“Yellow Ants,” Fundamentalists, and Cowboys – An interview with Rémi Brague
October 29, 2009
Interview and translation by Diederik Boomsma & Yoram Stein
We interview the French intellectual Rémi Brague about his life and work. The question of whether and in what way the West is unique forms a large part of the interview. Whether one can sensibly speak of “three religions of the book”, whether Brague is a Straussian, what the civilizational role of poverty, humility, and cultural inferiority complexes are, and whether Americans really are cultural cowboys, each get discussed in turn.
Could you tell us a little about yourself?
Well, I was born sixty years ago in a small community on the outskirts of Paris. I studied philosophy at the Ecole Normale Superieure. I married my current wife at the age of twenty-three. We have four children, who so far have given us two grandchildren.
My first academic interest was Greek philosophy, but I later became more and more interested in Semitic languages. I learned Hebrew to be able to understand the Old Testament. And when I was 38, I started to learn Arabic, because I wanted to read the Jewish philosopher Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed in its original language. Then I suddenly became professor of Arabic philosophy, and started to concentrate on Jewish and Arab medieval philosophy. Now, I spend the winters teaching in Paris and the summers teaching at the University of Munich. Although I study such a wide range of things without any apparent coherence, the word “work” perhaps isn’t justified. I consider it more a form of scholé in the classical sense: well used leisure.
You are known as a philosopher influenced by Leo Strauss. Is that correct?
Up to a point only. Leo Strauss taught me that when reading a text, you must be open to the possibility that it contains different layers of meaning. All philosophical books written before the Enlightenment aim at both a wider audience and a small elite, able to understand the deeper meaning of the texts. According to Strauss, this is because philosophy can be a threat to the establishment, by casting doubt on prevailing traditions and making them the subject of discussion. Therefore, philosophers must operate very carefully: both to protect themselves against the establishment, and to protect the established order against their undermining skepticism. So they must write down their thoughts in such a way, that only other philosophers understand the text at that level. The works of Maimonides may indeed be read in this fashion, but I am not convinced that it applies to the Greek philosophers. But Strauss became so convinced of his own way of interpreting texts, that he came to apply it to all sorts of books, even Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Strauss taught me to read very carefully. But I don’t consider myself a Straussian, nor do the real Straussians consider me as one of them.
The French tradition of public intellectuals began at the end of the 19h century with the Dreyfus affair, when the word “intellectual” was coined. But I am not a public intellectual in the way that for example Alain Finkielkraut—whom I admire very much—is. He regularly appears on national television and on radio. I do not. I am an academic. A real public intellectual must have something to say about everything, and I know almost nothing about, say, Afghanistan. But I do consider it a duty of academics to correct the frequent errors and untruths that pervade public discussions.
Could you give any examples of frequently occurring errors, which you feel compelled to correct from your particular expertise in medieval Jewish, Christian, and Islamic philosophy?
Yes. For example: people keep on referring to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the three monotheistic religions, as the three “religions of the book”, and the three religions of Abraham. This is three times nonsense. To speak of the three monotheistic religions is incorrect, because there are more than three. More importantly, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are monotheistic in very different ways. In the Jewish tradition, God is the God who is loyal in history, and frees his people from slavery in Egypt. In Christianity, God consists of the mutual love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For Muslims on the other hand, God is a one solid block.
The second misunderstanding is the idea that there are “three religions of the book”. That is misleading, because the meaning of the book is very different in each religion. In Judaism, the Tenakh is a written history of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, almost a kind of contract. In Christianity, the New Testament is the history of one person, Jesus, who is the incarnate Word of God. In Islam, the Koran is “uncreated” and has descended from the heavens in perfect form. Only in Islam is the book itself what is revealed by God. In Judaism God is revealed in the history of the Jewish people. In Christianity God is revealed as love in the person of Jesus. Judaism and Christianity are not religions of the book, but religions with a book.
The third misconception is to speak of “the three Abrahamic religions”. Christians usually refer to Abraham as a person who binds these three religions together, and who is shared by them. In Judaism, he is the “founding father”. But in the Koran it is written: “Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian.” (III, 67). To Muslims, Abraham was a Muslim, as was the first man, Adam. According to Islam, the first prophets received the same revelation as Mohammed, but the message was subsequently forgotten. Or it was tampered with, with evil intent. So according to Islam, the Torah and the Gospels are fakes.
All in all it must be said, that the religions cannot easily be compared. There are fundamental differences. Yet they are constantly discussed as if they were essentially the same thing.
Some would say that there are many fundamental differences even within Christianity or Islam. Are you ever rebuked for speaking of Islam as if it were a singular whole, whereas in reality there are many different forms of Islam in the world?
My response to this reproach is the following story: once upon a time there was a chemist who wrote a treatise on the element cobalt. Because pure cobalt doesn’t exist in nature but only in compounds with silicon, copper, and other elements, the chemist was criticized: Why write a treatise on something that can’t be found anywhere, and so doesn’t seem to exist? The chemist replied that precisely because he wanted to understand all those different cobalt compounds occurring in the world, he needed to study the properties of pure cobalt. In the same way, I am an “essentialist”. I cannot say very much about individual Muslims, but I know some things about Islam’s basic claims, that each and every Muslim shares: the Koran as dictated by God, Mohammed as the “beautiful example”, Mecca as the direction of prayer, etc. I don’t know how Europe should integrate its Muslim immigrants, and I’m not saying that theology can provide all the answers. But social sciences and statistics don’t either. To understand Islam however, you must be willing to take the Islamic interpretation of Islam seriously. You must study its theology, the way it understands itself.
What are your views on moderate forms of Islam?
A moderate Islam would be a very good idea. There are moderate Muslims, but Islam has its inner logic, as do other religions.
Many well-meaning myths circulate about Islamic Spain. The Muslims there were indeed quite tolerant towards each other. But in the oft-romanticized city of Cordoba, the family of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides was banished, Averroes was exiled, and many Christians martyred. If there was indeed some form of Islamic enlightenment in the tenth century under the influence of thinkers such as al-Farabi, it was buried in the eleventh. Philosophy never reached mainstream Islam. An “enlightened” thinker such as Averroës was completely forgotten in the Arabic-speaking world; but his works were widely studied in Hebrew and Latin. And the original texts were republished in Europe from the mid-nineteenth century on.
Incidentally, in one of his books Averroës emphasized that heretics should be killed (see Incoherence of the Incoherence, XVII, 17).
Why did philosophy play such an important role in Europe but not in the Arab world, when many classical (Western) philosophical texts were only preserved as Arabic translations?
Philosophy has always been marginal in the Islamic world, but it blossomed in Europe. Why? Well, it was not because of a difference in the sources: both had Aristotle and some Neo-Platonist texts. Although Europe had to put up with only the beginning of Aristotle’s logical works and waited till the 12th Century for the rest to be available in Latin. Also, there was no difference in the genius of their philosophers. Thomas Aquinas was no more brilliant than al-Farabi. The big difference was that philosophy was never institutionalized in the Islamic world, as it was in Europe, thanks to the universities. All great Islamic philosophers were amateurs. They practiced law or worked as doctors, because philosophy didn’t exist as a profession. Therefore, philosophy remained an army with only generals; whereas in Europe it was taught at universities, where the philosophers also trained lawyers, physicians, and theologians.
By the way, nearly all texts translated from Greek in the Middle East were translated by Christians. There is only one example of an early Islamic thinker who studied a non-Islamic language: al-Biruni. That is another difference: Islamic scholars read the classical works in Arabic translations; whereas in Europe, some people in the Middle Ages—and the whole intellectual elite from the 15th Century on—learned the classical languages. They did this to read the originals.
You frequently emphasize the importance of learning classical languages. Why?
Learning classical languages is essential to European civilization.
In 1992 I published a short study of the cultural identity of Europe: Europe, la voie romaine, which was translated in English as Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization. I actually prefer the English title, since it instantly states the central thesis of the book. Europe’s luck was its initial poverty. For a very long time, Europe remained far removed from the existing cultural centers in Asia. Europeans were barbarians, inhabiting distant, freezing northern shores. And they knew this about themselves. Studying classical languages, and thereby imbibing a civilization wholly different from their own, made them conscious of the fact that they were stinking barbarians, who needed to wash themselves with the soap of higher civilizations. The Romans were well aware that they were culturally inferior to the Greeks. But they also had the courage to admit it. And that is precisely what gave them the strength to absorb the Hellenic civilization, and spread it to the lands they conquered. The essential characteristic of European culture is that it is ex-centric. Not in the sense of an Englishman who takes a bath wearing his bowler hat, but in the sense that the two sources of her civilization, Athens and Jerusalem, lie outside the geographical area of Europe itself. European culture is based on the recognition that we are barbarians who civilized ourselves by internalizing ‘strange’ cultural sources.
And that’s unique to Europe?
Yes, Western civilization is something very strange and unusual. Most civilizations have only one centre. Islam has Mecca. Ancient Egypt had Memphis. Babylon had Babylon. But Western civilization had two sources, Athens and Jerusalem—the Jewish and later Christian tradition and that of pagan antiquity—often described as being in dynamic conflict. This opposition is founded on the opposition of Jew and Greek, borrowed from Saint Paul, which was then systemized in different ways: Hellenism versus Hebraism, the religion of beauty versus the religion of obedience, reason versus faith, aesthetics versus ethics, etc. The curious thing is that one was never swallowed by the other. Europe is neither Jewish nor Greek. In “Rome” in Christianity (e.g., the Roman Catholic Church), Jerusalem and Athens are simultaneously joined and kept apart.
With the coming of Christianity the preceding cultures were not destroyed, but a new civilization was formed. As the Romans recognized that their culture was “secondary” to that of the Greeks, the Christians recognized that Judaism preceded Christianity. This understanding gave European civilization a unique openness and humility towards the enormous cultural achievements of the past.
This humility has been a great strength. It fosters the awareness that you cannot simply inherit a civilizing tradition, but that you must work very hard to obtain it—to control the barbarian inside. This has given European culture the possibility of renaissances: a renewed appreciation of the sources of our culture, to correct what has gone wrong.
This becomes apparent in the different ways in which Islam and Christianity approached their older Greek and Jewish sources. The difference could be described by the words “digestion” and “inclusion”. In Islam, the original Jewish and Christian texts were digested, changed into something completely new, purely authentic to Islam itself. In Europe on the other hand, the original texts were left in their original state. The Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Tenakh are almost exactly the same; and Christians recognize the Jewish origins of the books of the Old Testament. Similarly, the Church Fathers took up classical philosophy, and Thomas Aquinas studied Aristotle and included Aristotelian notions in his theology. Yet scholars have never stopped reading the works of Aristotle himself.
The success of Western Europe is remarkable. Who could have thought in the early Middle Ages that Western Europe would become so powerful, and not the Byzantine or Islamic civilizations? Europe is a continent of parvenus. The Roman and Christian inferiority complexes have worked as spurs on the horse.
So a cultural inferiority complex can be a blessing?
Of course there are good and bad ways of dealing with an inferiority complex. The right way is to work harder, as Europeans have done. The wrong way would be resentment.
Do you think there is a threat that Europe may lose this unique openness? Is the West becoming ‘normal’?
With the decline of Christianity and classical education, the West is indeed becoming less and less interested in the classical sources of our civilization. Knowing less about our own civilization also seems to make us lose the ability to listen carefully to what we could learn from others. The Chinese show us that to survive you must work. And what do we do? We call them “yellow ants”. Muslims show us that to survive, you must procreate. We call them “fundamentalists”. Americans could teach us that you must not blind yourself to the fact that you have enemies. And what do we do? We call them “cowboys”.
Why are we allowing this to happen?
Perhaps we have become victims of our own success. It seems Europeans have eaten the carrot of civilization that used to spur them onwards. To survive, we must learn to remain humble, in spite of our successes.
Professor Rémi Brague is part of a small group of European thinkers, knowledgeable of the founding traditions of the Christian West as well as medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophy and theology. This nature of this knowledge—being both broad and deep—is evident in his publications in French and German. The few of his books that English speakers have been lucky enough to receive in translation are: The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (forthcoming, April 2009); The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea; The Wisdom of the World: The Human Experience of the Universe in Western Thought; Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization.
Diederik Boomsma is a journalist and editor living and working in Amsterdam.
Yoram Stein is a journalist and writer living and working in The Netherlands.