Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

There is no such thing as a secular society. My claim is a brutal and paradoxical one: The question about the possibility of a secular society resolves itself, or rather it dissolves itself.

To defend this claim I would like to submit two-and-a-half theses. First, a purely secular society simply cannot survive in the long run. As a consequence, leaving behind secularism is a necessary move, indeed a vital one. Second, the term secular society is tautological, because the ideal of secularity is latent with the modern use of the term society. Third is the half thesis, which I won’t develop here: Whatever comes after secularism, it won’t be a “society” any longer but rather another way for us to think about and give political form to the being-together of human beings.

The use of the term secularism in English began in the middle of the nineteenth century. George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) may have coined the word as early as 1846,and one of his main works, published in 1870, bears the title The Principles of Secularism. In 1859, the philosopher John Stuart Mill was still treating the word as a neologism. In On Liberty, after mentioning the religious principles that can motivate human action, he speaks of “secular standards (as for want of a better name they may be called).”

Mill used the term because he was eager to avoid atheistic, which is the more fitting term to describe the opposite of religious. But atheism was hardly the thing in Victorian Britain, and the word was felt to be rude. In the same intellectual atmosphere, the biologist T. E. Huxley, Darwin’s famous bulldog, coined agnosticism during a memorable discussion that took place at the Metaphysical Society in 1869. In present-day Britain, a third word, humanism, is often used with the same meaning and with the same intention: to evoke the possibility of a nonreligious basis for a morally animated society.

The debate for which the word secularism was coined is a false one. Advocates of secularism assume they are proposing a novel possibility, which is that moral precepts can be known without any particular revelation by God. Yet this is precisely what Christianity has taught, explicitly since Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and, implicitly, since Jesus himself. This was lost sight of in the modern era, when many Christians defended religion against skeptical and rationalist attacks by arguing that it is necessary for ensuring the moral basis of society. Men without religion, it was argued, could not be trusted to behave in an upright fashion. So advocates of secularism were drawn into the false debate.

Ironically, and perhaps inevitably, the words that are meant to express secularization are themselves Christian words that have been secularized. One prominent premodern use of secular was to distinguish between “religious” priests, who were members of mendicant or monastic orders, and diocesan clergy, or “secular” priests. These terms continue to be used, often confusing those unfamiliar with the Church’s particular ­language: a secular priest?

Another example is the French adjective for secularity, laïc, or the Italian equivalent, laico. Both are derived from the Greek adjective that designates a member of a people or nation. But not just any people or nation: The Septuagint translated the Hebrew `am—the people of God, the holy nation—with laos, the Greek source of both adjectives. Thus even the advocates of secularism are unable to escape the biblical sources of so much of Western culture.

The root of secular, secularism, and secularity is saeculum. From this Latin word the Romance languages derived their words for century : siècle, secolo, siglo. It receives from Christianity a particular shade of meaning. In the vocabulary of the Church Fathers, saeculum designates the world as Christianity conceives of it. They were profoundly influenced by the Hebrew word ‘olam and the Greek aion, which is often used to render it. These terms stress the transitory, provisional character of the present state of the world. Saeculum is thereby diametrically opposed to the Greek kosmos, the beautiful world order that was believed to be everlasting.

The word also came to designate a century, one hundred years. This semantic evolution did not happen by chance, for one hundred years is not just any length of time.

The sum of seventy plus thirty, it was understood in a symbolic way as the average length of a generation, a bit longer than the traditional human lifespan according to the Psalms: “The years of our life are threescore and ten.”

This use of the term was not uniquely Christian. In ancient Rome, the herald who announced the secular games, ludi saeculares, proclaimed with great solemnity that “nobody who witnessed them saw them already or would see them one more time.” The formula is quoted by Suetonius in a highly ironical context: ludos, quos nec spectasset quisquam nec spectaturus esset. Another historian, Herodian, wrote: “People then called these games ‘secular’ because they had heard that they were celebrated only after three generations had elapsed. Heralds would go all over Rome and Italy, inviting people to come and see a spectacle that nobody ever saw and nobody would see again.”

The ancient usage draws on the fact that a saeculum, a century, is the temporal limit of living memory. It is the halo of possible experience that surrounds the life of the individual. I can keep a remembrance of my grandparents and, more seldom, of my great-grandparents. What my grandfather told me I can tell my grandchildren. I can reach back two generations and forward two, but rarely more, to a period spanning what amounts to a century.

One century is also the limit of the concrete care we can give. I very well can, nay, should think about the future situation of my children, of my grandchildren, possibly of my great-grandchildren. But I can’t care in anything but a highly abstract way about the generations that will come after them. If by some miracle our remote forebears came back to life, or if our remote posterity were now called to life, they wouldn’t mean a great deal to us.

Jonathan Swift drew attention to this century-long limit of human concern in Gulliver’s Travels. In Book 3, he depicts the struldbrugs, wretched immortals of the country of Luggnagg. Till their thirtieth year, they behave like normal mortals. Then they begin to suffer from a melancholy that keeps growing till they reach the age of eighty years, considered the usual limit of life expectancy. Although the struldbrugs live on, in Luggnagg after eighty they are considered legally dead and forfeit every right to their property, which falls to their heirs. Moreover, their own natural affection doesn’t extend beyond their grandchildren. After two hundred years, they hardly understand the language of their fellow countrymen anymore. Their lives outrun the existential limits of the saeculum.

Our intuitive sense of the outer boundaries of living memory and concern finds expression in the field of law. One hundred years, what is known as the tempus memoratum, constitutes the longest possible duration for a contract. For example, the longest possible land lease holds good for ninety-nine years. Beyond that, one enters the field of the “immemorial,” rights held not by natural persons but by legal entities such as monasteries, universities, civic organizations, and of course the state itself. In a certain brocard, or common saying of ancient French law, “He who has eaten of the king’s goose gives back a feather a hundred years later,” which means that for crimes against the state there is no temporal limit. The king remembers forever.

What does all this have to do with the idea of a “secular” society? A great deal. The French language possesses two different adjectives meaning “secular”: on the one hand séculier, on the other séculaire. Séculaire means what lasts for more than one century—say, a tree, or a custom. Séculier originally designated a “secular,” a cleric who, as we have seen, doesn’t live according to the rule of a monastic or religious order but instead pursues his vocation in the world as a diocesan functionary. In the modern era, as Mill recognized and imported into English, it acquired the added meaning of an outlook, a person, or a body of people that renounces the transcendent.

There is a profound irony of language here, for the sense of secular that denotes one hundred years is implied in the later, more recent sense that denies the transcendent. Put bluntly: A secularist is a person the inner logic of whose position compels him to act as if mankind were not to last longer than one century. And even: A secularist is a person whose behavior, if universalized, would make it so that mankind would in fact not last more than one century. It is telling that Holyoake, the first to import the term into English, was notorious among his contemporaries for advocating contraception.

Why is this the case? Why is the secularist limited to a hundred-year horizon? For an answer, let us now turn to my second thesis: that the term secular society is tautological because secularity is entailed in the ways in which early modern political philosophy turned toward “society” as the fundamental expression of the being-together of humanity.

Earlier, one spoke of the city—in Greek, polis; in ancient and medieval Latin, civitas; and in Arabic of the same period, madinah. St. Thomas spoke of the ideal of political unity ordered toward the common good as a communitas perfecta. In this context, the idea of society was limited to practical arrangements for the sake of particular goals, often economic in nature. A societas was a grouping of men who agreed to unite their abilities and their efforts, and the word was used in much the same way as we use company today.

Later, the meaning began to shift, and society replaced city as our most fundamental term for human unity. In the eighteenth century, the German philosopher Christian Wolff wrote, “When men unite with each other in order to promote their greater good by uniting their forces, they enter with each other into a society.” This use draws on the older meaning of practical unity for the sake of common ends. But Wolff makes a further move, dropping the indefinite article— a society—and conjuring a universal form. “As a consequence,” he continues, “society is nothing else than a contract between some people for them to promote therein their greater good by uniting their forces.”

Speaking of “society” as Wolff did—and we do today—lends reality to the fiction of the social contract. This fiction has deep roots in ancient Epicureanism. Men are supposed to have been produced from the earth by spontaneous generation. They then roam the earth and meet almost by chance, or are driven together by negative reasons, such as the necessity to repel wild beasts. They form a “company,” a societas dedicated to collective defense, and this mode of being together is taken as a sufficient basis and explanation for political community.

It is strange that this extension of the meaning of society should have taken place, for it obscures reality in a profound way. A commercial society or company results from the agreement of its members and dissolves itself when the interests of the members subsequently diverge. To some degree or another, the same holds for other forms of society as envisioned in the classical use of the term.

But peoples and nations aren’t like that. On the contrary, properly speaking, human communities—societies, as we now use the term—never constitute themselves. At each moment they discover themselves as already extant; they perpetuate themselves by renewing themselves through a process of intussusception of new members. Only exceptionally do new members come from outside. By and large, they arise from the society itself. The accretion of new members presupposes that there already exists a society that can welcome them.

Of course a body politic also has agency, and the idea of a contract between governor and governed is well known. We have examples of rulers who had their subjects swear allegiance—for example, the caliphs in Baghdad or, more recently, John Calvin when he founded the new polity in Geneva. This and other elements of contractual practice express political duties and responsibilities that presuppose an important role for human freedom. Yet in every case these duties and responsibilities also presuppose an already existing political community. Never has a human community constituted itself by the aggregation of independent individuals who predated it. Never anywhere else than in fiction, that is. Revolutions, constitutions, and declarations of rights may have inaugurated states, established new polities, and transformed nations, but they have never brought a people into being.

In its use of society as the foundational term for human community, modern political philosophy conceives of civic life on the pattern of a group of acting subjects in a purely human space. The ever recurring image of such a group is one of players around a table. As Thomas Hobbes wrote, “It is in the laws of a commonwealth, as in the laws of gaming: Whatsoever the gamesters all agree on, is injustice to none of them.” It is to be found again in the work of Adam Smith, who speaks of the “great chess-board of human society.” The image loses its metaphorical self-consciousness and becomes conceptually foundational in later authors. John Rawls’ description of the original position provides a good example. And history takes political theory seriously. Our political communities have become “societies” resembling ever more closely a club of gamblers.

For the game to be fair, it must be secular. The space of our democratic societies is flat. Nobody is allowed to stand higher than others. The first to be excluded is the One Above, especially when people claim to have received from him some message or mission that puts them closer to his divine reality—and thus higher. Democratic space must remain inside itself. To put it in Latin: It must be immanent. Tocqueville noticed that aristocratic man was constantly sent back to something that is placed outside his own self, something above him. Democratic man, on the other hand, refers only to himself.

The democratic social space is not only flat but closed. And it is closed because it is has to be flat. What is outside, whatever claims to have worth and authority in itself and not as part of the game, must be excluded. Whoever and whatever will not take a seat at the table at the same level as all other claims and authorities, however mundane, is barred from the game. Again, the Great Outsider must be dismissed.

This is illustrated by a famous anecdote, although its authenticity is not above doubt. When in 1787 the Congress of the United States had painted itself into a corner, leading Benjamin Franklin to suggest that prayers be said to the Father of lights, Alexander Hamilton guffawed that he “did not see the necessity of calling in foreign aid.”

Hamilton was more far-sighted than he knew. A democratic society, not insofar as it is democratic but insofar as it is a society, must be atheistic. We come here to an antinomy: Insofar as a political community governs itself in a democratic way, it must be open to transcendence, because we all have a moral conscience that refers us to the transcendent. But insofar as a political community views itself as a “society,” it must on the contrary be closed in on itself, and therefore must exclude the moral authority claimed by the consciences of its members. Thus our present democracies in the West. They are dominated by a technocratic elite that bases its right to govern on its claim to be able to manage the game expertly, ensuring utilitarian and therapeutic results for all.

There is a further and more fundamental antinomy. The central task of modern political philosophy is to guarantee the peaceful coexistence of such a group of human beings. This means contriving rules to enable each person to maximize his self-interest without harming others. This is all very well, but this coexistence and the perpetual peace promised by the rules of the game presuppose, by definition, that men exist already, and that they or others will continue to exist. This presupposition modern political philosophy fails to provide; indeed, its characteristic strategy for ensuring peace works against it.

Immanuel Kant provides an apt illustration. In a famous passage from Perpetual Peace, Kant explains that the problem of building a just society can be solved, even in the case of a society of devils. It is enough that those utterly evil and utterly egoistic beings are intelligent. This will allow individual devils to see the true nature of their self-interest, which of course includes neutralizing the self-interest of others to the extent that it threatens their own, which in turn requires agreement about neutral rules. Even devils, if rational, can be peaceful players of the game of society.

What Kant did not recognize is that, far from being a harder case than humans, devils are easier. They are fallen angels, to be sure, but angels all the same. As a consequence, they are pure spirits that soar in a special kind of elongated temporality, the so-called aevum. This enables them to shirk the need to reproduce, so they can focus all their energies on the game of self-interest.

By contrast, the existence of men is limited and lasts, as we have seen, at most one century. And so the human species, the same as the other living species, keeps going by replacing the individuals that disappear—replacing them with new individuals, which are begotten by individuals and born to them. A civitas—a nation, culture, or people—is, so to speak, constantly surfing on individuals. If it ceases to do so, it won’t last longer than a century.

In other words, without new life, Kant’s peace won’t be perpetual. And because his peace is perfect only if the players of the game see themselves and their lives in terms of their own rational self-interest, it’s not at all clear why they won’t cease to have children. Indeed, many will say that it’s a positive duty not to reproduce.

Human communities are not made of pure spirits. And so we face a fundamental political question for ­“societies”: What makes human beings beget children? What will make mankind want to go on existing? One could mention many things different in nature: economic and social conditions, legal measures, the psychological atmosphere of a society. But above all there is the need for two things: a vision and a choice. No society will endure if some people do not look farther than one century, beyond what an individual can experience. We must see beyond the saeculum. Equally necessary is a choice, one I call “metaphysical.” This choice consists in saying that it is good that there exist human beings on Earth: “good” in itself, not just fun for the present generation—which I, by the way, don’t doubt.

Who is empowered to pronounce our existence good? Certainly not man himself. We should remember Jean-Paul Sartre on this point: “We can’t admit that a man might pronounce a sentence on Man.” The only being who can pronounce it is the One who declared at the last day of creation that whatever He had created was not only “good” but, taken in its whole, “very good.”

Rémi Brague is professor emeritus at the Sorbonne and Romano Guardini Chair at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. A version of this essay was presented at the Nanovic Institute for European Studies at the University of Notre Dame.