The West’s Cultural Continuity

My article on “The West’s Cultural Continuity” appears at The Gates of Vienna, here:

The article discusses the work of Henri Pirenne, Sylvain Gouguenheim, and Emmett Scott.

I offer an excerpt:

In addition to passing remarks, Gouguenheim devotes a separate chapter to the classicizing tendencies of the Syriac and Arab Christians, as distinct from their linguistic cousins and brethren in the Islamic faith. As part of Byzantium, of which their main region of Cappadocia was a province, Syriac Christians played a central role in constituting the Eastern theological discourse during the medieval centuries, continuing to do so even after they had fallen under the sway of the Caliphs, thereby assisting in the westward transmission of Attic and Alexandrian lore. Gouguenheim writes: “Insofar as one speaks of ‘Arabic-Muslim culture’ in the Seventh through the Tenth Centuries, one commits an anachronism… because the culture was at that time barely Muslim and was Arab only by displaced appellation.” Truly, “Syriac is closer to Hebrew than to Arabic,” and the elites of the Nestorian and Monophysite dispensations could generally boast bilingualism in their own tongue and the Koine of the Empire. The jolly idea of Muslim competence in classical learning, as Gouguenheim argues, rests on a misunderstanding: what Islam knew of Greco-Roman wisdom, which it possessed at no time extensively, it knew largely thanks to Syriac scholars. “The Syriac [Christians] were in effect the essential intermediaries of the transmission into Arabic of the philosophical texts of the ancient Greeks,” who generously gave far more than the reluctant takers took. Obtuse westerners betray their lack of discrimination and their poverty of real knowledge in failing to differentiate between Syriac culture and the Arabic-Muslim culture that, by means of the Jihad, conquered and cruelly stamped out Nestorian (and Coptic and Byzantine) society.

Unlike their Muslim beneficiaries, however, the Syriac Christians could assimilate the full range of Greek logic and speculation. The Johannine Logos stemmed from the Greek Logos and the Christianity of the Patres — whether Greek, Latin, or Syriac — therefore comported itself as a rational theology. Already in Late Antiquity, Cappadocians and Syrians stood out as the chief developers of Neo-Platonism; emperors both Pagan and Christian sought counsel from the professors of Antioch’s renowned Daphnaeum. In a chapter on “Islam and Greek Knowledge,” Gouguenheim notes that for Muslims, on the other hand, the Logos constituted an inassimilable scandal, subversive of the absolute submission to Allah’s commands, as articulated in the Koran, that the name Islam denotes. Islam kept of Greek thought “in general [only] that which could not come in contradiction with Koranic teaching.” Furthermore, “Greece — and so too Rome — represented a world radically foreign to Islam, for reasons religious, but also political”; and, unlike the Latinate and Frankish peoples, “Muslims did not interest themselves in the languages of those whom they had conquered” because “Arabic was the sacred language par excellence, and that of revelation.”

8 thoughts on “The West’s Cultural Continuity

  1. Pingback: The West’s Cultural Continuity | Reaction Times

  2. Thank you for this thorough review (I relished the entire thing at Gates of Vienna). I had always been rather suspicious of the narrative proclaiming that preservation of classical culture owed to a tolerant and beneficent caliphate that stood in remarkable contrast to the illiterate rubes of Christendom. I hope these works garner the attention they deserve.

    • Dear Rod:

      You are welcome. Thank you for taking the time to read it.

      Henrie Pirenne’s work has been available in English for many decades. Emmett Scott’s books are in print and fairly widely reviewed. Sylvain Gouguenheim will remain unknown in the Anglosphere until such time as a British or American publisher is willing to cough up a few thousand dollars to pay for a translation. In the old days of Henry Regnery, the project would have been a fait-accompli six weeks after the book appeared in French.



  3. The fact that Gouguenheim confuses Dun Scotus with John Scottus Eriugena (the actual 9th century translator of Ps-Dionysius and great theologian in his own right) does not inspire a great deal of confidence in the research underlying his book, though the ultimate conclusions might be correct.


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