Pierre Manent in Search of the Political

4 October 2019

Pierre Manent is a philosopher who summons us to the pursuit of truth and the practice of politics. Since the beginning of his career in the late 1970s, these two preoccupations have motivated his critiques of a certain canon of modern political thought. The thinkers of this canon, Manent charges, have been leading us astray from truth and the truly political. 


Where, then, would Manent lead us? This essay reviews his intellectual trajectory, catching up with him in the present as he speaks to a trans-Atlantic movement to revive right-wing political Catholicism against secular liberal democracy (Sohrab Ahmari delights in peppering articles with sentences that begin, “Pierre Manent says…”). Yet, though he has long called for a rediscovery of what he sees as the political essence of human nature, Manent’s turn to politics appears to come at the cost of this understanding of the political. 


Manent has long been a friend of American Straussianism, the supposed wisdom of which is to point out tensions between philosophy and politics. On the first page of his first book (Naissances de la Politique Moderne, 1977) Manent cites the University of Chicago professor Allan Bloom’s 1974 obituary for Leo Strauss, declaring it “most illuminating and most worthy of its subject.” That subject, Strauss himself, appeared to Manent as the man who had cleared the fields of thought on which “I pitched my tent.”


Forty-two years later, in a just-published preface to a French monograph on Strauss, Manent finds his former inspiration not a kindly, paternal clearer of ground, but an “enigmatic” figure. To study Strauss’s work, Manent sighs, is to “accept discomfort.” Readers must stumblingly find their way through the gap Strauss opens between “cutting decrees”—penetrating critiques of a modernity estranged from the sources of political philosophy—and scarce, cryptic references to “politics itself” as it is or should be practiced. Manent laments that although Strauss revealed “the modern project” to be a systematic “depoliticization,” he offered few clues for finding the way back to politics.  


The failings we notice easily in others are those of which we are ourselves ashamed. Manent’s own work has long been marked by what he now suggests is Strauss’s frustrating “lack of explicit interest in the effective conditions of human dwelling in the world [l’établissement humain] and the forms of common life.” In studies such as La Cité de l’homme (1994), a book dedicated to Allan Bloom, Manent shines a set of classic texts of political philosophy through a prism of criticism, throwing bright, sharp rays on “modern man.” His judgements against this poor figure, lost in “history” and knowing neither God nor nature, are “cutting decrees” no kinder or less sweeping than those of Strauss. But until recently, Manent’s incisive criticism would fall to an allusive whisper whenever there arose a question of what such muddled modern subjects ought to do. 


Manent has broken off this game of silences. Now he calls upon his compatriots to bury the French republic and welcome the return of a premodern religious and political order. The reader susceptible to Straussian theories of interpretation might be tempted to track across Manent’s long philosophical career an anti-liberal, crypto-integrist agenda gathering power in implications and aporias, with subtle references to Aquinas, preparing the way for today’s open appeals to upend secular liberal democracy. It does not seem, however, fair or interesting to attempt to prove that Manent has always been just what he is now and never otherwise. It may be possible instead to identify across his body of work some of the moments of decision by which he has written his way into the present.


Manent’s first book, La Naissance de la Politique Moderne, is a sort of death wish against the modern politics whose birth Manent purports to study. Before seeing on what grounds he desires its demise, let us note two elisions that reappear in Manent’s later work. Modern politics means modern political thought. We do not need to know how political institutions embody or political actors live out the ideas that we find in the texts of political philosophy. Modern political thought means a few texts by a few men in Western Europe. Luckily one of them—Alexis de Tocqueville—wrote a book about the United States, so that country has a kind of virtual representation in this small canon. Manent’s approach suggests that, properly understood, these texts (selected on the basis of criteria never made explicit) reveal the structures of thought that have shaped these last few centuries of “modern politics.”


“Modern politics” is for Manent in fact an oxymoron, since these structures are depoliticizing in two key ways. First, modern thought frames collective action through the state as the pursuit of the necessary. Manent imagines that the “ancients” (Plato and Aristotle via Strauss) saw political action as a domain in which human beings strove together towards freely chosen goals and towards a shared understanding of the good. In modern politics, however, collectivities and individuals are understood as being compelled to take particular, predictable actions by forces outside their or anyone’s control. These forces appear to constitute autonomous spheres, like ‘the economy’, or ‘the international state system’, regulated by their own unchanging ‘laws’. Political thought, rather than envisioning the good, providing proximal goals along the way towards that vision, and recommending methods for the attainment of those goals, can only describe the laws and systems of these spheres. It tells us ‘this is the way the world is’ and ‘this is what everyone does’–phrases that invite the listener to abandon the responsibility of choosing how he or she ought to be, and to be with others, such that the world might be otherwise. 


Second, in an apparent paradox, modern politics, even as it insists on its ‘realism’, its refusal to be tempted away from an accurate system-description by the factless speculation of the ancient philosophers, is a kind of religion. It is a “sacralization of rights.” Here let us note in passing that Manent owes much to Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist and theorist of the sacred. Manent’s theory of liberalism’s ‘sacred’ individual, and his readings of Hobbes, Montesquieu and Rousseau, are the fruit of Durkheim’s perspicacity. Politics is imagined in such a “sacralization” as the emancipation of the rights-bearing individual who exists prior to any form of collectivity or obligation to others. It is the individual, and the individual alone, it seems, who creates meaningful projects—the political realm can have no meaningful collective projects that transcend individual ones, no telos other than to preserve the conditions of personal liberty. Between the pressure of supposedly natural and universal ‘laws’ of the economy, state system, history, etc. on the one hand, and that of the individual whose rights precede the collectivity, on the other, there is no space in which the authentically political as Manent—ventriloquizing his desires as the ‘wisdom of the ancients’—desires it.


After diagnosing the troubles of modernity from the vantage of the Straussian ancients, Manent then examined some of modernity’s more recent right-wing critics. Unfortunately, he found, they are of little use in helping us back to politics. In a pair of texts written in the 1980s, he elucidated the theoretical insights and political powerlessness of two paradigmatic French conservative thinkers, Joseph de Maistre and Alexis de Tocqueville. Both were aristocrats who saw the French Revolution and its consequences as “a new phenomenon, the most striking feature of which was that it could not be resisted.”


Of the two, Tocqueville was the more hopeful. To be sure, in his 1982 study of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, titled Tocqueville et la nature de la démocratie, Manent has much bad news about democracy, which he and Tocqueville alike take to be the form of modern politics. Manent warns via Tocqueville that democracy seems to create a new and degraded sort of humanity. Its members imagine themselves to be self-interested individuals endowed with rights (chief among them the right to pursue their interests), all equal to each other and each capable of forming a personal opinion about matters of the day and matters of eternity. They consider this way of living—a peculiar, provincial and recent appearance in the span of human history—to be not only the best but also the most natural. They are free of the hierarchies, conventions and prejudices on which other ways of living were always founded. But for all this freedom, individuals in democratic societies are incapacitated. They are unable either to command or to obey, to resist the pervasive influence of public opinion in order to attain independent thoughts, or to act together in order to pursue common ends. 


So much for the bad news. But Manent in 1982 could use Tocqueville to hint at a desirable relationship between philosophy and democratic politics. In this arrangement, the philosopher should present himself as a good democrat in order to attain a secret influence, allowing him to transmit something of his wisdom. “Being democracy’s friend is difficult,” Manent laments, particularly for one attuned to the ancients’ exquisite flair for the authentically political. But, he insists, it is “necessary to be democracy’s friend,” because only by appearing to respect “democratic dogma,” will philosophers be able to inspire democracy’s elites to perform something approximating the virtues necessary for true politics. Such philosophers are democracy’s “moderate friends” and assure the survival of a minimal “moral content” in the midst of striving, selfish, susceptible democratic individuals.


In contrast to Tocqueville, democracy’s moderate (or rather Machiavellian) friend, conservatives who opposed democracy struck Manent as bitter losers. So he argued in a 1988 essay on De Maistre, recently republished as a preface to the Savoyard philosopher’s 1797 Considérations sur la France. Manent hails De Maistre as the first great conservative thinker to examine the French Revolution (spare a thought, reader, for Burke!). De Maistre thus inaugurated the tradition of reaction—and its failures. Manent argues that De Maistre correctly identified the Revolution as something that was achieved with a strange absence of individual will, as if “the real actor of the Revolution were the Revolution itself.”


The Revolution, as Tocqueville and the historian François Furet also assert, does indeed seem to have a life of its own, making and breaking regimes (constitutional monarchy, Republic, Directory, Consulate, Empire) at a pace too fast for reflection. Surely it cannot be that the meaning of the Revolution lies in the thoughts and deeds of the little men thrown from obscurity into power and from power to the guillotine—or the still smaller men and women in the crowds, markets, villages and armies of the Revolution? To imagine that it might would be to descend to the level of the cultural historian, a possibility Manent apparently found too dismal to contemplate. The “principle of intelligibility” must lie elsewhere.


Many observers, from Hegel and Tocqueville on down, would reply that the Revolution is intelligible insofar as it advanced certain historical trends, such as the advent of modern democracy or the centralization of the French state. Manent insists that De Maistre’s answer—that it is intelligible insofar as it is the work of Satan—is no worse than theirs. Indeed these two principles of intelligibility, the historical and the theological, are really of the same order. Both deny that human beings can consciously and collectively act in the political realm to make and preserve a meaningful goal-directed order. The order in which their actions can be called meaningful is not that of politics, comprehensible to its rational participants, but a vast design the pattern of which can be perceived only by such rare human types as the philosopher, the scholar, or the reactionary polemicist with a private knowledge of God’s will. Thus, at the very beginning of its history, De Maistre cut off the modern Right (Manent speaks breezily as though the latter was only an emanation of the former’s writings) from a sense of human nature as the bearer of a genuine capacity for politics. In short, De Masitre severed the Right from Aristotle’s ‘political animal.’ Worse still, he seemed to deprive the right of any idea of human nature.


In their furious revival of the forms of classical democracy, the revolutionaries believed, like the ‘ancients’, that there was such a thing as human nature. Where they broke with the ancients was in their unprecedented aspirations to ‘regenerate’ that nature through transformative political action. They imagined nature as a plastic material subject to human will—instead of as a set of original dispositions, orientations and capacities that provides human beings with a basis to constitute the political, but not to reconstitute themselves entirely. De Maistre went too far in his rejection of the revolutionaries’ utopian vision, Manent argues. Instead of rescuing human nature from their enthusiasm, he denied that it even existed, emphasizing instead the degree to which particular national histories constitute unique instances of humanity. One can find a Frenchman or an Englishman, but nowhere ‘man’ in general. 


De Maistre responded to the Revolution by banishing the political. His radical historicism implied that collective action serves to realize a peculiar national essence rather than to instantiate a rationally articulated vision of the good life. His theological vision suggested that the spectacle of politics was a fitting subject for the wise man’s mockery or prophecy but not for his involvement. De Maistre’s errors, Manent asserts, are those of the modern Right, which has been unable since the Revolution to do anything but scoff, pray and mourn.


Thirty years later it is no longer clear if Manent is even a moderate friend of democracy—but he clearly imagines right-wing Catholic political thinkers can do a great deal more than wait on the sidelines for divine judgement to smite democrats. The project of leavening democracy with philosophy’s hidden guidance no longer appeals to him, it seems, because of two major transformations within European and French politics since the 1980s. On the one hand, the depoliticizing aspects of modernity that Manent identified at the beginning of his career—the language of rights and the injuctions of necessity—increasingly operate at a transnational scale. The other major process that has unfolded in the interval is the demographic transformation of Europe, and most obviously France, by the arrival of Muslim immigrants. Or rather, as Manent insists, by the arrival of Islam, which appears to him as a form of common life and collective action that threatens to fill the void left in Europe by the absence of the political. 


In a 2012 essay, translated five years later for American Affairs as “Populist Demagogy and the Fanaticism of the Center,” Manent complained that politics in the West was dominated by a post-national “democratic universalism,” a perspective in which the rights of individuals are not secured by “any attachment to collective membership.” Instead of being a kind of patrimony, a shared heritage developed over time by the political struggles of a particular group of people, rights are figured as inherent properties of all human beings as such. When they want to protect, expand or even simply think about their rights, individuals do not refer to members of their own nation, and to the possibilities of “communal action” at the level of national politics. They appeal instead to abstract universal formulas applying to all human beings everywhere in the world, of which the guardians are judges, particularly international tribunals such as the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.


It seems that democracy, with all its failings, could be saved by philosophical “friends” as long as it remained within the limits of particular states and nations, which offered vestiges of the notion of a common project. Those limits have vanished. Just as “democratic universalism” has ‘liberated’ the rights-bearing individual from national polities, so too has it undone these polities’ borders. Massive immigration from the Middle East and Africa, Manent warns, is transforming Western European societies and may abolish them.


In the wake of the 2015 attack on journalists of Charlie Hebdo by Islamic terrorists born in France to Algerian immigrants, Manent published a short book, Situation de France. It is an entry into politics, an attempt to lay out a shared project for preserving—or rather remaking—France. While the title gives the reader no hint as to the content of this project, it makes clear that Manent the political philosopher is now speaking to a “situation”—not a field of thought cleared by a chosen forebear, but a field into which the French find themselves thrown. Manent claims to offer a way out.


The situation of France, Manent finds, is one of weakness and perplexity. Weakness insofar as no political party in recent history has been able to pose a serious alternative to the European Union, economic globalization, and a culture that combines post-national cosmopolitanism with a scarcely- inhibited individual hedonism. Perplexity insofar as these forces and trends—which are often labeled together as ‘liberal’ or ‘neoliberal’—seem to have been brought about by no one in particular. And deeper perplexity in the face of “the phenomenon of religion.” Rather than disappearing into unbelief—or at least receding into folklore—religion is a growing force in French society. 


Secular Frenchmen, who have trouble taking seriously the idea that there are people who really do orient their lives around the teachings of a holy book, are confronted with ever more fellow citizens who hold the teachings of Muhammad higher than the rights of man. Democratic universalism offers these bewildered French no help in understanding their increasingly numerous Muslim neighbors, who do not see religion as “an individual opinion, a private thing” but rather as a “collective form,” one that fulfills the functions that Manent holds should be those of the political: setting the terms by which individuals live together to advance a shared purpose. Because democratic universalism is a spiritual void and an absence of politics, sooner or later it will collapse and be replaced by Islam, which is at least a viable substitute for the political. France’s future, he warns, will be “Islamization, for lack of an alternative.”


Manent proposes an alternative. After decades of summoning the modern West to reawaken to the responsibilities of authentic politics, he makes at last a proposal for what must be done. Before turning to this project, however, Manent asks how France got into this dire situation. In his eyes, the proximate cause is May 1968, the emergence of a non-Communist left-liberalism organized around the figure of the “individual experiencing pleasure” [l’individu jouissant]. Democratic universalism is the politics of this individual, whose pursuit of enjoyment is no longer regulated by duty, bonds to collectivities such as nation and family, or even international frontiers. 


May 1968 is a bugbear for many French intellectuals from the far Right to the far Left. Indeed May 1968 can be understood as a rupture with the mainstream of French democratic political thought. From figures of the French Revolution like Robespierre to intellectuals of the Third Republic like Durkheim, the French republican tradition tended to emphasize that individual rights were secured by the authority of the state. Rights were meaningful in reference both to humanity and to the nation, and were legitimate in conjunction with the performance of certain obligations and the possession of certain virtues. Manent, however, is not interested in considering this tradition. In fact, he overtly attacks May 1968 in order to hit, not just a recent ‘deviation’, but the whole sweep of modern French liberal secular democracy. 


Manent charges that May 1968 destroyed the Gaullist regime, undoing its work of healing “the sickness in the national soul” that was responsible for France’s defeat in the Second World War and has enfeebled its political life ever since. Yet throughout his body of work, Manent fulminates against the modern tendency to imagine history as a tribunal or source of authority, of attributing to it judgements that we in fact are making ourselves—and for which we do not want to accept responsibility. 


Nothing is more common in contemporary discourse than to hear that such-and-such a position is unacceptable because history already has moved past it or is on the verge of doing so. Such pseudo-historicist injunctions relieve us of having to prove to others that what we want is correct, moral, and consistent with human flourishing. One does not have to articulate and defend one’s particular project of common life from a range of possible alternatives if ‘history’ has already made that choice. Bragging that one is on the ‘right side of history’, then, is a way of avoiding having to be political. 


Manent suggests that such abuses of history are necessary for modern politics. They are certainly necessary for the thesis of Situation de France. His notion that France was defeated in 1940 because it lacked moral fiber presumes that there is a correspondence between a country’s ‘morality’ and its war-making capacity, and between that capacity and its success in any particular war. But war, that extension of politics, is marked by choice and contingency. If France had gone to war with Germany a few years before or after 1939, if its generals had better anticipated the new possibilities of mechanized attack, the French military might have performed much better. The French soul, presumably, would have still been just as sick. And is it inconceivable that a healthy-souled nation might suffer calamities as apparently unjust as those that struck Job, the righteous man? 


Manent’s equation of moral failure and military defeat seems in tension with the vision of politics as collective deliberation on common ends developed in his earlier work—and particularly with his stinging criticism of appeals to history as a technique of depoliticization. If military defeat is an “extrinsic accident” reveals inner decay, then it appears legitimate to appeal to the judgments of history. Nations that have been defeated were spiritually and (therefore) materially weak. The vision of the good that their politics offered cannot have been right. There is thus no need for Manent to argue against the values of the Third Republic (which, it must be said, did manage to win half the world wars it fought), its militant secularism, its cult of human rights, its aspirations to universalism through the framework of the nation. History has done that work for him.


With republicanism—in both its Third Republican and soixante-huitard versions—thus conveniently dismissed beforehand, Manent outlines his project. The French state should abandon laïcité and droit-de-l’hommisme, the pretense of being neutral in matters of religion and its framing of political questions in terms of individual rights. While making war on Islamic terrorist organizations and cutting contacts between foreign funders and French mosques, it should accept French Muslims as a community with a distinct mode of life to be protected from the disintegrating discourse of human rights. At the same time, the state should encourage French Christians—whom Manent can only imagine to be Catholics—to re-enter the newly desecularized public sphere. 


Laïcité, Manent argues, was never truly neutral, but rather a kind of counter-religion wielded against the Catholic Church. If this is so, one would wonder whether it is not still a religion that orients many French citizens, giving a common content and purpose to the apparently abstract and libertine notions of individual rights, and a national basis to its apparent universalism. Manent banishes the suggestion with the wave of a hand: the secular republic was “an imaginary city” that no one believes in anymore. “The republic is insufficient, the neutral and secular state too weak,” to respond to the challenges of the encounter between a powerful, aggressive Islam and a weak, disoriented French society. The republic is no longer a source of “identity, shared education, loyalty and devotion,” but merely an unloved granter of rights and permitter of pleasures. When France’s political leaders “enjoin us to adhere to the values of the republic, they are enjoining nothing.” There is no need to argue against republican values—they do not exist.


Islam, in contrast, has “associative force,” binding its believers together around shared practices and values to become a collective “protagonist.” Rather than impose secular republican values—which do not even exist anymore—on Muslims, the French state must “surrender, and openly accept their social customs [céder, et accepter franchement leurs moeurs].” The surrender of the republic is also an opportunity for French Catholics. Manent imagines that the latter will be able to negotiate with the “protagonist” Islam to preserve and even fortify certain essential features of France as they understand it, once the country is free from the restrictions imposed by secularism and Strasbourg’s Court of Human Rights. With their partner, ‘Islam’, Catholics will lead a “delicate operation” to bring about a “union without confusion of the religious and the political.”


There is much that might be said about this project which, crudely put, makes France another Lebanon, selling out the republic to Catholic and Muslim integrists. Rather than catalogue the errors of fact that underwrite the grand bargain Manent desires—there is, for example, no such coherent actor as ‘Islam’ to whom the deal could be offered—let us consider how it withdraws from the understanding of the political Manent has expressed elsewhere in his work.


Manent’s attempt to intervene in the “French Situation,” recalls warnings about the notion of a ‘situation’ and the desire to address oneself to its presumed needs from both Allan Bloom and Martin Heidegger. Bloom cautioned in The Closing of the American Mind that, from the Straussian perspective, the chasm between the elite philosopher and the vulgar multitude cannot be bridged by any teaching or action on the part of the former. When the philosopher attempts to reach the multitude “he ends up in the power of the would-be influenced. He enhances their power and adopts his thought to their ends.” Thus Manent the philosopher, by appealing to the forces of political Catholicism and Islam, may make the world even less hospitable to philosophy and the sort of politics that can hearken to philosophers. 


Heidegger, in the “Black Notebooks” of the 1930s, provides another kind of chastening. “Has it not long been folly and confusion and groundlessness to run after the ‘situation’?,” he asks. Philosophers, Heidegger scolds, have been trying desperately to understand our contemporary moment, as if it were something that objectively existed in front of them, outside of them, something measurable—and as if its measurements, once taken, would reveal what we should do. Heidegger argues that we impute an independent existence to the situation, this imaginary point in time with ‘its’ particular ‘demands’ on us, in order to have in it a “substitute” for deliberately making our own choices about what should be done and who we should be. It is, in other words, a depoliticization of just the sort that Manent has spent his life denouncing. Heidegger urges rather that, in the hour of our “plight”—and for Manent we are indeed in such an hour—“we must finally turn our backs on ourselves and our ‘situation’ and actually seek ourselves.” That is to say, with courage and steadfastness, we must assume our radical responsibility for being and making ourselves in a world we share with others.


Above its footnote in praise of Strauss, the first sentence of the first page of Manent’s first book, Naissance de la politique moderne, condemns the sort of “political thought that has invested history with the responsibility of manifesting that which traditional philosophy called truth.” Let us retake that responsibility. Let us grant, although there is much that could be said on either point, that Manent is right: modern political thought is depoliticizing and France is headed to disaster. His proposed solution rescues neither France nor the essence of the political, which consists in that assumption of responsibility for making truth appear such that it orients collective action. 


Drawing on notions of history and necessity that he himself has opposed with erudition and force in his earlier writings, Manent now insists that the only France that can be saved, the only France that really exists, is the one that satisfies his own desires. The France of non-believers, of believers in the secular republic, of Christians who do not look to Rome, appears as a phantom to be exorcized—not a collective project and form of life against which the merits of Manent’s vision of a Catholic-Muslim nation must be argued. To have that argument—that confrontation of irreconcilable projects—in the clearing, made by human beings responsible for what they do together and eschewing the alibis of necessity (whether of the economy, history, situation, or religion), would be to arrive, finally, at the political. 


Photo Credit: Constant Loubier, Arc de Triomphe, via Unsplash


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