Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic
by pierre manent
harvard, 384 pages, $39.95

Today little attention is paid to the historic visions of the best form of political order, because such forms inhibit the speculative dream world in which modern Western intellectuals seem ­increasingly to live. Form provides the boundaries that frame the basic requirements of liberal democracy, allowing us to know where those requirements are observed and where not. It is with this basic premise that Pierre Manent, one of the leading political theorists of our time, has repeatedly criticized both the aspiration to create a Europe that transcends the nation-state and traditional politics, and also the view that democracy can become universal without ­boundaries.

In this new work, Manent, who teaches political philosophy at the Raymond Aron Center for Political Research in Paris, surveys the whole of the Western tradition in order to diagnose the current state of Western (especially European) modernity. He has treated such themes before, in An Intellectual History of Liberalism; A World Beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State; andDemocracy Without Nations?: The Fate of Self-Government in Europe. He pays close attention to the ways institutional forms “in-form”—shape and constrain—our understanding of the possibilities and limitations of politics. Without such forms what is possible or not for us is indeterminate, unbounded, encouraging speculation further and further removed from ­reality.

He elaborates his thesis through acute, close readings of central texts in political thought, especially Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, ­Machiavelli, Hobbes, Vico, Montesquieu, and Rousseau. His readings are brilliant but will be a challenge for readers who do not live with these texts.

In Metamorphoses of the City, he describes in detail the conceptions of forms that constitute our inheritance. The “metamorphosis” is the alteration in the shape of responses we give to the perpetual predicament of the human condition. In our ­tradition, he argues, this response takes only three salient forms before modernity: the city, the empire, and the Church.

The city is exclusive and compact; the empire is empirically universal, a kind of ecumenical bureaucracy that is internally extraordinarily diverse; the Church is spiritually universal and extraordinarily diverse, but in search of a mystical unity. In the unfolding succession of these forms, we move from a compact, tightly knit civic order with a civic cult, to a highly differentiated, abstract imperial order (with multiple cults), to an invisible comprehensive community (the city of God, which refutes polytheistic paganism).

Each of these projects offers a particular conception of unity. However, what comes later does not simply supersede the earlier; all remain intellectually available images of order. As each form appears, it carries forward various features of earlier forms, even though it cannot, and does not seek, to return to an earlier form. The movement is from more compact to more differentiated.

Manent thinks that the formal achievement of the modern state, from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, is now in disarray. More and more, governance by rule of law is overridden by expanding ­bureaucratic rules involving wide discretionary powers of regulators who in a sense are making it up as they go along. “At least in Europe . . . the form of the nation is discredited, delegitimized, without there being any other form in the process of being elaborated.” In recalling what the modern state was, Manent is describing its current decline.

He argues that civic action (genuine conversation) is in decline and that religious speech, at least in Europe, is nearly inaudible. Europe (and America) are adrift as “political speech has been progressively severed from any essential connection to a possible action . . . . This divorce between action and word contributes to explaining the novel role of ‘political correctness.’ . . . One no longer expects that speech will be linked to a possible action; thus it is taken seriously as though it was itself an action.” What might distinguish America from Europe is its continued, if wavering, commitment to the modern state, while ­Europe is in the process of abandoning that commitment for something that might be called ­postmodern.

In our time, the concept of “humanity” expresses the attempt to visualize somehow the universal reconciliation of city, empire, and Church. Manent has argued repeatedly, however, that such a recon­ciliation cannot be managed except in a political order with boundaries, so that who subscribes to the particular form of reconciliation and who does not, who is committed to it and who is not, can be distinguished. Otherwise, it is impossible to be clear on what we must agree on.

The commitment to “humanity” is the modern version of the Church’s spiritual universality, claiming to supersede both empire and Church, and to be more comprehensive than either, eradicating exclusivity and providing a new “form” for political order that makes the breakdown of the nation-state seem like a moral good. But “humanity” lacks a form that would give it practical concreteness. “Now that [the modern perspective] has expelled the ‘highest’ idea,” its solution is to “embrace the simply ‘largest’ idea, which is the idea of humanity itself.”

The great antagonist of this modernity is St. Augustine, who launched a conclusive attack on paganism and illuminated our imagination through the doctrine of the two cities. The modern project, in Manent’s telling, is to subsume the heavenly city into the city of man, something which neither the pagans nor the Christians sought.

Platonism, the highest form of paganism, saw that political orders are inadequate but necessary practical expressions of our relation to the divine, thus preserving the tension between the divine and the human, but leaving the civic cults in place. To Augustine, this was intel­lectually and spiritually inadequate. The philosophical critique of paganism needed to be advanced by the transformation in religious understanding ­Christianity made possible.

Augustine had to show that pagan religion, transformed by Platonism, was a “mixture that is in some way the final state of pagan religion, the state that is the most intellectually refined and at the same time the most corrupt, and the backdrop against which the Christian religion emerges and in contrast to which it yields its meaning most directly.”

Platonism pointed to a cosmic order beyond the city, an idea that took on especial importance as the rise of the empire discarded the city as political model. “The two transformations are connected, since they involve two ruptures in the closedness of the city.” Out of this situation ­Augustine showed that there were two “cities” or communities: the earthly, ­instantiated in the Roman Empire, and the heavenly, instantiated in the universal Church.

In both the pagan world of the philosophers and the Christian world, then, the necessity of mediation between gods and men—between the divine and the human—and the need for a mediator was recognized: an emperor, the philosopher, or Christ and his Church. But in the “modern order of human rights, so-called subjective rights, it seems there is no longer any mediation . . . . If that is true, then an essential element of the human world, in any event an element that was essential during the two preceding waves of our history—the pagan and the Christian—has disappeared for us.” This describes the turn away from the transcendent which characterizes the modern outlook.

The religious order of the Church in modernity was dispersed into the humanly created orders of the modern European states where the integration of the spiritual and material is pursued. Politics—loyalty to the modern state—becomes the vehicle of religious seriousness, eventually expressed as the religion of humanity.

Traditional religion was relegated to the private sphere, since now the “substantial human association was humanity itself . . . . Unlike the Christian universal that has form and content, the ‘simply human’ universal was devoid of form and opened up the empty space of unlimited possibility.” Thus Manent insists that “humanity” has no political significance, and is not a resource for concrete thought. Invoking it is a device for defeating concrete political proposals that acknowledge limits to the quest for “humanity.”

As he wrote in A World Beyond Politics?, this apparent “promise of moral progress contained in contemporary humanitarian sensibility will remain sterile if we do not know how to delineate the political framework in which it will be able to produce real and lasting effects.”

Modernity is constituted both as a continuing response to what we once were and in longing for spiritual satisfaction, which eludes us. The sense that something is missing hangs over us. We are reminded of the spiritual needs of the human condition even though we have an impoverished ­vocabulary for expressing them, and a confused idea of the order that might empower us to advance morally. Ironically, the quest for “humanity” reproduces in its own way the chasm we sought to close between “how we ought to live” and how we actually live.

In practical terms, Manent defends the modern state as the best form available in our historic situation. Thus his Augustinian criticism of the assumptions underlying the quest for a transpolitical Europe, as well as of any claim that it is the harbinger of the order of the future for the world altogether—Augustinian because he admits the contingency of all political forms yet he also knows that our fallen condition does not permit us to do without formality.

Is a new vision of order possible? Manent’s is a voice crying in the wilderness for the theorist who has yet to appear.

Timothy Fuller, a member of First Things’ advisory council, is professor of political science at Colorado College.

Articles by Timothy Fuller