The World

Rémi Brague: "The great temptation is despair".

Interview with the French humanist Rémi Brague (Paris, 1947), professor emeritus of Philosophy at the Sorbonne. In November, he spoke at the Congress of Catholics and Public Life organized by the Catholic Association of Propagandists and the CEU. In conversation with Omnes we talked about philosophy, the opposition to classical languages, and freedom. Brague affirms categorically and smiling: "The world is good, in spite of everything". In his opinion, "the great temptation is despair".

Rafael Miner-December 13, 2021-Reading time: 6 minutes
Rémi Brague.

Translation of the article into English

It was a half-hour conversation, but it leaves an impression. Like "distant disciple of Socrates." (professor Elio Gallego), the philosopher Rémi Brague "he is able to tell the truth as if he were telling a bedtime story, with subtlety and in a low voice."wrote Professor José Pérez Adán.

"In the program of the Congress I am presented as a historian, but it is not true because I am a philosopher who reads works of history, and I find myself with an interpretation of the modern world that is starting from scratch, that tries to make a clean slate of the past as does the International", comments at the outset.

"I am a philosopher."he specifies, "and it is very flattering to all my colleagues that we are considered dangerous. People who can be subversive simply because they seek the truth."he points out.

In relation to your paper, you say that the "culture of cancellation" belongs more to the journalistic and communication field than to the philosophical one. 

-What I wanted to say is simply that history can seem more or less anecdotal, that it serves to feed journalists who do not know very well what to say. I am not a journalist, I am only a philosopher, who is obliged to see things from a philosophical point of view, and this movement deserves to be examined from a philosophical and historical point of view. 

In the program of the Congress I am presented as a historian, but it is not true because I am a philosopher who reads works of history. This interests me insofar as it is a symptom of something broader, and that is why throughout my presentation I start from curious facts to move on to a broad interest, and I find myself with an interpretation of the modern world that is starting from scratch, that tries to make the past a clean slate as does the International. But it is much older. It comes from the struggle against prejudices, which Descartes places on a more individual level: I must rid myself of the preconceptions of childhood; and from the individual level it passes to the collective, in what we call the radical Enlightenment. And then with the French Revolution, and so on.

In your presentation you referred to the opposition movements to classical languages. In Spain, Philosophy has been suppressed in compulsory education (ESO). What does this suggest to you?

-It suggests two things to me. First, about classical languages. They play a very important role in the cultural history of the West, in Europe and in the overseas territories. For the first time in history, a civilization has tried to train its elites by studying another culture.

For example, Chinese culture rests on the study of the Chinese classics. While European civilization has formed its elites through the study of Greek, and this is true in Salamanca, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Upsala and everywhere. 

The elites have been trained to see themselves as decadent in relation to Greek civilization, which has been idealized. The Greeks were just as brutish and just as much liars as the others. A curious example. There is an Arab author of the ninth century called Al-Razi who writes: "The Greeks had no interest in sexuality", because for him the Greeks were Aristotle. And that was it. And he had no idea about Aristophanes, let alone the baths. The study of Greek had the merit of giving European minds, despite their arrogance, a healthy inferiority complex.

As for the suppression of philosophy?

-I am a philosopher and it is very flattering to my whole corporation, to all my colleagues, that we are considered dangerous. People who can be subversive simply because they seek the truth. The worst enemy of the lie is the truth. It is very interesting, as an involuntary confession of these people, to say: we don't want philosophy; that is, we don't want the search for truth.

You claim that in one way or another our culture would have to regress to a kind of Middle Ages. The question is: what kind of Middle Ages?

-At the beginning I am going to repeat what I said at the beginning. No idealized image of the Middle Ages; what interests me about the Middle Ages are the thinkers, if I may say, my "colleagues from the past": the philosophers. They could be Judeo-Christian, but also Christian or Muslim. There are very interesting things in Maimonides, one of my great loves, as French grammar obliges me to say ..... 

I think the interesting thing, if I have to choose one thing, is the convertibility of the transcendental properties of being. The world is good. It is said in a very technical way, but it can be expressed in a very simple way. The world is good, in spite of everything. It is an act of faith. Because when one looks at oneself, one can see oneself as less beautiful than one thought. 

Explain this act of faith...

-As a consequence of this act of faith, the world is the work of a benevolent God, of a God who wants good, and who has given us the means to solve our own problems. To begin with, he has given us intelligence and freedom, and he has made us capable of desiring the good, of truly desiring it. Since we are not capable of achieving it by our own means, the economy of salvation has arrived. But God only intervenes there, where we really need him, which is the economy of salvation. 

It is important, because we do not need God to tell us: "Grow a moustache or cut your beard"; we do not need God to tell us: "Do not eat pork"; we do not need God to tell us: "Ladies, put on a veil", we have hairdressers, we have barbers, we have tailors, and we have an intelligence to choose the way we dress, the way we eat, etcetera. In Christianity, God only intervenes where it is really necessary, where it is really necessary. God does not interfere, he does not interfere, he does not interfere to tell us to do this or to do that, understanding that we are capable of understanding what is good for us.

Let's talk a little more about classical culture. In your paper you have referred to it.

-Those who oppose the study of classical languages are often on the left of the political spectrum. According to them, Latin and Greek are the hallmark of the educated classes, i.e., those who can afford to learn solely for the love of culture, as opposed to the working classes, and so on. There is also a grain of truth in this.

However, this reasoning shows only one side of the truth, which is more complex. First, some of the thinkers who are among the most radical forerunners of the insurrections in Western culture had received a classical education, which did not prevent them from being agitators, each in his own way. Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud had studied in what were called "humanist gymnasiums," and Charles Darwin had studied in universities where Latin and Greek were taken for granted. Marx wrote his doctoral thesis on atomism in ancient Greece. Not to mention Nietzsche, perhaps the most radical of all, who worked as a professor of Classical Philology.

Agreed," one might object, "but they became what they became, not what they became," he said. due to the classical education they received, but notwithstanding of having received it.

Would you say to modern man a word of optimism, of hope, when you notice a very depressive thinking? Perhaps this is a more theological question...

-It is a question that deserves to be asked and, if necessary, answered. 

I want to shift gears and move into theological gear. I want to talk about the devil. The image we have of the devil is an image spread by the public relations services of hell. Unfortunately, it is the image given by probably the second of the English poets after Shakespeare, which is John Milton. The devil as a kind of rebel who would have wanted to put himself in the place of God. It is rare for me to entertain the devil, it is a mistake for me to telephone the devil; he is intelligent enough to understand that this does not work, and therefore

is a Promethean and false image. Instead, in the Bible, the devil appears as the one who makes man believe that he does not deserve God's interest in him, that he is not worth it. For example, the beginning of the book of Job is exactly that.

In the New Testament, in the fourth Gospel, the devil is the liar, he is the one who wants us to believe that we are not worth it, that God will not forgive us, that God's mercy is finite. The great temptation is despair. 

And the Church puts at our disposal a well-woven system which are the sacraments: confession, the Eucharist... If we take it seriously, the ball is in our court, and therefore it is up to us.

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