Rémi Brague on the Hubris of Modernity

Brague Kingdom

Rémi Brague’s Kingdom of Man: Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project (2018) offers a lineage of, and a judgment on, “progress,” which, central to modernity, conceives itself as, precisely, a project.  This word project figures importantly in Brague’s exposition.  Brague (born 1947) distinguishes on the one hand between a task, a term or family of terms that he traces back to antiquity, and, on the other, a project, a term or family of terms that emerges with the so-called Enlightenment, beginning in the Seventeenth Century.  (Brague translates from Greek, Latin, and various medieval and modern languages into French, and his translator, Paul Seaton, from Brague’s French into English, but readers may take for granted a thoroughness of lexical rigor across languages.)  Having drawn Adam from the soil and Eve from Adam’s rib, God tasks the newly mated couple, and through them the whole of humanity, with dominion over nature, or stewardship, as some versions put it.  Presumably although perhaps awkwardly one might refuse a task.  A degree of voluntarism attaches itself to the concept.  At the same time, the subject of the task undertakes it out of a sense of reciprocity or mutuality and in the trust that fulfilling the commission will sustain an ongoing relationship that benefits both parties – the tasker and the taskee – in the long run.  A task is in the order of things. A project, by contrast, arises from a sense of urgency or panic.  The discovery of a lack provokes a sudden resolution that the lack be made good as swiftly as possible.  A project addresses a perceived deficiency by invoking a mandate for immediate action.  Brague calls attention to the etymological basis of the word: Pro- (“forward”) and jacere (“to throw”), in Latin.  Something ballistic and aggressive adheres to a project, which resembles a military campaign.  Brague indeed invokes Napoleon’s campaigns, ultimately vain but hugely destructive, as instances of the generic project.

Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848) - The Course of Empire, The Pastoral State

Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848): The Course of Empire, The Pastoral State (1834)

A task, Brague writes, has three outstanding aspects.  First, “I receive the mission to do something”; second, “I must… ask myself if I am up to my task, agreeing even to divest myself of what has otherwise been irrevocably entrusted to me”; and third, “I alone am responsible for what I am asked to accomplish.”  A task implies a convention already settled.  It has its context in possibility, which passes to the present from the cumulus of human experience.  Certain requests are reasonable, but certain others exceed reason, and of those no one is capable let alone responsible.  Had God asked Adam to recreate himself as differently as he could, the request would justify a polite refusal.  Adam’s constitution comes to him from the creation already formed and entails limitations, which honesty compels him to acknowledge.  Of a project, however, Brague writes that it “implies… vis-à-vis the past, the idea of a new beginning” and demands the “forgetting of everything that preceded [it].”  A project also presumes the “autonomy of the acting subject,” as though inherency of limitation had no bearing on intention.  A project, finally, is not a friendly undertaking, involving a few willing individuals or perhaps a community; it is, rather, a large-scale, temporally extended commission that requires “a supportive milieu that prolongs the action and ensures its successful completion.”  That “supportive milieu” can marshal the society collectively, as did the project of Nimrod’s infamous tower.  Conscription goes together with the project; Nimrod never asked anyone whether he was up to the task or not.  The Tower of Babel episode illustrates another characteristic of the project: It begins in resentment – in this case the ultimate resentment against God – and seeks to match or outdo the object of its jealousy.

Brague connects the Modern Project, in its literary and theoretical manifestations from the early 1600s, to a type of theological resentment.  God created man deficiently, and this deficiency mandates that humanity make itself over in a robustly sufficient way.  In essence, the Modern Project would abolish man, who offends modernity’s sensibilities, and install the superman in his place.  Such abolition requires the razing of everything that humanity has accomplished before the revelation regarding man’s inadequacy.  Institutions founded on the inherited model of humanity partake in error.  Worse – they guarantee error and therefore perpetuate a fraud designed to limit mankind’s autonomy, capacity, and ambition.  It is not by chance that the idea of modernity sprang into being at the same time as the label “medieval,” which functioned pejoratively from its beginning.  Brague writes: “The [modern] project entails a rejection [that] puts what it expels into the category of ‘the Middle Ages,’ understood as empty and willed as such, a universal trash can always open to new contents which even if they appear during modernity, are denounced as marking a step back vis-à-vis the project and thus as ‘medieval remnants.’”  This invidiously motivated agenda of wishful thinking appears already in the works of Sir Francis Bacon, the codifier of the experimental method and the prognosticator of a technocratic world.  “Bacon’s ‘experiments,’ were fantasies,” Brague writes; and “the rise to prominence of ‘project’ is connected with a displacement of emphasis from reason to imagination in the definition of man, henceforth understood as the living being capable of conceiving possibilities.”  In Bacon’s New Atlantis (1623), the science hardly differentiates itself from magic and the rigidly bureaucratic organization of the society resembles both an Eighteenth-Century lodge of the Illuminati and a Twenty-First Century managerial government.  A century later, Jonathan Swift would satirize The New Atlantis in the Lagado episode of Gulliver’s Travels (1726).  Swift’s critique of scientism is as valid today as it was in the Eighteenth Century.

Brague points out that, while modernity founded itself on the rejection of any religious basis for society, it nevertheless borrowed religious concepts, which it then also distorted for self-justificatory purposes. Brague identifies what he calls “incomplete” of modernity in Classical literature and Scripture.  Modernity would appropriate three motifs from the phases of history that it sought to abolish: Messianism, Gnosis, and Divinization.  The Classical and Christian phases of civilization conceived of man as singular among the species, as favored by the gods or God, and as, in some ways, remarkable.  “For a long time,” Brague writes, “the superiority of man had been a fact to note in a static fashion,” for “man is located higher on the scale of beings than the other creatures.”  As this status constituted a gift, however, man could take no credit for it; he could live up to it, as Stoicism, Neoplatonism, and Christianity urged him to do, but this would represent a gesture of reciprocity that the absence of the gift would obviate.  In modernity’s conception of itself, man’s superiority “must not only be realized by way of application,” in Brague’s words, “but acquired at the end of a process.”  As for the first motif, Messianism – the Book of Daniel forecasts a new order brought about by the “son of man” in which the righteous triumph over their oppressors.  Paul would recast this: The End of Days would entail the humiliation of “the principalities and authorities.”  (The words in quotation marks come from Colossians, 2:15.)  John built out the Pauline eschatology in his Apocalypse, but in the Christian vision, these events happen outside of time, in transcendent ultimacy.  Modernity draws the development into history, forecasting its Messianic supremacy as a worldly state of affairs.  Under the reign of science and technique, of course, man will have conquered his base self.  This will result in utopia.

Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848) - Course of Empire, Consummation (1836)

Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848): The Course of Empire, Consummation (1836)

Like Brague, but long before him in the 1950s, Eric Voegelin (1901 – 1985) characterized modernity as “Gnostic.”  The Gnostics comprised a widespread and diverse religious heresy of the Late-Antique centuries approximately from the Second Century to the Fourth that, in effect, parasitized emergent Christianity and the long-stable Platonism of the Roman Empire.  The trait of resentment, essential to modernity as Voegelin and Brague describe it, is clearly visible in Gnosticism.  The Gnostics could not adjust to reality, which they felt had dealt them a bad hand.  They therefore redefined reality as a correctable mistake and aimed their evangelical mission at making it good.   Wherever a religious or philosophical dispensation declared the universe good and attributed it to a creator, Gnosticism petulantly reversed the signs of valor.  Gnosticism declared of the Biblical Creator God and the Platonist demiurge or cosmos-maker that neither one had actually fashioned a world but rather they had sabotaged a perfect world, known as the Pleroma or “Fullness,” that pre-existed this world.  The Gnostics themselves had dwelt in the Pleroma, where they were at one with the Real but Unknown God.  They recognized one another by a miraculous knowledge or gnosis and they kenned thereby the inferiority of the vulgar majority who, being children of the botched world, are vile and perverse.  The Church rightly denounced Gnosticism.  The upshot of the Gnostic myth is that to vindicate the self-appointed saints and restore the alleged Pleroma, the world must undergo annihilation.  In the wars of the Twentieth Century and the socio-political upheavals of the Twenty-First, this conceit has put itself into action.

Pico della Mirandola’s treatise On the Dignity of Man (1486) assimilates Gnostic texts.  The ancient magical texts of the Hermetic corpus reappeared in Pico’s day, which not so subtly promise that, following the prescribed rituals, the adept of Toth-Hermes might elevate himself toward godhood.  Brague writes that the Renaissance “effects an interesting change in the idea of human dignity.”  Man cannot enjoy his proper dignity except through “mastery of external nature,” which mastery is the “expression” and “condition” of human self-confidence.  No fixed nature confines man to his current status.  Man is, in Brague’s summation of the attitude, “a Proteus capable of deciding for himself what he will be.”  In Marsilio Ficino’s Platonic Theology (1474), as Brague puts it, “The desire of man to become a god has for [its] sign that the soul wants to do all things and to master them.”  In Ficino’s vision, according to Brague, “Man does not tolerate a superior, nor even an equal.”  This widespread Gnostic impulse to re-organize nature on a supposedly higher level and to remake man in the direction of a god links itself to the third of Brague’s symptomatic motifs, Divination.  By exercising mastery through technique, whether mechanical or magical, by refashioning himself through his refashioning of nature, man achieves auto-apotheosis – he makes himself a god and thus assumes sovereignty over the cosmos and all that it contains.  Brague’s claims might seem outlandish, but one only has to read the opening paragraphs of Pico’s Dignity to see that the Renaissance in fact constituted a revival of occultism and grandiosity that late-modern historiography has minimized in its reporting.  Late-modern historiography reports about itself, after all, and wants to look rational.  An addiction to occultism and magic supposedly belongs to the Middle Ages, but Brague shows that the medieval centuries avoided occultism and magic and that they demonstrated, in many of their facets, a greater rationality the centuries that followed.

By the inception of the Seventeenth Century, all the basic elements of the Modern Project had fallen into place.  Modernity had become fully self-conscious – and fully self-exalting.  Recurring to Bacon, Brague remarks that his title-phrase, “The Kingdom of Man,” originates in that author’s Novum Organum (1620).  Brague quotes Bacon: “The entrance to the Kingdom of man, founded upon the sciences, [is] not much other than the entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven, where-into none may enter except as a little child.”  Bacon’s seemingly innocent analogy requires a bit of interpretation.  In Bacon’s meaning, for humanity to become once again like as a child, it must unlearn everything that it has learned.  It must shed not only its personal education, but the entire cumulative and generational lore of its race.  In other words, the destruction of all tradition stands prerequisite to the rising of the New Atlantis.  The Baconian agenda aims at nothing less than “to repair the fall,” and by a technique that originates with man, not through the external action of Grace.  It is worth notice that Bacon’s appropriation of Plato’s Atlantis as the name of his technocratic paradise partakes in an irony which he apparently missed.  In one of the two dialogues in which the Atlantis story figures (Timaeus and Critias), Plato makes it clear that the Atlanteans were a technically gifted people, in whom, however, prowess turned to pride and then to aggression against other nations.  The Gods, weighing the heinousness of the offense, sent a seismic cataclysm to sink the island and drown its people.  By the inception of the Eighteenth Century, the Modern Project – through parliaments, royal academies, and universities – had ensconced itself as the norm.  The rest was progress, with no deviation permitted.

Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848) - Course of Empire, Destruction (1836)

Thomas Cole (1841 – 1848): The Course of Empire, Destruction (1836)

The Eighteenth Century called itself The Enlightenment.  Man had become, in the prevailing ideology, “The Sole Lord,” a phrase that Brague uses as one of the chapter-titles at the end of the first half of his book.  One might usefully recall here Brague’s subtitle, the “Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project.”  Having chronicled the genesis of the Modern Project in Part I, Brague now turns his attention to its failure in Part II.  In its phase of Enlightenment, modernity narrowed the circle of its consciousness and grew impatient.  In its very moment of glory, on the verge of its industrial expansion, the panic that accompanied its birth provoked it to redouble its efforts to dominate nature and to eliminate all human recalcitrance.  Because the mere notion of God as superior to man belongs to recalcitrance, an insistent atheism pushes its way to the fore and with it a renewed contempt for religion.  “Once man understands himself as having to dominate,” Brague writes, “he must dispute the place of dominator with God.”  Brague maintains a constant awareness of the contradictoriness of atheism – that in order to calumniate the object of its spite, that object must remain present to its despisers.  God is supposed to “oppress” man while at the same time he is supposed to have been an ineffective master of the nature attributed to him as his creation.  Thus, “human progress has as its goal to jettison God.”  As man humanizes everything, he empowers himself.  Once again, “The first exteriority from which modern man seeks to emancipate himself is chronological anteriority.”  The past stirs modernity’s disgust as much as God, who possesses the most radical anteriority of all.

Contradictions abound.  Modernity proposes to emancipate man from oppression, including that of forced labor, but it founds its economy on slavery in the New-World colonies.  It promises perpetual peace – to borrow the title of an essay by Immanuel Kant – but it erupts in a wave of revolutions and imperial conquest that overwhelms and disorganizes Europe.  Conservatives like to say that France never recovered from the Revolution, but this ignores that fact that Europe and the worldwide extension of Europe in the New World never recovered from the Revolution.  The movement for animal rights takes hold and the elites found “humane societies.”  At the same time, the industrial organization of husbandry increases the consumption of poultry and meat – and thus the slaughter of beasts to maintain the supply.  Penal institutions come under the sway of “humanization,” but the exploding population of industrial cities drives a new level of brutality in crime.  The mechanization of war, which under the regime of rationality should not occur, raises the level of battlefield violence and multiplies the fatality of combat by a factor of ten.  Does Brague’s fundamental provocation of panic underlie these self-defeating developments?  In one of his more poignant observations, Brague points out that the Nineteenth Century invented the notion of human extinction: “The Enlightenment began to understand that time is limited.”  Fictions appear depicting catastrophes that decimate the human race or annihilate it outright.  Around 1860 Arthur de Gobineau “predicted the end not only of the Aryan race, by degeneration, but of all humanity.”  In 1826, Mary Shelley had produced her sprawling prose-epic The Last Man, whose plot sees a universal pestilence wipe out the human race.  A further contradiction attaches itself to such modern eschatologies.  Intellectuals speculate whether it would be a good happenstance or bad, were humanity to disappear.  “Actually,” Brague opines, “emphasis on the dignity of man is only one of the themes of modern thought”; but rather, “an entire tradition is bent on belittling him.”  This tradition, although that is perhaps not the right word, carries on to this day in the propaganda of “climate change,” the rhetoric of “deep ecology,” and the autistic face of little Greta Thunberg.

Of that which one belittles, one may dispose.  The conceit of the superman, despite its comic-book appeal, contains in itself the threat of human extinction, or rather of human eradication.  Brague points out the imperious imperative in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustran apostrophe, “Man is a thing that must be overcome.”  According to Brague, “This ‘must’ is sometimes formulated as a moral obligation (sollen), sometimes as an inevitable necessity (müssen).”  Either way it constitutes a license to kill, one exercised on a large scale in the previous century to this one by Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.  H. G. Wells, who often jabbed at the vulgar interpreters of Nietzsche, made this genocidal implication quite clear in his rampaging Martians, who use poison gas and heat rays to kill off city-populations wholesale in The War of the Worlds (1897); and again in his mutated giants in Food of the Gods (1904).  The latter have been brought about as the result of an experiment very Baconian in flavor – if my readers will pardon the expression.  Wells makes it clear in the final paragraphs of the novel that the armistice between Homo sapiens and Homo giganticus will hold only temporarily and that the survival of giganticus entails in extramoral or Darwinian terms the genocide of sapiens.  The precedent for the liquidation of deplorables shows itself in the Revolution’s bloody investment of the Vendée in the spring of 1794 – an event that contemporary college students will never be asked to study.  In Late Modernity, then, as Brague phrases it, “man is dominated by domination.”  The hostility against the Biblical deity has meanwhile back-infiltrated the glorification of man so that, in a non-transcendental universe consisting of nothing but matter, something might transcend the descendants of Adam, whom God drew inspirationally from the clay.

Thomas Cole (1801 - 1848) - Course of Empire, Desolation (1836)

Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848): The Course of Empire, Desolation (1836)

In his Conclusion, Brague judges that, “The project by which Man should dominate nature leads back to the effacement of man.”  We see the effacement of man write large and small in the news of the day.  So-called science-based regulations strangle agriculture in California’s Central Valley.  Man reigns supreme, but he must make room for a species of fish.  The House of Representatives (which, as the old saying has it, “rots from the head down”) will in its new Rules of Order banish all reference to sex, which it refers to as gender, including the words mother and father, and son and daughter – as though sexual dimorphism were not a defining characteristic of human biology and a foundation, if not the foundation, of culture.  Culture comes to us, after all, from the past, and the past, with its orange hair, is to be deplored.  Culture will henceforth consist of rap music, the cable-TV clown-show called MSLSD, and hysterical lectures on “White Fragility” delivered by sort-of women either white and anorexic in appearance, usually with blue or pink hair, or “of color” and grossly obese.  The human face, a gift from God and a window on the soul, must be covered up in all public situations.  (This will prevent the interlinking of souls, which is known by science to facilitate the transmission of the whatsit plague.)  Brague himself remains cautiously optimistic, as his other recent books such as Anchors in the Heavens (2019) and The God of the Christians (2013) demonstrate.  The Kingdom of Man, in which Brague’s deep and broad reading makes itself impressively evident, should be studied in parallel with Henri de Lubac’s Drama of Atheist Humanism (1944) and select volumes of Voegelin’s History of Political Ideas (written during the late 1940s).  Orthosphereans might consider founding book-clubs to read and discuss these authors.  Such activities might well constitute the nucleus of a replacement for the now-useless colleges and universities.

Wiener Dog

14 thoughts on “Rémi Brague on the Hubris of Modernity

  1. Pingback: Rémi Brague on the Hubris of Modernity | Reaction Times

  2. Gnosticism causes Psalm 2 to make a lot of sense. As to why the Kings of the Earth would even dare to rebel even when the Millennial Reign proves perfect.

    Satan manages to paint God as a tyrant keeping mankind in ignorance and the true freedom to determine their own destiny.

    A Golden Cage if you will.

    As for mechanized warfare. It seemed to make warfare worse and worse for human dignity. As contests of skill on the battlefield is replaced more and more by arbitrary death from the sky or from artillery.

    When previously the struggle of Men on the Battlefield can help ensure the virtues of masculinity when technology was more primitive.

    The knightly and manly virtues truly died in WWI. And WWII. It’s the cream of manhood that perished not it’s dregs.

    • The hypertrophy of the West has led to its collapse. Criminal mediocrities now control all institutions. It is a sad day.

      • The thing with the military its not the worst of Men who get recruited but the best and those who pass minimum standards.

        So who is left but the craven and the cowards.

  3. “Man reigns supreme, but he must make room for a species of fish,” is surely a reference to the infamous snail darter. As a teenage protester back in the day against that accursed damming of the Little Tennessee River, please allow me to assure you that when we East Tennesseans began protesting, it was because the project took the best farms in E. Tenn. to build a dam that generated no power and had questionable flood control rational. It flooded the last free flowing river in the Tennessee Valley. It was only when all other avenues of stopping the accursed dam had failed that the environmentalists stepped in with the snail darter argument, to be quickly followed by the Cherokee Nation with their don’t flood our gravesites argument. Neither worked.

    Today every river in the region is dammed. “Lake Tellico” is a resort for rich Yankees.

    I refer you to the Drive By Truckers song, “Uncle Frank.”

    If we protesters had been truly educated, maybe we would’ve used Brague’s arguments against projects. Maybe then conservatives elsewhere would’ve realized that we were protesting a dammed project and not have started their vile tradition of using the snail darter sneer/smear at every opportunity. As for me, at 59 I still sing Dam the TVA and Save the Little T!

  4. Indeed, the snail darter. I spent the first half of my life, from 1954 to 1989, in California, and from 1960 to 1980, I remember it as a natural paradise of open spaces and freedom. Even the L. A. Basin was full of open spaces. After 1980 California began to fill up, as you say, with Yankees — and with, Iranians, Chinese, and illegal aliens from south of the border. And freedom folded under the choking project of globalist multiculturalism. Whereas Tennessee fell victim to damming, California fell victim to non-damming, equally a project, with the result that water must be rationed perpetually and the cleanest way of generating electricity, hydropower, is permanently written off.

    I like to remind people that in the Civil War period, California, especially the southern portion of the state, was home to a secessionist movement strong enough to require the allocation of federal reinforcements to the military outpost in San Bernardino. My people weren’t in California then. They were still in England, Sweden, and New Orleans. They were in Sylmar, Pasadena, and Highland Park, however, by the 1910s, and until recently I never thought of myself as anything but a Californian. (I now think of myself as a citizen of Copperhead Country in Upstate New York, another anti-Lincolnist stronghold.)

    I agree with you wholeheartedly: Damn the Modern Project! (And thank you for commenting.)

    • Have you ever read the short story “The Copperhead” by the upstate author Harold Frederic? It’s been a long time since I read it, but I recall that the story pointed the irony of the title. Northerners who opposed war with the South were called “copperheads” because they were said to be deadly but silent (unlike the noisy rattlesnake). I recall that Frederick’s point was that copperheads were not particularly dangerous, but that it was certainly dangerous to be called a copperhead. It’s a good analogy with the position many of us find ourselves in today.

      • On your recommendation I downloaded it just now from Project Gutenberg, but it is a fairly long novel, not a short story. Have I acquired the Frederic item to which you referred?

      • It so happens that I have the collected works of Harold Frederic on a high shelf directly over the chair in which I read the internet each morning. Yesterday morning I was too creaky and lazy to climb up and check on “The Copperhead,” but I roused myself this morning and find “The Copperhead” is really a novella, running to 162 pages in a volume of short stories published under the same name. I also find there is a second novella called “The Deserter,” in a second volume of short stories, with which my memories of “The Copperhead” may be somewhat conflated. In any case, I encourage you to sample Frederic and see if he is to your taste. He was a realist in the mode of Stephen Crane, or perhaps Zola, and his most famous novel is Damnation of Theron Ware. Frederic was from Utica and many of his novels are set in the upper Mohawk valley. I read Frederic in a fit of mania for upstate regionalist literature, and I still have a fair collection of the genre. Damnation of Theron Ware was published in England as Illumination, which for a literary realist of the late nineteen century really meant disillusionment. Not everything Frederic identified as humbug was humbug, but I sympathize with his feeling that he is surrounded by humbuggery. Having hauled Frederic’s volume down from that high shelf, I think I’ll transfer it to my nightstand. I’ve been nostalgic for upstate lately, and acutely oppressed by humbuggery.

  5. The proposed ban on gender specific words in the Democrats’ rule book was a far greater assault on Western civilization than the presence of the Q-anon silly who briefly occupied the Speaker’s Chair.

  6. ‘The movement for animal rights takes hold and the elites found “humane societies.”’

    There are no rights for humans either but animals are innocent. They cannot comprehend good or evil. Killing animals for sport is an impious act, I do believe. Actaeon was turned into a stag and torn apart by his own dogs after accidentally discovering Artemis (a virgin) naked. The desire to defile innocence is rooted in a deep, dark level of human nature.

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