A hand holds a light bulb against a cloudy sky.
The Many Ideas of Europe

No one continent or country can be the sole engine of global history. Europe’s vision of itself as the embodiment of reason and freedom is drenched in blood, any claim to moral and political pre-eminence is at best provincial.

My book From the Ruins of Empire is not an account of events in Europe. It is actually set in India, China, Egypt, Iran and Turkey, and other countries subjugated by European powers in the 19th century. The book’s leading figures are Asian intellectuals, writers and activists. It could be asked: in what way does learning about them advance Europe’s self-understanding? One way of answering this question is to say that Europe has always been present in my own self-understanding—and that of hundreds of millions of Asians.

Though born in India, in a home where English was not spoken, my own ambition to be a writer was shaped by European books. Some of these were English. Many of them happened to be German, in English translation, such as Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, and, later, Robert Musil and Hermann Broch.

Germany’s traumatic experience as a late modernizer – and the sociological insights generated by the work of Max Weber, Georg Simmel and the Frankfurt School – were, and remain, crucial in understanding many of the social and political aspects of the Indian nation state: its many economic crises, political volatility, and the widespread bourgeois and corporate longing today for an authoritarian leader.

A decade ago, I embarked on a book about the Buddha. The memory of the man and his ideas had faded in India even as large parts of Asia grew receptive to them. My initial guides were Schopenhauer and Nietzsche who wrote often and mostly approvingly of the Buddhism.

I knew these men as great European philosophers; the great prestige of their reputations validated and deepened my interest in an Indian philosophy largely forgotten in India. I also benefitted a great deal from the scholarship of German Indologists: Max Muellar, Hermann Oldenburg and Paul Deussen.

Many of this period’s greatest thinkers (…) sought to establish a German identity independent of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions.

It may seem strange that in the late 20th century, an Indian writer should require the help of 19th century German thinkers in an exploration of his own historical and intellectual tradition.

But it was during the course of writing and researching a book about Buddhism that I came across another attempt at self-understanding that was also dependent on philosophies and literatures in another part of the world. I refer of course to the German fascination early in the 19th century with India, which was deeply connected to the project of German national self-determination.

Many of this period’s greatest thinkers, from Herder to Friedrich Schlegel, sought to establish a German identity independent of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions. They hoped for Germany to regenerate itself and the rest of Europe, and this attempt brought together many strains of thought – Romanticism, nationalism, and Indology. Indian religions with their pantheistic quality became attractive to Germans postulating the spiritual unity of the world and seeking to critique the dominant French culture of the Enlightenment.

The ‘Indo-Germans’ as many of these thinkers came to be called, sought explanations for the migrations of Germanic people in Indian texts; they connected German idealism to Hindu philosophy, and poetic inspiration for their Romantic outpourings in Sanskrit literature. His reaction against French Classicism led Friedrich Schlegel, the father of Indological Studies, to such claims as this one: ‘Everything, yes, everything,’ he said, ‘has its origins in India.’

The idea of Europe as the embodiment of reason and freedom (…) was never (…) wholeheartedly by Asians.

Despite such exaggerations, German translations and interpretations of Indian philosophy helped make the latter became part of the larger wisdom of mankind in the 19th century; they greatly influenced the American Transcendentalists, Emerson and Thoreau, who were seeking to develop a new vision of the New World.


Romantic Outpourings

Not all of this kind of self-understanding through the study of other traditions was benign. We know that German Indology, with its explicit obsession with racial origins, was to become complicit in the criminal project of National Socialism.

But we have not paid much attention to a much more influential kind of self-understanding in which Europeans appear as a master race tasked with civilising the rest of the world – a vision that was derived through a denigration of other societies and cultures but has enjoyed a surprising degree of legitimacy to this day. I refer of course to the enduring image of countries like India and China defined by Hegel’s dialectical system, the first ambitious attempt to describe the whole of human history, in which Asia was quickly relegated to the ranks of the hopelessly backward.

Hegel’s view, in which European men make the modern world and set the modalities and measures of progress, set a tone. Contempt for Asia’s religion and culture became commonplace among the globalising European elite, replacing the early Orientalist interest in it. For even the famously liberal John Stuart Mill, India was a backward society, incapable of self-rule, which needed a period of European dominance.


Flattering Self-Perceptions

A man looks at a painting depicting colonial masters.
Recent years have witnessed a new kind of popular self-understanding in which Europe and the United States appear as the perpetual guarantors of individual liberty, photo: Redcharlie via unsplash

The swift expansion of British, French, and Dutch empires across Asia, Africa, and Latin America seemed to attest European claims to moral, intellectual and political pre-eminence. Such flattering self-perceptions ought not to have survived Europe’s bloody fratricidal conflicts of the early 20th century.

Yet recent years have witnessed a new kind of popular self-understanding in which Europe and the United States appear as the perpetual guarantors of individual liberty, and the repositories of reason, freedom and democracy. Many of these confused self-images emerge from Western Europe’s perennially fraught desire to define itself by marginalising or demonising its ‘other’: Jewish, Communist or Muslim.

Early in the 20th century, a part of Europe determined to identify itself as Christian expunged the long centuries of Islam from its past. Spain’s greatest modern thinkers, José Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unanumo, presented Islam as an unfortunate irruption in the history of Europe, vigorously denying any Arab contributions to European culture.

This instinct has grown stronger in the age of mass immigration from Muslim countries. Wishing to pin down Muslims as Europe’s unassimilable ‘other,’ the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy actually claimed that France’s roots were ‘essentially Christian – as close to blasphemy you can get in a country that has claimed to be the product of the secular Enlightenment.

The idea of Europe as the embodiment of reason and freedom – an ideological notion that hardened during the long standoff between the so-called ‘free’ world and totalitarian Communism – was never and cannot be shared wholeheartedly by Asians.

For them there is no one ‘idea’ of Europe. There are many ‘ideas of Europe,’ which include, in Asian eyes at least, imperialism as well as liberal democracy, racial and religious intolerance as well as individual liberties and struggle for justice. Many of us in South Asia, or East Asia, where the hatreds of the Second World War have come dangerously alive, can only marvel today at the peace between Germany and France after centuries of bloody conflict.

The effects and consequences of globalisation (…) [havd] provoked intellectual bewilderment and arrogance rather than clarity, modesty and insight.

But we cannot avert our eyes from the continent’s longstanding political and moral challenge: how to accommodate social and cultural difference. Europe’s record on this score was discouraging well before the atrocities of the early 20th century. As my book shows, Europe’s most eager imitators in Asia – Anglophile Indians or Francophile Vietnamese – quickly found themselves up against racial and religious barriers. Permanent inferiority seemed the fate of even the Japanese, the quickest and keenest among Asians to adopt the ostensibly superior and rational laws and institutions of European civilisation. More recently, the Turks have known the bitter failure of non-Europeans trying to break into Europe’s racially exclusive club.

The rise of far-right parties today hints that Europe is struggling again to cope with its minorities, many of these originally brought as cheap labour from countries it once ruled. It has been bewildering, and dispiriting, to see not only right-wing extremists but also many liberal politicians and intellectuals in Europe flirt with a majoritarian nationalism, recoiling from what by Asian standards at least seems an extremely limited experience of social diversity and political extremism.

We stand today at an oddly paradoxical moment. The effects and consequences of globalisation, of unifying the world economically and intellectually, are clearer than ever before, but it has provoked intellectual bewilderment and arrogance rather than clarity, modesty and insight.

Certainly, the attempts to define the European self by violently detaching it from the other, and by setting up oppositions (…) cannot succeed (…).

Britain, facing irreversible decline and secession, is as sterilely obsessed as ever with its great victories over Germany in the two world wars. Meanwhile, a rising Asia is producing its own partial narratives; the leaders of a rising China invokes a ‘century of humiliation’ by Western powers while asserting their power locally and internationally.

The political assertiveness of Islamic countries as well as the rise of Chinese nationalism has already exposed the interconnected but highly unequal world that European imperialism made. Certainly, the attempts to define the European self by violently detaching it from the other, and by setting up oppositions – civilised and backward, coloniser and colonised – cannot succeed in an age where the other also possesses the power to write and make history. The ground has been cleared for more complex ways of self-understanding, shorn of self-congratulation, nationalist myth-making and racial triumphalism.

Let me end by quoting a great European thinker, Paul Valéry, who sensed early in the 20th century that, contrary to what Hegel thought, no one continent or country could be the sole engine of global history: ‘The system of causes,’ he wrote, ‘controlling the fate of every one of us, and now extending over the whole globe, makes it reverberate throughout at every shock; there are no more questions that can be settled by being settled at one point. ‘Nothing,’ he asserted, ‘can ever happen again without the whole world’s taking a hand' (Valéry’s italics).


Three globes in front of a grey wall.
No one continent or country can be the sole engine of global history, photo: Marina Leonova via pexels

If we accept Valery’s insight, then our self-understanding must include all those societies and peoples who seem remote and disengaged from us: pre-modern as well as modern, Asian and African as well as European. With its account of shared experiences, dilemmas and conversations across political and geographical borders, From the Ruins of Empire was conceived as a modest invitation to Asians as well as Europeans to think beyond the ghettos of nationalist and imperial history that most of them find ourselves in.

It is a fact that our self-understanding in such an intricately interconnected world – whether we are in Europe, Asia and Latin America – has to necessarily grow less parochial and more cosmopolitan; it has to keep up with our identities, which are always in flux, and open-ended.

About the Author
photo of Pankaj Mishra at a podium discussion.
Pankaj Mishra
Essayist, literary critic and author

Pankaj Mishra is an Indian essayist, literary critic and author. He writes as an essayist for the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker and the Guardian on the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan and China. Pankaj Mishra has been a visiting professor at Wellesley College and University College London.

A selection of books:

  • Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 2021
  • Age of Anger: A History of the Present. Penguin, London 2018
  • From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia. Penguin, London 2013
  • Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond. Picador, London 2011