Rémi Brague: Roman 'Secondarity' as Civilizing Process
A good review often brings forth the meaning of a book more clearly than our own reading did and expresses it better than we can.
I've been looking again at a book that I first read about two years ago and quoted from yesterday, Rémi Brague's Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization. I'm drawing upon it for a course on war, religion, and civilization that I'm teaching this semester for Yonsei University's Underwood International College. I don't require my students to read Brague's book itself, however, but merely to read a couple of reviews that bring out the book's basic thesis.
One of the two reviews selected, Mark Shiffman's best summarizes and explains Brague's argument, beginning with his review's title: "Neither Greek nor Jew" (Modern Age: A Quarterly Review, Volume 47, Number 2, Spring 2005, pp. 160-163).
Let me quote from Schiffman:
It has been said that the core of the spiritual vitality of the West is the fundamental tension between Athens and Jerusalem. True as it may be, this claim leaves in complete obscurity the character of the West that enables it to harbor and sustain such conflicting sources, a character which cannot be explained by recourse to one of the two poles without rendering the tension between them something less than fundamental. According to Remi Brague's Eccentric Culture, this omission finds its remedy in reflection upon a third city: Rome. (Shiffman, 160B)I should perhaps here note that the original French title to Brague's book is Europe: La Voie Romaine, which would translate literally as Europe: The Roman Way. The English title, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization, is thus a bit misleading, for Brague is not writing of Western civilization but about the identity of "Europe."
Europe, argues Brague, is Roman. But what does that mean?
"Romanity" is the name Brague gives to a salutary inferiority complex at the heart of European culture. In the original case, the Romans recognized the Greeks as their superiors in attainment of the true and the beautiful and in suppleness and vigor of language. "To be 'Roman,'" Brague remarks, "is to have above one a classicism to imitate and below one a barbarity to subdue." (Shiffman, 161A)Shiffman is quoting from page 39 of Brague's book, and the expression "a barbarity to subdue" sounds rather crass -- a casual justification of Roman imperialism -- until one recalls that Brague was speaking of a being "stretched between a classicism to assimilate and an inner barbarity" (Brague, 39). The barbarity is one's own, and the remedy is a liberal education that will act as a civilizing process. Shiffman means to suggest precisely this, of course, for he goes on to emphasize that the aim of a liberal education has "is always a soul-forming education in the language and literature of peoples other than one's own" (Shiffman, 161A), an inner struggle against one's own barbarity.
Thus Rome, for Brague, is not another cultural content to be compared to Athens and Jerusalem. Rather, it is the form of cultural appropriation that allows Athens and Jerusalem to be the content of an education. (Shiffman, 161A)Now, we generally think that "cultural appropriation" means 'stealing' someone else's culture and appropriating it as one's own, but this is not what the expression means here:
What most characterizes Romanity is the consciousness of "secondarity," the consciousness that one's cultural origins and points of reference do and ought to have their source in another culture. As Brague puts it: "To say that we are Roman is entirely the contrary of identifying ourselves with a prestigious ancestor. It is rather a divestiture, not a claim. It is to recognize that fundamentally we have invented nothing, but simply that we learned how to transmit a current come from higher up, without interrupting it, and all the while placing ourselves back in it." (Shiffman, 161A, quoting Brague, 91)In this sense, "cultural appropriation" means that one acknowledges having borrowed from another. This is the peculiar identity of Europe -- and I would extend it to Western identity more generally -- the sense of itself as secondary, for the sources of its identity, both cultural (Greece) and religious (Jerusalem), come from outside itself.
"'Eurocentrism' is a misnomer," Brague argues, for "no culture was ever so little centered on itself and so interested in the other ones as Europe" (Brague, 133-4).
Hence the nicely ambiguous English title: Eccentric Culture.