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. Continue reading