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Books and Culture

Daniel DiSalvo
Politics and Liberty
Political philosopher Pierre Manent rethinks the history of the West.
3 June 2011

Le Regard Politique, by Pierre Manent and Benedicte Delorme-Montini (Paris: Flammarion, 268 pp., 2010)

Les Métamorphoses de la Cité, by Pierre Manent (Paris: Flammarion, 424 pp., 2010)

When it comes to French political thinkers, Americans usually divide into opposing camps. One admires them uncrticially; the other contemptuously dismisses them. This reaction can be partly explained by the persistent chasm between American and French political philosophy. American thought remains stubbornly anchored inside the horizon of liberalism (what the French call républicanisme). French thought, on the other hand, has produced genuine revolutionary and reactionary traditions. Until recently, Paris’s leading lights were enthralled with various currents of Marxism, existentialism, and post-structuralism. For Americans seeking to break out of liberalism’s confines, the latest emanations from the Left Bank were a breath of fresh air, while for those still wedded to liberalism’s central tenets, they gave off a whiff of charlatanry.

A new generation of thinkers has come of age in France, however. It takes modern liberalism seriously without becoming a fervent convert. One of its most gifted members is Pierre Manent, whose two new books, Le Regard Politique and Les Métamorphoses de la Cité, demonstrate that he deserves wide readership and serious study on this side of the Atlantic. Both are written in deceptively direct and jargon-free prose that conveys rich insight.

Le Regard Politique offers a lively introduction to Manent’s life and work. He grew up in a Communist family and lived in a socialist milieu where “one almost never came across a man of the right.” Never baptized, he converted to Catholicism in high school. At the École Normale Supérieure he deepened his interest in politics by studying with Raymond Aron and reading Leo Strauss (“the author with whom I have most intensely debated”). He later helped found the anticommunist journal Commentaire. Manent recounts his personal history with modesty and discretion while also sounding themes central to his intellectual project. He reflects on what he calls the three “poles” of human life: politics, philosophy, and religion. His aim is to discover how to strike a judicious balance among them.

Manent’s early work centered on what Benjamin Constant called the “quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns.” The main questions in the dispute were: What is different about modernity? What does it mean to be modern? Like Strauss, Manent saw a clear and conscious break in Western history, beginning with Machiavelli, who placed modernity in opposition to classical antiquity and the Christian Middle Ages. The essential characteristic of the modern project is its astonishing ambition. It aims to make men the “masters and possessors of nature” (Descartes) and to provide for the “relief of man’s estate” (Francis Bacon) through “continuous improvements in the human condition” (Adam Smith). What a difference from the Greeks’ cyclical notions of history and the Christian idea that human betterment can only occur through God’s grace!

Les Métamorphoses de la Cité is a major philosophic work in which Manent looks at Western history through a wider lens. He suggests that the modern break is not the central axis but only an important moment in that history. To make this case, he develops the idea of a “political form.” A form is the geographical and population-based framework in which politics takes place, and which produces a certain viewpoint among its inhabitants. He distinguishes four types: the ancient city, the empire, the Church, and the nation-state. Each form can be marked out by the amount of territory it occupies along with the size and diversity of its population. It is the competition between forms and the inability to settle on any particular one, Manent contends, that is the source of Western dynamism.

Following Aristotle, Manent argues that the ancient city could provide a framework for a genuine politics because it was small enough to allow for intense face-to-face deliberation. Citizens could exercise their liberty vigorously in the public square. The city thus offered the Greeks an immediate and direct view of political life, clearly revealing human nature in all its heights and depths. But the civic energy that the city generated also led to its demise. It fell victim to internal and external wars and was replaced by empires—first Macedonia, then Rome.

Empires, the Roman Empire in particular, aspire to a sort of universality that scorns the particularity of cities. But as they expand, empires efface the political dimension of life. Manent explores this issue in treating the “question of Rome,” which is how a city, in unprecedented fashion, transformed itself into a vast empire. Manent revives the thought of Cicero to grasp the emergence of imperial Rome as a key turning point in Western history, which in many ways anticipates the modern dispensation.

With the collapse of Rome, the Church tried to offer a new kind of universal community. Yet this new form introduced an extraordinary confusion of authority by separating religious commandment and political rule. The separation of the City of God and the City of Man caused a “theological-political” problem that has never been resolved, Manent argues. Efforts to reunite the two or to separate them further have proved alternately dangerous and disappointing.

Unsatisfied with any of these alternatives, the West gave birth in the Middle Ages to the nation-state, which could support a more robust civic life. In a sense, the nation-state is the successor to the ancient city. But the catastrophic wars of the twentieth century exposed its problematic character. Given its bloody track record, many Europeans today want to escape it, and the European Union was designed as the vehicle for the realization of those desires. Yet recent debates over expansion have revealed that many in Europe are unsure what they want the EU to be. The search for a political form to satisfy Europe continues.

Interestingly, Manent publicly opposed the EU “constitution,” which went down to defeat in a 2005 referendum in France. He rejects the EU’s aspiration to be something of a universal humanitarian empire on the grounds that it eliminates the possibility for a genuine politics. In the EU project, Manent hears the siren song of a “religion of humanity” that flees politics into hollow notions of human self-deification. This longing to escape from politics results from the divorce between the process of civilization and political life. Modernity has transformed Western man from a “political animal” into a “laboring and owning one.” Politics is therefore often treated with disdain. The real engines of change have become science and economics.

Manent warns that politics is not something to be disparaged; it is, rather, a fundamental dimension of human life. Like James Madison, Manent sees politics as the “greatest of all reflections on human nature.” Such reflections are only possible under certain conditions, however. First, there must be enough items “on the agenda,” as we would say, to merit common consideration. Too few items and politics becomes trivial; too many, and politics cedes to ceaseless conflict. As such, there is no authentic politics in tribes, tyrannies, or empires. Second, borders or limits are needed to provide a public space in which politics can take place. And within those borders must be a population that for whatever reason considers itself a “people.” Without these conditions, citizens cannot freely exercise their common faculties to make collective decisions, jeopardizing liberty.

To paraphrase the Churchillian judgment, Manent finds the nation-state perhaps the worst political form—except for all the others the West has tried. It is the form in which liberal democracy has flourished, and it offers the best prospects for a healthy politics. Ultimately, Manent’s teaching is a stern one: forget about politics, and one can forget about liberty, too.

Daniel DiSalvo is an assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York–CUNY and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership.

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