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.
Alexander Kazam: 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.
Kazam: What about the euro?
Manent: The euro was the only deepening of the integration, the only effort to really produce something in common. And now, of course, the euro is in great danger because we have a common currency but not a common political body. And of course people point to that and say it’s a reason to produce a political body — it should force us. But you cannot produce a political body if you do not want it. You cannot want it as an instrument for something else. We will never found a unified Europe to save the euro. Because a foundation cannot be instrumental. You have to really want it.
This new political body — why can’t we will it? Because we will decide that it will encompass all the countries sharing the euro. But why would you want to found a political body encompassing these countries without, for instance, Great Britain? It has no political or moral meaning! It’s just fortuitous that certain countries share the euro and others don’t. It cannot be a political endeavor.
So we won’t do that. And I’m afraid that if we don’t do that, the euro zone might unravel. And it will be ugly, but for the reasons I just explained, I don’t think that we can transform ourselves into founders without willing it.
Kazam: So the analogy that people draw to the founding of the United States . . . ?
Manent: The difference is huge. If you don’t have the unity at the beginning, you won’t have it at the end — except by one country imposing its will. And what people are calling the New Europe and the new tendency toward some federal Europe is only Germany exercising her ascendancy. That’s it. There is such an inequality between Germany and most other countries that now they are the strongest on the block and they exercise their influence. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it has nothing to do with a common founding.
Kazam: In Le Regard Politique you argue that understanding America is crucial to the study of politics. Do you believe in a form of “American exceptionalism”?
Manent: Yes, certainly. It is difficult not to, because it is the only political experiment that succeeded. There is a nice passage in Joseph de Maistre, the counter-revolutionary, the enemy of the French Revolution, where he says that human beings are not able to build things, because when they try to create something they do not get it. You cannot really produce new and interesting things. It is just given, by the process of history, by God, or whatever. And if there is a case where he was wrong, it is in the case of the United States of America. It’s the only successful political foundation, as the Federalists would say, “by design and choice.”
It is not a question of agreeing with American policy or politics, I think, but if you are not able to treat the United States for the great political-civic accomplishment it is, you miss something huge in the political landscape, and your view of politics in general is biased. And really, I do not want to look like a flatterer of the United States, but it is my experience that people who have good judgment in general about political things all some way or another have a sympathetic understanding of America.
Kazam: In your discussion of the Middle Ages, you ascribe the disorder of the medieval period to an unanswered political and theological question: “Whom must I obey?” What question would you say the West is confronting today?
Manent: For Europeans, I think it is at the same time, “Whom should we obey?” and “To which association do we belong?” It is clear in the United States; Americans know to which body politic they belong and whom they will obey. But in Europe, we really don’t know. We belong to the old nations, within the limits of which we govern ourselves, but we are also part of a growing Europe whose legitimacy is now greater than the nations’ legitimacy. Yet we do not govern ourselves in Europe, but in our own countries.
So the body politic we inhabit has less legitimacy than the purported European polity. And even Europe is not really enough, because the point of Europe as opposed to the nation is that it is more universal, more general. And so it is just a halfway house between the nation and the world. At the end of the day what is really legitimate is not Europe, it’s humanity. And Europe seems the right thing to do because it has this aspect of a halfway house between the nation and humanity. But of course you cannot settle there, because it is spiritually an in-between place.
Manent: Yes. The question is, where is the legitimacy? In my opinion, the deepest characteristic of Europeans is this huge perplexity. They don’t know to what they belong, and they don’t know whom to obey.
Of course, they can fake it. They can say, “Now we have to forget the nation and be Europe.” Or they can say, “No, Europe is bad and we have to come back within the limit of the nation.” They can shout and say things. But deep down, I really think that they are not sure. They are not sure. And I would say the most significant characteristic of the present situation is this perplexity.
Kazam: Your friend Allan Bloom, whose Closing of the American Mind was published 25 years ago, famously made the case for a “great books” education as a way of broaching these questions. Do you make the same case?
Manent: You need these great texts because they are the deepest efforts to understand human things, but you need to have the right disposition to learn from these texts. And part of it is not just what you learn from these texts, but having the right alertness to what is going on in the world. So I would agree with Machiavelli that you have to read old books, but you also have to have the experience of modern things. And to find the right balance between these two preoccupations.