THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF SECULAR SOCIETY
by Rémi Brague
There is no such thing as a secular society. My claim is a brutal and paradoxical one: The question about the possibility of a secular society resolves itself, or rather it dissolves itself.
To defend this claim I would like to submit two-and-a-half theses. First, a purely secular society simply cannot survive in the long run. As a consequence, leaving behind secularism is a necessary move, indeed a vital one. Second, the term secular society is tautological, because the ideal of secularity is latent with the modern use of the term society. Third is the half thesis, which I won’t develop here: Whatever comes after secularism, it won’t be a “society” any longer but rather another way for us to think about and give political form to the being-together of human beings.
The use of the term secularism in English began in the middle of the nineteenth century. George Jacob Holyoake (1817–1906) may have coined the word as early as 1846,and one of his main works, published in 1870, bears the title The Principles of Secularism. In 1859, the philosopher John Stuart Mill was still treating the word as a neologism. In On Liberty, after mentioning the religious principles that can motivate human action, he speaks of “secular standards (as for want of a better name they may be called).”
Mill used the term because he was eager to avoid atheistic, which is the more fitting term to describe the opposite of religious. But atheism was hardly the thing in Victorian Britain, and the word was felt to be rude. In the same intellectual atmosphere, the biologist T. E. Huxley, Darwin’s famous bulldog, coinedagnosticism during a memorable discussion that took place at the Metaphysical Society in 1869. In present-day Britain, a third word, humanism, is often used with the same meaning and with the same intention: to evoke the possibility of a nonreligious basis for a morally animated society.
The debate for which the word secularism was coined is a false one. Advocates of secularism assume they are proposing a novel possibility, which is that moral precepts can be known without any particular revelation by God. Yet this is precisely what Christianity has taught, explicitly since Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and, implicitly, since Jesus himself. This was lost sight of in the modern era, when many Christians defended religion against skeptical and rationalist attacks by arguing that it is necessary for ensuring the moral basis of society. Men without religion, it was argued, could not be trusted to behave in an upright fashion. So advocates of secularism were drawn into the false debate.
Ironically, and perhaps inevitably, the words that are meant to express secularization are themselves Christian words that have been secularized. One prominent premodern use of secular was to distinguish between “religious” priests, who were members of mendicant or monastic orders, and diocesan clergy, or “secular” priests. These terms continue to be used, often confusing those unfamiliar with the Church’s particular language: a secular priest?
Another example is the French adjective for secularity, laïc, or the Italian equivalent, laico. Both are derived from the Greek adjective that designates a member of a people or nation. But not just any people or nation: The Septuagint translated the Hebrew `am—the people of God, the holy nation—with laos, the Greek source of both adjectives. Thus even the advocates of secularism are unable to escape the biblical sources of so much of Western culture.
The root of secular, secularism, and secularity is saeculum. From this Latin word the Romance languages derived their words for century : siècle, secolo, siglo. It receives from Christianity a particular shade of meaning. In the vocabulary of the Church Fathers, saeculum designates the world as Christianity conceives of it. They were profoundly influenced by the Hebrew word ‘olam and the Greek aion, which is often used to render it. These terms stress the transitory, provisional character of the present state of the world. Saeculum is thereby diametrically opposed to the Greek kosmos, the beautiful world order that was believed to be everlasting.
The word also came to designate a century, one hundred years. This semantic evolution did not happen by chance, for one hundred years is not just any length of time.
The sum of seventy plus thirty, it was understood in a symbolic way as the average length of a generation, a bit longer than the traditional human lifespan according to the Psalms: “The years of our life are threescore and ten.”
This use of the term was not uniquely Christian. In ancient Rome, the herald who announced the secular games, ludi saeculares, proclaimed with great solemnity that “nobody who witnessed them saw them already or would see them one more time.” The formula is quoted by Suetonius in a highly ironical context: ludos, quos nec spectasset quisquam nec spectaturus esset. Another historian, Herodian, wrote: “People then called these games ‘secular’ because they had heard that they were celebrated only after three generations had elapsed. Heralds would go all over Rome and Italy, inviting people to come and see a spectacle that nobody ever saw and nobody would see again.”
The ancient usage draws on the fact that a saeculum, a century, is the temporal limit of living memory. It is the halo of possible experience that surrounds the life of the individual. I can keep a remembrance of my grandparents and, more seldom, of my great-grandparents. What my grandfather told me I can tell my grandchildren. I can reach back two generations and forward two, but rarely more, to a period spanning what amounts to a century.
One century is also the limit of the concrete care we can give. I very well can, nay, should think about the future situation of my children, of my grandchildren, possibly of my great-grandchildren. But I can’t care in anything but a highly abstract way about the generations that will come after them. If by some miracle our remote forebears came back to life, or if our remote posterity were now called to life, they wouldn’t mean a great deal to us.
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