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A Civilization without Heart

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Although the Gates of Vienna Blog focuses on the relationship between the West and Islam, occasionally hosts philosophical posts on the identity of Europe as such. A recent post of that kind is about a book that sees in “secondarity” the main characteristic or foundation of the European identity, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization, by Rémi Brague.

Secondarity means that the West borrowed everything from elsewhere, mainly from the Greek and Jewish traditions. Being always and fundamentally second or “eccentric”, i.e., not being essentially identified with any culture – contrary to the way Byzantium understood itself as essentially Greek, an example that the author uses and explains – the West is more free to change, transform or re-invent its identity, more ready to develop, grow, expand and improve.

The theory of a western history that follows a progress-line belongs to the era of the so-called ‘Enlightenment’. The more demanding our thinking becomes, the more this theory collapses. Is Kant or Hegel more ‘advanced’, compared with Plato? Is Goethe or Hoelderlin more ‘advanced’, compared with Homer? Is Wesley or Luther more ‘advanced’ compared with Augustine or Maximus Confessor?

In reality there has been only one progress, in science and technology (and a really interesting question would be, why ancient Greeks, who discovered science, did not have a great interest in it). Not even in politics can we speak about a progress, since the older monarchic governments of the West and the current ‘democratic’ ones, in many and the most crucial aspects, are inferior to the governments of ancient Greece and Byzantium.

Therefore, what we have is a book that starts from a false/vague equation of the West with Progress, and continues with false arguments to prove it. Unfortunately, the aspects and arguments used, right or wrong, can not promote our understanding of the West, nor of the cultures that the West supposedly surpassed. However, the book contains a significant truth, because, even if not all peoples with a secondary culture travel to the planets, yet in order to achieve planetary traveling a people has to be homeless.

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  1. A reply to this post was sent to the editor by Balazs Mezei. I copy the complete text here without changes :

    I agree with the point in the analysis that the West is in some way “homeless” and this quality made possible its surprising scientific, technological, political, and finally cultural expansion. There are some points, however I would like to call our attention to. First, in Plato’s narrative, the Egyptian priest suggests that the Greeks too are newcomers, “children” as compared to the ancient Egyptians. This qualification does not seem to be very far from what is said about the West in the article. In other words, there may be phases in the history of each civilization in which it is in its “childhood” and only later does it reach its full maturity. The West may have not yet reached maturity, for example because it has not yet properly integrated the influences of Greek and Russian Orthodox culture. Secondly, I do not think that we can consider technological advancement in isolation from other cultural developments. Weber and others have sufficiently shown, I believe, that the Western culture needs to be understood as a whole, and technology is merely an aspect of it.

    Just one example: modern and contemporary science and technology would not have been possible without the Copernican reform of ancient cosmology; but this reform, while it had a tremendous impact on a great number of scientific disciplines, was based on a radical change in the world-view of the Renaissance. Yes, Plato played a crucial role in such changes; yes, Greek culture influences even today important scientific and cultural discoveries. Yet I would like to argue that the cultural quality of modernity, not only of scientists but also of theologians, philosophers, and artists, certainly expresses a kind of advancement. We should not simplify the nature of this advancement, we should not understand it in terms of flat ideology; we should seek to see its proper nature. A good way to understand this nature is to compare the music of the Middle Ages or of Byzantium with the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven etc. I would never say that Beethoven represents and “advancement” as to Byzantine liturgical music; but there are important changes in a number of ways, changes which we should not underestimate. In philosophy, if I may risk this hypothesis here, Plato has not only influenced important thinkers up to Heidegger and Levinas, but was deeply criticized by them too, in a fashion that may be challenged but should not be disregarded.

    The clue is the proper understanding of “advancement”. Is there historical advancement at all? If yes, what is its relation to general cultural development? Is there general cultural advancement in history? Is there a meaning of history? For Plato, there is certainly a meaning of history as for instance the dialogue Menexenos clearly shows. This meaning, however, is not easy to grasp.

    With best wishes

    Balazs Mezei

  2. Hi Balazs

    When we read in ancient Greek texts references to Egypt, we must remember that usually they do not represent real events, but the need of their authors to invent some old origin for their theories. Especially as regards Plato, who has or reproduces such a reference – in what way is Plato a child compared with – whom? Contrary to the children-maturity claim, think about what Heidegger said, that whatever great must have had a great start too.

    To your second point, that “the cultural quality of modernity, not only of scientists but also of theologians, philosophers, and artists, certainly expresses a kind of advancement”, you don’t offer any precise example of what you mean, except for a hesitating remark about music. I’m really anxious to know in what ways and who among the modern theologians are more ‘advanced’ than the theologians of the past, and the same about philosophers and artists.

  3. Another response, from R. Regan:

    You have set up a straw man argument. Which Western scholar purports his or her culture to have developed without roots or causes — i.e., a self-developing tradition that simply sprung up and owes its existence and evolution only to itself? On the contrary, the historians, sociologists, and yes, even the theologians of the West, are more than happy to acknowledge the cultural foundations and inspirations of the “other.” Just because, for example, a commentary on Husserl does not begin with the disclaimer, “the ideas herein would not exist if it were not for Greek, Jewish, Roman, Byzantine, and Egyptian civilization,” does not mean the author is denying the contributions and, yes, even the precedence of such cultures. Rather than being a careful analysis of academic trends in the West, your essay smacks of elitism and a desperate need to justify the superiority of ancient Greece and Byzantium. Indeed, ancient Greece and Byzantium are better than us in many, many ways, and we have much to thank them for; but such a fact does not make our civilization some type of historical joke — a cultural imposter.

  4. Hi Robert,

    Perhaps you misunderstood the point. Is there any reference in the post about the West having an insignificant civilization or being ungrateful / oblivious of other civilizations that inspired its own ways? Nowhere. The only thing that is said, is that the West does not identify itself with any culture (its own or others’) which is Brague’s claim, that a real progress was made only in science and technology (contrary to Brague’s claim), and that the Western homelessness is due to problematic personal relationships rather than to the lack of identification with a culture.

 

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