Sunday 4 March 2018

What would the great philosophers have thought of the European Union?

The question is anachronistic because they were men (the great philosophers were almost all men) of their times but it is an interesting game.

Kant wrote in favour European unity (a close federation, but not a single European state), while Nietzsche possibly, probably Heidegger and certainly De Maistre would have disliked the E.U. 

Kant and Nietzsche both saw the history of Europe as moving towards a European political union. Kant saw European countries were moving towards a federation characterised by shared universalist and cosmopolitan ideas. He was a globalist.

Unlike Kant, Nietzsche was not enthusiastic. Nietzsche thought in European rather than in German terms, but foresaw the “levelling and mediocritising” of the European peoples, making them bovine, “weak willed highly employable workers” who are “prepared for
slavery in the subtlest sense”. Nietzsche consoles himself though that this will inspire a reaction: “the breeding of tyrants”.

This passage from John Stuart Mill's Essay on Representative Government can be quoted, and I have quoted it, to argue against multiculturalism. The passage could also be used to argue against the European Union.
Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they read and speak different languages, the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist. The influences which form opinions and decide political acts are different in the different sections of the country. An altogether different set of leaders have the confidence of one part of the country and of another. The same books, newspapers, pamphlets, speeches, do not reach them. One section does not know what opinions, or what instigations, are circulating in another. The same incidents, the same acts, the same system of government, affect them in different ways; and each fears more injury to itself from the other nationalities than from the common arbiter, the state.
But he goes on to say, in words that again can be applied both to the E.U. and immigration policy,  
Whatever really tends to the admixture of nationalities, and the blending of their attributes and peculiarities in a common union, is a benefit to the human race. Not by extinguishing types, of which, in these cases, sufficient examples are sure to remain, but by softening their extreme forms, and filling up the intervals between them. The united people, like a crossed breed of animals (but in a still greater degree, because the influences in operation are moral as well as physical), inherits the special aptitudes and excellences of all its progenitors, protected by the admixture from being exaggerated into the neighbouring vices. But to render this admixture possible, there must be peculiar conditions. The combinations of circumstances which occur, and which effect the result, are various.
So like most liberals of our day J.S. Mill may well have believed in 'the European project'.

Heidegger anticipated the E.U. in a prescient and unflattering way.
“Europe will one day be a single bureau, and those who ‘work together’ will be the employees of their own bureaucracy.”
Heidegger was a real Nazi, unlike the Savoyard philosopher Joseph De Maistre, whom Isaiah Berlin unfairly accused of being a proto-fascist. De Maistre would certainly have detested fascism. He was a reactionary who took pride in opposing all the ideas emanating from the Enlightenment and the French revolution and a strong case could be made for saying that fascism was one of those. De Maistre, incidentally, admired Jews for their doughty conservatism.

In some ways De Maistre was a revolutionary in reverse. He famously wrote in his Considérations sur la France (1797):
"The constitution of 1795, like its predecessors, has been drawn up for Man. Now, there is no such thing in the world as Man. In the course of my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, etc.; I am even aware, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be a Persian.  But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life. If he exists, I certainly have no knowledge of him.
"....This constitution is capable of being applied to all human communities from China to Geneva. But a constitution which is made for all nations is made for none: it is a pure abstraction, a school exercise whose purpose is to exercise the mind in accordance with a hypothetical ideal, and which ought to be addressed to Man, in the imaginary places which he inhabits....
"What is a constitution? Is it not the solution to the following problem: to find the laws that are fitting for a particular nation, given its population, its customs, its religion, its geographical situation, its political relations, its wealth, and its good and bad qualities?"
De Maistre is written off as an extremist, very far from an English Tory, and he is very far from one, but those famous words remind me very much of my favourite quotation from the greatest Tory Prime Minister of England, Benjamin Disraeli. 
In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.
Disraeli was a politician and novelist, not a philosopher, but he would undoubtedly have favoured Brexit.


  1. Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche would be for the EU albeit for different reasons.

  2. I am a big fan of reflections such as these. What do you think the great minds from the antiquity would have thought about the EU

  3. "De Maistre, incidentally, admired Jews for their doughty conservatism."

    Would he still have admired them had he lived to see Communism? This is the problem with taking people out of their historical contexts.

  4. The Stanford Encyclopedia says this, but offers no sources: "From 1880 until his collapse in January 1889, Nietzsche led a wandering, gypsy-like existence as a stateless person (having given up his German citizenship, and not having acquired Swiss citizenship)"

  5. He didn't care of his surroundings at all. He was in himself disturbed inside and tried to calm the hellish brain with drugs.

  6. I wonder what Karl Ludwig Von Haller (the arch critic of Kant) would have thought of the European Union. As for De Maistre - he was a bit of a fake as a conservative (not an "extremist" conservative - not a conservative at all). For example the Royal Absolutism he favoured in politics was NOT the traditional constitution in France or other Western countries (it was a subversion of the old "Estates" and other traditional limitations on Royal power) and his denial of the very idea of universal human nature and universal natural law is a denial of traditional Christian thought - it reminds of nice Mr Herder (personally nice Mr Herder - his ideas did not have nice consequences) and nasty Mr Fichte. Charles Maurras claimed to be a good Catholic who happened not to believe in God or in the equality of the souls of individuals who happened to belong to different races - the Pope of the time disagreed, and I think the Pope was correct to disagree. Of course De Maistre does not go as far as Charles Maurras and Action Francaise - but the signs are there. And, when put to the test, much of Action Francaise proved not to be real patriots - indeed many of them (although certainly not all) collaborated with the German invaders of France (although so did the Communist Party in France - who stabbed France in the back in 1940, sabotaging railways and so on for their Nazi allies).

  7. Disraeli attacked Lord Liverpool (who was dead) as a coded way of attacking Sir Robert Peel. I would have supported both Lord Liverpool and Sir Robert Peel - as, unlike "the great philosophers", I believe government should be limited.