France Must Practice a Politics of the Possible

At the beginning of his career, Pierre Manent spoke of political philosophy’s “healing light.” Likewise, he pointed to Cicero as a classical model of a philosophically informed citizen who could speak to princes and peoples alike about matters of public concern. His modern-day model was his teacher, Raymond Aron. After a period of apprenticeship, then a steady stream of works of political philosophy, Manent himself entered the civic conversation. Beyond Radical Secularism is his most recent contribution, appearing in French as Situation de France in 2015.  It is well translated by Ralph Hancock, with a magisterial introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney. Once again, St. Augustine’s Press is to be commended for making outstanding contemporary French thought and thinkers available.

On the one hand, the work is a continuation of long-time Manentian themes and theses. These include the parlous depoliticization of Europe, as states relinquish essential political instrumentalities, and the political class lend their minds and voices to humanitarian fantasies and inanities. What is new in Beyond Radical Secularism is the explicit attention given to the presence of Muslim communities in France and other European countries, and the form of thinking that Manent engages in: political deliberation. Its motivating question is quite practical, even urgent:  what needs to be done by states and Muslims, especially the French state and French Muslims, so that the latter become integrated members of the body-politic?

Here old and new concerns encounter. A depoliticized politics (to employ a paradoxical phrase), one that conceives of everything under the dual rubrics of secularism and human rights, cannot adequately engage the community in its midst that does not define itself in contemporary liberal and secular terms. Therefore, the first order of business is to lift the scales from the eyes of politicians and citizens alike, and to find an adequate language to describe reality. Hence too the first striking feature of this compact book: one hears a truly independent voice. And what is more, a civic voice, the voice of a citizen concerned about the res publica.

To be sure, this civic voice is also that of a political philosopher. Therefore, it possesses exceptional richness and depth. Manent’s core notion of “deliberation,” for example, is deeply Aristotelian. And his deliberation brings in decades of reflections upon the nature and course of Western civilization, the nature of the liberal representative state, the modern nation, and Christianity’s rather complex relationship to all of them. This is no ordinary citizen! Still, here he thinks about a particular situation in order to deliberate about means to an end, to propose what needs to be done to make France a viable political whole.

As is appropriate for a political proposal, there are sacrifices to be made by all parties. Put rather flatly, in the way that a journalistic account might, Manent’s proposals amount to the following:  Radical secularists and those who hew to a naked public square view of la République will have to recognize the “otherness” of French Muslims and grant them public status as Muslims, with their distinctive self-understanding and the majority of their distinctive, that is, non-western, customs. Note well: the majority, not the entirety. Muslims for their part will have to give up the practice of polygamy and the burqa. The veiling of the human face denies the willingness for self-disclosure inherent in civic friendship, while monogamy is the law of the land, part of the tacit compact Muslim immigrants accepted when they came to Europe. Symmetrically, secularists will have to give up the hope that Muslims will become “just like them,” assimilated late-modern liberals, while Muslims will have to put away the attitude of victimhood and accept the risks of democratic public life, including that of being criticized.

But the most characteristically Manentian proposal, because the most political, is that the French state act as a state and require French Muslims to choose decisively for France as their political community, by eschewing the material support of Muslims countries for the funding of mosques and charitable organizations. This would declare their “material and moral independence” from foreign sovereignties, registering them as decided members of the French body-politic. In keeping with the nature of the regime, this would only be done after candid and delicate negotiations about its modalities, and French Muslims would have to consent to the order. In the event they refuse, the reality of their presence in France would become clear to all. His basic thought is that French Muslims have heretofore not been asked to act as citizens: this would be their belated opportunity, an explicit beginning of their self-conscious participation in the French adventure as full and fellow citizens.

Some have mistaken Manent’s proposal as an application or even extension of the venerable French tradition of laicité. His proposals to accommodate Muslims as Muslims should give pause to that view. In this connection, he makes a distinction between secularity and secularism. The former is invaluable and central to a free society, the latter is ideological and part of the problem. The former rightly separates government and religion, the latter not only wants a naked public square but a dereligiousized society (including “reformed,” privatized Muslims). Secularism is a vain illusion, benighted and baneful, and must be dispelled. But according to Manent even secularity needs to be reworked in the light of the new circumstances confronting the body-politic. Accommodations to Muslims’ dietary restrictions in public schools and sex-segregated swimming hours seem reasonable modifications to him. This is not the letter or spirit of Jules Ferry’s law of 1905.

These proposals, as demanding as they would be to put into practice, do not come from nowhere, they are the conclusions of chains of reasoning. They gain their force and persuasiveness from what precedes them, especially the premises of the argument. Hence the latter’s greater import and interest. The axioms derive in the main from Manent’s study of Aristotle and his own study of the western and European adventure after the Greeks. They enter into the deliberation, however, in the form of an extended answer to questions legitimately raised by the parties: Why should we give up these things? What would we gain? In other words, what greater whole would we form? What common good would we come to share?

In Aristotle, Manent encountered the canonical discussion of “man, the political animal,” and magisterial analyses of the nature of practical thinking, the specificity of political action, and the elusive reality of “the common thing.” Politics, he learned, is a matter of “putting speeches and deeds in common,” but especially those that form a common way of life oriented upon justice and nobility, while making provision for life and its needs, including defense. Equipped with these insights, he turned to the variegated history of Europe. His guiding focus was, how did European man come to govern himself?, and in the light of what notions of “the common”? This investigation was elaborately laid out in his earlier Metamorphoses of the City (see my “What Does Europe Hold in Common?”). Here he ventures a succinct distillation appropriate to the nature of deliberation, which tries to learn from the past for the sake of a viable future. Happily, he had already discovered that the European past was itself an “open future.”

Two great facts, and one proposition, structure his distillation of Europe’s Sonderweg. The facts? That pagan Rome, a republic that transmogrified into an empire, formed its matrix, and the entrance into human history of an “entirely novel association,” the Christian church. Europeans then had their defining task: “to govern oneself in a certain relation to the Christian proposition.” Man’s political nature joined with a supernatural vocation, each predicated on human freedom, each calling to authoritative community. Here was a most elevated and challenging vocation! The form of common life that was ultimately invented and came to define Europe involved “the state,” first monarchical and Christian, then lay and representative; a unique form of society, “civil society”; and a new community par excellence, the “nation of Christian mark,” Protestant or Catholic, which gave content to the democratic abstraction of “the people.”

That was then, now is now. Since the nation-state’s heyday, Europe has undergone two colossal world wars, the Holocaust, decolonization, the Cold War, and globalization, while positively seeking to repent for its crimes and sins by constructing a new political configuration, a pacific, humanitarian Europe. Manent’s conceptions of political philosophy and deliberation require him to lay out the chief features of the current situation, of “the moral and political landscape,” in order for  philosophy to shed its healing light and deliberation to be realistic; this situational analysis is the third element of his argument, linking proposals and premises. As we have indicated with our repeated use of the term “depoliticization,” it consists fundamentally in a series of “de-”’s, of “undoing[s]” or unravelings.[1]

Two sentences can indicate the general tenor of the analysis:

“The major fact of our situation, one that has important consequences in all the domains that concern us, is the radical loss of authority by the main and decisive instrument of modern politics, that is, the State, or, if you will, in the specifically French context, the Republic.”

“The political and spiritual weakening of the nation in Europe is doubtless the major fact of our time.”

Manent sums up the situation as one of “weakness,” but specifically political weakness. “As rich as we still are in material and intellectual resources, we are politically without strength.” Nor will a mere restoration work. “The situation is unprecedented, and we must develop equally unprecedented political means.”

His proposals are tailored accordingly. He calls for what he terms “a politics of the possible,” a “defensive politics” that candidly confronts the weakness of France and the relative strength of Muslim communities. Hence the proposal to accept the presence of Muslim communities as a fait accompli, while also requiring concrete signs of their commitment to the French nation. In general, the task before all Frenchmen is to sketch “the contours of a new [civic] friendship for which the political means are not available, and which for some indeterminate period will rely more on action and on words than on institutions.”

Still, “with all our weakness, we still have power, because we still dispose of great moral and spiritual resources that can be renewed, activated, and mobilized; moreover, there is some imponderable reservoir of “political virtue,” strength of soul and civic spirit, left. These must be tapped into. Nor is the present the only place to turn: “The French understood as an open whole must search in their history for resources that are still latent; they must bring to light forces that are still hidden.” Exigent times call for casting one’s net far and wide.

And high. Long ago, Aristotle connected the city, the common good, and the divine:

For even if the good is the same for one person and for a city, that of the city appears to be greater, at least, and more complete both to achieve and to preserve; for even if it is achieved for only one person that is something to be satisfied with, but for a people or for cities it is something more beautiful and more divine.[2]

In the European context, the divine was the biblical God, introduced by the Jews and carried forward by Christians.

Manent therefore makes a final suggestion to his weakened compatriots. If the characteristic of action is to seek the good, if the condition of action is confidence in the good and one’s powers, and, finally, if one is rightly diffident about one’s powers, it makes sense to vest one’s confidence in an Agent who is Good and who has the Good of all in mind. Manent thus links the two vocations that characterized European man, the political and the religious, and suggests ways that they can be renewed today. These are among the most thought-provoking portions of the book. The Jewish people and the Catholic church are especially charged with essential spiritual-political tasks.

Time will reveal whether his suggestions are taken to heart. The “speeches and actions” of his fellow citizens will determine whether this philosophical “good citizen” is more like Cicero presiding over the decline of the republic, or his teacher Aron, who like Horatio held the bridge against modern-day Etruscans until political sanity was restored.

[1] Also, equivalents such as “dis-” are featured: “Europe is disarming itself in its core. This is a demographic, political, military, and spiritual fact” (39-40).

As for “de-”, important aspects of the social imaginary are included: “For us now, only the individual and humanity are legitimate, since intermediate communities in which human beings actually live, such as nations and Churches, have no legitimacy of their own and in fact bear the stigma of rupturing human unity.  . . . this delegitimation of communities . . .” (67). To be more specific, “we have emptied Europe of its old nations and its old religion in our imaginations” (67). In general, “Our imagination as well as our memory is failing us” (112). This is crucially important, because “what is asked on the one hand [of non-Muslims] and on the other [of Muslims] is a masterpiece of imagination and of moderation” (109-110).

[2] Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, chapter 2, 1094b8-12 (Sachs translation).