Postmodern Conservative

Pierre Manent’s Christian Aristotelianism, and Aristotelian Christianity

Daniel Mahoney here  provides a very valuable presentation of Manent’s latest book against the background of an admirably deft distillation of his career — a very nice statement in particular of what he owes to Aron and to Strauss. (This book will appear later this year from St. Augustine’s Press as Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge, translated by Ralph Hancock with an Introduction by Daniel Mahoney.)

The intellectually intriguing and, even more, spiritually moving core of his thought as it comes to the fore in his latest work, as Mahoney captures beautifully in his paragraphs on Christianity and politics:

The principle of European history, which is ultimately stronger than the abstractions of modernity, was the effort “to govern oneself in a certain relation to the Christian proposition,” Manent contends. The new political form of the nation, so distinct from the classical city and the endless extension of empire, “allowed human beings with free will and conscience to gather in political communities at once smaller in extent and more open to divine initiative.” Europeans learned to govern themselves “by the guidance of one’s reason and with attention to grace.” The task of the nation of the Christian mark is “to find a place for the collaboration of human prudence and divine Providence.” Manent observes that the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas provides the principles for this collaboration, even if it does not show “the way to put them concretely into practice.”

The political form of the nation was crucial to this unprecedented collaboration between the pride of the acting citizen and the humility of the Christian. In Beyond Radical Secularism, Manent suggests that the intimate union, not separation, of religion and politics is the key to the European adventure. Of course, Christianity is no mere instrument of the political order: it is ultimately independent of every human order. This intimate union can readily coexist with the institutional separation of Church and state, and it makes possible the mixing of Roman virtues, such as courage and prudence, “with a faith in a God who is a friend to every person.” Europeans learned to pursue “the most unfettered human action and the most intimate union with God.” If in The City of Man Manent accented the ultimate inability of European man to live the tension—or even contradiction—between magnanimity and humility, in his most recent work, he emphasizes that the coming together of self-government and religious faith, of the cardinal virtues (courage, moderation, prudence, and justice) and the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity), allowed for the “common action of grace and freedom” and the “covenant between communion and freedom.” The Manentian category of “communion” is at once theological and political. It suggests the sacredness inherent in every effort to “put reasons and actions in common,” to articulate and sustain the common good in a way that points beyond the political itself. It suggests that action and deliberation are sustained by hope—by what Manent does not hesitate to call the “primacy of the Good.”

Holding together “communion and freedom” is indeed what it is all about, for us as good Europeans (Westerners) and as Christians. The work of the common good is both political and transpolitical; politics is unthinkable without transpolitical hope, and the content of transpolitical hope is best articulated in its continuity with politics’ own self-transcendence. By showing what it might mean for us to put Thomas’s synthesis “concretely into practice” (Mahoney), Manent leads me to wonder (without the Thomistic qualifications to affirm it) whether Manent has not made available an insight that tended to be obscured in Thomas’s systematic theological formulation. I am tempted to say that, for Manent, Christianity completes Aristotle and even that Aristotle makes creedal-theological Christianity more Christian by showing that hope must be grounded in action, and that concrete action cannot escape its political dimension. Manent’s Aristotelian Christianity might be more Christian because it is more political. The question of the Good, in other words, cannot be severed from the problem of concrete (and therefore at least implicitly political) action — that is, action that necessarily unfolds by seeking the elusive common ground of apparently incommensurable human goods (a theme that would lead us back to Manent’s discussion of Aristotle in The City of Man). This, at least, is what Manent’s “covenant of communion and freedom” suggests to me: There is something divine inherent in true attentiveness and solicitude towards common goods. Action in view of the reconciliation of goods is not foreign to the Good.

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