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Notes and Fragments THE EUROPEAN CULTURAL TRADITION AND THE LIMITS OF GROWTH by Ivan Klima When the war ended and I came back from the concentration camp at Theresienstadt where I spent almost four years of my childhood, not only did I feel very bitter against everything that was German, but I was obsessed with the German theme. I gorged myself on literature in which the authors described their sufferings in concentration camps and the cruelty of their jailers. I followed the great trials of war criminals and listened to all attempts to explain how it could have happened—why a nation from which so many extraordinary spiritual impulses had emanated could have fallen so steeply into barbarity. Later, in the postwar years, I met Germans of a different stamp from those I knew during the war. Many of these people tried to help me in the difficulties I now had, owing to the fall into an entirely different kind of barbarity. These new experiences convinced me that the twentieth -century descent into barbarity—what Karel Capek described as "one of the greatest cultural debacles in the history of mankind"— cannot be connected with a single nation or state, with any kind of precisely limitable human grouping. Such falls indeed have happened before, and I'm afraid can happen again at any time in numerous parts of our planet. Ascertaining this did not relieve me much. I wanted to understand how it had happened that, in a century when human genius had achieved such unusual successes in so many spheres ofactivity, two such destructive wars had occurred with mass murders and extermination Philosophy and Literature, © 1993, 17: 77-83 78Philosophy and Literature camps. Why did people destroy so furiously the cultural values they had lately admired? What caused so many educated people to accept without complaint, or even with enthusiasm, behavior so incompatible with the humanistic traditions of European culture? Available facts and testimonies prove ever more emphatically that what happened in the first half of our century in Russia, Mexico, Italy, Germany, Spain, and a litde later in Chile and Cambodia, differed indeed in its starting points, but was strikingly similar in its cultural results. Was there some common reason that provoked in such different places that sudden and stubborn deviation from the previous direction ofour culture—again in the words of Karel Capek, an "immense treachery of cultured people," leading to "their all becoming barbarians"? I am aware that the reasons for the fall were many. They lay not only in the cultural sphere, but in the social and economic spheres as well. What interests me is this incomprehensible treachery oí the cultured. Did this represent a complete deviation from the former direction, from the tradition of our culture, or was it paradoxically a result of it? Let us try first of all to characterize that European tradition I refer to. Hegel describes it apdy in his introduction to The History ofPhilosophy: "What each generation has achieved in science, in spiritual production, is a heritage that whole generations have accumulated; it is a sacrament to which all generations of humanity add gratefully and joyfully everything that has helped them in life, that they have captured from the depths of nature and the spirit. To inherit here means at the same time to accept and bind into that heritage." To bind into the heritage, Hegel explains, means to maintain and enrich everything that has been left to man by previous ages in the field of knowledge. "Such is the mission and activity of our time and of every time: to take the science that is here and master it and thus develop it and raise it to a higher level." What Hegel says about science can be applied to all cultural efforts. The emphasis on development and directing to a higher level expresses a dynamics, an ability to accelerate, that has not been achieved by any of the other known cultures. And further, expressly European discoveries can be deduced from this dynamism: the significance of the ever freer individuality, valuing of competition, faith in deeds, in the idea that an individual can contribute to the common striving for higher...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 77-83
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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