Naissances de la Politique Moderne – Births of Modern Politics — This was the title that caught my attention, a new volume that stood out in the vast concourses of Harvard’s Widener Library. It was just down the row from Leo Strauss’s Natural Right and History. I was still just a novice in Strauss’s argument, and I was intrigued to discover that Strauss had a kindred spirit writing in the lucid and elegant language I had come to love during my three years in France. The name on the spine was “Pierre Manent”. I did not suspect then that the author was barely older than me, a new graduate student, and that it would be my good fortune to benefit in person over the years from his reflections and his personal generosity.
This brilliant first book of Pierre’s was indeed in the genre of modernity studies familiar to readers of Leo Strauss, and his Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy and The City of Man can be considered contributions – indeed indispensable contributions – to the project of a critical comprehension of the modern project. But Manent’s version of modernity-critique, informed by the post-revolutionary French “liberal science of democratic society” was marked by a certain distinctive French clarity and confident sobriety. Manent’s epigrammatic command and measured cadences, like Tocqueville’s, seemed to promise a path through the convulsions of modernity; the limpidity of the language itself expressed a certain capacity to “to walk with confidence in this life.”
The phrase “to walk with confidence in this life,” recalls Descartes, but Manent’s pursuit of the meaning of action in the world eschews the seductive short cut that is Descartes’ willful project. Pierre’s quest takes place on two intersecting planes, that of the city and that of the soul. In his recent master-work, The Metamorphoses of the City, he has traced the dynamic between the city and the soul back behind modernity to the original Greek putting-in-common that constituted the classical city, but that also contained the seed of its Christian and modern metamorphoses. Many of you have just read selections from his very recent Situation de la France, or Beyond Radical Secularism, which reveals another daring advance in this quest to apprehend the meaning of human action, in this case through a magnificently concrete argument for real political deliberation. Our incapacity to act, he argues there, results from our having “lost faith in the primacy of the Good. … Every action, and especially civic or political action, is carried out in view of the common good. This common good, which depends on us, is nevertheless bigger than us, too big for us. …
In order to act for the common good, we must have confidence in the possibility of the Good. …If we do not succeed in turning once more with confidence toward the possibility of the Good—as we find it in the God of European history and in the nations that history produced—we will not recover the ability to govern ourselves.
We need to recover the desire for and hope in a provident God if we are to restore the political order as the framework and the product of choice for the common good.”
I summarize: Action envisions a common good that transcends mere individual interest and implies a common hope; action therefore depends upon the primacy of the Good.
In Le Regard Politique, or Seeing Things Politically, Pierre described his quest as situated within a triangle in which he finds it impossible to settle in any corner, the triangle of philosophy, politics and religion, that is, of the great human possibilities of knowing, acting and confessing. I would never suggest that Pierre has resolved the tensions inherent in this triangle, but it has occurs to me that his recent evocation of the bond between the Provident Good and Self-Government within the form of the nation-state illuminates his very French, European and, yes, Christian gift for walking with confidence in this life. His theoretical and practical project within this triangle, to understand and recover the conditions of action, points up a certain primacy of the political, which is by no means equivalent to the ultimacy of the political. Still, I would say that, starting with the problem of the political and following the thread of the meaning of human action in the human world, Pierre has given us a glimpse of the ground of his own lucid confidence. Taking care again not to collapse the tensions that sustain the triangle, I propose that Pierre has invited us to consider how each corner – knowing, acting, confessing – sustains and is sustained by the other two.