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Get back to where you once belonged

Review of "Curing Mad Truths" by Rémi Brague.

“Well, who wants to keep the human race going?” This is the question considered in the slim volume entitled Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age by Rémi Brague, a French intellectual and historian of philosophy. Lest any of Brague’s characteristics give one pause about the books’ accessibility, the reader may draw reassurance from Brague’s source for the above quotation: Bertie Wooster. Consisting of several related lectures that have been revised and edited together, Curing Mad Truths is less a philosophical treatise and more a series of short mediations on a central question.
Brague claims the modern “project” – the world created by the Enlightenment, Reformation and the Scientific Revolution – has gone seriously awry. The transition from the pre-modern to the modern world was not, as is often assumed, a replacement of one mode of civilization with another, superior one. Instead, the transition involved the selection and elevation of a handful of the core ideas of the pre-modern world (such tenets of modernity as human reason, individual freedom, science and technology) while the remaining ideas (anything with a whiff of metaphysics) were jettisoned. But ripped from their proper context, modernity’s virtues went rogue. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone,” and when this happens the virtues do “terrible damage.”

Where we went wrong

We have reached a point, accordingly to Brague, where our current worldview cannot explain why it is “good” that humanity exists at all. In short, we are living in a world that, at every layer of its existence, lacks any ground or reason for it to keep going. Such a situation is not sustainable, and we witness the increasing damage done by it in our everyday experiences. The solution, or at least some assistance, is to be found in returning to a more medieval outlook. Rather than advocating some form of neo-luddite project – few of us could survive long in the living conditions of our medieval ancestors – Brague argues that we need to bring back the pre-modern virtues that modernity has either rejected or warped.

Take the simple matter of humanity’s existence. The medieval view was that it resulted from an act of creation by a rational God. Not only was this act of creation “good” (as Genesis tells us), through creation God both imparted his rationality to humanity and placed humanity within a cosmos that shared that rationality. In other words, humanity was an integral part of this good creation, but was also gifted with the ability to perceive and understand both it and its creator. When modernity arrived, there was selective citation: God and the act of creation were removed from the picture, but the idea of rational humanity was kept, and then put into overdrive. Scientific materialism became enshrined as the only legitimate mode of knowledge, and while it expanded our capacity to technically “do” and “know,” it left us without an explanation for why things existed or why we should or should not act in certain ways. More recently, the neo-gnosticism of scientific materialism, particularly in its recent tendency to understand everything through an evolutionary lens, has put humanity in an existential dilemma. Our only legitimate means of knowledge tells us that humans are “hardly more than lucky monkeys, produced by the chance encounter of irrational forces” yet we still adhere to ideas like the “dignity” of each individual, all of whom are “endowed with ‘human rights’ that are supposed to provide us with the unshakeable ground for our moral choices.”

The trouble with detaching humans from nature

It should come as little surprise that a dysfunctional relationship with our own existence should result in similar relationships with the world and with each other. The pre-modern outlook saw a cosmos filled with creatures and things that not only existed, but which had discernible natures and purposes. The modern, scientific outlook, denies any purpose to the universe. It is nothing more than bundles of physical phenomena which we can study, describe and manipulate but which we can no longer “understand,” since we find it impossible to answer the question of why something exists.

Furthermore, the modern outlook has separated humans (the observers) from the world (the subject). Rather than being part of the cosmos, humans are now strangers in the universe, on the outside looking in. We can track the consequence of that outlook in the relationship between humanity and the environment through the modern era. We were prepared to view the world as detached from humanity, as “a mere fuel tank, a quarry of useful materials” that we could shape and exploit as we wished. And in the face of the environmental crisis that such a mindset created, most of our responses assume the same sort of detachment: the “environment” is that which must be protected from the depredations of human interlopers. It comes as no surprise that our environmental policies are often based on there being fewer humans, doing fewer things and involve fantasies about a “world without us.”

Freedom redefined

But it is in our relationships with each other that Brague sees the madness of modernity at its worst. In the name of “freedom,” modernity has dismantled many institutions, hierarchies and traditions. Some of these were undoubtedly oppressive, but many, particularly the institution of the family, provided not only purpose but continuity and connection between individuals across place and through time. Now, our interactions are reduced to transactions, measured almost exclusively through economic value and occurring on the plane of the immediate present. But the freedom of modernity bears little resemblance to the pre-modern idea of freedom. The latter was the ability of humans to perceive and seek the good, to strive towards their own fulfillment. For modernity freedom is simple liberation: the removal of constraints. In practical terms, this is the freedom of individuals to follow their passions, with the result that many people simply become slaves to whatever impulses they are subject to. Freedom for the medieval mind was akin to the ability of a plant to defy gravity and grow upwards towards the sunlight. For the modern mind, freedom is akin to the liberation of energy in a nuclear reaction: powerful, often uncontrolled, and potentially destructive.

For Brague, the malaise of modernity is not ennui but rather a kind of schizophrenia. Most people live and act on the assumption that there are objective standards of goodness, truth and purpose in the world. At the same time, we increasingly embrace a worldview that provides no purpose or any referent for the good and the true. We wish to be good, but we live by methods that treat us as nothing more than barbarians in a barbaric world. Yet we are still surprised when we routinely act in a barbaric fashion. What the pre-moderns understood was that a materialist understanding of the world was not enough – humanity could not be the ground of its own being. With a God who created all things, humanity takes its place in a universe that has goodness and purpose. Modernity assumed it was a good idea to dispense with God, but humanity’s track record of being its own god should prompt some reappraisal.

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One Comment

  1. Re: “Rather than advocating some form of neo-luddite project – few of us could survive long in the living conditions of our medieval ancestors – Brague argues that we need to bring back the pre-modern virtues that modernity has either rejected or warped.” I suggest the work of Wendel Berry about communities and An Earth-Careful Way of Life, by the late Lionel Basney as an alternative to dismissing “neo-luddite projects”. Building communities, perhaps in new ways or conformations, does not necessitate going back to the “living conditions of our medieval ancestors.”

    Maybe you could also review Basney’s book, first published in 1994, but still trenchant today?

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