Pierre Manent

Over the past three decades, the French philosopher Pierre Manent has published a series of works on the destiny of the West and our modern political condition that are both profound and—atypical of Parisian intellectuals—expressed in luminous prose. In books that include Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (1982), An Intellectual History of Liberalism (1987), The City of Man (1994), A World Beyond Politics? (2004), and The Metamorphoses of the City (2010), Manent engages with the West’s greatest political minds, from Aristotle and Cicero to Machiavelli and Montesquieu and beyond. These thinkers aren’t prisoners of time, Manent insists; if studied attentively, they speak truths—often explosive truths—across the ages.

Most of Manent’s major books are now available in English translation. Until now, though, no single-volume introduction to his thought has been available to English-speaking readers. Seeing Things Politically, a series of interviews with Manent, conducted by Bénédicte Delorme-Montini, covering his major influences, spiritual life, and intellectual career, solves that problem.1 Ably translated by Ralph C. Hancock (the French original appeared in 2010, to accompany The Metamorphoses of the City), with a helpful introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney, the book can be read in one or two sittings. It is a small masterpiece.

Seeing Things Politically is a small masterpiece.

Manent makes his ambition clear to his interlocutor in his very first responses. Since he reached adulthood, he tells Delorme-Montini, he hasn’t been attracted to the Left, which pursues fantasies—new political and moral orders that it can conjure and create. “What I want instead,” Manent says, “is to understand”: society as it is, he maintains, is more interesting than any utopian dream. And the focus of his research has been on politics or political things, which give “human life its form.”

We can discover truths in politics, Manent insists. Not for him the nihilistic relativism of so much contemporary thought: human reason has the power to grasp the human world. Even when recent political theory isn’t nihilistic, it is frequently aridly abstract, far removed from the clashing ideas and tumult of actual political life. (Liberal philosopher John Rawls’s influential writings on justice come quickly to mind.) The contrast with the writings of the ancient Greeks—“all muscle, blood, and nerves”—couldn’t be greater.

Yet Manent’s path originally pointed left. Born in Toulouse just after the end of World War II, he grew up in a Marxian milieu, his father a committed communist and anti-American. Manent describes his youthful passion for the Soviet Union, which had him rooting for the communists to beat the United States in the race to space. His first intellectual experiences were Marxist “Social Editions,” dogmatic textbooks compiled for young militants.

It was in the Toulouse lycée—French secondary school—that Manent’s youthful leftism first weakened. His neo-Thomist philosophy teacher, Louis Jugnet, introduced him, outside of class, to the teachings of the Catholic faith, and the experience opened his eyes. What drove Manent’s eventual conversion to Catholicism was his conviction that it said something true about the human condition and man’s destiny. “My approach to religion was through speculative theology, and not through piety,” he notes. Decades later, Manent remains at least in part a Thomist, open to the workings of divine grace in history.

Matriculating at the prestigious L’École Normale Supérieur in Paris in 1967 ended whatever sympathy Manent retained for the Left. Revolutionary madness was sweeping French intellectual life, and nowhere more so than at the ens, where Maoists and Polpotists and Trotskyites were more in evidence than liberal democrats. Manent recalls the school as a “ship of fools sailing far from the real world—and it was this real world that I wanted to know and to understand.” Though he belongs to the ’68 generation, Manent shared none of its enthusiasms. Structuralism, linguistics, psychoanalysis, deconstruction—what came to be known as the “thought of ’68”—failed to capture his interest, and the radical politics repelled him. Reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in the ens library left a more positive impression, helping to inform his life-long anti-totalitarianism.

Manent remains at least in part a Thomist, open to the workings of divine grace in history.

Another personal encounter proved the most decisive of Manent’s academic career. After graduating from the ens, he became the student and, later, assistant of the great political thinker Raymond Aron at the Collège de France. Aron’s seminar provided a “refuge far from the ship of fools,” Manent says. Whereas so many French intellectuals celebrated dark, fantastical politics, Aron fought for freedom with all of his considerable powers; he was always acutely sensitive to the fragility of decent liberal democratic governance. He was France’s anti-fanatic, and he came to exemplify for Manent—both personally and intellectually—the potential of a life devoted to reason and the public good. “By his very being,” observes Manent, “he made it clear that only a long education of the intellect and of the faculty of judgment makes it possible to find one’s way with some certainty in political life.” Aron’s vaulting oeuvre—studies of industrial economies, ideological critique, intellectual history, reflections on peace and war—sought to understand the complexities of the social and political world, while acknowledging the limits of understanding. Manent would help found the journal Commentaire, which continues to exemplify that noble Aronian ambition.

Aron pointed Manent to a third formative influence: the philosopher Leo Strauss. “I was looking for a reference point beyond politics,” recalls Manent. “Perhaps my interest in theology played a role in this, but, in any case, even within the philosophical domain, I felt the need for a criterion of politics.” Studying Strauss’s dense readings of the classics of Western political thought introduced Manent to the timeless wisdom of Greek philosophy, and—with Machiavelli and Tocqueville among the guides—brought him to see the true radicalism of modernity as a human project. Yet Manent didn’t follow Strauss all the way. As he told Allan Bloom, the student of Strauss who became another mentor and close friend, the Straussian notion of the true philosopher, contemplating the cosmos and leaving behind everyday moral and political concerns, left him cold.

Religion, politics, philosophy: each represents a human attitude, and each—at least at the limit—requires utter devotion. “Churchill cannot be a philosopher or a religious man if he wants to be Churchill: he is too busy with ‘human things,’ ” explains Manent. “Strauss and Socrates cannot be statesmen or men of faith: if they turn away from human affairs, it is not to attend to the Father’s, but in order to purse an endless questioning.” The same holds for the truly religious man or woman; ultimately, a life fully dedicated to God is incommensurable with the calling of philosopher or politician. Yet Manent has refused to commit himself completely to any one of these three human attitudes, since all appeal to him. He instead has found “a productive disequilibrium” in exploring how the three are at work throughout Western history.

The Straussian notion of the true philosopher left Manent cold.

Seeing Things Politically gives a brisk tour d’horizon of Manent’s body of scholarly work, which one can divide into two periods. During the first, Manent pursued “the question of the modern difference.” Beginning in the early sixteenth century, Europeans launched an unprecedented effort to break with everything that had previously shaped the West. Henceforth, moderns would strive to forge a world that, via the organized initiatives of the secular state, would alleviate human ills—that would flee evil—rather than follow classical and Christian wisdom in pursuit of the good. Providing learned readings of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Tocqueville, among other major thinkers, the early Manent emphasized what was lost in this modern turn, above all, a transcendent meaning to man’s existence and a shared way of talking about higher natural or supernatural ends.

This period culminated in The City of Man, a remarkably ambitious book that illumined the three “great notions” that organize modern lives. That society determines man; that man is a historical being; that man is the being with rights—these notions reflect modernity’s weakness, argued Manent. If man is thoroughly historical, as Nietzsche and other historicists contend, “this means that man has no nature, that he, in a way, creates himself in history.” Relativism rules. Similarly, if society determines us, as the sociological tradition maintains, moral and political freedom become vaporous illusions. To claim one’s rights presupposes a social order, but on what moral grounds is that order secured? The moderns have difficulty answering the question. The City of Man is Manent’s most starkly anti-modern book.

In his more recent writings, Manent has softened this critical interpretation of modernity, which was always tempered in his work by an Aron-like recognition of the very real gains in human flourishing that liberal societies have achieved. In The Metamorphoses of the City, his masterwork to date, Manent situates the modern break in a much longer history of “political forms,” which opens with what he now sees as an even greater rupture: the birth of the Greek city. Out went ancestral rule and its unchanging norms. In their place, the Greeks—and that cauldron of genius Athens, above all—invented politics, where man deliberates and decides freely. This was a world-historical development, breathtaking in its audacity.

The city “is the new form of the ancients,” Manent explains in Seeing Things Politically. The other political form contending with it in antiquity was the empire. The city is bounded, “the smallest human association capable of self-government.” The empire, unfriendly to self-government, extends the rule of a single sovereign to the horizon and beyond. Ancient Rome was the originally modest city that somehow transformed itself into an immense and mighty empire—which then became home to the even grander spiritual empire of the Catholic Church. The often-bloody conflicts among these three political forms—city, empire, and the Church—brought chaos and disorder to Europe.

Manent situates the modern break in a much longer history of “political forms.”

For many centuries—a long stretch in which Cicero, who had tried to think through Rome’s shift from city to empire, and what it implied for self-governance, was the regnant philosophical authority—the West unsuccessfully sought stability. The search ended only with the emergence during the late Middle Ages and early modern period of a fourth great political form: the nation. “The source of European development,” Manent tells Delorme-Montini, “is the desire or need for a political order that is at least somewhat reasonable, somewhat coherent. The cause of history is humanity’s political nature.”

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Manent is a defender of the nation, rightly understood. Without a national territory, he contends, democracy lacks a body. Who, then, belongs to the community? Who gets to form a judgment for the collective? Self-government needs defined realms, needs materiality. Just as the autonomous city did, the political form of the nation provided these crucial things. Within civil society, anyway, it left room for the muscular classical virtues of courage, moderation, justice, and prudence, as well as Evangelical humility; the West’s dual sources of strength could find room to exercise themselves. The nation, imperfect as it is, has also mediated human universality in ways that have culturally and spiritually enriched the patrimony of all.

The monstrous nationalism that ravaged the twentieth century discredited the nation in Europe, especially among elites. Yet, however understandable, Europeans’ attempt to live in a post-national (and post-Judeo-Christian) civilization, based on humanitarian individual rights, borderless commerce, and bureaucratic rule—otherwise known as the European Union—is doomed to fail. Nothing in the European Union’s makeup, Manent believes, is substantial enough to hold it together. The European Union refuses public reinforcement of classical pride or Christian charity, the West’s moral matrix. It suffers from a strange, depoliticized formlessness, reflected in its constantly shifting membership and territory and lack of democratic accountability. It pretends people aren’t what they are, in all their stubborn variety. In Manent’s view, either the European Union will give rise to an unprecedented new political form—highly unlikely, he avers—or the continent’s “old nations” will “remember the political condition of humanity,” rediscover some of their self-confidence, and the union, at least in its current utopian manifestation, will dissolve.

A call for France to reclaim some semblance of its old Christian and national identity is at the heart of Manent’s most recent work, Situation de la France, now out in English translation with a new title, Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge.2 (Again, Ralph Hancock translates and again, Daniel Mahoney sets the stage.) Its publication in France, shortly after the gruesome isis-inspired terror attacks in and around Paris in early January 2015, to which it is an impassioned response, ignited controversy. It is Manent’s most topical book.

Europe has a Muslim problem. “Islam is putting pressure on Europe and advancing into Europe,” writes Manent. It is doing so, he points out, through the growth of large Muslim enclaves in European countries, including France. It is doing so through the financial resources of the Gulf states, which spread Islamic doctrine—often the most anti-Western variants—through European mosques, media outlets, and other institutions. And it is doing so through terrorism, with attacks killing more than 230 French citizens in recent months. Manent is even willing to use the word “war” to describe the current crisis. The Muslims of Europe, adhering to conservative Islamic beliefs and practices, often sympathetic with sharia law (if not violent methods of imposing it), stand at odds with many aspects of liberal society.

The thin humanitarian ideals of contemporary Europe, to which elite France adheres, will not be sufficient to overcome this crisis, Manent predicts. French Muslims will not suddenly abandon their strong religious mores and moral beliefs and embrace liberal individualism, women’s emancipation, gay rights, and other contemporary positions. Why would they? Simply because it’s the expected, “enlightened” secular thing to do? To believe this transformation probable is to misunderstand what matters most to serious Muslims.

A bolder approach to integrating France’s millions of Muslim residents is necessary, believes Manent. France must look to its republican and religious past—he describes the country as inscribed with a “Christian mark,” with an “eminent” role played by Jews—and reassert itself as a nation, with a real common good. He proposes that such an invigorated France could enter into a new social contract with its Muslims. On the one side, French Muslims must accept that they live in a democratic and free nation. This has at least four conditions. Muslims need to accept free speech and the open exchange of ideas—nothing has been more crucial to the Western spirit. There thus should be no use of the meaningless term “Islamophobia” to silence criticism or discussion of the Islamic faith. Second, the burqa must be banned, since, for Europeans, the face is the medium of “the exchange of signs by which a human being recognizes another human being.” Polygamy must be rejected, too, as antithetical to the entire Western tradition of family life. Finally, France’s Muslims must disavow the umma and commit themselves to France, which means in part that they must not receive any foreign funds for their mosques and other organizations.

Manent reminds us that words like “glory” and “nation” can still carry weight.

In exchange, France would welcome its Muslim citizens more fully—it would represent them, just as it represents its Catholics, Jews, and secularists. Muslims would form a “distinct community in a nation in which they are citizens like others.” France would thus incorporate aspects of Muslim life into its national culture—allowing for religious dietary exemptions in schools, say, or establishing some female-only times for public swimming pools—but Muslims in turn would become full participants in the back-and-forth, in the deliberation and action, of a European republican government, where religious commandments have no special political authority.

Would such a dramatic refounding work? It will require on both sides “a masterpiece of imagination and moderation,” admits Manent. But the alternative is intensifying social animosity—even, awful as it is to contemplate, low-scale civil war. “While our failure would signify the dislocation of the nation and the inglorious end of an enduring hope,” he suggests, “success would resonate well beyond the narrow limits of our country, since the main spiritual forces of the Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds would be concerned. This should motivate our desire for glory, if we have any left.”

Beyond Radical Secularism, like Seeing Things Politically, represents the most accessible work of one of the most important thinkers of our age. Pierre Manent reminds us that political thought can cast light on the most pressing public issues, that it isn’t fated to the obscurantism and grievance-mongering that characterize so much academic theory today. He reminds us that words like “glory” and “nation”—to say nothing of “good” and “evil”—can still carry weight.

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1 Seeing Things Politically, by Pierre Manent, translated by Ralph C. Hancock; St. Augustine’s Press, 240 pages, $30.

2 Beyond Radical Secularism, by Pierre Manent, translated by Ralph C. Hancock; St. Augustine’s Press, 160 pages, $24.