Man in harmony with his Creator is sublime, and his action creative; equally once he separates himself from God and acts alone, […] his acts are negative and lead only to destruction.

— Joseph de Maistre, Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions

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IN 1944, as the fate of the free world was still undecided, the French theologian Henri de Lubac (1896–1991) identified, in The Drama of Atheist Humanism, a significant undercurrent beneath the momentous events of world politics. “[T]hrough the action of a large proportion of its foremost thinkers,” he wrote, “the peoples of the West are denying their Christian past and turning away from God.” This was not the usual atheism to be found in philosophers’ books. What made it particularly dangerous was that it was “manifestly incapable of replacing what it destroys.” De Lubac singled out three key representatives of “atheistic humanism”: the positivist sociologist Auguste Comte, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Noting the significant appeal of their ideas, de Lubac predicted that the principles of positivist, Marxist, and Nietzschean humanisms would be a matter of great concern for future generations. They risked undermining the foundations of Western civilization, and paved the way for an avalanche of murderous ideologies leading to the annihilation of human beings.

Rémi Brague’s The Kingdom of Man, translated by Paul Seaton, draws inspiration from Henri de Lubac’s critique of atheist humanism, but takes it in a new direction. The book, completing an ambitious trilogy that includes The Wisdom of the World (2004) and The Law of God (2008), focuses on “the modern project.” It offers an elegant critique of the development of an exclusive form of humanism that has allowed the knowledge of man to free itself from nature and turn against the divine. Brague believes that, without God, humans create a bankrupt form of humanism, and organize the whole world around (and ultimately against) themselves. “[T]he modern project […] is bound to fail,” Brague writes, perhaps “it has already failed in principle.” He thinks that today’s Europeans, his main audience, are committing slow suicide, both cultural and demographic. Yet although Brague believes that the internal logic of the modern project leads to a self-destructive dialectic, his book avoids the gloomy tone found elsewhere. He seeks to moderate both our enthusiasm for modernity and our pessimism about it.

Brague argues that “the modern project” must not be confused with the content and events of the modern period. First of all, it has premodern roots that go back to the end of the ancient world, and it includes founding texts of the medieval period. The modern project, however, was predicated upon forgetting everything that had preceded it. It involved a displacement of emphasis, in several stages, which is discussed in the three main parts of the book (preparation, deployment, and failure). Brague explains how proponents of the modern agenda first moved away from the ancient idea of self-mastery to the mastery of nature. In the process, nature lost its upper hand and was demoted, while science and technology gained in prominence. Another shift occurred when moderns moved away from the creative imitation of God (fulfilling a “task” entrusted by the Creator or nature) to the idea of the creative construction of reality with the aid of imagination. A third shift occurred in the understanding of the dignity of man, a notion with deep roots in the ancient world and Christianity. The novelty lay in the connection now made between the nobility of man and the capacity to transform nature by work. The new understanding of human dignity now involved notions of domination and mastery, and was inseparable from a transformation of the meaning of work. In the ancient and medieval worlds, work had been valorized as labor on oneself, as a means of self-perfection (ora et labora). With the moderns, work became a form of self-determination, a means of remaking nature and mastering Fortuna (a major theme in Machiavelli and his followers).

Once started, the modern agenda seemed unstoppable. It triggered, in Brague’s words, “a movement of great amplitude that would lead to the expulsion of both celestial bodies and angels from the vision of the world,” followed by the elevation of man in their stead. Boosted by a newly acquired confidence in his own powers, modern man became a new Prometheus who derived his worth not from contemplation, but from work and, in general, from productive activity. The adjective “human,” previously denoting a weakness, eventually turned into a term of praise. Consequently, Brague claims, a novel meaning of the word “humanism” emerged, designating an ethical and cultural program grounded in the mastering of nature and the achievement of human autonomy. The new humanism went from the rehabilitation of human creativity to the exclusive concern for human realities and earthly things.

Modern individuals started imagining the possibility of “repairing” the Fall and gradually removing the effects of the original sin. Brague traces this ambition to the works of Bacon, Descartes, and the Enlightenment thinkers, who gave voice to the dreams of a humanity that started emerging from childhood into maturity. The idea of a radical new beginning in thought loomed large in Descartes’s writings; his famous doubt (epoché) was meant to suspend all existing beliefs and prejudices in order to achieve full clarity and certainty in knowledge. A radical new beginning was also thought possible in politics. In 1776, Thomas Paine celebrated “the birth of a new world,” claiming that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” This radical ethos manifested itself later in the French Revolution, at the core of which lay the project of the regeneration of mankind and the creation of a new man.

Eventually, a new “religion of Humanity” appeared in the works of the positivist school led by Auguste Comte, who plays a key role in Brague’s narrative. The positivists believed that Humanity had to be substituted definitively for God. Modern individuals who managed to subject nature to their needs now expected to achieve full autonomy, self-sufficiency, and self-determination. They felt entitled to give value to things, and decide what is good and evil without the aid of religion or tradition; this is what Nietzsche once called the “hyperbolic naiveté of man: positing himself as the meaning and measure of the value of things.”

The implications of this shift were far-reaching. “Two centuries after the project of a domination of nature,” writes Brague, “the project of a rivalry with God appeared.” From that moment on, it dominated the agenda of modernity. Modern individuals could no longer content themselves with dominating nature: they became God’s challengers, believing that there could only be one Sovereign on earth. The result was the appearance of an exclusive, atheistic humanism that went beyond rejecting God to actively seeking to replace him with the new godlike man. As the ultraconservative Joseph de Maistre once put it, “A boundless pride leads them continually to overthrow everything they have not themselves made, and to bring about new creations.” Nothing seemed impossible anymore to modern individuals, armed with the tools of new science, technology, and knowledge that made them capable of experimenting and controlling phenomena.

Nonetheless, the general enthusiasm for unlimited progress did not remain unchallenged. In the 19th century, people started to worry about the dangers of technology to humanity, the limits of growth, and the depletion of natural resources. Not surprisingly, the notion of “the last man” became a big theme with Nietzsche, who understood the parasitical nature of modernity. “We have ceased to accumulate,” he noticed, “we spend the capital of our ancestors.” An entire modern tradition bent on belittling man came to light; man was described as a sort of “upstart parvenu,” “a little mud,” “a drop of snot,” or “an incomprehensible monster.”

At the same time, as Brague reminds us, the idea of man as inferior to his creations began gaining currency, suggesting the possibility of improving and even surpassing man. This opened the way to a wide range of social engineering projects, especially in education and psychiatry, often with authoritarian tones. Recreating human nature became the task of “transhumanism,” which led to breakthroughs in pharmacology, genetics, surgery, electronics, and artificial intelligence. Unwilling to tolerate imperfection, the new social engineers, regardless of their political differences, agreed that man should be subject to total control and might be surpassed and replaced by robots.

Thus, Brague argues, the idea of a posthuman future lost its utopian overtones to become a real possibility. Once compared to Prometheus himself, modern man was now seen as a provisional stage, a mere prelude to universal artificial gestation and mass production of selected human types. “I hold man for a failed experiment of nature, which it is going to abandon very soon,” Alexander von Villers wrote in 1873. His words may have sounded utopian at the time, but today they seem realistic. The plan for a posthuman future reveals the self-destructive internal dialectic of the modern project. “A dialectic is put in place by which the ambition of man to total dominance leads to his own effacement.”

Brague is a rare bird in today’s academic circles, and his body of work represents a genuine intellectual achievement in our digest era. Reading his book is a unique experience for anyone interested in the history of ideas — like taking a transatlantic Concorde flight over the entirety of the course of Western history. Brague operates at high altitudes, with speed and grace, offering a longue durée perspective on the modern project. His narratives are full of surprises and rich in references to unknown or forgotten figures from many disciplines, such as theology, philosophy, political theory, sociology, and literature (he is light, however, on economics). While Brague seems to have read almost everything in several modern and ancient languages, he wears his erudition lightly. He possesses an elegant (French) style that combines a keen sense for the essential with a penchant for moderation. The tone of the book is never dogmatic, and its chapters are rarely longer than 10 pages (only the bibliography seems immoderate by comparison, amounting to 50 pages).

A book like this, standing as it does on the shoulders of giants, is bound to raise more questions than it can answer. Will we be able to save (or retrieve) what the modern project threatens to undo? Is there a way for us, the restless moderns of the 21st century, to recover a perennial wisdom that might help us to overcome nihilism and save us from the real or imaginary ills of modernity? Can we embrace the promise of transhumanism without losing our humanity? While Brague believes that exclusive humanism is a failure and advocates a return to the Biblical God that entrusted humans with a specific task, he does not offer clear-cut answers to such questions. At times, he calls for a better organized modern home and invites us to imagine it. Yet, as Gershom Scholem once said, even a well-ordered house may be “a dangerous thing,” especially in modern times. As Daniel Bell once argued, we need to learn to accommodate ourselves to the implications of “the disjunction of realms” in modern society (economy and technology, politics, culture and religion), operating according to different logics, rhythms, and rules. These realms are often in conflict with each other, but their tensions should not always be interpreted as signs of irreversible decline. The future remains open, history seems to have no libretto.

Brague knows that attempting to overcome nihilism without reevaluating our values might render our problems even more acute. He worries that modernity may not be capable of reproducing its own conditions of existence or have the adequate means of addressing the question of the legitimacy of the human. While reminding us of the parasitic nature of modernity, Brague invites us to learn to be “moderately modern,” the title of another of his books. He succeeds in opposing both the naïve enthusiasm of those who suffer from “modernitis” and wish to be ever more modern, and the resignation of those who tend to see in the modern project the source of all evils. As he wrote in Moderately Modern, “the history of Modernity, even in its happiest period, is always the implicit history of its failure, and that the possibility of failure is the very heart of Modernity.”

Living with the prospect of failure is no easy task, but learning how to cope with imperfection may be the key to living a fully human life.

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Aurelian Craiutu is professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.