BMCR 2007.09.46

The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane

, , The law of God : the philosophical history of an idea. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. xi, 365 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780226070780. $35.00.

Table of Contents

In The Law of God, Rémi Brague argues that, historically speaking (i.e., apart from all utopian dreams), there in fact always has been a “separation” of church and state, because no theocratic “marriage” of the two has ever taken place — not to mention the fact that the specific entities called “church” and “state” hardly exist as universal historical phenomena.1 To prove his contrarian thesis, Brague focuses on the historically variegated notion of “divine law” (i.e., the many marriages of the “religious” and the “practical”, as the two more generalized phenomena). He tracks the history of the theory and practice of “divine law” from its dark prehistory to its most illuminating historical articulations in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The book’s content is thus a comprehensive survey of the kinds of “marriage” [ alliance ] of divinity with law.2 The survey begins by comparing the Greek idea of divine law with the essences of the various “marriages” in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an (Chapters 1-5). But its sweep follows the historical successions of these essentially different forms of alliance (Chapters 6-7) in order to catch sight of what is most telling and characteristic about them in both their theoretical and practical apogees in medieval times, since divinity and law were in practice“separated” in various distinctive ways both in the laws and cities of the Middle Ages (Chapters 8-10) and also in the greatest (because most telling) theoretical articulations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: for Brague, in Maimonides, Aquinas, and Ghazali (Chapters 11-13). All of which serves to contextualize Brague’s main philosophical thesis, that the modern age is best understood in historical terms as “the destruction of the idea of divine law” (Chapters 14-15).

The book’s ostensible purpose — to recover awareness of how past decisions about “separation” still shape the present,3 in order that we may, without complacency, rethink the terms of modernity’s destructive “divorce” — is achieved by a mode of presentation that is calm and often understated. This irenic and erudite style is destined to garner little press and fewer readers. Those familiar with Brague’s previous work on Leo Strauss, however, will understand the reason for his preferred style, which stems from an unspoken, deeper purpose in this book.4 With The Law of God, Brague has written a book that is arguably the most philosophically rigorous challenge yet made to Strauss’s own philosophical understanding of history.

Brague challenges Strauss on his own preferred philosophical ground.5 In an earlier work, Brague has argued that Strauss holds a “Muslim” understanding of reason and revelation “which opposes the Christian one”: first, revelation is a mere brute fact unamenable to reason and, second, what is revealed in religion is not a person but a Sacred Book.6 Thus, for Strauss, it is Mecca that “unspokenly synthesizes” Jerusalem and Athens;7 opposed is Rome, which Strauss “systematically” neglected along with “every Christian element in Western history” as a “shallow phenomenon”, thus far agreeing with Nietzsche but, unlike Nietzsche, for the most part limiting himself to silence or to out-of-place but arresting phrases (like “the whole kingdom of darkness with Thomas Aquinas at its head”).8

While an earlier book by Brague offered the alternative of looking at “Athens and Jerusalem” from the “Roman” rather than from the “Meccan” point of view,9 the present work challenges Strauss’s way of conceiving of the “theologico-political problem” (namely, the alliance of “divinity” and “law”).10 Here Brague argues that Strauss’s outlook is unnecessarily provincial whenever Strauss speaks of the “theologico-political problem”, because that outlook takes something particular from Christian religion (“theology”) and imposes it on the other religions in a distorting way.11 Brague shows instead how the problem needs to be enlarged and devotes this book to the wider study of divine law as a “theio-practical” problem (i.e., a problem which ranges beyond the confines of Strauss’s prudential yet crabbed concern with “political philosophy”,12 well beyond what Strauss’s “silent oral teaching” and his strictly “Muslim” assumptions are capable of addressing adequately).13 It is because the “political” is a mere species of the “practical” genus that Brague, unlike Strauss, argues for a full history of theory and practice with respect to how “human action, in its full breadth, receives its norm from the divine”.14

When Brague gently muses that “the theo-political problem is serious in appearance only”, he subtly yet tartly put Strauss’s critique of modernity (and its “static” Platonic view of history) into proper perspective.15 Further, Strauss’s perspective is not to be replaced by any facile narrative of the progress of “secularization” as the great achievement of the modern age. For as Brague notes, so-called “secularization” (“separation of church and state”) was won long before by the Christian church; and even unbelieving atheists, oblivious to the historical weight of the presupposition, presuppose “the primacy of faith in the definition of the religious”, a presupposition historically impossible without the uniquely “Christian experience of a divine without law”.16

In sum, it is this Christian experience neglected by Strauss, so well described by Brague in this work, that allows Brague to contest Strauss’s narrow conception of revealed religion.17 As Brague puts it in the book’s concluding paragraph:

“The divine law is one model of the articulation of the theio-practical. It does not exhaust the question, however: the idea of norm is not the only way in which the divine can enter into a relation with practice. It can do so according to all the modalities of causality. . .”

It is a delight to read a book that painstakingly charts, using the history of “divine law”, the full amplitude of what a broad-minded — veritably catholic — philosophy would be.


1. See The Law of God‘s entire Conclusion, especially 257.

2. To my mind the English translation, despite the translator’s close collaboration with Brague himself (see ix, xi), still loses a little something that is necessary for fully understanding Brague. This is most obvious in the rendering of the book’s subtitle Histoire philosophique d’une alliance as “The Philosophical History of an Idea”, because the French alliance refers to the “marriage” of the religious and the practical that is theorized in the historically diverse ideas of “divine law” philosophically surveyed by Brague, all of which ideas attempt to enact a “combination” (another overtone of the French alliance) combining the divine with the normative. Brague thereby offers his book as an extensive debunking of the notion that “separation” is an exclusively modern phenomenon. He demonstrates the problematic nature of modernity’s “separation” of church and state — now a full-blown, acrimonious “divorce” — by showing how a deeper understanding of the pre-modern offers a yardstick for measuring modernity’s own unquestioning, complacent faith in the “divorce” between divinity and law that we call “the separation of church and state”. It is a shame that the role of the keyword alliance is lost in translation, because Brague is everywhere fond of breaking through to deeper philosophical insights by means of etymological and philological contemplations; cf. 35 on umma, 50 on “excarnation”, 68 on anomia, 70 on “supererogation”, 107 on lex, 149 on sunnah, 156 on “nomocracy”, 223 on instruit, 226 on virtuosi, and both 160 and 254 on sharia, not to mention the entire book’s concern with “heteronomy” (viii) and the “theio-practical” (7).

3. The Law of God, 231: “the modern age did little but draw the consequences of decisions that had been taken long before”. From his catholic vantage on history, Brague is able to demolish many shortsighted intellectual clichés. For example, he finds that Israel’s distinction between divine and human kingship “planted seeds of democracy that proved just as fertile as the Greek traditions” (47); he argues that the New Testament is concerned with neither revolutions in politics nor even morality but rather contains “seeds of a transformation of the entire domain of the practical” (70); and conventional narratives about “secularization” in the West are fables, because sacrality was in fact asserted throughout the process, such that the medieval church, not Athens, was modern democracy’s real model (138).

4. As with Strauss, Brague’s style functions to disarm readers who are ideologically predisposed to not take his controversial conclusions seriously (for if a reader can endure the style, then this patient endurance by its nature disposes the reader to seriously consider the argument on its own merits). Perceptive readers of The Law of God will observe how Brague’s approach is very similar to that of Strauss. For example, Adam Kirsch (in ” Divine law and history“, The New York Sun, 9 May 2007) notes: “Mr. Brague’s earlier book was archaeology, the digging up of something dead and buried; his new one is genealogy, tracing the descent of ideas that are still living. His method, and some of his conclusions, are similar to those of Leo Strauss, about whom Mr. Brague has written in the past. He performs close readings of major philosophical texts, trying to draw out the sometimes unspoken understandings that inform them. Using this method, Mr. Brague compares the way Athens understood divine law with the way Jerusalem understood it. He goes on to examine the evolution of concepts of law in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, through the high middle ages. Finally, in an all too brief summary chapter, he shows how the idea of divine law has decomposed in the modern era.” Kirsch rightly notes that “as with Strauss, also, Mr. Brague’s sense of intellectual adventure is what makes his work genuinely exciting to read”. I would note in addition that part of the excitement in this book is its understated yet extensively documented challenge to Strauss’s understanding of the pre-modern. The role of this book as part of a wider challenge was initially sketched out in Rémi Brague, “Athens, Jerusalem, Mecca: Leo Strauss’s ‘Muslim’ Understanding of Greek Philosophy”, Poetics Today 19.2, Hellenism and Hebraism Reconsidered: The Poetics of Cultural Influence and Exchange II (Summer 1998): 235-259.

5. Analogous to Brague’s scholarship here being a profound yet largely tacit response to Strauss, there is Strauss’s own profound yet largely tacit response to Heidegger; on the latter point see David K. O’Connor’s excellent discussion, “Leo Strauss’s Aristotle and Martin Heidegger’s Politics” in Aristide Tessitore (ed.), Aristotle and Modern Politics: The Persistence of Political Philosophy (University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), 162-207.

6. Brague, Athens (above n. 4) 247-249 and 252-254. Cf. 237 n. 6 with Rémi Brague, “Leo Strauss and Maimonides”, English translation by C.J. Sheldon in Udoff (ed.), Leo Strauss’s Thought, 93-114. On the revelation of God in Christianity as the revelation of a person ( The Law of God, 260-262), see also Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday, 2007), passim.

7. Brague, loc. cit., 235.

8. Ibid., 253. See 239-242 on Nietzsche, Farabi, and Muhammad (esp. 239 n.9).

9. Europe, la voie romaine (1992, revised and expanded 2nd edition 1993, revised and expanded 3rd edition 1999). The second edition has been translated by Samuel Lester into English as Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (St. Augustine’s Press, 2002). In response to the radical denial of progress in history embedded in Strauss’s conception of esotericism, Brague in Europe, la voie romaine looks “at the antithesis between Athens and Jerusalem from a non-‘Meccan,’ nay ‘Roman’ point of view . . . to see to what extent the very antithesis between Athens and Jerusalem owes its survival and its permanent fruitfulness in Western culture to the ‘Roman’ character of the latter.” (Brague, loc. cit., 254).

10. Brague thus follows up on his own suggestion: “Strauss’s interpretation of the ancients, on the face of things a Jewish one, bears witness of the deep influence Islam exercised on the way in which medieval Judaism had to formulate its basic tenets. If we want to understand him more deeply, we should complement the ‘querelle des anciens et des modernes’ by an older, medieval quarrel among the three religions that claim a share in Abraham’s heritage.” (ibid.)

11. The Law of God, 5-6.

12. Cf. O’Connor, above n. 5, 175-177, 196-198.

13. See n. 6 above.

14. The Law of God, 7-8.

15. Cf. Brague, Athens (above n. 4), 249 on how Strauss’s “view of history is a static one”.

16. The Law of God, 263.

17. Brague’s challenge to Strauss thus focuses on deeply exploring the truth of the observation of Fustel de Coulanges: “Christianity is the first religion that did not claim to be the source of the law” (quoted at The Law of God, 260).