Why Europe is in need of a strong concept of the good

Europa, de Romeinse weg

Naar aanleiding van het emeritaat van bijzonder hoogleraar prof.dr. Donald Loose en het honderdjarig bestaan van de Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam organiseerde de Faculteit der Wijsbegeerte het colloquium “Europa’s hoogste goed” op vrijdag 22 november 2013. Het colloquium vond plaats in het Erasmuspaviljoen op Campus Woudestein van de Erasmus Universiteit. Keynote spreker was prof.dr. Rémi Brague. Dagvoorzitter prof.dr. Ger Groot kondigde de lezing van Braque aan en reikte het eerste exemplaar van Europa, de Romeinse weg uit aan prof. dr. Rémi Brague. Hieronder kunt u de lezing van prof. dr. Ger Groot nalezen. Wij danken hem hartelijk voor de toestemming om zijn lezing te publiceren op Filoblog. Bestellingen van Europa, de Romeinse weg via de website van Uitgeverij Klement worden u portovrij toegezonden, gebruik de kortingscode 978908.


Ladies and gentlemen,

I welcome you to this second part of this colloquium on the question of Europe and its ‘highest good’, on the occassion of the final lesson of prof. Donald Loose as holder of the Thomas More Chair, here in Rotterdam. And a very  special welcome to professor Rémi Brague, who wrote one of the most penetrating books on this question published in the last decades, about which I will say more later on. We are very greatful, professor Brague, that you were willing to make the trip from Paris, in order to deliver your lecture on the question Why Europe is in need of a strong concept of the good.

I will confine myself to just some introductory words about your long and sophisticated academic career to highlight for our Dutch public the extraordinary occasion of hearing you adress this fascinating theme.

Prof. Remi Brague teaches Greek, Roman and Arab philosophy at the University of Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne) and the Ludwig-Maximilian Universität in Munich, where he holds the Romano Guardini Chair on the history of christianity. After publishing important studies on (amongst others) Plato, Aristotle, Saint-Bernard and Maimonides, his international fame reached out to a more general public with the publication of his book Europe, la voie romaine, fathoming in a rather paradoxical way the ‘essence’ that makes Europe what it is.

Next, Remi Brague turned to the question in what world man has found himself to live, from the beginnings of what may be called ‘Europe’ on to  the the Modern Times. In La sagesse du monde (1999) he shows how man in antiquity and the Middle Ages still found himself to be sheltered in a world which he could call his ‘home’. La loi de Dieu (2005) continues this historic quest through the Middle Ages, concentrating on the relations of man to the divine law, in judaism, christianity and Islam. Modernity then poses the question of the legitimity and proper essence of man, in a ‘humanist’ culture that seems to have no more philosophical foundation than a kind of anti-‘anti-humanism’. Brague attacks this question in his latest book Le propre de l’homme: sur une légitimité menacée (published this year).

These are just some of the titels of Prof. Brague’s many books and even more numerous contributions and articles in philosophical reviews and collections of essays. It has gained him the reputation of one of the most profound thinkers, not only of our European past and present, but above that of the religious fate of Europe and its heritige. For his work he received last year the Ratzinger Prize for theology and was awarded the Légion d’honneur early this year. Remi Brague is member of the Institut de France, of the Académie catholique de France and the Académie des sciences morales et politiques.

May I invite you, prof Brague, to deliver your lecture Why Europe is in need of a strong concept of the good.

Thank you very much, prof. Brague, for your insightful, deep and provoking lecture. In one of your books, I read: ‘Being a professional philosopher, I belong to the kind of people who have difficulties in understanding things, ‘to whom one must explain really everything’, even the clearest of things: like Being, the Good, society, Man and some more, apparently evident affairs.’ I think in your lecture you showed a remarkable ability to shed a bright light on most of these topics, for us, your public of this afternoon who, being professional philosophers or not, share (no doubt) the charming characteristic of ‘having difficulties in understanding things’, even the clearest and most evident ones. Of course, as a philosopher you did not do so by giving us clear-cut, definitive answers to all the questions we might have had, perhaps even before we realized that we had them. You did so, rather, by provoking our uneasiness about what we perhaps thought were our certenties: our fixed opinions on what after all proved to be not so fixed at all.

The book I quoted from was, of course, Europe, la voie romaine, the Dutch translation of which is presented here to-day with the title Europa, de Romeinse weg. Thank God, I said to myself when I first saw it, the title of this book is just a straight translation from the French – as opposed to the rather fanciful title the English translation received:  Eccentric culture: A Theory of Western Civilisation. This change was perhaps due to the fact that ‘Europe’ is not a very popular topic these days in the British Isles. Nor is it, I’m afraid to say, in Holland – as it does not seem to be very much so either in the nation whose president bears almost the same name as this country: France. Only a week ago the French politician Marine Le Pen came to The Hague, to unite her forces with Geert Wilders in a joint operation against further European integration.

Of course, there are many ways of thinking about Europe as a political project. But some pages further in your book you quote Ernest Renan’s famous words: ‘Europe is a continuous plebicite’. Ever again, one has to choose in what way one wants to be part of it. But what’s not possible for a European (or a European nation) is to situate itself outside of it. Europe is our fate and our destiny, whether we want it or not.

But what is this Europe we’re part of? Has it any essence – or is it just a strip of land (rather small compared to the Asian and African continents it’s attached to), with a history that’s more ‘sound and fury’ than a coherent tale of a developing civilisation? In your book you show that European history is not just ‘a tale told by an idiot’, that is does have a specific signification, up against what Shakespeare makes his MacBeth say, on hearing of the death of his notorious wife. But then, the history of Europe outlined by you is quite different from the fierce and savage agression Shakespeare seems to perceive at the root of it. Of course, European history is stained with blood, as you emphatically recognize – just as all history is, without exception.

What, then, is the specific nature of this Europe, that seems to have so much trouble in understanding itself? Its nature, you point out in your book, is its excentricity. Not the kind of excentricity Englishmen (there they are again) seem te relish in, feeling themselves more at ease with themselves as their behavior gets weirder, maintaining at the same time a complexion of complete normality, and apparently finding in this contradiction the absurdness of the paradox the British seem to be so fond of. Your excentricity is probably, if I may say so, of a more Cartesian kind. At least, it follows a logic that ‘explains really everything, even the clearest of things’, if I may quote you once again. So it presents not only a comprehensible but also convincing image of the ‘essence’ of Europa – though even you could not escape the temptation of at least a tiny bit of paradox, in saying that the essence, the centre, the heart of Europe exists only in its relation to its ‘otherness’. That what is really ‘ours’ is only so because it refers to a heritage that is precisely not ‘ours’ – and on top of it: it never will be.

‘European culture is in its totality an effort to return to a past that has never been hers, but in relation to which one has the feeling of an irrepairable backlash, an ‘estrangement’ expericend with grief,’ you write in the beginning of a section wherein you call Europe ‘the parvenu’ of human history. For Europe, you explain, has no proper history of heritage. It has its roots in cultures that are different from what it has become. There is no straight line from Greece or Israel, from Athens or Jerusalem, to a Europe that absorbed them. It only borrowed from these two great sources the elements with which it has construed itself, but always knew that it was, compared to these two magnificent origines, ‘second hand’.

But precisely this uneasiness is its greatness. It prevents the complacency of a culture that slumbers away in a kind of self-sufficiency, convinced that it can be its own foundation. Europe has to look outside of itself to find the tools for its own existence – and that forces it to go forward and especially: to look around and be genuinely interested in other culture, in a way no other culture has ever been. Because Europe has no choice. It has to refer itself to its ‘otherness’, it has to be (in a very continental way) eccentric.

This highly original view is presented by you with an impressive intellectual force and erudition. Amongst the numerous references to medieval sources or contemporary authors in a wide variety of languages, the reader should not be surprised to find a reference to Georges Prosper Remi, better known as ‘Hergé’, writer of the adventures of Tintin, in this specific case The blue lotus. Nor should he be surprized to find a short but surprizing exposé on christian names, that in European civilisation (as opposed to Hebrew, Latin and German civilisation) have no apparent meaning, or have completely lost the direct meaning they ever had. ‘In the great majority of civilisations,’ if I may quote you again, ‘names have an a priori (apparently praising) meaning that immediatly indicates what one expects of the child thus named. The European, however, receives his identity as an empty frame that he must try to fill.’

It was this combination of deep insights and penetrating observations that makes this book so valuable for the discussion about Europe to-day. That has been the reason why the initiative to the Dutch translation was taken from within the research programme of the Thomas More Chair, occupied by Donald Loose, that for the last years has centered around this difficult question of the ‘essence’, ‘nature’, fate and destiny of Europe. I would like to thank the Thomas More Foundation for making this possible, and the publishing house Klement for their willingness to include this book in their catalogue : being one of the most interesting philosophical publishers in Holland to-day. Unfortunately, the translater (who did a magnificent job) has not seen the results of his work. Koos de Valk, who for many years occupied the chair of sociology and social philosophy in this university, passed away last december.

He might have found some satisfaction, though, in the idea that this translation is made in one of the few languages you, prof. Brague, do not speak fluently. Or perhaps I should say: not yet, because with your perfect domination of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, German, English, Italian, Spanish and of course French, one might imagine that Dutch will be the next one to complete this impressive list even further. It is then a great pleasure for me to hand over to you the first copy of this enigmatic Dutch version of your magnificent book. I hope it fits in well with the other 14 or 16 translations already published (I lost count) and that it will serve as a remembrance of your trip to Rotterdam, for which we thank you once again, with all our hearts.

Ger Groot

Ger Groot is bijzonder hoogleraar filosofie en literatuur aan de Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen en universitair hoofddocent filosofische antropologie aan de Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam. Hij is een van de auteurs van het boek Dankbaar en aandachtig. In gesprek met Samuel IJsseling dat binnenkort verschijnt.