Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization

By Woods, Thomas E., Jr. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization


Woods, Thomas E., Jr., The Catholic Historical Review


Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization. By Rémi Brague. Translated by Samuel Lester. (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine's Press. 2002. Pp. vi, 205. $28.00.)

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 secondarily 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. …

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