Sunday, September 13, 2009

Rémi Brague's Longer Reply on "Cosmology as a Postulate"

Rémi Brague
(Image from Nexus Instituut)

Some readers might recall a previous post on a fascinating interview that the two medievalists Christophe Cervellon and Kristell Trego conducted with Rémi Brague as a sort of introduction to his book of essays, The Legend of the Middle Ages. In that post, I called into question the heading that I thought that an editor had provided. The heading, followed by the passage, came upon the heels of Brague's remark that for modern people, "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."
At the time that I blogged on this, I stated that a cursory reading of the passage seemed to allow for the heading supplied, namely, "Cosmology as a Postulate," but that a closer reading led me to think that Brague would reject the heading as utterly counter to his point. I commented as follows:
True . . . [Brague] says that "The role of the cosmic order [for premodern men] is analogous to that of the postulates of practical reason [for Kant]," but this is not the same as calling cosmology a "postulate." Kant's postulates of "liberty, the existence of a just God, and the immortality of the soul" all "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." The similarity is thus that "the kosmos was . . . an example that shows, from the simple fact that it exists, that ethical conduct is possible." But cosmology was not a postulate because "For men of ancient and medieval times, . . . the sovereignty of the good was already given in the cosmic harmony." Since it was already given, it had no need to be postulated.
Well, as things turn out, I was utterly wrong in my construal of Brague's words -- though I take comfort in the fact that I am accustomed by now to being wrong -- for I wrote to Brague last summer, inquiring as to his meaning, and he replied with a cordial email letting me know that he was currently on vacation in the hinterlands of France but that he would reply upon returning to Paris. Here is that more recent reply:
I am back in Paris, and not really twiddling my thumbs, for I'll have to resume teaching in three weeks. Nevertheless, I keep my promise: not being a gentleman, I must pretend to act as one. The title "Cosmology as a Postulate" is not to be laid at the door of some editor. I am responsible for it. What I meant is, more or less adequately, what follows: For ancient man, moral life did not require properly speaking the well-ordered character of the world, its deserving the name of a kosmos. There are ethical theories that draw the parallel between morality and cosmological phenomena, like Plato's Timaeus or the Stoics; but others do not even mention them, which does not prevent them from building a highly respectable moral teaching: the Atomists are a good example, although Aristotle deserves pride of place among those people. The orderliness and beauty of the physical universe was a not a reason for the Ancient man to do good and avoid evil; conversely, the hypothesis (a nightmare for the ancient world-view) of a total lack of order would not be an excuse for an unlawful behaviour. See Marcus Aurelius, quoted in Wisdom . . . , p. 76-77. In the same way, moral law, according to Kant, does not need a divine Legislator. What is needed is to postulate that morality and the happiness that morality makes us worthy of, but can't guarantee us, somehow meet. Nevertheless, the beautiful order of the world shows us that Being and Goodness coincide. Perhaps I should have compared the part played by the ancient kosmos with another Kantian doctrine, i.e. his christology. For Kant, Christ is not so much a model to be imitated (President Wilson's "What would Jesus do if he were at my place?"), but rather an example that shows us that absolute conformity to the Moral Law, i.e. holiness, is possible.
Appended to this passage was Brague's "hope that this will be helpful." Certainly, it helps me to understand his point -- namely, to understand that I had seriously misunderstood and that Brague's point was almost entirely the opposite from my understanding . . . a rather humbling experience, to be sure, but I often run up against my limitations. Fortunately, like a proper Clint Eastwood character, I do know my limitations. Or at least, I'm willing to recognize them for what they are: my limitations.

Anyway, if I do now understand Brague's point, it is this: the moral law would hold for the ancient philosophers even if the cosmos were to display no such order, much as the moral law would hold for Kant even if there had been no incarnation of the Son, but both the cosmos and the Son display an excellence that is not so much to be imitated as to serve as a demonstration that an exact conformity to God's law is possible. Allow me to apply this understanding to a passage from the Brague interview that I had previously quoted only in part:
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.
The medieval "worldview" -- a term designating a perspective broader than merely a 'view of the world' -- was an unstable compromise between Plato's description of a more-or-less perfectly ordered world and the Christian one of fallen-but-still-good world. That 'compromised' world served not as a model to be imitated but as an illustration that conformity with God's law was possible. With the modern age, this understanding of the cosmic order has collapsed, for the world does not seem to correspond, even as illustration, to our ethical needs.

I might need to obtain a copy of Brague's Wisdom of the World and read it carefully, comparing his views on the emergence of modernity with those of Hans Blumenberg in Legitimacy of the Modern Age.

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At 3:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brings tears to my eyes. All this time I had been thinking...


At 4:05 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

You refer to my unexpected humility?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(sniffle sniffle)


Hear me wailing in Korea now?


At 10:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, you can dry your tears, JK, for I take inordinate pride in my profound humility.

Jeffery Hodges

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