According to Rémi Brague, the dialectic of modernity results in a paradox. Man is both the conquering lord of nature and a part of nature to be controlled. His well-being is the purpose of the modern project, which simultaneously places his distinct dignity in doubt.
The Kingdom of Man considers the implications and failure of the modern enterprise, often by highlighting the misgivings of those who are invested in it. Brague charges: “Modernity not only runs up against an external [reactionary] critique, but involves an internal self-destructive dialectic, by which the modern project ends by producing … its exact opposite.” Instead of being exalted, man is humiliated. Instead of being freed, he is enslaved. Instead of being enlightened, he is befuddled.
Furthermore, modern attempts to establish human power and emancipation come with burdens that may be impossible for mankind to bear. The problem of evil is particularly acute, for “in vindicating the goodness of man at the same time as affirming the independence of man from every superior instance, modern thought made him responsible for everything, including evil.” Man as the lord of nature and master of his own destiny assumes responsibility for the suffering of the world, and the burden of remedying it. The problem of theodicy is replaced by a sort of “anthropodicy” that asks how mankind can remake the world (especially the political and social world) to end suffering.
This impossible demand constantly poisons politics. Whose vision will govern the remaking of man’s estate? Someone has to call the shots. Thus, an inevitable consequence of the modern project is that the “domination of man over nature turns into a domination of man over man.” Nor is this strictly political, for the remaking of the world is often premised on a remaking of man himself. From education to eugenics to “transhumanism,” modernity has dreamed of “new men.”
Who will make these new men, and what will direct the makers? The power that mankind has acquired over nature is also power over man, who views himself as the conqueror of nature, but also as a product of it. As Brague puts it, the “modern project wants man to be the master of himself as well as of the universe; its aim is that he take his destiny into his own hands.” But this leads to “the domination of certain human beings over others, and even a domination of man by his own project.”
The power to remake and alter nature, including human nature, becomes man’s definitive trait; modern man is defined not by his relationships to others, but by his work. Brague gives Locke the dubious credit for this shift: “Locke conceives of work as the self-creation of man. . . . Before being a political animal, man is the animal who works.” Reason is still prized, but as an instrument to alter this world, rather than as the capacity that enables man to fulfill himself through the apprehension and contemplation of the good.
And if man is responsible for remaking the world, then he finds himself in rivalry with God, who has become intolerable. To be captain of his destiny, man had to reject God, especially the idea of a personal God who intervenes in human history. For modernity, nature was a foe to be conquered, God a rival to banish. Man’s quest for empowerment has gone down a path that cuts him off from the earth below and heaven above. The third part of the Kingdom of Man documents the baleful consequences of this ambition.
Although the modern project sought to elevate and ennoble man, it accepted premises that degraded him and intensified his war against nature. In the premodern world, the “dignity of man was based upon a theological or philosophical anthropology.” The modern rejection of these ideas means that “man no longer appears as the legitimate sovereign of creation, but as a sort of upstart parvenu.” He must then dominate nature all the more thoroughly, as he has no right but that of conquest. And like all usurpers, modern man fears for the stability of his throne. Brague chronicles common apprehensions of how nature might have its revenge, or how man’s creations could conquer him. From fears of resource depletion, to pollution, to robot apocalypse, to nuclear holocaust, modern man is beset by anxieties regarding his dominion over nature.
These worries extend to man’s own status. Modernity has made man into an object of science, and therefore places him under the modern project of control. As Brague observes, when “man becomes an object of science, it is normal that one applies to him the rule that applies to every object of science. . . . One therefore will renounce the attempt to understand him in order to seek for laws that will better allow one to control him.” The scientific study of man has returned man to nature, thereby considering him another natural object to control.