Pierre Manent is active as a writer, lecturer, and frequent commentator on the European political scene. He was born in Toulouse, France, in 1949, attended the Ecole normale supérieure, and began his intellectual career as an assistant to the writer and political thinker Raymond Aron at the Collège de France. Manent has contributed to the quarterly political journal Commentaire since its establishment in 1978. From 1992 till his retirement in 2015, Manent was directeur d’études at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales, in the Centre d’études sociologiques et politiques.
Beginning with his book Naissances de la politique moderne: Machiavel, Hobbes, Rousseau in 1977, Manent launched an exploration of the origins, development, and current situation of modern liberalism. While liberalism has remained a theme of all Manent’s works, his first books address it most directly. After Naissances, Manent’s Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (1982, trans. 1996) made a significant contribution to the revival of interest in Tocqueville’s work, seen through the lens of political philosophy. In his Intellectual History of Liberalism (1987, trans. 1995), Manent traces how liberalism has shaped the modern way of life, beginning from the thought of Machiavelli, through Constant, Guizot, and Tocqueville. Alongside these monographs, Manent also edited a two-volume collection Les Libéraux (1986), which included the most important theoretical contributions to the modern liberal tradition.
Along with François Furet and Harvey Mansfield, Pierre Manent has assisted in restoring contemporary interest in Alexis de Tocqueville. In Manent’s work Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, he argues that Tocqueville achieved permanent insights into the character of modern democracy that apply even in contemporary situations. Democracy expresses a natural human desire to be free. But it also encourages something else, a “passion for equality,” which shapes human beings.
Unlike earlier political regimes, democracy does not prescribe a specific way of life. Accordingly, Tocqueville includes both the French ancien régime and all previous regimes under the label “aristocracy.” Even the classical republics and democracies are “aristocratic” in their prescription of a specific way of life, something that modern democracy eschews. Tocqueville shows just how far-reaching the democratic passion for equality can be. Each of the key elements of democracy—the democratic social state, popular sovereignty, and public opinion—shapes democratic citizens in different ways. Together they constitute what Manent calls “the force of democratic equality”: inequalities and equalities of social rank are abolished, while new ones (e.g., those based on industrial productivity) appear in their place.
The “social power” of democracy works only softly and indirectly, not forcing men to change their opinions but, rather, embedding people in a world whose guiding principle—equality—affects their thought in ever more profound ways. Democratic citizens defer to the opinion of their fellows and strive to explain human behavior through abstract and general causes. At the same time, the equality of opportunity and equality of rights in democratic society give all citizens an incentive to desire material wealth, which becomes their chief occupation.
Manent grants that in an important respect democratic equality is grounded in nature: there is a certain natural equality of human beings. But when democratic societies strive to make that equality take ever-deeper root, they work against nature’s other tendency—the tendency to produce inequalities. While democracy is more natural than aristocracies that are laden with convention and tradition, democracy is best served, in Manent’s view, by limiting attempts to extend the principle of equality beyond its natural basis. “To love democracy well,” says Manent, “it is necessary to love it moderately.” Indeed, Manent has warned against over-interpreting Tocqueville’s account of a wholly new democratic man. Profound as the effects of democratic equality may be, human nature is not constructed out of nothing by democracy. The key elements of human nature are modified but not effaced by the influence of equality.
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Origins and Character of Liberalism
Despite its title, An Intellectual History of Liberalism is not an intellectual history in the sense commonly understood in most English-language scholarship. Manent offers a genealogy of the key ideas of liberalism—the ideas of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Montesquieu—down through the nineteenth-century French liberals Benjamin Constant, François Guizot, and Tocqueville. Manent’s “history” is an inquiry into the character of the political ideas that have shaped modern life.
What we now call liberalism has its origins in the organized response to the Church’s influence on European life. The Church introduced a new, transpolitical principle of loyalty and civic membership that disrupted the grounds of political obligation and action in the ancient regimes. While medieval political life was characterized by continual struggle between temporal princes and ecclesiastical prelates, neither the city-states nor the Holy Roman Empire was able to establish an integral political alternative to the Church. Instead, it was the kingdom and its descendant, the nation, which was able to establish a definite realm of political action separate from the Church. In this respect, Manent’s approach emphasizes liberalism’s response to the actual politics of the Church, not against Christianity itself or classical philosophy.
Partly inspired by his study of Leo Strauss, Manent identifies Machiavelli as having opened the way for resistance to ecclesiastical interference in secular matters by “interpreting the body politic as a closed totality founded on violence” with no need for ecclesiastical meddling. Hobbes’s state of nature inherits the picture of violence articulated by Machiavelli, and Hobbes uses it to establish “the condition of men before any obedience to the city-state or Church, a condition from which it is possible to construct a body politic invulnerable to the conflict between state and church.” While Locke and Rousseau share Hobbes’s intention of limiting the political power of religion, they judge Hobbes’s political absolutism to be an obstacle to that intention.
Rather than tracing the origins of political power to men’s fear of death from other men, Locke begins from men’s hunger—their need and their incipient ability to satisfy it. This shift in beginning-point founds a new doctrine of rights and limited government, securing men’s rights and opening a new realm of economic activity. The conquest of nature through science attracts citizens of liberal societies for still another reason, for nature is a neutral and not religiously contested place of common action—nature can absorb the assertive energy that will now be less directed to political and religious controversy.
Montesquieu offers the first “fully constituted liberalism” incorporating the key doctrines of representation and separation of powers. Through his representation in the political sovereign, man is able to fashion for himself the laws by which he is governed. Manent identifies an ongoing tension between the liberal account of man’s nature, which does not offer a guide to his action, and the sovereignty through which free men give themselves laws. In the liberalism of Hobbes and Locke, men’s liberty is expressed only indirectly through political representation. Rousseau attempts to overcome the separation between nature and law by identifying man’s nature directly with his liberty. Man’s nature is to be free, and a community of men can express their liberty directly, through the sovereign creation of their body politic. Rousseau’s resolution of the liberal tension leads to a further extension of liberalism through revolution, collapsing the liberal division of civil society and state through the common creation of a new, revolutionary society.
Nineteenth-century liberalism, Manent says, became interested in understanding the characteristics of the new society, which was invested by some with an almost mystical significance. While men sought to create the laws by which they would live, they also “in practice,” says Manent, wanted “laws to command as little as possible.” Tocqueville’s concern was to moderate the individualism and separation that stemmed from this wish not to be ruled. At the end of Manent’s intellectual history, he broaches the question of whether the nation as a political form within which the liberal opposition between civil society and the state is contained and directed is now exhausted—a theme to which Manent returns in his works on the nation and political form.
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The City of Man
In The City of Man (1994, trans. 1998), Manent examines the accounts of human nature that underlie the origins of modern political philosophy and social science and seeks to explain the meaning of the word “modern.” What, he asks, is the “modern man” we speak of? The answer is that “modern” specifies the ability of human nature to change—a view that, according to Manent, makes its first appearance in the political philosophy of Montesquieu.
Montesquieu frames the classical devotion to virtue as a particular need of the political form of the ancient city, which inspired the devotion of its citizens and sapped their desires. The classical regimes were subject to a distortion of their quest for virtue, however, when the legal measures required to enforce virtue produced evil rather than good. Modernity, by contrast, takes its bearings from the avoidance of evil rather than the pursuit of the good. The state of nature hypothesized by Hobbes and Locke defines a negative point, away from which society is constructed. But while Montesquieu suggests that the classical emphasis on virtue involves a distortion or oppression of human nature, Manent argues that the modern political arrangement is itself not “in conformity with nature.” Rather, the flight from evil opens up an uncertain future dependent on the human initiative displayed in commerce and liberty—the future of change, our future “history.”
Manent traces the growth of modern liberty and commerce through the modern constructs dependent on them, “society” and “the economy,” and the corresponding sciences of sociology and economics. Unlike classical philosophy, which adopted the perspective of acting human beings, sociology looks upon society as a spectator from the outside. In the name of liberty, men cast off the political rules that prescribed virtue or specific religious beliefs. In their place, men’s free human nature interacts with the social causes around them—climate, manners, mores, religion, and others on Montesquieu’s list—to produce the characteristics of a particular society. Nature and choice are indeterminate and require the effects of general social laws, which do not determine human action specifically but account for the differences among societies.
The economic point of view stems from the application of men’s liberty to the betterment of their condition, a theme of the work of Adam Smith. Smith, says Manent, reconceived the human “imagination” on the basis of the quest for improved conditions. The consequence, however, was that the imagination was leveled and directed itself as much toward better consumer goods as to the epic or romantic longings of the imagination of old. So, although the extraordinary effects of modern society stem from its foundation in the doctrine of natural rights, this teaching also proceeds from a full account of human nature and its possibilities.
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Defense of the Nation
In Manent’s more recent works, Democracy without Nations? (2006, trans. 2007) and especially A World without Politics?: A Defense (2001, trans. 2006), he has explored the “political forms”—city, empire, church, and nation—through which human beings decide on matters of common importance. The most recent political form, the nation, has started to become questionable. One immoderate interpretation of the historical destiny of democracy argues against the rationality of national boundaries. “Pure democracy,” Manent writes of this view, “is democracy without a people—that is, democratic governance, which is very respectful of human rights but detached from any collective deliberation.”
But as a point of fact, the nation-state and not “democratic governance” has produced the framework within which Western peoples became modern. Only the modern state asserted sovereignty over all parts within it, yet retained the integrity of those parts through its representative character. What concerns Manent is the replacement of the sovereign state and representative government by a manner of governance “more and more functional-bureaucratic and less and less political.” In place of a sovereign people, a “procedural democracy” has appeared that allows a people to make a democratic choice only when that choice reflects a preexisting conclusion from universal human rights.
A politics of rights alone or democratic ethics alone, however, restricts citizens’ ability to make plain political judgments about the character of other countries, or about their fellow citizens if these judgments run afoul of the procedures of political correctness. The supersession of European nations by a democratic superstate, governed not by laws or men but by a combination of obscure regulation and technocratic oracle, is the loss of a political form rather than its replacement by a new one. The nation-state, Manent says, is Europe’s only basis.
Science of Political Forms
Manent’s interests in liberalism, democracy, and the nation exemplify his broader interest in understanding political forms. “Inasmuch as the human world is political,” he writes, “it does not present an indefinite variability. It is structured and ordered. As soon as people live politically, they live in a political form, or in transition from one form to another.” The political forms are the broadest types of human association that allow a way to decide important matters in common. The city, empire, church, and nation are all political forms. Each political form can be ruled in different ways: for example, the sixfold Aristotelian classification of regimes describes the possible ways the city is ruled. But empire, church, and nation express the elements of rule as well—and in ways different from the city-based Aristotelian classification.
Manent explores the science of political forms most fully in his 2010 book (trans. 2013) Metamorphoses of the City. Manent outlines what he calls the “Western dynamic,” beginning from the invention of political life in ancient Greece and the establishment of durable, identifiable, communities that decided important matters in common. While the Greek city-states established political life on a natural, small scale, Rome attempted to extend politics across an empire and combine the political forms of city and empire, which Aristotle had judged at odds. In order to make this possible, Rome had to establish a type of rule (magistracy) who governed in the name of citizens and thus separated “the universal moral agent and the particular individual.”
With the advent of Christianity a new institution appeared that seemed to divide the loyalties of Roman citizens. The Church operated in the world, but asserted that true citizenship was in heaven. The modern political experiment, Manent suggests, can be seen as an attempt to overcome the division introduced by Christianity. The modern nation-state emphatically asserted its ability to decide religious questions if only by preventing their being decided.
Today, Manent argues, the principles of democratic equality and scientific rule, when taken to their conclusions, threaten to do away with the political framework through which we have always decided matters of common importance. When decisions are made on the basis of global human rights or the prescriptions of technocratic science, the political form is lost. Yet, we have no political history outside the political forms that have shaped the West. To abandon them in favor “humanity” is a risk whose consequences we may not be prepared to fathom.
–Essays by Gladden Pappin