Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization
by Rémi Brague
Translated by Samuel Lester
St. Augustine’s. 205 pp. $28.

In the opening months of World War II, Winston Churchill delegated, among others, the future Tory Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to try to cajole the United States into joining the war. Macmillan must have felt diffident about his task, for he confided to a friend that an American-assisted Allied victory would also inevitably mean the dissolution of the British Empire and the dawn of American hegemony. But he consoled himself in these glum thoughts with Horace’s famous line, “Conquered Greece conquered her rude conqueror by insinuating her arts into rustic Latium.” Perhaps British influence would live on inside a future American dominance, Macmillan thought, through English culture, if not Anglo-Saxon arms.

In Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization , his richly insightful essay on Western Europe’s essentially Roman identity, Rémi Brague cites this line from Horace but not Macmillan’s application of it to the United States. In fact, the American experiment hardly comes into the argument at all; but the book (which was published in France in 1992) could not be more apt in this time of unexpected tensions between Europe (or at least “old” Europe) and America. For whatever else shapes European self-identity, ambivalence toward the Roman legacy must certainly rank high. For Brague, the Roman Empire conjures up in most people’s minds little more than a clumsy, brutal, bastardized transposition of Greek splendor, the slave-based, blood-drenched prologue to what would later become the glories of medieval and modern civilizations. From Sophocles and Socrates to Nero and the gladiators makes for quite a declension. “The Roman, from this point of view, can only appear to have succeeded at this paradox, of being both decadent and primitive at the same time.”

For reasons that can easily be explained, that ambivalence has now been projected onto American culture and geopolitics, and comparisons of U.S. foreign policy with ancient Rome’s hegemony are now commonplace. As are visions of Roman (and American) thuggery: “The Romans of history pass for thick-haired, thick-headed rustics, for a people of soldiers, not to say downright bullies. Even if one concedes that they had a certain political genius, they are reproached for the centralizing imperialism that was its fruit.”

For Brague, this attitude cloaks a secret self-hatred. For him “Romanity” (the author’s own coinage) is the central fact of the European West. In saying this, he is not giving priority to the Roman element over the Hebrew or Hellenic, still less is he saying that Rome is merely the awkward hybrid of two irreconcilable cultures. Rather, as he puts it, “I do not want to privilege here the Roman element, nor do I want to suggest that it be constituted as the synthesis of the two others. I claim, more radically, that we are not and cannot be ‘Greeks’ and ‘Jews’ unless we are first of all Romans .”

Traditionally, cultural historians trace the roots of Western Europe to two cities, Athens and Jerusalem. But much more rarely noticed is the fact that neither Athens nor Jerusalem lies within what for most centuries were considered the cultural and historical boundaries of Europe. Athens, of course, as the capital of Greece, lies within the geographical boundaries of Europe, but ever since the division of the Empire by Constantine, the culture of the East grew apart from the West, and then, under the “Turkocracy” of the Ottomans, Greece was cut off from the Western orbit altogether. In other words, the West identifies with Athens and Jerusalem”the Hellenic and Hebrew strains of its culture”only through the mediating genius of Rome. The West knew Athens and Jerusalem only as ideas , not as cities belonging to its polity. Only Rome, the overweening, overwhelming political capital of the Empire, taught Europe to look elsewhere for its two cultural capitals.

This means that the essence of European civilization is what Brague calls, in another of his coinages, “secondarity.” By this neologism the author is referring not just to Rome’s lateness in relation to the antiquity of Athens and Jerusalem but to the way Rome absorbed and then transformed Hebrew and Hellenic elements precisely by serving as the “mere” conduit for their transmission:

All that the most severe judges are willing to concede to Romanity is that Rome spread the riches of Hellenism and transmitted them down to us. But this is precisely the important fact”everything changes if one stops examining the content of the Roman experience only, and instead turns to the transmission itself. This one little thing that is conceded to be properly Roman is perhaps the whole of Rome . . . . The Romans have done little more than transmit, but that is far from nothing. They have brought nothing new in relation to those two creator peoples, the Greeks and the Hebrews. But they were the bearers of that innovation. They brought innovation itself. What was ancient for them, they brought as something new.

Again, parallels between “old” Europe and “new” America readily suggest themselves. Not for nothing did the Founding Fathers choose as the motto of the new-born United States novus ordo seclorum , inscribed on every dollar bill. But there is a difference: for the Greeks it was a matter of pride not to have owed anything to anyone (despite their clear debts to Babylon and Egypt), while the Romans readily admitted their debt to a prior and more magnificent Greece, as the line from Horace”who quite frankly admits Rome’s uncouth, even “barbarous” ways”attests. But Europe cannot be that insouciant about its past debts in the manner of the Greeks, so it responds to the upstart Americans, as Macmillan did, by making the Americans play the part of Rome while it wraps itself in the mantle of Sophocles and Socrates.

One of the standard prejudices of philosophers plying their trade in the West is the notion that Latin is more impoverished than Greek for expressing the nuances of metaphysical speculation (Heidegger felt the same about the virtues of German over French or English). Whether true or not, Latin certainly served as a linguistic bonding agent in the European West in a way not paralleled by any other language in the world. As Brague argues, Latin “suffers” from a triple secondarity: 1) it was no one’s mother tongue after the collapse of Rome; 2) it was never a deliberately coined Christian language, but the language of the Roman Empire, a political rather than a religious entity and one that antedated Christianity by centuries and was mostly hostile to it; 3) it was the language of the officially recognized Bible in the West (the Vulgate), but the Scriptures themselves were originally written in Hebrew and Greek. The Vulgate, therefore, perfectly expresses the essentially Roman (that is, secondary) feature of Christianity, whose originating “Greeks” are the Jews: “Christianity is to the Old Covenant what the Romans were to the Greeks.”

For that reason, Europe’s two great threatening “Others” were the Byzantines and the Arabs. Unlike Byzantium, Europe did not perdure through so many centuries accompanied by a language that had been with that civilization from the beginning”that is, since before Homer. For the Byzantines, Greek was the sum and substance of their entire literature, giving them a feeling of cultural superiority. But like the ancient Egypt of the Pharaohs, this feeling of superiority left Byzantium feeling lethargic, effete, and in-grown.

Nor, in contrast to the Arabs, could Rome compensate for its initial dependence on exterior sources in the same confident, even boisterous way Islamic civilization did. Islam’s theology of revelation requires it to consider Arabic to be God’s own language. Thus when pagan works were translated into Arabic, the Arab world naturally felt that it was thereby ennobling and enlarging the knowledge it inherited: pagan knowledge had been canonized, so to speak, by God , for these translated works had now finally attained “the language chosen by God for His definitive and unadulterated message.” When Europe faced these two civilizations, an inferiority complex was bound to set in.

Europe has thus been prone to two temptations. First, it tends to despise the Roman element in its identity by identifying one country within its orbit as quintessentially Roman and despising it accordingly (as France now does to the United States, but which the German Romantics had done in the nineteenth century to Napoleonic France). Second, even as early as the Enlightenment (when European self-confidence was at its highest) but especially with the Romantics, Europe has idealized other cultures innocent of Roman innovation and mediation. These other cultures then absorb that idealization and hate their contemporary reality for not living up to this putative ideal, a gap in perception that they then naturally blame on the West, as Muslim terrorists do in the extreme and Russian Orthodox clerics do less obviously. The end result in either case, however, is lethal:

For example, Occidental scholars who sing the praises of Islamic civilization at its apogee, of its scientific advances, of what one calls its “tolerance,” or alternatively, [scholars who] praise the intellectual and artistic refinement of Medieval Byzantium, are no doubt animated by the very laudable feeling of an injustice to be set aright. It may be, however, that the result is contrary to the end desired, and that they encourage, on the part of those who consider themselves the heirs of these civilizations, nostalgic dreams that at bottom are . . . debilitating.

And debilitating not just for these “other” (by now thoroughly West-infected) civilizations but for the European West too, including the United States. Multiculturalism is now all the rage; but as it is almost entirely lacking in any coherent theory, the term is hardly more than a rallying cry, and an incoherent one at that. For just as Europe’s guilt in relation to other cultures lends an unpleasant aggressiveness toward the West in those same non-European lands (even India is now being swept up in Hindu chauvinism), so too that same guilt makes it impossible for Europe to feel confident about what it can teach those other cultures. Worst of all, the very values that constitute its essence are the values it feels too ashamed to export:

What would be serious would be if Europe considered the universal it carries (the “Greek” of which we are “Romans”) as a local particularity valid only for Europe, one which has no extension to other cultures. Now, one sometimes hears it said, for example, that liberty, the rule of law, the right to bodily integrity, would not be good for certain peoples whose tradition, supposed to merit an infinite respect, is for despotism, for official lying, or mutilation”as if liberty and truth were local idiosyncrasies, to be considered on the same level as the wearing of a kilt or the eating of snails.

No civilization in the world is as layered as the European, and therefore none so prone to self-doubt and guilt as Europe has proven to be. Given its many attempts at self-annihilation in the last century through its home-grown ideologies of fascism and communism, European guilt has a point. But because that guilt is also rooted in a crisis of confidence about its true worth, Europe has lost its sense of mission and cannot witness even to its best values. No wonder anti-Americanism is so rife, for the United States is the only remaining European nation (in the cultural if not geographical sense) that still thinks well enough of its values to believe that the rest of the world would benefit from adopting them.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. , is Chester & Margaret Paluch Professor of Theology at University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Articles by Edward T. Oakes