Rémi Brague comes to Notre Dame

There is a French saying that “laziness is the root of all sins,” according to Professor Rémi Brague. The vice of sloth was definitely absent from the Medieval Institute’s reading room on the seventh floor of the Hesburgh Library on Tuesday, April 2, where Professor Brague had been invited by the institute’s PhD students to deliver a lecture entitled “Aquinas’ Doctrine of Providence and its Relevance Today.” The graduate students annually invite a speaker to deliver a lecture, and their choice of Rémi Brague as this year’s guest was nearly unanimous. Brague is the Professor Emeritus of Medieval and Arabic Philosophy at the Sarbonne and the 2012 recipient of the Joseph Ratzinger Prize for Theology.

In Brague’s view, the core of the idea of providence is that human life cannot continue unless affirmed by an exterior transcendent principle. He sees this evidenced in modernity where suicide rates rise in lockstep with increased autonomy. He began his lecture by noting that Aquinas didn’t invent the concept of providence, which had existed for as long as the written word, but rather synthesized and improved ideas from pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic philosophers. The word providence was invented by Herodotus for the divine foresight needed to balance living species’ fecundity with their danger to other species. The idea that evil may bring about good was invented in ancient Egypt, and made its way into the Bible in the story of Joseph, where the betrayal of Joseph into slavery eventually results in the salvation of Egypt and the Israelites from famine. Arabic philosophers had distinguished between collective and individual providence, and the dominant philosophical view before Aquinas was that providence only affected heavenly bodies and species, while individuals fended for themselves.

Brague has found Aquinas’ doctrine of Providence throughout the Angelic Doctor’s works, but believes it to be expressed most clearly in Summa Contra Gentiles, beginning in chapter 111. Enunciating the basic points of Aquinas’ views, Brague noted where Aquinas agreed and disagreed with other prominent philosophers, both those of Aquinas’ time and of more modern extraction. God has created beings with a nature, which defines how they act. Aquinas agrees with Maimonides that God is not a puppeteer directing everything that happens in the world, and writes that “to detract from the perfection of creatures is to detract from the perfection of divine power.”

It is false piety to believe that to glorify God one must denigrate creation, as Hegel did, which leads to Nietzsche’s belief that mankind could only have worth without God. In accordance with their nature, beings have different acts. Minerals lie inert in the ground, plants grow and reproduce, animals interact in groups and are driven by instinct to assure the survival of their species, while humans form associations which often supercede awareness of our entire race.

Brague regrets that Plotinus wasn’t available in the West during Aquinas’ time, as his views coincide greatly with Aquinas’. Each level of being receives a different amount of providence, as much as it needs. God has direct providence over holy, rational creatures, such as humans and angels, but permits nature to rule over lesser creatures, his providence only caring for the entire species. Maimonides believed that animals only had individuation if a human gave them it as a shadow of their own existence. This is an example of how God has entrusted care for nature into our hands, which itself comes from his general trend of giving us the necessary instruments to work his will.

Aquinas views social organisation as a function of divine providence, with society being knit by each person doing the tasks they enjoy, which God instilled in their nature. Modern thought reduces all desire to self-conservation, but sacrificing one’s lower goods for a higher good is the most natural thing in the world to Aquinas. Each level of being is called upon to sublimate their own individual good for the greater good. Elements want to fall to ground, but are taken up into the sky when they are incorporated into trees. As animals, humans want to be happy, but as rational beings, our ultimate good is salvation. Kant agrees with Aquinas, writing that a moral life is not the pursuit of happiness, but the striving to be worthy of happiness. As being increases, and a creature can do more things, likewise it gains more independence. A fire cannot choose not to burn but a doctor can choose to kill, a freedom made possible by providence.

Aquinas does not believe that this freedom is what makes mankind superior to the rest of creation, but that mankind only draws its worth from its proximity to God, being made in his image.  As Saint Francis of Assisi believed, the animals are as they are meant to be, the exception is man. God does not interfere in creation unless absolutely necessary, while mankind’s sins are so great that God first gave us the ten commandments as a reminder of what we should have known ourselves, then incarnated himself into the world to motivate us to choose our own good. God’s creation through generosity legitimizes man’s existence, while his love makes grace and forgiveness possible.

The lecture was fairly well-attended, mostly by professors and graduate students with a smattering of undergraduates, filling nearly all the seats set up in the reading room. Professor Brague spoke English quite fluently with only a trace of an accent, and was able to find ways to make each complicated philosophical concept accessible to those untrained in that discipline, and relate it to current affairs. Each point of his lecture seemed like it could inspire multiple articles on Aquinas’ view of modern trends. Brague is considering expanding this lecture into a book, which would join two others by him that the University has had the honor of publishing, The Kingdom of Man: Genesis and the Failure of the Modern Project, and Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age.

David is a junior studying history, with minors in Computing & Digital Technologies and Business Economics. All of his spare time goes towards playing the trumpet in marching band. He can be reached at dmoses2@nd.edu.