- The Kingdom of Man: Genesis and Failure of the Modern Project by Rémi Brague
A central premise of Rémi Brague's trilogy on the self-understanding of Western man is that humans cannot think of themselves without reference to a fundamental source of some kind. In the first two volumes, he wrote of past attempts to root anthropology in nature and in the divine. Now, in the newly translated third volume, he follows the modern turn, especially in and after the Enlightenment, toward seeking an anthropological ground in humanity itself. Like the first two, the third effort at sourcing human nature has now run its course, and according to Brague, it has failed.
Fittingly, his narrative in this third volume of the trilogy itself falls into three parts: the preparation, deployment, and failure of the modern project (think: the precursors, the cursors, and the cursed). At the heart of that project is the domination of nature, and especially human nature itself. In the first part (chapters 1–6), Brague reviews the premodern and early modern conditions for the possibility of the project, paying special attention to religious and philosophical conceptions of human dominance. Among ancient and patristic authors, dominance tended to take the form of stewardship vis-à-vis nature, and self-mastery or divinization vis-à-vis oneself. By the later Middle Ages, though, philosophers and theologians were beginning to imagine human dominance more and more by analogy to that of God. Drawing on the newly rediscovered hermetic tradition, [End Page 136] Christian Neoplatonists such as Cusanus and Ficino saw the human as (potentially) a "second God," with creative powers not unlike those of the original Maker. In this creative capacity to reshape the world, itself a gift from God, they located the basis of human dignity and mastery over creation.
In the second part of the book (chapters 7–14), Brague turns to the heart of the modern shift, tracing the gradual separation of human mastery from its earlier foundation in God. Of course, Francis Bacon is a major player here, announcing a new "kingdom of man," the work of which will be to "repair the fall" of Adam and Eve, recreating the earth to be a more comfortable, toil-free space. From there, Brague separates out a number of parallel strands, including the massive development of technology (with its near-magical possibilities for control); the super-Baconian ascent of German Idealism (for example, a line Brague quotes from Fichte: "I wish to be the lord of nature, and it must be my servant"); and the growing faith in the basic goodness of the human (Comte's "religion of humanity" gets several paragraphs). By the late nineteenth century, the intellectual elite increasingly conceived of man as "the supreme being," or something like it.
In part 3 of the book (chapters 15–21), Brague weaves together a set of interdependent developments that led to the twentieth- and twenty-first-century failure of the project. Chief among them were a growing skepticism about the goodness of human culture (as in Rousseau's First Discourse), an increasing sense of the unworthiness, and even contemptibility, of the humans who were now masters, and thus the suspicion that earth might do better without humanity after all. Separated from all transcendent sources, humans have found themselves unable to affirm not only their dominion but their very existence.
Now, in constructing this account, Brague has in general succeeded masterfully. It is not idle praise to say that no one else could have written this book (not to speak of the rest of the trilogy). In 211 pages, he has drawn together a staggeringly diverse, yet unified, array of sources, wondrously fit together into a rich, organic image of the spirit of the age moving through the West. Each page shimmers with multiple interlinked witnesses to the project he is describing. How to judge such a magnificent work of philosophical history? Partially by indicating what Rémi...