Few have the theological depth, philosophical cast of mind and linguistic range as Rémi Brague. Now a professor emeritus of philosophy at both the Sorbonne, and the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Brague continues to dig at the roots of European culture, exploring the role played by the Ancient Greeks and Romans, Judaism, Christianity, and later, Islam. He kindly gave the spiked review an opportunity to ask him about his vision of Europe, why the Romans’ attitude to the Greeks was so significant, and the importance of tradition to Europe’s future.
spiked review: Is it possible to define Europe as a distinct cultural entity?
Rémi Brague: There is no other way to define it, if we take the verb ‘to define’ in its literal, etymological meaning, that is, tracing the boundaries – in Latin, fines. Europe, unlike America and, for that matter, Africa, has no natural boundaries that separate it from Asia. Europe defines itself as a cultural entity and has been doing that since the beginning, when Charles the Great (or Charlemagne), in the early 9th century, was hailed as Pater Europae (Father of Europe). ‘Europe’ meant previously either the direction of the setting sun, or a merely geographical entity, meaning whatever is on the western shore of the Bosphorus. But with the political and cultural project of Charles the Great, and of the Ottonians (a 10th-century Saxon dynasty), Europe became an entity of its own that had a definite content: politically, a Roman Empire in the west that Charles the Great and the Ottonians hoped would be a match against the empire in Constantinople; culturally, the first ‘Renaissance’, with people like Alcuin of York.
Elements of Europe also spread all over the world: European people themselves moved throughout America and Oceania, and technology and new social habits and mores spread everywhere. This brought about mighty upheavals in the wake of colonialism, and neither the colonised societies nor the former colonial powers are yet out of the woods.
review: One of your most important insights into the meaning of Europe is the centrality of ‘la voie Romaine’, and your idea of ‘secondarité’. Could you explain how Rome’s sense of its inferiority to Hellenic culture has proved so productive for the development of Europe?
Brague: I am not especially keen on the Romans of history. They built a ruthless empire, albeit one no worse than any other empire, and even better than some. But they did have the great merit of inventing law and a citizenship grounded not on race, language, family ties or whatnot, but on merely juridical principles. For me, however, their greatest merit consists in having realised they were no match for the cultural achievements of the Greeks, and then having the courage to sit at the Ancient Greeks’ feet and learn. This provided Europe with a practical version of a theoretical truth: what is mine is not necessarily better than what comes from elsewhere. We have to be ready to accept foreign goods and to prefer them to our own traditions. Hence, we should be curious and keep an eye on other cultures that might have something to teach us. This same attitude was to be found and proved fruitful many centuries afterwards, when America was discovered, and when ancient languages of India, Egypt, Mesopotamia and so on, were unearthed and deciphered. All this happened earlier than the colonial adventure, and it happened independently from it.
The main sources of European culture – the Bible, Greek philosophy and Roman law – all have a claim to universality
review: You also write of the role of secondarité with regards to Christianity, and the relationship between the New and Old Testaments, the rootedness of Christianity in the Jewish covenant and scriptures. How has that contributed to Europe’s sense of itself?
Brague: Such a consciousness could anchor this Roman-to-Greek cultural feeling of coming-after-better-people to the highest principle there is – ie, our relationship to God’s transcendence. The New Testament is hardly understandable without the Old Testament, which we had better call the first one. In its whole, the New Testament is a reading of the First Covenant in the light of a new fact. To use the Hebrew word of art, it is a pesher. The new, unexpected event that sheds light on the whole of what came before is the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. The upshot of this re-reading was that the writings of the First Testament became part of the Christian Bible.
review: Does Islam lack a sense of secondarité?
Brague: As a religion, Islam has a vivid consciousness of the dependence of mankind on an almighty God. But even at this most fundamental level, there is a reluctance to admit that it arose after earlier revelations, let alone that it might be indebted to them. Muhammad is supposed to have reminded mankind of the pre-eternal universal submission of mankind to God (Koran, VII, 172). His message was the same as the one descended unto Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. All those prophets are supposed to have been Muslims and to have received books or at least ‘sheets’. The main difference is that, unlike what Islam claims to have happened to the Torah and to the Injil (‘Gospel’), the Koran was not tampered with by its bearers.