The Greatness and Misery of Liberalism

By Manent, Pierre | Modern Age, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Greatness and Misery of Liberalism


Manent, Pierre, Modern Age


Contrary to what is often said, liberalism is not foreign to France. Some of the most profound, incisive, or influential authors of the liberal tradition are French. It is true that the tone of French liberalism in general is more serious, even somber, than upbeat and victorious. France is the country of "sad liberalism" or "liberal melancholy." I do not claim to belong to the great French liberal tradition, but you will get the impression, I tear, during the course of these remarks that I share at least its sadness or melancholy. I would have liked to have brought better news, but I could not.

Perhaps the best way to enter directly into the question that concerns us is to see that, in its fullest meaning, liberalism is the revolution of the rights of man (or of human rights, as one says in English).

By "revolution" I do not mean a sudden upheaval like the French Revolution, nor a gradual, very long-term development like "the democratic revolution" that Tocqueville both contemplated and analyzed. I understand revolution as the crystallization of new principles of collective order, with the various effects of reworking and reordering the world that these principles will soon have on human life in all its aspects.

The Revolution of the Rights of Man: An Effort at a Definition

How can we most appropriately approach this crystallization of new principles, this "moment of the rights of man"? It seems to me that the history of philosophy provides the most relevant point of reference: the revolution was really inaugurated when the notion of the rights of man was philosophically articulated, that is, during the second half of the seventeenth century.

Where did this notion come from? To what did it respond? It responded to the following problem: What, it was asked, is the best possible government for Christian peoples? By "Christian peoples" I mean the peoples who have heard and accepted the Christian message of a new City, of a true universal community.

This Christian affirmation introduced an unprecedented political problem: How can each political body govern itself, while also recognizing the superior authority of the universal religious community? What place should be given to the spiritual power when, because of it men, "seeing double" as Hobbes so vividly phrased it, no longer know whom to obey? Rousseau's diagnosis and judgment were harsh: "From this double authority there results a perpetual conflict of jurisdiction that has made any good government impossible in Christian states."

It then became a question of finding a new principle of government that would reunite men who were internally divided by the separation of the two powers, the temporal and the spiritual. One therefore was obliged to reconsider the very foundations and meaning of collective life. Until then, to live humanly meant taking part in the human association, whether political or religious, and therefore obeying the law that was the rule of that association. This principle had obtained for all the associations known until then: for the Greek cities as well as Rome, for the Church as well as the Jewish people, for the new kingdoms of Europe, etc. Henceforth--this is the new principle--it will no longer be a matter of obeying the law, but of asserting one's rights. The new meaning of the political order is to protect the rights of individuals. Until now what was common had held the highest authority. Now, legitimate order springs from the individual and returns to him. Listen to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Article 2: "The goal of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, personal security, and resistance to oppression."

"To preserve natural rights": that expression, which perfectly sums up the new principle, is nonetheless somewhat deceptive because of its "conservative" connotation. …

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