The Legitimacy of the Human, by Rémi Brague, translated and with an Introduction by Paul Seaton (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press; 176 pp., $26.00). Rémi Brague, the French Catholic historian and political philosopher, made his wider reputation in the early 1990’s with his book Europe, la voie romaine (in English translation, Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization), in which he attempted a sketch of what Europe should be following its reunification after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Brague’s fear was that the future of Europe as Europe was uncertain, and events of the past quarter-century have only increased his anxiety. Throughout his career Brague has insisted that European civilization is founded on the civilizations of Athens and Jerusalem, mediated by Rome. (His emphasis on this qualification puts him at odds with Leo Strauss’s understanding of the matter.) Brague perceived that contemporary Europe had cast aside its premodern understanding of man and the world in favor of an anthropocentric scientism that made man his own self-determined creator. The Legitimacy of the Human, described by the author as a satellite of his much larger volume, Le Règne de l’homme (The Kingdom of Man), argues that
[M]odern thought is short on arguments for justifying the very existence of men. This thought sought to build on its own soil, by excluding everything that transcended the human, nature or God. In so doing, it deprived itself of every Archimedian point. This exclusion renders it incapable of making a judgment on the very value of the human.
As a result, contemporary Europeans, confronted by the possibility that modern scientific technique has the capacity to destroy the human race and the world with it, have no philosophical basis for concluding that it is good that man exists. Brague’s aim is to prove that such a basis does exist, and that it must be rediscovered and shown to be compelling. His book is an interesting and valuable one, though rather repetitive for so short a work. It is also, apparently, clumsily translated. (I cannot imagine an educated Frenchman writing so badly in his native tongue.)
Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church, by Anthony Esolen (Charlotte, NC: TAN Books; 296 pp., $29.95). As a cantor at Mass, I came to this book with false expectations. Professor Esolen’s emphasis here is very much more on text than on music, though of course banal texts encourage, even demand, banal lyrics, and the publisher has included a CD of 18 traditional hymns (recorded by the St. Cecilia Choir at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago) in a pocket inside the back cover. “The Church” here is the Catholic Church, though I sang nearly all of these hymns as a 12-year student at an Episcopal school, nearly always using the same scores and very often the same texts as well. This is not surprising, as Esolen refers throughout to the King James Version of the Bible, “for the simple reason,” he explains, “that the authors of the hymns used it, or had its phrasings and rhythms in mind when they wrote.” (“I hope,” he adds, “that it will in turn inspire Catholic poets, using more authoritative versions of Scripture, to go and do likewise.”)
Esolen requires his reader’s close attention as he demonstrates how the poets condensed and reworked Biblical texts to write poetry that is of suitable length, singable, mellifluous, an accurate rendition of the original—and, of course, orthodox. The attention is well worth the effort, though this is probably a book to be consulted immediately ahead of a Mass or other church service with knowledge afore- hand of the scheduled hymns. In this respect it is a highly useful book, as well as a fascinating one, I expect to consult before each weekly rehearsal as it comes round.
On another level, Real Music is a powerful challenge to what the Rev. Scott A. Haynes, S.J.C., Director of the St. Cecilia Choir, characterizes in his Foreword as the “pseudo-music,” “substandard or profane,” that has flooded the Church since Vatican II and despoiled the liturgy of far too many parishes with the banality of its scores and the soppy anthropocentrism of the texts tailored specially to them. (May the Good Lord in His Mercy spare us, one and all, from “On Eagle’s Wings” and similar atrocities.)