he contemporary French political philosopher and historian Pierre Manent is one of the most lucid and insightful diagnosticians of the modern condition available to us. That is the good news.
Now for the bad: Reading Manent can be hard slogging. It is not just that his prose style can be abstruse (at least in translation), and his references obscure; there is a deeper difficulty. As Jean Bethke-Elshtain allows in her useful introduction to his magisterial The City of Man, reading Manent is difficult because “if we take him seriously we are forced to confront presuppositions we prefer to cherish.”
One of those presuppositions, I will boldly assert, is that we live in a time that fearlessly seeks the truth. Let me begin by putting it superficially. We consider ourselves heirs of the Enlightenment. Ever since that burst of light we have been devoted – unlike the benighted past, clouded by tradition – to the cause of finding truth in a spirit of freedom. Manent destroys our confidence in this presupposition. He demonstrates, with painstaking historical precision and care, how modernity, how modern man, in important ways dissolves the truth and even loses interest in it. Truth presupposes a common frame of reference, but such a frame would limit freedom. What we are left with, when it comes to the truth about man, is a catalogue of chosen ‘values,’ each incommensurable, each the ‘truth’ (the scare quotes are now obligatory) only for a certain man at a certain moment.
Or let us take another presupposition: our freedom. Now there is a sense in which it would be even a commonplace to say that we are, of course, not as free as we should or could be. Indeed, modernity – as Manent is at pains to point out – is precisely the project of always seeking greater freedom in a certain sense of the word. So, even if we may not be as free as we like, most modern people would insist that, at the least, we are freer than we used to be.
Does Manent question this? He does, but he also does something more. He helps explain why this ever-growing freedom coincides with an ever-growing dread that our lives have been shorn of any depth or meaning.
In what follows, no attempt can be made at a comprehensive exposition of Manent’s diagnosis of modernity. Future essays, it is hoped, will continue this modest beginning.
Ancients and Moderns
Toward the end of The City of Man, Manent wonders aloud why, over the previous densely-packed 155 pages, only a single paragraph has been devoted to the subject of liberty. “Is not modern history,” he asks, “the history of the acquisition of liberty … does not modern philosophy lead one to see and understand the passage from man defined as ‘nature’ to man defined as ‘liberty’?” (156). With, I am sorry to say, uncharacteristic directness, Manent immediately answers his own question:
At the very moment the notion of liberty comes to the forefront of political philosophy and life, it undergoes a sort of internal rupture. Up to the seventeenth century, it was inseparable from one account or the other of free will. With the thinkers who founded modern liberty, the theoreticians of political liberalism, the notion of liberty severs itself from that of free will and even turns against it. Hobbes and Locke … assert the necessary character of human acts. It would not be giving an inexact description of what took place if it were said that the philosophers refuted and denied liberty at the very moment they offered liberty to man, or claimed it for him. (158)
To understand how such an outlandish thing can be possible, it is necessary to consider the radicality of the modern approach to freedom. Modern man, unlike ancient (by which we mean merely prior to 1715!) man, is free from the dictates of anything so crude as ‘nature,’ more specifically, of his own nature. If modern man still had a nature, as in the ancient world, then man’s ends (whether Greek virtue or Christian sanctity), what he might will, would already be inscribed in that nature. Although this cuts short, necessarily, a particularly intricate and important point, we will limit ourselves to saying that the will itself can only will what it wills. Today, it is the will itself that is free. It has no nature. But what then is man? Has he been left behind in the rush forward?
A pause in our discussion is called for. Manent continually insists on drawing a stark distinction between modern man and ancient man, and goes so far as to insist that every one of us, without exception, no matter how humble we may be in other respects, finds a source of pride in being modern. This pride stems at least in part from our awareness that, in the ancient world, traditions, religion, ancestors, or quite simply the past itself, placed restraints on who a person was. We are aware of our freedom from such constraints, and this allows us to smile, in the same way that a sophisticate smiles at a child, at the inhabitants of the pre-modern world.
I say this in order to emphasize, once again, this all important distinction. Prior to modernity, our nature was held to determine who we are. More than this: by the mutual agreement of both ancient Greece and Christianity right up until the Age of Enlightenment, it was held that this nature led us to define our common life – whether in one’s city or in Christendom – as a striving for what is good, and hence “for what is best.”
Now what is best most assuredly is not what is most convenient or comfortable for me, for ‘man.’ For the monk in his cell (an example both Manent and Montesquieu like to call upon), spiritual perfection requires a life of sacrifice – of sleep, of warmth, and of many other comforts. For Socrates, as any reader of Gorgias will recall, striving toward ‘the best’ sort of life according to man’s true nature may very well require accepting torture and death if the alternative is doing an injustice.
With the advent of Hobbes and Locke, prophets of the commercial society that replaces the ancien régime, what may still be called man’s nature now is nonetheless a different nature. Now man’s nature can only choose to flee from what is evil, and what is evil (for Hobbes) is the threat of mortal harm and (for Locke) discomfort.
This, as anyone can see, leads to a contradiction. If man’s ‘nature’ were determinative of who we are, how can it be that one and the same ‘nature’ leads to such opposite results? Can nature at one and the same time both tell us to strive for what is best (ancient world) and to run from evil (modernity)? The philosophers of modernity conclude that nature cannot, then, be what is most true about man. It must be that ‘who we are’ is determined by time itself, in other words, by ‘history.’ But beware. By ‘time,’ we are not referring to time in the sense of roots in the past, ancestors, sacred texts from the past. No, we mean the opposite of all that. By time we mean simply ‘the present moment.’ The present moment, for modernity, is determinative of who we are.
This brief introduction to Manent threatens to cease being brief. Let us conclude, then, with a final question, and the beginnings of an answer. It has just been asserted that modern man is determined by the present moment. What impels us forward? The quest for freedom. And what is the content of that quest? Only this:
Modern man is concerned only with the instruments of his emancipation project or with the obstacles to it. Nothing substantial, be it law, good, cause, or purpose, either holds his attention or holds back his advance any longer. He has become a runner and will go on running until the end of the world. (48)
And yet, can anything so vacuous as this be called a content?
Should these critical comments about modernity lead one to catalogue Manent among the enemies of modernity and the foes of liberalism (for Manent modernity and liberalism amount to much the same thing)? Perhaps not. Manent’s recent essays, including in publications such as Modern Age or First Things, suggest a different and gentler reading. In these contexts, his take on modernity rather recalls something that used to be said of Leo Strauss, the political philosopher who, besides Raymond Aron, has exerted the greatest influence on Manent. For Strauss, as has been often noted, modernity is bad. Furthermore, America is modern. Logically one would expect this syllogism to end with the conclusion that America is bad. But Straussians all maintain the opposite: for Strauss, America was ‘good.’
For Manent too, America is mostly good, and modernity brings us many things that perhaps none of its critics, when push comes to shove, would choose to do without. And yet the looming presence of Strauss introduces, to this reader at least, the following note of caution. Strauss came from the Old World at a time when speaking the truth was dangerous. Strauss famously felt that the great philosophers, notably including Plato, should not be read naively, as if their most important truths lay out in the open, for anyone – including a possibly hostile government, or a powerful society – to read clearly and plainly.
But perhaps all of this is too esoteric. Who among us, any of us, dares to tell the truth as it lies in our hearts? I know I rarely do so, at least in public. The reason why will have to await another essay.
 The City of Man (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), xi.