rather more military based intervention, whereas it is the contrary for the latter. Another element further defending Levinas’ claim that the sentiment of responsibility toward the other – this among other principles from the bible – has been at the source of European consciousness even until now. The embeddedness of the Judeo-Christian tradition in the foundation of the European project has been so intimate that it was even considered in 2004 whether or not to mention God and the influence of Christianity in the preamble of the constitution of the EU (2015); eventually only acknowledging that the EU is drawing from the ‘cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe’. 

More than 60 years after the declaration, the ECSC became the ‘world’s only multi-national democracy’ (Wilton, 2015), with the involvement now of 27 Member States and a population of more than 400 million people. The European project became an organization with capacities never expected at the time of Schuman for a high supranational authority; but most importantly, where the people of each Member States elect their own representation into a European supranational parliament. Moreover, in the organization of the European Union, national parliament still hold power over the ratification of any external agreement made by the supranational authority, as we have seen with the Walloon parliament’s temporary block of the CETA (Novotná, 2017), a free trade agreement negotiated by the European Commission, between the EU and Canada. The fact that such parliament, representing less that 0.5% of the EU population can reject a decision made by the EU supranational authority, demonstrate how the process of decision-making of the EU places all European people as equal, and seek to obtain the interaction of all to act in the best interest of the EU. In short, it would seem that the European Union adopts in its principles the very same democratic notions that Levinas defended in his postulate. 

Yet we will ultimately finish this reflection arguing that although it is true, the Bible and the Greeks have played an important role in the construction of European culture, of its own consciousness and identity even today, it does not mean however that Europe has always acted according to the principles set in Jerusalem and Athens. This idea was even acknowledged by Levinas, as he wrote this postulate in 1986, years after he came back from the Stalag, years after the world discovered of the atrocities made by the Nazis. One could not consider these actions as inspired from the bible or the Greeks. Nor could we consider from the Judeo-Christian tradition when today three EU countries (POLITICO, 2019) – Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic – are found to have willingly refused the entrance of refugee groups into their countries, following the great migration crisis of 2015 displacing millions since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. And although the EU presents democratic elements, it fails to fully account as democratic; as even though the European people can influence external decisions made by the Commission and vote in European parliament elections, the people remain not in charge of selecting the executive body of the EU – the Commission: The nomination of Ursula Von der Leyen was rather unexpected by those who had participated in the European elections. Von der Leyen was not a ‘Spitzenkandidat’, a lead candidate from one of the political grouping in the European Parliament, likely to be appointed as President of the European Commission – a tradition that began with the Jean Claude Juncker and which would have rendered the process more democratic – and yet ended up being nominated anyway by the heads the state. Hence, demonstrating the lack of democratic element in the works of the European Commission despite inspirations from the Hellenic heritage. 

As a conclusion it was demonstrated, in accordance with Levinas, that the bible and the Greeks have played an important role in the shaping of a European identity. Firstly defining the concept and the definition brought by Levinas, we showed that the both currents are not so distinct to one another, but in fact, rather complete each other. We then sought to empirically demonstrate how Jerusalem and Athens distinctively influenced the construction of Europe from medieval times until the French revolution. Finally, looking more particularly at the EU, we argued how this organization was based on both concepts brought by Levinas, but how nonetheless, although Europe was distinctly shaped from the Judeo-Christian and Greek heritage, various empirical elements demonstrate that it can happen that Europe is not always ‘biblical’ or ‘democratic’. However, on a final note, the philosophies of Athens and Jerusalem remain defining elements of Europe’s culture, history and politics.

References: 

‘ADDRESS OF POPE FRANCIS TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT’ (2014) Vatican.

Attalli and Salfati (2016) ‘Le destin de l’occident, Athènes Jérusalem’, Fayard.

Chateaubriand (2019) The Genius of Christianity: Or the Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion. forgotten books.

Finkelstein,J, J. (1981) ‘The Ox That Gored’, American Philosophical Society, 71(2).

Flavius Joseph (1874) ‘Antiquities of the Jews’, Virtue Spalding.

Greenberg, M. (1960) ‘Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law’, in Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.

INA (1981) Robert Badinter ‘J’ai l’honneur de demander l’abolition de la peine de mort en France’ | Archive INA. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waM7DsuhX28.

Lenoir, F. (2008) ‘Christianisme et Humanisme’.

Levinas (1986) What is Europe? text by LevinasCosmopolitiques. Available at: https://hansenlove.over-blog.com/article-5650639.html.

Levinas (1992) ‘DEBATE An interview with Emmanuel Levinas “It is essential for us Westerners to situate ourselves in the perspective of a promising time”’, Le Monde.

Levinson, B. (2006) ‘The First Constitution: Rethinking the Origins of Rule of Law and Separation of Powers in Light of Deuteronomy’, in The Cardozo Law Review.

Lohfink, N. (1971) Die Sicherung der Wirksamkeit des Gotteswortes durch das Prinzip der Schriftlichkeit der Tora und durch das Prinzip der Gewaltentei- lung nach den Ämtergesetzen des Buches Deuteronomium, in Testimonium Veritati: Festschrift Wilhelm Kempf. Edited by H. WOLTER. Frankfurter Theologische Studien.

Montesquieu (2015) ‘The spirit of the laws’.

Novotná, T. (2017) ‘The EU as a Global Actor: United We Stand, Divided We Fall’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 55, pp. 177–191. doi: 10.1111/jcms.12601.

Ost, F. (1999) ‘Du Sinaï au Champ-de-Mars. L’autre et le même au fondement du droit’, Donner raison.

Plato (2004) ‘Gorgias’, Penguin Classics.

Plato (2007) ‘The Republic’, Penguin Classics.

POLITICO (2002) Time to face reality: Americans come from Mars, Europeans are from Venus.

POLITICO (2019) 3 EU countries broke law by refusing to take in refugees, says court lawyer.

Robespierre (1794) La vertu politique comme principe de la démocratie. Robespierre lecteur de Montesquieu.

Schuman, R. (1950) The Schuman Declaration.

Wilton, G. (2015) ‘Christianity at the founding The legacy of Robert Schuman’, in God and the EU: Faith in the European Project. Routledge.

Published by juliennourian

Founder and President of The Political. Specialised in International Politics and European Studies.

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