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A South with a View: Europe and Its Other
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Nepantla: Views from South 1.2 (2000) 375-390


Like quite a few people in his native region, Federico Chabod, who was born in French-speaking Val d’Aosta, Italy, had little sympathy for Benito Mussolini’s fanatic dream of an “Italian Italy.” Nationalism, one might suspect, was not exactly his cup of tea. No great admirer of universalism—which he used to associate with the worst imperialist tendencies of French classicism (Chabod 1979)—either, Chabod cultivated instead an idea of “Europe” as alternative to both nationalism and universalism. As he offered a course on the history of Europe at the University of Milan in 1943, talks about Europe were quite in fashion. Already in 1932, the Reale Accademia d’Italia had coordinated, with all pomp and circumstance, a well-publicized symposium on the theme. The success had then prompted the Istituto Nazionale di Cultura Fascista to organize, in 1942, a new Roman conference on “The Idea of Europe.” Yet in those circumstances, as in the debates that would follow, “contingent political reasons had prevailed upon scientific ones” (Chabod 1995, 8–9).

The Neue Ordnung of a new Europe united under the Aryan identity of swastika and fascio was not, in other words, what Chabod had in mind when he thought about Europe. Not that his Europe was an entirely “scientific” one, however. The abundance of imperatives in his eager definitions of it seems rather to suggest that “Europe” had to be, for Chabod, an essentially ethical category: “European consciousness means… differentiation of Europe, as a political and moral entity, from other entities…. The concept of Europe must form itself in contraposition to something that is not Europe” (Chabod 1995, 23). The implied question was to see how much the new thinking of Europe had deviated from that “moral” imperative and to what measure the new Europe had been led astray by its new despotic masters.

To legitimize his quite radical idea on the topic against the doxa of the times, Chabod constructed then a whole genesis of his concept of Europe. And, as each genesis has to have an origin, Chabod began, interestingly enough, from a time of war. It was at the time of the Persian Wars, Chabod argued, that the Greek Isocrates first theorized a fundamental, irreconcilable difference between the political “freedom” of Europe and the “despotism” of Asia. The perfect balance of the chiasmus should not pass unnoticed here: as a war conceived Europe as “political and moral” confrontation with otherness, another war, which wanted to eradicate otherness altogether, threatened now to annihilate it.

From this very beginning, then, “Europe” was the locus of “freedom,” a political and moral idea (incidentally, against despotism) and a way of thinking rather than a concrete geographical identity with fixed territorial limits and borders. It did not matter, for Chabod, if Isocrates’ “Europe” was limited to only Greece, Spain, and the southern coasts of Italy and France. For Herodotus, on the other hand, Europe was even smaller than that and did not go beyond the borders of Thrace and Macedonia. The question of Russia’s belonging to “Europe” could also remain—until the very last lesson of the course—a completely unresolved issue. What really mattered for Rousseauian Chabod was that between the fifth and the fourth century b.c. an idea was born as the antithesis to a space conceived as non-Europe. This was the origin—all the rest was perversion and fall.

With a virtuoso display of scholarship and erudition, Chabod went on to show the genesis of what I would like to call a rhetorical definition of Europe based on the figure of antithesis. For instance, in the twelfth century, during the epoch of the Crusades, the notion of Christianitas complicated the idea of Europe—but still in antithesis to an other space: that of Islam. The Holy Ghost of Christianity would then be revived seven centuries later to haunt the romantic dreams of François-Auguste-René de Chateaubriand and Novalis. By then, the Renaissance, spurred by Machiavelli, had already imagined Europe as the political...

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