The divine codes described and deciphered

The Law of God
May 11, 2007

Most philosophers in the Western traditions are apt to be misled by this book's title, for Rémi Brague's work (even in its originally published form as La loi de Dieu: Histoire philosophique d'une alliance ) would, according to such traditions, be more aptly called 'The History of a Philosophical Idea". For actual philosophising - again, according to such traditions - is scant and delivered all too casually in this book. Instead, Brague's work is a tremendously ambitious historical presentation of the various ways in which human rules of conduct and divinity have been systematically linked together by Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

As a record of the concept of divine law's persistence throughout human history, the book is, perhaps, no small achievement. But as a work of philosophy, its use and audience will be quite narrow: advanced scholars in the philosophy of law and, less so, the philosophy of religion, who are adept at reading works of history to identify resources and angles from which to pursue their philosophical research. Graduate-level seminars in the above-mentioned areas might find the book useful as a background text.

Many philosophers, for instance, are likely to be dissatisfied that Brague has adequately defined "divine law" so as to establish the sort of clarity of topic that philosophers tend to prefer; and some will no doubt contend that, for that reason, Brague's study suffers from a lack of conceptual focus. His efforts to delimit the scope of his subject in chapter one are largely either etymological or anecdotal (for instance, "(The) Belief that some sort of beings, or at least a higher region of being, exists above humankind is present everywhere"). While this approach has some merit, those looking for, say, some statement of the necessary and sufficient conditions that make something divine law (as many philosophers are wont to say) will not find it.

Brague's work may well find a broader and more suitable home among scholars and graduate students in departments of religious studies, for its main conceptual focus is on the development of relevant aspects of the three main religious traditions. Indeed, Brague's copious references to persons and events presume a seasoned student of history, and of religious history, in particular; students relatively new to the area will likely be unable to benefit from the book.

It should perhaps not go without mention that scholars and students of contemporary world events, to the extent that these may be viewed as a clash of rival fundamentalisms, will have much to gain from Brague's study.

Ideally, in that case, the book seems to be both an obvious primer and launching pad for further scholarship. In such circles, it is not inconceivable that the book may acquire something of a canonical status.

After all, Brague's account of how civilisations have linked together laws governing ways of life with divinity (or, alternatively, how they have severed, or tried to sever, them) reveals modern religio-political differences for being the longstanding, meticulously developed differences they are. These are no mere divergences of opinion that emerged more or less whimsically on the contemporary world stage.

None of this is to say there is no discussion of figures familiar to philosophers, for there are Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Abelard, Augustine, Nietzsche, Descartes, Hume et al. But discussion of their contributions to the topic's history is not sufficiently sustained to be of tremendous interest to such scholars. The three exceptions may be Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon), each of whom receives somewhat more detailed and lengthy treatment. Nor is this to say that the work is in no way philosophical, for what "counts" as philosophy and as philosophising is itself a matter of productive dispute among scholars. But, quite simply, many mainstream philosophical traditions will find little that is philosophical about the work.

Brague's study is arranged chronologically, and then mostly by religious tradition. History is conceived of in terms of broad eras (ancient, medieval and modern), wherein developments regarding divine law are considered according to the three religious traditions mentioned. Brague then takes advantage of the many opportunities created by cross-historical and cross-traditional comparisons for illuminating how the concept of divine law originated, evolved and has been challenged.

The bibliography is 32 pages long, which gives an accurate indication of the often breathtaking pace at which his proportionately brief study sweeps through the epochs. Suitably, his 55 pages of notes are a meticulous record of how he has used his considerable sources in piecing together his narrative. Scholars interested in focusing on particular figures and movements will be delighted by the thorough index.

Patrick Mooney is assistant professor of philosophy, John Carroll University, Cleveland, US.

The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea

Author - Rémi Brague
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 365
Price - £22.50
ISBN - 9780226070786
Translator - Lydia G. Cochrane

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