“To love democracy well, it is necessary to love it moderately.” So concludes Pierre Manent in his book Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (1982). But, Manent points out, it is not easy to love democracy moderately. As Tocqueville reported, the democratic revolution separated “modern” man from his predecessor across an historical abyss like two different species of animals in the realm of nature; it fabricated a social world at once flimsy and inexorable, arrogantly triumphant and at the same time devoid of grandeur. How can this rupture, which inspired in Tocqueville himself a kind of “religious dread,” be loved moderately?
In his new book, The City of Man, Manent sets out once again to understand this problem. He does not directly investigate the institutions of political liberty, but rather democratic man himself, “the sovereign acknowledged by history, the true King of kings and everyone’s good friend.” To the question Quid sit homo?—“What is man?”—Manent answers that the epithet “modern” is something more than an expression of poetical, self- congratulatory sentiment. As he tells the story, there is indeed a modern man who is not reducible to his predecessors. “[N]either Christian nor Greek, he is that third man full of force who despairs of the good but not of himself.” If here Manent fails to provide a satisfactory answer to his own question of how we can love democracy or democratic man moderately, he nonetheless provides a brilliant description of the “modern difference.”
Born in 1949, Pierre Manent came of age intellectually during the turmoil of the Fifth Republic, which culminated in the attempt by the New Left in May 1968 to bring down the government. United in a dogmatic rejection of liberal society, this amalgam of leftist movements and ideologies was, like Marx, convinced that bourgeois civilization had hollowed out “the contents of life.” (Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago  would end this conceit.) In the wake of the student revolt, Manent converted to Catholicism. He then became a student of and eventually an assistant to Raymond Aron, from whom he learned a different reading of the liberal tradition, especially in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville. For a time, Manent was an editor of the neoconservative journal Commentaire. A teacher at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris since 1992, Manent is perhaps the brightest light in a new generation of French intellectuals who think through the history and implications of liberalism without Marxist blinders. He is perhaps best known to American readers for An Intellectual History of Liberalism, which appeared in France in 1987 and was published in English in 1994 by Princeton University Press in its series entitled “New French Thought.” This year has seen the publication not only of The City of Man in that same series, but also of a collection of Manent’s essays, entitled Modern Liberty and Its Discontents.
In the volume of collected essays, Manent characterizes himself as having “camped for the past twenty years” at the outermost boundary of Tocqueville’s work. Tocqueville, although he described the “modern difference” more clearly than anyone, did not concern himself with its genesis. He masterfully described the depth of the revolution and its future direction, but he told us little about how it was prepared intellectually, making it seem to arise de novo. For the past twenty years, Manent has tried to piece together the history unexamined by his master.
In The City of Man, Manent holds that European moral life was organized and animated by a dialogue (“fraught with conflict”) between Greek and Roman civic morality on the one hand and Mosaic precepts and Christian evangelical counsels on the other. We can call the first “the party of nature,” which looked to the ancient city and its account of man to provide reasons for the common good. Emphasizing pagan pride, or the virtue of magnanimity, the party of nature held that a fully finalized human form is the common mea sure of both individual and social flourishing. “The party of grace,” by contrast, emphasized the influx of a new “form” in the soul—grace—and the constitution of a new community in the Church. Not by magnanimity but by humility and obedience is man made capable of sacrificial self- renunciation for the common good. Pope Gregory the Great, for example, asserted in the Moralium: “Obedience is rightly preferred to sacrifices, because by sacrifices another’s body is slain whereas by obedience we slay our own will.” For Manent, the tension between these two visions of the human good and their respective virtues is the key to the dynamism of European civilization. The solidarity of the two “parties” is exemplified intellectually in the Thomistic “synthesis,” and socially in the chivalric or aristocratic order (which Tocqueville contrasted with the new man born in the revolution).
Over centuries these two spiritual forces “turned on one another like two grindstones.” Each of the protagonists tried to strip the other of its legitimacy; to each, the “sacrifices the other calls for are vain.” Manent contends that the modern “difference” is to be traced to the exhaustion of the dialogue between magnanimity and humility. The “modern” comes into being by rejecting that dialogue tout court, for the modern does not see it as a dialogue but as a cultural war in which each party makes impossibly high demands. Modern man’s escape from the war was to declare neither side the winner and to take flight into history, which in the modern imagination fixes an unbridgeable gulf between two humanities. The two humanities are no longer intertwined by nature or revelation, but separated by history, “the mother and sum of all successions.” Manent observes that modern man thus “feels very sincerely and very modestly superior to all things which are either law or nature and above all else to the humanities that came before him.”
The rejection is not without a certain duplicity, which is also characteristic of modern man. In the face of the Church’s demands for ascetical sacrifice and holiness, modern man learned to argue the side of nature. As J. S. Mill asserted, “pagan self- assertion” is a good thing. But modern man yearned to be something more than a merely natural man, and thus he also learned to argue the side of grace against nature—not of course supernatural grace, but the lesser grace of pure freedom, which became for modern man a perpetually novel “form” born in each man’s soul. Manent wryly remarks, “A theologian might say that in its long wrestling match with grace, liberty came out too strong for nature.”
By rejecting the demands of nature and grace, modern man discovers himself as something prior to and more fundamental than either citizen or Christian. Hence we have the new myth of the “state of nature,” told with so many ingenious variations from Hobbes to Rawls, in which man is depicted in his aboriginal condition, under neither Caesar or Pope. Thus depicted, man is measured by neither a natural nor supernatural pattern of perfection that would justify either of those traditional authorities. What is left? Man in his two pure endowments—animality and liberty. From his animality the modern philosophers will produce the new sciences of man, not in the classical terms of substance and form, but rather in terms of a machine whose signal trait is self- preservation. From his liberty the modern philosophers will celebrate the creation or, rather, the self- creation of values. In the place of the tension between nature and grace, the modern city of man is organized around the tension of animality and liberty. The first renders magnanimity the vanity of vanities, while the second renders holiness superfluous.
The City of Man is organized into two parts. The first part studies the modern sciences of man—historical, sociological, and economic—which seek to provide an accounting of man in terms of his common denominators of animality and liberty. Manent focuses upon Montesquieu, but also draws in John Locke, Adam Smith, and Max Weber. The main question is how there can be any authentic science of man, given the fact that modern man understands himself as being simultaneously both lower and higher than his predecessor understood himself to be. Considering man only in his animality ignores his specific difference, making it impossible to answer with any confidence the traditional question, Quid sit homo? On the other hand, self- constructing liberty leads to diversity without principle, a plurality without a common nature. In the second part of the book, Manent argues that what makes man “modern” is his belief in the unknowability of his own nature. This epistemic deficit, as it were, creates a space in which a human order can be constructed, “where man can affirm himself without knowing himself, where he can be free.” A learned ignorance of his own nature is the modern felix culpa.
Manent narrates this story in a Tocquevillean mood of amazement and dread. The reader is never allowed the comfort of quite knowing whether Manent is criticizing or merely describing modernity. Some readers, further, might find themselves disappointed by the fact that although the title of the book is taken from Augustine, we learn surprisingly little about the Catholic and medieval pattern that stands in contrast to the secular cities of the ancients and moderns. Manent acknowledges his debt to Leo Strauss, but by refusing to make the ancient city the main term of contrast to the modern, Manent’s historical thesis is quite different than Strauss’. Instead he puts the Catholic city at the center, in contrast to both the pagan city which knew not grace and the modern city which rejected it. Until he gives us a clearer picture of that Catholic city and the intervening millennium of thought, we may wish to reserve judgment about the radical novelty of the modern project. At the end of The City of Man, Manent promises to consider “the science of Rome” in a future work.
Perhaps the main problem with The City of Man is that Manent tells the story from the perspective of the intellectual founding fathers of modernity. Not surprisingly it is, in the main, an unedifying tale. Unlike his master Tocqueville, Manent does not treat particular political institutions or the lived experience within those institutions. Without that level of concreteness, we can see no countervailing force to the disappearance of man. How can we love democracy moderately if, on Manent’s account, democratic man is the most immoderate of creatures, who protests that he cannot be evaluated according to any given notion of man? In his earlier book on Tocqueville, Manent warned that there is indeed another side to the story. “The democratic convention, in itself, strictly abstract and therefore, in a sense, strictly inhumane, is continually humanized, in democratic societies, by the compromises that it must make with the necessities of social life, the moral contents inherited from pre- democratic epochs, and finally with the irrepressible spontaneity of human nature.”
For the other side of the story, it is necessary to read the collection of Manent’s essays, Modern Liberty and Its Discontents, edited with a useful introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney. These essays include brief portraits of the thought of Aron, Strauss, Nietzsche, Allan Bloom, Aurel Kolnai, and even a brief intellectual autobiography. There are also essays on religion, totalitarianism, nationalism, and the difference between European and American under standings of liberalism and conservatism. In these essays Manent distinguishes more clearly between the political and philosophical resources of modern democracy. Of special interest is the essay “Christianity and Democracy,” where Manent tries to understand how the Catholic Church came to celebrate the right of religious liberty. With remarkable subtlety and precision, he traces the history of the Church’s movement from one- sided indignation to celebration of the first of all the rights of democratic man. He also notes many different ironies and traps that emerge once the Church finally submits to the reign of democracy.
He proposes, however, that the rapprochement is “fortunate” for the Church. An essential trait of democratic man is to leave indeterminate any answer, certainly any official answer, to the question Quid sit homo? To the question “Who is man?” the moderns answer in a tautology: Man is he who has rights. “Today’s Church, or its most astute representatives,” Manent suggests, “makes known with a benevolence tinged with irony the import of this lack of self- knowledge.” By default, the most important question has been left to the Church to answer. Whereas in early modernity the Church enjoyed political authority but dialectical disadvantage against the questions of the philosophes, it is now left with political submission but dialectical advantage. In this curious position, the Church can learn to love democracy moderately. For it can now see democratic man not as a self- assured rival to the Church but rather see him in the poverty of his own self- creation, unable to answer, or even ask, the central question. Manent concludes, “No one knows what will happen when democracy and the Church become aware of this reversal.”
Russell Hittinger is the Warren Professor of Catholic Studies and Research Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa.