Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cosmology, Morality, and Divine Law: Remi Brague's Response

Over the past two months, I have written a series of four posts on two of Remi Brague's books--The Wisdom of the World and The Law of God. He has sent me an email message responding to my comments, and he has kindly agreed to allow me to post that message here. He writes:

"You have somewhat overstated my commitment to the pre-modern view that I endeavored to delineate in my two books. They are written in the manner adopted by historians of ideas. I describe a worldview that I deem to be obsolete. I do not condone it. I simply ask how we could possibly meet the consequences of its disappearance.

"You write that I am 'defending the idea that moral and political order depends upon a cosmic order of divine design," while I try to show, conversely, that the "denial of cosmic moral order leads to moral confusion if not nihilism." This runs counter to my intention.

"What I do claim is that, according to the standard ancient and medieval worldview (that brooked exceptions, as we both observe), such an order used to depend on a cosmic order.

"You ascribe to me the claim that 'the idea of a morally neutral cosmos did not appear in Western thought prior to the modern era.' This is diametrically opposed to what I wrote--for instance, when I discuss the atomistic worldview (see ch. 4: 'The Other Greece'), or when I quote Marcus Aurelius on pp. 76-77 and again p. 218. I simply claim that this idea was kept at bay by the mainstream platonic-abrahamic synthesis, which drove its rivals out of the market. What you write about Socrates is right, and is precisely what I contend. But again, those aspects of Plato were simply forgotten in the latter tradition. Plato's dialogues were not known to Europe before the 15th century (see my The Legend of the Middle Ages, the University of Chicago Press, 2008, fourth part).

"The same holds true for your sentence according to which I defend 'the premodern idea that norms of human practice must rest upon belief in divine law.' The general thrust of my book is that the idea of a lawgiving God was done away with by Paul, who kept only the Ten Commandments. They constitute some sort of basic survival kit of humankind, hence they are accessible, at least in principle, to human moral conscience and are not revealed, because they need not be.

"You wrote that I 'give 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, (I) conclude that an 'autonomous ethics' of 'common morality' without religion is indispensable.' The contradiction arises from the impression given to the reader, but this impression is wrong. As for the last sentence, I simply meant that such an ethics is possible, nay that it is real. But I don't venture into the third category of modality . . . Whether religion--and which religion(s)--did prop this common ethics or undermined it could be, partly at least, a question for historians.

"I have some reservations about that concept of 'nature' that you wield, for instance, when you mention 'the nature of the human species.' It looks like the Epicurean and, for that matter, modern (Hobbes) concept of a primitive, 'rough' state of things. Whoever defends the idea of natural law takes his/her bearings from the Aristotelian concept of nature as the full development of the potentialities of a being (see Politics, I, 2, 1252b32-33) and/or from the Stoic concept of a nature that sets morality in the most elementary instincts of man. Hence, the discussion between supporters and opponents of 'natural law' is desperately lopsided.

"Whether one can ground morality on the Darwinian description of what evolution has made of man looks doubtful to me, not because it is Darwinian, but because it is a description. Hume's old problem of the 'ought' that you can't derive from the 'is,' or the fact/value problem is hardly solved.

"Furthermore, whereas I am pretty confident that a secular worldview can enable people to get on together in a well-ordered society, because it is the interest of the individuals to do so, I doubt that it can give mankind as a species good reasons to survive, more crudely, to beget children.

"Again, many thanks for the care with which you have read my things and for your interesting discussion."

For those interested in his Law of God book, Professor Brague recommends two recent symposia on the book that have been published in Modern Age, 51, winter 2009, pp. 26-46, and in the Political Science Reviewer, 38, 2009, pp. 1-104.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying!