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Rodan's wager

Review of Notre culture européenne, cette inconnue / Martin Rodan (Peter Lang, 2009)

I received my passport in the mail the other day. No, not the passport that lets us leave our native land and fellow citizens, but rather one that takes us to the home of the great geniuses of our culture. I'm talking about Martin Rodan's Notre culture européenne, cette inconnue.

This book is an update and development of Constantin Brunner's cultural analysis. Rodan, like any pupil of Brunner, proceeds from the idea that the concept of genius is the key to understanding the foundations of culture. From this perspective, Rodan lays out the cultural history of Europe. He starts with Homer, showing how the great artistic genius is the source of everything we understand as constituting Greek culture. Next, he presents Moses as the initiator of the second strand of European culture. The development of these cultures is shown as a complex process of imitation and embodiment of the ideas and ideals of the great founders. Each culture ultimately achieves its apotheosis in a genius who perfectly embodies the ideal of the founder. In Greece, it is Socrates who perfects the Homeric project; and, from among the followers of Moses, it is Christ who succeeds in bringing the mystical revelation of Sinai to its highest pitch of perfection.

Rodan next demonstrates how each of these cultures declines. In the case of the Greeks, it is the alliance of power with knowledge that debases the Socratic ideal. This alliance was sealed between Aristotle and Alexander, and it continues to define our civilisation of today. With Mosaic culture, we see a decline into popular superstition in alliance with oppressive scholasticism, culminating in the establishment of the medieval world. And again, this continues today, although never avowedly so.

The recovery from medievalism is the recovery of the twin strands of its origin: authentic Homeric culture and authentic Mosaic culture. This is the project of the Renaissance and the Reformation. This movement achieves its apotheosis with the work of Spinoza, who thereby serves as the founder of modern European culture.

The modern world, however, is seen as a whipsaw of conflicting trends and thoughts, with robotic technologism gaining the upper hand in conjunction with man's overweening pride in his triumphs over the material world. This is the result of failing to remember that Spinoza always stressed the primacy of scientific intuition over reductive rationality.

Rodan concludes the book with a homage to Brunner. He quotes his own mentor, Michaël Baraz, to the effect that, by providing a methodology for the practical use of the principle of genius, Brunner actually stands as the greatest of our geniuses. It seems absurd that someone completely unknown can really be the greatest of geniuses, yet the proof is right before our eyes in the form of Rodan's book: By using Brunner's method, Rodan has effectively presented the entire cultural history of the West in a way that is easy to read and thoroughly compelling. Quite simply, this book is one of the best sources for a sound understanding of cultural history.

For all that this book is compact and completely focused on its objective, it contains an enormous range of facts, quotations and references. In this regard it is quite in line with Brunner's work and that of his other expositors: a vast erudition is deployed to present a complex topic in a thorough yet appealing way. In particular, Rodan's discussion of French culture and literature is a joy to read, and would be an invaluable asset for students and teachers. For me, however, the best part of the book was the description of Greek culture. After reading it, I have to say that, for the first time in my life, I have a sure sense of myself. For this alone, Rodan's book stands as high in my regard as anything written by Brunner himself.

The book also has elements of whimsy and esprit. The whole thing is set up as a dialogue between Rodan and his various household appliances: his computer, his encyclopedia, his slide projector, his refrigerator and his beloved blow-up doll. This is actually extremely effective, as well as hugely entertaining. It must have taken considerable courage to depart from staid scholarly formulae, and my admiration and gratitude for it are unbounded. There is also considerable word play, which I, for one, greatly appreciated.

The book is constructed as an attempt on the part of Rodan to elicit from his appliances a European passport. He wagers that if he can convincingly present the history of European culture as a function of its few individual geniuses, he will then deserve to have the passport. I don't know if he will get his passport to Europe; but, as I said above, he has given all of us a passport to the realm of its geniuses.

This is also a deeply personal work. At the end, one feels that one truly knows Martin Rodan: his humour, his passion, his knowledge, his friendliness, and even his regret. He intimates that he writes in the vein of Montaigne, meaning that when he writes of the world he writes of himself. Well, I'll certainly have to read more of Montaigne now.

The spirit of Montaigne makes this a work that differs significantly from others that develop the thought of Brunner. Here, there is no attempt to develop a Brunnerian praxis, no direct correlation with natural or social science, and certainly no political prescriptions. Rodan remains in the lofty realm of thought, leaving it to his readers to elaborate for themselves a living praxis on the basis of that thought. It is this spirit of freedom that is the book's most attractive quality.—bp