Broken Alliance

The Law of Godby By Rémi Brague; translated by Lydia G. CochraneUniv.of Chicago Press. 336p $35
Rémi Brague has had two previous books translated into English. The Wisdom of the World: The Human Experience of the World in Western Thought (2003, French original: 1999) traces the ways in which people have related human action to cosmological realities that serve as models for judging right conduct. Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (2002, French original: 1992) formulates a theory of Europe as essentially Roman insofar as it develops what it did not create, first the impulse of Greece and then of Israel through Christianity. The most recent book, The Law of God (French original: 2005), is a further effort to understand the dynamics of Western civilization.

Brague, a professor of philosophy at the Université de Paris Sorbonne, begins with the briefest introductory remarks about Mesopotamia and Egypt before moving to a chapter on ancient Greece and then, for the most part, to the three major religious movements he takes to be formative in this civilization: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He devotes little space to definitions. We can speak of a law when a norm has been made explicit and the object of obligation. The divine refers to “some sort of being, or at least a higher region of being above human kind.” It is a notion that he takes to be universal, whatever status and power various people(s) give to it. Thus, the Greeks recognized a connection between the law and divinity without, for the most part, grounding the authority of law in the act of some god or gods.

For Western civilization, it is with the Jews, with Israel, that we can properly speak in terms of the law of God. “The divinity of the law is represented as resulting from the fact that it was written by YHWH himself. What is new in the Bible is precisely that a divine law can be delivered in writing and that a law can be both written and divine.” It is also a fact of history that although the Hebrew Bible contains much of relevance to politics and power, the application of the law of God for Judaism after the fall of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jews bore more on the domestic and the ethical than on the political.

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Christianity and Islam, being daughter religions to Judaism, have similar features, but also important differences. The Christian Scriptures have comparatively little to say about politics, but Christians after Constantine had to apply both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures to the realms of politics and power. When they made this application, they had already come to blend the influences of Judaism and Greek philosophy, particularly the Stoic notion of natural law. God may be ruling here too, but the details of political life are for earthly people(s) to determine. Finally, two unique features set Islam apart: that the Koran appears from very early on as the unmediated word of God and that Muslims found themselves, also from the beginning, exercising political powers and having to relate the law of God to divergent political necessities. Brague is especially interested in the overlapping development of Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought in the Middle Ages under the influences of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. His survey of this period is wide, but he dwells on the Muslim al-Ghazali, the Jew Moses Maimonides and the Christian Thomas Aquinas.

In his final section, Brague’s interest turns to the increasing separation, beginning in the late Middle Ages, of religion and politics in Western civilization. His stress is on Christianity, although he does attend to modern tendencies in Judaism and Islam with a notably brief consideration of the Islamic world today. Several cultural factors have been at play in the Christian or post-Christian West: a loss of the important connection between law (the obligatory) and counsel (the good); a transformation of the creative act of God into a simple act of power separated from the idea of global order; and the replacement of the idea of nature as setting a norm for life into one of nature as simply the order that is. The conclusion raises the question whether the political order has lost something essential in losing the sense of its dependence on an order that transcends the human. Thus, “whether human action can unfold freely, with no reference to the divine, rather than losing its way in suicidal dialectics, remains to be seen.”

Preparing this review was my introduction to Brague. The Law of God has led me to the earlier books, and I have enjoyed the experience thoroughly. The author brings philosophy, religion, law and politics together in ways that are illuminating and thought-provoking. The books are also accessible, requiring little specialized background, and highly readable. As the books are so wide-ranging, I can easily imagine scholars specialized in particular periods and thinkers finding weaknesses—but I am not one of those scholars. I strongly recommend The Law of God as well as Brague’s other books.

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