June 25, 2016


THE ROMAN WAY : Rémi Brague explains why the Romans' inferiority before the Greeks was so important to European culture. (MAY 2016, spiked review of books)

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. [...]

review: You have written about the expansion of Europe outwards, from a heartland to a realm of influence, of the remarkable success of what one could call European achievements in law and science, and, although non-European in origin, the development of Christianity as a global religion. Is there something universal about European culture?

Brague: Any foreign cultural product has a tendency to spread if it is considered to be better than its home-bred equivalents. This is almost a law of economy. The great inventions of the Middle Ages made European expansion possible. They came from remote China, like the magnet, gunpowder, the water-mill, etc. But they found in Europe a soil on which they could thrive and find new applications. For instance, whereas the Chinese used powder for fireworks, the Europeans used it for warfare and made guns.

Undoubtedly, there is, or was, something like a European dynamics, in contradistinction to more static cultures. The main sources of European culture - the Bible, Greek philosophy and Roman law - all have a claim to universality. [...]

review: Do you think the European Union builds on the cultural heritage of Europe?

Brague: First, let me belabour the obvious: The European Union is not the same thing as Europe. There is a symbol of sorts for this lack of coincidence: Switzerland. This small country is a small-scale image of Europe. Located in the very heart of Western Europe, it has three official languages and the bulk of its citizens belong to the two main denominations of Western Christendom. Yet, this emphatically European country doesn't belong to the European Union and hardly wants to join.

At the beginning, the original intention of the European construction was moral in nature: right after the Second World War, the founding fathers wanted to make a further conflict impossible. Putting coal and steel into a common pool would nip in the bud any economic cause of conflict. They didn't want thereby to maximise profit, but to ensure peace. As a matter of fact, peace did happen, but not thanks to the EU. It's the other way around: the EU was made possible by peace. And this peace was the result of the Marshall Plan and of the military superiority of the US over the Soviet Union.

In order better to describe the relationship that obtains between the EU and the cultural heritage of Europe, I'm afraid that the right phrase would not be 'building on', but rather 'preying on'. This implies that we, in the long run, destroy what we use, as parasites do. This destruction has recently taken a particularly acute form. I am struck by the rage with which some higher civil servants, in my country [France], act as if they wanted to weigh anchors from our past by doing away with the study of classical languages, by trying to get rid of the Biblical influence, and even by flatly denying that it ever happened.

The problem for Europe is, and always has been, that only the Anglosphere/Scandinavia adheres to that set of ideas. In the Long War we have faced off against the Franco/German preference for Socialism, Napoleonic Law, continental philosophy, nationalism and atheism.  There was never going to be a fit between the two in a single governing institution and there's no reason for the North to decline along with the South.
Posted by at June 25, 2016 7:52 AM