Recovering Politics, Civilization, and the Soul: Essays on Pierre Manent and Roger Scruton, by Daniel J. Mahoney (St. Augustine’s Press, 168 pp., $20)
Wokeism, which has taken off in the United States but has its deepest intellectual roots in Europe, is only the latest variant of thought dating back to the 1960s that has subjected Western civilization to relentless criticism. While there is no shortage of reasons for Western guilt—the Holocaust, slavery, racism, and imperialism—the antihumanism of postmodern thought since the 1960s has sapped Western, and especially European, self-confidence.
Two thinkers, Pierre Manent in France and Roger Scruton in England, have made powerful arguments against this repudiation of the West’s political, cultural, and moral heritage. Both are major philosophers of our time; their work serves as a powerful counterpoint to the received unwisdom and will serve as guideposts for years. Manent retired from L’École des Hauts Études en Sciences Sociales in 2014 but remains an active scholar and regular commentator (his most recent book, Pascal et la proposition chrétienne, appeared in October). Scruton died of cancer in 2020 at 75.
Daniel J. Mahoney’s new book, Recovering Politics, Civilization, and the Soul, synthesizes the work of these two thinkers and puts them in conversation. Mahoney, a professor emeritus at Assumption College, where he taught for decades, is a sure-footed guide. He is a distinguished scholar of the history of political thought in his own right and formed friendships with Scruton and Manent decades ago. He’s also an engaging and elegant writer.
Mahoney notes the differences between Scruton and Manent: “one is unmistakably English; the other strikingly French.” Scruton, the son of a hard-drinking schoolteacher, won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge. At 24, he witnessed the events of 1968 from an apartment in Paris and was disgusted by the protesting students’ self-indulgent iconoclasm. It sparked a turn toward conservatism. His biggest intellectual influences were Burke and Kant. An early victim of political correctness, Scruton gave up his professorship at Birkbeck, University of London, in 1992. From then on, he made his way as a public intellectual and occasional professor with appointments in the United States and in England. Scruton was often concerned in his writings with preserving high culture in the arts. Toward the end of his life, he rejoined the Anglican Church.
Manent grew up in a Communist family but converted to Catholicism in high school. He became interested in politics by studying with Raymond Aron at the École Normale Supérieure. After serving as Aron’s research assistant at the Collège de France, Manent went on to a professorship at L’École des Hauts Études en Sciences Sociales, where he spent his career. His intellectual influences include Aristotle, Aquinas, Tocqueville, Aron, and Leo Strauss. Manent’s work has also reached a large audience outside the Francophone world—thanks partly to Mahoney’s efforts—as many of his most important books have been translated into English and published in the U.S.
However, it is the affinities between Scruton and Manent’s work that Mahoney emphasizes. Though the two often arrive at similar positions, they follow very different paths, personally and intellectually, to get there. That is, in part, what makes this book so interesting and illuminating.
Both Manent and Scruton defend the nation-state as the best available political form in the modern world and are skeptical of the European Union and other attempts at transferring sovereignty to higher levels. The result is too often an abdication of political responsibility, what the wooden language of political science calls Europe’s “democratic deficit.” Both thinkers reject the conceit of European progressivism that human beings can thrive, as Manent put it, in a “life without law in a world without borders.”
Both see politics as a noble enterprise and the site of the highest kind of collective action. For Manent, it is only within the nation-state that genuine politics is possible—that is, the combination of reason and action in a public square. For Scruton, only the nation-state allows for a genuine community, one that can make decisions for itself. Not surprisingly, he supported Brexit.
Both see attentiveness to individual souls as a way beyond the formalism of human rights and the aridness of modern selves. Manent and Scruton both embrace a humanism that requires human limits but also sees the uniqueness in human beings.
Both believe it important to recognize the heritage of the European nation of “a Christian mark,” in Manent’s evocative phrase. Leaving aside its truth or falsity, Christianity has a salutary political role to play in suggesting limits on modern man’s promethean will.
Both reject what Scruton calls “the culture of repudiation”—the Western penchant for self-hatred and self-recrimination that has played such a prominent role in intellectual life since the 1960s. Going beyond constructive criticism, such modes of thought have deprived European nations of self-confidence and capacity for political action.
Both Manent and Scruton were fierce critics of Communism, with Manent helping found the anti-Communist journal Commentaire and Scruton working (at considerable personal risk) to aid Eastern bloc intellectuals and writers. Communism, in their view, represented the greatest threat to human dignity and political liberty in the twentieth century.
Both Scruton and Manent are wary of putting too much faith in markets. Nor do they think much of the libertarian dream of a minimal state. Scruton’s love of home, or oikophilia, as he called it, made him an environmentalist and helped him see a harmony between conservatism and conservation. But he and Manent oppose excesses of the modern welfare state that create a culture of dependency and erode personal responsibility.
Ultimately, Mahoney describes both thinkers as “liberal conservatives”—as distinct from “conservative liberals,” in the sense that neither Scruton nor Manent are strong advocates of natural rights, and both are skeptical of the excess faith many moderns put in “rights.” They are not liberals in either the Lockean or Hayekian sense. Rather, they are conservatives first—seeking to preserve parts of their countries’ cultural and religious heritage—and liberals second, seeking ordered liberty in democratic societies. A conservative liberal, on the other hand, believes first in rights and then seeks to wed that belief to slower cultural and political change.
Mahoney explains each of the above propositions, along with much more, and is attentive to the distinct modes and presentation styles of each author. Scruton is more often willing to make arguments in his own voice and style. He also wrote an important novel called Notes From Underground in an effort to convey the experience of Communist totalitarianism. Manent, on the other hand, often deploys interpretations of the great thinkers, especially French ones such as Montaigne and Pascal, to bring forth his own thinking.
Mahoney’s collection of essays does a marvelous job of contextualizing and explaining the vital work of these two philosophers. For those interested in learning from, and about, Scruton and Manent without trying to read each man’s considerable oeuvre, Mahoney’s book is the place to begin.
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