We must choose ‘between forgiveness and condemnation’, says the great French thinker Rémi Brague. Rafael Miner reports.
“What is at stake here is not only the specific problem of Western culture. More generally, it is about our relationship with the past,” argued Rémi Brague speaking about cancel culture in a recent congress in Spain, insisting on the need to ‘recover our capacity to forgive’.
“In particular, we have to ask ourselves what kind of attitude we should adopt towards what we are the product of – to begin with, towards our parents, our country and our language, among others, and right back to the ‘warm little pond’ where Darwin imagined that life had begun, and even further back: to the Big Bang. We must choose either to forgive or to condemn.”
So argued Brague, a historian of philosophy and Emeritus Professor at the Sorbonne, in his speech during a congress organised by the Catholic Association of Propagandists (ACdP) and the Spanish university CEU Universidad San Pablo.
“The past is full of good deeds, but it is marred by a multitude of horrifying acts that we remember more easily. Traumas remain in the memory, while we too easily take for granted what is pleasurable, as if it is not a gift but something we deserve.”
In his opinion, ‘authentic creation never severs the link with the past. In an extremely interesting passage in his Discourses, Machiavelli notes that Christianity could not completely suffocate the memories of the old religion because it had to maintain Latin, the language of the Roman state that persecuted believers, in order to propagate the new faith’.
For Brague, ‘our culture today is caught in a kind of perversion of the sacrament of penance: we have confessions everywhere and we want others to confess and repent. But there is no absolution, there is no forgiveness, so there is neither the hope of a new life nor the will to take it in hand. Hopefully we can regain our ability to forgive,’ he said.
Brague’s presentation was entitled ‘Cancel culture or the cancelling of culture?’. As is well known, one of the most prominent cultural phenomena of our times is cancellation, in other words, the withdrawal of support for people, events or cultures according to certain parameters. A withdrawal that can even go as far as denial.
The French professor gave the following example: “A young professor of Classics at Princeton, Daniel Padilla Peralta, recently made an appeal in which he took a stand against the study of Greek and Latin authors for encouraging racism. Firstly, because references to classical antiquity are sometimes wielded as weapons in favour of white supremacy. Secondly, and more importantly, because the ancient world relied, in part, on slave labour as the infrastructure on which to build its culture.”
“As a Christian,” said Brague, “I do not look favourably on such a social system and I wish it could disappear. Moreover, I am happy to point out that slavery lost its legitimacy thanks to the revolution in thought brought about by the new faith. If I may allude once again to the hackneyed opposition between the two points of reference in Western culture, Jerusalem did more justice to the radical equality of all human beings than Athens did.”
In this dilemma between forgiving or condemning, the French thinker argued that ‘condemnation is a satanic stance. Satanism can be relatively gentle, and all the more efficient. According to Satan, everything that exists is guilty and must disappear. These are the words Goethe puts into the mouth of his Mephistopheles’.
However, ‘forgiving is no easy task’, Brague added. “How can we give our approval to what preceded us? … Humanity’s past is marked by conflicts and wars … A personality whom culture A considers a hero may represent the incarnation of evil for culture B …
Only non-existent and purely imaginary cultures can be totally innocent.”
In Brague’s words: “What is called cancel culture may at first sight be perceived as a contemporary phenomenon and therefore belongs to the journalistic rather than the philosophical sphere.”
However, he pointed out that ‘a closer analysis allows us to see that we are in the last phase (for now) of a long process that began in the prelude to modern times. We are only seeing the foam of a much larger wave. The idea of the tabula rasa concept dates back to the 17th century, with the French philosopher René Descartes. He planned to shed the prejudices of his childhood in order to build a new edifice of knowledge on completely new ground.”
Thus, Brague considered that, ‘it is always easier to destroy than to create something from nothing’, and this should teach us to show a certain prudence. He adds: “When we touch what previous generations have built, we should do so with trembling hands. Only Stalin said that he would not tremble when he decided to carry out a purge and send people to the wall.”
Professor Rémi Brague was introduced by Elio Gallego, Director of the CEU’s Centre for Training and Social Analysis Studies (CEFAS), who described the philosopher as ‘a distant disciple of Socrates’, and also pointed out that ‘today’s conversation needs freedom and truth. One needs the other’.
At the opening of the congress, the underlying message was the intimate connection between political correctness and cancel culture, which aims at eliminating discordant ideas from debate. Its first target is Christianity, which ‘is already politically incorrect’, said CEU’s Honorary Rector, Rafael Sánchez Saus. He called political correctness the ‘mega-ideology of our time’, made up of ‘a set of scattered ideas, weak from an intellectual point of view, united by the denial of transcendence’.
It is precisely in the denial of the transcendent dimension of man that ‘the root of modern totalitarianism’ can be found, said the Vatican’s nuncio to Spain, Monsignor Bernardito Auza. In trying to eliminate that which makes man ‘the natural subject of rights’, it puts liberties in danger.
Political correctness, he said, ‘runs the risk of becoming Orwell’s Big Brother’.
For his part, the president of the CEU, Alfonso Bullón de Mendoza, focused on the current situation in Spain. From his point of view, cancel culture is shown in measures such as the recent penal reform by which participants in information and prayer groups that meet in front of centres where abortions are carried out can be sentenced to jail terms.
In his paper, Polish Law and Justice party spokesman Ryszard Legutko argued that the EU institutions are trying to restructure the whole of the European Union. “They are trying to restructure the whole of society” with instruments created to “generate this new society”, he argued. Legutko pointed out how political correctness has become ‘an integral part of the European process’. The culture of cancelling out dissent, he said, gives rise to the paradox that a society that presents itself as pluralistic, inclusive and tolerant, ‘is full of discrimination, injustice, intolerance and hatred’.
This is a translated and slightly abridged and edited version of an article which was first published in the Spanish online magazine Omnes. It is republished here with permission. For the original article, see here.
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