Europe: Twilight At Dawn

PRAGUE - Recently I tried to discover the origins of the name "Europe". To my surprise, many see its roots in the Akkadian word 'erebu', meaning twilight or sunset. "Asia", on the other hand, is supposedly derived from the Akkadian 'asu,' meaning daybreak.

Initially, as I argued in a speech in Aachen last spring, this discovery seemed discouraging: twilight is often linked with extinction, ruin, or death, the end approaching. This link is valid, in part: twilight ends the bustle of one day. But it does not mean defeat, doom, or the end of time. Twilight, instead, is a punctuation mark in life where something ends so that something else may begin. For a person, this means that a time of labor -- physical and worldly -- ceases, replaced by a time of contemplation, evaluation, inward endeavor. Here people reflect on the meaning of their efforts, pause for perspective, regain strength, and make resolves for the future. Dawn and daylight are the time of hands, twilight the hour of the mind.

The gloom attached to the word twilight is the fruit of modernity’s cult of beginnings, of progress and growth, inventions, rises -- our cult of industriousness, expansion and energy. Dawn, daybreak, "sunrise nations" and similar metaphors are popular these days, while sunset, quiet pause, nightfall, evoke stagnation, decline, disintegration or nothingness.

This is unfair to twilight, to the phenomenon that possibly gave Europe its name. True, a phase in history is closing. That fortunate fusion of classical antiquity, Jewish religiosity, Christianity, and the energy of so-called barbarian tribes incited Europe’s unprecedented advance that brought humanity countless things of value and influenced the entire civilization of our age. Europe, indeed, seems to have introduced the concepts of time and historicity, evolution and "progress" as well. Seen from a distance of centuries, perhaps all European history will appear as a lone day of vigor, of great discoveries of the mind and the ethos of expansion.