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What Does Europe Hold in Common?

Goldilocks’ dictum about porridge is the gold standard for all sorts of things. It is also difficult to achieve, as Aristotle’s discussion of the noble mean, the mēson, in Book Two of the Nicomachean Ethics indicates. This is also the case, he explains in the Poetics, for artistic chef d’oeuvres, those works perfect in their genre, with nothing to be added or subtracted from their magnitude or proportions.

While not a work of dramatic fiction, but rather of searching philosophical analysis, French political philosopher Pierre Manent’s Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic is one such work. In addition to its exemplary exegetical and literary qualities, and the balance and harmony of its parts, it involves a great drama, or series of dramas, that together make up the history of Western humanity, a history that is our history. De nobīs, scripta est. Self-knowledge of an expansive Socratic sort is its promise.

Also dramatic is the fact that this story is unfinished. Or it should be. Manent, however, has his doubts about its current protagonists. This exercise in civilizational anamnesis pointedly begins with, and is motivated by, a recognition of a terrible flagging on the part of the people of the West—his fellow Europeans, especially—of self-confidence in their powers and purpose.

Complicating matters in Europe is a widespread democratic illusion, an ersatz “religion of humanity” that violates both authentic religious faith and essential requirements of political existence, but which informs the contemporary European Union and its rather strictly enforced version of political correctness. European humanitarianism is occluded about self and deluded about others, the faux consolation of moral superiority that last men give themselves. To expose this humanitarianism is an essential step toward clarity about self and the world, and recovering what has been distinctive—propre—to Western humanity can serve to reconnect contemporaries with their civilizational nature, thus limning an ongoing task, even a high vocation. Pro futura Europeana, scripta est.

All this comes from a singular perspective, that of political philosophy. More than once Manent has spoken of political philosophy’s “healing light.” Politically focused, philosophically informed recollection, he argues, can powerfully illumine the special path of the West, as well as bring to light indispensable intellectual and spiritual resources to forge a viable future. At the very least, it highlights a series of bold and instructive attempts to answer a fundamental question—what do we hold in common?—that is essential if we are to answer to the question, who are we?

To begin with, the Greeks gave the answer.

Homer, “the educator of Hellas”; to which Aristotle added, “the common thing, the common good,” involving some (debatable) order of justice. And Plato before him pioneered “the discovery of the universal.” All three explored the human psuché, its powers, types, and peaks.  Henceforth, the Western adventure was engaged along three registers: theological, political, and philosophical.

Manent investigates all this by employing a concept he discovered years ago, which he calls “political form,” and by analyzing Western political and spiritual developments through its lens. The concept came to him when he noticed that the ancient city, the polis, could host a variety of regimes or constitutions but still remain itself, and that later in European history the same was true of the nation-state. His native land (France) knew more than its share of regimes! So he was led to make a distinction between political forms and political regimes and to wonder about both.

The Greeks helped in this regard, but only so far. Classical political philosophy had focused primarily upon the regimes of the city, without ignoring the city as such, but it did not know the later, modern nation or its distinctive form of authority, the sovereign state. Nor for that matter did it know the Christian church, which had tremendously complicated the political life of European peoples.

And between the Greek city and the Christian church was Rome, a remarkable political entity that had effected a wonder. It was the city that had transmogrified into an empire, the paradigmatic empire. Urbs et orbis, city and assembled world, Rome was the enormously capacious political entity that had experienced the twin poles of ancient civic existence in their most intense forms. What classical thought had put asunder, Rome had brought together in its eventful history. Here was a massive fact and a considerable puzzle for political philosophy.

So Manent began to think about the various political forms—city, empire, nation—that had structured and articulated the history of Western humanity, with enigmatic Rome at its center and pivot. Its enigma was more than political, however, involving yet another contrast: pagan and Christian.

In 1996 Manent published The City of Man, a study of “modern self-consciousness” bearing the Augustinian phrase as its title. At its end, after evoking Machiavelli, the philosophical father of modern consciousness, he observed that

the emperor of the visible empire, “sol invictus,” the invincible sun, had as his opponent and successor the vicar of the invisible empire, “servus servorum Dei,” the servant of the servants of God.

He promised that at “some other time we shall study the cause that resides in the separation of the two Romes.” Metamorphoses of the City makes good on that promise. It also enlarges the notion of political form to take in that novel form of human association which Augustine tellingly designated as “God’s city,” the civitas Dei.  Already in 1986, Manent had written that “the history of European political development is unintelligible” without taking into account the presence in its midst of a human association of a “wholly new sort” (tout à fait nouveau), the Christian church. Metamorphoses allows the convert and bishop Augustine to present the self-understanding of this novel association.

Thus, while the guiding “hypothesis” of this politically focused history of Western and European humanity is declaredly Aristotelian (that man is a political animal, “that he seeks to be well-governed, or at least not badly governed”), it is more than Aristotelian in its careful attention to the theological dimensions of politics, as well as the political dimensions of Biblical faith. Political form, while it principally comprehends the political organization and characteristics of a people, opens its horizons to their view of the heavens, while also excavating the psychological roots of the order.

Manent in fact sums up what is “proper” to the West when he writes: “Now it seems to me that western history is made up of the effort to deploy as completely as possible the possibilities of the soul.” This can be seen in a special case. The Greek philosophical and Biblical traditions concurred in recognizing that remarkable movement of the soul called “conversion,” metánoia, in which the soul comes more fully to itself by becoming other.  Nourished by these sources, Western civilization recognized and allowed for this dramatic possibility, this human adventure.

To be sure, it did not always honor its deepest convictions in this regard. And because the soul and human life are complex, it disciplined as well as enriched the endeavor by connecting it with other occidental discoveries and aspirations: the common, the universal, and the imperative of giving an account of oneself.[1]

One can cast Manent’s fond (if faint) hope for today’s Europe in these terms. After the scales of humanitarianism fall from their eyes (perhaps prodded by the great educator, “necessity”), Europeans would be able to recognize that humanity is constituted not by achieved unity, not by unquestionable diversity (the two components of their defective anthropology), but by significant diversity-in-mysterious-identity. This would allow for the revival of political thinking and philosophical openness on the old Continent. The fundamental political question—what do we wish to hold in common?—would resurface.  And the basic philosophical question—what is man?—would be freed from dogmatic assumptions. Were that to occur, political philosophy would stand ready to assist in the rearticulation of a specifically European community, one that was more faithful to its past and more viable for the future.

[1] Cf. I Peter 3: 15 and Plato’s Apology of Socrates 39c.

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