Our Greatest Living Political Philosopher Print
By Peter Augustine Lawler   
Saturday, 29 October 2011

According to the French philosopher Pierre Manent, the nation is the modern form of the ancient polis, a particular place where people can and should find a political home. The nation is a body with: definite territorial limits; customs, traditions, and political institutions; and a form fitted for beings like us with bodies and minds, eros and will – hardwired, so to speak, for living together in the truth, and experiencing the joys and responsibilities we share in common.

For Manent, who is among one of the most endangered of species, a French Catholic intellectual, the modern nation, at its best, is based on the realistic observations that each of us is a citizen, but more than a citizen. The city of God and the city of man are both places in which we can feel at home, if not quite fully at home.

So Manent doesn’t see the fundamental tension of the West as between city and man, meaning either between citizen and philosopher or citizen and Christian. That Socratic or Platonic tension is alleviated at least by the observation that each of us is more than both citizen and philosopher, but none of us is exempted either from being a citizen or from living well in light or what we really know.

The deeper tension Manent sees is between magnanimity (or proud claims of self-sufficiency, a greatness that deserves the highest recognition from others) and humility (our anxious awareness of our flaws, debts, and limitations, which we couldn’t possibly overcome by our own efforts). The magnanimous man overrates his personal significance, of course, just as the humble man underrates his.

This dialectic between magnanimity and humility still exists, Manent suggests, even in Alexis de Tocqueville’s democratic man, who, in one moment, proudly says nobody is better than he is and, in the next, impotently admits he’s no better than anyone else.

That democratic man oscillates between two attitudes: I’m so significant that I can reasonably demand that the whole world exist for me; and I’m so insignificant that I have no point of view to resist the impersonal forces that surround me. Both the magnanimity and the humility of the free and democratic individual are too exaggerated, too unreal, to be sustainable.


            Philosopher Pierre Manent: he gives us hope

What’s left for free individuals displaced from the properly social and relational senses of magnanimity and humility? Hatred! Hatred of the body as an arbitrary and invincible limit to one’s freedom. Why is that? The modern individual knows, or thinks he knows, that he is not his body. To be free, to be autonomous, is not to be determined by bodily need and instinct. 

As our Supreme Court explained in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, to be an autonomous and dignified individual – the free being described by our Constitution – is to be mysteriously freed from being saddled by one’s body, one’s biology. A woman is free not to be a woman, not be a reproductive machine for her species or her country or her family. Furthermore, we all have a mega-right: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

This sort of free individual hates to be embodied, to be located in any physical or psychological place in particular. Manent regards that as the reason why today’s Europeans are in the thrall of post-familial, post-political, and post-religious fantasies. The family, the nation, and the church are all institutions that come into being because we are free and rational beings with bodies. 

Without bodies, we’d be free from personal love and personal death, we wouldn’t have to defend ourselves against our enemies, we would haven’t to generate biological replacements – children – to take over when we die. We have no reason to have kids or go to church or serve in our nation’s armed forces.

The fundamental fact of Europe today is the birth dearth. Not having kids is, of course, bad for the species, although by some lights it might be better for the environment if our hateful species would just wither away. Not having kids, of course, is also bad for national security. And part of Europe’s awakening from its vacation from history in fantasyland is its slow but real coming to terms with that fact.

Manent certainly gives Americans reasons to cherish our differences. We are, despite our reputation, less radically individualistic than Europeans these days, more likely to think of ourselves as citizens and creatures and parents and children. And it’s our citizen-creatures who are proudly open to being citizen-soldiers, who stand up when Lee Greenwood sings. And we even have “unprotected” sex often enough that we have just enough kids to give our nation, so far, a plausible future – although it may be not actually be enough to save Social Security and Medicare over the long term.

The truth is:  Manent gives us hope. Fantasies end, reality smacks us in the face, politics and God both have futures, although only God knows in what form.


Peter Augustine Lawler, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, served on President Bush’s Council on Bioethics and is the author of Homeless and at Home in America, Stuck with Virtue, Aliens in America, and several other books. He is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College and the executive editor of Perspectives on Political Science. In 2007, he received the  Richard Weaver Prize in Scholarly Letters.

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