The Religion of Humanity: The Illusion of Our Times, by Pierre Manent, edited and translated by Paul Seaton(St. Augustine’s Press, 240 pp., $40)
The now-ubiquitous term “woke” suggests that leftism has become a religion. To those of us who reject it, this new pseudo-faith may seem more akin to a mental disorder. But if wokeness is crazy, it is so in a profound way, requiring a philosophical and theological response. The woke denial of the importance of borders or limits, for example, points to an understanding of our shared humanity that would somehow transcend all particular, political, or cultural horizons. To refute this position requires deep reflection on the political and moral condition of humanity.
French political philosopher Pierre Manent shows us how to do this. He brings us to the point where democrats, moderns, and Christians—whether confessional or merely cultural—can begin to face what is at stake in being open to the universal in humanity, while respecting what is insuperably political, and even “pagan,” in the human condition.
Manent’s work spans five decades and includes profound investigations of Western politics. His thought combines several influences—Leo Strauss’s devotion to political philosophy as an indispensable reflection on the human condition; Tocqueville’s sober, even apprehensive, understanding of modern democracy as a new age of humanity; and Raymond Aron’s attention to political and social reality—with his own deep Christian affirmation.
The Religion of Humanity is an expert compilation of articles, chapters, and unpublished papers by Manent reflecting on the problem of human life in relation to the political horizon of modernity, and thus to the idea of democracy. The selections date from 1984 to 2021, though all but three of the 18 pieces appeared in the twenty-first century.) The choice and presentation of the selections have been directed by Paul Seaton, a master of Manent’s oeuvre. His familiarity with his subject’s thought is evident not only in the selections (some will be well-known to American readers of Manent, while others are published here in English for the first time), but also in the informative notes.
The first text in the volume is a selection from a 1993 piece on “Christianity and Democracy.” This includes a deft distillation of the unfolding of the “theologico-political” problem of the West, “A Brief Political History of Religion.” It is immediately clear how little sympathy Manent has for any nostalgic evocations of a medieval ideal of Christendom. The attempt to instantiate the Church as “the only true republic” inevitably failed, “unleashing a permanent division and uncertainty” in the soul of the Christian citizen. But, as Manent shows, the wholly modern or radically secularist “solution” to the “theologico-political problem” has also reached something of a dead end, even if its original motives deserve some sympathy and understanding.
To bring things closer to home, the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 marked “the beginning of the end of the nation.” And so the West reached “the end of a cycle. . . . The Church has been completely domesticated by the nation; the nation, for its part, is exhausted.” It is this exhaustion of the nation that empties the arena of real action, which is always action for some concrete, practical human good—the good of a real and therefore particular community—leaving only the illusion of a humanitarian ideal, the illusion of “humanity” as a field of action. Meantime, Christianity—and Manent, a Roman Catholic, is especially concerned with the action of the Church—rather than preserving the alternative of a real community oriented toward eternal salvation, now too often presents itself as “the bearer of [mere, ungrounded] ideals and values,” in effect reducing itself to “humanitarian and egalitarian overbidding.” Christianity risks abetting the blind inertia of a “democratic humanity . . . that wills itself, without knowing itself.”
To analyze the humanitarian sensibility, Manent refers us to Tocqueville’s idea of the semblable, a reductive human sameness, and to Rousseau’s analysis of pity. We all now live according to the compelling evidence of the essential sameness of humanity. Note that Manent nowhere denies the immediate evidence of this sensibility, but he insists on pressing this question: Just what does this sameness mean? What is its content? The idea or feeling of humanity operates on us in its extension, its universality, but what is its intension, its practical substance? This intension and substance, Manent argues, cannot be grasped except in relation to practice—that is, to effective human action, to moral and political agency. The qualifier “political” here is critical, because, as Manent has explained throughout his work, echoing Aristotle, all real, natural, practical action aims at a common good, a concrete good for a real community. “[A] profound, meaningful relationship between members of the human race can only result from a long time of living together, from common action, culture, and language.” The particularity of community is thus implicit in the nature of human agency. “We only really live where we act, and we do not really act except in the community of action that we form with our fellow citizens, or our associates.” The “religion of humanity” is a pure illusionfor the simple reason that the whole universe of human beings is not an actual arena of human action, which is always action for some concrete, particular good. “Justice has no meaning except where there is already a ‘common thing.’”
The crux of Manent’s examination of the complicity between self-emptying Christianity and the ambition of or drift toward borderless global humanitarianism is the author’s effort to map the real distinction between Christian love and the emergent idea or feeling of “humanity.” It is no exaggeration to say that the true meaning of humanity now depends on seeing the difference between the supernatural virtue of charity and the now omnipresent feeling of humanitarian pity. This is the subject of the texts gathered in Part IV: “Sifting the Wheat from the Chaff.”
What is true Christian charity? “Charity is a common action, a common ‘operation,’ carried out visibly or invisibly by the Church and its Head.” This action aims at an otherworldly salvation, at eternal communion with God and the saints, and is by no means reducible to “the sentiment of human resemblance” or to an awareness of our vulnerability to physical suffering. “Charity is clearly a virtue, and even the culminating virtue, of the human being and the Christian.”
Manent distinguishes Christian charity from secular compassion most incisively in response to Pope Francis’s blurring of these categories in the book’s three most recent texts: “Who is ‘the Good Samaritan’?” (2020), “Don’t Confuse Christianity with ‘the Religion of Humanity’” (2020), and “Migrations and Christianity: What Message?” (2021). We cannot enter here into the details of Manent’s reading of the biblical parable, which aims more to be restorative than original. Manent observes that, in the parable, the Samaritan “does not resemble today’s ‘Good Samaritan’. . . there is an amplitude to his deeds, a liberty in his conduct, a competence in his care for all wounds, an authority to his word, and an ability to make promises worthy of belief, that are not those of a mere human being.”
The heart of the matter lies here: “The Church Fathers were right: the Samaritan is none other than Jesus himself.” Manent continues:
The parable doesn’t invite us to “identify [ . . . ] with others without worrying where they were born or came from,” but to enter into a “Christian discipleship” that has no other end than Christ. . . . The parable thus first teaches us that we have neither the charity, nor the strength, nor the reparative virtue, nor the patience, nor the hope, nor the faith, to be like the Samaritan.
The Good Samaritan does not teach humanitarian compassion but rather preaches Christ. In order to resist the collapse of charity into compassion, Manent must insist on the difference between what we humans may feel and what Christ alone can transform.
“Merely human compassion,” as Manent calls it, is at best morally neutral; it may do more harm than good. Rather than presuming to do what Christ does, and identifying our fellow feeling with divine Charity, we are called to put our faith in Christ. “The Samaritan is none other than Jesus Christ. There is no Christianity outside of Jesus Christ.” Humanitarian compassion for its part has no “interior principle” but is activated only negatively, by exterior occasions of suffering. “The migrant” as a new “Christic” figure of borderless humanity “sums up humanity because he is the loss of the human, as Marx pretty much said about the proletariat.” One might conclude, then, that when we mere mortals, rather than looking to the virtue of Christ’s charity, presume to imitate Christ’s sacrifice or divine self-emptying (Philippians 2:7) by repudiating our moral and political humanity, then our action can have no meaning above the animal satisfaction and the animal pity in which Rousseau sought the ground of our being human.
Manent thus clearly divides the wheat of charity from the chaff of humanitarian compassion. To do so, he must distinguish the feeling of humanity from the divine action of charity. In insisting in this way on the radical transcendence of Christ and on our utter dependence on the action of Christ’s church in attaining our true end, the author might seem to adopt the language of fideism, which would surprise those accustomed to the more Aristotelian framework of his work. But we can see even in these texts that Manent has in no way distanced himself from his insights into the continuity or friendship between the human and divine—that is, from a broadly Thomistic Christian sensibility, according to which grace does not destroy but perfects nature. In fact, Part V of this collection, “Spiritual Mediation,” centers on Christianity, and more specifically the Roman Catholic Church, as a moral and political mediator.
Charity is universal, but politics and true, virtuous action are always particular. How can this supernatural openness not dissolve, but guide and uplift, this natural closure? One thing is clear: the Church must not confuse supernatural openness with the purely horizontal universality of humanitarian sameness. The Church’s public role, its responsibility to a non-Christian humanity, is rooted in the connection between true action, or self-government, and Providence: active self-government depends on hope, or a confidence in the primacy of the Good, and we have lost this along with our faith in Providence. Human action at its best—that is, action according to the enduring cardinal virtues—naturally opens upon a hope for and in something “bigger than us, too big for us.” Action implies Good implies Hope implies Providence. And we are called to active friendship with this Providence, within the natural, moral-political realm in which we are placed, for “as citizens . . . [w]e address the Most High from the site of our action and for the common good of the city of which we are citizens.” Rational, virtuous deliberation and the production of a political common good has divine significance.
Manent, we have seen, vigorously separates Christian charity from naturalistic compassion. But he does not radically separate the theological virtue of charity from nature simply: charity guides and perfects the natural virtues. As a virtue and therefore inherently active, charity activates and extends our natural propensity to virtue. Daniel J. Mahoney makes this point concerning the interdependence of natural and supernatural virtue with particular boldness when he proposes, in the foreword, “that charity must be interpreted in the light of prudence.” The pious will find this a surprising formulation, to say the least. It might seem more “natural” and less jarring to Christian piety to say, rather, that we must see prudence in the light of charity. No doubt both formulations have their claim. But given our unnatural situation today—namely, our addiction to the empty form of universality as a figure of humanity—we can see the urgent truth of Mahoney’s formulation.