Rémi Brague. The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. University of Chicago Press. 354 pages. $35.00

If Socrates were alive today, his delight in iconoclasm would bring him to study history, the allures and dangers of which would tempt him more than philosophy. So says Rémi Brague, the distinguished Catholic historian of philosophy who teaches at the Sorbonne and the University of Munich.

Socrates himself had no use for the historical approach to ideas; but Brague puts that method at the very center of his project. “Since our identity is mediated and conditioned through the past,” he says, “we reach ourselves through history.” Having peeled back the chronological layers of how we think about the cosmos in The Wisdom of the World (2003), Brague in his new book presses even more deeply into the story the West tells about itself.

Modernity commonly explains itself as an inexorable shift from the sacred to the profane as politics and morality emancipate themselves from theology, laicization gains over clericalism, and state extricates itself from church. And in contrast with China, for instance, where there was no suggestion that law could have a divine origin, the secularization of the West is often understood in light of the history of law. Long ago revealed to prophets, then systemized by jurists, law is today thought to bear no relation with the divine.

In challenging that narrative, Brague aims to write an alternative spiritual biography of the West, one which “throws light on what is dubious in the modern project itself.”  To do so, he elaborates a grand narrative of his own.

Brague does not attempt to answer the Socratic question — what is divine law? — by un-Socratic means. He instead sets out to show that this idea — in its articulation by the ancient Greeks and the three monotheisms, as in its rejection by modernity — carries within it the essence of how we understand ourselves today.

The story begins in Jerusalem and Athens. Brague isn’t the first to link the two by contrasting their interpretations of law. “The leading idea upon which Greeks and Jews agree,” Leo Strauss said, “is precisely the idea of divine law as of a unique and all-encompassing law that is at the same time a religious law, a civil law and a moral law.” But the two civilizations, Strauss added, interpreted that idea “in a diametrically opposed manner.”

In the Bible, the law’s divinity derives from its revealed character; the law is divine because commanded by God. For the Greek philosophers, however, the law is divine because it is perfect, an expression of natural order. The law is permanent, unwritten, and requires no proclamation. Sophocles talks of laws “that live on high; laws begotten in the clear air of heaven, whose only father is Olympus; no mortal nature brought them to birth, no forgetfulness shall lull them to sleep.”

So it is no surprise that although it imposed sacred obligations toward one’s family and city, Hellenic culture furnished no holy books. Its gods — as conceived by the philosophers — give advice and warnings, but they seldom command. No particular law is issued by a god; as Heraclitus puts it in the first Greek mention of the term, “all the laws of men are nourished by one law, the divine law.” The divine issues not in external command, but in the intellect that emanates from both nature and man.

If the Greek thinkers emphasized the natural character of law, the Israelites called forth its revealed, historical character; thereby, Brague says, they “revolutionized the relations between the normative and the divine.” Unlike the Greeks, the Hebrew Bible invents a law that is both written and divine; in fact, it is said to be written by the very finger of God (Exodus 31:18). This law, moreover, becomes the instrument of a covenant with God: the first appearance in history of an alliance between a people and its god.

In exile, Jewish law became powerfully concentrated — the object of intense study, the center of identity, even the means of apprehending the divine.

In a gesture Aleida Assmann has called an “excarnation” of the law, the Bible replaces the king with God as lawgiver. (Recall the Psalms that begin “the Lord is king.”) And while in Egypt the gods elected the king, in Israel the people as a whole are elect, “a kingdom of priests” (e.g., Deut. 7:6), a chosen community defined not by territory, nor by loyalty to a king, but by allegiance to a law.

The ancient Israelite state, denied the chance to become well-established before losing its political autonomy, also hosted a critique of the very institution of kingship. It is hard not to notice an anti-monarchist strain in Samuel’s tirade to the elders of Israel who ask him to appoint a king (1 Samuel  8:11—17), or in Jotham’s parable in which the fruitful trees — olive, fig, and grape vine — decline an offer to be crowned king, and only the unproductive buckthorn accepts (Judges 9:7­­—15). “Israel is distinctive in having conceived of human kingship as not only distinct from divine kingship,” Brague observes, “but even opposed to it.”

The fact that Judaism became Judaism only after it lost political power also meant that its law “crystallized outside the apparatus of state.” Still, its political dimension was never entirely lost. Though stateless, Jews were often granted an autonomy that allowed them to administer themselves, judge internal disputes, and levy taxes. This “assured them an apprenticeship in political life that the Muslim masses, who were governed autocratically, lacked,” Brague writes.

Rabbinic Judaism, by means of no small exegetical genius, had to draw out of the Bible a complete legal system. “The pressure to which Israel subjected the Torah brought forth an entire halacha,” Brague writes. In exile, Jewish law became powerfully concentrated — the object of intense study, the center of identity, even the means of apprehending the divine. “In conditions of virtually chemical purity,” Brague says, “divine law permeated both communal life and intellectual reflection.”

But the Jewish view of divine law was fully articulated only in the Middle Ages, when Maimonides argued that the law is divine both because it originates in God and because it brings adherents closer to Him. As Brague puts it, “the law is perfect because it is perfecting.” Soon after, the mystics who conceived the kabbalah took the Torah not merely as a message from the divine, but as the very structure and name of divinity. Divinity had been a way to describe law; now law described divinity.

In sum, the authors of the Bible, the prophets of the biblical commonwealth, the sages of the Talmud, and the medieval rationalists and kabbalists   alike envisaged and then enlarged upon a staggering idea: a law, revealed by God, that commands us, defines our community, perfects us, and brings us — through covenant and study — in contact with the divine.

The new testament, unlike the Hebrew Bible, contains almost no legal texts. Brague takes this as a sign of a second revolution, a decisive jettisoning of the idea of revealed legislation. “With the New Testament the relationship with the divine no longer appeared as a relationship to a law.”

The Christian scripture turns away from worldly law altogether (which is one reason Christianity exerted little influence on the Roman law of late antiquity). “My kingdom does not belong to this world,” Jesus says (John 18:36). And in the Gospel according to Luke (12:13—15), Jesus refuses to judge an inheritance dispute between two brothers; turning from the juridical to the moral, he chooses instead to offer a general warning against greed.

The commandments are not rejected — Matthew famously reports that Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17) — but made interior. Paul reduces them to the holy spirit that dwells within: “When Gentiles who do not have the law keep it as by instinct, these men although without the law serve as a law for themselves. They show that demands of the law are written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:14—15).

In defining itself against rabbinic Judaism, then, Christianity had to position itself vis-à-vis a law. Some Christians — the Gnostics and Marcionites — broke with the old law; others cast themselves as adherents of a “new law” (though the phrase nowhere appears in the New Testament). In the main, however, the nascent Christian community founded itself not on law at all, but on faith.

With great skill, Brague follows this thread from Paul to the Church Fathers to the Scholastic theologians. Augustine, for instance, identifies the voice of conscience with the voice of God and distinguishes the written, external law from the internal law written “in the hearts of men.” Here the relation to law is very far from one of subordination (for this reason a Christian sharia is inconceivable).

Thomas Aquinas, who takes law as a form of providence afforded to free, rational creatures, places divine law squarely within the realm of ethics — not as external norm but as internal principle. The symbol of this idea, Brague writes, is the Eucharist, “a nourishment that does not dictate to the person ingesting it what he or she must do, but gives the strength to do it.”

Christianity, in Brague’s telling, does not merely supercede the law, but must live in proximity to it.

Brague understands the New Testament not as a new text, but as a reading of the Torah in light of the radically new event of Jesus’s death and resurrection. For Islam, by contrast, the only event is the revelation of a new text. “Christianity presents no new texts; it simply presents a new fact. . . . Islam presents no new fact but it does present a new text.”

Brague — who in the course of his career has shifted his focus from Greek thought to Arabic philosophy — argues that in the Quran, like Judaism but unlike Christianity, “the content of revelation is not a person, but God’s will, as delivered in commandments.” Revelation in Islam centers on law, and prophecy culminates in law. “The basic religious attitude,” he writes, “is a relation to law — that is, obedience.”

There is another difference:   Christianity inherited an empire, while Islam gained one by conquest. Muhammad, unlike Jesus, was a conqueror and head of state. The faith the prophet founded insists on the inextricability of the political and the religious. Even as Christian Europe saw the divergence of the political and the religious as progress, Islam regarded it as a form of decadence.

The history of Islam, Brague says, can be understood “as tending toward an ever purer formulation of the dream of a kingdom of the Law.” But it remained a dream: “Contrary to a legend tenacious in the West, Islam thus experienced a separation of the political and the religious. But this separation was . . . inscribed in facts, not in ideas.”

A bit later on, Brague adds:

The tendencies that present [Islam] as both “religion and regime”(din wa-dawla), which are attested almost from the start, became dominant only at a fairly recent date. The Islamic world has hardly ever experienced that unity except as a retrospective dream intended to compensate for a reality that was drifting farther and father away from that ideal.

Not that the retrospective dream is harmless. The other Islamic legend, Brague says, is the one that fundamentalist Islam tells to itself:

The legend is this: long ago the sharia regulated all of Muslim life; it was then thrust aside (for unspecified reasons) to the advantage of juridical dispositions of foreign origin, thus bringing on the decadence of Islamic civilization; it must be finally reestablished in a utopian future whose coming must be hastened.

It follows that the idea of divine law lies at the heart not only of the West’s conception of itself, but also of its ever more dangerous encounter with Islam.

As he approaches present-day Europe, Brague accelerates his story to a close. “The modern age,” he says, “did little more than store up results of conquests that began several centuries earlier.” But the results could not have been more dramatic. Moderns invented the “laws of nature” and — in Descartes, Hobbes, and Malebranche, for instance — identified them with the laws of God. The normative and descriptive collide, and law comes to belong more to nature than to the sphere of the human.

This development brought about a far-reaching response. “Faced with a law that contained nothing of the human there arose, in reaction, a law that was nothing but human.” To create a human law, modernity severs conscience from divinity; it understands law as something made, not discovered. Jean Bodin distinguishes right (droit) from law (loi); the latter is “nothing but the commandment of the sovereign, using his power.” Law becomes a convention, a contract predicated on self-interest.

Rendering political law in human terms opens the way for moderns — Machiavelli preeminently — to regard divine law as the invention of clever men who persuade the masses that the law is backed by divine authority. But precisely because the law is no longer divine, it has need of the divine. The Enlightenment restores the vocabulary of the sacred — as with the “inviolable and sacred” rights announced by the French Revolution. “Sacralization serves here to cover up a secularization,” Brague concludes.

Brague’s story, fascinating in itself, amounts to a brilliant and erudite account of how conceptual decisions, embedded in what he calls a tradition’s “inaugural acts,” come into full flower centuries later; these are shown to be deliberate acts, not historical necessities. Brague masterfully leads the Bible and Quran through their philosophical paces, lingering along the way to visit the writers who in each tradition reached the summit of thought about divine law. And he tells his tale with great etymological sensitivity to words like the Greek nomos, the Latin lex, the old Persian dath, and the Hebrew hoq and mishpat.

In explaining what all of this has to do with how we understand ourselves today, however, Brague descends from his Olympian perch and reveals a polemical purpose: a defense of the primacy of Christianity — or, more precisely, of Catholicism. (Christianity, he has said, “is far more deeply ‘Roman’ than is commonly surmised.”)

One moral of the story, as he sees it, is that we are more Christian than we had supposed. This is so, to begin with, because of that faith’s influence on the other monotheisms:

Events that had their epicenter in the Christian world produced upheavals in Muslim societies and Jewish communities, and thinkers who were Christian in origin furnished the conceptual framework within which Judaism and Islam had to reformulate their thinking about the law.

But the West owes an even more direct debt. Brague argued in his book Eccentric Culture (2002) that Christianity comprises neither a third element in European culture nor a synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem, but “the common structure of our relationship to both sources.” It conditions the very way Europe relates to the past: “Christianity is not an element among others in European culture, but its very form, the form that enables it to remain open to whatever can come from the outside and enrich the hoard of its experiences with the human and the divine.”

In his latest book, Brague contends that in three respects, modern societies are made possible only by the Christian experience of a divinity without law. First, Christianity gave us natural law. Starting with Augustine in the fifth century, and with increasing clarity in the early Middle Ages, Christians developed the idea of a unity of divine and natural law: an eternal law against which one can measure temporal laws and in which one can discern not God’s will, but His nature.

Is modernity only apparently secularized, and therefore indebted to its Christian past, or is it entirely secularized, and therefore imperiled?

Second, Christianity conferred on us the very idea of a sovereign state. In fact, Brague argues, the church was a state in the modern sense of the term before there were states. “The church of the Gregorian Reform is the first institution in history that willed and understood itself to be a state,” he writes. The notion of sovereignty did not originate with kings, only to be appropriated by popes, but instead “arose to express the power of the pope before it prompted, in response, an extension to the power of kings.”

Third, Christianity furnished a powerful justification for democracy. Here Brague cites the fifteenth-century philosopher and Roman Catholic cardinal Nicholas of Cusa: “There is in the people a divine seed by virtue of their common birth and equal natural right of all men so that all authority — which comes from God as does man himself — is recognized as divine when it arises from the common consent of the subjects.” Brague concludes from this and other sources that “the model for modern democracy and its electoral procedures was not so much Athens, where choices depended on drawing lots, but the medieval church.”

There is much to be said for the claim that modernity is a kind of faith that depends on the very faith it had rejected. Yet the story Brague tells sits uneasily beside the moral he strains to extract from it. This can best be seen by a telling ambiguity that enters in through his defense of Christian influence.  

On the one hand, as we’ve just seen, Brague wishes to highlight Christianity’s contribution to — and persistence in — modernity. He denies  that the history of the West is one of inexorable secularization. Given how deeply divine law is present in the sources of the Western tradition, he says that our own democracy “turns out, itself, to be a kind of theocracy, too.”  

On the other hand, Brague is worried by the loss of our theological moorings and suggests that perhaps the most pervasive myth we in the West hold may be the belief in the viability and permanence of our secular politics: “Whether human action can unfold freely, with no reference to the divine, rather than losing its way in suicidal dialectics, remains to be seen.” Or, in the words of the title of a talk he gave last year at Princeton, “Is a radically non-theocratic regime possible in the long run?” Brague, who calls the modern project “dubious,” doubts that it is.

So is modernity really theocratic, only apparently secularized, and therefore blessedly indebted to its Christian past, or is it radically nontheocratic, entirely secularized, and therefore imperiled?

Brague might reply that our democracies are living on borrowed time, that they will in the end unravel. “God is dead,” Nietzsche said from the opposite angle, “but given the way men are there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.”

But there is a still deeper ambiguity here, and it has to do with Brague’s Catholic agenda. A secularist can explain modernity as a secularization. A Protestant like Dietrich Bonhoeffer can account for it as a kind of completion of the Reformation.  From the Catholic point of view, however, as long as the Reformation is seen in principle as an apostasy, modernity cannot draw applause.  

Some such ambivalence might explain, too, Brague’s neglect of Protestantism and the American regime. This book, with its European focus, shrinks from an attempt to explain what is genuinely new in the American system — and in the conception of law and Lockean natural rights on which it is based. Brague does not say to what degree his description of post-Christian Europe’s empty-pewed modernity applies to America, the modern nation par excellence.

Perhaps we might end, as we began, with Socrates. What a thing is, the Athenian sage taught, is not the same as how that thing came to be. To the second question, Brague unfolds before us in The Law of God a magisterial story, a tour de force of intellectual history. But history, even of this highest order, can take us only so far, and in answering the first enquiry — what is modernity? — Rémi Brague stops short.

overlay image