A Medieval Remedy for Modern Maladies

The Catholic philosopher and cultural historian Rémi Brague (b. 1947) is well-known in Europe and beyond, including quarters of America. Beginning his career as a scholar of ancient philosophy, he entered the public lists in 1992 with a book, Eccentric Culture, in which he essayed to define Europe as a culture. In this scholarly-Socratic way, he wanted to make a contribution to the then-urgent questions: What is Europe? Upon what bases should it be reunited and move forward after the Communist episode? From that time, Brague has pursued his scholarly and public intellectual work in impressive ways. He’s produced trilogies upon trilogies, in which he surveys the ancient, medieval, and modern periods of western civilization, even as he continues his interventions in the fraught debates of the day, from educational reform to the presence of Islam in Europe. In 2012, he was awarded the Ratzinger Prize for signal contributions as a Catholic intellectual.

In a 2013 book, The Legitimacy of the Human, he made what he knew was a provocative “plea” (the French word is plaidoyer) for “a return to the Middle Ages.” This was a point to which his previous work had been building. After that initial proposal, he continued to develop the countercultural argument. The collection of public lectures brought together in Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age continues in that vein. First published in 2019, its positive reviews and sales prompted Notre Dame Press to issue a paperback edition in 2022. As a longtime Brague reader (and translator) coming late to the game, I thought I could add to the understanding of the book by connecting it with some of Brague’s earlier books.

The Medieval Task, the Modern Project

First, though, this book’s thesis and argument. The title and subtitle encapsulate them.

G. K. Chesterton was right: the modern thinkers were thieves and counterfeiters. They lifted truths embedded in medieval culture and articulated by pre-modern thinkers, reworked them, and passed them off as new, emancipatory, and empowering. The stolen ideas were pressed into the service of a vast new enterprise, “the modern project.” Proponents of the project promised that henceforth man could make his own way in the world, without any higher assistance or guidance whatsoever. Brague calls this “exclusive humanism,” because it excludes any higher Instance—cosmos or Creator or binding tradition—in the understanding and fulfillment of the human. “Project” is therefore the antithesis of “task,” which is delivered to humans from on high and (often) conveyed from the past. We current moderns live increasingly under the project’s sway, with deleterious material, demographic, ecological, and cultural consequences.

The diagnosis points to its solution. The truths need to be regrounded in their original medieval soil. The modern project must be scaled back, and reconnected with humanizing tasks. We need to become “moderately modern” (the title of an earlier book), or (riffing on that title) “medievally modern.” 

Native Europeans aren’t reproducing. The most elementary act of hope, bringing new life into the world, was conspicuous by its absence on the old continent.

This operation, of course, needs to be properly understood and executed. It does not mean “a return to the Middle Ages tout court.” It certainly does not mean repudiating the modern world in all its aspects and works. That world has “precious gains” that should be “safeguarded.” However, we must understand the core tenets of the medieval worldview (starting with creation and providence) that gave rise to these positive truths. It means noting what is missing or garbled in the extracted modern versions. It means bringing the two together in a new synthesis, one that neither party could effect in their day. Rather than a reactionary appeal, therefore, “medieval wisdom for the modern age” is a contemporary call for an unprecedented synthesis. In this way, it has the virtues of being intellectually challenging and genuinely progressive. To sweeten the pot, Brague promises that it will be life-giving. 

It is at this point that we can begin to connect CMT with Brague’s other books, starting with The Legitimacy of the Human (which I translated in 2016). Brague had long been struck by Europe’s demographic decline and crisis. Native Europeans aren’t reproducing. The most elementary act of hope, bringing new life into the world, was conspicuous by its absence on the old continent. Many had noted this; his fellow French thinker, Chantal Delsol, is an example. But few, if any, analyzed it the way that Brague did. He aimed to get to the heart of the matter. 

For Brague, this meant attending to culture, understood as a complex of ideas and valuations about the divine, the world, and the human. What are the cultural conditions for human reproduction? Brague rather straightforwardly replied: it is the effective thought or belief that it’s good to be human, that human existence is good. Not just good for me (that could simply be self-interest), but good for all instances of the category. It is a categorical belief that to be human is good.

So far, so good, one might say. But Brague had more intriguing moves up his philosophical sleeve. Who has warrant to make a judgment of this sort? Who can credibly pronounce that to be human is good? In any other domain of life, the interested party cannot (be) judge in his own case. The same logic being applied here, humanity would stand in need of external validation. It would need a superior Instance that judged en connaissance de cause that it is good for humans to be. Remarkably, a famous text declared just such a judgment about the human. It was one of the founding texts of western humanity. The Legitimacy of the Human accordingly contains a long section on “The God of Genesis.” 

Here Brague made two main points: 1) the biblical vision of the goodness of creation and of man is not in competition with scientific findings or speculation; and 2) the biblical creator God is not in competition with human freedom, but rather enables and promotes it. “Creation is ‘good’ in the sense that it is capable of harboring a freedom, one that creates history. Thus, its ‘goodness’ is not a perfection that would render human action impossible or superfluous. On the contrary, it is what makes action possible and meaningful.” In this way, Brague’s interpretation of the first creation story not only was not antithetical to modern values (science, freedom), but reenforced them. The modern reader was thus disarmed and intrigued.

The Modern Story

Of course, anti-biblical and anti-medieval prejudice is deeply ingrained in contemporary European culture; one countercultural exegesis won’t do the trick. Brague therefore continued the argument in Moderately Modern (which I translated in 2017). In it, he takes aim at the self-justifying story that modernity gives of itself. “Modern Times distinguish themselves from the historical periods that preceded by defining themselves by a break, a rupture effected vis-à-vis what came before, and for which it invented a name: ‘the Middle Ages.’” The truth, however, is that “Modernity lives off of the past, as Tocqueville, perhaps the first, noted.” It has debts that its proud self-image inhibits it from acknowledging.

In a scholarly tour de force, Brague demonstrates how much of what moderns hold dear first came to light, or was made possible, in the Christian Middle Ages. For example, “the conditions of possibility for secularization were put in place and brought together during the medieval period.” Likewise democracy itself: “Therefore, our democratic ideals of a rule of law or of a moral conscience supposed to function as the final authority in the spirit of each human being, be he citizen, judge, or something else, these ideals have a theological origin.” Even “our concept of a profane culture which distinguishes itself from religion actually had a religious origin.” With these historico-cultural lessons, the vaunted self-sufficiency of modernity was taken down several notches. 

This, however, was only a first step in Brague’s argument. There was more (and worse) to report about self-affirming modernity. Employing a striking image found in Chesterton and Péguy, Brague argued that modernity as project is also a “parasite,” with all that that entails for its host and itself. It not only lives off of cultural capital that it did not produce, but actively destroys it, and eventually itself. 

In the much earlier Eccentric Culture, Brague had coined an evocative phrase: “cultural Marcionism.” Marcion was the second-century Christian heretic who divorced the New Testament from the Old Testament. He did so because he could only see contrast, dichotomy, and opposition, rather than continuity, preparation, and ongoing debt in the relationship between the two Covenants. In 1992, Brague saw many signs of this attitude of repudiation at work on the western European scene. Now, though, it was directed at the premodern in the name of the modern. By the time of Moderately Modern (MM), he had traced these disparate efforts to their common root in modernity itself, understood as a project. 

Whether laughable or tragic, human self-creation is logically incoherent and practically hazardous. We therefore need to revisit its premises and do an ‘anthropological’ course correction.

At the end of MM, he goes to the root of the root and asks about “the relationship to temporality presupposed by the very idea of Modernity.” Intrinsic to the idea is:

a distancing and even an unmooring vis-à-vis the past. It is part of a system constructed by the project of progress. The past has to be fixed so that one can measure the progress made. Distance remains exclusively what separates the past from the present. One cannot let it flow from the present into the future (italics in the original).

An embalmed and discredited past and a promised ever-brighter future: this is the temporal dichotomy that forms modern humanity. Brague considers its two parts.

When the premodern past is no longer allowed to provide models of human life, thought, and action, what is left to modern human beings? What’s left is self-creation. But from where will new models come, if the self itself is to be created? Decades ago, Allan Bloom noted how laughable Nietzsche would find the effort to democratize his thought and claim to make everyone a little creator. On the other hand, collective experiments at creating a New Man have been far from laughable. Whether laughable or tragic, human self-creation is logically incoherent and practically hazardous. We therefore need to revisit its premises and do an ‘anthropological’ course correction. For this, we need to revisit discarded models. They may surprise us with their pertinence when considered apart from the caricatures of their modern opponents. 

As for the second part, a promise of progress, it is a garbled version of biblical Providence. This secular providentialism has two serious defects. First, it doesn’t have the Guarantor of the original, and therefore the ordinary course of history regularly belies it. Second, it is a lullaby directed at modern human beings, one that distracts and debilitates them. “Things will constantly get better,” we’re told and believe, to the point that our own responsibility for the future – which is real and irreplaceable – is undermined. In a wickedly witty sentence, Brague connects this half-baked optimism to the demographic question: “We don’t beget children, but we expect the stork to bring us grandchildren so that they can clean up our ecological mess and, not to forget, pay for our retirement.” 

The secularized version of Providence saps human responsibility and agency. The original version empowered them. The same God who created human freedom, further provided for his privileged creature by endowing him with reason and conscience, which allow him to guide himself in his actions. Rather than micromanaging human agency, says Brague, Providence empowers it. A return to the biblical notion would re-empower moderns enervated by the philosophy of progress. In Bragueian terms, “task” would return to the world created by “project,” and their proper conjugation would itself become an important task. When modern human beings are made whole, Western civilization will also be healed.