Rémi Brague Strikes Again

Rémi Brague, professor emeritus at the Sorbonne, and the subject of a post I wrote on the complicated western history of the Law of God, argues in a recent essay “The Impossibility of Secular Society” (paywall) that secular society is a doomed enterprise for two reasons: a secular society cannot survive in the long run, so moving on from it will be a choice to live, and the very concept of secular society is tautological “because secularity is latent within the modern use of the term society.” Brague also asserts a 1/2 thesis that whatever comes next in the West, it won’t be a “society” but a new mode of “being-together.” This mini-me thesis itself seems redundant. If the present society fails to inspire loyalty and provide convincing rationales for our “being-together,” then something new will surely replace it. But this might be the most interesting key to the essay. I’ll return to this thought at the end.

After noting the rise of the term secularism in English in the middle of the 19th century by George Holyoake and John Stuart Mill, in service of “a non-religious basis for a morally-animated society,” Brague focuses on the religious dimension of the term, which seems to inevitably shadow the attempt to appropriate it for exclusively humanist purposes. This is seen in the term’s first use, which was a pre-modern attempt to designate priests in the middle of life vs. those in monasteries and religious orders. There was also a French political appropriation of the term, Brague notes, done to give solidity to nationalism. Even here, however, the past is not really past, the dead are not really dead, their voices are tongued with fire, as Eliot said.

The French adjective, laic, and the Italian adjective, laico, have their origins in a Greek adjective referring to a member of a people or a nation. “But not just any people or nation: The Septuagint translated the Hebrew ‘am—the people of God, the holy nation—with laos, the Greek source of both adjectives.” Secular also came to designate a century in ancient usage because one hundred years was believed to be the living memory of human beings, the limits on their experiences. Such usage found its way, Brague records, into legal principles that ended contracts at 99 years, but not against the state or other collective forms whose memory lived on in the generations. The irony, notes Brague, is that secular in this sense is precisely how a secularist now lives, that is, the logic of the position entails acting as if mankind were not to outlive a century. Why?

For this answer we turn to the social contract or the notion advanced by Christian Wolff, as Brague quotes him: “society is nothing else than a contract between some people for them to promote therein their greater good by uniting their forces.” Thus do self-interested individuals with no history bring “society” into being. But is this the truth or an abstraction, a fiction, that obscures much and offers little clarity on how we actually live together? Brague notes that

“human communities . . . never constitute themselves. At each moment they discover themselves as already extant; they perpetuate themselves by renewing themselves through a process of intussusception of new members. Only exceptionally do new members come from outside. By and large, they arise from the society itself. The accretion of new members presupposes that there already exists a society that can welcome them.”

So we might have contracts between rulers and the governed, but we know that “Never has a human community constituted itself by the aggregation of independent individuals who predated it.” Hobbes is wrong to equate civic life with gamesters creating just laws from what they agree on; that is, it’s good because they consent to it. However, this also leads to a flat-earth society insofar as it would be a society as defined above by Wolff, Brague concludes. The vertical dimension of human experience and longing must be excluded. Consequently, those who will not take guidance from the consent of members reasoning from putative secular premises can be excluded. “Democratic space must remain inside itself.”

This, however, leads to a contradiction, to a rupture in the soul of a democracy if it should choose to understand itself as a self-generated “society.” This rupture comes by way of our consciences which must be ignored. The problem is that we are inherently open to the truth and constantly seeking the ground of our judgments, thus we seek transcendence. But “society” must be closed. Where will its moral authority come from? Brague concludes here with the rise of legislation in western democracies as the false answer given to the problem of authority that has been induced: “They are dominated by a technocratic elite that bases its right to govern on its claim to be able to manage the game expertly, ensuring utilitarian and therapeutic results for all.”

Brague also uncovers an even deeper contradiction: where do these self-interested players come from? Modern political thought, presupposes their existence, but on its own terms it may be ambivalent or actually opposed to the social, cultural, religious practices that bring new generations into being. Indeed, does not the self-interest of individuals living in society prove incapable of bringing new members into being because of the disruptions and sacrifices they will cause to the present interests that have formed the society?

To become fathers and mothers we can’t see ourselves in the original position, in the state of nature, or other formulations of social contract beginnings. Rather, this form requires that we understand ourselves to be in some inchoate sense tied to those buried and that we are called to carry forward their work. To do this, we must say that man’s existence is good and our realization of it is good. But to understood this as good, Brague informs us, we must leave behind childish things, and have vision beyond a century. We must make the choice to carry a work forward that is good, not because we pronounce it so, but perhaps because the One who made it called it “very good.”

Reader Discussion

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on October 04, 2013 at 00:13:54 am

But is this the truth or an abstraction, a fiction, that obscures much and offers little clarity on how we actually live together?

It is an abstraction. More precisely, it is a model that does not include many of the factors that influence how humans live together, develop traditions and social institutions and govern themselves. Such concepts as "a state of nature" and "social contracts" are also abstractions, and models that permit useful analysis, but should not be taken for the real things.

Rational beings would naturally form societies, but that does not mean that reason is the basis for societies. Humans have socializing instincts, learned behaviors, and emotional drives, wholly apart from contracts or formal, conscious agreements, that result in the formation if and prospering of societies.

Discussion of secular or religious factors in societies is objective rather than subjective; that is, it describes a perspective from which the issue is viewed, rather than the determining characteristic of the issue itself. There are certainly religious models of society and social functioning that, like the social contract or state of nature, are useful in understanding discrete facets of law, liberty, government and the state, but it remains to be seen whether there is a convincing argument that that such religious factors are indispensable.

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on October 04, 2013 at 09:00:50 am

[…] Remi Brague Strikes Again Richard Reinsch, Library of Law & Liberty […]

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First Links — 10.4.13 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog
on October 05, 2013 at 11:59:40 am

z9z99, you start off w/a question – which you really want to answer – yourself. (I am sure if I asked the question, “Mr., Mrs., or Ms., why do you hide behind the abstract (impersonal: emotionally detached or distanced from something) z9z99 (you have a name) who are you? Free speech is great – even when you distance yourself behind it. I think we are being ‘horn-snorkeled’ here. You hide behind our glorious Declaration of Independence – but you appear to wish us to take “Such concepts as “a state of nature” and “social contracts” as…abstractions, and models that permit useful analysis, but should not be taken for the real things?

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John E. Jenkins
on October 05, 2013 at 17:52:40 pm

Hi John,

I am not hiding behind anything here, and the fact that you think I am does you no credit. I use the handle z9z99 because I have used it on various sites since 1995 and I happen to like it. It is also the title of my blog. If it bothers you, that is too bad. If you are unable to discern the meaning of a post when the writer uses a pseudonym, then perhaps discerning the meaning of posts is a futile endeavor for you. You realize that the Federalist Papers were written under pseudonyms don't you?

Perhaps you could explain your non-sequitur "You start off w/a question- that you really want to answer- yourself." I case you didn't notice, the question was a quote from Mr. Reinsch's post. It was his question, and I did answer with the four words that follow.

I would also be interested in learning how you concluded that I am "hiding" behind the Declaration of Independence. Really, "hiding behind?" Come on, John E. Jenkins, I am sure you can do better.

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on October 07, 2013 at 10:44:50 am

Z9z99, all of the responses to these posts that I’ve read here have a name attached to them. (We know who the three ‘Publius’ are.) I have used a pseudonym myself on other blogs, but those blogs ALL contained pseudonyms. I have even had the pleasure of correspondence by email to some of our individuals that post here. They’ve led me to other articles of interest. Makes it a friendly atmosphere – at least for me. In any case, I will still look forward to your responses. You most certainly have a right to your own opinions. Respectfully, John

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John E. Jenkins
on December 09, 2013 at 23:48:43 pm

I read the article. I am a 62 year old simple Catholic man. I too found the article a bit. As I read, I waited for the solution to the problem secularism represents. I ask the author or anyone who understands the direction of this article this question: Are we to hold the secular world, the market place anathema? If so, the only way I know to be rid of secular society is via of a holy war and then what do we have? The winner of this war will definitely bring about an end to secular society and also to religious freedom and the meek will definitely not inherit the world. Maybe we forget as Catholics we are taught that Creation is much more than a remnant of original sin. Creation is also a remnant of God’s creative goodness. Beauty exists in Secular society because people exist there. It is beauty that connects us with all the centuries; all the generations. I regress. Our Lord marveled when he witnessed parents giving a fish to their children. Maybe we can marvel when we see goodness in society especially as a place for the freedom of expression. After all secular society is the theatre of salvation and it will be the place for the fullness of the kingdom. We live in-between times with the already, the not yet kingdom.The mission of our church is to bring the kingdom to the market place, to secular society: not just religion but the Kingdom. This does not make us bad Catholics to think this way. Look at our Lord! Our lord was patient with us, why can’t those who speak for him do the same for others less fortunate... Catholics (and dare I say, our protestant brothers and sisters) bring the kingdom of god to the secular world in their own flesh because as the Body of Christ -ideally they love the Father as revealed to them by the Christ. First we need to worry about our relationship with the Father and then our relationship with our church and then we can contribute to the transformation of secular society if it offends us. We do this first without words, especially words of condemnation. A sound corny but it is from scripture: They will know us by our love…There is no other way to change the world than to love creation, sinners, ourselves and our neighbor with the same love of the Father. That is salvation: to love God; that is the miracle; we can actually love God; makes life worth it; we become young again…

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