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Rémi Brague’s Bleak but Brilliant Analysis of the Modern Project

According to Rémi Brague, the dialectic of modernity results in a paradox. Man is both the conquering lord of nature and a part of nature to be controlled. His well-being is the purpose of the modern project, which simultaneously places his distinct dignity in doubt.

Reading a bad book holds few pleasures, but it does make the next good book more enjoyable. Having recently slogged through Steven Pinker’s wretched pop-academic book, Enlightenment Now, it was a delight to turn to Rémi Brague’s The Kingdom of Man: Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project. This is a genuine academic work by a scholar of remarkable erudition. Originally published in French in 2015, it has been translated by Paul Seaton and was released by the University of Notre Dame Press in October 2018.

This timely translation illuminates the debates stirred up by books such as Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed and Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West. Understanding the development of the modern project should be a prerequisite for debating whether it should be defended or discarded. Both sides agree that the modern project has enhanced human technological power and mastery over nature. But modernity has also called into question the nature of man and his place in the universe: who is the lord of our technological domain? What constitutes the authentic human self?

Brague asserts that we have conquered nature at the cost of losing ourselves. Man is no longer the subject of divine creation, but the object of nature and self-creation. In modernity, “knowledge of man freed itself from nature and from the divine.” Humanity now refuses “to derive its existence and legitimacy from any place other than itself.” This emancipation sets man free from God and against nature, and Brague is not sanguine about the consequences: “[T]his project is bound to fail. . . . [T]o deprive the human of any context leads to its destruction.”

The Roots of Modernity

His book lays out this grim diagnosis in three parts. The first examines the premodern roots of modernity; the second chronicles the development of the modern project, which “results from the conjunction of several factors, each of which existed long before it.” Although the modern project defines itself in large part by its rejection of the past, it relies for its material on that same past. What is unique to modernity is not technological innovation or notions of human dignity; rather, it is that the domination of nature and the self-creation of man become an emancipatory project. Brague concludes by setting forth the failures of this effort.

As Brague observes, “In the premodern world, man enjoyed a tranquil superiority” that allowed for “technological advances” but did not “imply any intention of dominating the world,” let alone of making man independent from nature or the divine. The ancient ideal of human mastery was, “above all, self-mastery,” directed toward the right ordering and orientation of the soul. In contrast, the modern perspective sees self-control as a prerequisite for dominating the external world, in order to direct the world toward the fulfillment of human desires.

This vision of domination diverges from the Christian view of man as a steward of God’s creation, a creature whose dignity and authority over nature derive from God. As the modern outlook developed, man became the conqueror of nature, with his dignity, such as it is, being self-bestowed. God was sidelined, then exiled, and finally declared dead. Brague deftly chronicles this quest for power, and the redefinition of human self-understanding that accompanied it. Yet he reminds us that each step of the process was not inevitable—corrections could have been made as modernity unfolded.

He also examines revealing, but overlooked, historical realities, such as the confluence of magic and technology at the beginning of the modern project. Although this fact is well-known to scholars, popular histories often ignore how the efforts to dominate nature by science were intertwined with efforts to dominate it by magic. But as Brague notes, the “modern enterprise of a conquest of nature has the same point as magic.” Many scientific innovators and experimenters also dabbled in magic, which complicates the simplistic narratives about the “superstitious” medieval period, in contrast to supposedly rational modernity. Indeed, the “Renaissance was not an age of the progress of rationality; rather, it was accompanied by a rebirth of credulity.” The eventual abandonment of magic by those determined to conquer nature was the result of its failures. Francis Bacon, for instance, rejected magic not because it was immoral or illogical, but because it was ineffective.

Others took longer to exchange the dream of magical power for the reality of technological prowess, but the root desire was the same. Technology achieved what magicians could not, and so the “overall movement of modernity is a passage from magic to technology, which took over for the discredited magic.” In examining the pathologies of modernity, it helps to recall that the modern project was born with a “magical” twin, which (although eventually it was abandoned) shared the same aims: man’s domination of nature, and his independence from the divine.

The Pathologies of Modernity

The Kingdom of Man considers the implications and failure of the modern enterprise, often by highlighting the misgivings of those who are invested in it. Brague charges: “Modernity not only runs up against an external [reactionary] critique, but involves an internal self-destructive dialectic, by which the modern project ends by producing … its exact opposite.” Instead of being exalted, man is humiliated. Instead of being freed, he is enslaved. Instead of being enlightened, he is befuddled.

Furthermore, modern attempts to establish human power and emancipation come with burdens that may be impossible for mankind to bear. The problem of evil is particularly acute, for “in vindicating the goodness of man at the same time as affirming the independence of man from every superior instance, modern thought made him responsible for everything, including evil.” Man as the lord of nature and master of his own destiny assumes responsibility for the suffering of the world, and the burden of remedying it. The problem of theodicy is replaced by a sort of “anthropodicy” that asks how mankind can remake the world (especially the political and social world) to end suffering.

This impossible demand constantly poisons politics. Whose vision will govern the remaking of man’s estate? Someone has to call the shots. Thus, an inevitable consequence of the modern project is that the “domination of man over nature turns into a domination of man over man.” Nor is this strictly political, for the remaking of the world is often premised on a remaking of man himself. From education to eugenics to “transhumanism,” modernity has dreamed of “new men.”

Who will make these new men, and what will direct the makers? The power that mankind has acquired over nature is also power over man, who views himself as the conqueror of nature, but also as a product of it. As Brague puts it, the “modern project wants man to be the master of himself as well as of the universe; its aim is that he take his destiny into his own hands.” But this leads to “the domination of certain human beings over others, and even a domination of man by his own project.”

The power to remake and alter nature, including human nature, becomes man’s definitive trait; modern man is defined not by his relationships to others, but by his work. Brague gives Locke the dubious credit for this shift: “Locke conceives of work as the self-creation of man. . . . Before being a political animal, man is the animal who works.” Reason is still prized, but as an instrument to alter this world, rather than as the capacity that enables man to fulfill himself through the apprehension and contemplation of the good.

And if man is responsible for remaking the world, then he finds himself in rivalry with God, who has become intolerable. To be captain of his destiny, man had to reject God, especially the idea of a personal God who intervenes in human history. For modernity, nature was a foe to be conquered, God a rival to banish. Man’s quest for empowerment has gone down a path that cuts him off from the earth below and heaven above. The third part of the Kingdom of Man documents the baleful consequences of this ambition.

Although the modern project sought to elevate and ennoble man, it accepted premises that degraded him and intensified his war against nature. In the premodern world, the “dignity of man was based upon a theological or philosophical anthropology.” The modern rejection of these ideas means that “man no longer appears as the legitimate sovereign of creation, but as a sort of upstart parvenu.” He must then dominate nature all the more thoroughly, as he has no right but that of conquest. And like all usurpers, modern man fears for the stability of his throne. Brague chronicles common apprehensions of how nature might have its revenge, or how man’s creations could conquer him. From fears of resource depletion, to pollution, to robot apocalypse, to nuclear holocaust, modern man is beset by anxieties regarding his dominion over nature.

These worries extend to man’s own status. Modernity has made man into an object of science, and therefore places him under the modern project of control. As Brague observes, when “man becomes an object of science, it is normal that one applies to him the rule that applies to every object of science. . . . One therefore will renounce the attempt to understand him in order to seek for laws that will better allow one to control him.” The scientific study of man has returned man to nature, thereby considering him another natural object to control.

Modernity’s Death Wish

Thus, the dialectic of modernity results in a paradox. Man is both the conquering lord of nature and a part of nature to be controlled. His well-being is the purpose of the modern project, which simultaneously places his distinctive dignity in doubt. Thus, “Man as a subject is invested with supreme responsibility” even as man as part of nature is seen as a “plaything of external or internal forces that he does not control. On the other hand, man as an object becomes the sole cause to which it is worthwhile to devote oneself, . . . at the same time as he doubts that he possesses any value.”

As an example, consider how modernity regards the value of new persons, and how it has exercised the control it has seized over human reproduction. In much of the Western world, fertility rates have dropped far below replacement levels, as entire peoples are voluntarily extinguishing themselves. Brague attributes this to our having “placed life under conditions, because it has less value than happiness. . . . [B]eing is no longer intrinsically good, but only in certain cases.” We do not regard new persons as good in themselves, but only insofar as certain (increasingly demanding) conditions are met.

This treatment of life as a lesser good than comfort is part of modernity’s death wish. Brague writes that “absolute liberty leads to self-destruction” and offers this meditation on Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the death of God: If, according to nominalism, “God was defined as the All-Powerful, and if, therefore, power is the measure of the divinity, the death that triumphed over God is the sole, true and definitive God. After the death of God, it is not the kingdom of man that comes, but that of the last God, which is Death.”

If the transcendent was only a man-made fable, then realizing it as such is both emancipatory and enslaving: man is free from God, and bound to Death. Brague concludes that the “ambition of man to total dominance leads to his effacement. Enlightenment thus finds its apotheosis in an extinction.” And so we see deaths of despair amid material comfort and prosperity, and the voluntary demographic suicide of peoples. Nietzsche sought to overcome this nihilistic conclusion through self-creation that would transcend man as he was, and many still follow his example. But self-creation is hard, and self-determination harder still, except through the choice of extinction.

Does the unfolding of modernity express a death wish arising from the rejection of God? Such a claim cannot be proven, but Brague has made an interesting case in this intellectual genealogy. Those seeking to defend (or at least salvage something from) modernity would do well to consider it, rather than cheering for the Enlightenment (or what they think was the Enlightenment) while condemning the ingratitude of people today. The modern project has provided material wealth, but it also chose to abolish God. And man does not live on bread alone.

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