The Mediterranean in the Western Imagination: 3 dialogues of the modern era


It is a great honour to deliver this lecture in  Naples because it allows me to begin my lecture today with reference to one of its greatest sons: Giambattista Vico, one of the greatest of Neapolitans who lived most of his life as an obscure academic working on his masterpiece The New Science, a work at once infinitely remote from us and yet startlingly contemporary.  Perhaps, Vico is, at one glance, a strange choice to interpret the dialogue between Europe and the Islamic world.  Though he lived all his life in the Mediterranean he never travelled abroad, not even to Rome. But when one penetrates The New Science you will appreciate why I begin with it.  For Vico pioneered a radical new approach to the study of human history and each of the dialogues – the three – that I shall discuss today are all dialogues with history, grounded in philosophy.


Vico used philosophy to set out the larger features of human history.  He provided, in that sense, a conjectural history of mankind. He was the first European philosopher to produce a philosophical understanding of society which is important because of the fact that in its dialogue with the rest of world Europe has been, to quote the philosopher Edmund Husserl, “a philosophical idea immanent in its history”.  This is what makes Europe quintessentially European.  All the post-Enlightenment dialogues that Europe has conducted with the outside world have been grounded in what Denis de Rougemont famously called ‘the idea of Europe’.  For Europe is essentially a cultural construction, at least in its own imagination.


Now I am not denying that there was a dialogue between the two shores of the Mediterranean in the centuries before the Enlightenment.  Vico who refers to Islam only once in his account of the rise of civilisation, would have been surprised to have learned that we borrow from the Islamic world such terms as ‘fellows’ holding a ‘chair’, or students ‘reading’ as subject and obtaining ‘degrees’ (as you are), and that such practices as ‘inaugural lectures’ can be traced back to Islamic practices and concepts.  By the time of Vico’s birth in 1668, of course, the flow was in the other direction.  Western ideas were becoming of great interest to the Islamic world. No other non-Christian people, neither the American Indians, nor sub-Saharan Africans, nor even the Asiatics left behind such an extensive description of the Europeans as did the Arabs.


What makes Vico unique was that he was the first historian of civilisation to think of it in philosophical rather than religious terms.  But it took the French revolution and Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt to initiate the first of Europe’s modern dialogues with the Mediterranean world. The Egyptian historian Abdul al-Rahman al-Jabarti saw the arrival of a new order, or ‘catastrophe’ that was about to descend on the Islamic world. Still born when the French were expelled from Egypt a few years later, the dialogue was re-animated in 1830 when they returned to the southern shores, this time Algeria.  The writings of Alexis de Tocqueville on the French mission in North Africa may not be as widely known as his writings on America but they are an accurate reading of Europe’s ‘civilising mission’.  The Europeans, he wrote, had overwhelmed the Algerians ‘before getting to know them’. Their dialogue with the Mediterranean world, in other words, was monolingual: or one way


De Tocqueville himself compared the Europeans to a force of nature whose onward expansion entailed the disappearance of Arab culture.  Decades later, T E Lawrence wrote that the Arab world had had centuries of history but learned nothing from it.  They had no experience.  In Tocquevillian terms he added, they had made nothing of their history, their history had been made for them by others – in this case the Europeans.  As recently as the 1950s French children used to read a popular text – a history of the Mediterranean world which told them that the Algerian people had only emerged into history when they were brought into it by French occupation. 


One way of grasping the colonial project (as a dialogue between cultures) is to understand it in terms of European philosophy, especially the phenomenology of the early C20th: the idea that Europe would only realise its own ‘being’ when the rest of the world ‘became’ European.  Only by grasping the object can a subject formulate its own authentic identity. The totalising impulse can also be found in early C20th literature, in the great novels by Proust, Mann and Joyce.  Joyce tried to expropriate the entire world in a day in the life of his hero in his novel Ulysses.  The all inclusive vision of Vico’s New Science inspired the framework for his next, and last, work Finnegann’s Wake.  If the essence of the age was contained in the subjective act by which it was brought into consciousness then what was non-European could only survive by becoming part of a European cultural endeavour. As Husserl insisted, history meant “the Europeanisation of all other civilisations”.


Europe’s second dialogue with the Mediterranean world was anti-phenomenological.  It can be associated with the work of philosophers such as Emmanuel Levinas and Paul Ricoeur.  Both philosophers found intensely self regarding a philosophy whose leading words were ‘self’, ‘identity’ and ‘being’.  Both were critical of an ontology which reduced everything to itself. The key, they argued, was not Europe’s ‘being’ but its ‘becoming’ through dialogue with the outside world.


The first voice I can find of this dialogue was that of another French writer, Albert Camus in a lecture he gave in Algiers in 1937.  In the course of the lecture he put forward a thesis which anticipated the argument of his most influential novel, The Rebel.  For Camus inter-relationships were essential. They defined culture and cultural identity. The Mediterranean, for Camus, represented a style of life that differed markedly from the Protestant world of northern Europe. It was a dimension of life that could be found in the north European soul as well, but it was one that had been suppressed in the course of the late modern area.  This dimension represented a specific Latin temperament, a refusal to sacrifice the present for the future – a reference to the ideologies of the twentieth century that required men and women to sacrifice their present happiness for a future utopia.


Could this radically different tone or cultural style, asked Camus,  be traced to the intersection of the Christian and Islamic worlds, or what we might call today a cultural interface between two different civilisations ?  What was ‘Latin’ in this dimension sprang from this historical encounter. For the great historian of the Mediterranean, Fernand Braudel, “the great historical missed opportunity of history” had occurred at the end of the 15th century when Spain had suspended its penetration of north Africa and turned West – to the Atlantic and the colonisation of the Americas.  For Braudel, Spain had failed to fulfil its ‘historical mission’ by bringing Northern Europe and the Mediterranean world into a much closer encounter with each other.


Camus’ Mediterranean, let me concede, was a European construction.  But it seems to me that he grasped a very recent idea: that a culture is not a given any more than a society or nation.  It is a pattern of relationships within its ranks and between itself and the outside world.  And cultural identity changes over time as we re-perceive the world and our place in it. In that sense, every culture is dialogic, and if in the 1930s some Europeans became aware of a Mediterranean dimension in their life this was because the discourse they conducted with themselves was prompted by the challenge which the totalitarian ideologies presented.


There is, however, a third dialogue, which I suggest will determine Europe’s future most.  Camus’ dialogue, while more comprehensive and inclusive than the first, is still Euro-centric.  There’s little in his vision of the interaction of the Europeans with the peoples of the southern shore of the Mediterranean, not surprisingly since these interactions at the time were limited.  Today they’re not: in the form of migrant labour or asylum seekers.


Which is why the old question, where does Europe begin and where does it end is not a geographical question at all.  History constantly redefines frontiers.  Europe has always been a construct of its historical consciousness rather than an obvious, single, cultural, geographical or even economic expression or unit.  As de Rougemont wrote “the search for Europe is to find it”.


This is the third Mediterranean dialogue of the modern era.  And just as the new Central and East Europeans excluded previously from European history since the Enlightenment will bring another dimension to European life, another voice, another discourse, the same is likely to be true of the Islamic world to the south which is increasingly interpenetrating with the north.


But if Europe is a dialogue we are only beginning to recognise that communications between cultures is more complex than we thought for it includes a hitherto neglected determining factor: that of translation.  Just as Europe will be transformed by the new migrants, so the migrants are likely to be transformed by migration.  Every dialogue, in this respect, is open ended.  Europe, to use the language of Paul Ricoeur, is being ‘decontextualised’ (rather than deconstructed). A textualised dialogue reveals that a language is never entirely our own.  We can appropriate it for ourselves but not for our children.  The great challenge for the Europeans is to re-contextualise the European idea as its frontiers continue to shift.


We will not only be transformed; so will the new immigrants.  For in the context of Europe Islam is likely to be re-contextualised too.  Europe already provides a new context for translation: the satisfaction of reconciling five daily prayers with the European working day; greater economic prosperity which allows for the Hajg to Mecca on a more frequent basis; more mosque attendance (because there are no shrines in Western Europe, mosque attendance in the Netherlands is higher than it is in Morocco).


Peter Mandeville puts it well: ‘travelling Islam’ (ie the Islamic diaspora from north Africa) is a travel in Islam.  It is interesting, for example, how many Muslim clerics and theologians in the West are encouraging young Muslims to engage in modern challenges.  Western life, after all, offers an opportunity not found in north Africa to re-read, reassess and reassert the validity of Qu’ranic teaching.  It is from the West that the most radical and innovative Islamic thinking is likely to come.


What I am suggesting is that of all the three dialogues that I have discussed the third is the most likely to represent the future.  But I wish to conclude this lecture by arguing that it is not the dialogue that the European Union initiated with the Barcelona Process in 1995.


To grasp this fact one needs to understand the concept of ‘civilisation’ – a word Vico never used because it was not coined until after his death.  It is a European word exported to the rest of the world like those other C18th terms such as ‘economy’, ‘intellectual’ and ‘ideology’.  But the European definition of civilisation is distinctive.  It means

  1. a single universal form of development
  2. the collective identity of a people
  3. and implicitly – if not always expressly – a higher expression of cultural life. This is what the word meant to Kant when he talked of the ‘republic of Europe’ and to Hegel who talked of the ‘civil society’ of Europe.  And this is what it still means to the Europeans today.


The European Union is still a universal culture which seeks to syndicate its values overseas through institutions such as the International Criminal Court.  It still offers the world what the American scholar Jeremy Rifkind calls “the European Dream”: a model that is meant for emulation by others. 


The EU is also still distinctive in terms of its collective life which is taken to embody the highest stage of modernity: hence its wish to ‘modernise’ societies such as Turkey through admission to the club, the price of admission recently including the suspension of legislation on criminalising adultery.


Thirdly, it still sees itself as a ‘higher’ form of cultural life.  Its ‘life-world’ is one that is deemed to be superior to that of others.  Witness Milan Kundera’s insistence that the European peoples are now ‘anthropologically incapable of going to war against each other’. The term ‘anthropologically’ is highly suggestive.  It is the expression of what Europeans regard as a more developed cultural stage of life.


What all these three facets illustrate is a historical dialogue with the world that is not all that different from the first dialogue I discussed.  It is a normative dialogue, as Vico would have understood it.  The EU’s Mediterranean Dialogue is the way by which it persuades the Arab world – its own ‘near abroad’ – to subscribe to its own set of norms.


Whether this dialogue will be any more successful that in the early twentieth century remains to be seen.  We should have no illusion that the transformation of Europe is likely to prove painful, conflictual and socially polarising if not deeply divisive.  I have no more idea than anyone else what will emerge in the end but I have no doubt that the face of Europe will be changed significantly.  If Europe is an idea then we might say that the Europeans no longer have exclusive copyright to it.  As the English playwright Tom Stoppard once admitted: “I write plays because dialogue is the most respectable way of contradicting myself”.  Is that likely to be the upshot of the Mediterranean dialogue a  Europe that becomes a contradiction of what the founding fathers of integration conceived ?  Such is the fear of many Europeans, not all of whom are willing to publicly acknowledge it.