Instead of post-modern malaise and global capitalism, Rémi Brague propounds a return to the Middle Ages.
How we may grasp respect for our world and each other persists as our challenge. Despite the claims of the modern project that progressives will bring about our Utopian triumph just around the next bend, a few restive intellectuals concur that a return to past insights will better guide men and women. Instead of post-modern malaise and global capitalism, Rémi Brague propounds a return to the Middle Ages. Not one of poverty and disease, but one which situates humanity within all of creation as God-directed and divinely ordered. How this will come about outside the seminar or cloister remains the question.
This collection of lectures and essays over the past decade marks Brague’s debut in English. In his native French, his works on the shifts in concepts of humanity over the ages direct attentive readers through the history of ideas and the intricacies of both European and Arabic culture. Brague’s advantage over many of his peers lies in his familiarity with Christian, Jewish and Islamic texts in their original languages. His range of scholarship drawn from modern continental sources in more languages testifies to his range. With such a skill set, Brague represents the once-conventional expertise of the past century-plus of medievalist investigations, a corrective to facile judgments by the less learned.
He attempts to reach out to a wider audience, even if this collection markets itself to “a learned audience.” Vocabulary such as “expatiate” and “apoptosis” jostles with “big shots” and “shit happens.”
Brague never panders or poses, but the mostly oral origins of these entries attest to his attempts to keep his arguments accessible to listeners rather than readers. He alludes to many sources, but he tends to glance at them rather than cite them at length. Documentation directs his audience in this edition to a wide range of primary and secondary sources. Brague orders his selections to show a proper way back.
This retrospective turn arranges Brague’s thesis: one way or the other, a return to a medieval world-order will happen. The question becomes: will it be barbarous or benign? By salvaging the best from an often misunderstood and misinterpreted era, Brague rejects nostalgia or “a reactionary cast of mind.” Instead, he rescues pre-modern ideas which recover insight into “the ultimate causes,” which lie beyond the limits of science. For this Enlightenment-fueled endeavor rid itself of caring about the “good” or final causes. Rationalists regard teleological explanations as outmoded. This leads to a conundrum.
On the one hand, we’re told we “lucky monkeys” emanate from “the chance encounter of irrational forces.” On the other, “we harp upon the ‘dignity’ of man, endowed with ‘human rights’ that are supposed to provide us with the unshakable ground for our moral choices and legal rulings.” Exposing the model of freedom within a faith-centered view of creation, Brague pivots away from a depiction of a Creator as “incompetent bungler” or “cunning sadist.” However, with the “modern project” parroting lip service to democracy as but free markets, once liberated from restraining custom and strict mores people wander, individuals possess a dubious freedom to choose whatever they wish, free of constraint.
The heart of Curing Mad Truths rests in Brague’s most provocative assertion. The “Pauline revolution” of the Apostle “severed culture from religion.” That is, very little of the Mosaic Law remained after St. Paul lay bare the Jewish framework. This space, Brague posits, could thus be filled in by whatever cultural and conceptual forces awaited the spread of the Gospel. Pagan, Greco-Roman, African, Asian, Amerindian and indigenous influences enriched these “Christian” elements globally.
No special diet, no distinctive garb, no guarded medicine and no isolated enclave protected Christians. They lived among everyone else. While the legacy of the Decalogue remained, common morality and Thomistic foundations in natural law established the core of the Christian medieval outlook and action.
Moving away from these centuries to now, Brague asks: “Can culture save where cult has no other object than the ego him/herself?” This phrase may suffer slightly from compression, but its author reminds contemporaries that creativity cannot sustain a soulless society where “anything goes” is all.
This diagnosis of Europe’s failure to sustain its inherited legacy leaves it a zombie. The “corpse that keeps walking” shows Brague’s image of what post-Christian lives look like. Crumbling families, a tottering welfare state reducing “human beings to individuals” who persist only as consumers in a market relentlessly pitching its wares and slogans to billions who are only good for selling and buying.
When “divorce becomes a sign of social promotion” and democracies lack “any institution that is in charge of caring about the very long run,” no wonder a shortsighted, profit-mad, short-term-gain becomes the sole motivator for mass production and national policy. Brague hazards that perhaps reevaluating our planet as our “common heritage” may supplant outmoded communal societies, where dictates of respect diminish. As trusted role models and benevolent authority figures fade, Brague proposes that a recovery of the conversatio civilis, the civilized conversation, may resurrect the will to go on. Continuity needs a reason for the human quest to find meaning. Nature, God and the Other labeled “barbarians” all merit, in Brague’s remedy, a recognition of their place within this discourse.
Concluding, Brague links the French verbs conserver and maintenir. Their close relationship mirrors the elevation of a conservative perspective rooted in an embrace of what humans find within their care, rather than a clinging to what men and women have been hobbled by. Brague sums up: “Conservative is the person who is conscious of the necessity of a maintenance for human things in their wholeness.” The brevity of this anthology, like the reduction of Brague’s grand vision within a provocative nod to the potential within the notion of “human things,” does not prevent the careful reader from gazing beyond its idealism. Like many thinkers, Brague may be less useful in directing us away from our predicament to our fulfillment. But he does restore a wise insight into a conservative approach, like that of his peer the non-believer Roger Scruton, which treasures aesthetic and nourishing measures to bring back to life deadened sensibilities of billions who seek, deep down, lasting meaning.