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.

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.

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.

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