Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Modern Times

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Modern Times

Article excerpt

Modern Times A WORLD BEYOND POLITICS? A DEFENSE OF THE NATION-STATE by PIERRE MANENT Princeton University Press, 228 pages, $35

Reviewed by Thomas S. Hibbs

THE NOVELIST AND sometime philosopher Walker Percy used to say that Angelism-by which he meant the denial of our bodily nature-is the defining heresy of modernity. The great French political theorist Pierre Manent seems to be getting at something similar in his new book, A World Beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation-State, when he argues that moderns aspire to anchor all bonds and obligations in a purely spiritual decision, free from antecedent bodily conditions.

Manent sees modernity as a quest for freedom from all sources of obligation extrinsic to the human will. In Kantian terms, freedom becomes autonomy, the capacity to give oneself the law and thus to be liberated from heteronomy. In contemporary politics, particularly in Europe, the most potent movements aspire to a pure democracy purged of any ties to history, place, or language-all the embodied features of the political order that have been with us since the origin of the Greek polis. In Manent's telling, the tragic structure of the history of mankind's alienation from the polis is instructive concerning the enduring nature of the human and the limits to the modern project of mastering nature.

A "World Beyond Politics? is the third of Manent's books to be published in the Princeton series New French Thought, following An Intellectual History of Liberalism and The City of Man. A student of Raymond Aron and heavily influenced by Leo Strauss, Manent deftly weaves detailed exegesis of texts within an historical analysis of pagan, Christian, and modern epochs. The English tide of the latest book is somewhat misleading, as the text is less a defense of the nation-state than a plea to treat the nation-state in particular, and political phenomena in general, as worthy objects of understanding.

Applying Aristode's Politics to our current situation, Manent attempts an account of regimes, particularly of the nation-state as a regime that arose out of previous conceptions and that may in the not-too-distant future give way to some supernational form of political life. But would that even be a political life in any meaningful sense? Or would it offer entrance into a world beyond politics, as the title wonders? And what would a life beyond politics mean for human nature and philosophy, both of which are discovered along with the conscious articulation of the nature of politics, with the birth of the polis?

Despite our obsession with difference and diversity, our understanding and practice of politics are increasingly undifferentiated and homogeneous. Europe seems intent on separating the notion of democracy from any particular attachment to a nation-from the idea of being a people with a certain history and future. Americans, by contrast, identify their own social and political order with democracy itself and want to spread that version everywhere. Both tendencies underestimate the "intractable character of the political world" and "exaggerate the docility and plasticity of peoples." Manent works his way through a number of proposals-from geography to culture to democracy itself-to define the new Europe and comes up empty. He suspects that the drive for the European Union is rooted in an aspiration for pure democracy free from any particular ties. But that, Manent urges, provides no basis for any geographical definition of Europe whatsoever.

The problem for Europe is that it does not know what, if anything, its member nations and various people share. For clarification, Manent returns us to Aristotle's assertion that citizens hold "words and deeds in common." Manent's genealogy of modern politics begins with the Greeks and the polis; the city is the most natural form of government. In the early modern period, a new, more abstract and more formal conception of politics comes to the fore. …

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