Western civilization has at times been conceived of as the confluence of Athens and Jerusalem, but in Eccentric Culture Rémi Brague points to the essential role of Rome, which performed the indispensable role of drawing together and assimilating these cultural traditions. In fact, what makes the West unique, according to Brague, is its "Romanity," which he defines as "the situation of secondarity in relation to a previous culture" (p. 43).
Just as the West borrowed so much from ancient Greece (which, while within the geographical boundaries of what we now recognize as Europe, from the time of the division of the Roman Empire belonged to and developed within a civilization distinct from that of the West), Brague likewise argues that Christianity, the dominant religion of the West, is itself "Roman" (in his sense) in relation to the Old Testament. The Christian world stands in relation to the Old Testament where Rome stood in relation to Greece: it derives from and is indebted to something prior to and outside of itself. "Our Greeks are the Jews," Brague says (p. 54).
Brague's thesis thus leads him to the provocative claim that the rejection of Marcionism as a heresy—which would have separated the Christian faith from its Old Testament origins and from its ongoing relationship with that tradition—was 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 level" (p. 111).
It is this sense of "secondarity"—Brague's neologism—in relation to other cultures, he contends, that has made possible the Western world's series of renaissances, each of which represented a return to and a re-examination of earlier texts. "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" (p. 111). Hellenism, and reigning interpretations of Hellenic thought, could be continually revisited and reinterpreted by returning to the original texts. [End Page 634]
Brague here draws a legitimate if politically sensitive contrast with Islam, whose posture he describes as one of "absorption," either of secular culture—Islam speaks of an "age of ignorance" prior to the introduction of Islam to a previously non-Islamic culture—or of preceding religious traditions. In the case of Islam, "the truth of Judaism, as well as that of Christianity, is found within itself, and it alone" (p. 112). This posture vis-à-vis both religious and secular knowledge, not to mention the lack of the original sources (since original secular texts were sometimes discarded after being translated into Arabic), inhibited the rise of movements in Islamic culture corresponding to the Western renaissance.
The idea of renaissance was also foreign to Byzantium, perhaps because it did not conceive of itself as being estranged or separated from its cultural origins by race, culture, and time. Thus Theodorus Metochites could write, "We are the compatriots of the ancient Hellenes by race and by language." A twentieth-century historian concluded, "Antiquity was for the Byzantines something so near that it could not establish that feeling of estrangement which would drive creation and so nothing could truly be 'reborn'" (pp. 124-125).
Brague's thesis, as the author himself realizes, directly challenges those who would disparage European civilization from a multicultural point of view. Such criticism, according to Brague, completely misconceives the nature of European civilization: "No culture was ever so little centered on itself and so interested in [others] as Europe" (p. 134).
Eccentric Culture's main difficulty lies in its English translation, which is at times clumsy and inelegant. Brague's...