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Stephen Spender, Europe Has a Mission

Lecture, Vienna 1956


At the stage where we are now, full of remorse for our colonialist past and aware of so many present failings, the question we must ask ourselves is not so much whether we are better than the others but whether the others are worse than us. For if they are worse, then our duty is to live for our values and to assert them. (...)

Obviously we cannot go on claiming to be superior because of our white skin or our glorious past, because of Gothic cathedrals or the painting of the Renaissance. We can only wonder if all of these factors, and many others beside, can still constitute a potential that legitimises our present reality, if, deprived of these European traditions which we owe it to ourselves to manage, the world would not be in an even worse state, and if, by living these traditions, Europe is still not fulfilling a mission that no other could fulfil in her place.

The spiritual future of Europe will depend upon the application by the Europeans of the values represented by their architecture, their painting, their literature and their men and women of genius to their life, their conduct and their thought.

Europe must be neither a bank nor a museum.

Spender Lecture, Sep 11, 1946

Personally I do not doubt for an instant that we must answer yes to all these questions... I believe in the mission of European culture and I have faith in its ability to help solve the most intractable of the world's problems, including those that are way beyond the limits of the cultural field proper. I believe in it because only European culture has been able to combine a great revolutionary force with a highly developed sense of tradition, because it has always tried to keep a close relationship between what I would call "the human constant" and external circumstances that are forever changing, because even the most astonishing of its style revolutions has never ceased to express traditional values while adapting to the changes of the moment. European culture has taken the endless test of "beating time", and so far it has always passed it. The sum of its past - though our contemporaries may not always fully appreciate it - will always be included in the sum of its present.

Europe may have failed politically, but culturally she represents, to borrow a popular commercial slogan, the biggest world success of all time, and justifies her right to survive politically if only for this reason. 

       Cf.  Cicero, I have spared no pains to make myself master of the Greek language and learning * Schiller, A glorious humanity * Hugo, In a grand parliament of intelligence * Emerson, When the Gods come among men - Disclosing in every fact a germ of expansion *  Ortega y Gassett, The birth of the city * Aeschylus, Nobody's slaves * Plato, Tyranny and slavery * Gennadius Scholarius, Words are the fathers of all Good  * David Turner, Byzantium : The 'alternative' history of Europe


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