Remi Brague: a Philosopher and Friend

by Nina Hufford

To many, Remi Brague is a French historian and philosopher who studies Jewish, Arab, and Christian thought in the Middle Ages. To Hillsdale students, he is also a friend. I found myself learning this rather rapidly when I was handed the keys to drive this world-renowned professor to an off-campus house to hang out with students after his talk.

In his lecture, Professor Brague had focused on the idea of looking to other cultures and incorporating what is good from those cultures into our own. He encouraged all of us to choose what is good over what is already ours, and illustrated that the study of classical cultures is important because it trains us to value ways of life which are not our own. This discipline gets us into the habit of choosing what is good over choosing what we already possess.

After the talk, I walked up to professor Brague with a few of my friends to get his autograph. Unlike my friends, I didn’t have a book of his yet, so I asked him to sign a slip of paper that I could put into a book later. He drew a fish on the paper for an April fools’ joke and a note that said, “With all best wishes, and for a book that might exist in the future,” then handed it back to me with a twinkle in his eye.

Just then, I looked over and saw my friends laughing and a professor shrugging his shoulders in consent and laughing as well. The next thing I knew, one of my friends had walked up to invite Dr. Brague to our house for cheese and wine, and to my astonishment, he agreed to come.

“I could do that,” he said in a thick French accent. “I need my bedtime though. Jetlag.”

We leaped into action. Two people were commissioned to go to the store to buy cheese, crackers, and fruit. Someone handed me a key and directed, “You drive Remi over to Graceland when he’s done talking with the professors.”

When we got to my friends’ house, people from all different corners of campus had already gathered. Professor Brague told us that he loved our culture of hospitality and openness, and that we exemplified gastfreundschaft. This German word, according to Henri Nouwen, means “the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend.”

During his time at Graceland, Brague talked with different students and asked us to eat and drink with him. He seemed to genuinely care about each person he spoke with, asking us about our own little Hillsdale community and sharing his own cultural heritage with us in turn.

“He came on April fools’ day and was telling us about the French way of celebrating where they stick fish on people’s backs!” said Natalie Taylor, ’19.

“I didn’t discuss anything unique ‘intellectually,’” added Cait Weighner, ’20, “but I was struck by his good humor and humility. It’s so important and kind of rare to have prominent intellectuals that are good and delightful people!”

In a wonderful way, Remi Brague exemplified his own talk when he came to Graceland. He agreed to enter into our own culture without presuming that he was above it or that he could not learn from it. He admired the gastfreundschaft that we offered, and sought to give us a share in the wisdom from his own life and culture in return.

Nina Hufford, ’20, grew up in Ann Arbor, MI, where she inherited her outdoor spirit and elephant pants. She studies English and Spanish at Hillsdale, as well as the trees, poems, and people she encounters daily. In her free time, she enjoys canoeing, playing soccer, and swinging on the porch.

Published in July 2019