”Every time society has gotten rid of the divine we have seen it return as unfriendly divinities demanding human sacrifice.” — Rèmi Brague
A few years ago, in a lecture at an event co-sponsored by the Acton Institute, St. Mary’s University of London, and the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society, philosopher Rèmi Brague reflected on the foundations of humanism, and on those factors that foreshadowed the radical change in man’s perception of himself, and his relationship with nature and the cosmos. In an interview with L’Osservatore Romano after the conference, Brague elaborated on his views, summarizing what he believes to be the root cause of modernity’s demise.
Your work focuses on the nature of ‘value’, a concept which seems abused in a day and age when everyone calls upon values to defend just about anything and everything. Would this be an expression of what G.K. Chesterton called “Christian virtues gone mad”?
The concept of value is my favorite enemy. What people today understand as values is found in both pagan and Christian sources within the Western tradition, although expressed in different terms. Pagans talked about virtues while Jews and Christians spoke about commandments. Even so, the content is exactly the same. One could rewrite the Ten Commandments as a list of virtues: “You shall not kill” would be the virtue of justice. “You shall not commit adultery” would be the virtue of temperance. Vice versa, one could rewrite Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics according to the Jewish and Christian context.
After all, this is what has been done throughout history. The great Christian patristic and medieval moralists, without hesitation, drew upon moral concepts found in Cicero and Seneca, and even recopied entire passages from them. Take, for example, a treatise written by Roger Bacon, the late 13th century Franciscan moralist. His writings contained entire sections transcribed word for word from Seneca’s very own works.
From such virtues and commandments, we then moved on to talk about modern values. Bear in mind, when it comes to assigning value to something, it is assumed that an evaluation has been made of that particular thing. This means, in effect, that at a given time someone — whoever he may be — has decided to assign value to an object, saying that such a thing will cost ‘X’ amount. Thus, value is a concept partly of economic origin. It is what you give in exchange for something. The concept of value has a major drawback in that it assumes reality in itself is worthless until we attribute some value to it. Look at how it works in economics, the way John Locke explains the value of products derived from human labour. What nature provides has no value. It is human work that gives it value.
And today, what is it that defines a value?
This concept reached its height in [Friedrich] Nietzsche who introduced values into the market of ideas, some of which he made noble. He tried to determine the specific cases which gave value to ideas. Nietzsche, therefore, believed to have made a most interesting discovery: namely, that it is the ‘will to power’ that attributes value. It is this will to power that assigns value to objects. I must have that thing because in this way I affirm and increase my range of action and the depth of influence of my own will to power.
The problem, from this perspective, is that values enter into a self-destructive dialectic. This is so, because if value is determined by the value I give it, the activity [of willing] is more important than the value itself. “The act of evaluating is of all things the highest value,” says Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra
This means that by the same act of giving value to something, I diminish the object’s value because it is my will to power that determines value, which is worth more than the value itself. As a result, the concept of value is driven by its very constitution to self-destruction. This generates a sort of escalation towards an even greater value given to the will.
It is strange that this concept has become a part of Christian conversation. In today’s political world, we speak of ‘our values’ without really knowing what they are. I think it would be better to change this line of reasoning and stop talking about values. It would be better renew discussion of virtue or commandments or simply speak of the good, since it is not we who determines that something is good. In my opinion, the concept of values can be eliminated [from moral philosophy].
You point to the late Renaissance when there was an upheaval in man’s self-understanding, with respect to his relationship to God and his own dignity. How did this shift in paradigm come about?
The real change took place at the beginning of the 17th century. It is the third stage in humanistic thought [….] I suppose there was a transition from a serenely possessed dignity and nobility to a sense of superiority that must be acquired, while subordinating everything else to it as a consequence of psychological evolution. I compare this phenomenon to the type of person who needs to show that he is worth more than others: like a show-off upstart, the ‘nouveau riche’.
Take, for example, Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey, who is most modest among the characters in this television series because for him his nobility is a given. Not so for the ‘nouveau riche’, as seen in the origins of the word ‘snob’: sine nobilitate. He who has no nobility must ‘snub’ others in order to prove his own worth or value. We get the feeling that modern man’s desire — from the 17th century — to subjugate the rest of nature to himself may be actually due to him losing the awareness of his own dignity.
It is interesting to observe the tradition of treatises such as De Nobilitate, published in the mid-15th century and throughout the 16th century, which was interrupted by the technical domination of nature. Modern man is consumed with self-doubt. He is no longer certain that God has granted him a higher dignity with respect to other objects in nature and, therefore, remedies his own insecurity by trying to dominate nature.
We are still dealing with this type of person, today, although the environmental movement has somewhat softened this trend. Environmentalism has sought to develop an awareness of the debt we owe nature. Yet, it lacks the metaphysical foundation according to which nature is viewed as creation. If nature is not created, there is no way to understand why we should show our respect for it.
On the other hand, it is a whole different perspective if we view nature as a creation towards which man has duties, especially in managing, cleaning, dealing with it as he would care for a garden. When we enter the contrary way of thinking, we alternate between violent attitudes towards nature and idolatry of nature itself, to the point of desiring mankind’s extinction so that nature can be restored unto itself.
Would this mark the emergence of a new paradigm, born out of the failure of the modern project or a sort of swan song for modernity?
The modern project has had some great achievements. We owe modernity some debt of recognition. Think about advancements made in medicine or in agriculture that have allowed us to feed a large number of people who in the past might not even have been born. Modernity has also given us a serious science of nature, more focused than that which was taken up in ancient times. Even Aristotle, the ultimate exponent of ancient physics, is not much of a scientist when compared to Galileo. I do not know if a new paradigm is taking shape, but I would say it should be.
What would you hope for in this sense?
If we are unable to legitimize what is human, that is, to give valid reasons for its subsistence, then we will have no reason to continue to exist. The only possible option in this regard, would be to organize the co-existence of people who are already alive, but forbid them to appeal to future generations for their advice.
In no way would it be possible to entrust humanity and its continuation to instinct, as some do, because we are now able to decide whether or not there will be future generations. Human instinct functioned well in the past, in the sense that it was way for the human species to show that it wanted to survive. Therefore, if it is true that evolution has produced everything (which is, by the way, an inappropriate way of speaking: we do not say Napoleon was a product of history), we conclude then that it was the influence of blind forces that produced intelligent beings. But if such intelligent beings do not have the right to consciously and freely continue to do that which they have produced unconsciously and without freedom, it would be a real betrayal to their [power of] reason.
The hardest thing, I must say, would be to give a concrete version of the classical definition of man as a ‘rational animal’. It has to do with preserving man’s two dimensions without his ‘rational’ nature opposing his ‘animal’ nature. I believe that our present duty consists in reconciling these two dimensions from which we have tended to stray.
Take for example transhumanism, a subject for which I don’t have a clear opinion because I haven’t studied it thoroughly. I don’t even know if the idea is feasible, but the interesting thing is that transhumanism reveals a sort of despair in relation to man as he currently is, insofar as its aim is to transcend him.
There was a time when we tried to develop human nature in order to empower it and give it more moral qualities. We developed the double meaning of the adjective ‘human’: We speak of the ‘humane’ treatment of animals, which has a very specific meaning. But now we get the impression that, according to Nietzsche’s original definition, man is something that must be transcended. It is Zarathustra’s famous formulation. I do not know what exactly what Nietzsche was trying to say.
[On one hand] he flirts with Darwin’s thinking which is found everywhere in European intellectual currents; yet [on the other hand] he said at the end of his life that he had never meant to replace man with a new species. If so, he should have expressed himself more clearly, especially when he said: “You have walked the path from worm to man, why not go further?” It is, indeed, a very clear reference to biology!
At any rate, what interests me here is to demonstrate that there is a loss of confidence in man, because there is a wish to replace him with something else. Or at least there is a desire to improve man, so as to eliminate the need for morality. This is so because a ‘rebuilt’ man would not even think of acting maliciously, against the rules of good and evil. In my book, I refer to some very curious examples of this desire, including Robespierre who believed it would be ideal to produce a man who would be spontaneously virtuous without having to ask himself any questions.
Today our dreams are a bit like this. I don’t know if virtue is what the leaders of transhumanism want in the first place, but the project is a part of this tendency and it is far more ancient than what one might imagine.