Our most profound learning experiences combine the thrill of novelty with the sense of familiarity, of going home. They bring us by a new path back to something we already knew at some level. They deepen and light up the mineshafts of the soul. Now, it is strange to speak of a book on Western Civilization illuminating the soul, but this is exactly what happened to me when I read Rémi Brague’s “Eccentric Culture” eight years ago: the book revealed me to myself, in the sense that it drew together many fragments of my world view into a lovely mosaic.
I expected no such thing, and for a few reasons. First, the title, “Eccentric Culture,” does lead one to expect a life-changing book, so much as perhaps a musty old curiosity shop. In the original French, Brague’s title is Europe, la voie romaine (“Europe, the Roman Way”), and to tell the truth, this marks out the second reason I was not immediately excited about the book: it had to do with Rome. Of course, everyone wants to visit Rome, eat its food, and look languorously on its ruins, but let’s be honest: civilizationally, literarily, philosophically, Rome just doesn’t have the cachet of Greece. Like all good Westerners since the early nineteenth century, I had been educated into a Graecophilic superciliousness toward Rome, but there again, isn’t a certain amount of this just natural? Who can move from Homer to Virgil, from Plato and Aristotle to Cicero, without feeling like he has been sent from the dining room to the kitchen, to eat at the kids’ table?
Little did I realize, I was right where Rémi Brague wanted me. That is, his fundamental argument touts not Rome’s military or political greatness (as in the Aeneid), but rather the paradoxical greatness it achieved through littleness, or what we might call little-brotherness. For Brague, the best thing about Rome was that it knew it was not Greece, knew it was not the source, not the font. It was the little brother, profoundly conscious of lack, always in the shadow of the elder brother’s accomplishments. As such it had to go ad fontes, back to Greece, for its education: this was literally the case for many sons of the Roman aristocracy, who were sent to Athens for training in rhetoric and philosophy, from the time of Cicero up through the early fathers of the Church. In Christian Rome, it was not just Athens but Jerusalem that had to be returned to as a font or source: after all, God incarnate didn’t enter into history in Italy, but Palestine. What from one point of view looks like inferiority, though, is for Brague the secret of Roman civilization, both classical and Christian. “Roman culture is thus essentially a passage: a way, or maybe an aqueduct,” in which the recipient necessarily stands lower than the precious sources on which it relies. Put differently, “the Roman Way” is the way out of itself to the other, where life-giving goods are available. It is “eccentric” in that it is centered outside of itself.
Brague’s teaching was surprisingly fresh, and yet familiar in at least two ways. First, it was familiar as an interpretation of what we in the West call renaissances. The early-modern European return to the sources is of course not the only renaissance, but a paradigm for many such rebirths, in the ninth, twelfth, and fifteenth Centuries, and so on. As Brague now taught me, these returns to the sources were, in their form, Roman: at their best, Europeans, and more broadly, Westerners in general, have always known that they need to turn to sources outside themselves in order to grow: Athens and Jerusalem of course, but also other peoples, places, cultures, each with its own peculiar
gifts and wisdom. Brague’s theory of Western Civilization, then, is a renaissance theory, but a humbler one than we often hear of: the West is not great fundamentally because of all its cities, laws, technological prowess, or gem-encrusted crowns, but because it has been able to recognize the goodness of what others have done. It has been great just insofar as it has been a civilization for the world.
This brings me to the second point of familiarity: Eccentric Culture also felt like coming home inasmuch as it was an expression of the paradoxical logic of the Incarnation. According to St. Paul, God kenotically emptied himself, taking on human form among us. The first became last, and his greatness consisted in his humility, overturning the age-old power dynamics of the pagan world. What Brague’s theory shows is that the Western cultural pattern of renaissance, the Roman Way, only attained its civilization-defining importance because it mysteriously expressed the self-emptying love of God. The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, establishing his center, so to speak, outside himself. In that eccentricity, he is glorified, and just so, the West’s lesser glories have come in the degree to which to we have emerged from ourselves to prize our neighbors, wherever they may be. We have become exceptional by cherishing the exceptionality of others.
If Brague is right, then, the form of Rome is just as important as the content of Athens and Jerusalem. As I found in reading his book, we must lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. We must travel elsewhere in order to come home.