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Revisiting Christopher Dawson on Culture ~ The Imaginative Conservative

Revisiting Christopher Dawson on Culture ~ The Imaginative Conservative

The essence of Rome, by being conscious of one’s cultural debts, is the refusal to make a definitive synthesis or mediation. Only in Rome is there Athens and Jerusalem. Only because of Rome are there “two cities because one remains silently present.”

Remi Brague’s observation about the historical essence of Rome shows that “Romanity” is not an ideology. It is, rather, a powerful hypothesis, to be tested by the historical data. Brague crystallizes it into a striking form for disinterested, non-ideological historical inquiry: Rome is willing to come second. Christianity is the form of European culture,[1] because essentially it is willing to stand in a relation of secondarity to a previous culture.[2] This is an empirical proposition, not the ideology of somebody’s home team.

Test the hypothesis: is secondarity found elsewhere? A comparison with Islam may be invited. Christianity rejected Marcionism; its Bible includes both the New Testament and Old Testament. It is said that Islam, however, assumes no such relation of secondarity with the other monotheisms. Apparently, the Koran supercedes all else; the Christian and Jewish scriptures are said to be mutilated and unreliable versions of revelation. It is said that Islam thinks Jews and Christians “knowingly modified” their texts (or, on the more generous minority view, simply has “badly interpreted” them).[3]

The Old Testament is scripture to a Christian, however. The secondarity of Christianity claims only to have the interpretive key to the older scriptures: Jewish interpretation isn’t wrong; Christianity just claims to make the interpretation even better.[4] It has been said about Islam that interpretation is not part of the Meccan stance. The Koran knows no secondarity.

This is why it is proper to recognize (pace Leo Strauss), that Rome is neither a synthesis nor a mediation, although to the untutored historical eye it seems like Rome should be just one city among many other cities. But that would be to hold that all cultures must always be, in principle, equally worthy of study in the eyes of the historian. A fine principle, perhaps, especially for organizing a university—but is it not Roman?

The essence of Rome, then, by being conscious of one’s cultural debts,[5] is (again, pace Strauss) the refusal to make a definitive synthesis or mediation. In this regard, Mecca stands in contrast. Only in Rome is there Athens and Jerusalem. Only because of Rome are there “two cities because one remains silently present. The presence of the third cultural model makes possible the coexistence of the two cities and thus sets free the fruitful tension that lends Western culture its complexity and its richness.”[6]

Remi Brague’s theory of Roman secondarity—“Romanity”—refocuses the debate about Western civilization, cutting through the ideological to focus on the empirical. His proposition shocks the multiculturalists. But, on his theory, they are simply bad Romans, not willing to come second, and to acknowledge their debt to, and inferiority before, the other, which is the historical hallmark of “Romanity.”

Brague’s best defense of his thesis is the remarkable claim that a “Catholic view of history” is frankly empirical and not at all ideological. The question about which city you want to live in is political, and can be considered apart from the historian’s task, since the historian should not be “making faces” at cities. Admittedly, when you read Christopher Dawson, it is clear that he wants to live in a Christian culture. And thus, many people find him hard to read. Brague, however, speaks in a new way about Christianity, and its relation to culture, to an age that is automatically scandalized by Dawson’s wish.

The current age denies spiritual realities and prefers a strictly material empiricism in historical narratives. Among its academic historians are many who exemplify this anti-theoretical empiricism, as Dermot Quinn styles it.[7] Alan Bullock is Quinn’s example, the empiricist who disdains “meta-narratives” of the spiritual sweep of history.[8] Dawson, in his rejoinder to Bullock, of course got the better of the argument, by pointing out that “every historian has his metahistory … the best ones know it”.[9] Bullock’s metahistory is no less spiritual because it denies spiritual realities; it is no less theoretical for being anti-theoretical—which is just a recherché theoretical pose. The anti-metahistory is the new metahistory.

But the fashion is still with us, and Dawson’s logical point is still lost on most. Yet only for the moment, I think. I am optimistic, because Brague neutralizes the anti-theoretical empiricists on their own territory. Dawson’s argument fought a losing battle, because if the anti-theoretical empiricists wanted to do metaphysics, they would have been debating the existence of spiritual realities, rather than dismissing them beforehand. If they wanted to do philosophy, they would engage with Dawson’s (winning) philosophical argument, rather than simply ignore it (which is how many arguments are won by default at universities, by the way). But Brague takes the battle to the gates of the anti-theoretical empiricists.

Brague says, let us be rigorously empirical. Religions exist as causes, and they have their effects. What causal efficacy does Rome’s principle of “secondarity” have—this “secondarity” that proposes to pursue a foreign model of classicism, in order to subdue the barbarian?

Let us not “make faces” at what it pursues or how it subdues. Let us simply take religion in its this-worldly reality and study its causal effects in relation to the cultures in which it is incarnated. Begin with some undeniable empirical facts and ask causal questions. For example, why did science decline in Islam? The multiculturalists only want to speak of the immense contributions and the great learning fostered during the peak eras of Islamic civilization. Any good Roman will be grateful for all this, especially the transmission of Greek learning via Arabic, when the Latin West had been neglecting its Greek studies. But the empirical data should lead us back from multicultural platitudes, which may or may not have some prudential political utility, back to the interesting causal questions, of appropriate historical import. How is it that Greek learning could then be born again in yet another new Roman renaissance? How is it that Arabic translations of Greek writings could flourish for only a few centuries?

The answer is not that the Meccan way did not promote learning. It most assuredly did. But as we see today with the anti-theoretical empiricists, there is a way that one can be devoted to learning that, in time, in fact will kill learning. (As the proverb has it, you can be so open-minded that all your brains fall out.) With Islam, Brague observes that its very way of praising knowledge is what led to science’s decline.[10] As the true counterpart to Rome, “far from rejecting what those two cities [Athens and Jerusalem] stand for, Islam went too far in the direction of integration.”[11]

It was not Mecca’s opposition to science that killed it, but rather the mode of its acceptance and assimilation. Our multiculturalists and anti-theoretical empiricists are simply not Roman enough, says Brague. Moreover, this means we need not despair about this current state of affairs. For “the Roman way” always leaves open a possibility of rebirth.

This essay was first published here in October 2015.

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[1] Remi Brague, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (St. Augustine’s Press, 2002), 176.

[2] Ibid., 43.

[3] Ibid., 61.

[4] Ibid., 111.

[5] Eccentric Culture, 35-8, on “the Roman attitude” and its characteristic consciousness.

[6] 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 49.

[7] In his Introduction to the Dawson collection, Dynamics of World History, xxviii-xxix.

[8] Alan Bullock, “The Historian’s Purpose: History and Metahistory”, History Today 1 (1951): 5-11.

[9] Dynamics of World History, xii. While Bullock tries to contest this argument in advance (see “Historian’s Purpose”, 6-8), his position amounts to this: calling his favored metahistory, ‘history’, and the metahistory he doesn’t like, ‘metahistory’.

[10] “Tale of Two Cities”, 48.

[11] Ibid., 45.

The featured image is “The Pantheon and the Piazza della Rotonda in Rome” (1836) by Jakob Alt, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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