Pierre Manent is today the leading political philosopher in France. As a young scholar and teacher, while working in Paris as an assistant to Raymond Aron, he read with attention and care the works of Leo Strauss, befriended Allan Bloom (whose book Love and Friendship he would later translate into French), and helped found and for twelve years co-edited the distinguished French journal Commentaire. In time, he became director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, where he still holds court.
Early in his career, during the Cold War, Manent followed Aron’s lead and concerned himself with the totalitarian temptation and with the inability of liberals to recognize the seriousness of the Communist threat. In those years, he took Tocqueville as his guide and liberal democracy as his subject. In 1977, he published Naissances de la politique moderne: Machiavel, Hobbes, Rousseau. In the 1980s, he brought out two additional books, which were subsequently translated into English as Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy and An Intellectual History of Liberalism, and he published in French a two-volume anthology of liberal tracts penned by figures stretching from John Milton to Bertrand de Jouvenel. No one — apart, perhaps, from Aron and from Manent’s friend and associate François Furet — did more in those years to champion a revival of classical liberalism in France.
When the Cold War came to an end, Manent turned his attention to the trajectory of Europe and the gradual dissolution within Europe of the nation-state — a shift visible in some of the essays collected and translated into English as Modern Liberty and Its Discontents. More recently, in A World Beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation-State and Democracy without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe, he has emerged as a trenchant critic of the European Union and a principled defender not only of self-government as such but of what he rightly takes to be its modern crucible: the nation-state. In his estimation, depoliticization is the great problem of our age.
A bit more than 20 years ago, as he turned his attention from the receding totalitarian threat to the uncertain future of self-government in Europe, Manent published The City of Man, a dense and challenging work in which he addressed the emergence of historicism and the sociological mind-set that, he believes, enfeebles modern man and cripples his political imagination. Hovering ostentatiously in the background, though never mentioned in the text, was Augustine’s City of God. At the very end of his book, Manent drew attention to Machiavelli’s ruminations on the inability of Europeans after the fall of the Roman Empire to recover the energy once supplied by Rome, and he pointed, as the Florentine had before him, to Christianity as the chief cause. From “inside” the Roman empire, “or, at least, within it,” he explained,
there arose a new empire, or a new kind of empire, one more vast in extent since it encompasses all men in space and time and more vast in understanding since the virtue that gathers it is not magnanimity, which makes masters visible and sets them apart, but rather humility, which does not recognize persons and, being invisible, opens the invisible space of hearts. The emperor of the visible empire, “sol invictus,” the invincible sun, has as his opponent and successor the vicar of the invisible empire, “servus servorum Dei,” the servant of the servants of God.
This is an observation, deeply indebted to Thomas Hobbes, that is reminiscent of Leo Strauss. But the last three sentences in the volume point elsewhere: “Some other time we shall study the cause that resides in the separation of the two Romes. We must prepare for a second and altogether different crossing. We never understand more than the half of things when we neglect the science of Rome.” Manent’s latest book, Metamorphoses of the City, is an attempt to make good on this promise. It constitutes his “second and altogether different crossing.” Its subject is, as he repeatedly makes clear, “the science of Rome,” and it is the work in the light of which he, as a political philosopher, will ultimately be judged.
Manent’s purpose is the elaboration of a new political science adequate for understanding the political exhaustion that besets not just Europe but the United States. To this end, he attempts “to lay bare the illuminating power of a carefully considered history” of what he calls “political forms.” His starting point is no longer Tocqueville. It is the ancient Greek city, whose “formation” Manent has come to regard as “a much more substantial anthropological transformation, if one can use the term, than the modern democratic revolution.” In categorizing the shift that has taken place in his thinking, he observes:
Instead of seeing history as facilely running toward us, toward the grandeur and miseries of our democracy, I saw it more and more clearly unfolding starting from the prodigious innovation that was the first production of the common, something much more substantial and moreover much more interesting than the virtues and vices of our too-famous equality. I saw more and more clearly the forms of our common life unfolding from the first and master form as so many reverberations of this original conflagration, as so many metamorphoses of this primordial form.
In taking “political forms” rather than “regimes” as fundamental, Manent bids a fond farewell to Leo Strauss, arguing that — Strauss to the contrary notwithstanding — the political science articulated by Aristotle is not fully adequate to the analysis of Rome, which, as it inevitably became “distended,” came to exhibit an imperial “political form” quite different from that represented by the Greek city as a city.
#page#Manent takes his inspiration from Montesquieu, who laid emphasis on the relationship between forms of government and the size of the territory in need of governance. But he does not join Montesquieu in rejecting as wholly inadequate the classical political science of Aristotle. “Where Montesquieu saw the limits of Greek political science,” he suggests, “perhaps one should rather see the science of the limits of the city.” In this fashion, he believes,
we can do justice, more easily than we thought, to Montesquieu’s legitimate demand, and more generally that of the modern social or human sciences. If we understand the city according to its limits, we place ourselves in a position to understand the possibility, perhaps the necessity, of the other political forms. More precisely, by keeping before us both the ancient science of the city and its limits as well as the later experience of other political forms, we open for ourselves the possibility of a more complete science. We then consider the city in the perspective of its death and metamorphosis into other political forms and we consider the succession of political forms as a commentary on and an illustration of not only the potentialities of the city but its limits as well.
What Manent has in mind is not “a third political science” but a reconfiguration of “ancient political science,” which he persists in embracing “not because it is ancient but because it is political and it alone is wholly political; that is, it is wholly science of the government of humans by humans.” He remains persuaded that he was correct in arguing in The City of Man that “modern political science, even in the most ‘liberal’ authors, such as Montesquieu, tends to make us the playthings of ‘causes’ that ‘govern’ us.” One cannot defend self-government with a political science that is predicated on a denial of the human capacity for what the Greeks called praxis.
The requisite reconfiguration of political science that Manent seeks is, he believes, ready to hand. It was, he argues, Cicero who, in the time of Caesar and Octavian, revised the political science of Aristotle for the purpose of understanding a res publica in the process of becoming what the Romans would in short order dub a principatus (the private possession of its princeps, or “first man”) — and Augustine was the Roman statesman’s greatest intellectual heir. In Manent’s estimation, Rome’s transformation was just the beginning, for it was followed by the founding of the Christian church, which was a city, or civitas — a new political form in its own right. In time, moreover, when the Reformation divided Europe, sapped the energy and authority of the Church, and left it in both Catholic and Protestant kingdoms to the mercy of the secular prince, there gradually emerged a fourth political form, the nation-state — which was possessed of a sovereignty that enabled it to absorb and dominate the Church and, in time, neuter it and consign it to civil society. With this nation-state, there came a revival of self-government by way of representative institutions.
As this brief outline can only suggest, Manent has written a book as challenging as Strauss’s Natural Right and History, one in which he calls to judgment Strauss and his followers for neglecting the city of God and failing to articulate an adequate “science of Rome.” In the process Manent has done a great public service: first, by forcing political philosophers to grapple with the erosion of self-government in the West and the gradual substitution of bureaucratic administration for political praxis; and, second, by demanding that they reconfigure the only political science that gives primacy to politics in such a manner as to take into consideration the succession of what he calls “political forms.” What Cicero did for Rome in the time of Caesar and Octavian with his De Officiis and his De Republica and what Augustine did for the Civitas Dei with his magnum opus The City of God needs to be done for Europe and America in and after the age of the nation-state.
Manent is right in intimating that we need to read Montesquieu with great care and to take seriously the criticism that he levels at classical political science, and to do so without succumbing to the propensity — fostered by all modern political and social science — for underestimating the scope left for human agency. He is correct as well in his insistence that we need to attend to the logic underpinning the succession of political forms, and the warning that he directs to his fellow Europeans about the dangers attendant on administrative centralization is not salutary solely for them: It applies with almost equal force to us. With the nation-state, man recovered in some measure what the ancient Greeks had discovered when they founded the city. To lose the res publica would be to lose our most precious heirloom.
– Mr. Rahe holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College and is the author, most recently, of Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect. This year, he is a national fellow at the Hoover Institution.