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The Political Form of Freedom

Can there be self-government outside the nation or city-state? Pierre Manent offers a philosophical answer.

The French political philosopher Pierre Manent has produced an unusually rich and varied corpus. He is the author of one of the most discerning books on the political thought of Alexis de Tocqueville and has written numerous works of scholarship and commentary highlighting the strengths and limits of the liberal tradition, as well as the intersection of religion and politics in modern times. Politically, he is a man of the right, or at least not a man of the left. He is an incisive critic of the European project in its present form, lambasting its inattention to the “political form”—the nation—that has provided the body or framework for democratic self-government in the modern world.

His works are written with rare lucidity and grace. Yet they are challenging to even the most learned reader, not least because of the seemingly effortless erudition that informs them. Metamorphoses of the City is no different in this regard. At the same time, it is perhaps the most ambitious of Manent’s work. It sets out to “propose an interpretation, or at least the elements for an interpretation, of the political development of the West.” That is high ambition indeed, and one Manent delivers on with great success.

Much of Manent’s previous work centered on making sense of modernity as a self-conscious “project” for liberating humankind from the West’s dual classical and Christian heritages. This theme finds elegant expression in Metamorphoses of the City. As Manent puts it in a particularly notable passage,

the modern State … rests on the repression, in any case the frustration, of the two most powerful human affects: on the one hand the passionate interest in this world as expressed in active participation in the common thing, and on the other the passionate interest in the eternal and the infinite as expressed in the postulation of another world and participation in a community of faith.

Modernity represses or frustrates “two fundamental movements of the soul” and creates a human order that is both post-civic and post-Christian. Manent is one of the rare thinkers to appreciate that the de-Christianization of the West is part and parcel of the same process as its de-politicization. As he writes near the beginning of his book, “In Europe today, the civic operation is feeble and the religious Word almost inaudible. The two poles between which the Western arc was bent for so long have lost their force.” Manent’s work as a whole is in large part an explanation of how Europeans arrived at this remarkable depletion of civic and religious energies.

Yet paradoxically, the modern project first came to light as a political project, a great endeavor of human thought and human action. One of the tasks of Manent’s book is to locate the project of collective action that is modernity “in the history of European and Western political development.” To understand our late modern condition with its “dearth of political forms,” its utopian quest to leave politics behind altogether, one must return to the pre-modern period, when a great variety of political forms—the city, the empire, and the Church—competed for the loyalties of men.

Manent’s account begins with the city, the polis, which is the first political form. With the help of Homer, he treats the “poetic birth of the city,” the world of gods and heroes at the heart of Greek political theology. And in very suggestive readings of Aristotle’s political writings, he shows how democracy was the pinnacle and final stage of self-government in the city. The classical science of politics is rooted in a searching engagement with the free political life that is characteristic of life in the city. Classical political science is less abstract than modern political science: in it, science and experience came to light together “in a proximity and intimacy that were never to be found again.” Manent aims to remain faithful to this “classical” fidelity to lived experience.

Greek political science is a science of regimes, “the science of the different ways of self-government in the city.” Greek—Aristotelian—political science was aware of life outside the city but did not believe that empire was compatible with the “ruling and being ruled in turn” that characterized free political life. Even at the height of its empire, Athens remained first and foremost a city. Under wise and capable rulers from Solon to Pericles—the “axis of good” in the history of Athens, as Manent calls it—eminent men put their prudence at the service of “the growing power of the people.”

Athens invented politics, the “strange activity” that exemplified the polis, the political form of self-government par excellence. The empire of Alexander the Great did not rise out of the city but rather out of what Aristotle would call the “tribal monarchy” of Macedonia. With these considerations in mind, Manent establishes a general rule, “a law of physics of political forms,” which states that political forms “do not directly transform themselves one into the other.”

That general rule is true except for one remarkably revealing case that is at the heart of Manent’s exploration. The city and empire are indeed two polar opposites. The city “is the narrow framework of a restless life in liberty; the empire is the immense domain of a peaceful life under a master.” In Rome, however, one saw the impossible or near impossible, the transformation of a city into an empire.

Of course, the distension of the Roman republic long preceded the formal establishment of the Augustan principate. Rome had lost its republican luster long before Caesar tried to formalize that fact by making himself emperor. As the political and philosophical writings of the great Cicero richly illustrate, Rome was caught between a dying republic and empire yet to be formally established.

In a brilliant reading of Cicero’s De Officiis (On Duties), a work written near the end of that Roman’s life, Manent shows how his political thought already reflected the “blurred” or “indeterminate” character of the Roman political and moral order. The “citizen” is “practically absent” in On Duties. The new duality of politics is between the “magistrate” and the “private person.” The magistrate is elevated even as “the citizen is reduced to the condition of a private individual.” The magistrate bears the “person” of the city and pledges himself to uphold the laws and to protect the rights and property of individuals.

As Manent suggests, this is a proto-modern vision, an anticipatory sketch of the modern state that “elevated above society and separated from it, returns to it to assign each member of society his or her rights.” In Cicero’s writings, one also finds a new understanding of the individual nature of human beings, not simply the individual application of a universal human nature characteristic of Greek philosophy. The great republican hero Cato, whose suicide reflected a commitment to the republic and abhorrence of tyranny, is said to have followed his individual character, his proper nature. The individual thus plays a strikingly new role in the Ciceronian moral universe.

The “indeterminate” character of Rome would survive the fall of the Roman Empire itself. Contrary to a widely held belief that the Middle Ages were a time of unparalleled order and community, Manent finds them characterized by a wrenching incapacity to establish a settled or concrete political form. The conflict between city, empire, and Church would persist for one thousand years—Europe’s “Ciceronian moment,” as Manent calls it—and would be overcome only when Europe found its specific political form, the nation-state.

Manent is deeply sympathetic to what he calls the Christian proposition. Christianity and the Christian church offer much needed mediation between God and man, nature and grace, the universal and the particular. Christianity made the invisible—conscience—visible to men in a truthful and salutary way. But Manent also emphasizes that Christian discourse “is not politically operational.” Neither by reason nor revealed Word can it provide a ground for preferring one regime to another or for guiding collective life.

Christian theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas had to turn to political philosophy, law, and political history to find the political guidance lacking in the essentially trans-political New Testament. The fact that Christian discourse is not politically operational makes it much harder to find a “Christian” alternative to modernity, since modernity is in no small part a response to Christianity’s incapacity to govern the body politic in anything like a stable and satisfying manner. Christians are obliged to acknowledge this fact.

This is not to say that Christianity has nothing to offer in a searching examination of political regimes or a history of Western political development.  Metamorphoses of the City culminates in a hundred-page engagement with St. Augustine’s City of God. This is as rich an encounter with Augustine’s famous text as I have come across. Manent shows that Augustine’s critique of paganism is in no way exaggerated or overwrought. Vulgar paganism still had considerable staying power at the time of the fall of Rome in 410 AD, and Augustine was obliged to forcefully take on these essentially man-made and fraudulent religions.

But Manent argues convincingly that Augustine did not simply set out to demolish pagan heroism. It is Hobbes and modernity that see in pagan glory only vainglory. Christianity, and Augustine, in contrast have a “certain sympathy” for pagan glory, since there is a genuine nobility in “the movement of the soul that aspires to glory.” Where Hobbes sees ridiculous vanity, Christianity sees “noble error.”

If Augustine could not countenance the suicides of Lucretia and Cato—suicides rooted in pride or jealousy for glory—he saw only nobility in the sacrifices of Regulus, another Roman hero who “preferred to suffer the slavery and torture of his enemies rather than avoid them through death.” In defending the separation of the two cities, the city of God and the city of man, Augustine still tries to do justice to whatever nobility is inherent in the pagan dispensation.

Moreover, Augustine does not attack social or political inequality per se, but rather the “pertinence of the distinction between the few and the many, the philosopher and nonphilosopher, which is so central to Greek philosophy.” Without succumbing to egalitarianism or humanitarianism, Christianity offers the same salutary truth to all men, siding neither with the egalitarianism of the moderns nor with the “elitism” of the ancients. The contemporary relevance of these discussions ought to be apparent enough.

What is so impressive about Manent’s book is his ability to articulate the dignity and seriousness of the great spiritual and moral contents of the Western tradition. He is a Christian who does not insist dogmatically that Christianity has the final word on the human condition. What he does insist on is that Jewish law “that separates the chosen people from the ‘nations,’ Greek philosophy that separates the ‘philosopher’s nature’ from the rest of humanity,” and “the Christian Church that separates the city of God and the earthly city,” each have “more substance and coherence” than the abstract modern idea of “human generality or universality.”

As Manent makes clear in the last section of his book, modernity culminates in a religion of humanity that erodes civic life even as it rejects the “mediation” that allowed Christianity to bring together the divine and human, the universal and particular. Manent reminds his readers that Christianity is not humanitarianism, that it refuses the reduction of the moral life to a vague affirmation of “fellow feeling” and indiscriminate egalitarianism. The religion of humanity—and the global cosmopolitanism that accompanies it—is “devoid of political significance.” It is a cheap substitute for the genuine transcendence to be found in the City of God. Web issue image

Manent offers a rich, dialectical political science and political history that do justice to classical and Christian wisdom without eschewing the decencies of liberal democracy. In providing the richest history of political forms yet available, he shows that freedom depends on a vivifying framework, and in the modern world the framework for combining civilization and liberty is the nation-state. There is no other political form available for the taking. There can be no democracy without a self-confident nation. It is a mistake to think that the future belongs to a “global process of civilization” and that human beings can live without a political form.

But the nation-state forgets its Christian “mark” at its own peril. As Manent shows, the liberal state is the descendant of Christian monarchy and was long compatible with confessional religions, whether Catholic or Protestant. “One of the most important political questions facing us is whether this origin has kept a part of its power, that is, whether the original determination still remains determinant to some degree today.”

In this profoundly learned meditation bridging many disciplines, Manent helps to make civic life more comprehensible and the religious word more “audible.” This book is a powerful intellectual antidote to the de-Christianization and de-politicization of modern European life, as well as a major contribution to understanding the political development of the Western world.

Daniel J. Mahoney holds the Augustine Chair in Distinguished Scholarship at Assumption College. He is the author of The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order.



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