Book review: “Eccentric Culture,” by Rémi Brague

Posted: October 25, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Book Reviews, Christ & Culture, Church History, History
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Eccentric Culture is a brief book (less than 200 pages), but dense and challenging.  It also has a fairly simple thesis: European culture is essentially Roman.  Rather than a combination of Jewish and Greek culture alone, with the Romans merely passing these elements on (I posted about Brague’s critique of that attitude here), European culture displays the Roman attitude of “secondarity.”  Secondarity is the Roman recognition that the best culture came from outside themselves, from the Greeks.  Thus, the Romans knew that there was an ideal to strive for (Greek culture) and a danger into which they could fall (barbarism).  In a similar way, he believes, Christians recognized their secondarity to the Jews.

He doesn’t give a lot of examples of the Roman appropriation of Greek culture, probably because it’s well-established that the Romans saw the Greeks as having a superior literary culture.  I wish that he had included more to establish his particular interpretation of it, but I imagine that if I were better versed in classical studies I wouldn’t need the examples.  He goes into more depth on what he calls “religious Romanity,” the parallel between Romans’ and Christians’ relations to the Greeks and Jews.  Here is one passage that explains the Romanity of Christianity, which touches on many of the important themes of the book:

In this way, it was religious secondarity that prevented all culture inherited from Christianity, as is the case with Europe, from considering itself as its own source.  The refusal of Marcionism is thus, perhaps, the founding event of the history of Europe as a civilization, in that it furnished the matrix of the European relationship to the past and anchored it at the highest possible level.  It may be then Saint Irenaeus, from his polemics against Marcionism [named for the heretic Marcion who sought to eliminate the Old Testament and edit the New in the second century] and his affirmation of the identity of the God of the Old Testament with that of the New, is not only one of the Fathers of the Church, but also one of the Fathers of Europe.  Conversely, the withdrawal of Europe into its own culture, understood as being only one culture among others, would be something like cultural Marcionism.

In the religious domain as in the cultural domain, Europe had the same relation to what preceded it: it did not tear itself from the past, nor did it reject it.  Europe did not pretend, as to profane culture, to have absorbed in itself everything that Hellenism contained or, in religion, everything that the Old Testament contained –  in such a way that one could throw away the empty shell.  At the most, what Christianity claims to possess (the term is not even right) is the key permitting the interpretation of that to which the Old Covenant tended.  It claims that the recapitulation of past history is given in the event of the Christ, the plenitude of the divinity (Colossians 2:9).  But the exploration of the riches that are contained there, and their refractions in the sainthood of the Church, is an infinite task, which requires nothing less than all of history to come. (111)

This passage gives you a good idea of Brague’s concept of secondarity.  He contrasts it with Byzantine and Islamic approaches to Greek culture.  The Byzantines believed that Greek culture was theirs and Muslims often translated and then discarded the original texts (thus, his reference to “throw[ing] away the empty shell” in the above passage).  Neither of these cultures, Brague believes, could have the dynamism of European culture, which constantly found renewal through the method of looking to a past that it saw as outside itself.  This allowed for many European renaissances, renewed interests in the past (if you’re familiar with the early modern Italian Renaissance, Brague’s paradigm fits with the humanists’ attitude of reawakening ancient values in an barbaric age).  Brague also notes the importance of the classical educational tradition, in that educated people needed to learn Greek and Latin to encounter the classics.  Thus, European culture avoided resting on its laurels.  This is where the term “eccentric culture” comes in: European culture has an “eccentric identity,” finding its center outside itself.  Thus, European culture does not have a defined “content” that can be listed; rather “the content of Europe” is an attitude: “to be a container, open to the universal.” (146)  Thus he even disputes the term “Eurocentric,” saying that Europe is not centered on itself, but outside itself.

In the last chapter, Brague asks if Europe still displays this “Romanity.”  He believes that modern European culture runs the risk of “cultural Marcionism,” a cutting off and denial of the outside.  Writing in the early 1990s, Brague believed that Europe was retreating into itself, content to say that European culture was only for Europeans rather than relevant for the world and rather than inviting non-Europeans to adopt the European attitude that finds the center outside one’s own culture.

This last chapter was a bit frustrating because it was hard to tell if his critique was of the confident modernity of the Enlightenment (which certainly had a dismissive attitude toward the past and toward the persistence of religion and tradition) or of the less-confident modernity (or post-modernity) of the 20th century.  Of course, there is a temporal overlap between the two.  To me, Europe after the Enlightenment showed many of the characteristics that he worries about: dismissal of the past, arrogant domination of the creation (what he calls “technical Marcionism”), and, yes, a Eurocentric imperialism that saw European culture as “civilization” and other cultures as “savage” that either needed to be civilized (the liberal imperial mission) or struggled against and conquered (Social Darwinist imperial theory).  But because Brague doesn’t identify much about this “cultural Marcionism” it’s hard to see where his critique is going.

Brague’s thesis is definitely thought-provoking.  He compellingly ties together the secondarities of the Roman-to-Greek, Christian-to-Jewish, and European-to-classical-culture relationships in a way that works at least up until the modern age.

A question for my readers: what do you think of Brague’s theology in the second paragraph of the long quote above?  Is it good?

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