Monday, August 10, 2009

Rémi Brague on Medieval Philosophy's Broad Influence

Rémi Brague Explains

As some will recall, I recently re-read Rémi Brague's masterful Eccentric Culture, which motivated me to blog about it again. In doing so, I discovered a couple of interviews that Brague gave, and I blogged on a question raised in my mind by a passage in the longer interview, the one on The Legend of the Middle Ages.

I went so far as to email Professor Brague and inquire:
Pardon me for contacting you, for you do not know me, but I have a query -- I think a simple one.

I am currently re-reading your book Eccentric Culture and have blogged on it recently (as well as earlier), and I happened to read -- and then blog about -- the interview conducted by Christophe Cervellon and Kristell Trego for the collection of articles in The Legend of the Middle Ages.

In that interview, an editor (I suppose) has introduced the heading "Cosmology as a Postulate." Following this heading is a passage that suggests to me that the editor has misunderstood your point, for you seem to me to be saying that for premodern man, cosmic order was not a postulate but a given.

Have I read you correctly?

Of course, you may have no time for this query, and I will understand and accept if I do not hear from you.
But I did hear from him:
This was a real joy to receive your message. I must be brief: I am in a small community in la France profonde, i.e. in the sticks. Internet is available only in the town-house.

Thank you for your close reading of my stuff. I will have to postpone a real answer till September: I haven't my own books there, let alone their English translations.

Have a nice summer.
From the evidence provided by this email, I'd say that he must be a really nice man, and I now have something to look forward to. But I won't leave you with the merely autobiographical blog entry today (after all, this isn't really my vacation), for I want to share another passage from the longer interview on The Legend of the Middle Ages that left a vivid impression on me because of its implications as to why the West developed as it did:
In medieval Europe, philosophy became a university course of studies and a pursuit that could provide a living. It also supported a mass of untenured, garden-variety "philosophy profs," few of whom have left their names in the manuals, even though we can exhume their courses, which we discover to be full of surprises. But these were the men who made it possible for philosophy to make a profound impact on the minds of the jurists, physicians, and others they taught, hence for it to become a factor in society.
This is significant because philosophy's emphasis upon reason surely played some role in preparing the rational European mind for the scientific revolution but also because it held theologians to rational standard. Christian theology had always required philosophical grounding, but the middle ages institutionalized philosophical study and therefore, as Brague remarks, ensured that philosophy might have a broader influence on society, something that did not occur in Islamic civilization because philosophy was never institutionalized there.

Brague goes on to make the point that "'theology' as a rational exploration of the divine . . . exists only in Christianity," which stands as a considerably strong claim to make, but I'll leave you to read the interview if you want to know precisely why he holds this view. I will add that his point is similar to the point made by Pope Benedict XVI in his Regensburg lecture, namely, that the central significance of the "Logos" in Christianity was crucial to Christian theology's openness to reason.

I agree with the Pope and Brague on their point about the significance of the "Logos," but I also think that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation raised profound philosophical questions -- concerning, e.g., matter and spirit, temporality and nontemporality, spatiality and nonspatiality, etc. -- that needed to receive answers if Christians were to respond to questions posed by the non-Christian culture in which Christianity grew, especially since Christianity did not begin as a successful political and military power, could not force non-Christians to submit, and thus had to rely solely on persuasion.

Until Constantine, anyway.

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