the imaginative conservative logo

essence of romeLeo Strauss liked to call to our attention the creative tension between Athens and Jerusalem. With Remi Brague, I would like to refocus our attention onto the apparent mediation of this creative tension that was accomplished by Rome.

Now, I say that this accomplishment occurred by the apparent mediation of Rome, only to nod to common opinion: namely, the undeniably historical view that Rome has somehow mediated and “linked up” Athens and Jerusalem for us in Western culture.[1] But Brague asks us to consider something additional. For me, it is the pertinent causal question: Why are there two sources for Western culture?

Why did Rome not feel the need to annihilate, or assimilate, one or the other—or both?[2] Brague’s answer is striking. He says that Europe’s Romanity, what drives its enduring capacity for rebirth, is the Christian religion. As Christopher Dawson knew, religion is the key to history. The Christian religion is the key to understanding European history. Christianity does not annihilate or assimilate the Old Covenant; it stands in a unique religious relation of secondarity or derivativeness. Europe’s essence, its secondarity or derivativeness, mirrors this relation between Christianity and the Old Covenant.[3]

Christianity stands in a relation of religious secondarity to Jerusalem. The Roman Empire stood in a unique relation of cultural secondarity to Greece, which it took as a cultural model because it acknowledged Greece as superior in arts and letters. So when religion met culture in the way Christianity came to Rome, this religious model of secondarity could now turbocharge the Roman cultural model such that the dynamic European way, of being willing to come second in relation to a previous culture, could be unleashed—a dynamism unparalleled in history.

But the objections to this theory of history come easily. It sounds too much like simply cheering the home team, does it not? In a word, this is precisely the academic aversion to Dawson and his emphasis on the Christian religion as the key to understanding the dynamics of history: viz., the aversion to ‘Eurocentrism.’

But: “‘Eurocentrism’ is a misnomer. Worse: it is the contrary of truth”; as Brague says, “no culture was ever so little centered on itself and so interested in the other ones as Europe.”[4]

800px-Roman_Colosseum_With_MoonIn the name of multiculturalism, the key question is suppressed. What accounts for the unique dynamism of “Rome,” that is, for Europe’s willingness “to come in second” to two other cities (Athens and Jerusalem)? Notice how quickly the rejections come—what about imperialism? colonialism? everything else nasty?—in order to show that this Europe, and its apparent Romanity, has aggressively placed itself first, as second to none.

But Brague makes clear what the Roman model is. It is not an ideal of culture, with some ideal content. Brague is naming rather the form of culture. The Roman model is the model that takes an external, foreign source as the ideal (Athens or Jerusalem) to which it aspires, as the classicism above Rome to be imitated. Of course, there is always also a barbarian below to be subdued.[5] But the fruitful tension in the Roman model comes from this unique paradox: that the barbarian is also always within, and the Roman is always barbarous in relation to the Greek model, but yet still the transmitter of Greek culture to the barbarous.

The Romans are not innovators, but their greatness is to be “the bearers of innovation”; and so “Romanity” is the precise name for this unique historical structure marking Europe: “the structure of the transmission of a content not properly its own”.[6] Romanity is the aqueduct; it brings water from elsewhere: Jerusalem, Athens.

Thus Brague has given us the best response to the multiculturalist’s objection to Romanity. All cultures are not equal in the sense that not all have the same powers of dynamic transmission. And by dynamic transmission, I mean that fruitful tension between other models’ content that the Roman model’s form makes possible.

Please note that this is not an argument for approbation or disapprobation of the Roman model. The name “Rome” should be enough to conjure up much that is brutal and cruel in history; you can readily supply your own cinematic examples: gladiatorial combats; ruthless imperial expansion; and so on. My point is rather that, whatever you want to make faces at, in this or that moment of Roman history, the uniqueness of the Roman model should be recognized for what it is, and its essential differences must be the object of study for any serious historian.

To shrink from this task betrays a “provincial pluralism” that is unable to think about what historical forces first made this purportedly “open-minded” multiculturalism possible in the first place. What wave of history carries the secularist critics along? And is it something that has hardened into an ideology? Something that has lost its original dynamism, a serious mode of secondarity that was once truly open to a different culture? Those who would answer, “Yes,” may call what has been lost, “Romanity.”

While Dawson’s manner of writing may grate on those who do not share his faith, his writing of history is never driven by an ideology.[7] It grates because there is today a reflex prejudice against anything that sounds like a “Catholic view of history”, whether the “C” is upper case or not. Universal history is out of fashion.

51WN6TF6YTLDermott Quinn cites Norman Davies as typifying this; for Davies, the “Catholic thesis” is automatically equivalent to a slander against others (whereas, for me, it is simply a way of being descriptively clear about a mode of universalism that is historically unique in Christian culture).[8] I refer you to Quinn on this, in his introduction to the ISI Dawson collection, Dynamics of World History; but let me also supply a particularly exquisite specimen of what is behind the reflex condemnation of the catholic vantage, a “savory morsel”,[9] from sometime Regius Professor of Modern History, Hugh Trevor-Roper, who wrote in his review of Dawson’s Religion and the Rise of Western Culture:

Nobody can like the Church in those days. It was intolerant and obscurantist, and did not improve with time. St. Augustine read the classics—like Marx, the Founding Father was himself a humanist: the old bigot could weep over Dido, and puritanism struggled in his soul with light. His contemporary St. Jerome with difficulty overcame his taste for Cicero. But he overcame it in the end, and once the insidious spirit of humanity had been beaten down, no quarter was shown: it was crushed. St. Augustine organised the rabble in Africa, reducing doctrine to rhythmical slogans wherewith to drown the voice of opposition. St. Cyril organised a blackshirt claque to applaud his oratory in Alexandria. St. Gregory, the Stalin of the early Church, banned all profane learning as offensive and abominable. Truly they were no saints, those terrible old ideologues, past whose history Mr. Dawson so discreetly slides; and what was the solemn liturgy which he so extols but a narcotic formulary?[10]

This is the very kind of secularist prejudice that also lurks behind the attitudes of men like Davies.

Therefore, it is unjust to dismiss Dawson’s genius, as if a kind of cheering for the wrong team were all that he represented. To my mind, Brague’s thesis shows why the dismissal is unjust. That is, Dawson’s historical analysis does not hinge on a shared faith with his readers. A shared ideological narcolepsy is not a prerequisite for appreciating his historical approach. The appreciation hinges, rather, on simply recognizing the uniqueness of the encounter of religion and culture—Christianity at home within Romanity—that historically made Europe into what it became, for good or ill.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Notes:

[1] Remi Brague, “Is European Culture ‘a Tale of Two Cities’?”, in Historical, Cultural, Socio-political, and Economic Perspectives on Europe. Ed. Suzanne Stern-Gillet and M. Teresa Lunati (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2000), 33–50, at 48.

[2] Remi Brague, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (St. Augustine’s Press, 2002), 165.

[3] Brague, “Tale of Two Cities”, 44.

[4] Brague, Eccentric Culture, 133–4.

[5] Ibid., 39.

[6] Ibid., 32.

[7] Cf. Hayden White, “Religion, Culture, and Western Civilization in Christopher Dawson’s Idea of History”, English Miscellany 9 (1958): 247-87, esp. 285-6 n.67 with its allegation that reason is subservient to faith in Dawson. White exalts scientism: i.e., he simply assumes that the relation between faith and reason is a zero-sum game.

[8] Dynamics of World History, vii-xii, xxvi-xxix.

[9] James O’Donnell, “The Holiness of Gregory”.

[10] New Statesman (March 11, 1950), 276-77; reprinted in his Historical Essays (London, 1957), 15 [Note: American editions appear under the title Men and Events: Historical Essays]; and quoted here.

Print Friendly

Published: Sep 29, 2015
Author
Christopher Morrissey
Christopher S. Morrissey teaches Greek and Latin on the Faculty of Philosophy at the Seminary of Christ the King located at the Benedictine monastery of Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia. He also lectures in logic and philosophy at Trinity Western University. He is a Fellow of the Adler-Aquinas Institute and a Member of the Inklings Institute of Canada. He studied Ancient Greek and Latin at the University of British Columbia and has taught classical mythology, history, and ancient languages at Simon Fraser University, where he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on René Girard. His book of Hesiod’s poetry, Hesiod: Theogony / Works and Days, is published by Talonbooks.
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: