Remi Brague is no stranger to PomoCon and First Things readers. So it goes with saying that he is one of the most brilliant and knowledgeable thinkers and writers living today. His immense erudition, his intense study, and his mastery of Greek philosophy, as well as medieval Islamic, Jewish, and Christian thought is something of a wonder. That he can also speak to the most important present concerns in a way that is fluent with modern thought from Hobbes to Habermas, and do it in a way that can provoke deep reflection in a generally educated person leaves one speechless. And to pile on the accolades, to be able to present all this with panache, and with a dash of good humor (in English!), is truly amazing.

Not living in one of the major cities (or academic hubs) where such intellectual persons are called upon to give an account of their thoughts, I was unaware that M. Brague had something of a North American Tour last fall. At least that’s how YouTube presents the dates of his lectures, i.e., lectures apparently presented at Notre Dame and McGill in late 2012. One of the advantages of the modern networked society is that you can watch lectures like this on the internet regardless of where you presently live.

This is no defense of MOOCs or online education, the efficacy of which, regarding a good education, I am generally skeptical as a whole (but with which I try to keep an open mind). Apart from the internet, my interest in Brague—the characteristically pressing questions he asks, the perennial issues he addresses, and the classic texts he takes as relevant for exposition and interpretation—required face to face classroom instruction where difficult texts were slowly read as an introduction to the most important matters. That is, it required something resembling what is called an education in the arts and sciences on the model of a liberal education—an education which had as its core a focus on the “great books.” From that basis, I read (or read parts of) Brague’s books The Wisdom of the World, The Law of God, Eccentric Culture, and The Legend of the Middle Ages.

I do not claim to be an expert on Brague or the texts and topics he writes about, but I have learned much from him nonetheless.

Of course, this background is no excuse for my own current ignorance and confusion. That is entirely my own, despite whatever I may have learned.

Nonetheless, I wanted to recommend a way to spend an evening other than watching TV on that evening when that was your only other option and when, as per usual, there was nothing worth watching anyway. On that night, why not watch a few lectures by Remi Brague?

The McGill lecture has the title “The Question Atheism Can’t Answer.” In this lecture, Brague lays out an account of atheism internally on its own terms, especially regarding the real successes that modern natural science and modern politics, and their attendant technology, have wrought. Perhaps, Pierre Bayle in his “Thoughts On a Comet” was onto something in suggesting the possibility of a society based on atheism. The question is—given the apparent success of a science, a technology, and a politics wholly of human making, do human beings, understood as rational animals that are open to a whole greater than themselves and living together in communities, need to perpetuate themselves? He lays out the typical statistics as to why those in societies most influenced by these conditions seem not presently to do what is necessary for such perpetuation. The Q&A after the lecture is illuminating, especially when a young student asks a question from the point of view of what could only be called what a young French friend of mine calls “apatheism.” Brague handles it with aplomb, reminding the student of the 40 years hence of Shakespeare’s Sonnet number 2.

The Notre Dame lecture is called “There is No Such Thing as a Secular Society.” With a fascinating account of the etymological and historical meanings of “secular” and “society,” Brague points out how the dominant ideas which founded and continue to explain modern modes of living one amongst another provide nothing outside themselves by which to understand, assess, and judge themselves as a basis for right action. Once again, the Q&A gave further clarification, where he makes a great point about the ultimate inadequacy of phrasing ethical and political questions in terms of “what is the MEANING of life?”

I am not saying I agree with all of Brague’s arguments, insofar as I understand them, but they make for a thoughtful evening’s viewing.

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Articles by John Presnall

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