Stories of Europe: The World Facing Europe, by Raghavan N. Iyer [1962] Back

Stories of Europe: The World Facing Europe, by Raghavan N. Iyer [1962]

In 2019, the European Cultural Foundation celebrated its 65th anniversary. We did so with hosting a special edition of our Princess Margriet Award ceremony and by publishing a bookazine on how events in Europe shaped us and how we helped shape events in Europe. We publish a few excerpts from the book – which is available as a free download.

Family portrait of Raghavan N. Iyer and his family during the Foundation’s annual congress in Brussels, 1962.

The European Cultural Foundation organised its 1962 annual congress in Brussels titled ‘Europe’s Mission’, focusing on the education of young Europeans. It brought together French, Austrian and British professors who reflected on Europe as an ideal to follow worldwide, or what during one speech was termed the ‘European we-feeling’. Organised excursions took the participants to sites like the Erasmus House in Anderlecht, or other Belgian tourist destinations like Bruges or Ghent.

The moderately self-congratulatory tone of the congress was briefly disrupted during Raghavan N. Iyer’s speech. A political theorist from India, who received a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University in 1950, Iyer was in his early thirties at the time and had just received his doctorate when he caused quite a stir at the conference. In his speech, he criticised the racialism and paternalism of Europe and the so-called European canon of education. He rhetorically challenged Europe with a number of questions: Is Europe going to allow for other influences to be considered, other voices to be heard, hailing from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America? Or is it going to hold onto its heritage and supposed values, hoping it remains forever unchanged, untainted?

The reactions to his lecture were not only positive: some journalists called him arrogant, even insolent; others questioned the veracity of his statements, asking if the issues he addressed would remain relevant after decolonisation. In any case, the polarising responses from both members of the press and the attending scholars proved he had hit a certain nerve.

A transcript of the speech was published in issue n°8 of Caractère et Culture de l’Europe, a magazine published by the European Cultural Foundation between 1960 and 1964.

The World Facing Europe
The world outside Europe, especially in Asia and Africa, took what Europe had to give culturally and, indeed, that was a great deal, the true measure of which will be seen by the heirs of those who received it in the decades and centuries to come.

But the receiving countries had to take what Europe had to give on highly unfavourable terms of trade, and increasingly rejected the monopolistic claims of European power, European Christianity and European culture. European ascendancy was challenged everywhere until its end became inevitable, hastened by internal divisions that led to two World Wars. As early as the 1840’s ’[Aleksandr Ivanovich] Herzen refused to believe that the destinies and the future of humanity are fixed and nailed to Western Europe, and he foresaw the U.S.A. and Russia as ‘the two torchbearers of the future’. Sixty years ago the Javanese princess Kartini wrote that “the time has long gone by when we seriously believed that the European is the only true civilisation, supreme and unsurpassed; … does civilisation consist in a commanding tone, or in hypocrisy?” And yet Kartini was a great admirer of Europe and wanted her people to gain from Europe.

The victory of Japan over Russia in 1905 marked a turning point in the history of Asia and the world. Then in 1909 was published Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, a severe indictment of modern European civilisation, which even today most Europeans would find unpalatable. Tagore’s writings to the end warned that the true spirit of European culture could only be released when European nationalism had been largely destroyed and there was a consequent decline in European power.

In the last decade the racialism and paternalism of Europe have been decisively rejected in a resurgent Africa. And yet, today, the European has altered their world map with surprising rapidity. European self-consciousness has enormously increased, but it has made it necessary for the European, even for the faithless technological European, [George Bernard] Shaw’s ‘new barbarian’, to rediscover his own lost roots in classical culture and his religious as well as his secular tradition, and also to re-assess his own role in a radically different world from that known to his forebears. Europe’s remarkable recovery since the last war is a profound tribute to the richness of the European heritage to humanity, the resilience, inventiveness and imagination of Europeans, as well as the ever-present energy and idealism that abundantly, though not exclusively, belong to Europe.

White Europe has considerably changed, the world around it has altered even more profoundly, perhaps totally, certainly irreversibly. The religious messianism of Europe has been powerfully challenged by a secular creed with the force of a religion, the resources of modern science and technology, and – above all, a historicist faith that time is on its side and the whole world is its oyster. It makes one think when one considers the remark of an Indian friend of mine that it is extraordinary that the ideological conflict in Europe is between two camps deriving their inspiration from two members of the same race. The message of the greatest human being that the Jewish race ever produced, regarded as God, not by Jews or non-Christians but by Christians, the message of the greatest personality and prophet ever produced by the Jewish race was challenged by the greatest Jewish revolutionary that ever lived and one of the most influential Jewish thinkers.

Internally Europe is ideologically divided, and outside there is a surging dynamism, a frightening self-confidence in Asia and Africa. Sometimes a non-European might be disconcerted by the fresh ebullience of the European, but I have only to remind myself that today Asians and Africans think and talk and feel as though history has totally changed, as though a cosmic event has transpired in the history of the world, a total Copernican revolution. We can indeed see a tremendous and excessive impatience, a restless Faustian dynamism among the peoples of Asia and Africa, trickling right down to the tiniest village and hamlet. Profound disturbances are taking place – there is a massive awakening, an unprecedented élan. Here we find in Asia and Africa – the home of the oldest cultures, the earliest civilisations, all the major religions, and of the majority of mankind – an upsurge of vitality and suddenly the inheritors of old cultures are more proud to be citizens of new nations. We see this more clearly than elsewhere, perhaps tragically, in the case of China, an ancient and wise civilisation, now behaving at times like a juvenile delinquent.

“The ghosts of dead ideas are ever with us,” said Ibsen. Unfortunately the ghosts of discarded or discredited European notions have secured a ghoulish lease of life in Asia and Africa, especially the gospel of automatic material progress, not yet entirely disavowed by Europe, as one sees every now and again. This secular creed of automatic material progress has entered Africa and even Asia, which has always been extremely cynical about material, let alone automatic unilinear progress, with its doctrine of cycles, with its belief that humanity has existed for millions of years, with its profound sense of the infinity of this universe.

We find in Asia and Africa today an assertive nationalism, even disguised racialism. Indeed, there is an ugly form of racialism emerging – and how typically unfair, it does not discriminate between one European and another, between one white man and another, it cannot discriminate between the pinko-greys. Asia and Africa have also imported Benthamite utilitarianism, militant collectivism, messianic socialism, even Hayekian liberalism, the worship of political and military power for its own sake, entrenched bureaucratism, the multiplication of new wants, conspicuous consumption, an obsession with uniqueness and exclusive claims, even in regard to religion – the ultimate sin for us in the East – ideological fanaticism, arrogant atheism, the cult of cynicism, ruthless competition. We find increasingly the attitude – “I’ll take care of myself, I shall conquer – you take care of yourself or be left behind!” – the Darwinian doctrine of struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest, new forms of cultural parochialism and collective egoism. This is indeed a profound tragedy, which must make Europeans sit up and seriously think. These dismal tendencies are sometimes turned by non-Europeans against Europe, but also, and increasingly, towards each other. The best Europeans, the most sensitive, the most honest, the most humble, must shudder at the consequences of so-called Europeanisation and the future nemesis that is bound to come owing to European errors in the past. A few ethnocentric Europeans have already begun to talk once again of the rape of Europe by the non-European bull.

Hegel thought that the only lesson taught by world history is that we learn nothing from it. Will non-Europeans, Asians, Africans at last learn from the lessons of European history? Who is to tell them? Have Europeans learnt those lessons? Surely the answer to this crucial question will depend upon whether Europeans now show that they have really learnt the lessons of their history; that they are at last anxious to discard the coarse, and renew the finer elements in their tradition; that they can understand, and are willing to exemplify, the dictum that a good European must be a good world citizen above all else. It is Europeans who must now show that they have the strength, the courage and the will to resist perhaps the last and greatest temptation that Europe is facing – the temptation of replacing an older nationalism by a new form of chauvinism, attractive to those who feel it, sad and ugly to those who do not.

In order to envisage a new and creative role for Europe in our world, we must, I think, consider the benefit that Europe could secure for itself, the example it could set to the whole world, and the positive contribution it could make to humanity today by a concrete programme for the re-education of the European. How can Europe help non-Europeans? Do I really need to talk about the goods, the technology, the assistance, the sympathy, all kinds of skills that Europe could give – these indeed we must receive. We will get them at a world level, we will take them from everywhere, because that is possible with things that can be bought or bartered. But I think what we really want from Europe – and this comes right from my heart – we want Europe to produce good Europeans. We have not seen enough good Europeans outside of Europe and it is sad that even today and certainly in the past, individual Europeans – individual Englishmen, Dutchmen, Frenchmen – were commended by non-Europeans for not being like Europeans in general.

When Europe begins to cultivate its own garden, in Voltaire’s phrase, then we shall come to say that even if Europe did not exist, it would have to be invented – but not until then. The Lusiads of Europe have returned home, but their new mission is more exacting than the old, for it requires more thought, more self-examination, more humility, more real tolerance, not talk about tolerance, more daily civility, not boasting about civility. Are Europeans prepared to heed the teachings of Christ, or will they disown their teacher, like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor? Are they really willing to study in a receptive spirit the scriptures of other religious teachers, or are they more concerned, the cleverer they are, to disparage Krishna, Buddha, Lao Tze.

We are greedy in the East when we hear about the New Testament or Plato’s Republic – we grab it, we want to derive what we can from it. There are many people today in the East for whom the New Testament, the Republic of Plato, and the plays of Shakespeare mean more than for most Europeans. But how many Europeans are there who have actually read the Bhagavadgita, the message of Krishna given 5,000 years ago for the dark age of Kali Yuga?

There are several questions that I urge Europeans to ask themselves. Are they really prepared to receive, to draw from these great texts now accessible to all, to study them with an open mind and to derive benefit from them? Are Europeans willing to widen their concept of antiquity and study the classics of all cultures, or are they concerned to fit even the Greeks into their own crudely Christian or rationalistic models of European history? Have Europeans really learnt the lesson of the Crusades, or do they now wish to embark upon a fresh crusade against newly chosen external enemies? Are they prepared to recover the sense of wonder and curiosity of the Renaissance, the universalism of the Enlightenment, the pride of the Stoics in their membership of humanity? Are they, like non-Europeans, anxious to learn the art of living, to make of one’s life, as Thoreau said, ‘a poem’? Are Europeans interested merely in what they can spend in the way of energy or do they give some thought to conserving power, the reserve power that belongs to the African chief and the Asian peasant? It is the reserve power of Europe that we non-Europeans are interested in, not merely what is displayed, not merely the ebullience of the European. What will count in the long run is their capital and what it means to them, their spiritual security, not merely their temporary profits.

Are Europeans still going to regard themselves merely as children of the modern age of material and scientific progress? Are they still concerned (as some Europeans have been in the past, though regarded at times as traitors) with the cause of freedom and justice in far off places, even when the sinners are white-skinned? Are Europeans prepared to contemplate the redistribution of the world’s income and resources in favour of the world’s proletariat? Do Europeans wish to apply the techniques of co-existence achieved within Europe to a world plain and thus promote the co-existence of the races, nations, cultures, religions and political philosophies of humanity? Have they anything to learn from the experiments in co-existence elsewhere, in South Asia, in the Middle-East, even in America? Do Europeans really believe in strengthening international institutions and empowering the United Nations, even if they have to concede the democratic claims of non-European peoples to take their share in determining the pattern of global action and world unity? Or is it to be said that, while some Europeans took an active part in creating this imperfect instrument, others have now merely developed an anti-establishment complex in regard to the United Nations, which now has a Buddhist, not a Christian, and a Burman, not a European, as the Secretary General? Above all, are Europeans more anxious to make unique claims for themselves and their heritage, or to take legitimate pride in their contribution without devaluing the contributions of other peoples and civilisations to the sum total of human wisdom and world culture?

When Europeans, or at least a small band of new Lusiads, are ready to face up to the full implications of these and related questions, they will then be willing to devise and advocate concrete measures of educational reform, and in these matters it is not for us to advise them.