Rémi Brague’s bracing critique of modernity’s low-rent logos

Driving modernity’s idea of project, argues Brague in Curing Mad Truths, is the supposed autonomy of mankind, his emancipation from the bonds of external powers, ruling oneself without regard to “cosmology or theology”.

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In Curing Mad Truths, French philosopher Rémi Brague argues that the modern world is dying because it cannot answer the question of why it should live. To answer that question will require humility, according to Brague, because it is medieval truths about God, man, reason, and nature that are necessary for renewal.

To put it mildly, such a dialogue between our rationalist age and an age commonly thought to be one of blind faith is difficult to launch. Brague opens with G.K. Chesterton’s infamous statement that the modern world is “full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.” Chesterton meant that the virtues “have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other.” Brague’s book focuses on the why and what of that madness. Such madness occurs from the modern conceit that reason contains the full content of truth, with no consideration of God. As Brague terms it, “The modern world plumes itself with its being utterly rational.”

But bare reason cannot ground its existence, its purposes, its truth. Brague notes the statement Chesterton made twenty years later about his original mad virtues observation:

[T]he modern world, with its modern movement, is living on Catholic capital. It is using, and using up, the truths that remain to it out of the old treasury of Christendom….For these are the two marks of modern moral ideals. First, that they were borrowed or snatched out of ancient or medieval hands. Second, that they wither very quickly in modern hands.

Brague disputes the English author’s use of the phrase “Christian virtues.” He concludes there are no Christian virtues, just as there is no Christian law, or Christian culture; rather there is the logos, the reasonable and loving and personal God that underwrites and guarantees these worthy human achievements. We can best understand Chesterton’s statement, Brague says, by observing how the modern world appropriates premodern ideas, and then corrupts them. Foremost is the corruption of reason and nature in his account.

Modernity, in Brague’s formulation, opts for a low-cost logos: there is no link between the reason in nature and God. However, it pays for this bargain of a dessicated reason without divine support in the form of pervasive human doubt about the basic goodness of man’s existence and the proper use of his faculties. The modern mind also warps providence into a general progress whereby things always improve regardless of our actions. And we are surprised by any lapse in that assumed movement. Finally, and this is quite evident today, Brague highlights that we constantly confess guilt and ask for mercy, particularly for the deeds of our ancestors, or for what happened 15 minutes ago and is now an affront to human rights. But this is done by secular sinners with the impossibility of forgiveness or absolution. Who would possess such authority in the modern dispensation?

Modernity’s logos is a project, Brague intones. Project, unlike a calling or vocation, is something that man conceives and gives to himself. Driving modernity’s idea of project is the supposed autonomy of mankind, his emancipation from the bonds of external powers, ruling oneself without regard to “cosmology or theology,” if not aiming for the inversion of God and man. Project’s partner is experimentation where “the very figure of Truth changes. Truth becomes the result of an experiment.” Descartes reveals its essence when he calls his Discourse on Method “the project of a universal science that could lift our nature up to its highest degree of perfection.” Sartre more directly expresses matters when he states that project is not just achieving something but a state of being, “I am my own project.” But when does the personal project start and end? Sartre couldn’t be his own project, Brague reasons, if we are the “result of a project, this project can’t be mine.” We could be someone else’s project, if not nature’s roll of the dice. Modernity’s supposed liberation from a theological and metaphysical past easily becomes its own source of imprisonment.

What if man isn’t just the projector but becomes the object of the experiment? Man could be judged a failure by nature, or by scientists who stand in judgment of other lesser mortals. Nietzsche, Brague argues, fully accepted this fact, and it is the basis of the Overman: “man is to the Overman who is to come what monkeys are to human beings.” Thus, Brague’s sober judgment that “The modern project brought about the possibility of its own demise.” It wanted autonomy of man, under no authority but science and experiments. However, “if man can determine itself, by itself and only by itself” then why should man continue to live? Reproducing children, in this conception, could be an act of abuse, hurling new humans into a despairing existence, according to David Benatar, a contemporary philosopher who realizes the full logic of mankind’s situation as project.

Modernity, Brague adds, produces many beautiful and comfortable things, but is unable to justify the being who enjoys those things. The result is paralysis, the condition that currently envelops us.

Brague produces a rich quote from Rousseau: atheism’s principles “don’t cause the death of people, but they prevent them from being born.” Rousseau didn’t live to see the totalitarian death cults of the twentieth century, or even the French Revolution, but he acutely understood that atheism is the most lethal long-term threat to civilization. Under atheism, man doubts his legitimacy because he knows that his reason doesn’t entitle him to rule the earth, or separate him from the other animals, or provide him with any notion of dignity. A consistent rationalist humanism ends in man no longer knowing his true worth. Brague applies this judgment to Europe, an aging continent that is increasingly bereft of children and a future. Its post-familial condition is the result of a foundational humanist decision to sever modern Europe from its classical and Christian patrimony. This project can’t justify a civilizational future.

Brague points to modernity’s near infatuation with individual liberty as another truth that is distorted by its divorce from a dialogue with truth. If freedom is a “proud self-image” of modernity or “the right of subjective freedom, is the hub and center of the difference between antiquity and modern times” then you end, Brague concludes, with autonomy fulfilled in “some sort of self-creation.” But we can’t create ourselves. To believe that we can is to indulge in a secular death wish that ignores basic facts of birth, community, continuity, and our immense debts to others. Freedom must confront birth, the fact that man’s creation is not self-chosen but given. Freedom must accept generation, but this is to sublimate man’s modernist desires to the Good.

Modernity reconsidering its principles—its low-cost logos—would create the opportunity to recover the Good as the condition of life, being, and freedom. Brague rehabilitates the Good not as a norm but as the “infrastructure of life.” We need to know the ground of our existence, or in the manner of Plato the “creative principle,” and in the biblical sense that creation itself is goodness and that being is fundamentally good. Plato compared the Good to the sun or that which nurtured life and helped bring it into being. Cut off from the sun, man’s survival is in jeopardy. Modernity shields man from the sun by its stipulation that we don’t know if we come from a good Principle or Being that nurtures our being. Can we even make sense of the ground and content of human freedom? But what if the ancient biblical teaching is right, creation is goodness because a “generous God calls us to partake of his own loving life.” Then, Brague concludes, we have “reasons to ensure the continuance of life.” We also know the meaning of our freedom.

In a fitting final chapter, Brague builds on man’s nature as a languaged being. Our discourse is fractured because language under the modern burden is willful, performative, and incapable of opening us to the truth. However, civil conversation that speaks to the reason-ability in other humans and in nature is the essence of the political animal and of protecting the continuance of life, Brague concludes. What is the difference, he asks, between civilization and barbarism? One answer is that the barbarians are the other, those outside of the city, or those we cannot understand. This was the position of the ancient Greeks regarding those who spoke languages that were indecipherable to them. Brague argues that we ourselves might be the barbarians.

Civilization is the condition of human beings flourishing together, living within cities where communication happens spontaneously. We don’t strive to understand one another, we have been formed to do this as members of concrete political and social orders. But barely underneath civilization lurks the condition of barbarism, which Brague finally defines as the refusal to communicate, and with that refusal the path opens to violence and death. Brague observes that barbarism is located within our western political societies in our refusal to be in touch with our past, our inheritance. We refuse to communicate with it. Who do we become once continuity with our history is ruptured? Barbarians. We cease to know the meaning of our civilization and why or how to conserve it.

In parting, Brague provides a wonderful understanding of conservatism as conversatism, or the conversational engagement with others that builds on our understanding of the goods we share in common. In short, we remain in conversation with others, with our friends and opponents, because our disagreements and agreements are held together by our more basic need to continue our civilization. We are sustained by a deeper truth that induces us to engage in public acts of conservatism also known as conversation.

Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age
By Rémi Brague
University of Notre Dame Press, 2019
Hardcover, 152 pages

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About Richard M. Reinsch II 1 Article
Richard M. Reinsch II is the editor of Law & Liberty and the host of the podcast show LibertyLawTalk. He is coauthor with Peter Augustine Lawler of A Constitution in Full: Recovering the Unwritten Foundation of American Liberty (Kansas Press, May 2019). You can follow him @Reinsch84.


  1. “What is the difference, he asks, between civilization, (Christians) and barbarism, (Sinners)? One answer is that the barbarians, (Sinners) are the other, those outside of the city, (Church) or those we cannot understand. Brague argues that we (Christians) ourselves might be the barbarians. (Sinners) As Jesus says

    “ Truly I say to you that the tax collectors prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you”

    While “ many that are first will be last, and [the] last will be first.”

    For insight into this statement we can look to the parable of The Workers in The Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16)

    For me this parable is all about our personal presumption before God’s Mercy (Compassion/’Generosity’), hence “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” ……..“So, likewise, ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do”

    There are no Vineyards in Leeds but nevertheless even to this day labours stand in the City Centre waiting to be hired. In the fifties and sixties I was aware of many Irishmen standing outside Public Houses waiting to be hired for work in the construction industry, the custom was to congregate at about 7-30 am and wait to be hired for the day, I know this because on a few occasions I had participated in this ritual.

    Different employers would turn up and offer a standard rate and then select those he wanted, some workers would be known to him, others not, in choosing he would choose those who appeared more capable of performing a hard day of labour, there was always joy on the face of anyone chosen, this joy would often dissipate during the day due to the drudgery of the work.

    As the morning progressed it could be said that the weaker, impaired, aged, etc were left and some would wait all day in the hope of employment, which at times was occasional offered, later in the day. It was quite apparent in comparison to those original chosen, the value that these late arrivals placed upon the call to work, in accepting in humility their own physical shortcomings, their ‘gratitude’ was manifest before all.

    This same scenario would have applied in our Lords time and many workers who heard the parable instantly would have been drawn towards the ‘generosity’ of the landowner, in his compassion towards the afflicted but also to the selfishness of those who complained, as they had taken for granted the good fortune of their own abilities (in forgetting He who gave them, to them), while begrudging the weak and vulnerable the opportunity to earn a living (Participate in the harvest) and ‘live’

    So “The first shall be last and the last first” as only God sees the full picture of our gratitude before the generosity of His divine Mercy.

    “Not one iota will pass from the law until all is accomplished”, we ‘all’ fall short in regards to this teaching which can only be embraced in humility as humility permits us to walk His Way in the ‘generosity’ His continual Divine Mercy

    We can align God’s generosity with “Who Is Forgiven Much Loves Much”. … On the other hand, those who are forgiven little, as Jesus said, “love little”
    So ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?

    When God’s ‘Generosity’/Mercy/pardon is received in humility/honesty it compels us to pardon (Be less judgemental towards) others, as it goes to the heart of our faith, which is that Christ forgives, that we may love (Forgive) also, while we walk in ‘humility’ before Him, wanting for others that which we have been given ourselves, His known gift of Divine Mercy, because is that not what Christianity is all about.

    If we struggle with love/forgiveness of others, it could be said that this rigidity stems from our own dishonest ungrateful hearts, as this attitude emanates from self-righteousness, as possibly we underestimated the ‘generosity’ of Jesus Christ in our own personal salvation; as to attempt to embrace our Father in the Truth of His Inviolate Word (Will) can only be accomplished in humility (Self-abasement before Him)

    A faith that does not embody this consistent realization, will be sterile, comparable a stylus stuck in the grove of a record, as the heart will not hear/absorb the full transforming message of Spiritual enlightenment, that is the ongoing transformation of the human heart. I know this from personal experience, because my own heart was stuck in a grove over so many years.

    Is it not in the self-knowledge of our own individual need of His ‘continual’ Mercy that induces within us a humble heart, as a human heart of self-abasement before God, creates a tender compassionate heart towards our neighbour ?

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. So what is the point of this article? Catholics should go back to arranged marriages by family clans or castes than ordain marriages where one chooses their spouse? Modernity is choice of spouses, houses, cars, lifestyles, jobs, etc. Rolling back history to a time where tradition and church doctrine solely ruled society is not going to happen any too soon. This would mean the end of pluralism and a return to monism (one state religion) and the end of Capitalism for something like Socialism or Feudalism. How do Catholics live in a modern world cannot be simply defined as rolling back everything to, say, 1,000 A.D.

    • Your modernity is a wasteland of false autonomy and hedonism made possible by cheap energy that will no longer be cheap in the future. Harsh times will be here, and “modernity” will not survive.

  3. Addendum to my post above
    On one occasion while working on a building site, where the work was found to be behind schedule, about half a dozen late arrivals were transported onto the site. Word circulated that they were to be paid the same full day rate as the rest of us, which inflamed anger and resentment in some/many.

    How wonderful it is that the Gospels home in to the reality of our fallen natures in every life situation, in every age age, while enlightening us to the reality of how Jesus Christ embraced and understood the reality of men’s hearts. While rightly teaching us in the Gospels His unique authority, His clear ethic and good news of the kingdom, as it reveals Him God-man, the risen Lord, whose message is truly radial because it is supernatural. His message cannot be misunderstood by ‘anyone’ approaching his Word (Will) with honesty/humility, it’s beauty (Truth) cannot help but inspire integrity, no matter of what religion, race, creed, state of being you are or belong to. While it liberates the heart from pretentiousness in setting the captive/blind (Ignorant) free.

    “The one who rejects me and does not accept my words has a judge; the word I have spoken will judge him at the last day”

    We look and reflect upon His inviolate spoken Word (Will) within the Gospels for guidance in our daily often complicated and for many deficient lives.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  4. Of the modern world, we read:

    “Finally, and this is quite evident today, Brague highlights that we constantly confess guilt and ask for mercy [….] But this is done by secular sinners with the impossibility of forgiveness or absolution. Who would possess such authority in the modern dispensation?”

    Maybe the “who” is not at all “an authority IN the modern dispensation.” Waiting in the wings, instead, and quite foreign to the self-destructing modern dispensation, is the resurgent 7th-century bubble-world of Islam:

    “The quintessence of the Quranic Principles is that they, being of divine origin, are equally applicable to the whole of mankind, irrespective of a person’s status, position, color, race, sex, language, or nationality. If a thing is declared legal, it is legal for all in any shape or form . . . We can, therefore, conclude that owing to the restricted right of legislation, nobody is regarded as a ‘legislator’ (in the modern sense of the word) in an Islamic State. The authority of authorities in such a State can only be regarded as that of EXECUTORS of law [“law” apart from any LOGOS], basically made by God” (Farooq Hassan, The Concept of State and Law in Islam, 1981, italics added).

    But, who’s to worry? In place of the denied Logos and in addition to “executors” of Shari’a Law, we also have the authority Muhammad—-NOT the incarnate and resurrected Christ—-who offers to pray for us.

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