Brexit has recently called Europe into question for Europeans. The collapse of Soviet communism was an earlier and greater event that posed the same question. Among those who responded was the French scholar, philosopher, and polyglot Rémi Brague. He entered the lists in 1992 with Europe, la voie romain—in English, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization. The collapse of communism had again made the question “What is Europe?” an urgent one for princes, peoples, and scholars alike.

This, however, was not the only subject to which the classical and medieval scholar turned his gaze. Europe’s core as a culture, faith in the biblical God, needed to be philosophically unpacked, as well as that faith’s sacred texts, both Hebrew and Christian. Brague complied with Du Dieu des chrétiens et d’un ou deux autres and the concluding chapters of Le propre de l’homme. Sur une légitimité menacée (translated as On the God of the Christians and the forthcoming On the Legitimacy of the Human).

One has warrant for styling Brague a Catholic Socratic. He embodies the two great sources of European culture about which he writes so learnedly; and as a result he is poised to address the third great component of the European adventure, modernity, with its new view of philosophy and new place for biblical religion.

In Brague’s judgment, the society and human world projected by the modern philosophers has become a reality, and its strengths—technology making life more comfortable and longer, greater justice in social life—have become quite evident; but its defects have as well. Because of the fundamental character of the latter, it is time for a reckoning and a significant course correction. Of course, the topic—“modernity, merits and demerits”—is vast, and Brague’s considerations are accordingly wide-ranging. But two foci loom large.

At the beginning of his consideration of modern Europe, Brague worried about the forgetting and even betrayal of Europe’s very nature as a culture. This he set out to help remedy with his philosophical anamnesis in Europe, la voie romaine. If the European cultural adventure was to continue—and it should, given its singular nature and signal contributions to humanity—something he called “cultural Marcionism” would have to be overcome. Marcion, the second-century heretic who severed the intrinsic relationship between the two testaments of the Bible in order to produce a purportedly pure gospel, had modern-day analogues who worked to rend the fabric of European culture in the name of the wholly emancipated modern individual. Later, Brague would point out the irony that “profane” or “secular” culture was first conceived in Christian thought (by Saint Paul). The relationship between modern and premodern needed to be revisited, including by the modern party. A large portion of Brague’s Moderately Modern is devoted to just such a reconnecting reconsideration. Here is his summary:

The second part [of the work], the longest, examines certain notions, among which are the most decisive of Modernity. . . . I unveil their ambiguity, even their fragility. Even more, I attempt to show that several of these notions harbor in themselves that against which they were mobilized, even forged, and that, rather than being an enemy, they are like the foundation without which they lose their meaning.

More recently, Brague’s focus has been on the well-known demographic crisis haunting European countries. Eric Cohen’s In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology describes the situation well:

One of the defining features of the modern era is that the most modern individuals are not having enough children to sustain their societies from one generation to the next. . . . Those most immersed in the pleasures and possibilities of modern life seem least driven to raise up a generation to follow in their footsteps. Societies defined by the forward march of progress are failing to bring life forward in the most fundamental sense.

Brague acknowledges that modern thought has made considerable contributions to the peaceful and productive coexistence of human beings. But faced with demographic dearths, as well as the challenges to human existence posed by nuclear weapons and ecological catastrophe, such thought has proven much less helpful in addressing the existential questions: Should European societies continue? Should the human adventure continue on the old continent? In short, modern thought is strikingly silent when it comes to the absolutely basic questions. Is it good that humans exist? Is it good to transmit life to those who by definition cannot give their prevenient consent? What reasons can one give for the goodness of existence?

It is at this point that the Catholic Socratic makes a countercultural suggestion: late-modern Europeans need to reach across the modern/premodern divide erected by their philosophical forebears and draw from the past. In that way Europe will again be whole, not simply divided, and the best from each phase of its existence can make its contribution to this unique culture.

Specifically addressing the existential question, Brague recommends that contemporary Europeans reconsider their earlier forebears’ belief and trust in a providential God, who from the beginning looked upon the world and man himself and declared, “they are good, very good in fact.” The Catholic Socratic thus seeks to have the old God brought back to the new city, to the visibly declining city of man.

Foreign languages, foreign wisdom

In 1998, on the occasion of a new edition of Europe, la voie romaine, Brague penned a “postface” that allowed him to state succinctly its thesis and talk about the motives that had prompted the investigation.

I attempted to ask about the essence of Europe, about what it is fundamentally, at its core [en son fond]. But, to do so, I did not propose to draw up an inventory of the content of European culture. . . . [My object] was not the content of European culture . . . but solely the form of that culture. For me, in connection with the transmission of this content, it was a matter of bringing to light the internal dynamism which renders the cultural adventure of Europe possible. This well-spring [ressort], I styled “roman.” On one hand, I observed its past fecundity. But I also wished to do what I could so that it would not dry up. It therefore was not merely a matter of describing a past, but also of projecting a future by (re)proposing to Europe a model of relating to what is proper to it.

Seeking an essence, he sought its “form”: this attempt, he explained, is both Socratic and Aristotelian. He began with the method of division. A “series of dichotomies” moving from geography to history to culture, but eventually including all three, ended with “Europe” and “European” revealing themselves to be, at bottom, “a form of consciousness”: “He is European who has the consciousness of belonging to a whole.” Of course, the questions come naturally to mind: What whole? What consciousness? Charlemagne will prove capital in this double work. For it turns out that Brague’s employment of the method of division was also that of certain historical agents themselves, and Europe was the result of conscious self-delineations on their part.

Charlemagne “dreamed” of Europe, as the restoration of the western Roman empire, and took the first steps toward it, but a subsequent religious event proved decisive. It was, precisely, a division, in religious language, a schism. “The schism between Latins and Byzantines, which occurred at the religious level perhaps as early as the Xth century, and in any case in 1054, . . . split in two what until then had remained undivided. But by that very stroke it constituted Europe.” Europe was born as “Latin Christianity” in contrast to the Byzantine world of Greek Orthodoxy (and to Islam); it is “Latin Christendom.”

In Moderately Modern, Brague fleshed out this analysis in what one could call “material” terms. Here too the eleventh century is decisive. For example, “At the beginning of the XIth century, the list of peoples present in the European space became complete and definitive.” And “towards the end of the XIth century, Europe filled itself in, by making its culture coincide more and more with its geographical definition.” Among other things, this entailed reconquests from the Islamic world in Spain and Sicily (e.g., Toledo in 1085).

“At the middle of the XIth century, Europe succeeded in defining itself in the most concrete sense of the term, by distinguishing itself from what it was not.” And “within this demarcated domain, Europe worked on itself, it intensified its life. Europe saw a demographic growth.” (That last observation has a certain piquancy for contemporary readers, one not lost on its author.) Brague sums up the constellation as follows: “In a word, its resources are within, while its sources are without.”

Brague’s initial method thus parallels that of historical agents. Two towering figures can provide what Charles Péguy called “cas éminents,” paradigmatic cases. The first is Charlemagne, often designated as “the father of Europe.” He conceived of Europe as a “project” and embodied its essential cultural traits: “the fundamental attitude that made European cultural history possible was very much that of Charlemagne,” Brague writes in La voie romaine. The other is the thirteenth-century Franciscan polymath Roger Bacon. Brague quotes in Latin Bacon’s plea to Pope Clement IV to establish schools throughout Christendom for the study of “alien” or foreign languages—that is, Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Bible and of philosophy: sapientia latinorum tracta est ex alienis linguis; nam totus textus sacer et tota philosophia descenderunt a linguis extraneis. The polyglot Brague provides a translation—which, rendered in English, becomes “The wisdom of the Latins was drawn from foreign languages; in fact all the sacred text and all of philosophy have come down from outside languages.”

Then Brague draws the main lesson: “This wisdom isn’t Latin, or European, but foreign. It is remarkable that Bacon expressed both the externality of the sources of European culture and the fact that they are irreducibly two.”

We are thus led to the next level of Brague’s analysis of European culture: its “externality” and its double “secondarity.” That it is a deeper level is indicated by the important term “sources” in the passage above: in it one can hear the Greek philosophical term arché and its Latin equivalent principium. Both mean “source,” beginning or origin, but one that continues to govern an organism’s development and life. In Europe’s case, however, there were two. It is foreseeable that this would complicate matters considerably. It will occasion nothing less than a distinctively new attitude in human history, precisely, “the Roman.”

First, though, the charming conclusion of Brague’s portrait of Charlemagne. It too contains its lessons:

The same biographer, Einhard, recounts that Charlemagne had under his pillow some tablets and a stylet to practice writing in case of insomnia. The father of Europe was an illiterate, but he learned how to write. He who in our legends is the founder of the primary school was himself a schoolboy, even the sort who takes night classes. Europe is thus made [faite]: like its “father,” it is an illiterate continent that learned how to read elsewhere [ailleurs], who learned how to read not Gallic, not German, etc., but Latin and Greek.

Charlemagne as schoolboy and night student! Even when dealing with weighty matters, Brague has a light touch. The serious point is clear: the enormous ambition of this German chieftain, while occasioned by a desire to rival Byzantium, and fueled by the memory of the pagan imperial achievement, was tempered by admiration in the order of culture and by the imperative of the cultivation of one’s soul. Mere rule, even imperial, was insufficient, both for rex and regnum.

 La voie romaine, however, is not “Charlemagne’s way” but “the Roman way.” To analyze Europe further, Brague must deal with what Pierre Manent (in a different context) has called “the enigma of Rome.” Brague’s version can be indicated by the fact that Augustine’s City of God all but begins with Virgil’s famous passage in book 6 of the Aeneid, in which Anchises casts Rome’s historical vocation in terms of a comparison and a contrast with that of the Greeks. While Brague does not mention it, Charlemagne kept the City of God by his bedside as well. For Augustine, Rome is at the center of a triangle involving the Greeks and the Christians, not to mention Charlemagne’s forebears. The Roman Catholic Church will turn out to be their union. As such, it will provide the “form of European culture.”

The Roman church as culture-forming

Rome—the “Roman” in the title—provided the initial matrix and model for this operation of European self-defining. More precisely, the Roman attitude toward the Greeks—at once conquered subjects and their masters in the domain of culture (understood as cultura animi)—provided the first stratum of the European way. Horace put it immortally with his lapidary line: “Captive Greece led captive her fierce conqueror and introduced the arts into rude and rustic Latium.” The Roman way is a way of cultural deference before external models that convict one of inferiority but that also invite ascent and entrance into a higher form of being human. It is “an inferiority complex” that is uplifting, not debilitating.

To Rome was added the Christian. Here too Brague detects a certain constitutive “secondarity” of Christianity to its source. While tempted to do so, orthodox Christianity never repudiated its Jewish origins. Christ was unintelligible apart from the faith and history of the Jewish people. The New Testament was constituted by its intrinsic relationship to the Old. Brague goes so far as to say that it is better to call the Old Testament “the first [premier] Testament,” and to recognize that it is “the permanent foundation” of Christianity. While the relations between Romans and Greeks, and Christians and Jews, do not line up in a neatly symmetrical way (Jesus, after all, said, “Before Abraham was, I AM”), Brague maintains that each pair required the later member to acknowledge the indispensable contribution of the earlier to itself. Christianity’s relationship with Judaism was tension-ridden, and tension, at least of certain sorts, is essential for cultural dynamism.

His main concern, however, is not so much the constitutive relationship between Judaism and Christianity, but the latter insofar as it formed European culture. In other words, he is interested in Christ, Christianity, and the Roman Church as “culture-forming.” They were foundational for European culture. That makes intuitive sense, if one recalls that culture has “cult” at its core. The putting-in-order of the divine-human relationship is one of the key functions of culture. For culture is

a certain synthesis, a certain way of conceiving the relationship between two terms. These two terms are, speaking generally, the divine and the human. Or, if one wishes, God and man, the sacred and the profane, heaven and earth, the spiritual and the temporal. Each culture deals with these two terms. Each culture proposes, explicitly or implicitly, a response to the question of their relations.

Christianity did so, however, in a distinctive, even “paradoxical” way, with its fundamental teaching of the Incarnation, God-become-man; and Roman Catholicism drew out its consequences with remarkable rigor and effect. Brague sketches those that bear upon his theme. First, though, his thesis about Christianity’s paradoxical nature: “Christianity unites the divine and the human where it is easy to distinguish them; it distinguishes the divine and the human where it is easy to unite them.”

God-becoming-man is the emblematic instance of unity; “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” the cornerstone of contrast. From both flow the distinction between spiritual and temporal authority, the relative independence of the political and cultural domains from the religious, and the precious European fruit that is liberty.

Gelasius’s “two swords” teaching was particularly important in this regard. Or rather, its effectual truth was, which was conflict. The “conflict between popes and emperors” was “perhaps what allowed Europe to maintain itself in the singularity that made it a unique historical phenomenon.” In addition to the avoidance of despotism, its cultural fruits are to be highlighted:

It is this conflict that prevented Europe from changing into one of those empires that admired themselves in an ideology [made] to their measure and their image. . . . On one hand, it was the independence of the religious vis-à-vis the political that permitted Europe to open like a ripe fruit and to transmit its religious content to the other cultural domains. . . . And on the other, the profane domain and its order received the space within which they in turn could construct themselves according to their own laws.

Brague indicates what could structurally give rise to this fruitful tension between the two authorities, despite official teaching to the contrary:

Caesar sees himself granted the right to do what he can and knows how to do [peut et sait faire]. But the spiritual power, without disposing of any [military] divisions, reserves to itself a right over [sur] temporal power. It belongs to it to recall the absolute character of the ethical imperative, and to judge the ends and means of the latter.

One cannot but foresee a desire to escape this dialectic in toto, and others have traced the new path sought and taken. (A good treatment of the contest between the two authorities and its unintended consequence, the Christian nation and the monarchical state, is David Gress’s From Plato to NATO.)

Questions for contemporaries

It is time for a summing up of Europe, la voie romaine, and this in two ways: what European culture is essentially, according to Brague; and his judgment of its condition in 1992. Then we will turn to more recent thoughts and judgments.

We have tried to identify the essential elements contained in Brague’s concept of European culture: the titular “roman”; its “eccentric” character, owing to external “sources”; its novel “form,” owing to a duality of just such sources; their common trait of being “open to the universal”; and their final form in Catholic cult and culture.

At its core, this is a “determinate attitude,” a distinctive way of envisaging and relating to the Big Three of God, world, and the human, as well as to history and a constitutive set of “others.” While Brague emphasizes its formal character and characteristics, it has material contents as well. Form cannot be separate from matter, precisely because it gives matter its shape and animates its life. As we have seen, what is most formal for Brague is the eccentricity and secondarity of the European mind and spirit: it looked abroad for its fundamental points de repère, both culturally and religiously. It therefore could never claim them as originally or simply its “own.” What was “proper” to it was precisely to have this need to “appropriate.” In a nice Pascalian phrase, this poverty was its grandeur.

Moreover, la grandeur oblige, and in Europe’s case, doubly so. The cultivation of one’s humanity modeled by Greece was paired with the elevation of humanity wrought by the Incarnation. The two “visions,” however, did not simply line up. Here was another constitutive tension! St. Basil was right to speak of a “noble risk” taken by Christianity in adopting Hellenistic thought forms and content. Europe’s acceptance of this task was fraught with great dangers as well as rewards. It certainly made the soul’s “work on itself” (travail sur soi-même) more difficult than each by itself, one might even say infinitely so. Yet the European soul could not shut its eyes to either of the models and sources of truth that had come from abroad. This embracing of the light from whatever quarter was to its great credit.

However, neither source laid out precise guidelines for the work of bringing the two together. Its ennobling task therefore became a distinctive sort of fidelity to what it had received: “creative fidelity” (in Gabriel Marcel’s phrase). Its secondarity should not be confused with any sort of mere traditionalism or privileging of the past. In fact, it was precisely a call to “an adventure,” a going forward, one solicited (and measured) by the two universals it looked up to but did not possess. As such, Europe had both a nature and a vocation.

“What happened?” then becomes a natural question, since this is not the Europe of today. Brague however declines to address it directly in la voie romaine. He alludes to “modernity” as a global answer, but substitutes the aforementioned “Marcionism” to ask: How is Europe today vis-à-vis its formative culture? And what currently inhibits it from continuing its defining cultural adventure?

Marcionism can take two forms: cultural and technological. Insofar as modernity is based upon a certain representation of Progress, it is subject to the gnostic temptation to sever itself from its formative past and normative (“classical”) models found in antiquity. And in point of fact Brague discerns “the loss of an explicitly sought contact with ancient sources” in both academic circles and the general public. Worse, this is a sign of a greater loss and problem: the loss of belief in any cultural model that indicts those who encounter it of “barbarism,” while inviting them to greater humanization. There can be barbarians in Brooks Brothers suits. Europe increasingly harbors such “barbarous Greeks.”

Most ominously, Brague detects a widespread cultural attitude, or attitude toward cultures, that characterizes them all as mere “particulars” and that has given up the idea and aspiration of universality. This entails that Europe’s permanent achievements—Brague instances human liberty and the integrity of the body—are deemed merely parochial, unworthy of employment as criteria of judgment, or standards for others, while other cultures are not taken seriously as dialogic partners, much less possible tutors, but are merely pressed into a bazaar of cultures. The Socratic spirit of Herodotus (Brague follows Seth Benardete in his reading of the Inquiries) has ebbed, increasingly replaced by the cultural tourist and aesthete.

It is in connection with the other sort of Marcionism, technological, that Brague brings in the other half of European “romanity,” Christianity. Modern technological science (he alludes to Descartes) presupposes the moral indifference of Nature and the reduction of the human body to a “machine.” This reductionism has produced many of its promised fruits, but it also has posed enormous problems, theoretical and practical. Brague focuses upon those involving “the body,” or the fact that the human person is embodied. He reminds his readers that Christianity, with its foundational teaching of the Incarnation, elevated human embodiment to the nth degree. The divine condescension gave human enfleshment—all humans, all bodies—infinite dignity. Today, Christianity still stands by the anthropology that originated Europeans’ commitment to human dignity, and its divinely modeled inclusiveness embraces humanity in any somatic form, abled or disabled, embryonic, fetal, infant, adult, or aged.

Then Brague asks his contemporaries some pointed questions: Where did you get your idea of human dignity? On what grounds can you justify it? Can you sustain human dignity in the face of biotechnological advances? Intellectual honesty and biotechnical innovations should prompt contemporaries to reconsider the religion that provided so many of the notions (and institutions) they take for granted, and which can provide much needed moral support to face today’s challenges. This is especially true since that religion has been chastened in the crucible of modernity.

God vs. gods

In 1992, Brague mentioned “demographic weakness” in a list of problems facing Europe that he said he would not treat in the book, given his cultural focus. Subsequently, though, it became a major concern, even an obsession. In 2013, The Legitimacy of the Human made it central. Existential questions were implicit in manifest facts (demographic decline) and chilling possibilities (weapons of mass destruction, ecological catastrophe), and Brague gave them voice: Should the European adventure continue? On what grounds? For what reasons? And deepest of all: Given the threats and possibilities of annihilation looming over them, is it good that humans exist and continue to exist? Mere instinct will not suffice as an answer, because the project of the mastery of Nature has made such things subject to human deliberation and decision. One must think, one must search for reasons.

In raising these pointed questions, Brague also invoked a distinctive modern anthropology, “exclusive humanism” (in other words, atheistic humanism). This anthropology (Marx and Nietzsche are prime examples) posits man without God, man as God. It is ascendant on the European scene, although in a defensive mode after the two totalitarianisms of the twentieth century.

A problem arises, though: the modern anthropology begs the questions circumstances have raised. More deeply, in its atheism, it cannot give a credible answer. Why not? It is the old juridical rule that no one can be the judge in his own case. Since he is a party in the case, man cannot pass a legitimate and legitimating verdict on himself. Only a third party, only a just and informed party, can judge whether it is good that humanity exists. Such a Judge is available and was proclaimed as far back as Genesis 1.

Modernity in the dock

So where are things now? In 2014, Brague updated his thoughts on the European scene in Moderately Modern.

Things have gotten worse on both the cultural and the demographic planes. In Brague’s estimation, “in contemporary Europe, the severing from the Greek and biblical roots proceeds apace, to the point of becoming a willful ignorance that sometimes takes on terrifying aspects.” He may have had certain well-known events in mind, which the eminent jurist J. H. H. Weiler summed up as motivated by “Christophobia.” Exhibit A was the refusal to name Christianity as one of the formative cultural factors of Europe in the proposed European Constitution. That God would be mentioned was, of course, hors de cour.

Not coincidentally, Brague also observes that modern “European culture which, first of all ours, has invaded the globe, has lost confidence in itself in the case of a number of its beneficiaries.” As it happens, this observation echoes that of Pope Benedict a few years earlier in Europe: Today and Tomorrow:

Europe, precisely in this hour of its greatest success, seems to have become hollowed out, paralyzed in a certain sense by a crisis of its circulatory system, a crisis that endangers its life. . . . This interior dwindling of the spiritual strength that once supported it is accompanied by the fact that Europe appears to be on the way out [demographically] as well.

Brague’s judgment is that European culture “is no longer capable of founding a credible and defensible humanism.” Nor is this just a brute fact: it is the consequence of thoughts and decisions taken long ago. Here “modern thought” is arraigned and “Modernity” put in the dock.

Brague presents modernity as the antithesis, the reverse, of premodern thoughts in anthropology and in cultural development. He speaks of “the modern inversion.” He even goes so far as to speak of “the modern non-anthropology.” In so doing, he follows Pierre Manent’s analysis in The City of Man, in which modern thought is presented as “de-substantalizing” man, of emptying the concept “man” of any substantive content, and leaving him free to create himself. Nor is this just the conceit of philosophers: as Brague writes, “This modern man peoples Europe today, or in any case provides its tone. It is he who holds the levers of command, in the economy as well as in politics, both national and European. It is he who, without always being aware of it, controls the consciousness of European peoples by causing them to see the world through his own categories.” In short, among the elites in Europe are not only Greek barbarians but also nihilists.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more hard-hitting indictment of European elites—and thus a substantive reason for events such as Brexit. The words of Douglas Murray in a Sunday Times story last spring, however, parallel Brague’s analysis in outline, if not learning:

Europe is committing suicide. Or at least its leaders have decided to commit suicide. Whether the people choose to go along with this is, naturally, another matter. . . .

Europe today has little desire to reproduce itself, fight for itself or even take its own side in an argument. Those in power seem persuaded that it would not matter if the people and culture of Europe were lost to the world.

Thanks to the work of Rémi Brague, one is in a position to judge just what the loss to humanity would be. Only time—and the results of human decisions—will tell whether he is a Cassandra to a doomed continental culture or a Jeremiah envisaging a rejuvenated Europe-made-whole. But in the face of these great uncertainties, one can safely say that Brague himself is very much a son of the European culture that he so intelligently and lovingly analyzes, and that his very presence is evidence that his alma mater continues to have some cultural vitality. ♦

Paul Seaton is associate professor of philosophy at St. Mary’s Seminary and University.​