Postmodern Conservative

Pierre Manent and American Greatness

So I have in my hands the galleys of our Ralph Hancock’s lovingly expert translation of Pierre Manent’s Seeing Things Politically. Let me explain why you should buy it from St. Augustine’s Press as soon as it comes out.

Pierre Manent is probably the most deeply original, broadly erudite, and genuinely politically engaged thinker alive today. Not only that, he is the European today who walks most closely in the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville in at least this way: He actually has experienced and described the singular greatness of America. He reminds us that anyone who’s anyone wants to study and teach in America, because in our country at its best is the place where people “invest their pride and glory in the universities,” as “a matter of honor, rather than profit.” And classical learning still flourishes here and there in America the way it only rarely does in Europe. Read the man from France for telling corrections to the famously pessimistic exaggerations of the best-selling book by our Allan Bloom!

Now it’s true enough that many or most of our colleges and universities are getting worse as pride and honor are supplanted by obsession with profit and the moral indignation of political correctness grounded officially in relativism. But it’s also true that the best scholars and students from all the world still flock to America.

Not only that, Manent tells us that it’s “Christian-democratic-capitalist America” that “sums up” the strong and confident modern soul that remains “distinctive of the West” in our country, but “was distinctive of the West in Europe.” From Manent’s view, the followers of Alasdair MacIntyre and Pat Deneen don’t really see the greatness of their country. But neither do our libertarians.

Many Americans, at least, still understand that “our subjective rights, which are so dear to us, reside in an inner space opened up by Christian conscience.” The Europeans tend to fill that space up with post-political and post-religious fantasies that detach rights from any real thought or confident action in response to Manent’s central question: What is man? The truth is that the space can be cherished and adequately defended only if we’re genuinely open to the truth about who we are: free, relational, and dutifully responsible persons under God.

Again, it’s easy to observe that America is surrendering or at least retreating from it’s greatness. Still, it’s good to know what you’ve got before it’s gone.

This book is the indispensable introduction to Manent’s often difficult and elusive other books. Its form opens us to the whole life of a strange and wonderful man, his development as teacher, thinker, Christian, and citizen of the nation of France. And each of the pithy and user-friendly yet precisely detailed responses to a wide variety of personal questions both perennial and timely is meant to draw in or “turn around” attentive seekers. Every great thinker should be graced with a book like this, where the dialogue is directed (unlike, say, the dialogues we have about Socrates) by the man himself.

Peter Augustine Lawler — Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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