Thursday, September 10, 2009

Remi Brague on Divine Law & Common Morality

In recent months, my posts on the question of cosmic teleology have included comments on Remi Brague--particularly, here, here, and here.

Brague is a philosophy professor at the Sorbonne who has written some of the best studies of cosmological thinking and divine law in the history of philosophy and culture. He has had a lot of influence on Straussians and American conservatives in defending the idea that moral and political order depends upon a cosmic order of divine design, which has been subverted by modern science and philosophy, including Darwinism.

Against Brague, I have argued that we can understand the moral and intellectual goods of human life as rooted in evolved human nature, which does not necessarily depend on any cosmic order or divine law.

Despite my disagreements with Brague, I admire his writing, because he allows his careful readers to see the weaknesses in his position. For example, as I have noted previously, he at least hints that the skeptical questioning of Platonic cosmology began with Plato's Socrates.

Similarly, in his book The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea (2007), he sets out to defend the premodern idea that norms of human practice must rest upon belief in divine law; but then by the end of the book, he admits that one can reasonably look to "common morality" as founded in human nature without any necessary support from religion.

Brague begins this book by quoting Leo Strauss: "the divine law, it seems to me, is the common ground between the Bible and Greek philosophy. . . . The common ground between the Bible and Greek philosophy is the problem of divine law. They solve that problem in a diametrically opposed manner" (18). This quotation is from an essay by Strauss in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism (248). But this quotation leaves us wondering what is meant by the "diametrically opposed manner" in which the Bible and Greek philosophy solve the problem of divine law.

After the Strauss quotation, Brague explains: "Greek divine law is divine because it expresses the profound structures of a permanent natural order. Jewish Law is divine because it emanates from a god who is master of history. In both cases, it is external to the human and transcends the quotidian." But if one looks at Strauss's essay, it seems that he wants to suggest an even sharper opposition between the Bible and Greek philosophy. First of all, Strauss casts doubt on any intelligent design cosmology by pointing out "the fundamental difference between human production and the production of things which are not manmade, so that no conclusion from human production to the production of nonmanmade things is possible except if it be first established by demonstration that the visible universe has been made by thinking beings." Strauss then goes on to say that in Greek philosophy, the idea of divine law is replaced by the idea of natural order or natural law or natural morality. Thus, divine law is abandoned. "And if it is accepted by Greek philosophy, it is accepted only politically, meaning for the education of the many, and not as something which stands independently" (Rebirth, 255-56).

Although Strauss does not draw this conclusion, I would say that Darwinian science completes the Greek philosophic substitution of "natural order" or "natural morality" for "divine law" by providing a natural explanation for how the order of the cosmos could arise by natural evolution, within which human morality could arise as an expression of evolved human nature.

Oddly enough, Brague himself seems to move towards such a position towards the end of his book. At the beginning of his book, Brague sets out to show how--using Kant's terms--the premodern world saw morality as "heteronomy" (a law based on cosmic or divine standards external to human beings) as opposed to the modern project of viewing morality as based on "autonomy" (a law that human beings give themselves)(vii-viii). Moreover, he gives the reader the impression that the modern turn away from cosmic or divine norms leads to a nihilistic collapse. But then, by the end of the book, he concludes that an "autonomous ethics" of "common morality" without religion is indispensable. "There is no religious morality," he says. Rather, "there is a common morality capable of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, 'secular,' or other interpretations." The role of religion is "not to add to morality, but rather to provide it with the nourishing environment" (259-61). This "common morality" sounds a lot like Darwin's natural "moral sense," which does not require religion although it can benefit from religious beliefs and practices.

The crucial turn in Brague's book comes in his account of Paul's remarks on natural law in the opening chapters of his Letter to the Romans: "When Gentiles who do not have the law keep it as by nature [phusei], these men, although without the law, serve as a law for themselves [nomos heauto]. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts. Their conscience bears witness together with that law, and their thoughts will accuse or defend them" (Romans 2:14-15). This is the primary passage in the New Testament for the idea of "natural law" that human beings can know even without any belief in divine law. And it clearly shows, as Brague admits, that the idea of moral "autonomy" arose long before the modern project.

This natural law is what Brague calls "common morality," which contains "the elementary rules that permit the coexistence of individuals and the permanence of the species, what C. S. Lewis called 'the Tao'" (90). The reference to Lewis is to The Abolition of Man, where Lewis claims that in all human cultures through history, there is evidence for a shared morality that can be known without any particular religious beliefs.

And, again, I would say that this is what a Darwinian ethics would recognize as the natural morality that satisfies the conditions for human flourishing, the conditions that secure "the coexistence of individuals and the permanence of the species." To justify these as conditions for a good human life, we don't have to appeal to some cosmological morality or divine law. We only have to see how these conditions conform to the nature of the human species.


James A. Donald said...

Morality derived from human nature (and thus from Darwin's sociobiology) differs from divine law as expressed in the New Testament in significant ways.

Aristotlean and Randian morality are based on human nature, and are fundamentally selfish. We commit ourselves to conduct that will enable us to get along with others because humans are a social and political animal, we need to cooperate with others to achieve our goals. Thus one should return good for good and evil for evil One should do good for one's kin, and forgive them their sins, and good for one's friends, but not be nearly so forgiving of their sins. All men are not brothers. One should not harm other people without compelling and urgent reason, but the standard of what constitutes compelling and urgent reason is considerably greater for neighbors than it is for distant strangers. All men are not Hebrews.

Anonymous said...

I fail to see how an act done for the sake of the beautiful is "fundamentally selfish"? Rand can keep her selfish orientation, but don't deny the role of the beautiful in Aristotle's ethics. And certainly don't confuse Rand with the Philosopher. All real men are not Randians.

Tony said...

'Although Strauss does not draw this conclusion, I would say that Darwinian science completes the Greek philosophic substitution of "natural order" or "natural morality" for "divine law" by providing a natural explanation for how the order of the cosmos could arise by natural evolution, within which human morality could arise as an expression of evolved human nature.'

Did you really mean to say that the "order of the cosmos" could arise by "natural evolution"? I think it's the first time I've heard you make such a claim. I'm stumped as to how this could happen. Wouldn't there need to be some preexisting natural order within which evolution would work and some preexisting substance upon which it works?
Or are you suggesting that kosmos can simply arise from chaos?

Larry Arnhart said...


Darwin did not himself extend his evolutionary reasoning to the origins of the cosmos. But in principle this could be done. A natural evolution of the cosmos seems to be what the Athenian Stranger attributed to the natural philosophers in book 10 of the LAWS.

What I have in mind here is something like a "multiple universes" approach, in which universes are randomly generated and then selected. The basic idea is sketched out in Dan Dennett's DARWIN'S DANGEROUS IDEA, especially chap. 7. This is also suggested by Hume's Philo in the DIALOGUES.

The concrete universe would be a contingent outcome of evolutionary history. The universe would create itself, perhaps not out of nothing but out of a formless chaos very close to nothing. This chaos itself would have to contain some kind of "timeless Platonic possibility of order," perhaps some mathematical pattern that is intelligible but not intelligent (as Dennett says).