Within the Triangle of Politics, Philosophy, and Religion

One could hardly agree more with Paul Seaton when he writes, in the June Liberty Forum essay, that the elegant voice of Pierre Manent is one that we should listen to carefully these days, as our liberal democracies are on the defensive on both sides of the Atlantic, threatened by the rise of populism and new forms of authoritarianism. Manent’s critique of the European Union seems more relevant than ever before.

And there is, I believe, an even stronger reason for turning to Manent’s books today. He has articulated over the past four decades an original agenda in political philosophy, one that has managed to carve out an original path between different methodologies and figures such as Leo Strauss, Martin Heidegger, and Raymond Aron. Manent has been seen alternatively as a conservative liberal or liberal conservative, and as heir to a distinguished intellectual tradition that goes back to the Baron de Montesquieu and Alexis de Tocqueville in France. In North America, some have seen him as a French Straussian even though there are major differences between Manent and Leo Strauss.

Be that as it may, Manent’s writings have had a strong impact on younger colleagues in France and beyond, including in the United States, where a small group of devoted readers—among them Daniel Mahoney, Paul Seaton, Ralph Hancock, Mark Lilla, Thomas Pavel, and Harvey Mansfield—have done a great deal to bring him to the attention of North American readers. I should add that my own work on the French Doctrinaires, Tocqueville, and the Group of Coppet (Jacques Necker, Madame de Staël, and Benjamin Constant among others) owes a lot to the encounter with Manent’s writings.

Manent, who retired from teaching at Paris’ École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in 2014, came to our attention on this side of the ocean back in 1994, when Princeton University Press launched its “New French Thought” series. Among the first in that series was Manent’s An Intellectual History of Liberalism (1994). Since then, some of his most important writings have been translated into English and published by several American presses.[1] He also taught for a while at Boston College.

Some might say that Manent is an acquired taste and that he belongs to a particularly French school of sad and melancholy liberalism that might explain, among other things, his conservative skepticism toward the European Union. This remains an open question that I cannot settle here. Paul Seaton tends to interpret Manent in a more conservative light than I would be inclined to, and he does not fully account for the evolution of his thought over time. What I can say for sure, though, is that Manent’s style and perspective are very French and that, fortunately, as Harvey Mansfield once quipped, his approach is also full of good sense. Manent is no Derrida or Bourdieu. He writes with Gallic charm and precision using a graceful and clear style that combines intellectual history and political theory, and displays a great sensitivity to the texture of political life.

As Paul Seaton notes in his essay, Manent’s political allegiances, including his thoroughgoing critique of the current European alternative to the nation-state, are a direct consequence of—and are based upon—his philosophical analysis and convictions concerning man and politics in general. That is why I would like to first say a few words about this aspect of Manent’s work before turning to the focus of Seaton’s essay, the European Union today. Seaton describes Manent as a French patriot “whose mind is given over to the demands of dispassionate thought,” and whose focus has been “the political.” This portrait might explain Manent’s current views on the nation, but it needs unpacking for those unfamiliar with his intellectual trajectory. How are we to understand it?

Early on in his career, Manent had the great luck of meeting great French sociologist Raymond Aron (1905-1983), who played a key role in his intellectual development as well as that of others. Through his many books, articles, and public interventions, Aron demonstrated a unique capacity to perceive and interpret what is happening in the world around him. He also showed that one can be a defender of reason and a friend of liberal democracy without ever becoming blind to democracy’s faults or turning into a democratic zealot. Equally important for Manent has been the encounter with Tocqueville, who taught him, to use a Manentian phrase that would later be widely quoted, that “to love democracy well, it is necessary to love it moderately.”

As Manent himself acknowledged in an excellent book of conversations with Bénédicte Delorme-Montini (originally published, in 2010, as Le Regard Politique, translated into English as Seeing Things Politically), he has always found himself operating inside a triangle formed by politics (modern world), philosophy (classical thought), and religion (Christianity). Unlike Aron, Strauss, or Jacques Maritain, for example, Manent has never been able to settle on any one of them. In keeping his distance in relation to these three fundamental dimensions of human life, he has tried to remain open to the diversity and complexity of the world—to find, as he put it in Le Regard Politique, a “fragile equilibrium, or rather a productive disequilibrium”[2] in his questioning about the manner in which politics, philosophy, and religion have been articulated throughout the course of the history of the Western world.

It is worth pointing out that Manent has never been preoccupied with joining a particular circle or school of thought. Although he tended initially to align himself with those who were “apprehensive about the triumphs of the modern movement, or who regarded them skeptically, without joining any particular school,” he never joined the school of disenchantment with modernity. “Indignation and vituperation are not my register,” he admitted, in spite of the fact that many of his early articles had a combative tone and were quite polemical. “I sensed a riddle to solve, something enigmatic to understand,” he added.[3]

To be sure, Manent has always seen himself, above all, as “someone who is seeking to understand,” and never felt the temptation to exchange the toga of the teacher for that of the senator or engaged public intellectual. “I have always felt that intellectual work,” he wrote, “constituted a complete life, and that, in any case, I could not lead two at the same time, that I was capable of only one, and this was the intellectual life.”[4]

On his view, the task of a philosopher is to be an educator, something that Raymond Aron achieved so well. If true to his/her vocation, the political philosopher aspires to impartiality and seeks to educate the civic body and the legislators by bringing out the criteria of justice and evaluating them critically and impartially. This is also the task that Manent tried to fulfil in the past decades that witnessed momentous events, including the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The project that has continually engaged Manent’s attention—and that also explains, in part, his current views on Europe and the nation-state—has been, in his words, “the question of the modern difference.”[5] He has carefully explored what he called, in La Cité de l’homme (The City of Man, 1998), the “liberating deed of the modern experience”[6]—that is, the long process by which the modern man fled the law that was given to him and sought the new law that he gave himself, thus subjecting nature to his autonomy and liberty. This has been the revolution that has ended with the triumph of the individual will and the affirmation of the authority of history over nature.

“I was gradually brought to strive to reconstitute the immense architecture of the modern political framework,” Manent acknowledged, “a framework which the great notions by which we interpret and organize our lives are deployed with an extraordinary authority: the notion of society, the notion of history, the notion of the rights of man— man is determined by society, man is a historical being, man is a being who has rights.”[7]

La Cité de l’homme represents Manent’s critical analysis of the intellectual framework of the moderns in its most complete and systematic form. It is an accomplished work of synthesis and intellectual maturity that concluded an important phase in his intellectual journey. According to Manent, that work still retained a certain degree of polemical posture in the debate between the moderns and the ancients. That is why, in his subsequent books, he has attempted to reduce “the part of enmity” in his writing by adopting, to use his own words, a “classic view” of political life. The latter has given him “a better view of the eternal play between the few and the many, beyond the democratic enthusiasm characteristic of modern societies.”[8] This classic perspective undergirds the ambitious The Metamorphoses of the City (2013), Manent’s book about political forms—city-state, nation, empire—which some of his readers (including myself) have found more obscure and difficult to read than his previous works.

Far from becoming less polemical, Manent’s latest writings have become, in fact, even more polemical and controversial after the publication of the The Metamorphoses of the City. I have in mind here La raison des nations (originally published in 2006 and translated into English a year later, in an enlarged version, as Democracy without Nations?) and Situation de la France (which came out in 2015 in France, and the following year in the United States as Beyond Radical Secularism), in which Manent touched upon the role of Islam in modern France.

In the first book, Manent put forward a sophisticated defense of the nation that took to task the Europeans’ embrace of a superficial religion of humanity and their increasing distrust of the nation as the natural political body of democracy. Paul Seaton correctly points out that Manent’s complex advocacy of the nation in La raison des nations is not rooted in any version of nationalism, and has nothing to do with ethnic forms of nationalism that have wrought so much havoc in Europe and elsewhere. Instead, he insists, Manent’s defense of the nation is marked by an acute awareness of nationalism’s past hubris and apprehension over the current weakness of the nation-state.

Let’s take a closer look at what really motivates Manent to praise the nation today. At the present moment, Europeans do not, in his view, enjoy a vigorous political order likely to last. How so? Manent begins by admitting that people in Europe are currently trying “to accomplish something radical that has very rarely been accomplished in history, that is, to found a new political form.” [9] European ideal today, he argues, is that “we would all be governed by general rules and that all action would be subsumed under a rule, with evaluating institutions for verifying that things are done by the rules.”[10]

This is what is commonly called “governance” and is marked by a proliferation of regulations (enforced top-down from Brussels) and rights guaranteed by states that attempt to meet each individual and group in their own peculiarity, in order to bring the latter into the limelight of the political scene. Yet, “governance” thus defined lacks any distinctive political dimension and makes self-government and common action more and more difficult, if not simply impossible. “We can still say that there is a public space, a public light,” notes Manent, “but certainly not something common, since, to repeat, particularities alone as seen as truly real.”[11]

There is an interesting paradox in all that. While embracing democratic values, Europeans tend to forget the political meaning of democracy, which is the self-government of a people. What Europe has done is to “put on this abstract body called ‘Europe,’” that is a body without limits.” [12] The ensuing depoliticization of our democracies today is far from being a benign phenomenon. It produces a tyranny of rules and a new form of enlightened despotism sui generis that makes it more and more difficult to have any meaningful participation in what is common, which Manent regards as a fundamental condition of any res publica. “We have lost the sense of action,” he claims, “and we understand action only as the application of the rule, or conformity to the rule.”[13]

The absence of an authoritative perspective capable of linking us together in meaningful ways does not bode well for our future. Individuals fear more and more that they are not well represented and that they are no longer a people in the proper sense of the word: “The state is less and less sovereign, and the government is less and less representative. The political instruments of the democratic nation are more and more functional-bureaucratic and less and less political.”[14] Liberty is again threatened, this time in the name of more democracy, inclusion, and recognition.

Yet not everything is lost, and Manent’s critique should not be identified with the rejection of the European project so common in the circles of Marie le Pen and others. Europe, Manent believes, can still change its course and rethink the implications of the Maastricht moment. To this effect, it will have to recognize that mutual comprehension presupposes that interlocutors are real and belong to communities “whose political regimes and collective experiences are close.”[15] Let us listen to Manent himself describing (in Seeing Things Politically) our challenges today:

If Europe intends to continue historically, it faces the necessity, either of producing an unprecedented political form, or of giving new life to traditional elements, that is, to the old nations on the one hand, and, perhaps, to the old religion on the other. In any case, there is no future for Europe in European projects as now constituted, no future for Europe in the Commission or in the Parliament, since, precisely, the projects and these institutions do not take into account the question of the political form, or even the question of the regime.[16]

These are harsh words uttered with the authority of an engaged spectator concerned that our new instruments of governance, far from increasing our ability to govern ourselves, are reducing it more and more each day, thus depriving political decisions and deliberations of any genuine legitimacy. Europe, Manent believes, must try to define itself politically anew by admitting that political attachments are not outdated and that political communities are irreplaceable as the framework for deliberation over justice. We must work with the nations that we have, he maintains, and this out of concern not for the particular, but rather for the universal. “It is not by ceaselessly denigrating these nations,” he concludes, “but only by employing their energy, dormant but still capable of being roused, that we have the possibility of elaborating a new political body, a political ‘Europe’.”[17]

While I am deeply sympathetic to Manent’s defense of liberty and self-government and I understand that his defense of the nation does not endorse any form of ethnic nationalism, I find his call for a new form of “common action” somewhat elusive and ambiguous. What would a recovery of “the perspective of the common” entail in practice, one might ask? What would it mean to develop in real politics “a way of speaking of what is common”[18]? Would that entail a world without passports, as it was the case in Europe until about a century ago?

I remember without any nostalgia those days when one needed transit visas to go to study in France, soon after the fall of communism in 1989. Coming from Romania, I needed two such transit visas, for Austria and Germany, before entering France. It was not fun to stand in line at the respective embassies to get those visas before buying a train ticket for a long journey from Bucharest to Paris. That was before the Maastricht moment, and it is not a thing we should remember fondly today. I certainly don’t!

Granted, it is difficult to be a fan of the European Union in its present form, which has many flaws and a huge bureaucracy that cast doubt on its sustainability in the long-term. Yet, I find it equally difficult to join those, like Paul Seaton, who see in the contemporary European Union, above all, “a monstrous hybrid” of rules, judges, and bureaucrats, “and a two-tiered system of dictators and dictated-to’s,” with “some resemblance to the most recent regime of the Lie.” I presume Paul Seaton refers here to communism, but having lived under real communism, I fail to see any real similarity here. Only the future will tell who is right. For the time being, it may be wise to embrace skepticism, prudence, and moderation—that is, those virtues that Manent’s own teacher (Raymond Aron) practiced so well in dark times.

[1] The titles translated into English are: An Intellectual History of Liberalism (Princeton University Press, 1994); Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (Rowman and Littlefield, 1996); The City of Man (Princeton University Press, 1998); Modern Liberty and Its Discontents (Rowman  and Littlefield, 1998); The Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic (Princeton University Press, 2013), and Democracy without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe, translated and with an Introduction by Paul Seaton (ISI Books, 2007). Another indispensable source is La politique et l’âme. Autour de Pierre Manent, edited by Giulio De Ligio, Jean-Vincent Holeindre, and Daniel J. Mahoney (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2014). This substantial volume contains many contributions from Manent’s friends and former students that shed light on several dimensions of his thought. It also includes a bibliography of his most important scholarly contributions.

[2] From the English version of Le Regard Politique (Flammarion, 2010), which St. Augustine Press brought out two years ago: Pierre Manent, Seeing Things Politically: Interviews with Bénédicte Delorme-Montini, translated by Ralph C. Hancock, with an Introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney (St. Augustine Press, 2015), p. 116. See also Manent’s important essay “On Historical Causality,” included in Modern Liberty and Its Discontents. The relevant passage here can be found on page 213.

[3] Seeing Things Politically, pp. 87 and 88.

[4] Seeing Things Politically, p. 139.

[5] Seeing Things Politically, p. 86.

[6] The City of Man, p. 48.

[7] Seeing Things Politically, p. 89.

[8] Seeing Things Politically, pp. 101 and 105.

[9] Seeing Things Politically, pp. 146-147.

[10] Ibid., 156.

[11] Ibid., p. 157.

[12] Democracy without Nations?, p. 82.

[13] Seeing Things Politically, p. 156.

[14] Democracy without Nations?, p. 33.

[15] Ibid., p. 29.

[16] Seeing Things Politically, pp. 147-48.

[17] Democracy without Nations?, p. 84.

[18] Seeing Things Politically, p. 155.