Rémi Brague, professor emeritus at the Sorbonne, and the subject of a post I wrote on the complicated western history of the Law of God, argues in a recent essay “The Impossibility of Secular Society” (paywall) that secular society is a doomed enterprise for two reasons: a secular society cannot survive in the long run, so moving on from it will be a choice to live, and the very concept of secular society is tautological “because secularity is latent within the modern use of the term society.” Brague also asserts a 1/2 thesis that whatever comes next in the West, it won’t be a “society” but a new mode of “being-together.” This mini-me thesis itself seems redundant. If the present society fails to inspire loyalty and provide convincing rationales for our “being-together,” then something new will surely replace it. But this might be the most interesting key to the essay. I’ll return to this thought at the end.
After noting the rise of the term secularism in English in the middle of the 19th century by George Holyoake and John Stuart Mill, in service of “a non-religious basis for a morally-animated society,” Brague focuses on the religious dimension of the term, which seems to inevitably shadow the attempt to appropriate it for exclusively humanist purposes. This is seen in the term’s first use, which was a pre-modern attempt to designate priests in the middle of life vs. those in monasteries and religious orders. There was also a French political appropriation of the term, Brague notes, done to give solidity to nationalism. Even here, however, the past is not really past, the dead are not really dead, their voices are tongued with fire, as Eliot said.
The French adjective, laic, and the Italian adjective, laico, have their origins in a Greek adjective referring to a member of a people or a 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.” Secular also came to designate a century in ancient usage because one hundred years was believed to be the living memory of human beings, the limits on their experiences. Such usage found its way, Brague records, into legal principles that ended contracts at 99 years, but not against the state or other collective forms whose memory lived on in the generations. The irony, notes Brague, is that secular in this sense is precisely how a secularist now lives, that is, the logic of the position entails acting as if mankind were not to outlive a century. Why?
For this answer we turn to the social contract or the notion advanced by Christian Wolff, as Brague quotes him: “society is nothing else than a contract between some people for them to promote therein their greater good by uniting their forces.” Thus do self-interested individuals with no history bring “society” into being. But is this the truth or an abstraction, a fiction, that obscures much and offers little clarity on how we actually live together? Brague notes that
“human communities . . . 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.”
So we might have contracts between rulers and the governed, but we know that “Never has a human community constituted itself by the aggregation of independent individuals who predated it.” Hobbes is wrong to equate civic life with gamesters creating just laws from what they agree on; that is, it’s good because they consent to it. However, this also leads to a flat-earth society insofar as it would be a society as defined above by Wolff, Brague concludes. The vertical dimension of human experience and longing must be excluded. Consequently, those who will not take guidance from the consent of members reasoning from putative secular premises can be excluded. “Democratic space must remain inside itself.”
This, however, leads to a contradiction, to a rupture in the soul of a democracy if it should choose to understand itself as a self-generated “society.” This rupture comes by way of our consciences which must be ignored. The problem is that we are inherently open to the truth and constantly seeking the ground of our judgments, thus we seek transcendence. But “society” must be closed. Where will its moral authority come from? Brague concludes here with the rise of legislation in western democracies as the false answer given to the problem of authority that has been induced: “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.”
Brague also uncovers an even deeper contradiction: where do these self-interested players come from? Modern political thought, presupposes their existence, but on its own terms it may be ambivalent or actually opposed to the social, cultural, religious practices that bring new generations into being. Indeed, does not the self-interest of individuals living in society prove incapable of bringing new members into being because of the disruptions and sacrifices they will cause to the present interests that have formed the society?
To become fathers and mothers we can’t see ourselves in the original position, in the state of nature, or other formulations of social contract beginnings. Rather, this form requires that we understand ourselves to be in some inchoate sense tied to those buried and that we are called to carry forward their work. To do this, we must say that man’s existence is good and our realization of it is good. But to understood this as good, Brague informs us, we must leave behind childish things, and have vision beyond a century. We must make the choice to carry a work forward that is good, not because we pronounce it so, but perhaps because the One who made it called it “very good.”