In this collection of lectures, Brague begins by quoting G. K. Chesterton, “The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” The world exceeds our ability to understand it. Rationalism exhibits an overweening pride and excludes from its purview intuition, feelings, tradition, mystical experience, and even ordinary experience. In order to function we produce simplified models of reality. The rationalist mistakes these models for reality and, at times, even hubristically claims that if something exceeds his ability to understand it, it must not exist. Finding oneself vulnerable to the decisions of someone who has lost access to feelings, including fellow feeling, and moral intuition, and reliant purely on “reason” is a dangerous place to be.
The scholar and poet Giacomo Leopardi claims that reason has a tendency to occupy the whole soul and to push to the last consequences of a train of thought even when it contradicts nature. Thoughts and assumptions have their own logic, some of which can destroy civilization itself. As Leopardi puts it, “Reason must shed light but not commit arson.” He tendentiously, but interestingly, writes, “Reason destroys the illusions without which man cannot live leading thereby to its own contrary, barbarism.” Thus, reason becomes the source of barbarism and this sums up much of modernity. Scientific materialism, for Michel Henry, writes nature in the language of mathematics, but cannot tell us how to live a meaningful life. This is reminiscent of the evolutionary psychologist Edward Dutton’s claim that a belief in a good and moral God is necessary to provide the belief that one is a chosen people whose existence is worth preserving and defending and that having children has some kind of eternal significance. On top of that, sex is an instinct that reason can suppress and it is precisely the smart and educated among us who tend to do so. Reason cannot prove life is worth living, nor that it should be passed on to our children. Thus, the rational predilection for proof can commit the arson about which Leopardi warns. Barbarism predates and gives way to civilization only for civilization to become the victim of its own success and hubris, idolizing reason, science and proof, thereby losing sight of faith and hope in the life to come. Religion comes to be considered the meandering and wayward musings of a child.
Brague devotes much attention to his claim that theism sees life as a task bequeathed by a benevolent, and providential God. Modern atheism thinks of life as a project aiming at progress related to health, freedom, peace and plenty and yet it cannot explain why it is good that there are human beings to enjoy these things. Christianity and Judaism posit a good and moral God who, after creating the world, declares that it is good. Thus, Christians and Jews can take it on faith that the world is fundamentally good, its existence worthwhile, and thus human participation in this reality is also desirable – regardless of how things might look when in a jaundiced mood. On top of this postulate of the fundamental goodness of being and existence, the idea of creation by a rational God underlies the notion that the material universe is comprehensible. Hence, theism undergirds a kind of epistemic optimism. The alternative is Gnostic skepticism, depicting humans as strangers in a strange land with human reason being utterly distinct from any reason pervading the universe. For the Christian theist, God provides the Logos, the ordering principle of the cosmos, and we can hope to align ourselves with it and communicate with it. Of the many meanings of logos, speech and the word are fundamental.
Brague notes that a return to some of the values of the Middle Ages, that period disparaged in modernity, seems necessary. In places, he quotes C. S. Lewis, and some of Brague’s arguments mirror those found in The Abolition of Man. In that book, Lewis explores the fantasy of overcoming the human condition using technology and inventing new values in the manner envisioned by Friedrich Nietzsche. Brague agrees with Lewis that there is just one morality. Brague points out that there are no Jewish, Christian, or Buddhist “morals.” That, although these different religions and philosophies might have different reasons for adhering to moral precepts, such as getting into heaven, or avoiding further reincarnations, the actual content of morality is largely the same. As Brague puts it, there are only so many ways to help a little old lady cross the street. Lewis affirms the idea that morality accepts no epithets, that there are not multiple sources of morality nor are there different conclusions regarding moral behavior, just as there is only “justice,” not “social” justice, and thus Lewis chooses the generic name the Tao, the Way, for the path of righteousness. Moral truth is not the province of any one religious tradition. To deviate from this path, to be free of tradition, is only the freedom to be wrong. Brague writes, “The atheistic worldview means a capitulation to the instincts, to irrationality, that reason treasonously gives up.” If someone rejects morality then he only has prerational factors to draw upon. He does instead what he “feels” like doing. And these feelings depend on accidents of nature and upbringing; a poorly digested meal, insufficient sleep, a sudden sexual urge. Brague adds, “tradition, habit, advertisement, social pressure, media.” Relying on such impulses as the grounds of action means a return to animal status and the abandonment of reason. The Garden of Eden suggests that what makes human beings human is the knowledge of good and evil. Flaming swords forbid entering into the paradise of animal innocence. Our heaven, the human heaven, depends on choosing the good. We often dislike this moral responsibility and seek ways to avoid it. Kant identifies freedom with following the moral law, which points away from instinct and other such influences. Spinoza noted that it would be a misuse of words to say that the drunkard is free to drink and the gossip to chatter. The fact that impulses come from within the organism, rather than outside compulsion, is irrelevant. Brague compares the disaster of ‘sexual liberation’ to ‘liberating’ atomic energy; not remotely similar to the self-discipline required for freedom and thus action. He notes that free growth for the plant means constraining each part of the plant in common purpose. To be free means constraining spontaneous tendencies. Brague writes the lovely line “we sacrifice some dimensions of our being to become what we are.” He notes that for Dante, we are worms born to form the angelic butterfly.
In this regard it is virtue that matters, not “values.” Virtue from the Greek aretē, applies to all creatures. The excellence of a horse consists in fleetness of foot. The excellence of a man is in fulfilling his rational nature. Become what you are! As a created being, we can rest assured that our existence is good. The idea of “values,” however is demonic. It implies something self-created and arbitrary. The modern concept of value rejects both the Bible and Greek philosophy, and in fact, any external authority. Instead, it is a directionless, pointless, “freedom” that just recapitulates to various impulses and urges with no transcendent worth. The modern attack on the family also tries to do away with any not self-chosen ties, though it is only in the family that unconditional love can be demonstrated. Brague notes that this familial ideal is not generalizable and all the more precious for it. In the wider society, money, honors, prizes and rewards must go to the most productive. The word “society” itself comes from commercial “societies” where people band together financially on expensive joint ventures, for instance, financing ships and expeditions. Thus, “society” too indicates instrumental worth and objectification, just as nature becomes a collection of resources.
Many words associated with “freedom” merely refer to one’s political status as a non-slave. Eleutheria in Greek, libertas in Latin, herut in Hebrew, and hurriya in Arabic. Islam insists on man as being slaves of God. The Mosaic liberation from bondage in the exodus from Egypt is the first mention of freedom in the Bible. But a more profound meaning links freedom with creation. “Faith in creation makes freedom understandable as freedom for good.” Any free act by man partakes in creation. And the freedom to be good necessitates the idea of forgiveness for failing to achieve it. Nietzsche points out that it is a sin against good taste for a God to create ill-fitting lids for pots and then to condemn them for it. Berdyaev also posits creativity as the most important element of freedom and creativity indicates rationality and agency. God and man share these characteristics and thus can understand one another. But we have a weakness of will requiring the forgiveness that Brague emphasizes. It is not clear that we can achieve the Good, that we can do what we want, or that we can really want what we want. Hence, forgiveness is required. We do not do what we want, and we do not want what we do. This idea is found in Augustine, but can be seen in Ovid, Seneca, Epictetus too.
For the West, a return to Athens and Jerusalem is needed. The first provides the necessary concepts, the second puts the moral journey in narrative form. and culture will be key. Cicero wrote that culture is how we till the soil of our minds; with the adage assuming we know that plowing the soil strikingly increases its fertility. Of course, what is currently going on is the reverse. The elites seek to reject the past and to displace inherited custom and belief with the satisfaction of desires, but only if those desires are antinomian in nature. If one desires a traditional family with differentiated sex roles this is to be rejected as the basest calumny.
The modern project is supposed to be an exercise in self-invention. It is to pattern life after a scientific experiment. There are two things to note, however. Experiments often fail, and secondly, Galileo spoke of experiment for rhetorical purposes only and never actually did any experiments since he was so positive of their outcome. The experiments Francis Bacon referred to were mostly thought experiments. Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels satirized these “projectors” as having their heads in the clouds with ludicrous inventions. If life is a God-given task, we can fail to live up to this task but we cannot simply go off the rails in pursuit of a self-appointed delusion.
As Lewis also points out, we are not projects if we ourselves are the result of someone else’s project. Contraception and a perfected psychology and propaganda make one generation the projectors and succeeding generations merely the results of the power wielded by others. Schooling becomes indoctrination and thus school children products. Modernity is the fantasy of self-creation and the liberation from gods and inherited values but is actually the ruthless and fanatical molding by the elite to fit their purposes. Books like The Populist Delusion by Academic Agent, or After Liberalism by Paul Gottfried point out that it has always been thus. There are no “popular uprisings” that actually succeed. To get rid of the elite, a new elite must be waiting in the wings to take over. Otherwise, there is simply a disorganized rabble waiting for a leader to appear. Any “protest movement” that has any lasting effect is sanctioned and frequently orchestrated by those in power such as the 2020 Summer of Love with the bombing of federal buildings, looting of stores, blinding of police officers, and the failure to prosecute the radicals engaging in these activities. All these things were promoted by those in power and the media gave it their blessing as the propaganda arm of those in charge. BLM and Antifa were generated from the top and have disappeared now that they have served their purpose despite the fact that “social justice” has not been achieved nor anarchy produced.
Schelling in 1799, Ernest Renan in 1848 and John Stuart Mill in 1859 characterized life as an experiment. An experiment is a prophecy; a question put to nature compelling her to answer. And man becomes something to experiment on. Goethe and Heidegger see man as an experiment of Nature. In the former case, when it comes to human beings, Nature is a gambler at a roulette table yelling, “Double!” For Julian Huxley, humans are only significant as a gambit of evolution. And with it the universe attains self-consciousness, which may or may not be a mistake. But, gambits can be rescinded in favor of a new and better strategy. With the loss of cosmic significance that arises with the death of God, human beings are an accidental blip. This nihilism underlies the modern project and has proved fatal. Again, there is no good reason that human beings should exist under this scheme of things. “Progress” is a means to an end. The end is supposed to be human happiness, but if this has no intrinsic worth, then progress is meaningless too. Brague makes the interesting point that under the idea of progress, the current moment is merely a passing stepping stone stripping any and every moment in time of its significance. Since progress is supposed to go on forever, humanity is inherently transitory. If “man is a dice throw of God, Nature, or Being, then the resulting creation of man is not Nature’s last word.” We are “unfinished, experimental beings created for derision” suggests Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. With no cosmic meaning and purpose, as an accident of nature, Dostoevsky imagines a materialist killing himself out of sheer boredom.
The philosophy of materialism would be one of the shortest books ever written.
Does life have meaning?
Is determinism true?
What does it mean to be a human being?
It means to be a collection of atoms and molecules.
Does morality exist for real?
No. (See determinism and the naturalistic fallacy.)
Is science the only basis for knowledge?
Do art, literature, music, movies, painting, sculpture and poetry have any significance?
How could they if human existence is pointless and only science has anything to do with reality? They become obsessed with originality and “self-expression,” though this self has no ultimate significance.
Modernity has produced well-fed people who complain about consumerism, who enjoy the rule of law, who have access to education and museums, but cannot say why it is good for people to exist, and in fact, educated people in the West are failing to have children at a spectacular rate. Edward Dutton has pointed out that demographically religious conservatism is bound to make a comeback because they are the main group having children. Since religiosity is highly inheritable, around 0.5, atheism is destined to disappear despite its hegemony among the elite seen in France since 1789. The Catholic Church and Anglicanism have embraced the modern humanistic dispensation with great advocacy of multiculturalism celebrating the death of the ethnostate and thus a decline of trust and fellow feeling. But, Islam, Hinduism, Burmese Buddhism, Evangelicals, Haredin in Judaism have adherents who, as groups, are procreating at or above replacement rates.
Modern science does not need the God hypothesis. One simply renounces insight into ultimate causes and studies the relations between observable phenomena. The problem is that to do all this means to renounce understanding. To understand something is to comprehend the reason for an action. We can understand agents, but not events. Events do not have reasons. The scientific perspective has men as objects, not subjects. It has no room for free will. An agent might want to exist, but “events” do not. Atheism has no answer as to why we might want to exist and progress and does not want one. Without God as Legislator and Creator, we are supposed to decide our own destiny. But, any judgment that we might make will be biased. A positive judgment would be a human being claiming human existence is good. In the past, only individuals could commit suicide, now we can do it collectively by destroying the environment, by nuclear conflagration, or by contraception. This last is the most sure and is in fact happening, but in the typical obtuse manner, most people do not find it frightening – just as we are more scared of sharks than heart disease despite the much higher odds of the latter killing us. As Brague quotes Rousseau, the principles of atheism do not cause the death of people but prevent them from being born. Atheism, even if it kills no one “reveals itself as being more lethal in the long run.” From Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Curate. Brague points out that Rousseau did not know that atheistic regimes caused more deaths than religion in the twentieth century.
Modern man sees reason as a mere accident of nature. And we see that the more intelligent and learned someone is, the less fertile he becomes; something of which Darwin was aware.
Brague points out that Christianity is different from other religions. It does “not want to foist on society a model of order, rules of conduct that natural, unaided reason either discovered or could have discovered.” There is an emphasis on freedom not found in Islam, the name of which means “submission.” Under Islam, we are slaves of God, the existence of the Creator is self-evident, and any denial of this is simply evil and willful ignorance. Atheists are the worst of beasts lying outside mankind. With Christianity, God is the good and he wants to give Himself to his creatures. He gives his creatures what they need for their own good via their own exertions and He reveals Himself only when necessary in order not to abrogate free will. Brague gives an interesting analogy that when someone asks directions, you do not give them your name. It is not apposite.
Brague thinks it necessary to rehabilitate Plato’s Idea of the Good. Aristotle thought it useless. Under Aristotle’s scheme, living comes first, living well secondary. Brecht’s version is “First comes grub, then morals.” Brague regards such thinking as being responsible for the hole in our soul. In Genesis, God creates the world and declares that it is good. Being and the good are absolutely intertwined on this basis. There is no further need to justify human existence. All being is good. Plato’s Form of the Good creates all lower levels of reality. Only goodness can come from the Good. Plotinus wrote, to love the Father means to love his children. Plato’s Creator is the creative principle rather than something producing the moral law to follow.
There is no freedom without God, and Christianity leaves man free. There are no actions without rationality. Animalistic instinct is not free, and it does not produce actions. For Kant, abiding by the moral law meant rationality and freedom, though this aspect of Kant seems most imperfect. Freedom and exact uniformity of action, following the moral law, does not seem compatible and certainly not paradigmatic of freedom. Kant’s conception of freedom misses creativity.
Unlike angels, man has a biological basis and did not create himself. Modern man insists on self-creation: being our own artefacts; designed, not begotten and born. And this comes down to pride. For Gnostics, reality was produced by a bungler, or as a jail for fallen angels. For Deists, the creative principle does not care for what it creates. Brague writes: “How can I tolerate not having created myself? My answer is, if and only if I come from some utterly good principle. Suppose that I owe my being to chance, that is, to the concourse of blind forces. If a “blind watchmaker” (R. Dawkins) threw me into life without asking my advice, why should I play the same dirty trick on other people, by inoculating them with life? If, on the contrary, I feel myself and my fellow beings as the creatures of a good and generous God who calls us to partake of his own loving life, then I have excellent reasons to ensure the continuance of life.”
Brague joins philosophers like Heidegger in bemoaning the modern instrumental view of nature as a quarry or pantry, but not as a home. This alienated view of nature ejects the human ability to perceive beauty and goodness from our view of the cosmos, and since cosmos refers to an ordered, and harmonious vision of reality even the cosmos is absent. Plato’s Timaeus has a powerful craftsman making the world and thus represents a human-friendly vision of nature. The alternative is that we are “lucky monkeys” who nonetheless are supposed to have “dignity” and “human rights.” Or, nature is supposed to be a goddess to whom human beings have historically been sacrificed and would continue to do so if adopted now. As Berdyaev points out, any failure to hold human life as the highest value, being made in the image of God, will promote a logic of immolation as we sacrifice the human for the supposedly even higher ideal.
The idea of nature arose explicitly in Greek thought, but nature is implicit in Genesis. It is part of Creation dependent on a speech act. We need this Medieval view of Creation, not merely “nature.” This original view is really quite sophisticated and can accommodate evolution. Augustine accepted progressive development over time with the seeds of growth sown by God on the first day. Modern day creationism and literalism are not to be found among the church fathers.
Brague distinguishes two senses of culture. One is high culture. The other is a term of art regarding culture as a set of answers to basic questions – rules for living. Who should we marry, what to eat and cook, how to behave and whom to worship. High culture on the other hand might be regarded as superfluous – art, religion, philosophy and science since they go beyond mere survival needs and utterly practical concerns. For these things an aesthetic sense is needed, evidence for which can be found in tombs from half a million years ago, where polished spheres of basalt, for instance, having served no purpose, are to be found.
In Chapter Six, Brague makes the fascinating point that there is no Christian “culture” per se. St Paul reduced six hundred and thirteen Jewish laws to just ten. There are no Christian cooking or clothing styles: no rules concerning beard length or head coverings. So, pagan culture became the only culture. We looked back to the Greeks and Romans not merely because they represented the heights of prior human culture and civilization, but because Christianity did not provide those things. The Grand Inquisitor complains in The Brothers Karamazov that Christianity takes Christ as a moral paradigm but delivers often enigmatic parables, rather than set instructions for living. Without such cultural content, the West looked to Roman law and administration, Greek and Roman literature and poetry, and Greek philosophy. The monks in Medieval monasteries played a role in preserving Greek and Roman culture while never having any particular intention of doing so. Their task was to work and pray. Thus, they had a positive view of labor, the material world, and bodily needs, and of a good world created by God. Prayer involves both petitionary prayer and praise, and praise is a symptom of joy. Brague writes that “praise is the nourishing milieu of art and culture.” This is reminiscent of Roger Scruton’s concept of education as professors saying to students, “These things have we loved, you will love them too.” On this view, it is good that there is a landscape or person to paint, and good stories are interesting even if they include unpleasant events. The question is whether we are still able to praise, especially in the absence of a Creator who guarantees that Being is good. Brague quotes the German literary critic Hugo Friedrich as writing “Joy was the value that showed that the wise man, believer, knight was about to attain perfection” while sadness was considered a sin by theologians. The Romantics replaced this ideal with the supposed depth and seriousness of melancholy and philosophers like Nietzsche who stared into the abyss, declaring in The Birth of Tragedy that it would be better if we had never been born, and having entered the world, we should exit it as soon as possible. In both cases, the thinker praises himself for his honesty in a cult of personality. Yet creativity is not enough. If it were, then the famous canned feces of the “artist” Piero Manzoni would be enough. Culture requires faith in creation; culture is praise – and not of one’s own ego.
William IX of Aquitaine has the beautiful idea that the birds sing in Latin, a language that we do not understand, but also one associated with language in general, high culture, and sophisticated administration. “In their Latin, the birds say their prayers.” They sing songs of joy directed at their mates and, we might say, to God. Poets such as this express the underlying cultural assumptions with birds as the metonymy of nature. All nature sings its prayers to God, and we along with it. Brian Wilson called his Beach Boys songs “teenage symphonies for God,” a lovely sentiment regardless of one’s feelings about the songs.
Curing Mad Truths ends with a discussion of the connection between civilization, conservation, and conversation. The barbarian is someone with whom one cannot converse, and barbarism can involve a refusal to communicate. Aquinas’ critique of Averroes’ idea of the immediate communion of all minds in the Agent Intellect was that this would throw into question conversation civils. Understanding should involve work. There is something charming and delightful about Aquinas’ concern for the continuation of conversation. How boring it would be to simply know what anyone had to say before he said it. A lack of omniscience is what allows surprise, wonder, and novelty to enter the human experience. Features so desirable that one’s conception of God should include them. Nassim Nicholas Taleb comments in his books that an education, and particularly reading books, does not necessarily offer any particular pecuniary advantage, but it certainly makes someone more fun to talk to. Without reading and high culture, what is there to say? My son, when ten, complained that none of his friends were really great conversation partners, which seemed an interesting and perhaps precocious complaint. At the age of twenty-six, hopefully he is having more luck.
Brague comments that without linguistic communication violence is almost inevitable. Cities are defined by the possibility of communication and thus relative peace. Brague sees conservatism as caring about civilization and thus a concern for civil conversation. One might add that a “canon” of great works of the past, the Bible, the Odyssey, Dante, Shakespeare, facilitates such conversation, offering shared reference points and background knowledge.
The Greeks returned to civilization after the Great Catastrophe that resulted in their Dark Age by looking back to a partly imaginary Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenaean civilized past. Barbarism, on the other hand, is a refusal of continuity, with no desire to communicate with the past. Such a total break presages barbaric stupidity and cruelty. As noted earlier, an inability to communicate typically leads to violence. The French Revolution represented such a break. The current Woke revolution is doing the same thing. The really barbaric seek to destroy a culture and replace it with their own. The invading Mongols wanted to convert European agricultural lands into pastures for their horses. The Greeks at least played with the possibility of their own inferiority. They knew that they were children compared with the civilization of the Egyptians. The modern desire to rid libraries of supposedly insufficiently morally enlightened non-antiracist books has nothing to do with even toying with inferiority. It claims, instead, that there is no need to read any of these products of the past. No communication with forebears is necessary. We will start de novo in a truly barbaric rejection of logic and reason. Edmund Burke wrote of a contract between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those yet to be born” which the Woke ostentatiously reject, reveling in their putative moral superiority. Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses wrote of the right of continuity. This does not mean things stay exactly the same, but that there is conversation with the past.
We cannot decide that history is “a dustbin of senseless errors.” It has produced us and we owe it gratitude. Barbarism is the will to forget. Civilization means looking to the ancestors we choose to adopt because they have interesting things to tell us. In this sense, we make the past, choosing a personal story producing what we are.
Nature too can be regarded as barbaric or civilized. As an uncaring universe, a machine, as the law of the jungle, nature is barbaric. It cannot tell us how to live a meaningful life. Nature as civilized is something we can enter into conversation with. Nature as the nickname of Creation can answer the questions we put to her. The reason in us is echoed in the reason in her. We need a balanced view of nature; neither as goddess nor corpse to be cut up, but, depending on the will of God, just like us. We can preserve nature as “the condition of our being and as deserving preservation for its own sake.” Brague ends by noting that the conservative person is not against freedom, but is conscious of the weight of freedom. He does not see freedom as freedom from constraint, but freedom from spontaneous impulse, choosing instead what is most human in us, realizing our potential in Aristotelian fashion, but with Plato’s Creator, not Aristotle’s oblivious final final cause. We can choose inanimate matter as the ground of being, or God. The consequences are profound. The conservative aims for continuity and he knows that “historical achievements depend on the will of the people to uphold.” Without the will to continue, we conversing animals have nothing.
 Curing Mad Truths, Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age, Rémi Brague, University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, 2019, p. 106. All quotations in this book review are from this book and all page numbers refer to it.
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 Taoists and Christians use this metaphor. “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Matthew 7:14
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