Over the past three decades, the French philosopher Pierre Manent has published a series of works on the destiny of the West and our modern political condition that are both profound and—atypical of Parisian intellectuals—expressed in luminous prose. In books that include Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (1982), An Intellectual History of Liberalism (1987), The City of Man (1994), A World Beyond Politics? (2004), and The Metamorphoses of the City (2010), Manent engages with the West’s greatest political minds, from Aristotle and Cicero to Machiavelli and Montesquieu and beyond. These thinkers aren’t prisoners of time, Manent insists; if studied attentively, they speak truths—often explosive truths—across the ages.
Most of Manent’s major books are now available in English translation. Until now, though, no single-volume introduction to his thought has been available to Englishspeaking readers. Seeing Things Politically, a series of interviews with Manent, conducted by Bénédicte Delorme-Montini, covering his major influences, spiritual life, and intellectual career, solves that problem. Ably translated by Ralph C. Hancock (the French original appeared in 2010, to accompany The Metamorphoses of the City), with a helpful introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney, the book can be read in one or two sittings. It is a small masterpiece.
Manent makes his ambition clear to his interlocutor in his very first responses. Since he reached adulthood, he tells Delorme-Montini, he hasn’t been attracted to the Left, which pursues fantasies—new political and moral orders that it can conjure and create. “What I want instead,” Manent says, “is to understand”: society as it is, he maintains, is more interesting than any utopian dream. And the focus of his research has been on politics or political things, which give “human life its form.”
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