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Admi­ration of Roman and Greek civ­i­liza­tions in Gio­vanni Paolo Panini’s painting. | Courtesy Wikipedia

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.