A French philosopher makes a bold case for traditional wisdom, says Edward Feser
Curing Mad Truths
by Rémi Brague
University of Notre Dame press, 133pp, £25/$29
Rémi Brague argues that the modern project has failed, and that the source of the failure is a kind of heresy. To be sure, he does not himself use that word. But it is an apt label for what he describes. Modernity, on Brague’s account, is defined by several ideas it borrowed from Christianity, while at the same time it rejects the larger conceptual context that made those ideas intelligible.
For example, progress is essentially the idea of divine providence with God subtracted from it. But without God, the belief that man is destined to advance, morally or otherwise, is groundless.
Modern Europeans and Americans are constantly confessing guilt – especially that of their ancestors – and seeking mercy and forgiveness. Yet they deny the divine judge who alone can give them absolution. Modern science presupposes that the universe exhibits a rational order that can be uncovered by the human mind. But it also represents the mind as entirely the product of forces that favour, not rationality per se, but only whatever is conducive to survival.
The notion of hairesis, or heresy, is literally a matter of “choosing” or plucking out a doctrine from the others to which it is logically connected, severing it thereby from the context that gives it its meaning. And that is what modernity’s keeping of some Christian themes while jettisoning others has involved. The remedy, Brague argues, is to return to the medieval Christian wisdom that modern thinkers have defined themselves against. His chapters develop this theme in a way that is philosophically deep but also clear, succinct and witty.
In his first chapter, Brague contrasts the modern notion of a project with that of a task. A task is something laid upon us, by God or natural law. Of its nature it is answerable to and justified by some standard outside itself. The modern project has been precisely to reject such an external standard and make the recreation of man a kind of free-ranging experiment that has no justification or criterion of success outside of man himself. The trouble is that this gives the project no objective foundation or content at all. Unsurprisingly, human existence comes to seem pointless.
Next, Brague identifies what he takes to be the Achilles heel of today’s atheism. Modern science and politics have aimed at conducting themselves without reference to any theological or metaphysical foundation. What matters is simply what works, technologically and socially, and we needn’t bother with questions about why things work or what purpose they serve. But this purely pragmatic focus leaves unanswered, and unanswerable, the question of why we should value even this atheistic sort of science and politics.
Next, Brague meditates on the implications of the fact that while modern man seeks to maximise his control over his circumstances so as to improve them, his own existence and nature is something that lies outside his control. He does not and cannot create himself. This is unendurable unless we see ourselves as created by a cause which is perfectly good and made us to be good.
Another source of modern man’s unease is that he has made of nature a resource rather than a home, so that he is not at home within it. Science quantifies, predicts, controls and exploits the physical world, but does not concern itself with final causes or teleology. Naturally, then, things come to seem meaningless, including ourselves. Brague calls for a return to a philosophy of nature that addresses precisely these questions which fall through science’s methodological net.
He also addresses the nature of freedom. Modern man tends to think of freedom as a licence to indulge whatever passion or whim we happen to have. But for Brague, this is a recipe for slavery. It is like the “freedom” of a stone to be pushed about by whatever forces act on it. True freedom is the freedom to realise most fully the ends that our nature points us towards.
Three of the book’s chapters elaborate on the theme of natural law. The family, culture and all other values are under threat today precisely because they are seen as mere “values” – namely, the subjective preferences of whichever individuals happen to value them. What morality requires is the notion of virtue, which concerns the realisation of an end that our nature sets for us as a matter of objective fact.
Brague’s final chapter notes the connection between civilisation and the willingness to address each other as partners to a conversation, rather than as “barbarians” or babblers whose speech we cannot make sense of. The trouble with modern man is that he has treated his own Christian forebears as barbarians from whom he does not wish to learn. Since his own defining ideals were taken from those forebears and then distorted, he has thereby made even himself unintelligible.
Edward Feser is associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College