Frank Litton on policy-making, the civil service and the malaise of Ireland's democracy.

European Culture, Secularism, Modernity. A Note on Remi Brague

Jul 15, 15 • Review2 Comments


The 1960s were a turning point in Ireland and elsewhere. We live with the legacy. It is looking pretty tatty. The progressive narrative it ushered in that promised so much in economics, social reform, emancipation, has less and less to contribute. Its guardians who dominate the commentariat have little to say on a Europe in trouble or an Irish democracy struggling to adjust to a changed political landscape. Or rather, what they do say is strong on abuse and weak on analysis. While they know who to blame for the solutions that they dislike, they have no solutions of their own. Except, of course, cries for ‘a new vision for a new Republic’; a need they cannot see their way to filling. The resources for reflection and renewal have dissipated. It was good to be around when they were in full flow.

It was good to be a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Dublin. Ireland was less insular then, and a good deal less anti-intellectual. The ideas that mobilised US students and their European counter-parts did reach Ireland. Marx was our lodestar. For many of us the approach was indirect. We read Marcuse and Sartre to learn that we were alienated victims of capitalism mired in false consciousness. We struggled with Althusser and Poulantzas who told us the determinations of structure, scientifically analysed, were key, not the yearnings of an oppressed self. The Roman Catholic Church was still a power in the land, especially in the University [UCD, of course]. Clerics played an important role. Some, Fergal O’Connor OP is the foremost example 1, challenged our assumptions and opened our minds. They demonstrated that thinking was critically important. The Dominican tradition was important.

I remember Terry Eagleton visiting to lecture on the ‘New Left Church’. His was a Marxism crossed with Catholicism. The former explained why the Church had failed, betraying the Gospel with its complicity with capitalism. To be a true follower of Jesus, you had to be a Marxist. What did the latter provide?  Did Marxists have to be disciples? I am not sure how Eagleton answered this question. Then, he marshalled Marxism 2 to support Christianity, nowadays, he reverses the equation, and he encourages us to find in the Gospels good reason to take Marx seriously.

Herbert McCabe OP was another visitor to UCD. He was an important influence on Eagleton and the Catholic Marxists. He was a Thomist who found in his Thomism good reasons to take Marx’s socialist critique seriously. If we were drawn to the Hegelian/Sartrean Marx, he was influenced, I suppose, by the Marx who had closely studied Aristotle.

Enough of this talk of the good old days. How, why, did it all run into the sand? The question is too big to answer here. [My discussion of our political imaginary in the previous post may provide some clues.] The point is that there is good news for those of us who think that it has. The French philosopher and historian of ideas, Remi Brague, has published an essay on European culture that explores the sources of its self-reflection and renewal and that indicates why these have weakened.  We came to Marx via Plato, Aristotle and the Catholic tradition. Brague in tracing the interactions of Jews, Christians and Muslims with each other and the Greeks gives us good reason to respect that route, and to return to it and reach a different destination.

A Common European Culture?

The problems with a half-baked currency union and the difficulty of resolving the Greek crisis brings into question the notion of a common European culture. Does such exist? If so, can it be mobilised to motivate a solidarity that, for instance, would allow the German government write off the 40 billion Euro owed to it by the Greeks?  Does Brague’s enquiry help us to find an answer? Certainly it takes off from a concern with the cultural underpinnings of the European Union. He does not, however, address this concern directly. Rather, he uses the pertinence of the concern to attack modernity. Modernity breaks with what gave European culture its dynamism. Its frame provides no resources for the ‘European Project’. The aspiration to universality that was rooted in the European sense of inferiority and its dependence on other external resources disappears, trapping us in a particularity where its relationships with other cultures can only be construed as a conflict of powers. Now, Brague writes nothing as clear cut as this. The making of such brash assertions is not his style.

His Style

Some authors sketch the main outline of their argument and then proceed to fill in the light and shade. Brague starts with the nuances; he presents the objections to his position before presenting it. While a simple mind like mine finds this difficult, it is beguiling. In providing a rich texture to his argument, it does make it difficult to summarise. You can abstract propositions, as I have done above, only to know that a good deal of what is important has been excluded. There is another difficulty. His conclusions emerge as a picture appears in the construction of a mosaic. The pieces he uses come from the remote past. What can we expect to learn from late antiquity, and the middle ages? Interesting though this unfamiliar world maybe, how can we expect to understand it, learn from it, relate it to the issues of today? Brague traces winding routes that do combine to give us a perspective on the present. Rather than attempt an epitome, I can do no better than outline what, I think, I have learnt from attempting to follow his paths.

The Limitations of Multiculturalism

We must, we are told, accept that all cultures are of equal value [which is, of course, negative as they are manifestations of patriarchies oppressing minorities]. They cannot be ranked in a hierarchy. Brague does not espouse this doctrine. Nonetheless, he is a multiculturalist. Immersed in the sources of the ancient Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought, he knows the cultures from the inside. He has studied the complexity of their interactions. So he can compare them and he does.

While the content of culture is important, so too is its mode of construction and reconstruction, how it goes about remaking itself overcoming obstacles and exploiting opportunities – its orientation. In considering orientation a key question is how the culture relates to other cultures with the threats and opportunities they pose. Brague defines the possibilities with the help of two images: inclusion and digestion. With digestion the object is assimilated to such a point that it loses its independence. This suppresses the difference between the subject who appropriates and the object that he appropriates. ‘The lion is made from the digested lamb.’ P107. The souvenir that drowns a sea horse in translucent plastic provides an image of inclusion. ‘In this model, the interior does not stop for all that being a something other. It is rather just the fact that having become interior that maintains it in its otherness.’ P107

Both Europe and Islam engaged with the Greeks. They are not so much distinguished in the content of their culture as in the manner in which they appropriated it. The Arabs translated, or had translated, the Greek texts. They studied them, paraphrased and epitomised them, rising them to a higher level that the excellence of Arabic allowed. Having digested the content, they discarded the texts. The Europeans translated but they kept the originals whose preservation was an important project. Why did they include rather than digest? As Romans, they could take pride in their technical and administrative abilities, their aqueducts and their laws, but not in their culture whose inferiority to the Greeks they acknowledged. Latin was a workaday language, and not, as Islam believed Arabic to be, the summit of linguistic expressiveness. The relationship of Judaism and Christianity, of the Old to the New Testament, was an important factor shaping this attitude. If Latin took second place to Greek, The New Testament came second to the old. The Christians resisted the Marcion temptation to see Christianity as a new religion, superior to the primitive, violent, superstitious, goings on recorded in the Old Testament. What was prior in time was essential to understanding the teachings of Jesus. The Old was the key to the New.

Europe reshaped itself in a succession of renaissances. The Greek ‘other’ remained other and so could be appropriated anew. Islam which had digested Greek culture, and Byzantium which owned the Greek heritage renewed themselves from within their own resources.

Europe took its bearings from Athens and Jerusalem both of which were outside its geographical span. This dependence on sources outside itself, this sense of inferiority, of ‘secondarity’ was the source of its superiority. Brague does believe that European culture is superior. Its superiority is not of character that would scandalise a multiculturalist. It is not that Europe sits atop a hierarchy of cultures with the best literature, the best music, the best sculpture and the most perfect best, behaved inhabitants. No, its superiority lies in its attitude, its capacity to open the human adventure to the universal, to transcend the limitations of the particular. On second thoughts, this does offend a multiculturalism whose relativism would imprison us in the particular.

The Contribution of Roman Catholicism

I find the last chapter of particular interest. The chapter reminds me of the wash cloths I bought recently in Newcastle. Compressed into a space slightly larger than a two euro coin, immersed in water, they expanded into normal size. This Chapter does not require a summary, it requires opening out. I do not attempt to compress the incompressible, I pick out two points.

For Brague, Roman Catholicism is the most complete version on Christianity. While it may have ignored, side-lined, failed to develop, some elements of Christianity whose articulation then became the mission of the reformed churches, it nonetheless contained all the elements.

The qualifier Roman is apt. The Roman Empire provided the environment [social, legal, economic] or the spread of Christianity. It was also Roman in its ‘secondarity’. As Rome was to Greece, Latin Christianity was to the Old Testament and Byzantium. Their senses of inferiority reinforced each other’s.

The comparison between Christianity and Rome and Islam and the Islamic empire is fruitful. [Brague exemplifies the proposition that all good history is comparative.] The spread of Islam was inextricably caught up with conquest and domination. It came ‘top down’ from the hands of the conquerors and the elites they co-opted. Christianity could not avoid entangling with Rome and its imperial politics.  The involvement was from the bottom up. Christianity became politically important because of its penetration of civil society. While the inevitable crossing of religion and the politics brought collaboration, it also brought conflict. The union of the political with the religious may have been an aspiration, but it never had the viability it enjoyed in Islam. This was not just a consequence of their different histories. The reworking of the relationship between humans and the sacred wrought by the incarnation was fundamental.

Christianity unites the divine and the human just where it is easy to distinguish them; it distinguishes the divine and the human where it is easy to unite them.


Christians learnt from their engagement with Greek philosophy that God was not another item to add to all the other items in the world. Nor could he be understood as those items might be. He was an absolute other. As Eckhart instructs us ‘nothing we say of God is correct’.

Brague reminds us how humans sacralise important domains – the erotic, the domestic, the political. We have populated our world with divinities, ‘anchors in the sky’, that signal the vertical forces that pull us out of, and beyond, ourselves.

The Incarnation unites us with the absolute. Paradoxically, in coming among us God leaves history. More accurately, the manner of his presence is radically changed. He is no longer present as the God of Israel was present as he accompanied his chosen people, chiding them for their unfaithfulness, scolding them for their idolatries, and calling them to obedience to his covenant. God has spoken his final word – Christ. Christianity is not, as Judaism and Islam are, a religion ‘of the book’.  It is a religion with a book, with the book. Judaism and Islam find in their books God’s word revealed as law. To follow God is to be obedient to his law. For Christians Christ is the fulfillment of the law; to follow God is to follow the word incarnate making our own laws guided by our own reason.

Of course, the idea that it was not science but Christianity that disenchanted the world [thereby allowing a space for science] is not new. Christianity was, it is generally accepted, a major step towards a secular world. We traded a multiplicity of divinities for a God that is absolutely other. And in time we realised that we absolutely did not need him. Not so argues Brague, the secular space opened up by the incarnation will subsist only so long as the incarnation is alive among us. Banish Christianity and the gods will return.


Climate change, the Greek shambles [or is it the German shambles? The European?], national discontents [how viable is a democracy when politicians are reviled and independents form a significant bloc?]. The list can continued. We are trapped in the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Economy, Individual and Market. [Yes, god has returned and the economists are his theologians.] Where can we find the resources to refashion our ‘social imaginary’ and escape a neo-liberalism that dos not work and few want? In Eccentric Culture Brague provides a compelling argument for where we can find those resources. In The Wisdom of the World. The Human Experience of the Universe [2003] and The Law of God. The Philosophical History of an Idea [2007] he deploys them to deliver a critique of our modern frame.



  1. See Joseph Dunne Chapter 1 ‘Figures of the Teacher: Fergal O’Connor and Socrates’ and Denys Turner Chapter 5 ‘Fergal O’Connor’s Plato: The family, private property and the state’ in Dunne, J, Ingram, A and Litton, F [2000] Questioning Ireland Dublin: IPA
  2. Eagleton, T [2010] Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God debate. [Terry Lecture Series] New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

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  • Veronica

    What are you longing for here? A return to the concept of belief in some ‘supreme being’ who will make everything all right? As regards Ireland’s political economy in the ’60s and early ’70s, Marxism was irrelevant. If anything, Ireland was turning away from a failed nationalist project which, via Fianna Fail nationalist ideology, had sought since the 1930s to promulgate a fanstasy that some sort of ‘third way’ existed between a market economy and a hegemonic Catholic/nationalist ethos that would allow Ireland to flourish within the protectionist straitjacket of a paternalist state. I think it is worth bearing in mind that in the 1950s at one point some 20% of Irish citizens were confined in institutions of one sort or another – prisons, industrial schools, lunatic asylums etc.Communists, tiny minority and all as they were, were run out of the place. No dissidents of any stripe, social, political or moral, were tolerated. As for most of the French theorists – although I am not familiar with Brague – the distinguishing characteristic of their work is their endless capacity for circular reasoning. I guess that is why their theories – from Althusser to Foucault to Latour – enjoy temporary fashonability before they are quietly consigned to the intellectual dustbin.

    • FrankLitton

      I am not longing for anything; certainly not a return to the past. That past had its problems and solutions. They are not our problems, still less can they be our solutions. I am interested in the resources available to specify our problems and find solutions. While we have no difficulty in condemning the past for its problems/solutions, we lack the resources to attend to present difficulties. Do you believe that we have no problems and therefore no need for solutions?
      I must admire your mastery of the thought of most French theorists that allows you conclude that so disparate a group have one defining characteristic.