Rémi Brague

interviewed by Christophe Cervellon and Kristell Trego

from The Legend of the Middle Ages

Question: As a historian of medieval Christian, Jewish, and Muslim thought, how do you view the relationship between the three religions of the book and philosophical activity? In particular, do you think there is a difference between theology and philosophy in Christianity, and between Kalām and falsafa in Islam?

Rémi Brague: There are many differences, but they are interconnected. On the one hand, there is a tension within each of those two religions between a theological pole and a philosophical pole. But there is also a vast gap between theology in Christianity and Kalām in Islam, and between philosophy in Christianity and in Islam, where it is called falsafa. Consequently, the tensions between those two poles are by no means produced or negotiated in the same way.

Institutionalized Philosofia and Private Falsafa

The major difference between philosophy and falsafa is perhaps social in nature; it resides in the word “institutionalization.” In Islamic lands, falsafa remains a private affair, a matter for individuals in fairly restricted numbers. The great philosophers of Islam were amateurs, and they pursued philosophy during their leisure hours: Farabi was a musician, Avicenna a physician and a vizier, Averroes a judge. Avicenna did philosophy at night, surrounded by his disciples, after a normal workday. And he did not refuse a glass of wine to invigorate him a bit and keep him on his toes. Similarly, among the Jews, Maimonides was a physician and a rabbinic judge, Gersonides was an astronomer (and astrologer), and so on. The great Jewish or Muslim philosophers attained the same summits as the great Christian Scholastics, but they were isolated and had little influence on society.

In medieval Europe, philosophy became a university course of studies and a pursuit that could provide a living. It also supported a mass of untenured, garden-variety “philosophy profs,” few of whom have left their names in the manuals, even though we can exhume their courses, which we discover to be full of surprises. But these were the men who made it possible for philosophy to make a profound impact on the minds of the jurists, physicians, and others they taught, hence for it to become a factor in society.

This had an important effect on the relationship between philosophy and theology. You can be a perfectly competent rabbi or imam without ever having studied philosophy. In contrast, a philosophical background is a necessary part of the basic equipment of the Christian theologian. It has even been obligatory since the Lateran Council of 1215. In Christianity, the tension between philosophy and theology can be said to be vertical, setting apart people who had followed the same course of studies, given that all theologians began by studying philosophy. The two disciplines spoke the same language. In Islam, the tension between Kalām and falsafa was horizontal, distinguishing between specialists in different disciplines, all of whom contested the legitimacy of the other camp’s methods.

Theology is a Christian specialty. To be sure, several religions developed stores of knowledge, at times of an extremely high degree of technicality and subtlety, concerning the adventures of the gods, regulating the cult due to them, and explaining their commandments, when such had been emitted. But “theology” as a rational exploration of the divine (according to Anselm’s program) exists only in Christianity.

The Word and the Book

In the final analysis, this is true because of what permits a theology to exist—that is, because of the logos and its status in the various religions. Here I have to correct an expression in your question. You speak of the “three religions of the book.” The expression has become current, but it is deceptive. First, because people often imagine that it translates the Arabic for “people of the book” (ahl al-kitāb), which is a technical term designating the religions that preceded Islam and whose adherents, because they possessed a holy book, had the right to a “protected” (ahl al-dhimma) juridical status that was recognized by the Muslim community. In that sense, the term excludes Islam itself. If, on the other hand, we take the term in the broader, non-technical, sense, it includes Islam.

But at that point we see that the expression conceals a second trap, symmetrical to the first: it implies that in these three religions, which do, in fact, have a book—as do other religions—the contents of revelation would be that book. As it happens, however, in Judaism that content is the history of God with his people, whom he liberates and guides by giving them his Teaching (torah); In Christianity, it is the person of Christ, who, for Christians, is a concentrate of the previous experience of Israel. The written texts record that history, or, in the case of the Talmud, gather together the discussions of the scholars regarding the interpretation and application of the divine commandments. But in no way do those books constitute the actual message of God to humankind. It is only in Islam that the revealed object is the Book. In the final analysis, the only religion of the book is Islam!

Why does this matter? Because the very way in which the god speaks, the very style of his logos, decides how that logos can be elaborated. If the divine word is a law, it has to be explicated and applied with maximum precision. But that law says nothing about its source. If that divine word is a person—and, inversely, if that person is a word stating who is its emitter—that is one step toward a certain knowledge of God.

Question: In your opinion, to what extent is Christianity indebted to Islam for its philosophical thought, and for its theological thought?

Brague: Let me begin by drawing an elementary distinction, without which we will bog down in endless misunderstandings. In French we can distinguish between “islam,” a common noun written with a lowercase “i,” which is the religion of an integral placing oneself (the meaning of the Arabic word) in the hands of God, and “Islam,” a proper noun written with a capital “I,” which denotes the civilization that is marked by “islam,” the religion, but which has a long history and vast geography that include phenomena having little to do with religion. Similarly, English can distinguish between “Christianity” and “Christendom,” and French between le christianisme (the religion) and la chrétienté (the area of civilization).


What is the debt of le christianisme toward islam, the religion? Properly speaking, there is none, because Christian dogma had already crystallized well before the birth of Islam as a religion in the seventh century, and for even greater reason, well before that religion began to philosophize in the ninth century. That crystallization was the work of the series of great ecumenical councils, and it was from Greek philosophy that the Church Fathers borrowed their conceptual tools, while making profound changes in it. But that is another story.

What about the debt of la chrétienté—Christianity as an area of civilization—to Islam as a civilization? Here the debt is a real one, but unfortunately the topic has been overloaded with ideology. Moreover, legends abound. For example, is it true that the role of the Arabic heritage was ever forgotten? Repeating it endlessly seems to echo publicity techniques for pushing a product that claims to refresh the memory of the West. We need to state who (scholars or “intellectuals”) denied the importance of that heritage, when that occurred, and in what contexts. There has been a broad range of opinion on the topic. For example, in the eighteenth century Condillac minimized the role of Islam: “I don’t know that we have any great obligation to the Arabs.” A marginal insert in the same text is even more categorical: “They have hindered the progress of the human mind.” In contrast, a generation later, Condorcet recognized that at least the Arabs had the merit of safeguarding and transmitting the heritage of the ancient world. Having made this admission, however, he adds a teleological representation that was later to flourish among such writers as Ernest Renan: “The work done by the Arabs would have been lost to the human race for ever if they had not done something to prepare the way for the more lasting revival which was brought about in the West.”

After the translations of the twelfth century, Scholasticism owed an enormous debt to Arabic thought. That debt primarily concerned Muslim authors such as Avicenna and Averroes, given that Farabi, the first true and perhaps the greatest Muslim philosopher (and whom the other two used constantly), was translated much less frequently. It also concerned Jewish authors such as Maimonides. Razi (Rhazes), whose radical criticism of prophecy situated him outside of Islam as a religion and outside of all revealed religion, was largely known only as a great physician (which indeed he was). The Scholastics had no trouble separating the philosophical contribution of a Muslim author from his religious affiliation. Duns Scotus, for example, states that Avicenna “mixed his religion, which was that of Muhammad, with the things of philosophy, and he said certain things as philosophical and proven by reason, and others as in conformity with his religion.”

Lack of Knowledge about Islam as a Religion

Islam as a religion remained poorly known in the Latin West. The Byzantine East knew it earlier and better. The Qur'an was translated into Latin only in the mid-twelfth century, at the urging of Peter the Venerable, the abbot of Cluny, but the translation had only a limited circulation. The prophetic traditions of the hadiths were almost unknown, except for the story of the Prophet’s “night flight” to paradise, known as “Muhammad’s Ladder” (in Latin, Liber scale Machometi), a work that had an enormous influence as late as Dante, but that represented only an extremely partial aspect of the entire corpus of the Hadith.

As for Muslim “theology,” it left little trace in Christian lands. Kalām was known, above all, through Maimonides’ refutation of it in the first part of his Guide for the Perplexed. Its atomism and its occasionalism exerted an influence that was more philosophical than theological, in counterpoint to Aristotelian continuism. Those intent on demolishing it sought inspiration in Maimonides or in Ghazali, whom they recycled by adapting their ideas. Traces of the occasionalism of the Kalām can be found even in Malebranche and Berkeley.

As for Averroes, his famous—perhaps too famous—Fasl al-maqāl was not printed until the nineteenth century, by a German Orientalist. The “theological” works of Averroes were known by such fifteenth-century Jews as Simon ben Zemah Duran and Elijah ben Moses Abba Delmedigo. Still, if Duran’s Unveiling of Methods of Demonstration Regarding the Principles of Religion (Examen religionis) was translated from Hebrew into Latin in the fifteenth century, no translation of the Fasl al-maqāl seems to have appeared.

Need of the Other

What seems to me to be essential, in any event, is to have done with a stupidly hydraulic representation of “influences” in which knowledge supposedly flows naturally from the summits to the plains. In reality, demand precedes offer. Translations are made because someone feels that a text contains things that people need. And it is that need that we have to explain. In this connection, the real intellectual revolution of Europe began well before the wave of translations in Toledo and elsewhere. This has been shown by the American jurist Harold J. Berman in his important book, Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. This work has finally—after twenty years—been translated into French, but unfortunately the major publishing houses (to their shame) have once again failed to rise to the occasion, leaving the book to a university publishing house that is courageous but with insufficient distribution resources and media support. The intellectual revolution this work describes dates from the rediscovery (better, the invention) of Roman law with the so-called “papal revolution” at the time of the investitures controversy in the late eleventh century. Reducing law to system required more refined tools, which meant that the West turned to the East, seeking out Aristotle’s works on logic, along with which they received the rest of the Greek and Arabic heritage.

Question: How do you imagine a harmonious coexistence among the three religions of the book, and is such a coexistence even possible, given that Christianity has never stopped presenting itself as the verus Israel, and that Islam, as a religion, presented Muhammad as the key to the prophets? Should the latter notion be modified in the light of the works of Christoph Luxenberg, who claims that the Qur’an was not intended to replace the Bible, but rather to furnish a version of it intelligible to Arabs of the time?

Brague: Let me begin by rectifying a small lapse or two, which seem interesting to me. First, the formula that states that the Church is verus Israel (“the true race of Israel”) does not appear in the New Testament, but only in the Fathers of the Church, beginning with Justin.

Judaism, Christianity, Islam

And after then, if the idea is accepted, how was it understood? Did it mean that the Church was to be the true Israel, which supposes that the Jewish people would no longer be so? Or did it mean that the Church is one true Israel, truly Israel, and that it is truly attached to the experience of the God of Israel, because it sees itself, so to speak, as the resuscitated body of a Jew?

Next, the Qur’an does not speak of Muhammad as the key to the prophets, but rather as their seal (33:40). In context, the meaning of that expression is not totally clear, but it was interpreted as signifying that the message of Muhammad sealed the preceding messages, both because it confirms their content and because it brings prophecy to a close. If there is a key, it does not open anything (even in the sense of a hermeneutic key—such as a “key to dreams”); it closes. Behind this thought there is a claim to return to the series of the prophetic revelations of the past and to end it—a claim that Manes (or Mani, from whom we get the term “Manichaeism”) had perhaps already made in the early third century.

Christoph Luxenberg is just beginning to publish works to which I have tried to call the attention of a non-German-speaking public. For the time being, they remain dryly philological. He attempts to show that certain obscure passages of the Qur’an can be explained by the Syriac and involve Christian hymns. According to him, the Qur’an is, at least in part, what its title means in Syriac—a “lectionary,” or collection of biblical texts translated and adapted for liturgical use. I am not a specialist in this field, but this hypothesis seems extremely plausible, and its fertility speaks for it: many a mysterious passage becomes transparent. But we will have to wait for the true connoisseurs to give their opinions.

As for the problem of the basis for coexistence, you have put your finger on a fundamental difficulty. It contains a paradox: what is troublesome is not that any one religion finds another strange, but rather a certain manner of interpreting a real proximity. What exasperates Jews is that Christians claim to understand “their” book better than they do themselves. In similar fashion, what perplexes Christians—and why they often refuse to recognize Islam—is that Islam sees itself as a post-Christianity destined to replace that religion.

Recognizing or Refusing Filiation

For Islam, the survival of the Christian religion is an anachronism. Islam presents itself even as the true Christianity, given that, according to Islamic thought, Christians have disfigured the authentic Gospel, just as the Jews, for their part, have sold out the authentic Torah. Thus it is out of the question to appeal to common Scripture. This means that, from the Muslim point of view, the “Islamo-Christian dialogue” is a dialogue between true Christians (that is, the Muslims themselves) and people who imagine themselves to be true Christians but are not. This is why dialogue interests Christians more than it does Muslims.

Question: In order to improve awareness of religious and philosophical traditions other than Christianity, but also in order to increase knowledge of Christianity itself—all caricature aside—would it not be desirable for young teachers of philosophy, who today face a variety of publics, to have an opportunity in their course of studies to be initiated into medieval philosophy and into the complexity of intellectual and human relations among Jews, Christians, and Muslims? Is it normal, for example, that works such as Abelard’s Dialogue between a Philosopher, a Jew, and a Christian or Jehuda Halevi’s Kuzari be left out of the philosophical curriculum?

Brague: You will not be surprised if I answer “yes” to your first question. I am simply pleading pro domo by doing so, because that is precisely what I have been trying to do with the students preparing their maîtrise for the fifteen years I have been at the Sorbonne. The examples you give of great medieval works are well chosen, but we might speak more generally about all of the thought of that age. It is a sad French specialty to have excluded the Middle Ages from its philosophical teaching, when the period is an integral part of the curriculum everywhere else, even in the United States, a creation of the modern age. In France both the prof and the average potache often jump right over eight hundred years in the history of thought, pausing for Plato (Aristotle, as the inspiration for Scholasticism, and Plotinus, as a “mystic,” remaining somewhat suspect) and begin again at Descartes. I appreciate your mention of Abelard in this context. He is one of the greatest French philosophers, to be placed beside Descartes or Bergson.

The Middle Ages as Part of the Academic Program?

From another point of view, the works that you cite—two dialogues by authors who were contemporaries and could have known one another—are religious just as much as they are philosophical. Thus it is excusable not to put them on the program of studies. By contrast, there are treatises of Avicenna’s (his Psychology, for example) or Abelard’s (the Ethics) that are almost purely philosophical. And an out-and-out theologian like St. Thomas Aquinas includes in his Summa theologica treatises on the virtues, the passions, laws, and more, which are admirable for their philosophical depth and would make marvelous teaching texts.

Averroes has just been placed on the list of authors one of whose works may be presented at the oral examination for the baccalauréat. That fills me with a joy that is not unmixed. For one thing, I fear that Averroes might become the intellectual equivalent of the “nice, serviceable Arab” named by decree and supposed to be representative. But also, for very simple reasons, the text that will be studied can hardly be anything other than the Fasl al-maqāl (in French translation, Discours décisif), a work that is not overly technical and is available in paperback. The problem is that it represents only an infinitely small part of the vast production of Averroes, who wrote, among other things, a commentary on every one of Aristotle’s works, and often two, at times three, commentaries. Paradoxically, it is in those commentaries that Averroes says what he would consider to be the truth. For him, in fact, Aristotle represented the summit of humanity—after Muhammad, of course. What Aristotle said was thus true, period, next paragraph. The Decisive Discourse is a work of circumstance in which Averroes defends the official doctrine of the Almohad sovereigns whom he served. Hence what is going to be taught as a “brief for tolerance” ended up being a call for the repression of his adversaries.

Question: Generally speaking, in your opinion to what extent do religious representations dictate how we interpret the world, and, more fundamentally, how we view the relations between humankind and the world? This is a theme that runs throughout your works, from Aristote et la question du monde (1988) to La Sagesse du monde (1999) (The Wisdom of the World, 2003)? In particular, do you think that the pagan representation of the world was fundamentally modified by monotheist revelations?

Brague: If what we understand by a “representation of the world” is cosmography, a description of the way in which the stars, the earth and its parts, et cetera are made, those revelations did not change much. That was not their purpose. The sacred books return to the vision of the world commonly accepted at their time. Well before Giordano Bruno and—last but not least—Spinoza, John Philoponus had already remarked, in the mid-sixth century, that the Bible’s only aim was to lead men to a knowledge of God and to a life that corresponded with that knowledge, not to discourse on physics.


Those revelations were not even exclusive to what we call “monotheism.” Aristotle gives an astronomical and noetic version of them in book lambda of his Metaphysics. When you come down to it, has there ever been a genuine polytheism? Even Homer supposes a sort of fundamental unity of the divine that permits the gods to identify themselves as gods, even when they dwell far from one another (Odyssey 5.79ff.). What the revelations bring is, rather, the end of a “cosmotheism” that makes no radical distinction between the divine and the physical.

What changes with the monotheisms is not the description of the physical universe and its articulations, but rather the way in which man expresses his sense of his own presence within that universe. In my Wisdom of the World, I began with four ideal-typical models: the “Timaeus” model (broadly speaking, the main current of ancient philosophy from Plato to Proclus, including the Stoics), Epicurus, “Abraham,” and Gnosticism. Building on generally similar descriptions of the world, each of these proposes a different response to the question “What we are doing on this earth?” Are we imitating the beautiful order of the heavenly bodies; comfortably settling in on an island of humanity within an indifferent universe; drawing ourselves closer to the creator of a good world, but obeying his law or following his Son; or, finally, fleeing, not, as Mallarmé invites us, là-bas, but to on high, toward an alien God, escaping an imperfect or prison-like world? The ancient and medieval model, which held firm for a good millennium and a half, emerged out of a compromise between “Timaeus” and “Abraham.” What interests me is not so much its description (even if I have had to pursue a description in some detail), but rather the problem posed by its disappearance with the modern age. It left us alone. Nothing in the physical world responds to man’s ethical demands.

Cosmology as a Postulate

To be sure, for premodern man, the presence of the world, which he felt as a kosmos, was not a model to be imitated in any literal sense. Pretending to believe this to be the case is unfair, as it might be amusing to explain by the use of Kant’s concepts. The role of the cosmic order is analogous to that of the postulates of practical reason. Those postulates—liberty, the existence of a just God, and the immortality of the soul—are of no use as a basis for moral law, which is sufficient unto itself and draws its obligation from an intrinsic authority that it has no need to borrow from elsewhere. Such postulates serve to guarantee the possibility of the supreme Good—that is, the agreement between what the Law demands and the order of the real world. One might say that the kosmos was less a model demanding conformity than an example that shows, from the simple fact that it exists, that ethical conduct is possible. The major difference between the premodern vision of the world and Kant’s morality is that realization of the good is for Kant only postulated. It remains, so to speak, in the domain of faith and hope. For men of ancient and medieval times, on the other hand, the sovereignty of the good was already given in the cosmic harmony. One only need acknowledge it.

Question: If it is true that monotheisms modified the “pagan” vision of the world, is it not also true that, in the final analysis, believing in God is, in a sense, refusing the world as it is and as it appears to an unprejudiced eye, with the result that according to a logic of “communicating vases” (found, for example, in Nietzsche), all that we take from God would be that much gained for the world?

Brague: It is true that I have had occasion to note in Nietzsche a fairly unsophisticated representation of the relationship between the divine and the human according to which the one gains what the other loses. To be sure, Nietzsche said many powerful things. But his writings contain a fully worked-out version of the hydraulic image: “There is a lake which one day refused to flow off and erected a dam where it had hitherto flowed off: ever since, this lake has been rising higher and higher. Perhaps that very renunciation will also lend us the strength to bear the renunciation itself; perhaps man will rise ever higher when he once ceases to flow out into a god.” This image already appears, discreetly, in the young Hegel, and emphatically in Feuerbach. Today even more mediocre minds wallow in the idea: man must demand his good, supposedly projected in God, and so on. I would love to have someone explain to me the verb “to project,” which everyone seems to understand.

The World, God, and Man

If the relationship between the world and God were of this sort, Prometheus (in the Romantic interpretation of that figure) would be right. But how much naïveté does that imply! To begin with, man and God exchange homogeneous goods, in finite quantities, within the same system. One of the first rules of theology, however, is that it is not in the same sense that we attribute properties (justice, power, knowledge, etc.) to God and to man. A bit of Neoplatonic therapy is called for: ideas do not possess the qualities that they confer. As well as a small dose of theology—I mean, theologians’ theology, not the variety knocked together by the profs de philo. Let me offer you two phrases of Thomas Aquinas for your meditation: “To detract from the creature’s perfection is to detract from the perfection of the divine power”; “We do not wrong God unless we wrong our own good.”

Question: To read your works, it seems that Kant’s ultimate distinction between heteronomy and autonomy is fugitive, to say the least, given that your past works, including The Law of God, seem to support the idea (or have we misunderstood you?) that man, if he renounces the law of God, seems necessarily to have to admit the law of the world.

Brague: The line of thought that you attribute to me is basically quite traditional: one can never escape from a law. The question is to know what law. In abandoning a superior law, one falls under an inferior law. If you don’t respect the laws of figure skating, you fall—if you will forgive the expression—under the strictures of the law of gravity. Similarly, renouncing the law of reason leads to submission to the laws of nature, and whether that nature reflects statics, biology, or psychology makes little difference. Kant places himself within that same tradition: he would say that if we renounce moral law, we must necessarily admit the law of penchants, which is the pathological. That concept is the Kantian version of the law of “my body’s members” mentioned by St. Paul (Romans 7:23), which became, in the Middle Ages, the fomes, which we might amuse ourselves by translating etymologically as “that which foments.” One is either subject or subjected.

As for the distinction between autonomy and heteronomy, Kant himself is much more nuanced than his followers. There is a tendency to read Kant’s idea of autonomy in the light of the modern project of the emancipation of man and the domination of nature. Kant himself flirted with that tendency, for example, in the text of one of his admirers, which he reproduces in The Conflict of the Faculties. It is even amusing that Kant, for whom the law is pure repression of the pathological, should be enrolled in the band of the emancipators!

The Law of God

Kant belongs within a tradition of the reduction of the law to an imperative that begins with Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, occurs in Marsilius of Padua, then in Suárez and Hobbes. The law of God was understood as an external commandment, not as the internal logic of created things. Andrew Ramsay, a student of Fénelon’s, formulates the concept of law underlying the medieval vision of things thus: “The law in general is nothing else than the Rule which each Being ought to follow, in order to act according to his Nature.”

Question: Can the wisdom of the world that the Greeks knew be opposed to the wisdom of God, given that the world and the revealed book—as claimed by medieval men (for example, the “Platonic” Alain de Lille or the Augustinian tradition that finds a cosmoclast representative in Bonaventure)—have one and the same author?

Brague: The image of the two books that must be reconciled is an old one and a good one. The wisdom of the world that I try to get at, which is, in fact, Greek, shares only a name with the “wisdom of this world” that St. Paul declares God has “turned into folly” (I Corinthians 1:20). In the first case, we are speaking of the fine order of the physical universe; in the second, of human existence, when it wants to be cut off from God and claims to act according to its own logic.

One way to render intelligible the content of the medieval image of the books would be to take the idea of providence seriously. Not as it is too often imagined these days, as God putting himself in our place in order to grasp us by the suspenders. But rather as it was conceived by people of the Middle Ages. Someday I hope to write a book on the subject, for which I already have at least a title: À chacun selon ses besoins (To each according to his needs). The medieval conception of providence supposes a God who gives. And without expecting anything in return, for what would God need? He does not give something supplementary to things that are already made. His gift coincides with the very nature of each created thing, the nature that is granted to it.

Rethinking the Idea of Providence

God gives to every creature, according to its own nature, what it needs in order to attain the good. He does not take the place of the creature in making its good. And the higher on the scale from the mineral to the vegetal, the animal, and the human, the more God delegates; the more he grants the creature care of itself. When his providence is granted to man, it becomes, in a conscious play on words, prudence; not the simple fact of watching out for what lies ahead, but all of the practical wisdom that Aristotle called phronesis. This is where the wisdom of God and the wisdom of man come together.

Question: We would like to put a somewhat provocative and outdated question to you: To what extent can an atheist be a good citizen, given the very strong connection between religion and politics (thinking, for example, of the gods of the City or Petrarch’s reflections on the Crusade in the middle of the fourteenth century? In order to think of the independence of the political from the religious, do we have to return—as Leo Strauss did, for example—to some sort of classical political philosophy?

Brague: Outdated questions are always good ones if they are dated precisely. That is one of the lessons that we can draw from reading Strauss. What he writes about classical political thought, what is more, is a good deal more nuanced, not to say artificious, than what certain binary minds have made of it. In any event, one cannot reduce a work as subtle as Natural Right and History to a brief for a return to antiquity. Without speaking of the rest of his oeuvre.

In A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), John Locke preached in favor of a gentlemen’s agreement among the English Protestant churches. He excluded the Catholics as agents of a foreign prince, the pope. He also excluded atheists. His reason might seem odd, but it is profound: atheists are incapable of swearing an oath, for on what could they swear? “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, although but even in thought, dissolves all.” We may smile at this, but when we do, we are like the “unbelievers” who laugh when Nietzsche’s Madman announces the death of God to “those who do not believe in God.” In fact, though, behind the somewhat anecdotic question of oaths there lies the entire question of meaning.

A “City” of Atheists?

Let me recall that the Constitution of the French Republic (the fifth of that name, the one in vigor since 1958) cites the whole of the Déclaration des droits de l’homme of 1789, which states that the French people do all sorts of things “in presence of and under the auspices of the Supreme Being.” The expression is not restricted to the anemic clock-maker God of the Enlightenment, but also designates the Christian God, as in Fénelon, for example. And no one finds that mention of God unacceptable. This means that the rights that are asserted are not fabricated, but acknowledged. The problem that arises for modern democracies is that what someone does can also be undone. What is merely conceded by men—“rights,” a “dignity,” and so on—can one day be taken back by those same men.

Bayle brilliantly transposed and reformulated an old paradox of Plutarch’s: it is better to be atheist than superstitious. But he shifts Plutarch’s psychological question to the political domain: the atheist is a more peaceful citizen than the superstitious man. If we accept Hobbes’s thesis that the city of men is founded on the fear of death, religion is intrinsically dangerous. Nothing can stop the superstitious, who fear hell more than death. This is because, at base, the eighteenth century accepted Hobbes’s premise that superstition invented “fanaticism” as a scarecrow. And it is as “fanatics” that inoffensive nuns were guillotined under the Revolution.

The problem remains pertinent today: on the one hand, just what can a suicide bomber be threatened with? On the other hand, if our most basic virtue, our “tolerance,” can prevent us from killing, it remains to be proven that it suffices to give us a desire to live. I offer for your meditation a passage from Rousseau: “[The] principles [of the allegedly wise man] do not cause men to be killed, but they prevent them from being born by destroying the morals which cause them to multiply, by detaching them from their species, by reducing all their affections to a secret egoism as deadly to population as to virtue. Philosophic indifference resembles the tranquility of the state under despotism. It is the tranquility of death. It is more destructive than war itself.”

Is “Tolerance” Enough?

If the problem is to assure the peaceful coexistence of the members of a given society, or even to make sure that they enjoy the most equitable division of available resources, all we need to do is to negotiate a formula that will allow the maximization of advantages. And in order to do that, we have no need for any sort of transcendence. But this is true only for what we have become accustomed to calling (quite symptomatically) “society,” a term that originated in economics. That society is, at base, the club of the persons present, who dispose of the ability to call in new members or to blackball them. The hitch is that humanity as an animal species is constantly losing individuals, and therefore cannot persist without replacing them by others who can be drawn only from within itself. Man is not only mortal but, as Hannah Arendt put it, “native.” If we know what we are doing, why bring children into the world who clearly did not ask to be born? If life is an affair not worth the cost, as Schopenhauer insisted, all parents are outright criminals. If we bring children into the world so they will support us in our old age, it is even worse: it would be impossible to push the utilization of another as a means to a more radical level. If it is in order to permit others to make a “delightful excursion through reality,” bravo. But it remains to be shown that life—all life—is a good so incommensurable that it can balance the suffering it involves. Suffering that, by definition, cannot be known by someone who has not been born. The only way out of all of this is through a metaphysics.

Question: Is the theologico-political problem posed in comparable terms in the three religions of the book?

Brague: The theologico-political problem is only a particular aspect of a broader problem that I have called, not without pedantry, “theio-practical.” The first formulation, even if it has become classic, in fact has three drawbacks. It supposes that one can find oneself in a religion in which theology, in the sense stated above, is possible. It also supposes that one is in a religion in which the divine (in the neutral in Greek: theion) has taken the form of a personal or more than personal being (in the masculine or feminine in Greek: theos). Finally, it restricts the genre of practical philosophy to only one of its species, the government of the city, leaving aside that of the isolated individual (ethics) and that of the “household” (which is economic: the relationship between spouses, between parents and children, between superiors and subordinates).

The narrow question of the relation of the political to the religious is not the most pressing one. A de facto separation exists just about everywhere, in different styles.

The Church as a Force for Secularization

Christianity has never ceased negotiating a concrete modus vivendi between these two dimensions. How this has occurred is a paradox: the Church secularized the medieval state by assigning to it a domain of its own, keeping the peace. Which the state was not eager to do, given that, for its part, it dreamed only of sacrality. “Paradoxical as it may be … it is the action of the popes that tended, beginning in the 11th century, to ‘laicize’ the political power by taking away from it all initiative in spiritual matters.” This happened because Christianity, from the beginning, had declared itself independent of the Roman state, which not only already existed, but was persecuting Christians. In Judaism, what political power there was came to be formed by drawing closer around the Torah, erecting a barrier around it to protect the one principle of identity that remained after the disappearance of the Jewish state. This means that the absence of a political dimension is what constitutes Judaism. In the religion of Islam, the birth of a state at Medina and of an empire with the Arab conquest came two full centuries before the Islamic religion became clearly distinct from the other monotheisms. And before the sharia became a counterpower opposed to the political power of the caliphs.

The question that I call “theio-practical” remains unanswered, however. It asks, “Are there commandments coming from God that impose more on us—or something different from—what practical reason commands of all humankind?”

Question: What is your view of how the historian’s knowledge articulates with philosophical and theological discourse today?

Brague: History is prominent among the good dozen major disciplines that I regret not having studied. Gaston Bachelard famously responded to someone who told him that all scholars had their philosophy that philosophers, too, have their own field of knowledge. One might say the same thing of history. It is too often taken for granted that all that is required in order to pursue the history of philosophy is to be a philosopher, and that historical method is something automatic that can be learned on the job. As for the average professor of philosophy’s vision of medieval history, it is almost as much of a caricature as that of the man in the street.

Question: Can one believe in reason, when today, paradoxically, it is reason that seems to have been in crisis since the early twentieth century, whereas many religious faiths seem to be thriving? In this connection, you have spoken of “the anguish of reason.” What do you mean by that?

Where Is Irrationalism?

Brague: I have indeed used the expression l’angoisse de la raison as the title of an article. People talk incessantly of the rise of irrationalism. Giving readers a fine case of goose bumps is the stock in trade of many a pen pusher. Such people, what is more, take pains not to ask themselves just why the “rationalism” they defend is so unattractive. In any event, supposing that irrationalism is indeed on the rise, it does not bother me overly much. Let me note that the connection between rationalism and irrationalism is extremely complex, and that the historical representation of a gradual ascension toward the light is simply the result of forgetting the shadows that such a light necessarily projects. Two examples: the high point of magic is not situated in the Middle Ages, but just before and just after. The first high point was late Neoplatonism: Proclus (d. 485) placed magic (or “theurgy”) higher than all human knowledge; the second came in Renaissance Florence of the fifteenth century. Nor should we forget the contents of Newton’s famous trunk. That great thinker was just as interested in an exegesis of the Book of Revelation as he was in celestial mechanics. Magic and science are twin sisters, but one prospered while the other declined.

The real danger lies in the paradox of your formula: “believe in reason.” For the ideology of the Enlightenment, which is still widespread among the intellectual proletariat, it is one thing or the other: either one believes, or one is rational. Reason is expected to destroy belief and replace it with knowledge. That reason itself is the object of a belief is a bit hard to swallow. Still, Nietzsche had already identified in the belief in the truth a final echo of a belief that was first Platonic, then Christian (“Platonism for the people”).

Where Is True Rationalism?

Many of those who think themselves rationalists and even write highly useless screeds against people whom they call irrationalists (who do not read their writings) are, in the final analysis, just as irrational as their targets. They think that reason is simply an epiphenomenon of the irrational—for example, the result of natural selection among a given living species. That species—called Homo sapiens—and life itself being the result of a series of chance happenings during the course of evolution. Let me give the last word on the subject to Father Brown, the priest-detective of Gilbert Chesterton’s novels: “I know that people charge the Church with lowering reason, but it is just the other way. Alone on earth, the Church makes reason really supreme. Alone on earth, the Church affirms that God Himself is bound by reason.”

Question: The “crisis” of reason, as we have said, goes along with the excellent health of certain religious movements. Yet we can see in Europe growing disbelief and the banalization of atheism. Can a connection be drawn between the de-divinization of the world and the “distancing” of the Christian God, given that, as you write in connection with John of the Cross, “the divine has not come closer, but grown more distant” with the New Alliance?

Brague: That phrase referring to John of the Cross is part of a commentary on one of his strongest passages and should be taken in context. I started with a passage in which St. John explains that God has nothing more to give us, not because he wants to refuse us anything, but, precisely, because he has already given us everything, all at once, in giving his Son.

The pagan divine is present everywhere. It is part of the furniture. The Greek gods are “the gods of Greece” (as Schiller says); they are a part of the landscape. For this reason, it is not necessary to “believe” in them. The God of the Bible concentrates all sacrality in himself, which can lead to the impression of a desacralization or a disenchantment of the world, as Max Weber has taught us to say, creating an impression that can very well produce a sort of nostalgia. That said, sacrality pertains to things, not to a liberty. No liberty can be sacred. In contrast, it can be holy. When the God of the Bible is presented as a personification, what occurs is not simply a desacralization of the world. It is also a transformation of sacrality into holiness.

A Sacred Liberty?

However, a God who manifests himself in a personal form solicits liberty. This is why he gives himself only within faith. Faith is, so to speak, the appropriate organ for perceiving the divine, just as the eye registers colors or the mind registers concepts. The question is then to know whether to accept taking that step toward the holy or remain with the sacred. In the latter case, one must either accommodate to a disenchanted world or (something that I find even more dangerous) attempt to reintroduce, forcibly, an artificial sacredness into that same disenchanted world.

Question: There is much talk today of the place that should (or should not) be reserved for the Christian heritage within the future European Constitution. You, who have written a well-received book on European identity (Europe, la voie romaine), how do you see the relationship of Christianity with a Europe that is increasingly de-Christianized?

Brague: I am by no means persuaded of the need, at any cost, to provide a European Constitution with a preamble that includes a recall of past history. That said, if a mention of history is deemed necessary, it would be simply stupid to be content with some vague mention of Europe’s religious and humanist (to use the British euphemism for “atheist”) heritage. Why not call a spade a spade and name the two religions that have marked the cultural space known as “European”: Judaism and Christianity? The problem is, on either side people often confound acknowledgment of a fact with a demand for a right, and memory of the past with an option concerning the future. Anyone is free to want to see Europe continue to drift away from Christianity, but deliberately ignoring the past simply demonstrates an obeisance to the logic of ideology. Joseph H. Weiler, a practicing Jew and a professor of European law at New York University, has written a highly interesting book in which he defends the Christian identity of Europe with arguments that are, for the most part, juridical. I hope that someday it will appear in French translation.

The (very relative) success of my book on Europe, with its translations, continues to amaze me. But I sometimes wonder, when my morale is low, if I might not have done better to use the time I spent writing it to learn Egyptian or Akkadian. The civilizations that used those languages offer the advantage of being thoroughly dead. But are Europeans really living? Do they want to continue to live? Or are they zombies frantically agitating their limbs so as to pass for being truly alive?

Question: One last and perhaps more personal question: What place can someone who believes in one religion make for other religions?

Brague: A place where? In his library: in his quality as a cultivated man, he will give their documents shelf space, and he will strive to know something about them in order to keep himself from saying really stupid things about religions that are not his own. He may eventually discover fine expressions of religious sentiment in authors who profess other religions than his own and piously make them his own.

Do Religions Deserve Respect?

Can he respect those religions? Properly speaking, no. Not because he is or is not a believer, and not because he adheres to religion A rather than to religion B, but quite simply because he values the meaning of words. Religions are only things, and one can only respect persons. One can no more respect a thing than listen to a painting. I respect no religion, not even my own. I respect those who believe in all religions, not because they are believers, but inasmuch as they are human beings.

More specifically, I have no esteem for belief in and of itself. I detest the recent habit of considering the act of belief as having a value in itself, independent of its content. And I mistrust those who attempt to discover connections between “believers,” even to lump them together, without asking themselves what they believe in. One can believe in flying saucers, after all! There were sincere Nazis and convinced Leninites. And the Carthaginian fathers who had their sons burned alive as a sacrifice to the god Moloch (the scene is narrated by Flaubert, but the facts are true) must have “believed in it” strongly. For me, a belief is as good as its object, neither more nor less.

Can One Hate a Religion?

Since I’m somewhat immoderately fond of provocation, I would go so far as to demand the right to hate a religion. I am thinking of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an Israeli of universal interests and erudition who died a few years ago. He declared in an interview, “Je hais le christianisme [I hate Christianity].” The French translator, who is among my friends and to whom I owe the anecdote, told me that when he suggested the verb détester, Leibowitz, who spoke an impeccable French redolent of the eighteenth century, responded, articulating clearly, “Non, ani soneh, je hais.” I hasten to add that Leibowitz was, in practical life, the most inoffensive man imaginable. In politics he was a sort of hyper-dove who demanded the immediate evacuation of occupied territories and compared the government of his own land to that of Nazi Germany! And he bears Christians no hate. Christian as I am, that phrase in no way pleases me. I deplore it; I regret it. I think it based on an error. But I prefer it to the instantaneous fervor of certain professional participants in interreligious “dialogues.”

I’ll give you another example: Ignaz Goldziher, a Hungarian Jew of the early twentieth century (d. 1921), perhaps the greatest student of Islam who has ever lived, and whose articles I have just finished having republished in French. There was a man who was literally disgusted by Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity. If I had had a chance to meet him, I would not have said to him, “How nasty it is to hate!” Even less would I have called him a dirty Christianophobe who wasn’t politically correct. I would have asked him, “What are your reasons? Precisely what do you not like about Christianity?” And I would have tried to point out to him that the things to which he objected do not strike the center of the target or touch the essence of the Christian phenomenon, but are only accidental accretions.

Question: One further question: Why do we remain Christians?

Brague: The “remain” in your question suggests that Christians are a rearguard made up of people who haven’t caught on yet. Religious sentiment, including its most varied (even its wildest) expressions, does not seem to change much. But it is true, as you have said, that in Europe the major Christian churches are losing momentum. Let me hastily recall that Europe itself is doing the same. And that Christians are, in general, disappearing more slowly than Europeans in general.

Your question can be taken as a question of fact, in the sense of Benedetto Croce’s famous article, “Why We Cannot Not Call Ourselves ‘Christians’”(1944). At that point, one might wonder what, in our civilization, is still marked by Christianity. Croce had no intention of writing a historical apology of Christianity. Quite to the contrary, he claimed that modern secularism is the legitimate heir of Christianity, all of whose positive aspects it has assumed.

Christians vs. Christianists

To speak of the Christian heritage of Europe bothers me. And for even greater reason, speaking of “Christian civilization.” Christianity was founded by people who could not have cared less about “Christian civilization.” What interested them was Christ, and the reverberations of his coming on the whole of human existence. Christians believed in Christ, not in Christianity itself; they were Christians, not “Christianists.”

It took centuries to translate Christian reality into institutions. Think of the time it took for the Church to reverse inveterate habits and impose the consent of the engaged couple as the sole indispensable condition for marriage. The famous monogamous marriage that we now call “traditional” was in fact a hard-won innovation. What is really traditional is the contract between two families for an exchange of spouses, whose opinion was seldom asked. Until quite late, so-called “Christian” society regarded with a jaundiced eye those who married—before a priest, to be sure—without consulting father, mother, or the social conventions. In one telling example: when the silk-worker Gonzalo de Yepes married Catalina Alvarez, a poor weaver, for love, his family disowned him. Moreover, when Catalina became a widow, she had to make her way alone to raise her son, later known under the name of St. John of the Cross.

Who can say that Christianity has had the time to translate the totality of its contents into institutions? I have the impression that instead we are still at the beginning stages of Christianity.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1–22 of The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam by Rémi Brague, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2009 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Rémi Brague
The Legend of the Middle Ages: Philosophical Explorations of Medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam
Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane
©2009, 304 pages
Cloth $35.00 ISBN: 9780226070803

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Legend of the Middle Ages.

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