The West: Eccentric Culture?
I've recently finished reading Rémi Brague's Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (2002). As the author's name perhaps implies, the book appeared first (1992) in French, where it bore the title Europe, la voie romaine.
That would translate literally as "Europe: The Roman Way." Imagine why the title was altered for an American readership.
Irony aside, I come not to inter Brague on the internet but to praise him on this page. The book is fascinating . . . at least for people like me who muse about little things like civilization. It's not everyone's cup of tea, I know. But for those sipping a cup poured from Huntington's tempest in a teapot, Brague's book is essential reading.
Brague argues that the central characteristic of Western civilization is its "secondarity." Unlike, for instance, Islamic or Confucian civilizations, the West finds its identity in something other than itself -- indeed, in two other cultures to which it is secondary, those of ancient Greece and ancient Judaism. Thus, the West's founding texts are in Classical Greek and Biblical Hebrew and by requiring repeated translation have kept the West aware of its borrowed identity.
This means that -- postmodernist critiques notwithstanding -- the West, at its core, is open to "the other."
Something very important follow from this: the West preserves sources.
Not every civilization does.
Brague notes that Islamic civilization absorbed the civilizations that it conquered by translating into Arabic the texts that it found useful, then used the translations and almost never returned to the originals. Why not? Because Arabic, being the perfect language chosen for Allah's revelation, perfected the originals. The translated texts were considered better in Arabic.
This is not to deny that Islam achieved a high level of culture. It did. But by denying itself repeated access to original, it closed off recognition of its own cultural borrowings. Thus, it shielded itself from self-critique.
The West, by contrast, in preserving sources and returning to them, checks itself critically against the other at its core.