Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Rémi Brague: Roman 'Secondarity' as Civilizing Process

Rémi Brague: The Eccentric European?
(Image from Amazon Books)

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.

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At 7:50 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

Americans are Eurocentric.

At 8:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That's right, and yet, they aren't Europe, which lends itself to a second 'secondarity'...

Just kidding. I know what you mean.

But you have to admit, it's a pretty ignorant Eurocentrism when so many Americans wouldn't be able to find Europe on a map.

Well, maybe that's an exaggeration...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:48 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I think it is mostly people under forty and most certainly not bloggers.

That last time I heard of a Geography course was a few year back. It was a college course.

At 10:21 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I recall a geography course in the 8th grade, but no more after that.

I hate to admit this, but I learned a lot of geography through the various places that America has intervened militarily.

No, I wasn't military, merely reading the papers.

Which comedian was it who said, "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography"?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The cover of the book which is I think a drawing of Mont Saint Michel suggests the countervailing force to Rome which was early Celtic Christianity. Prior to the Eight Century it was known as Monte Tombe because of a tumulus there 65ft. high and 377ft.long. A vision of the Archangel was the cause of the foundation of the monastery. You could say that a fund of the numinous had passed into new hands. The early Irish Church which was very active in Christianising Europe founding famous monasteries in German and Switzerland, was outside the juristdiction of Rome for a long time. (Synod of Whitby 664 went with Roman Easter, Scotland was Celtic until 11th.C.)

Visionary experience tends to localise. It is associated with mountains, streams, wells, grottos. It is chthonic.

I'm reading you carefully. You write:
"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."

How is Greece outside Europe? Of course there was no Europe then but there was a colony of Greeks in Italy, Pythagoras had his academy there. Those 'young light-hearted masters of the waves got everywhere'. To put it another way - how was anywhere outside Greece?

At 4:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael, thanks for the interesting information about the image on the cover of Brague's book.

On what Europe encompasses, you raise a central question, and Brague himself deals with it by noting that the boundaries of Europe have expanded and contracted over the centuries.

What he generally means by "Europe" is "the Latin West" -- the Medieval extent of Catholicism. This enables him to develop his thesis of 'secondarity'.

One might argue with his delimitation of Europe in such a way, but it's not without support. Even the ancient Greeks, it seems, looked to Europe as a region to the north of Greece and saw themselves as 'between' Europe and Asia. Moreover, until relatively recently, Greeks spoke of "going to Europe" when speaking of traveling out of the Balkans -- or so I seem to recall from Brague or from a review of his book.

That might not quite answer the question that you raise, but differentiating the Latin West and its influence from the Greek East and its character seems plausible to me for historical reasons.

However, I tend to think of the 'West' as something bigger -- including even the regions of Orthodox Christianity (though I'm arguing against Samuel P. Huntington here).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks. I take you point on the Latin West and the Greek East. It's about the Europe of the mind. I remember as a lad we used to talk about the 'Continent'. There was that famous headline in the Times. Fog in the Channel, Continent cut off'. Now Europe is gaining in latitude with Warsaw being near the centre. Will Turkey be added: maybe but I don't think so.

At 6:53 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Except for states like Albania and Bosnia, which have large Muslim populations -- Albania has perhaps a majority of Muslims, though Bosnia does not -- the EU isn't likely to let Muslim nations in.

Not until Europe has a Muslim majority, anyway.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:37 PM, Blogger David C. Innes said...

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. The Gypsy Scholar has proven himself once again to be a worthwhile read and an easy choice for the blogroll. I have forwarded this our Western Civ professor.

At 6:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, DC. I've found Brague's concise but rich book very useful for my own thinking on the character of Western Civilization.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:57 AM, Anonymous Mark Shiffman said...

Dear Gypsy,

Glad you found the review helpful. Thanks for sharing it with others.

Mark Shiffman

At 6:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You're welcome, Professor Shiffman. Thanks for dropping by.

Jeffery Hodges

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