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.

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