A review of The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, by Rémi Brague, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane
I am," confesses Rémi Brague in his latest book, "somewhat immoderately fond of provocation," and, he adds later, "fond of understatement." Perhaps Brague means that he provokes through understatement; perhaps he means that he has understated his fondness for provocation. In either case, he obviously enjoyed himself in writing The Legend of the Middle Ages, and it is impossible for us not to enjoy ourselves in reading it.
Brague began his career teaching ancient Greek philosophy at Dijon; he now teaches medieval Arabic philosophy at the Université Panthéon-Sorbonne in Paris. He says that he never intended to become a medievalist, but that he was "seduced" by the period, which he limns here for an audience of "both specialists and non-specialists." The book comprises 16 essays introduced by an interview. Most of this material has been published previously in French, but all of it has been reworked to form the present book.
Originally published as Au moyen du Moyen Âge (In the Middle of the Middle Ages) rather than The Legend of the Middle Ages, the book's two titles correspond loosely to the two goals he offers in his short preface: "to listen" to the Middle Ages "as a period of history that has something to teach us about ourselves," and to destroy the "teeming vermin" of legends about the Middle Ages.
Let's begin with the English title and the second goal. Whether Brague manages to crush all the pestiferous legends about the Middle Ages is hard to know, but he does knock off a fair number. To mention three: First, he shows that the demise of geocentrism (the Ptolemaic notion that the earth is the center of the universe) in no way precipitated a corresponding demise in human self-esteem. Indeed, "[t]he Copernican hypothesis, far from being considered a wound, was felt as a flattering promotion: instead of crouching in a dungeon, man was henceforth the inhabitant of a neighborhood as chic as the sun's." Second, he points out that Averroes, whose stock has risen dramatically within the contemporary French philosophical establishment-"Averromania," Brague calls it-was not, after all, really "a nice man, in the Hollywood sense of ‘a good guy.'" Finally, he pours cold water on the legend currently in vogue about the open dialogue among the three Abrahamic religions in the multicultural Mediterranean of the Middle Ages. This pest attracts Brague's ire most of all, for he views it as a myth modern Europeans want to foster so they can pretend to see themselves in a historical mirror. The problem is that such open religious dialogue almost never occurred. Cordova, for example, the alleged multicultural center of both medieval faith and Mediterranean learning, was in fact a city so retrograde that it exiled its two greatest thinkers, Maimonides and Averroes.
Although crushing the teeming vermin of bad history is always useful, and though no one else could ever hope to do it with Brague's graceful charm and astonishing erudition, the book's more serious purpose is to listen to the Middle Ages in order to learn about ourselves. Such an exhortation may remind CRB readers of Leo Strauss. And indeed, approximately 20 years ago, Brague wrote two related essays on Strauss's understanding of Arabic medieval philosophy that were eventually published in English as "Leo Strauss and Maimonides" and "Athens, Jerusalem, Mecca: Leo Strauss's ‘Muslim' Understanding of Greek Philosophy." Shortly after completing that diptych, Brague published Europe, la voie romaine, which was expanded and translated into English in 2002 as Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization. This book attempted to provide, Brague said, a "Roman" view of Western culture as opposed to Strauss's "Meccan" interpretation.
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In The Legend of the Middle Ages, Brague revisits his earlier argument with Strauss. This is not the principal or ostensible focus of the book-Strauss is cited by name only a handful of times-but the dispute between the two is often just beneath the surface. Both Brague and Strauss recognize that, properly-speaking, there is no such thing as Jewish, Christian, or Islamic philosophy; there is only philosophy done in Jewish, Christian, or Islamic cultural or political contexts. Brague, moreover, credits Strauss with having understood that the "institutionalization" of philosophy in Christian Scholasticism meant that Latin medieval philosophy was radically different from Arabic medieval philosophy. Brague does not call Arabic philosophy "esoteric," but he does note that Avicenna, for example, often practiced philosophy at night, and he thinks it possible that certain Islamic philosophers found it convenient to make sure that their writings did not conflict openly with the regimes in which they lived.
Brague challenges Strauss primarily with respect to the latter's assessment of Christian Scholasticism. Strauss argued that the Scholastics had compromised philosophy by forcing it to serve as a handmaiden to revealed theology; but Brague thinks that the method for appropriating philosophy practiced by the medieval Christians was, and is, preferable to that of the Muslims. The Islamic lands appropriated through "digestion," in which the philosophical texts were absorbed into the dominant culture so that they no longer had a distinct status. The appropriation of philosophy in Scholasticism, on the other hand, was not aimed at digestion, but at a sort of "institutionalized indigestion." That is, the Christians preserved the original texts, but did not absorb them; the works of Aristotle and other classical philosophers always remained "other." The Scholastics, Brague implies, actually preserved ancient philosophy more faithfully than did their Muslim counterparts-a conclusion diametrically opposed to Strauss's. This is not the place to attempt to adjudicate the argument between the two, but Brague's tantalizing thesis, with its emphasis on different methods of appropriating texts, would seem to miss Strauss's principal point, which is that the Christians had compromised philosophy as a way of life, whereas the Arabic philosophers had practiced such a life.
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In The Legend of the Middle Ages, Brague's preference for appropriation by "inclusion" is related to his general understanding of and appreciation for medieval Europe. Unlike Europe today, medieval Europe knew pretty much what its boundaries were; it was basically coextensive with what had been the Western or Latin part of the Roman Empire. This meant that the medieval Europeans knew that the ancient Greek philosophy they were reading was non-European in origin. They could not avoid the obvious fact that they were unworthy dwarfs standing on the shoulders of foreign giants. Something similar applied to Europe's dominant medieval religion. Despite pressures to jettison the Hebrew Scriptures during its first centuries, the Church clung stubbornly to the Old Testament, preserving it intact through inclusion rather than digesting it. Whereas the Koran includes no books belonging to the predecessors of Islam, the European Christians were forced to acknowledge that, once again, they were beholden to others. Medieval Europe was thus always aware that neither "Athens" nor "Jerusalem" was within Europe; in short, even in gratitude, it was always aware of its humiliation.
But humiliation can result in humility, and those who are humble will be forever attempting to appropriate the "other" through inclusion, forever undertaking a new renaissance. And this, in Brague's view, is precisely what happened in medieval Europe, for the humility of the Europeans meant that they needed "to accept going elsewhere to draw from the sources." The Europe of the Middle Ages, then, should be understood as "an uninterrupted series of renaissances." Stating the matter paradoxically, Brague says that "[o]ne might even go so far as to say that the Middle Ages may have been the only historical epoch that never accepted being a ‘middle age.'"
This brings us back to Brague's fondness for provocation and his desire to have us listen to the Middle Ages in order to learn something about ourselves. Just what is it that he wants to provoke us to learn? Commenting on Eccentric Culture in the interview that opens The Legend of the Middle Ages, Brague at one point indulges in a moment of exasperation over modern Europe:
The (very relative) success of my book on Europe, with its translations, continues to amaze me. But I sometimes wonder, when my morale is low, if I might not have done better to use the time I spent writing it to learn Egyptian or Akkadian. The civilizations that used those languages offer the advantage of being thoroughly dead. But are Europeans really living? Do they want to continue to live? Or are they zombies frantically agitating their limbs so as to pass for being truly alive?
Brague's exasperation with modern Europe, combined with his understanding of medieval Europe, leads one to conclude that he wants to provoke Europe to live again by returning to its old habit of borrowing from others, and thereby bringing forth new renaissances. But from whom is Europe now to borrow humbly? Rémi Brague seems decidedly against borrowing from Mecca. Does he expect Europe to return to its old creditors, Athens and Jerusalem?
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For Correspondence on this review, click here.