christian cultureHow is it that Arabic translations of Greek writings could flourish for only a few centuries (the ninth to eleventh)? Remi Brague points out how these translations were frequently made by Christians under Arabic rule.[1] Empirical data such as this point to an important principle identified by Brague: namely, that Roman “secondarity” always maintains a creative tension; i.e., it refuses to make a synthesis. The Meccan synthesis, however, can be characterized on an empirical basis as one of assimilation and absorption. Allow me to quote Brague:

“This is what distinguishes Christianity from Islam … Rome from Mecca. Islam was very quickly successful and its founder died a victorious ruler. A small minority of Arab conquerors seized power and dominated a civil society made of non-Muslims. Islam permeated most of the subdued territories slowly and from above, for the most part as a consequence of a desire for social ascension among the ruled. Hence, it could not openly borrow its legal and social system from its subjects without losing its identity and thus its grip on society. As a consequence, it had to absorb many rules that were accepted in the areas it dominated while, at the same time, claiming to deduce them from the Book or from utterances of the Prophet. In so doing, it combined assimilation and the denial of assimilation. The latter covered up any trace of the former: the very process of assimilation brought about its own denial.”[2]

Contrast this with Western Europe, where one does not similarly find this kind of synthesis or mediation, which is analogous to digestion. In our bodies, the food that is digested is assimilated by a process whereby the food loses a former independence. But the Roman way is inclusion, not digestion.[3] In this regard, consider the name of the Church that made Europe: “Roman Catholic.” Note how the universal claim—“Catholic”—has not digested the particular origin: “Roman.”

942401_60536071One might argue that this is no different than the universally applicable Koran being Arabic in particular. But that argument would perhaps substitute multicultural ideology for empirical data; I leave it to the relevant scholars to decide the point. Brague would observe, however, that the Meccan mindset is that translation into Arabic improves texts;[4] once they are so translated, there is no need to preserve the originals.[5] But Rome’s Bible is a Latin translation of Greek and Hebrew. And so Brague gives a perfect example of the causal insights that the principle of “secondarity” can bring to bear upon empirical analysis:

“No Muslim ever learned Greek in order to study the originals of works that he could read in an Arabic translation. There was no equivalent of the Western classical scholar. Generally, Islam assimilates what it receives from outside so totally that it blurs the difference between what it assimilates. As a consequence, it must swallow once and for all whatever it receives. Moreover, it cannot benefit from the powerful incentive of having repeatedly to come back to the source in ever renewed attempts at eliciting new dimensions of interpretation.”[6]

But note that the possibility of creative paradigm shifts in science, for example, requires such an approach to interpretation. In short, Rome’s principle of “secondarity” permits multiple renaissances. Secondarity is the essence of Romanity.

Brague’s argument is that we can observe secondarity’s creative possibilities as empirically visible in European history. Rome alone was the first to unleash this unique causal principle. This very essence of Rome (viz., secondarity), moreover, gives an interesting answer to the philosophical question Leo Strauss left unasked: Why could the two cities Athens and Rome be held in Europe’s fruitful tension?

Further, Brague’s hypothesis even explains how this fruitful tension comes about: i.e., via the cultural practice of inclusion, not assimilation. Rather than annihilation by digestion, the Roman model has learned, on the basis of its historical experience, the option of immigrating to oneself, the continual option of a renaissance by returning to what is outside oneself, e.g., a body of texts in a foreign language.[7]

On the one hand, the principle of cultural stagnation in the Islamic world is an excess of assimilation, like a donkey that has swallowed the carrot on the stick meant to lead him, says Brague.[8] Science declined because the movement stopped, as with the donkey. On the other hand, with Rome, multiple renaissances are possible because a body of texts has been preserved; one may challenge an ancient reading with a new reading.[9]

the-koran-vs.the-bible_0Why is this possible with the Bible but not the Koran? Because the principle of creative interpretation has been internalized within the Bible itself, says Brague. There is an Old Covenant and a New Covenant between the pages of that book. One must return to the old to understand the new. This hermeneutic circle is a unique dynamic principle. Whatever Mecca’s dynamic principle is (and it certainly has one), it is not this.

Whereas Brague has shown how Islam, properly understood, actually vindicates Dawson, Hugh Trevor-Roper, on the other hand, makes Islam into the objection to Dawson, in his review of Dawson in the New Statesman:[10]

“What are we to deduce from this? That Christianity alone is a formative religion, alone can change the world; that other religions are static and conservative, it alone dynamic? This is Mr. Dawson’s conclusion. It seems inconceivable that he should draw it, that so learned a scholar should appear, in this one respect, so parochial. To point the contrast he reminds us of the ‘immobile’ religions of China and India; but what of Islam? In the very centuries in which he dwells upon the barbarians of Europe, the followers of Mahomet were sweeping over three continents, pressing upon Paris, in the West, and in the East, twenty-six years later, storming the city of Canton. Is it then not Christianity only, but religion in general, that moves these mountains, that is, as Mr. Dawson says, “the dynamic element in civilization”? What of the Roman Empire, that colossal achievement of cynical greed and political skill?”

But the Meccan hermeneutic, observes Brague, is more like peeling an orange and throwing away the peel to consume the fruit. To appreciate Rome, he says, we have to appreciate how an entirely different principle—secondarity—is at work. Its historical uniqueness is what makes it worthwhile to also call it by the name, “Romanity.”

Christopher Dawson

Christopher Dawson

Finally, the epochal dynamism of this Roman principle, if we wish to look for it in history, should be visible as a cycle: one of a rebirth and renewal on the basis of a return to the model of religious culture; followed by decline from the model of religious culture. And it is here, precisely on this point, that I see the parallel between Brague’s thesis and Dawson’s analysis of the Christian culture that has been historically manifesting the essence of Europe.

On this basis, then, we might hope to locate where we are at in our own place in history, and ask the crucial historical questions that a Trevor-Roper seems ill-equipped to answer: Are we in fact in decline? And if so, what are the possibilities available for rebirth?

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[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 46.

[2] Ibid., 45.

[3] Remi Brague, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (St. Augustine’s Press, 2002), 106.

[4] Eccentric Culture, 97.

[5] Ibid., 104.

[6] “Tale of Two Cities”, 47.

[7] Eccentric Culture, 122.

[8] Ibid., 127.

[9] Ibid., 106.

[10] New Statesman (March 11, 1950), 276-77.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email