City Journal Spring 2014

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Spring 2014
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Pierre Manent
Birth of the Nation « Back to Story

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@ Quinx: Thanks for mentioning the absence of non-Mediterranean powers, I wondered about it too. I think it was an intentional omission, though, as Manent is concerned with Western political forms (which have spread over the world pretty well).

This is really a meta-essay, trying to paint with huge historical swipes, Toynbee style. Some of the details are obviously more complicated than Manent has time or space to handle here.

I was wondering about his comment about the human condition comprising struggles: the search for effective governance, and the struggle to "mediate divinity." I wonder now, in our increasingly secular age, are we still struggling to do the latter? Lots of people (myself included) have a difficult time with traditional ways of mediating divinity, or have given up altogether. How is our age to be understood, then? A theist's response, from the assumption of divine presence, would be that humanity must necessarily turn back towards a real God. But if God is not, then perhaps we are embarking on an actually new course (or as new as is possible, given the "human condition"). What are we to do politically with this unlimited freedom, bereft of metaphysical mooring?
Interesting ideas, here, but the heart of the matter is a bit more prosaic, in regard to the `birth of the nation' as the primary form of community.

During the late Middle Ages, the city-state did in re-emerge as a political and economic force in Europe - those in Italy, and others in N. Europe that came to form the league of the Hansea.

This is detailed in Arnold Toynbee's `Cities on the Move.'

However, in competition with this were the emergent royal states, which sought to unify city and countryside into a single, potent political unit.

The monarchies won out over the poleis, but from that victory came the seeds of their own destruction.

The bourgeois - that is, the class who were during the Middle Ages were the masters of their own domain, the city-states (`bourgeois' means literally, `town-dweller') - gravitated to the `nation' as a rival ideology to undermine the divine right of kings.

Nationalism was, and remains, the `divine right of the populace' to rule.

This struggle between royalism and nationalism had its most celebrated interlude with the French revolution of 1789.

However, without the royal state and the concentration of power engendered therein (at the expense both of the nobility and of the bourgeoisie) no national consciousness would have come into play.
Manent is familiar with authors that are clearer and better than himself, & to whom he should have directed us. He mentions Cicero, Machiavelli, and so on. That is all well and good, but the question is how to read and understand those authors in the first place. He should have directed us therefore to Leo Strauss, whose categories he uses. Strauss is neither as diffuse as Manent, nor as narrow. Furthermore, Strauss makes clear that if we are in need of a political science that makes things clearer, we must begin with an Aritotelian reading of Aristotle.
Thank you MH for your considered comments on Hitler - that his irrational policies cannot be viewed as Machiavellian, for whom power politics were the goal.

I also want to correct myself - Churchill did make strong references to God and Providence, after the war. I just read The Power of Words, a collection of well chosen (by Martin Gilbert) excerpts from his speeches and writings.

I always viewed Hitler's "religion" as the epitome of paganism, in his opposition to Christianity, his creation of a cult around the German myths (the Ring cycle) - isn't that pagan?
And Babylon, Egypt, China, India, pre-Columbian America? The Mediterranean is not the whole world.
Well to be honest, this seems to be one tangent after another, or should we say in Cicero's honour, a non-sequitor? Honestly folks, don't you think a logic test should be applied to these writers?
This is a very modern article, despite its handling of ancient and medieval topics. The author admits he doesn't understand how political bodies conceived of themselves in between Athens and Westphalia. This is all we need to understand about this article, in the end.
Excellent. Thank you Mr. Manent, Mr. Cornel and City Journal.
Gobbledygook - a word never associated with Cicero's writings - springs to mind here.

Never mind, and back to my copy of De officiis to get a dose of clear thinking, virtues and all.
Cicero....... examples ???

Please.
"Like Cicero, they find themselves at a point of transition from one type of human association to another"...

No, they are leaving an association, and entering yet another sterile creation of Utopians. For all the well deserved criticism of the Church, the Renaissance took place in its sway. The EU is a long step back down in political evolution.
EP - Hitler was not "Machiavellian" in any solid sense, at least not after the mid 1930s. Someone following Machiavelli would be cruel not for an ideology, but for purposes of power interests. Cruelty for Machiavelli would serve a much more mundane and rational purpose than anything like the Holocaust or the huge blunders of the war. They would not be reckless and ideologically driven, but calculating and prudent, interested not in shaping the world according to some master plan, nor in re-making mankind (by creating a master race, for example), but in wielding and maintaining power under current conditions.

It is also questionable whether Hitler is a good example of making "no reference to God." He often spoke of fulfilling providence (something too idealistic and abstract for Machiavelli). Do some poking around online about Hitler's religious views. They are more complex - and more politically relevant - than some of the common ranting that he was an atheist or that he was a crusader.
I am rather bewildered, I admit, by the sophistication of this essay, its profundity.

I came away with the uncomfortable feeling that Machiavelli's principles, having no reference to God, but to action, to fortune favoring the audacious, a prince endowed with the capacity to master fortune, the call to action, to a new order - it all sounded so familiar. Which modern prince do these principles most closely fit? I can name two: Winston Churchill - and Adolf Hitler. The epic antagonists of the 20th century. Were they Machiavellian? Hitler of course. But Churchill, the white knight of statesmanship? And yet he ordered the two French ships off the African coast scuttled so they would not fall into German hands. Historians can name many other Churchill decisions that were ruthless as well, Machiavellian, not that they were wrong in the context of world war and in the danger of domination by Nazi Germany, by the threat of a "perverted science".

Intriguing to think about, and I hope I inspire some commenters more informed than I to comment on this page.