[first published March 31, 2016]
by Dr. David Pence
Pierre Manent (b. 1949) is a French political scientist. He was a student of Raymond Aron and has written in defense of the nation as a political form against European collectivists. His books are often quite dense; sounding sometimes like Leo Strauss (who was also an influence). Manent's writing is becoming more clearly religious as he comes to grips not only with the Islamic threat, but the reality of Israel as a political form which preceded the Greek polis. His recent essay in First Things magazine on "Repurposing Europe: a renewal of the national project" was his clearest formulation yet.
In two previous essays he has examined the historical development of the forms of public life: the city, nation, empire, and church. What follows are multiple "interesting paragraphs" from those essays. This is not organized to be read as a integrated whole, but to assemble key paragraphs for their insights.
Excerpts from an essay on the birth of the nation as a political form in City Journal, 2013:
GERMANY AND LUTHER: AN APPEARANCE OF THE NATION
"A second political consequence of the Reformation: if the spiritual community, the Christian community, wasn’t the universal Catholic Church, it followed that it was the community as defined politically and temporally. Now, the community as defined politically and temporally was the national community. So the Lutheran Reformation was, to a large extent, a national revolution—a German revolution, for which Germans long afterward felt nostalgia. The breakdown of Catholic mediation, in other words, contributed to the reinforcement of two elements that proved decisive in the constitution of modern Europe: the sovereignty of temporal princes and the authority of the national principle."
TWO PROBLEMS FOR EVERY POLITICAL ORDER
To govern the temporal and mediate the Divine are the twin problems of governance for king and republic alike. He describes the confusion about political form in Europe after the devastation of the World Wars.
EUROPEANS BUILT NATIONS AS THEIR FUNDAMENTAL DYNAMIC FORMS BUT NOW ARE RUNNING FROM THAT FORM OF SPIRITUAL AND POLITICAL ORDER
"Prepared by Machiavelli and facilitated by the Protestant Reformation, the form of the nation crystallized victoriously and came to be considered the natural framework of civilized human life. There is no doubt that Europeans of all nationalities, at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, felt that they inhabited the most perfectly developed political form. In Europe, at least, that idea has since grown foreign. During the twentieth century, the nation-state was discredited and is now increasingly regarded as a type of human association that belongs to a past age.
"Europeans have therefore undertaken to build a new political form—or rather, let’s say that they have assumed the perspective in which they envisage a new political form called "Europe." Europeans still belong to the old nation, and yet they see themselves as one day belonging to a Europe—indeed, a Europe that already constitutes a part of their experience, though in an extremely limited and artificial way. Like Cicero, they find themselves at a point of transition from one type of human association to another—and they will not be governed well until they face the question that is once again thrust upon them: the question of political form."
MANENT JUDGES THE REJECTION OF THE NATION AS A DEAD-END
Manent countered the European attempt to escape local political forms in his Democracy Without Nations: the Fate of Self-Government in Europe. His unpopular thesis was that without nations as the fundamental form of political association, there could be no self-government under the larger European entity.
In his 2012 City Journal essay 'City, Empire, Church, Nation: How the West created Modernity' he accepted those two ambiguous depictions of place (the West) and time (Modernity).
LIKE MANY INTELLECTUALS OF THE "WEST" HE IS INFATUATED
WITH THE GREEK POLIS
"The Greek city was the first complete implementation of human action, the ordering of the human world that made action possible and meaningful, the place where men for the first time deliberated and formulated projects of action. It was there that men discovered that they could govern themselves and that they learned to do it. The Greek city was the first form of human life to produce political energy—a deployment of human energy of a new intensity and quality. It was finally consumed by its own energy in the catastrophe of the Peloponnesian War."
HIS PERCEPTIVE INTRODUCTION OF THE EMPIRE AND THE PROBLEM OF UNIVERSALIZING THE CITY (THE FOUNDING FATHERS ASKED, "HOW CAN WE HAVE AN 'EXTENDED REPUBLIC?' ")
"Imperial Rome was a kind of continuation of the city, but it deployed such powerful energies that it broke through all limits that had circumscribed cities and took in ever more distant and numerous populations, until it seemed to reach the point of gathering together the entire human race. The Roman Empire renounced the city’s freedom, but promised unity and peace."
HIS UNIQUE DESCRIPTION OF THE CHURCH AS BOTH CITY AND EMPIRE -- AS LOCAL AS THE PARISH MASS AND UNIVERSAL AS THE FOREIGN MISSIONS
"...the idea was reborn in a new form, one that was, again, particular to Europe. This was the Catholic or universal Church, which aimed to reunite all mankind in a new communion, closer than that of the most enclosed city and more extensive than that of the vastest empire. Of all the political forms of the West, the Church extended the greatest promises, since it proposed this community, at once city and empire; but it was also the most disappointing, since it failed to bring about the universal association for which it had awakened a desire.
"...the Church was in competition with the cities and the empire, which, in turn, were in competition with it. The disorder was dreadful, a conflict of authorities and of loyalty. It was this confusion that the modern project wanted to allow us to escape—and in this, it succeeded. The conflicts had to do with institutions but also, more profoundly, with the human type that would inspire European life. Whom to imitate? Did one have to follow the life of humble sacrifice for which Christ provided the model? Or was it better to lead the proud, active life of the warrior-citizen, a life for which Rome had provided the framework and of which Rome was the product par excellence? Should Europeans, surveying the ancient world, admire Cato or Caesar? Europeans no longer knew which city they wanted, or were able, to inhabit; thus they did not know what kind of human being they wanted, or were able, to be. It was in this radical perplexity, and in order to come to terms with it, that the modern project was born."
THE WORD MADE FLESH, AND THE ESSENTIAL ROLE OF THE SPOKEN WORD IN POLITICS -- HIS REFLECTIONS
"Finding themselves assailed by prestigious and contradictory authorities—words of the Bible, words of Greek philosophers, words of Roman historians and orators—the Europeans did not know which to follow and which to dismiss. Thus, they did not know how to act; they did not know how to respond to the question, What is to be done? Speech and action were disjoined. The modern moment crystallized in the effort to attach speech to action more rigorously. This was the work of the Reformation. The authority of the Word of God had been divided between the Scriptures and Church tradition—but the Scriptures were accessible only through the mediation of the Church and in Latin, the language of the Church. Martin Luther wanted to attach Christian faith immediately to the Word of God as found in the Scriptures by rejecting the mediation of ecclesiastical authority and translating the sacred text into the language spoken and understood by the faithful. Sola scriptura, said the Reformers: Scripture alone."
MACHIAVELLI'S SOLUTION -- THE POLITY SPEAKS AUTHORITATIVELY BUT NOT AS THE CHURCH -- IT SPEAKS AS THE NATION
"It was Machiavelli, however, who—at exactly the same time as Luther—formulated in the most general terms what lay at the heart of the problem and what would be the principle of the political solution. Both problem and solution appear in Chapter 15 of The Prince:
'But since my intent is to write something useful to whoever understands it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it. And many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.'
The reason that Machiavelli decided to write about the way men actually lived, not the way they behaved in those imaginary "republics and principalities," was the great distance, which we have just noted, between what men said and what they did.
Now, the greatest distance between speech and action is introduced by the Christian Word, which requires men to love what they naturally hate (their enemies) and to hate what they naturally love (themselves). The modern political project, which Machiavelli was the first to formulate, was therefore a response—it began as a response, in any case—to the "Christian situation," one marked by competition among authorities, disorder of references, anarchy of words, and, above all, the demoralizing contrast between what men said and what they did. Yet there can be no human life without authoritative speech. Where would the modern state find such speech? It found it in society—by becoming "representative" of society. Representation joined society’s speech to the action of a state lacking its own speech.
The problem of the Christian age was solved, therefore, by the sovereign state and by representative government—that is, by our political regime considered as a whole. My object here is not to describe the mechanisms or, for that matter, to sketch the history of the representative regime. Still, one point must be emphasized. The decisive factor in the reconciliation between speech and action is the formation of a common speech by the elaboration, perfection, and diffusion of a national language. Luther’s Reformation was a spiritual upheaval, but it was also inseparably a political revolution and a national insurrection. Too often forgotten is that even before the modern state was consolidated and became capable of authorizing or prohibiting effectively, the nation had emerged in Europe as the setting for the appropriation of the Christian Word, which the universal Church had proved incapable of teaching effectively. Each European nation chose the Christian confession under which it wished to live and essentially imposed it, after many attempts, on its "sovereign." Europe assumed its classic form with the "confessional nation," soon to be crowned by its absolute sovereign, who would later bring about its "secularization"; and this was the form in which it succeeded in organizing itself in the most stable and durable manner. From then on, it was in the framework of a national civic conversation that Europeans sought to link their speech with their actions and their actions with their speech. The national form preceded and conditioned representative government.
So the history of the West unfolded in tension between, on the one hand, the civic operation—which the Greek city brought to light, and which the republican or "Roman" tradition sought to preserve and extend—and, on the other, the Christian Word, which opened up an unmanageable gap between speech and action in political society by proposing a new city where actions and speech might achieve an unprecedented unity, where we might live according to the Word. The practical solution was found in the nation distinguished by its confession, administered by a secular state, and governed by a representative government."
BUT JUST AS THE CHURCH DISCARDED HER TEMPORAL ROLE AND SPOKE AS A DEPOLITICIZED BUT UNIVERSAL ECCLESIAL BODY IN VATICAN II...THE NATION WAS BEING BLAMED FOR THE HORRORS OF THE 20TH CENTURY
"Today, the situation is reversed. What we find is not an excess, but a dearth, of political forms. At least in Europe, the nation is discredited and delegitimized, but no other form is emerging. What is more, the reigning opinion, practically the sole available opinion, has been hammering into us for 20 years the idea that the future belongs to a delocalized and globalized process of civilization and that we do not need a political form."
THE MODERN EUROPEAN DISCARDS THE POLITICAL WISDOM OF HER PREVIOUS CHRISTIAN SYNTHESIS
"Europeans have confused the political nation and the spiritual communion that informed it with the nation that repudiates the biblical God and embraces “the exclusive valorization of one’s people.” They do not appreciate the profound difference between the community of “blood and soil,” which culminated in National Socialist nihilism, and the nation of a Christian mark with no “homicidal aversion for people from elsewhere.” Europeans are convinced of the unique culpability of Western civilization; faced with a false choice between autochthony and rootlessness, they choose rootlessness “out of horror of a volkisch autochthony.” The European nation, properly understood, is equidistant from both."
To conclude this introduction to Manent, a few critical comments to our great teacher:
The professor is still sorting out where the Church fits in this picture. The farther he gets from the esoteric language of Leo Strauss, I think the closer he will come to see the first real national covenant was between G-d and Israel. The Greeks themselves mark their national liberation day from Muslim rule on the feast of the Annunciation (1821) with a flag marked by a cross -- not an Athenian leader speaking in the polis.
|Bishop blessing Greek flag at the beginning of the long War of Independence|
Manent, hopefully, will spur more reflection on authoritative words of speech contrasting political rhetoric of the territorial nation and the liturgical role of the universal Church. We may come to better understand the public form of the priestly and liturgical Church. It was Providential that the social forces of the Protestant Reformation, Vatican I, and Vatican II finally separated the Church from the political discourse of nations so her definitive public word could be retained in the liturgy and sacraments. There she speaks quite authoritatively: "This is My Body" and "Your sins are forgiven." Now we need Catholic nation men to speak for their nations in the religious political vocabulary of shared protective duty and ordered liberty.
While Manent sees himself as a critic of French laicite -- he sounds very much the modern Frenchman to these American Catholic ears. His "social contract with Muslims" uncovering their females and severing a religious man from his wider deeper religious community (the umma) is akin to outlawing the garb of traditional Catholic sisters and asking Christian men to renounce our allegiance to the Body of Christ. But let not these criticisms diminish our thanks for the clarity of this Frenchman's defense of the nation. He is truly a 'DeGaulle of letters,' lighting the way in another dark hour for France amidst the ruins of Europe.