What Do We Mean by Europe?

By Pocock, J. G. A. | The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

What Do We Mean by Europe?


Pocock, J. G. A., The Wilson Quarterly


Europe today is a contested notion. Historians and critics debate whether it is one of those "inventions" that elites have imposed upon others in order to consolidate positions of power and authority. Statesmen, administrators, and corporate executives view Europe as, for better or worse, a very real entity, with a clear and definable past and a palpable present. A subset of this group - supporters of what has come to be called the European Union - hope that the present is prologue to an even more substantial future: a powerful supranational order bringing peace and prosperity to all member nations. An opposed group, whom we might call the Euroskeptics, hold that such a consummation is devoutly to be resisted, so fatal would it be to democratic national sovereignty and the power of citizens to determine their political destinies.

Contemporary debates about the meaning of Europe are unquestionably tied to current political, economic, and intellectual preoccupations. But they have behind them a long history of the use of language in presenting and controlling human experience. It is part of that history that I want to tell, the story of how the word "Europe" has been used and how over time it came to denote, first, a continent and, second, a civilization. I shall speak as a moderate Euroskeptic - one not so much hostile to the present project of "Europe" as doubtful that it will work.

We should note first off that the initial naming of Europe took place in a saltwater area of very limited size, namely the Aegean Sea, as that part of the Mediterranean between present-day Greece and Turkey is called. The ancient peoples who used that sea and lived around it became aware of what we call - because they did - the Bosporus, the narrow waterway that connects the Aegean with the larger and, to them, less known, Euxine or Black Sea. They developed myths and folktales that had the effect of giving the name "Europa" to lands lying west of the Bosporus and the name "Asia" to lands lying east of it.

At the same time, a third name, or rather a pair of names, came to denote another coast and its hinterlands lying well to the south of the Aegean. One of these, "Egypt," was the Greek Aegean term for the peoples of the Nile valley and its delta, an ancient and literate people who could give their own accounts of who they were and how long they had existed. The other word, "Africa," tended to move westward, away from the Egyptians, and adhere to other coastlands - also known as Libya, Mauritania, and so on - with which the Aegean Greeks and Phoenicians came in contact as their ships explored the Mediterranean basin.

Once we start talking about the movement of words from one coastland and hinterland to another, we have begun talking about geography and cartography: the description of configurations of land and water and their reduction to spoken and written words and images. Here the story is how over many centuries - perhaps more than 20 from start to finish of the mapping process - the Aegean words Europe, Asia, and Africa moved outward from the coastlines to which they had originally been applied and traveled deeper and deeper into the hinterlands behind them, until finally they became the names of what were by then called continents. By the 16th century at the latest, continent had come to denote a landmass of very great size, possessing a well-defined maritime perimeter, and linked to other continents either by a single isthmus - as Africa is joined to Asia and the two Americas to one another - or not at all, as in the cases of Australia and Antarctica, the two island continents in the Southern Hemisphere.

But the anomaly in our typology of continents - an anomaly that shows how Aegean and Mediterranean concepts still dominate our thinking - consists in our habit of listing Europe as one of the seven continents, when it does not comply with the above definition at all precisely. The "continent" of Europe is a product partly of the Mediterranean need for a term to inscribe and describe the lands west of the Bosporus, and partly of the exceptionally self-centered and world-dominating outlook developed by a civilization that evolved in those lands. …

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