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Modernity’s Projects and the Loss of Human Dignity

The final part of his trilogy about the ethical knowledge of human nature, Rémi Brague’s The Kingdom of Man examines the modern project of humans liberating themselves from both nature and God. In the first book of his trilogy, The Wisdom of the World (2003), Brague inspected the cosmological basis that had structured human existence; and, in his second work, The Law of God (2007), he explored how the divine revealed itself in history and inscribed itself in people’s consciences. In The Kingdom of Man, Brague shows how the modern person has made the human rather than nature the measure of all things and how authority has become self-anointed rather than determined by the divine. Rejecting both nature and God as normative guides, the modern person now self-creates and self-wills ethical knowledge.

Brague believes this project will ultimately fail because what humans need are not projects but tasks. A task is the acceptance of a purpose from an origin over which one has no control but can only be discovered. It requires to ask oneself whether one is capable of this trust and is willing to make the sacrifices to achieve it. Unlike a project, a task demands that the person is alone responsible for what needs to be accomplished: it cannot be outsourced to guarantee its success. Prior to modernity, humans were defined by tasks, either from nature or the divine, whereas today they decide what their projects will be—what will be created and pursued as decided only by themselves, without reliance on a higher or deeper authority.

The Groundwork for the Modern Project

In the first section of the book, entitled “Preparation,” Brague traces how the idea of modernity, the idea that human beings are autonomous and acknowledge no higher authority, existed at the very beginning of recorded history. For example, in ancient Greece and China, human beings were singular and superior among creatures because of their capacity of reason. This idea was also supported in a way by Jews, Christians, and Muslims who assigned a dignity to humans in this life and a perfected one hereafter because only humans were capable of faith in the divine. Humans were the “best of all living creatures” and therefore had a right to dominate nature. But this domination was not exploitative since humans were not the owners of creation. Instead, the task of domination was itself subject to the condition of obedience to the Creator—it makes them stewards rather than masters of the world.

With the rise of monotheist religion, humans moved from a cosmocentric perspective rooted in nature to an anthropocentric one where God provided the ethical tasks to humankind. For Brague, the divine intervention in history culminated in Christ’s Incarnation, caused by God’s grace and not human action. Thus, a space was created that was reserved only for humans and made obedience to God possible. This solution differed from messianism where humans could achieve an eschatological victory in human history. Although it was suppressed in the medieval world, the idea of messianism would continue to exist and inspire subsequent thinkers in the modern era.

Another idea that later would be adopted by modern thinkers was “the working on oneself.” With a space reserved for humans, one could engage in exercises of self-mastery that demonstrated a mastery over the body as proof of mastery over the soul (e.g., St. Gregory of Nyssa, 335-94). However, this type of mastery was different from modernity’s project of self-formation because the task came from divine. But, like messianism, the idea of self-mastery would later be incorporated into the modern project of liberation from both nature and God.

These ideas first became crystalized into the notion of “creativity” during the Renaissance where the human artist was a metaphor for politics, science, and philosophy. Inspired by Marsilio Ficino (1433-99), Cristoforo Landino (1424-98) argued that, while the poet did not make anything—for only God was capable of that—he or she can create something and therefore be akin to God. Creative and original, the artist was the owner of his or her work. Thus, to dominate was to create, freeing the activity from a mere static affirmation of human superiority to an active and dynamic molding of nature as proof of human singularity.

The Deployment of the Modern Project

While the idea to transform nature also resided in the classical period (e.g., Gnosticism) and the medieval world, the modern period married the ideology of the state with technological innovations in order to remake the world. Human rationality was now defined by production rather than action, and this became the distinguishing characteristic of the species. Humans were to rival God in creation. These ideas were most clearly articulated in the philosophies of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and René Descartes (1596-1650) where humans were to dominate and master nature, transforming it for practical purposes.

In the 18th century there were a series of discoveries and inventions that seem to make the dreams of Bacon and Descartes a reality: the means of producing electricity at will, the invention of the lightning rod and the hot air balloon, the decomposition of air and of water. While there had been earlier accounts of a technological utopia, like Thomas More’s (1478-1535), the 18th century and onward made it seem like a possible reality. This submission of nature unleashed human imagination and aspirations about immortality with someone like William Goodwin (1756-1836) believing that one day humans will no longer need government because they will have perfect control over their bodies and thereby be immortal. And with the abolition of death, the abolition of procreation would be next, with Dostoevsky’s Kirillov saying, “I believe that man ought to cease reproducing.”

Yet Brague neglects in his account how the advances in technology and industry also produced a backlash during this period in the movements of Romanticism and the Counter-Enlightenment, each playing a vital voice that presented alternatives to the projects of Bacon and Descartes. Romanticism (c.1770-c.1848) was an intellectual and artistic movement that preferred the medieval over the modern and glorified nature at the expense of technology. The Counter-Enlightenment included thinkers like Edmund Burke (1729-97) and Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) who defended the ancien regime and challenged the ideas of modernity.

Nevertheless, according to Brague, these technological advances and aspirations continued unabated and were undergirded by a conception of time that was progressive, taken from the spiritual perfectionism of medieval millenarianism. Rejecting an understanding of progress as a manifestation of providence, the modern person embraced a scientific and ideological basis for progress, with the Enlightenment and later Darwinism becoming the foundation for this perspective.  The science of man, anthropology, also appears during modernity with Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and Auguste Comte (1798-1857) claiming that such a science was the foundation for all others. This science did not identify human nature with reason, as did the Greeks, or with the soul, as did the medieval Christian, but as a substance that could be molded as the modern person thought it should be. As a consequence, dignity was displaced. With Christianity, humans were understood to be fundamentally good while tainted with original sin: salvation therefore was a spiritual aspiration. With the philosophes, original sin was erased and salvation was an aspiration to be realized in history. All that was needed was the removal of the external agents of corruption–property, religion, false consciousness—to ensure that progress would take place.

To enable this understanding of dignity was the neutralization of nature of all normative value and the valorization of work where it was the sole origin of value. The German idealists, like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), called for humans to conquer nature because they must do so in order to be free. This required not only the technological application to nature but also a philosophy of science to rationalize it: positivism, pragmatism, and humanism. Rather than being concerned with causes, first principles, or questions whose answer would change nothing in human behavior, these philosophies only see the value of truth if it can be used to transform nature and make life better.

The final step was the abolition of God. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) and Karl Marx (1818-83) rejected the divine and identified humanism with atheistic materialism. The goal of the technological control of nature was to free humans from their essential task of work and, for Marx, communism was the means to achieve this goal. Communism would end the domination of the product over the producer so humans for the first time could be conscious and effective masters over nature. The earth was no longer the kingdom of God but of man.

The Anti-Humanism of the Modern Project

The third and final section of the book examines the consequences of the modern project. While conferring many benefits, the domination of nature also included destructive effects on individuals, classes of people, and humanity itself (e.g., slavery, colonialism). But perhaps more insidious was the countervailing tradition in modernity that belittled human dignity, making people slaves to nature in them (e.g., Freud) or to historical forces (e.g., Marx) that they do not control. This “ironic dialectic” that Brague calls made the modern person not master over the earth but master only over others and even over oneself by one’s own project. Human beings were controlled and conquered by the projects they had created: they were no longer the subject of creation but its object.

As the object of creation, the modern person was remade, an idea that existed since antiquity. But this aspiration was restrained by the Greek’s account of nature and the Christian’s belief that humans were made in the “image” of God. In this new view, with God banished from the modern cosmos, humans were to be transformed with the only problem being, as asked by André Malraux (1901-76), “what form we can re-create man.”

The creation of a new view of the human person inevitably raised the question which characteristics were to be selected and which ones disregarded, which easily was broadened to questions of which types of people were to be preserved and which ones eliminated. Thus, eugenics, fascism, and the “new Soviet man” were logically consequences of this project. Human nature was not to be fulfilled, but rather surpassed, unleashing a destructive dialectic that reversed the project of a domination of nature by man into a domination by nature over man. The final result is a humanism that has transformed itself into anti-humanism, with thinkers proclaiming “the death of man” (Michel Foucault, 1926-84), “to go beyond man and humanism” (Jacques Derrida, 1930-2004), and “the final goal of human sciences is not to constitute man, but to dissolve him” (Claude Lévi-Strauss, 1908-2008). As Brague puts it, “The project of the kingdom of man ends with a dispossession of man, in the name of the kingdom to realize.”

But one wonders whether this is the complete story, for Brague neglects those thinkers, organizations, and movements that have pushed back against anti-humanism. The Abolition and Civil Rights Movements and the widespread acceptance of human rights have preserved features of human dignity that protects humans from the anti-humanist forces of slavery, segregation, and human right abuses. Religion, particularly the growth of evangelical Christianity in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, also challenges the “ironic dialectic” of modernity by claiming humans are made in the image of God and therefore are to be cherished. Finally, “traditionalist” thinkers like Leo Strauss  (1899-1973), Eric Voegelin (1901-85), and Michael Oakeshott (1901-90) have presented philosophies that critique modernity and present alternative answers to the modern anti-humanist project. While anti-humanism may reign in academia and in other aspects of western culture, its dominance is far from complete.

Humanism without Domination?

For Brague, humanism was possible, realized in the pre-modern world where humans were afforded dignity and superiority and made technological advances without an intention to dominate the world. It was only in the deployment of the modern project where certain ideas were chosen by philosophers, scientists, and rulers to go further in mastery of the world that led to the banishment of nature and God as normative guides. However, the modern project has not only run up against an external critique, some of which has been labeled “reactionary,” but also an internal self-destructive dialectic by which the modern project has produced something other than it had wanted. The result is an anti-humanism that cannot affirm the goodness of the human: modernity can produce material, cultural, and moral goods but is incapable of explaining why they are good for human beings to enjoy.

Brague closes his book with thoughts on “Athens” and “Jerusalem” and how humans originally had a metaphysical foundation that they did not produce but rather produced them. Nature and God provided the task for humans to be human, whereas modernity repudiated these natural and divine origins for projects of human desire. The question for our time is whether the modern person has the will to survive in this project—to be able to grant legitimacy to oneself without the need of nature or God. Believing otherwise, Brague thinks only a return to nature and the divine will enable humans to be able to restore their dignity, singularity, and, most importantly, humanity.

Concise, clear, and compelling, The Kingdom of Man provides an account of the genesis and failure of the modern project. Although a familiar story, Brague presents it with erudition and detail that is enriching rather than overwhelming and helps us understand who we are today. However, I would ask Brague whether his account may be too one-sided, for there were thinkers and schools of thought that were opposed to the modern project from its inception and still exist, albeit in weaker form. The rise of atheist humanism did not mean that religion disappeared; the dominance of science and technocratic thinking did not result, with a few exceptions, in the complete rationalization of society. Time and time again people, institutions, and thinkers have pushed back against the modern project. One wonders whether the story of modernity may be one of decline but not necessarily of woe.

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