The novelist and sometime philosopher Walker Percy used to say that Angelism-by which he meant the denial of our bodily nature-is the defining heresy of modernity. The great French political theorist Pierre Manent seems to be getting at something similar in his new book, A World Beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation-State, when he argues that moderns aspire to anchor all bonds and obligations in a purely spiritual decision, freefrom antecedent bodily conditions.
Manent sees modernity as a quest for freedom from all sources of obligation extrinsic to the human will. In Kantian terms, freedom becomes autonomy, the capacity to give oneself the law and thus to be liberated from heteronomy. In contemporary politics, particularly in Europe, the most potent movements aspire to a pure democracy purged of any ties to history, place, or language - all the embodied features of the political order that have been with us since the origin of the Greek polis. In Manent's telling, the tragic structure of the history of mankind's alienation from the polis is instructive concerning the enduring nature of the human and the limits to the modern project of mastering nature.
A World Beyond Politics? is the third of Manent's books to be published in the Princeton series New French Thought, following An Intellectual History of Liberalism and The City of Man. A student of Raymond Aron and heavily influenced by Leo Strauss, Manent deftly weaves detailed exegesis of texts within an historical analysis of pagan, Christian, and modern epochs. The English title of the latest book is somewhat misleading, as the text is less a defense of the nation-state than a plea to treat the nation-state in particular, and political phenomena in general, as worthy objects of understanding.
Applying Aristotle's Politics to our current situation, Manent attempts an account of regimes, particularly of the nation-state as a regime that arose out of previous conceptions and that may in the not-too-distant future give way to some supernational form of political life. But would that even be a political life in any meaningful sense? Or would it offer entrance into a world beyond politics, as the title wonders? And what would a life beyond politics mean for human nature and philosophy, both of which are discovered along with the conscious articulation of the nature of politics, with the birth of the polis?
Despite our obsession with difference and diversity, our understanding and practice of politics are increasingly undifferentiated and homogeneous. Europe seems intent on separating the notion of democracy from any particular attachment to a nation - from the idea of being a people with a certain history and future. Americans, by contrast, identify their own social and political order with democracy itself and want to spread that version everywhere. Both tendencies underestimate the "intractable character of the political world" and "exaggerate the docility and plasticity of peoples." Manent works his way through a number of proposals-from geography to culture to democracy itself-to define the new Europe and comes up empty. He suspects that the drive for the European Union is rooted in an aspiration for pure democracy free from any particular ties. But that, Manent urges, provides no basis for any geographical definition of Europe whatsoever.
The problem for Europe is that it does not know what, if anything, its member nations and various people share. For clarification, Manent returns us to Aristotle's assertion that citizens hold "words and deeds in common." Manent's genealogy of modern politics begins with the Greeks and the polis; the city is the most natural form of government. In the early modern period, a new, more abstract and more formal conception of politics comes to the fore. The medieval identification of the people with the presence of the king's body - concrete, tangible, and visible - becomes replaced by modern notions of representation and the multiplication of interests, of politics as abstract, intangible, and invisible.
Citizens of modern regimes suffer varying degrees of frustration over the absence of any visible presence of their unity; there is no place where modern human beings experience wholeness. One of the attractions of totalitarianism, which Manent predicts will remain an ongoing temptation, is that it promises to overcome the sense of dislocation and fragmentation by supplying a visibly unified political life. Many modern political theorists had predicted that the ascendancy of commerce would mean an end, or at least a serious diminution, of war. For certain regimes, however, the very pettiness of commerce is an incitement to war and noble contests. Manent here detects a reversal of Hobbes' political philosophy, wherein the fear of violent death moves individuals from the state of nature to the order of politics in which commodious living can be pursued with greater security.
Manent typically contrasts the premodern and the modern, as for example in his assumption of continuity from the Greek polis to the medieval model of kingship. But he also notes that Christianity introduced a rupture into the ancient world. By separating religion from politics, it set "the secular free" and offered participation in a perfect community independent of specific geographic and cultural conditions. Still, it kept alive the notion of a city, in this case the city of God; and its focus on the sacramental life of God's people, organized around the concrete and visible presence of the bishop, undercuts the move toward formalism and abstraction. Despite the alteration in the relation to the polis introduced into the human soul by the Christian religion, Manent pairs the premodern pagan and the Christian citizen together, because the fundamental experience of both is that of obedience to law, whether religious, political, or familial.
In Manent's history of modern Western political thought and practice, freedom triumphs over nature-the autos element of autonomy comes to eclipse the nomos element - so much so that by the end of the book a certain trajectory seems almost inevitable. Indeed, science and liberty, the two dominant passions of modern life, work together, precisely because science promises mastery and possession of nature and hence unprecedented liberty. The logical end of such a liberation is, as Nietzsche aptly dissected it, the flattest condition of the soul, that of the tourist.
In his appeal to the ancients, in his stress on the political implications of certain strains of modern science, and in his penchant for a quasi-Nietzschean analysis of contemporary life, Manent follows a broadly Straussian program. Yet, unlike most Straussians, Manent focuses more on Aristotle than on Plato. He also has a penchant for genealogical accounts that are, if not historicist, at least more open to an intelligibility at work in history than anything one finds in Strauss. Finally, Manent's own questions about Strauss' project arise from his somewhat different way of formulating the theologico-political problem.
To see what is distinctive in Manent's approach, we might begin with his discussion of the way contraception in Europe and elsewhere provides "an extraordinary philosophical experience for the study of the relations between human nature and human art or artifice, as well as the evaluation of the Enlightenment project of the conquest of nature." Citing the consequent declining birth rate in many countries, Manent observes, "we are stronger than nature, we master it, we subject it, but we subject it to the point that it lets us down and indirectly recovers all its power over us." The tragic denouement of modernity's attempted mastery of nature is instructive and indirectly affirmative of a natural order that resists the stratagems of those who would master it rather than understand it.
But this raises the question why we seem incapable of learning the lessons of nature, and why we, particularly in modernity, have turned ourselves so implacably against our very nature. Part of the answer, hinted at in this book but stated more directly in Manent's earlier volume The City of Man, is theological. More precisely, it has to do with the defining anti-theological stance of modernity. Manent wonders why it is that early modern thinkers did not simply continue the revival of pagan antiquity that was integral to the Renaissance. A contributing cause had to do with hostility toward the Catholic Church and its theological engagement of pagan nature. So long as a teleological conception of nature is in place, there remains the possibility that the Church can engage that account of nature dialectically. If nature points us toward the divine, then theology can remain part of rational, public discourse. If, however, nature does not point at all, or points in multiple, incompatible directions, all of which refer back to the whims of our desires, then theology becomes just one opinion among many, one rather peculiar way of satisfying natural cravings.
In the premodern conception of nature, pagan or Christian, the question of the ultimate end of human life is central, as is an understanding of human beings as achieving perfection through conformity to an encompassing order. In The City of Man, Manent observes, "To open the third way, to bring to an end the endless battle between . . . nature and grace, one must first of all and above all keep nature at a distance and even subject it since it is the key to the scheme of heteronomy. The definitive artifice needs to be elaborated, the pitchfork that would make it impossible for nature to return."
The evanescent and always receding liberty of modern man begins from this negation of any higher law. Modernity in this interpretation is not so much secularization as it is a parasitic, unending, and self-canceling rebellion-an exhibition of anti-theological ire. There are Pascalian insights lurking here. As Manent explicitly notes, "we want to be angels," but we end up as beasts. One wonders whether another Pascalian teaching, applicable to all epochs of humanity but most dramatically on display in modernity, is not also at work, namely, that the twisting and turning of nature against itself, inexplicable on the grounds of natural reason, is lent a kind of intelligibility by the revealed doctrine of original sin. Whether Manent or anyone else can carry the dialogue between theology and politics forward remains to be seen. By simultaneously insisting upon the (limited) intelligibility of natural, human, and political matters and remaining open to the questions that invite theological responses, Manent has already achieved a great deal and put us all in his debt.