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A French Political Philosopher Examines Modernity

12:00 AM, Jun 15, 1998 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Manent's treatment of Adam Smith is particularly original and revealing. It focuses on the psychology of "the thinnest of all beings, homo oeconomicus" and his medieval predecessor, the feudal lord. The revolution that led to the dominance of economic man established "the economy" -- a machine that runs like a watch, with fitness, dependability, and over-precision. And it has its contemporary form in the modern economic conservative seen as an aesthete: the Rolex conservative who trades the political power of an aristocratic lord -- or even of a democratic leader -- for the imagination that conceives ingenious contrivances of human industry. He abandons his desire for glory and indulges the desire for gadgets. Suffering from misplaced imagination and loss of nobility -- the gleam in his eye deriving only from workaholic addiction -- he has nothing grand in mind on which to spend the money he makes. Being vulnerable to taxation, he spends his time devising modes of evasion from public exaction; he stays away from politics so that he won't get fleeced. He does not have a great soul.

Out of revulsion for Adam Smith's economic system and its ignoble human products, another kind of conservative might go to an antipolitical extreme and fall in love with Nietzsche. Nietzsche's call for a superman is intended to supply modern civilization with a hero, and his notion of the will-to-power is supposed to remind us of the hero's striving. But the will-to-power concentrates all meaning in the self and leaves the world to be understood haphazardly, as if things by themselves were all out of whack and could be assembled only by the power of human thought. The degree of sovereignty required to become a superman is so intoxicating that the superman quickly tires of politics and begins to think about becoming a god. The Nietzschean, self-creating conservative has no time for his fellow humans and no patience with truths that might be imposed on him. He scorns the small gains that might be made in politics without instituting a new religion, himself at the head. He does not care enough to be practical.

Manent's The City of Man is extremely useful to conservatives. The metaphysical conservatives, would-be disciples of St. Thomas Aquinas, can learn the need for involvement from reading this book. The skeptical conservatives, modeled after Hume, can learn moderation. The economic conservatives, followers of Adam Smith, can learn nobility. And the self-creating conservatives, drawn to Nietzsche, can learn practicality.

But The City of Man is useful precisely because it is not about conservatives. It is about Man. After examining modern man in his own terms, Manent judges him by older standards -- standards that his analysis has freed from the most powerful modern conceits. He concludes that modern man is "the man who does not know how to be either magnanimous or humble."

Our restlessness arises from the attempt to flee simultaneously from these two extremes -- from what is best in humanity. The elegance of Manent's book is matched by its elevation.

Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard University.