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Recovering the Moral Contents of Life

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Recovering the Moral Contents of Life

Pierre Manent on natural law and human rights July 27, 2018
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

The last time I wrote about the French political philosopher Pierre Manent for City Journal, I explored his “theological-political reflection” in light of the publication of his 2015 book Situation de la France, which appeared a year later in English as Beyond Radical Secularism. In this study, Manent expresses reservations about militant secularism, affirms the “Christian mark” of France and other European nations, and sympathetically treats the contribution Jews have made to European civilization. Manent makes the challenging argument that the successful absorption of French and European Muslims depends on European democracy maintaining its civilizational soul. Muslims must not enter an empty space—a “wasteland”—where they would be free to affirm the umma instead of becoming loyal citizens of the countries in which they now live. Further, Manent reflects on “political action and the common good,” contending that the human good is not unsupported, and that we do not live in a merely arbitrary world; political action, he maintains, should be guided and informed by the old cardinal virtues: courage, prudence, temperance, and justice. 

Manent published another book this March, La loi naturelle et les droits de l’homme, which deepens the considerations of Beyond Radical Secularism and challenges the humanitarian civil religion that has dominated European intellectual circles since at least May 1968.  The new book has occasioned lively discussions in France and will appear in English in the next 18 months or so from University of Notre Dame Press. In six chapters developed from the prestigious Etienne Gilson lectures at the Institut Catholique de Paris, Manent reflects on the steady displacement of the natural law by the modern conception of human rights. He questions the widely shared notion of human rights that radically separates them, legitimate as they are in their own sphere, from the ends of human freedom. Manent rejects the fiction of human “autonomy”—a groundless freedom, without reasons or purposes, to make our way in the world. Nor is he a partisan of “heteronomy,” where acting human beings take their direction from the will of others. Such categories are far too abstract; they tell us nothing about the “rules” inherent in human action itself. Those rules become clear as we act conscientiously in the world, trying to do justice to the sense of right and wrong that defines us as human. Starting from moral and political philosophy, from an eminently “practical world,” and not from theology or metaphysics, Manent sets out to recover natural law as the key instrument vivifying free will, human choice, and moral and political action. Manent’s profoundly countercultural enterprise invites us to bring moral and intellectual clarity into our reflections on the rights and obligations of human beings. His book deserves the widest readership.

La loi naturelle et les droits de l’homme confronts the prejudices, or dogmas, of those who have repudiated the classical and (especially) Christian notion of “liberty under law.” Manent denies that we can generate obligations from a condition of what Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau call the “state of nature,” where human beings are absolutely free, with no obligations to others. Manent’s book is an exercise in defending liberty under law, in both the Christian and the political senses of the term. In his view, our ever-more imperial affirmation of human rights needs to be reintegrated into what he calls an “archic” understanding of human and political existence, where law and obligation are inherent in liberty and meaningful human action. The human world is not constituted by moral anarchy; rules and purposes—hence the word “archic,” or rule—are written into the structure of human action and the natural order of things. As Manent argues over the course of the book, human nature and the full range of human motives provide a reliable standard for how we ought to live. Relativism is not the final word about the human condition. Otherwise, we are bound to act thoughtlessly, in an increasingly arbitrary or willful manner. Yet Manent’s book is in no way an illiberal assault on modern liberty, as a few critics in France have alleged. His practical project in no way entails a reactionary attack on the liberal order. Rather, it is practical in a more fundamental sense. He aims to restore the grammar of moral and political action, and thus the possibility of an authentically political liberalism. 

Photo Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the opening chapter, “The Issue of Natural Law,” Manent highlights the incoherence of a rights project that combines apolitical universalism and a thoughtless cultural relativism. Commentators such as Olivier Roy condemn, for instance, Christian opposition to LGBT rights but welcome, in the name of cultural tolerance, a far more vociferous opposition to them from European Muslims. The West is always judged severely, in this way of thinking, while the “Other” gets a free pass. As Manent demonstrates, politically and juridically imposed same-sex marriage was not a modest change in the law to make marriage more “inclusive” but a systematic assault on the idea of a normative human nature. Marriage—“the crucial institution of the human world organized according to natural law”—no longer acknowledges the complementarity of the sexes or the natural foundations of family life. Transgenderism continues this attack on the very idea of human nature and an authoritative natural moral law, Manent says.  Our freedom becomes increasingly arbitrary and radically subjective. And the family as family loses its perennial meaning. There are bound to be disastrous social and cultural consequences from this attempt to flee our nature. 

Manent’s latest work is above all an effort to reactivate the perspective of the citizen or religious believer who truly acts in the human world. In the second chapter, “The Counsels of Fear,” Manent challenges a widely held belief that Machiavelli and other early modern political philosophers liberated a salutary practical perspective against the one-sidedly contemplative emphases of classical and Christian thought. This is to turn everything upside down, Manent believes. It was the classics and the Christians who defended “reflective choice” and “free will,” the preconditions of all meaningful action.  By contrast, Machiavelli, writing at the dawn of modernity, substituted a theoretical perspective on action that eclipsed the agent’s point of view. The rationale for this assault on practical action shows up most revealingly in chapters 15 and 18 of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Machiavelli could not abide the gap between “what men do” and “what they ought to do.” This distinction, so central to practical action and reflective choice, becomes, for Machiavelli, an unbridgeable chasm that confuses and enervates human beings. The chasm, he contended, must be closed once and for all. Machiavelli counsels subduing fortuna, but he has no place for reflective choice or moral prudence—the crown of the virtues, according to Aristotle. 

Machiavelli succumbs to, and instills in his readers, an “excessive desire for clarity,” Manent writes, a desire that ends up denying that true action is always and everywhere subordinate to law.  Machiavelli’s evocative rhetoric and audacious theorizing helped decisively to undermine the gap between what men do and what they ought to do, which is the horizon and precondition of all reasonable choice. In his assault on “imaginary principalities” (such as the perennial notion of natural law) in chapter 15 of the Prince, he frees “virtuosos of action,” daring revolutionaries of a new type, from adherence to the natural law. “Necessity,” a willingness to move back and forth between good and evil with an exhilarating alacrity, and immoral daring, become the trademarks of those freed from the constraints of the moral law. They feign respect for that law—see chapter 18 of the Prince—but have no real place for it in their souls. 

It is in this context, Manent observes, that Machiavelli sets out to “efface” or “eradicate” conscience. By conscience, Manent does not mean its pale modern substitute: subjective arbitrariness or personal whim. He has in mind that firm interior guide, “unearthed in a Christian context,” which allowed acting man to discern between good and evil, better and worse, in the context of moral and political action. Conscience, however imperfectly, allows us to see our actions as a just God sees them (a better standard than even Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator.”). By repudiating Christian conscience, by deciding to bury it once and for all, Machiavelli gave birth to a wholly abstract perspective on moral and political life. A new conception of human freedom, ever-tethered to necessity, would expel conscience and practical reason from human and political life. But Machiavelli’s realism is finally unrealistic in that it ignores the deliberations of citizens and statesman, of those responsible for acting thoughtfully in the world. It is a faux realism that willfully redefines reality. Of course, Machiavellian realism has never achieved a complete victory, since human nature persists against all efforts to redefine it.

Machiavellian modernity nevertheless finds powerful reinforcement in the Protestant Reformation’s paradoxical undermining of “liberty under law.” For Martin Luther, there was no free will; salvation owes everything to grace. For the “acting Christian,” the pre-Reformation Christian, who takes his bearings from conscience and the natural law, there is no certitude about salvation, though “good works” show human freedom, aided by grace, responding to the call of the law; there is no possibility of escaping the tensions between what we are (imperfect sinners) and what we ought to do and become. The nature of the human cannot be perfected in this world, on this understanding, but human beings and Christians remain obliged to measure themselves by the demanding, but humanizing, obligations of the divine and natural law. 

The acting Christian does his best to live virtuously in light of the cardinal and theological virtues. He even judges himself, however humbly, by the eschatological demands of holiness or sanctity. Manent is a partisan of this acting Christian, who remains subject to natural law and the requirements of conscience and who does not appeal to a “Christian liberty” contemptuous of natural law. The Christian agent, the acting Christian, says no to any “freedom,” at once Machiavellian and “Reformed,” that denies the intrinsic—and enduring—bonds between liberty and law. We can no more be “virtuosos of faith” than “virtuosos of action.” We all live between the demands of the is and the ought, a situation that should encourage serious action and not lead to despair about the human condition or the Christian condition (which forever remains beholden to the requirements of divine and natural law). Against Machiavelli and Luther, Manent defends the sempiternal requirements of liberty under law. A scholar following in Manent’s footsteps might feel compelled to develop his suggestive argument that Aristotelian reflective choice (the deliberation and prudence of Books 3 and 6 of the Nicomachean Ethics) vitally depends on conscience.  Reflective choice, and the moral conscience unearthed in a Christian context, are the twin pillars of a practical philosophy that respects the “archic” character of human freedom. Human freedom, that is, can never be truly groundless. True freedom is never arbitrary, never simply willful. Action is always accompanied by rules, by ends, purposes, and finalities, which provide guidance for the exercise of human choice. Without natural law (which does not for Manent depend on an excessively metaphysical scaffolding), choice is utterly arbitrary and self-destructive, an example of the will willing itself. 

The central chapters of La loi naturelle et les droits de l’homme address the curious relationship between the modern state of Machiavellian and, later, Hobbesian origin (which protects ever-expanding rights but ignores the reasons at the heart of political disputation) and modern man’s singular inability either to command or to obey, in the fulsome sense of those words. Manent provocatively advances the claim that the “empire’ of the modern state, representative or not, has witnessed “a growing erosion of human action.” The state undermines authentic statesmanship and citizenship, legitimate authority (which is never simply willful or authoritarian), and obedience to a political community that governs wisely and well. This paralysis of command and obedience is rooted in the “irreparable error” of modern natural right, which is to think that “one can produce command from a condition of non-command”—from that illusion that is interchangeably called “natural liberty” or “the state of nature.”

Manent’s resort to the classical language of “command” and “obedience” might be misunderstood by a certain kind of contemporary reader. He is not appealing, however, to a rigidly hierarchical conception of social and political reality. Manent remains faithful to the give and take, the debate, deliberation, and civic reciprocity, which are integral to free politics. Moreover, as he makes clear in chapter 4, while there “is not a human condition without command,” the practical world, the world of reflective choice and deliberation, “is never essentially delivered to the arbitrary command of men and gods.” “Acting man,” Manent observes, “is not able to engage action without entering in some measure in the reasons for it.” Arbitrary command is thus a contradiction in terms. Once again, we live in an “archic” world—one interwoven with rules and purposes intrinsic to thoughtful action. Law, both positive and natural, is inseparable from our liberty. 

Manent does not seek to bury human rights and the regime of modern liberty, as a superficial reading of this book might suggest. He writes, here and elsewhere, with some admiration for the ability of early modern republics to give rise to “common action,” to a prodigious redefinition of the common, or the commonweal. As Manent had already argued in Metamorphoses of the City, for a time, modernity unleashed a remarkable energy and put forward new and impressive visions of republican civic life. But sometime in the 1960s, we reached a “point of inflection,” where the endless extension of rights began to rob essential institutions of their meaning and substance. In Western Europe, the Catholic Church, the liberal university, and the self-governing nation “had to confront a radical contestation of their legitimacy and their inner meaning.” Not only were rules relaxed, but the very telos of authoritative institutions was denied in favor of the radical autonomy of the individual, more and more disconnected from the political, social, and moral contents of human individuality.  Manent objects not to rights, which are integral to free government and human dignity, but to the “unlimited sovereignty of the individual,” which makes authentic thought and action impossible. 

Manent gives a telling example in the French context. When French judges rejected the principle of selection for admittance to French universities, they tended “to deprive of its meaning and substance” one of the most useful and noble institutions of the modern period, the liberal university. An indiscriminate conception of rights can undermine, or even destroy, the institutions to which well-intentioned people want to give everyone access. Indiscriminate egalitarianism fuels a conception of human rights that loses the capacity to make common-sense distinctions or to respect the integrity of institutions, from the churches to the polity itself. Today, churchmen and activists alike defend the right of any human being to become a citizen of any country that that person chooses. Through a failure to interrogate itself about its own political and cultural preconditions, the regime of indiscriminate rights ceases to support a meaningful political common good.  It depoliticizes democracy and begins actively to war on the ends and purposes that inform a freedom worthy of the name. 

Manent does not hide the fact that theoretical liberalism—the liberalism of Hobbes, Spinoza, and Bayle—resolutely opposed both the Greek conception of reflective choice and the Christian notions of free will and conscience. Modern materialism and determinism cannot support the “common action” and moral responsibility that are necessary foundations of human liberty, even under modern circumstances. A true liberalism needs reflective choice, a commonsense affirmation of free will, and a non-subjectivist notion of conscience to defend the dignity of acting man and to establish the space and preconditions of politics, understood as a realm of thoughtful—and common—action. Manent’s project is bolder than it might at first seem: it aims to rejuvenate the political resources of liberalism and to show that a conception of human rights that repudiates natural law cannot even begin to inform reasonable choice and common action of a republican character. Aristotelian reflective choice, and Christian free will and conscience, whatever the tensions between them—are precious resources for rejuvenating Western and European liberty.

Photo Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Thomas Hobbes constructed the edifice of the liberal state and society on the “fear of violent death.” But as Manent rightly observes in chapter 5 (“The Individual and the Agent”), there is something terribly debilitating about treating death as an “extrinsic accident,” with an overweening place in our awareness. For the acting man and the acting Christian, death cannot be the central concern of human existence. All men fear death, and we should not exaggerate the courage of most in this regard. But the acting man, though he has a “great fear” of death, Manent explains, does not do everything and anything to avoid it. He is concerned above all with doing the right thing, with seeking the right action and respecting the rules and priorities (the natural law) inherent in a serious human life. We are sometimes commanded, not by arbitrary authority, but by the authority of what is right and good, to put ourselves at some mortal risk. Self-preservation can never be the great desideratum for a human being guided by reflective choice and a conscience that honors truth and virtue. 

Manent exposes the growing toleration of the liberal state for taking the lives of the sick and the infirm. Treating death as an extrinsic accident leads some to claim, paradoxically, that they can make authoritative judgments on the “subjective state” of a sick or infirm person. The old and always authoritative verity—“thou shall not kill”—is thrown to the wind by the same people who treat the death penalty as an abomination. Modern liberty, in its most extreme theoretical articulations and applications, has replaced liberty under law with a one-sided preoccupation with death as the summum malum. Innocents at the same time get put to death in the name of curbing human suffering or respecting unlimited individual autonomy. In either case, respect for the moral law is lost. Manent is not the first thinker to show that modern man has an unbalanced approach to death. But more than any other writer I know, he shows that the inability to place death in a truly human context is linked to the modern repudiation of conscience and natural law.

Manent’s book concludes with an account of “Natural Law and Human Motives,” a chapter that has already appeared in English in Modern Age. Building on Aristotle, Manent shows how no human being can act without deferring to the three great human motives: the pleasant, the useful, and the honorable (or the just and noble). These are the “objective components of human nature.” Cultures and civilization vary, and humanity consists, in Plato’s words, of a “coat of many colors.” But because human beings share three great constitutive motives, we are obliged to judge others and ourselves. Yet we are not prisoners of our motives, since moral virtue demands that we conjugate them in a way that does justice to a balanced and virtuous life. As Manent explains, the jihadist or Islamist terrorist who kills in the name of a mutilated conception of religion is nothing more than a criminal who has degraded a noble conception of justice. We must judge him for the criminal we would be, too, if we, too, turned justice into an excuse for murder. Manent will not tolerate cultural or religious relativism as an excuse for explaining away the natural moral law. 

In Manent’s words, “the very notion of the natural law presupposes or implies that we are in a position to judge human behavior according to clear, stable, and widely, if not universally, shared criteria.” Human diversity, especially in the cultural realm, is fully compatible with “rules of justice” comprehensible to human beings as human beings. The principal motives of human action—the pleasant, the useful, and the noble— define the criteria for moral judgment and political action. Manent is not deterred by the “fact-value distinction” or the “naturalistic fallacy” beloved by social scientists and some academic philosophers. One can indeed “unearth a valid rule for action from a description” of human motives, since our motives unfold within an “archic” world—one guided by inherent rules and purposes. There is not an unbridgeable gap but rather a “gentle slope” connecting the is and the ought, between what we are and what we ought to be. Human nature provides non-arbitrary rules and signposts for directing lives in accord with natural justice. We need only open our eyes to the practical world and not get led astray by excessively theoretical considerations.

In his own way, Manent has responded to the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl’s plea that we return to “the things themselves” and not remain prisoners of abstractions—of the soulless scientism that too often substitutes itself for reality. He does so by a daring recovery of practical philosophy, of the world of action around us and the human motives that inescapably move our souls. I have called his enterprise daring, but it is in many respects modest, in that it avoids the hyper-theoretical approach characteristic of modern philosophy in its various forms. Manent thus recovers a capacious notion of liberty under law, of which natural law is the enduring instrument. 

We have seen that Manent refuses to identify the noble with those who have open contempt for the moral law, such as jihadist terrorists. He expands his analysis to discuss Communism and a conception of marriage compatible with the natural law. A student of the great anti-Communist Raymond Aron, Manent argues that the Communist regime was in violation of the natural law. He speaks of it as “sinister” and acknowledges its terrible crimes. But he thinks discussion of Communism has been inordinately preoccupied with the question of Communist “ideals,” which lead too many people away from confronting its dark reality. Manent points to another path of judgment, narrower and thus incomplete but nonetheless “rigorously exact” on its own terms: Communist regimes so frustrated the “fundamental” wellsprings of human life (think of collectivization, periodic famines in all major Communist countries, and systematic consumer shortages) that the regime could never honor basic human needs. It could not do justice to the elementary place of the useful and pleasant in any decent life. 

José A. Colen, an otherwise sympathetic reviewer of the book in Interpretation, misconstrued Manent’s intent in this regard. He proceeds as if Manent is somehow unaware of—and thus silent about—the gulags, torture, and the Big Lie. But elsewhere, Manent has commented authoritatively on all the sinister features of the ideocratic regime. It’s true that Communist ideology engaged in a massive “falsification of the good,” as Alain Besançon phrased it, and that its appeals to justice and fairness were mere homonyms, with little or no connection to the human meaning of these words. Perhaps Manent’s critique of Communism as contrary to the natural law is too narrow. But I prefer to see it as a complementary argument to the powerful critiques of the ideological lie put forward by the likes of Hannah Arendt, Besançon, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Manent does not need reminders about the “essential imperfections” of Communist totalitarianism. His argument about the incompatibility of Communism with the natural law is partial but convincing on its own terms.

Manent argues, as well, that marriage understood in terms of the natural law must find “suitable place for the three motives”; it cannot be reduced to pleasure-seeking or “the whims of sentiment.” His argument is not explicitly biblical or Catholic, but maintains that marriage cannot be adequately understood within the framework of some alleged human autonomy that justifies jettisoning one’s broader moral responsibilities. The natural law is a starting place for judgment: the cultivation of human nobility can help develop virtuous human conduct in an even richer and more humanizing way. Nobility can enlarge our sense of obligation and can put the useful and the pleasant in their proper place, without denying their centrality in a balanced and morally serious life. Manent does not ask for holiness. His is not a utopian call for immediate perfection. But he does call for humans to educate, inform, and elevate the motives of their souls in ways compatible with decency and self-respect. As Manent stresses, prudence plays a key role in all of these deliberations. That’s one reason why he is so skeptical of replacing natural-law reasoning with an ever-expanding list of human rights. When rights become too numerous and explicit, they introduce debilitating conflict into civil society. Moral agents need to leave a substantial place for prudence and for genuinely moral and political deliberation. Excessive “rights talk” corrupts moral reasoning and civic debate.

Photo by John J. Kim - Pool/Getty Images

Manent has many other things to say in this wise book. In recovering the “archic” character of the human world, he makes a place not only for the natural law but also for what he calls “political command” (wise and noble statesmanship) and political law. To recover a rich notion of liberty under law is to strike at the antinomian currents in our culture and politics. Natural law and political law stand or fall together, since they put practical reason and thoughtful and prudent action at the center of things. Manent, the great theoretician of the proud and self-governing nation, nonetheless tells us that we can see real action, complete action, at work in “tight-knit communities” such as Christian religious enclaves and ancient republics. Manent is not giving up on the nation-state or on the political forms of modernity. But he is expanding our moral and political imaginations to allow us to see liberty under law at work again in our hearts, minds, and souls. Perhaps we must begin with a rejuvenation of liberal education, with a recovery of those models of moral and political action that can stir liberal democrats out of their dogmatic slumber. With impressive learning, Manent points us once again to the heterogeneous motives of the human soul and to the humanizing ends and purposes that inform our freedom. He has not buried liberalism, but he has shown the only way toward its political restoration. In this deep, concise, and instructive book, he shows us the way toward rejuvenating both moral and political judgment and the broader moral foundations of the modern republic. His book is a preeminent example of reflection at the service of truth—and common life.

Photo: Sociales de France

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