Manent, Vox Clamantis in Deserto

It has been a great pleasure for me to read Paul Seaton’s stimulating Liberty Forum essay dedicated to the political thought of Pierre Manent. With chagrin, I can report to Law and Liberty’s readers that Manent is better known and more read by American scholars than by French ones. Let this response to Seaton be an attempt at remediation, however modest.

The Americans’ Manent proficiency is, in a way, understandable. His accurate reading of the classics was always likely to resonate more with those who have read the works of the philosopher Leo Strauss than with the disciples of Jacques Derrida or any of the other “deconstruction” thinkers, all of whom remain very influential on French social and philosophical thought. Then, too, Manent’s profound observations about the national “political form” are perhaps easier to understand from the other side of the ocean than from the “Great Nation” itself (especially when the “Great Nation” is looking back upon the grandeur it has lost!).

Nevertheless, this friendly reading and intimate knowledge of Manent’s works is very refreshing for a French scholar like me. I appreciated the tribute that Seaton paid (as did Aurelian Craiutu) to the beautiful French prose of Pierre Manent. Perhaps the most important thing to notice about Manent is that he is at once deep and easy to read. He teaches us that a good philosopher doesn’t have to hide behind obscure jargon—the kind of academic legerdemain that often fails to hide the emptiness of the thought.

Accurate glosses of other thinkers and charming writing are the main assets of the writings of my former teacher. Nor is this by chance—for Manent rightly thinks of himself as an heir, as we all are. We received our forma mentis from our ancestors and especially from the classics. Manent, in his latest book (Beyond Radical Secularism), proffered the classic authors as an access point for young French people (including those whose parents were not culturally French) to a shared vision of the world and of the human being. The appeal he made in this 2016 book was very powerful and striking. Unfortunately, the education system in our country worked, and still works, toward the creation of a “new human being,” after the revolutionary tabula rasa.

If we are seeking the common good, we need a common language and some common heroes, common legends, and common history. So, the French rulers who pretend to promote the ethic of “vivre-ensemble” (living together)—especially with those who have immigrated into France—while at the same time abandoning education in the classics are deceiving the rest of us, or themselves.

Manent’s public profile is now that of a promoter of the European nation-state—or perhaps more precisely, a defender of that nation-state which is being so harshly attacked by European “elites.” That defense includes, of course, the American “daughter” of the European nation-state. It also includes, in some aspects, the Jewish mother of the European nation-state, which has been for so many centuries a nation without a state. He’s indeed one of the rare influential writers who doesn’t seem to think that “progress” implies the vanishing of this very specific “political form.”

I remember a discussion with him during the May 2005 referendum campaign about the European constitution, and my joyful surprise when I discovered that he had decided to vote against this text. His stance was not “anti-European” but a rejection of the hubris of the idea of creating, from nothing, a new political form. My “no” vote was mostly due to the inconsistent title: “European Constitutional Treaty.” The word “treaty” let us think that it was an agreement between different sovereign countries, while  “constitutional” let us think that the EU became a new sovereign entity. The old principle of non-contradiction obliged me to refuse such a weird political construct.

By two different routes we had arrived at the same point: Politicians do not have the power to create, on demand, new political forms or new political realities. Years later, working with EU officials, I often discussed this with them, and asked if they thought the EU was a sovereign entity or a “confederation” of sovereign entities. Each time, they gave the same non-answer: that I needed to understand, the EU was a sui generis entity, without any examples in history or geography.

My initial encounter with Manent did not, though, have to do with the European Union. I met him because of my interest in the “political-theological question”—especially as that related to the question of Christianity in the political life of Europe. This was 20 years ago, when I was studying theology—which was peculiarly uncommon in the French academic world!—and I was struggling with the great question of religious freedom. Pierre Manent was almost the only French political philosopher interested in religious matters, and especially in political-theological matters. I cannot do better than to invite readers to turn to his books The City of Man, whose title so openly refers to St. Augustine, and The Metamorphoses of the City, to see for themselves.

It’s obvious that Christianity changed our understanding of political life, not only of individual (spiritual) life. Christ’s famous pronouncement on the distinction between God and Caesar[1]—and perhaps more important in historical terms, the four centuries of persecution of the early Christians by the Romans—prohibited the divinization of the state. This was a great achievement given that the Byzantine Caesars were so strongly tempted, notwithstanding the Gospel’s predication, to recur to the Roman empire’s understanding of sacred power and political life. Even in Latin Christianity, emperors and popes tried regularly to gather political and spiritual powers in their own hands. But the Western confrontation of popes and emperors, or of bishops and kings, upset the very notion of political power, accidentally giving birth to this very interesting and very strange thing we call “consciousness,” the ground of the one’s personhood.

This question of the relationship between political and spiritual powers, between church and state, between consciousness and law, or between legitimacy and legality, drove me to Pierre Manent. It will not be understood at first glance how this question relates to the question of the nation-state, but let me explain.

The two are in fact closely linked. The nation-state is the (European) political answer to the Christian teaching. All of European history, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, hinges, as Manent himself says in Beyond Radical Secularism, on a single, but very important and complex, principle: « Se gouverner soi-même dans un certain rapport à la proposition chrétienne »  –in English, “to govern oneself in a certain relation to the Christian proposition.” And the European way of self-government, in relation to the Christian proposition, is precisely the nation-state— as opposed to the classical Greek self-government as in city, and also opposed to the classical “barbarian” political strength as in empire—which was, in fact, the first institution to respond, initially with persecution and then with welcome, to the Christian teaching.

But the contemporary nation-state tends to cancel the theological question, to become a “true” self-government, without any higher rules (any higher, that is, than the “general will” or the “people’s sovereignty”[2]). Although the European nation-state makes little sense outside of the Christian proposition, and although the political life makes no sense outside of human nature, today’s European nation-states are trying to create a political life “freed” from the natural law and a perfectly neutral society, where the Christian proposition is no longer the shared politico-cultural framework.

This is pretty dangerous. Jettisoning the Christian proposition is exactly the revolutionary and the totalitarian purpose: to “gather the two heads of the eagle,” as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the teacher of the activists of 1789, beautifully expressed it. His image encapsulates the thought:  to give to the political power a spiritual authority over the consciousness. It is no longer possible to protest against an illegitimate law—which is not a law and which cannot oblige as a law, according to Augustine and also to Thomas Aquinas. For now the law becomes an expression of the general will, which is the will of every member of the “social contract,” the will of every one of us. To say no to the general will is therefore to say no to my own will.

So, we can see that the nation-state’s historical development is paradoxical: It was born to abandon the spiritual power to this new community of the faithful that we call Church, and to distinguish political power from spiritual power. And yet, on the eve of its life, the nation-state claims to be, in a way, the genuine church, the only structure able to teach the truth and the good to the citizens.

Nor is this paradox the only one. The nation-state is, as I said, the Christian European way of self-government. It thus has something to do with democracy. But democracy is also, in our postmodern age, changing its meaning. It is no more the government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as Lincoln said. It is now adhesion to an uncertain and cloudy set of values, like openness, tolerance or, generally speaking, what we call in French the valeurs de la République (“the values of the Republic”). These are never really specified, but we are to simply accept them as the true “good.”

On the other hand, the voice of the people, which we should indeed carefully attend to, may express a “populist” dissatisfaction with this state of affairs—a dissatisfaction that the mainstream media calls evil. For example, when the people ask for a restoration of the borders, when it clamors for better control over immigration into the country, or when it rejects the European Union’s constitution, the “good citizens” have to stand up for “true democracy”—which means, in this context, to refuse the decision of the people. This new paradox, that is to say, implies that to stand for democracy can mean precisely the opposite of to respect the people’s decisions.

It is not too much to suggest that this is a sort of soft, postmodern form of totalitarianism, this effort to gather “the two heads of the eagle” and erase the human being’s consciousness—and consider that this program of the “good citizens” is officially the main adversary of a much less subtle form of totalitarianism: that of radical Islamism. In this latter ideology also, spiritual and political powers are unified, and people’s self-government has no legitimacy. And—perhaps more important, politically speaking—the nation-state is no longer the efficient “political form.” That distinction passes to the umma or community of all believers, a genuine worldwide empire, and one that openly takes on the nation-states.

Of course, we can read in the Koran that the umma is the “best nation for human beings.”[3] But, in this context, “nation” has nothing to do with the European conception of nation-state; it has nothing to do with self-government; it has nothing to do with the Christian proposition; and it has nothing to do with the Gospel’s distinction between God and Caesar. It can be called a “nation,” just as the Bible can call “nations” (in Latin gentes, or in Hebrew “goyim”) the foreigners who are not members of God’s elected people.

Facing both the sanguinary hubris of the ISIS “caliphate” and the hubris of the unlimited power of the postmodern legislator, Pierre Manent has been characterized as a sad—or, as Seaton says, chastened—liberal. This is not inapt. Measured thinkers—like Manent’s masters, Raymond Aron, Alexis de Tocqueville or Leo Strauss—seem, indeed, to have been perplexed by the overwhelming, rising tide of unrooted political power. This political power pretends to be able to create an entirely new Europe bearing little relationship to European civilization, or an entirely new France bearing little relationship to the French people, and their history and culture—or even an entirely new human being that has little or no relationship with human nature.

But in his “sadness,” and in his politically measured mode of analysis, and in his love and admiration for the gift received from the classics, Manent is in great and admirable company. He seems to speak, in our times, with the voice of Edmund Burke, the great British Whig, warning the French people against the jeopardy of the tabula rasa and the risk of seeing “liberty” in the formal sense destroy the real liberties; so too does he seem to speak with the voice of Tocqueville, warning the moderns about the possibility of a “tyranny of the majority” and the dangers of egalitarianism.

The French did not heed Burke or Tocqueville, despite the wide dissemination of their works. We can doubt that Pierre Manent will be more listened to—as I said at the outset, he’s more read in United States than in France. Some decades ago, it was said that it was better to be wrong with Jean-Paul Sartre, the communist-friendly philosopher, than to be right with Raymond Aron—Sartre’s former school mate and the former professor of Pierre Manent. Of course Aron was the much more serious political observer, and was, into the bargain, admirably immune to the “charms” of either the Nazi or the communist totalitarianisms.

Unfortunately, my people show little affinity for measured political thinkers, and an inclination toward chaos and revolution. It is, however, the honor of this “sad liberalism” school to be the vox clamantis in deserto, defending the nation-state, Western civilization, and human dignity.

[1] Matthew, 22: 21.

[2] It’s not only a tendency nowadays. One could say that the classical absolutist state (say, the état of Louis XIV in France) was also a sort of theologically neutral place, where Protestant and Catholic subjects of the king could be united and serve a common good, despite their religious opposition. But of course, at that time, this “neutrality” was accompanied by the “divine right” of the king and by an official religion of the state, which is far different from our modern conception of religious neutrality.

[3] Koran, Surah 3, Verse 110.