Archive for September 2017

The Legend of the Middle Ages, by RĂ©mi Brague

September 13, 2017

Before me floats an image, man or shade,
Shade more than man, more image than a shade . . .
Yeats, “Byzantium”

In an essay, “The Denial of Humanity: On the Judgment ‘Those People Are Not Men’ in Some Ancient and Medieval Texts,” Brague invites philosophers (including himself) “to a historical and corporative examination of conscience.” The translator’s choice of “corporative” is not delightful, but to get to the point, Brague reads medieval Christian, Jewish, and Islamic philosophers for their treatment of certain human beings as “not men.”

Aristotle writes in the Politics, “A man who is incapable of entering into partnership, or who is so self-sufficing that he has no need to do so, is no part of a state, so that he must be either a lower animal (therion) or a god.” Cicero writes that men who are “on a level with the beasts of the field,” meaning that they have “no thought except for sensual pleasure,” “are men only in name, not in fact.” Seneca says the same thing–“There is no difference between the one [beasts of the field] and the other [men who act without use of their reason].” Epictetus: “Here is one whose sense of self-respect (to aidemon) has grown numb; he is useless (akhrestos), a sheep, anything but a human being.”

In his interpretation of Ezekiel 34:31, Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai in the Babylonian Talmud says to the Israelites, “You are classified as man, and gentiles are not classified as man.”

Boethius writes that “evil men . . . by turning to wickedness . . . have by that same act lost their human nature . . . So he who having left goodness (probitas) aside has ceased to be a man, since he cannot pass over into the divine state, turns into a beast (bellua).”

The Koran: “For the worst of beasts in the sight of Allah are the deaf and the dumb–those who do not understand.”

The Muslim Spanish philosopher Ibn Bajja (Avempace) writes, “And for that reason also, the one whose animal soul dominates the rational soul to the point that it lets itself always get carried away by its passions, contrary to what his reason dictates to him, is indeed a man, but the worst of beasts is better than he. And it is even just to say that he is a beast . . . .”

Maimonides writes in the Guide for the Perplexed that those who are far from knowledge of God have a status “like that of irrational animals. To my mind they do not have the rank of men, but have among the beings a rank lower than the rank of man but higher than the rank of the apes. For they have the external shape and lineaments of a man and a faculty of discernment that is superior to that of the apes.”

Brague concludes his brief, admittedly non-exhaustive survey with some reflections on the texts:

“Within the works of these philosophers, such texts are not the product of a slippage due to the intrusion of biographical elements that can be charged to the man rather than the thinker–supposing that to be a legitimate distinction, of course. They can be deduced from the very act by which the philosopher defines himself as such–that is, as a man of reason, hence the man most worthy of his own humanity. And in fact it is indeed the philosopher, in the polarization of humanity he proposes, who occupies the summit of a pyramid, the base of which (or perhaps the basement) is represented by those whose humanity he values least . . . .

“These texts are in fact the direct consequence of the classic definition of man by the closest genre (animal) and a differentiation of species (reasonable). If the specific difference is absent, we return to the close genre alone: a non-reasonable animal is not a man, or is one only by abuse of language.

“More generally, and even more disquieting, one might wonder just what purpose a definition of man might serve.”

Brague adds some tantalizing, brief questions about the importance of the body in the definition of humanity. If the definition of man is reduced to reasonableness alone (which would seem to make all social and ethnic distinctions irrelevant), then those without reason (as judged by the philosophers) are not human at all. “It is possible, on the other hand, that the body, in that which makes it human and cannot be reduced to the intellectual, can take the role of an ultimate guarantee before attitudes such as those displayed in the examples I have taken from the philosophers.”

He is as much as advocating the Christian view of the person as a unity of body and soul, with the soul as the seat of reason. In our world, there is no soul (not even Plato’s) without a body, and no living body without a soul. One forgets these things when other people are incomprehensible.


Dying Gaul