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A French Political Philosopher Examines Modernity

12:00 AM, Jun 15, 1998 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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A book like Pierre Manent's The City of Man doesn't come along every day. Originally published in France in 1994 and now brought out in English by Princeton University Press, its is a fundamental book, and it raises a fundamental question: What is man?

Manent is a Frenchman, a student of the political philosopher Raymond Aron, and a professor of philosophy in Paris at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes -- which could be rendered into English as the "School of Tall Studies" in a translation somewhat worse than the version of The City of Man by Marc A. LePain. In our increasingly under-educated country it may be pointless to say, but I'll say it: One good reason for learning French is to read prose like Pierre Manent's.

Manent's previous works include An Intellectual History of Liberalism (1987) and Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (1982), also recently translated. A volume of essays, Modern Liberty and Its Discontents, is on the way. For decades after World War II, his mentor Aron stood against communism and existentialism in France, and Manent, now forty-nine years old, is a leader in the succeeding generation of classical liberals (similar to our conservatives) now dominant in French intellectual life. He is the antithesis of the pretentious and pernicious theorizers of the radical "Generation of '68" -- Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and all the rest -- who were through the 1970s and '80s so eagerly imported from France and retailed to politically correct universities by gullible American professors.

The question "What is man?" is almost never faced today, least of all by the experts -- the philosophers and scholars -- who each treat merely a slice of the question, never the whole. There is a reason for this: The modern experts, like the rest of us, are too involved in "modern man" -- that species of human beings who must constantly strive to create themselves in new identities.

Indeed, one set of experts -- our academic philosophers -- claims that we have reached a condition of post-modernity: living after modernity, but unable to leave it behind. With such recent identity-inventions as the "gender-neutral" human being, we have nearly exhausted the possibilities of invention: There simply aren't many new identities left. And so, we begin to wander the globe, borrowing other people's identities in the name of multiculturalism. The insatiable search for something new is all we have left.

In his search to find man -- Man with a capital M, the essence or nature of human being rather than a historical type -- Manent does not pretend that he has any place to begin other than from modern man. Since the Renaissance, modern thinkers have made a deliberate attempt to flee from the nature or substance or any enduring definition of Man, and that attempt has succeeded in eliminating unmediated access to older understandings.

Consequently, Manent examines, in six chapters, modern man. By concentrating first on the abstraction of particular men from Man, and then on the aggregation of those men in groups, modern thinkers lost focus on Man in his nature or essence. Indeed, we no longer even say or mean "Man"; we speak only of the "individual" and "society."

Since modern man comes into existence by tearing himself away from his nature, he creates himself with an enormous effort of thought. The adjective "modern" implies a comparison with the ancients and the medieval Christians, and a claim of overall superiority to them. The claim of "modernity" -- of being modern instead of ancient or backwards -- issues in a laborious conquest of existing societies, not by a military hero but by modern ideas.

So Manent studies modern ideas in the modern philosophers. His book is about great books, the great books of modern ambition by such men as Montesquieu, Hobbes, Locke, and kant. The argument is dense, but it proceeds by short steps of a page or two, so that the reader can stop often to breathe and look around at the prospect that has come into view.

What gradually emerges in the book is a vision not of a landscape but of "the city of man," the contrast to St. Augustine's City of God. Manent deliberately uses the old term city rather than such modern ones as society or world, to indicate his desire for kinship with St. Augustine and the ancient Greeks: The city of man is where we moderns live, but that city derives at least in part from ancient associations and traditions somehow fuller and deeper than the modern ones we believe to be our own.