April 8, 2019


Modernity's Projects and the Loss of Human Dignity : a review of Rémi Brague's The Kingdom of Man  (LEE TREPANIER, 4/07/19, Law & Liberty)

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 broaden 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.

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 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.

No matter how much we have changed about ourselves and the world around us the one fundamental reality is that we have not managed to make ourselves good and all the rational schemes aimed at that end only bring out the worst in us.  Our Fallen natures are impervious to human endeavor, casting us back on the divine forever. 

Posted by at April 8, 2019 12:02 AM