Rémi Brague is a renowned French philosopher, and Professor emeritus at La Sorbonne University in Paris. His writing and teaching concern ancient Roman and Greek philosophy, medieval Jewish and Arab philosophy, contemporary questions of meaning, and the history of cultural thought (Christianity, Judaism and Islam). On Oct. 20, he is scheduled to receive the prestigious Ratzinger Prize for his works on the history of Christianity.
Brague will deliver the Birks lecture series in two talks on the question of meaning and life on Oct. 9 at 5:30 p.m. at the Birks Heritage Chapel (Birks Building, 2nd floor) titled “The Question Atheism cannot Answer;” and another on Oct. 10 at 5:30 p.m. (same location) titled “Be as a Command.” The lectures are free and open to the public. For more information go here.
You wear several hats: professor in Paris and in Munich; you write and teach on ancient Roman and Greek philosophy, on medieval Jewish and Arab philosophy, and on contemporary questions. Do you see a thread capable of unifying your writings? What is your major preoccupation as a philosopher?
A bald person like me has to wear head-gear in plenty. I like a great deal to have to adapt to different audiences, to teach in several languages, to foray in very different areas, etc. My Ariadne’s clew might be the “‘satiable curtiosity” of Kipling’s Elephant’s child. The snag is that I never had the pluck really to go in depth in any area, by specializing — and putting on blinders. The question of man, of what makes human beings human, of their relationship to what is around them (nature) or above them (the divine) has been keeping me running for years. At the same time, I am interested in a particular type of humanity, the Western type. First, because I belong to it, second because its achievements like science and technology spread all over the globe, third because I am not sure that it has a future.
We generally attribute to André Malraux the saying “the twentieth century will be religious or will not be.” You are known for your sense of humour, so, could we say that Rémi Brague transformed Malraux’s saying into “the twentieth century will give life or will not be” or “procreating or not, that’s the (western) question”?
Malraux was very good at bombastic and empty formulas. But one need no deep thinker to say what is glaringly evident, i.e. that the survival of mankind, as a living species, depends on its willingness to reproduce itself. Your Mom should have told you: There is no such thing as a nice stork that brings babies. Or, for that matter, there are no nice imps who repair at dead of night the mischief we do to our environment by daylight… Whether there is a real danger of extinction or not, this is a question for demographers. In France, there are two kinds of them. The pessimists say: “if we go on like that, mankind will disappear in the 24th Century.” And the optimists say: “Nonsense, in the 25th Century only!” My own question as a philosopher is rather: “Do we possess reasons for us to bring children into the world?” I despise people who tell us: “Come on, there is a survival instinct that will take care of that…” An irrational instinct should decide on the survival of the rational animal! This is high treason against the project of the Enlightenment, and even of philosophy at large. As a philosopher, I need grounds and I am looking for them…
Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Given the diversity of branches in each religion, should we continue to speak of each one in the singular, or would it be more appropriate to use the plural?
Yes and no. It is always an easy cop-out to utter gravely, when asked about X: “There is no X, there are Xs.” This works in any case, there is always a grain of truth in that, so that you are sure to sound clever. But how is it that the language has kept the word X? The diversity of affiliations, of mores, etc. in each religion is well-known. Yet, a Christian is a person who acknowledges that God’s revelation came to a head in Jesus. This is the rock-bottom price, even if I personally would speak more clearly of Jesus’ being risen from the dead and being God’s Son. Who doesn’t may defend “Christian civilization,” but can’t honestly claim to be a Christian. A Muslim is a person who believes that the Koran is God’s word dictated to Muhammad, who is “the beautiful example,” so that his life has the value of an model. All Muslims pray in the same direction and know that the pilgrimage must lead them to Mecca, not to Valparaiso. Who doesn’t may, say, praise the achievements of medieval Islam or feel oneself a member of the Nation (umma), but can’t honestly claim to be a Muslim. A Jew feels at the very least a belonging to a people and a history, to a Law, etc.
You wrote a famous book on Aristotle and the question of the world, but also an essay on Baudelaire, Image vagabonde. Essai sur l’imaginaire baudelairien. Like an artist, Aristotle says that astonishment is a condition for the beginning of philosophy. What continues to astonish you?
Being able to feel wonder and awe is a precious gift. I admired it for instance in Michel Henry, whom I met, by the way, in Quebec. This elderly man (he was as old as I am now…) was still able of wonder in front of a landscape. There are so many people, even among the young, who are blasé about everything… As for me, I already mentioned some problems: How is it that Europe began, in the 11th Century, to develop in the way it did, whereas other civilizations dozed off and had to wait for the Western challenge (more often than not a brutal one…) to awake? Let me add: How is it that human beings can do the best and the worst? How is it that there is something rather than nothing at all? Is it good that it should be so?