Thursday, July 09, 2009

Brague, Nietzsche, and the Longing for Moral Cosmology

In my recent posts on Platonic cosmology as interpreted by Zuckert, Brague, and Cropsey, I have taken the side of Cropsey and Zuckert against Brague in concluding that Plato and Plato's Socrates see the cosmos as morally indifferent, and thus they do not endorse Timaeus's moral cosmology. While I disagree with the fundamental argument of Brague's book The Wisdom of the World: The Human Experience of the Universe in Western Thought, I like the book because in laying out the history of the reasoning for moral cosmology, Brague shows the weaknesses in the reasoning, although that is not his intention.

The idea of moral cosmology is that the order of the cosmos is such a model of moral perfection that human morality is to be judged by how well it imitates that cosmic model. In particular, the astronomical order displayed in the sky or the celestial realm is the highest expression of the Good. (What Brague is describing here is what Arthur Lovejoy called "the Great Chain of Being" and what C. S. Lewis celebrated as "the discarded image.")

According to Brague, this moral cosmology was first sketched out in Plato's Timaeus, where the cosmos is described as a creation of a divine craftsman who designed everything to approximate the perfect order of eternal ideas, so that Being and the Good coincide, and so that the moral and political perfection of human life comes from imitating that cosmic order of the heavenly spheres. Later, this pagan cosmology was modified by biblical theologians to conform to their theology. This cosmology then became the dominant image of the cosmos throughout the Western world from late antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages. But then, Brague argues, this cosmic image was displaced in the modern era by the idea that the cosmos is either amoral or immoral, and therefore not a suitable model for human imitation. For the moderns, therefore, Being and the Good were disconnected. Brague's main message is that this dissolution of moral cosmology and the lack of any cosmic support for morality in the modern era has promoted nihilistic chaos.

At various points in his book, Brague indicates that his analysis coincides with Nietzsche's assessment of the moral crisis that comes with the "death of God," or the death of any belief in a moral interpretation of the cosmos, which is a consequence of modern science, and particularly the "true but deadly" doctrines of Darwinian science (24, 32, 189-90, 198). Brague agrees with Nietzsche that Plato's cosmology is a fictional creation of Platonic philosophers who project their wishes onto the cosmos. But he also agrees with Nietzsche that once this Platonic cosmology is refuted by modern science and replaced by a modern conception of the universe as morally neutral or even hostile to morality, then morality collapses without cosmic support.

Brague's extremism on this point is clear when he insists that a modern scientific conception of the moral neutrality of nature dictates "natural violence" and the criminal immoralism of the Marquis de Sade (204-209)!

Brague does not question this Nietzschean analysis of moral cosmology, and he does not consider Nietzsche's claims in Human, All Too Human that modern evolutionary science can support morality as rooted in animal instincts and evolved human nature. Like many readers of Nietzsche, Brague concentrates on the early and late writings of Nietzsche--with all the fireworks about scientific nihilism--and ignores the more moderate and reasonable writings of Nietzsche's middle period where he suggests that morality does not require transcendent, cosmic support, because it can be founded in the immanent teleology of human nature rather than the cosmic teleology of a divinely perfect cosmos.

Moreover, Brague admits that the moral cosmology that he finds so attractive probably could not provide any moral rules, and thus it probably didn't improve the morality of those who believed in it. After all, what kind of moral instruction is it to be told to "imitate the sky"? Judging what is good and bad is always a matter of prudence or practical judgment, and such judgment can be carried out based upon a biological conception of human life as aiming towards human ends, without any need for a moral cosmology. In fact, Brague admits, that seems to be the case for Aristotle. Although he sometimes invoked conceptions of cosmological teleology, his Nicomachean Ethics does not seem to rely much upon the sort of cosmology that Timaeus set forth. And rather than looking to astronomy for moral and political guidance, Aristotle seemed to look more to biology as a realm of phenomena closer to human moral concerns. (See 30, 122, 126, 152-53, 201, 217.)

If this is so, then Brague is wrong to suggest that the idea of a morally neutral cosmos did not appear in Western thought prior to the modern era, and he is also wrong to argue that morality cannot be sustained without a moral cosmology.

In addition to some of my recent posts, some of my earlier posts that are pertinent to this issue can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

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