Pierre Manent: Lux Gallica ex Tenebris

Perhaps the nascent Manent fan club can meet in Paris at the Café de Flore later this summer? There we could raise un verre or two to Manent, expound on our views, and hash out whatever differences we might have. Who knows, perhaps the man himself could join us? Pending that reunion, a brief response to my gracious respondents will have to do.

We all agree that Manent is a first-rate thinker, but we do not agree as to how best to characterize his thought. Aurelian Craiutu quotes Manent saying that he moves intellectually within a triangle of politics, philosophy, and religion, and he presents Manent as a philosopher whose masterwork is The City of Man. He also recognizes that Manent is a political philosopher. There is work to be done to bring these three descriptions together.

Sam Gregg portrays Manent as a Catholic and a Tocquevillian, while Guillaume de Thieulloy tends to emphasize Catholicism, while recognizing in him a political philosopher. To Gregg, I will just say that Manent has written that while Tocqueville presupposed the nation, he did not thematize it. The latter has been Manent’s work, at least since the collapse of Soviet communism. One has to look beyond Tocqueville, therefore, to understand Manent’s thinking about the nation and Western political development more widely. As my essay demonstrates, Aristotle would have to come into play. It is quite striking that the terms “Aristotle” or “Aristotelian” are not found in Gregg’s essay.

Nor are they found in de Thieulloy’s affecting personal essay. As I said, he emphasizes the Christian contributions to the development of Europe and the nation-state. However, Manent is quite clear about his own view and I quoted the relevant passages in my essay: The fundamental cause of European political development is man’s political nature, although as impacted by 1) the memory of the two great pagan political options; and 2) the Christian proposition. Manent is a political philosopher.

One of the causes of our differences is that we talked about different things. Pace Craiutu, my essay’s focus was Manent on the nation-state. I only turned to the EU and to his normative view of “the political” insofar as they were needed to illumine the subject I was assigned. He wanted to talk about Manent’s critique of the EU, but in so doing he had precious few words to say about the topic of my essay. If I had wanted to talk primarily about Manent’s critique of the post-Maastricht EU, my essay would have had a different shape and I would have spelled out the critique. As things stand now, however, we have two important differences on the table: what I take to be the fundamental Manentian critique of the EU, and Craiutu’s dissent on the nature of political correctness on the Continent. The two are connected and I will talk about them toward the end.

Gregg, too, made Manent’s critique of the EU central to his reflections, although he did discuss nation-states, usually to emphasize their plurality, particularity, and important combination of community and liberty; but the nation-state itself, its nature, its substance, and its vocation—which I laid out extensively—was not his theme. Rather, he talked about the nation under the impress of two classic Tocquevillian treatments of the French nation. In so doing, he introduced the term “culture” to the analysis. Far be it from me to deny the greatness of Tocqueville’s books (including the Souvenirs, about which he wrote admiringly and well recently), but I do have to register the claim that they do not enter into Manent’s analysis of the nature of the nation-state per se; and I must further report that Manent has a general aversion to “cultural” analyses of political things.

If I had to venture a French thinker who has significantly influenced Manent’s thinking about the nation, I would propose Charles Péguy (1874-1914). Among other things, Péguy introduced the concept of “communion,” which has a spiritual dimension lacking in the Greek koinōnía, and his writings helped Manent see how the nation synthesizes the temporal (past, present, and future) and historical phases of a people’s existence. There are some beautiful passages in this vein in the book I translated, Democracy without Nations?

There is, however, one Tocquevillian element that is important in Manent’s treatment of the EU: the quintessential democratic affect, the passion for human ressemblance, of which Tocqueville gave a penetrating description and analysis. However, here too Manent has seen fit to update the Tocquevillian description and add elements to it, in order to understand the social imaginary and social psychology undergirding the construction of the EU. To them, I turn.

Craiutu used the Manentian (and Comtean) phrase “the religion of humanity” once in his essay. He called it “superficial,” but didn’t develop it. According to Manent, however, it is fundamental. In their presentations of Manent’s critique of the EU, neither Craiutu nor Gregg emphasized this absolutely fundamental element, choosing rather to start with or emphasize other aspects, for example, its hegemony of rules or its preference for the particular, or its false view of diversity. On the other hand, Craiutu called into question my admittedly harsh claim that humanitarian political correctness has some resemblance to the ideological Lie of communism. There is a connection between his  lacuna and his reservation.

In Manent’s view, oft repeated, the post-Maastricht EU has been constructed in the light of an Idea of Humanity as already (or virtually) united, with no significant collective differences.[1] What is normative is the autonomous individual and harmonious Humanity. As a result, all other human groupings lose normative status, especially nations and religious communions, and are seen as threats, or as material to be remade along ideological lines. Moreover, this view of integrated Humanity is enforced. Rigorously. Here are two Manentian passages (among scores), one doux, the other dur.

For those who are morally advanced:

The religion of humanity . . . is a veil over our eyes and a down comforter to our hearts.[2]

That is not a compliment. It indicts this idée-croyance for intellectual obfuscation and moral sappiness.

But for those not with the program:

Anyone who does not see humanity as an immediate reality, as an evident experience in a way, reveals, according to the dominant opinion, his hostility to human unity and thus to humanity itself. Such is the authority among us of this idea, o[f] philosophic origin, of humanity.[3]

How dominant? How hostile?

According to this public philosophy, we see, we must see, we can only see human unity, or at least humanity in the process of unification. But if we claim to see what we do not see, if what is visible and what is visibly fragmented do not arrest our gaze, and if, on the contrary, we believe we are seeing the invisible unity of humanity, then we are indeed part of what we can only call a religion, part of what I am happy to call, following others, the religion of humanity. We are not under the power of an idea; rather, the philosophical idea of humanity comes along with a religious enthusiasm. Obviously, as always in such circumstances, those who do not share this enthusiasm are exposed to the sacred indignation of those who are prey to it. To force someone to believe what he does not see – is this not a definition of fanaticism, and particularly of religious fanaticism?[4]

If this be true—that atheistic humanitarian humanism has become the public philosophy of the EU—the Catholic Aristotelian Manent has every reason to be critical of this ideological obscurity: to critique it is the sine qua non for a revival of intellectual life, as well as political life. Likewise, as a French Catholic Aristotelian, he has several reasons to call for a relighting of the nation-state’s candle, so that the political adventure of Europeans may continue, and that each nation can make its “proposition concerning humanity” to its fellows.

[1] Manent began talking significantly about “the religion of humanity” in an interview entitled “La tentation humanitaire” (Géopolitique 68, January, 2000). He continued with an extensive treatment in A World beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State, translated by Marc A. LePain (Princeton University Press, 2006), Chapter 11, “The Religion of Humanity,” and Chapters 16 and 17, “The Empire of Law” and “The Empire of Morality.” Democracy without Nations? continued the critique, and in my essay I quoted the most pungent passage. Seeing Things Politically contains several passages discussing this reality-distorting and politically debilitating “philosophical idea.”

[2] Seeing Things Politically, translated by Ralph C. Hancock, with an Introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney (St. Augustine Press, 2015), p. 147.

[3] Ibid., p. 150. There is a typo in the text.

[4] Ibid., pp. 151-52. Taking a different tack and arriving at an even harsher conclusion, de Thieulloy says that today’s EU, in which “Democracy” or “democratic values” are pitted against the declared wills of the various peoples of Europe, is a “sort of soft, postmodern totalitarianism.” I note that he currently resides in Europe.

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