The Blog


A French Political Philosopher Examines Modernity

12:00 AM, Jun 15, 1998 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

From this fact -- and from the general suspicion of modernity that appears in the book and may be a natural result of treating modernity as a whole -- we could infer that Manent is conservative. His book, however, is neither addressed to conservatives nor directed against liberals. It will not please either party as such, and it will impress both kinds of partisan with the limitations of their arguments and their concerns.

Nonetheless, the effect of the book is to raise doubt about modern ideas and "the authority of the present moment." There is something dubious about a society devoted to the latest thing, Manent suggests -- and that surely confirms a conservative instinct. There are, in fact, four points conservatives might learn from The City of Man: involvement, moderation, nobility, and practicality.

Conservatives distrustful of the latest thing sometimes try to turn simply to an old-fashioned philosophy that will provide them with a metaphysics of common sense -- the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, for example. Manent is a Catholic, and the last sentence of his book reads: "We never understand more than the half of things when we neglect the science of Rome." But that is his promise for a future book. In this one he examines the sources, the kinds, and the stages of modernity in the works of their best spokesmen: Montesquieu on the authority of history (a surprising choice), Montesquieu and Max Weber on sociology, Adam Smith on the economic system, John Locke on the self, and Kant and Nietzsche on the human will.

The reason for studying these fundamental authors of modernity is that we do not have direct access to the worlds in which Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas did their thinking. We are involved in modernity, however much we doubt and distrust it. Conservatives today who seek refuge in Thomas Aquinas almost always bring with them some favorite plaything or doctrine -- the modern economy, perhaps -- that does not belong there and cannot be made to fit into the Thomistic cosmos. Such conservatives fail to think things through, and they end up deluded and isolated. It's not that pre-modern thought is past and gone -- far from it -- or that any synthesis with modernity is impossible. But to make a synthesis, or even a compromise, one must be aware of the depth and extent of our involvement in modernity.

Manent does discuss David Hume, whom he calls the modern conservative. Hume, finding his liberal predecessor Locke to be skeptical about ideas but dogmatic about rights, asks why we should not be consistently skeptical about both ideas and rights. Thus Hume -- the conservative defender of moral sentiment against the liberal notion of rights -- actually radicalizes Locke's skepticism and concludes that moral sentiment has no justification in reason. Hume is the prototype of the modern conservative, because he comes to his conservatism by being a disgusted radical. It is as though there is no way to be skeptical of liberalism without being skeptical of everything.

The consequence, Manent shows, is that no connection exists between the observer of a moral sentiment and the agent who feels it. The observer thinks it arbitrary but useful and the agent thinks it right. The observer is the modern conservative surveying society, and the agent is the ordinary fellow whose prejudices the conservative patronizingly endorses.

How much more sensible and less elitist is the Aristotelianism that Manent invokes, which finds all political claims to be excessive and yet at the same time partly justified. A moderate, limited skepticism about particular claims is better than radical skepticism that makes everything arbitrary, including the skeptic's judgment. An Aristotelian conservative joins the political debate instead of standing disdainfully above it as the skeptical conservatives do.