Pierre Manent is one of the leading lights of a generation of French scholars who have helped revive the long-neglected classical-liberal tradition in French intellectual life. Director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, Manent is the author of several important books on Tocqueville, the intellectual history of liberalism, and the future of European democracy.
He is also a prominent public intellectual: He cofounded the anti-Communist journal Commentaire in the 1980s, and has recently emerged as a prominent defender of the idea of the nation-state against a “world beyond politics.”
Manent’s latest book, Le Regard Politique, is a wide-ranging introduction to his life and thought. He grew up in a Communist family, converted to Catholicism in high school, and developed his interest in political philosophy as a student of Raymond Aron, who pointed him toward the writings of Leo Strauss.
NRO’s Alexander Kazam spoke with Manent about his approach to the study of politics, his thoughts on the European political situation, and the question of historical progress.
In Le Regard Politique
you say that you have always been more interested in the “society that exists” than the “society that could be,” and that perhaps for this reason you have never been a man of the Left. Does that make you a conservative?
Pierre Manent: Well, I am not sure. The point is that I am so interested in politics as it is going on, that what Machiavelli would have called “imaginary principalities” don’t interest me. What is going on in society forces us to ask so many questions that it’s enough for a lifetime to try to understand what is going on.
I do not think that this take on things is necessarily conservative or progressive. In the present context of things it is rather on the right, if you want, but I do not start when I am studying a question by telling myself that I will be conservative and take a conservative position. To put it in a nutshell — you’ve taken my seminar, you know what I will say — is Aristotle a conservative, or not? It is difficult to say. I am not Aristotle, sure, but the way he looks at things is for me the right one. The question of the good is at the heart of real life. And this is what I would like to contribute to recovering.
Kazam: But isn’t Aristotle interested in the question of the “best,” as in the best regime? Doesn’t that require a certain kind of imagination?
Manent: Certainly — the question of the best, the question of the good. Whether I would be willing to elaborate some blueprint of the best regime is another question. Again, perhaps it is my teacher [Raymond] Aron’s influence. I try to be attentive to the practical turn of things. As citizens — and of course for statesmen it is even more the case — we are always engaged in some sort of action. And we are engaged in action in the frame of some situation with certain ends in view. Trying to understand this situation is in some sense enough for me.
For instance, to take the European situation, we are torn between Europe and the nation-states. We don’t know how to make a whole with the parts. And of course you could say, well, let’s try to think of the best European regime, with a European body politic and the member nations all linked together in a nice organization. I am not tempted to follow this path. I try to describe the practical situation in which we find ourselves: We are between the old nation and the new body politic, which is impossible to produce in some sense. Trying to make sense of this situation and suggesting how we could confront it is the most I can do. Building from thin air the best European regime is not interesting to me.
Kazam: In your work on the intellectual history of the West, you trace the evolution of political order, from the family to the city to the nation-state. Why isn’t something like the European Union a reasonable next step?
Manent: Yes, well, it looks reasonable. Because our nations have been around for quite a long time, and they are tired. They exhausted themselves and disgraced themselves in the 20th century with the First and Second World Wars and what attended them. So, on the face of it, it is reasonable to say, “Let us leave behind our nations, and let us build something new.” The fact is that we did not really build something new, because we did not found anything new. We just began to build a scaffold. But life went on in the old nations.
We never made the founding move, which America’s Founding Fathers made in 1787. There was no foundation. We put our hope in process — in process — and we guessed that at some point, without knowing when or how, foundation would happen. That is, the process would transform itself into something else, would undergo a qualitative change. But process will just produce process. And there is no foundation at the end of the process because there is no end to the process.