Book review of The Law of God by C. S. Morrissey
A Theory of Western Civilization
(La Voie Romaine)
"The most characteristic feature of European (and American) civilization is not its originality but its deliberately assumed secondarity vis-à-vis Greek and Jewish models. This secondarity is a willingness to learn which itself had to be learned from another cultural model, Europe's most direct model, the civilization that, if I may say, invented cultural secondarity, the Roman.
"The importance of the Roman mediation is the thesis that Rémi Brague brilliantly defends in this remarkable example of what the French call an essay: a manageably small but carefully written volume entirely dedicated to the presentation of one single powerful and multi-sided idea."
-- René Girard
Western culture, which influenced the whole world, came from Europe. But its roots are not there. They are in Athens and Jerusalem. European culture takes its bearing from references that are not in Europe: Europe is eccentric.
What makes the West unique? What is the driving force behind its culture? Rémi Brague takes up these questions in Eccentric Culture. This is not another dictionary of European culture, nor a measure of the contributions of a particular individual, religion, or national tradition. The author’s interest is especially, with regard to the transmission of that culture, to articulate the dynamic tension that has propelled Europe and more generally the West toward civilization. It is this mainspring of European culture, this founding principle, that Brague calls “Roman.”
Yet the author’s intent is not to write a history of Europe, and less yet to defend the historical reality of the Roman Empire. Brague rather isolates and generalizes one aspect of that history or, one might say, cultural myth, of ancient Rome. The Roman attitude senses its own incompleteness and recognizes the call to borrow from what went before.
Historically, it has led the West to borrow from the great traditions of Jerusalem and Athens: primarily the Jewish and Christian tradition, on the one hand, and the classical Greek tradition on the other. Nowhere does Brague find this Roman character so strongly present as in the Christian and particularly Catholic attitude toward the incarnation.
At once an appreciation of the richness and diversity of the sources and their fruit, Eccentric Culture points as well to the fragility of their nourishing principle. As such, Brague finds in it not only a means of understanding the past, but of projecting a future in (re)proposing to the West, and to Europe in particular, a model relationship of what is proper to it.
Rémi Brague, professor of philosophy at the University of Paris-I, is the author of many articles and books, most notably of Aristote et la question du monde and La sagesse du monde.
Europe is Roman
by Edward T. Oakes:
"No civilization in the world is as layered as the European, and therefore none so prone to self-doubt and guilt as Europe has proven to be. Given its many attempts at self-annihilation in the last century through its home-grown ideologies of fascism and communism, European guilt has a point. But because that guilt is also rooted in a crisis of confidence about its true worth, Europe has lost its sense of mission and cannot witness even to its best values. No wonder anti-Americanism is so rife, for the United States is the only remaining European nation (in the cultural if not geographical sense) that still thinks well enough of its values to believe that the rest of the world would benefit from adopting them."
Culture & the New Europe
by Rémi Brague, First Things (August/September 1992).
Thus, a very peculiar attitude towards the past underlies the way in which European culture relates to the sources from which it springs. The dominant pattern is the same for both Jewish and Greek. European culture always resisted the temptation to absorb in itself what it had inherited from either the Greeks or the Jews—to suck in the content and to throw away the empty husk. It always maintained the lively, even painful, consciousness of its being secondary vis-a-vis classical culture and the old covenant. And it could do so because accepting secondarity stemmed from the deepest layer, or, to change metaphors, the peak of its culture, i.e., its religion.
The civilization of Christian Europe was built by people whose purpose was not that of constructing a “Christian civilization”. We owe it to people who believed in Christ, not to people who believed in Christianity. Interview with Rémi Brague
I don’t object to our making a list of what we owe the Ancients. Such a list of our debts will be a pretty long one. It will begin, as far as languages are concerned, with the traces of Latin and Greek in our present-day vocabulary, a fact to which I alluded above. But the important thing is to remember that the bulk of those inherited cultural goods was not passively received, but conquered at the price of great efforts. Ancient culture is not a sap that flows in our veins without our taking notice of it. It is, to stick to the same metaphor, the result of a grafting, of our own grafting on the classical tree.
The Ancients are “others”, too. They are our others, the others that we chose for us. By this token, they enable us to know what an “other” is. For there are other “others” than the Greeks. Studying classical languages should not lead one to a smug self-centeredness. In any case, it never did that.
We have seen that the path of culture leads through the appropriation of what one is not. “Become what you are”, said Pindar, in a famous formula that was taken up by Nietzsche. Let me add a rider: become what you are by becoming what you are not, by becoming what you never were. Once one has learnt this lesson, one can extend this stance, even generalize it, and apply it beyond the boundaries of classical Antiquity.
As I told you at the beginning of this lecture, I shifted from Greek philosophy to Arabic philosophy in the course of my academic career. For a European scholar, this is quite a normal move. Shifting from an “other” to another “other”, from Greek and Hebrew to, say Arabic, Sanskrit or Chinese, was and is a common practice. This is what people who were far more learned than I am kept doing in former times, from the beginning of European cultural history to the present day.
Greek nor Jew
Rémi Brague, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization"
by Mark Shiffman from Modern Age — Spring 2005
Non-Theocratic Regimes Possible?"
by Rémi Brague from Intercollegiate Review — Spring 2006
Part One - Mark Shiffman
Part Two - Ivan Kenneally
Part Three - Ralph C. Hancock
Part Four - Peter Lawler