Book review: “Eccentric Culture,” by Rémi Brague

Eccentric Culture is a brief book (less than 200 pages), but dense and challenging.  It also has a fairly simple thesis: European culture is essentially Roman.  Rather than a combination of Jewish and Greek culture alone, with the Romans merely passing these elements on (I posted about Brague’s critique of that attitude here), European culture displays the Roman attitude of “secondarity.”  Secondarity is the Roman recognition that the best culture came from outside themselves, from the Greeks.  Thus, the Romans knew that there was an ideal to strive for (Greek culture) and a danger into which they could fall (barbarism).  In a similar way, he believes, Christians recognized their secondarity to the Jews.

He doesn’t give a lot of examples of the Roman appropriation of Greek culture, probably because it’s well-established that the Romans saw the Greeks as having a superior literary culture.  I wish that he had included more to establish his particular interpretation of it, but I imagine that if I were better versed in classical studies I wouldn’t need the examples.  He goes into more depth on what he calls “religious Romanity,” the parallel between Romans’ and Christians’ relations to the Greeks and Jews.  Here is one passage that explains the Romanity of Christianity, which touches on many of the important themes of the book:

In this way, it was religious secondarity that prevented all culture inherited from Christianity, as is the case with Europe, from considering itself as its own source.  The refusal of Marcionism is thus, perhaps, the founding event of the history of Europe as a civilization, in that it furnished the matrix of the European relationship to the past and anchored it at the highest possible level.  It may be then Saint Irenaeus, from his polemics against Marcionism [named for the heretic Marcion who sought to eliminate the Old Testament and edit the New in the second century] and his affirmation of the identity of the God of the Old Testament with that of the New, is not only one of the Fathers of the Church, but also one of the Fathers of Europe.  Conversely, the withdrawal of Europe into its own culture, understood as being only one culture among others, would be something like cultural Marcionism.

In the religious domain as in the cultural domain, Europe had the same relation to what preceded it: it did not tear itself from the past, nor did it reject it.  Europe did not pretend, as to profane culture, to have absorbed in itself everything that Hellenism contained or, in religion, everything that the Old Testament contained —  in such a way that one could throw away the empty shell.  At the most, what Christianity claims to possess (the term is not even right) is the key permitting the interpretation of that to which the Old Covenant tended.  It claims that the recapitulation of past history is given in the event of the Christ, the plenitude of the divinity (Colossians 2:9).  But the exploration of the riches that are contained there, and their refractions in the sainthood of the Church, is an infinite task, which requires nothing less than all of history to come. (111)

This passage gives you a good idea of Brague’s concept of secondarity.  He contrasts it with Byzantine and Islamic approaches to Greek culture.  The Byzantines believed that Greek culture was theirs and Muslims often translated and then discarded the original texts (thus, his reference to “throw[ing] away the empty shell” in the above passage).  Neither of these cultures, Brague believes, could have the dynamism of European culture, which constantly found renewal through the method of looking to a past that it saw as outside itself.  This allowed for many European renaissances, renewed interests in the past (if you’re familiar with the early modern Italian Renaissance, Brague’s paradigm fits with the humanists’ attitude of reawakening ancient values in an barbaric age).  Brague also notes the importance of the classical educational tradition, in that educated people needed to learn Greek and Latin to encounter the classics.  Thus, European culture avoided resting on its laurels.  This is where the term “eccentric culture” comes in: European culture has an “eccentric identity,” finding its center outside itself.  Thus, European culture does not have a defined “content” that can be listed; rather “the content of Europe” is an attitude: “to be a container, open to the universal.” (146)  Thus he even disputes the term “Eurocentric,” saying that Europe is not centered on itself, but outside itself.

In the last chapter, Brague asks if Europe still displays this “Romanity.”  He believes that modern European culture runs the risk of “cultural Marcionism,” a cutting off and denial of the outside.  Writing in the early 1990s, Brague believed that Europe was retreating into itself, content to say that European culture was only for Europeans rather than relevant for the world and rather than inviting non-Europeans to adopt the European attitude that finds the center outside one’s own culture.

This last chapter was a bit frustrating because it was hard to tell if his critique was of the confident modernity of the Enlightenment (which certainly had a dismissive attitude toward the past and toward the persistence of religion and tradition) or of the less-confident modernity (or post-modernity) of the 20th century.  Of course, there is a temporal overlap between the two.  To me, Europe after the Enlightenment showed many of the characteristics that he worries about: dismissal of the past, arrogant domination of the creation (what he calls “technical Marcionism”), and, yes, a Eurocentric imperialism that saw European culture as “civilization” and other cultures as “savage” that either needed to be civilized (the liberal imperial mission) or struggled against and conquered (Social Darwinist imperial theory).  But because Brague doesn’t identify much about this “cultural Marcionism” it’s hard to see where his critique is going.

Brague’s thesis is definitely thought-provoking.  He compellingly ties together the secondarities of the Roman-to-Greek, Christian-to-Jewish, and European-to-classical-culture relationships in a way that works at least up until the modern age.

A question for my readers: what do you think of Brague’s theology in the second paragraph of the long quote above?  Is it good?



  1. It sounds like a very interesting book. The thesis of the 2nd paragraph has arguably been under way since the time of the apostles with John appropriating the idea of the Logos in a unique mashup of Greek and Jewish and Christian thought and Paul’s discourse on Mar’s hill. Certainly, it was something the early Christian communities strove for as the attempted to explain Christianity to the outside world and to put it on a solid philosophical/intellectual footing. Origen and Thomas Aquinas were some of the most well-known and blatant theological mashup artists, but almost everyone who has ever tried to engage the culture at large has done this to some extent. Where people disagree is in the details and in how much of the wider culture can be successfully appropriated without losing the Christian distinction. Some groups (esp. folks like Messianic Jews) say that this is incorrect, but even today’s orthodox Jews believe in a resurrection. While it may be hinted at in the earlier Scriptures, it was certainly a theological idea that developed over time in the Jewish community, and it seems to me was most vividly described by post-exhilic (sp?) communities.

    • It was really an interesting book. I think that you’re right that there is always a way that the gospel expresses itself in the culture that it encounters. A post that I read recently quoted mission historican Andrew Walls about this:

      I hadn’t thought about the Messianic Jews in that way before, partially because I don’t know much about the movement. Interesting that they would feel that contextualization is inherently compromise.

      • Contextualization often changes things (e.g., worship on the Lord’s Day instead of the Sabbath). Some Messianic Jews are more incorporated into the wider interpretive milleu than others, so probably I should have inserted the caveat that this is more predominant among those I know personally. I doubt the average Messianic Jew sets up a home-made pvc and cloth tent in their yard for the feast of booths.

  2. What is the “Europe” that did not “absorb everything” that the Old Testament contained? Rome? And what on earth does absorb everything contained in the OT mean? Sacrifice? Law? Covenant? It is unclear to me what he means.

    • I think that what he means is that Christians didn’t simply appropriate the OT and say “this is ours” without any regard for the original intent. I think that it goes along with the idea that Christians are grafted into Israel, something that existed before them, and that

      He made an interesting contrast with the way that Muslims view the Bible. They believe that the Qur’an supersedes the corrupted Bible, whereas Christians accept the OT as revelation that finds its fullest meaning in Christ. Brague writes that Muslim translators of ancient texts often translated them into Arabic and then scraped the ink from the original parchments in order to use them again. Once it was in Arabic, no need for the original; it was “absorbed” or “digested.”

      I’m not 100% sure that this is a fair description of the Muslim approach to the ancient texts, but I think that accurately describes Brague’s argument.

  3. Brague paints with such a broad brush across such a vast time period that it is hard to judge since there are certainly exceptions and matters of degree, but I tend to agree with his theological point that Christianity interprets the OT and does not discard it, at least Jesus seemed to think so. I can see that particularly in contrast to Islam and the Quran as a singular, overriding, word for word message from Allah.

    Brague’s more specific theological points are a little weird (I’d say Christ was a “fulfillment” rather than a “recapitulation”) or flowery and thus vague (“refractions in the sainthood of the church”).

    But overall, I think Brague is talking about humility on a grand scale — the realization that other peoples, perhaps even past civilizations, might be right about something that we are wrong about.

    As an aside, I recently saw Agora which provides a rendering of the story of Hypatia, Cyril, and Orestes, deeply colored by the theme of atheistic science vs. religious fundamentalism.

    Agora’s creators would not doubt disagree that Christianity is humble, but their rendering appears to be less than accurate (reviews by Tim O’Neill). Still, it was an entertaining, if disturbingly uncomfortable movie.

    I am not well versed on the topic, but O’Neill mentions that classical works and knowledge returned to Europe through the Arabs after the Dark Ages, so perhaps there was some preservation of the past rather than just discarding the shell? Or perhaps the Arabs just served as a prompt.

    It also occurs to me that since European languages are more similar to Greek and Latin, it may be more understandable that those languages remained part of classical European education but not Arab education.

    • It’s definitely painted with a broad brush. It appears to be a reflection based on many years of study, and it also assumes that the reader has a higher level of familiarity than I do with philosophy and classical texts.

      I think that fulfillment and recapitulation are similar ideas. I don’t know if you had the book from the intro to the Church Fathers class that Scott L. and I taught, but the chapter on Irenaeus had a good explanation of this theology. One of the key texts in this, if I’m not mistaken, is Ephesians 1:10.

      I gathered the same science-vs.religion vibe from what I read about Agora. I hope to see it on Netflix sometime. I will have to check out the links that you provided when I do.

      My understanding of the Arab texts that medieval people read was that they were in Arabic, often exchanged in the multi-religious society of Muslim Spain. So Aristotle, for example, was translated from Arabic to Latin, which was the text that medieval thinkers were working from. Thus, the Renaissance thinkers were insistent that the classical documents be read in their original language.

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