The Essence of Rome: A Tale of Three Cities
by Christopher Morrissey
Leo Strauss liked to call to our attention the creative tension between Athens and Jerusalem. With Remi Brague, I would like to refocus our attention onto the apparentmediation of this creative tension that was accomplished by Rome.
Now, I say that this accomplishment occurred by the apparent mediation of Rome, only to nod to common opinion: namely, the undeniably historical view that Rome has somehow mediated and “linked up” Athens and Jerusalem for us in Western culture. But Brague asks us to consider something additional. For me, it is the pertinent causal question: Why are there two sources for Western culture?
Why did Rome not feel the need to annihilate, or assimilate, one or the other—or both? Brague’s answer is striking. He says that Europe’s Romanity, what drives its enduring capacity for rebirth, is the Christian religion. As Christopher Dawson knew, religion is the key to history. The Christian religion is the key to understanding European history. Christianity does not annihilate or assimilate the Old Covenant; it stands in a unique religious relation of secondarity or derivativeness. Europe’s essence, its secondarity or derivativeness, mirrors this relation between Christianity and the Old Covenant.
Christianity stands in a relation of religious secondarity to Jerusalem. The Roman Empire stood in a unique relation of cultural secondarity to Greece, which it took as a cultural model because it acknowledged Greece as superior in arts and letters. So when religion met culture in the way Christianity came to Rome, this religious model of secondarity could now turbocharge the Roman cultural model such that the dynamic European way, of being willing to come second in relation to a previous culture, could be unleashed—a dynamism unparalleled in history.
But the objections to this theory of history come easily. It sounds too much like simply cheering the home team, does it not? In a word, this is precisely the academic aversion to Dawson and his emphasis on the Christian religion as the key to understanding the dynamics of history: viz., the aversion to ‘Eurocentrism.’
But: “‘Eurocentrism’ is a misnomer. Worse: it is the contrary of truth”; as Brague says, “no culture was ever so little centered on itself and so interested in the other ones as Europe.”
In the name of multiculturalism, the key question is suppressed. What accounts for the unique dynamism of “Rome,” that is, for Europe’s willingness “to come in second” to two other cities (Athens and Jerusalem)? Notice how quickly the rejections come—what about imperialism? colonialism? everything else nasty?—in order to show that this Europe, and its apparent Romanity, has aggressively placed itself first, as second to none.
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