The Kingdom of Man

Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project

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Rémi Brague
Catholic Ideas for a Secular World
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , October
     2018.
     352 pages.
     $40.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780268104252.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Remi Brague is a French historian of philosophy, and one of those people who seems to stretch the outer limits of human erudition. As the translator notes in his Foreword, “What hasn’t Brague read?” The reader of this book will thus not only encounter references to and quotations from figures such as St. Thomas Aquinas and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, but also Camille Flammarion and the Comte de Lautréament, who said, “[a]utonomy ... or change me into a hippopotamus”—a bit of research on the Internet enabled me to learn that this was the pen name of Isidore Ducasse, an Uruguayan author in the nineteenth century who died at the age of 24 in Paris in 1870.

The Kingdom of Man: Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project is the completion of a trilogy, that began with The Wisdom of the World: The Human Experience of the Universe in Western Thought (University of Chicago Press, 2003), which focused on the ancient Greek articulation of the kosmos, and continued with The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea (University of Chicago Press, 2007), which focused on the biblical tradition’s revelation of the Creator, and the moral theology that developed out of that revelation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the present work, there is a similar breadth of historical scope, but the center of gravity has shifted from the ancient and medieval worlds to the modern world. Before the modern age, the Cosmos and God were superior sources of knowledge and order to which human beings were called, in varying ways, to attune themselves. Now, the situation has been inverted; nature is an external reality that human beings seek to master and control, and God is seen as a rival of human beings, so that humanity must “liberate” itself by dethroning and sweeping away the Creator. The thousands of slight turns of thought over the centuries leading up to our own, which made this inversion possible, are the subject of Brague’s exposition. The author is, himself, a Catholic who is more of a lamenter than a champion of this story, but his tone throughout is uniformly calm and professorial. His criticism of modern developments, primarily implied or insinuated, is under the surface of the placid text.

The scope and content of this work will likely call to the reader’s mind A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007) by Charles Taylor, but Brague has mastered the art of writing more condensed chapters, so that the total number of pages is roughly 200 instead of 800. The three parts of the book are entitled “Preparation,” “Deployment,” and “Failure.” “Preparation” focuses on the philosophical turns that laid the groundwork for the modern idea that human beings can seek to dominate that which is non-human (nature). The notion of “man the magician,” who is able to manipulate reality according to his will, is more characteristic of the Renaissance than it is of the ancient world. “Deployment” concerns itself with those developments in the Middle Ages that laid the foundation stones for modernity. The clock, the windmill, advances in farming, the telescope, gunpowder, the printing press, and so forth, led to what Brague calls an “intoxication” in the minds of many thinkers in the West. What we now know as modern science and mathematics were being formulated in the writings of Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Benedict Spinoza, and others. The possibility of remaking the world through advances in thought and technology began to be conceived. In the realm of anthropology, the doctrine of original sin came to be seen, particularly by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as a dead weight that needed to be cast off to open up new possibilities for human social progress. The project of dominating nature gradually elided into dominating and altering human nature itself. The groundwork was being laid for the thought of Charles Darwin and eugenics. A seemingly inexorable conclusion to this trajectory was the idea that human beings began to see themselves as in a state of rivalry with God; God must be dethroned, tamed, or perhaps killed off completely, as in the thought of Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Humanity becomes the new Supreme Being. 

Part 3, “Failure,” paints a picture of the modern age and our current cultural condition in shades of gray and black. Nietzsche was honest enough to describe the situation accurately: “[w]e have ceased to accumulate, we spend the capital of our ancestors” (152). Moral parasitism is the inner dynamic of modernity, as the notion that we are making progress toward “the good” must rely on notions of goodness, truth, and beauty that the modern world seeks relentlessly to undermine and reject. Brague quotes the German jurist Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde: “[t]he liberal, secularized State lives off of presuppositions that it is incapable of itself guaranteeing” (152). A small number of thinkers, such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Péguy, and G.K. Chesterton are noted as drawing attention to this parasitism, but their cumulative influence has been very scant. The common literary and cinematic theme of a dystopian future, in which human beings have become slaves living in a wasteland dominated by robots, is a recurring nightmare. The project of remaking human nature after recognizing its plasticity led to the waking nightmares of Nazism and Communism. Brague summarizes: “[i]n addition to the obvious meaning of the verb ‘refaire’ (to remake, to do over), there is its slang sense in French. We are ‘refaits’ when we are caught in our own trap, or, as the saying has it, ‘caught like rats.’ These expressions capture the dialectic contained in the project of a new anthropology” (180). Brague’s final chapter, “Lights Out,” is a reflection on the phenomenon of suicide in the modern world. Humanism, at least in the thinking of some, has led to anti-humanism and nihilism. If science tells us that we are nothing but an ensemble of physio-chemical conditions, and if there is no Creator God who loves us, then what point is there in living? Brague quotes Max Stirner: “the sole means of defending my self-affirmation, my independence, against the natural law is suicide” (209). The author’s conclusion notes that the modern age has always had external critics, but Brague’s task in The Kingdom of Man has been to show that “an internal self-destructive dialectic” is also at work, if we have eyes to see it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
June 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Rémi Brague is emeritus professor of medieval and Arabic philosophy at the University of Paris I and Romano Guardini Chair Emeritus of Philosophy at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (Munich). He is a member of the Institut de France and the 2012 recipient of the Joseph Ratzinger Prize, often described as the "Nobel Prize in Theology."

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