(The review was originally published by Chintan – India Foundation Blogs on June 9, 2022. Views expressed are personal.)
Do identities matter? A debate has been raging in the Western world for several decades now. While classical liberalism rejected group identities in the name of individual liberty and freedom, neo-liberals tend to emphasize identities of marginalized groups while rejecting larger identities like nation as oppressive. There is an ongoing inherent conflict between these two groups within liberal tradition, which was highlighted by Francis Fukuyama in one of his recent books, “Liberalism and Its Discontent”.
On the conservative side, the argument was always in favor of larger group identities like race, religion and nation. The conservative thought upheld society above individuals and thus became the target of intellectual onslaught from the liberal left.
Two decades ago, Samuel Huntington, a renowned American conservative thinker and political philosopher from Harvard authored an important book, one of the dozen or so that he had written, called “Who Are We?”. As the subtitle of the book suggested, it was about the “challenges to America’s national identity”. Much like his earlier book, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order”, this one too immediately raised the hackles of the liberal establishment who denounced him as a parochial nationalist. Yet, what Huntington did in his 2003 book on America’s identity challenges was to contest the description of that country as a ‘melting pot’ and insist that the first English people, whom he calls ‘settlers’ and not ‘immigrants’, had brought with them a cultural identity. He calls it the American core and describes it as ‘Anglo-Protestantism’. It is not just the political ideas that form the foundation of the American constitution like liberty, equality, individualism and laissez-faire, called by Thomas Jefferson as the ‘American Creed’, but a national cultural identity developed over three centuries on the core ideals of protestant ethics, the English language and the rule of law.
Around the time the debate over this identity question was raging in America came another significant book, “Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization”, by Remi Brague, a French historian of philosophy. Although called ‘Western Civilization’, Brague’s book primarily deals with the identity of Europe as a civilization and culture.
When a reporter asked Gandhi once what he thought of Western civilization, he famously replied with a smirk: “I think it would be a good idea.” Remi wouldn’t agree with Gandhi. He insisted in his book that Europe, the cradle of Western civilization, has had a cultural identity of its own for a long time. Remi also disagrees with Hegel’s ‘depreciating’ statement that “From the beginning, Rome was something artificial, something violent, and not at all original”.
Instead, the central thesis of Remi’s book was that the core identity of Europe was Roman. He argues that Europe’s culture comes down to two elements “that cannot be reduced to one another”. Those two elements are Jewish tradition and pagan antiquity. By pagan, what Remi meant was Europe’s Greek history. But then, he emphatically argues that “Europe is not only Greek, nor only Hebrew, nor even Greco-Hebraic. It is just as decidedly Roman”. To make it more radical-sounding, Remi adds, “we are not and cannot be “Greeks” and “Jews” unless we are first of all Romans”.
Historically speaking, this will be a problematic proposition because both Greeks and Jews predate Romans. But when Remi talked about ‘Romanity’, he was talking about an idea, not a history. Europe is the integrated sum of Greek and Jewish components “from a Roman point of view”.
But then, what is that ‘Roman point of view’? Rome was the successor of Athens, thus inheriting Greek paganism and also philosophy. Judaism too predates the rise of the Roman empire. But the Roman empire turned Christian, when Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity in 312 AD. Thus, in Remi’s view, it was Christianity that was the third and integrating component of the Greco-Jewish lineage of Europe. “This ‘Roman’ structure is the very structure of the Christian reality”, Remi concludes.
As this Romanised European identity was taking shape came the Islamic intervention. Remi appreciates the initial centuries of Islam when the Arabs zealously collected, collated and Arabized the knowledge available in Greek, Roman and Hindu traditions. But then, Islam also declared that Judaism and Christianity were impure carriers of God’s word, which Remi finds troubling for his thesis. The prophet of Islam, although he admitted that the Jews and Christians received previous prophets sent by the God, argued that they failed to fully grasp the meaning of His Word. It resulted in distortion of the Word and Islam came as the final pure interpretation of it. This concept of tampering with the Word had resulted in Islamised Arabs destroying all the previous original knowledge sources, leaving only the Arabic translations. “In doing this, the Islamized world made the phenomenon of ‘renaissance’ impossible”, rues Remi.
While Byzantium and Islam didn’t leave any scope for renaissance, Catholic Christian Europe had allowed it. It is this renaissance worldview that had led to the European construct. “The civilization of Europe has been constructed by people for whom the end was not at all to construct a “Christian civilization”, but to make the most of the consequences of their faith in Christ. We owe it to people who believe in Christ, not to people who believe in Christianity. These people were Christians, and not what one might call “Christianizers””, Remi quips.
Remi concludes his thesis with the fervent plea that “the cultural task that awaits Europe could therefore consist in becoming Roman once again”.
Remi Brague’s thesis on Europe’s identity came out in 2002, around the time when Samuel Huntington was presenting his theory of American identity. Both presented identical arguments. For Huntington, Americanism involved Protestant ethics, while for Brague, Europeanism meant paganism, Judaism and Christianity. Both of course clarified that they were not talking about any organised religion, but only about the cultural ethics.
Remi didn’t face as much opposition as Huntington did. The reason could be, as Remi himself pointed out in his book, that Europeanism consisted not only of Judaism and Christianity, the two definitive creeds, but also of a more liberal paganism and later day Greek philosophy?
An interesting philosophical work for students of history, culture and civilization.