On May 10, after compline which concludes at about 7:40 pm, a new seminar in Political Philosophy will convene, headed by David Alexander, reading through Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. All interested persons are welcome to participate either by Skype or by attending in person. Notes will be posted as they are composed, session by session. The meeting on May 10 will look at the first two chapters.
Pierre Manent’s Beyond Secular Radicalism
Manent begins with a reflection on the political formation of modern France. Many of his reflections apply more broadly to Europe, and beyond that to the West, but he has in mind especially the particularity of France’s formation and current crisis in facing a militant Islam while at the same time being disarmed by a radical secularism. Manent notes that only political experience which is sufficiently “brutal, penetrating and overwhelming” seems really able to educate nations, as it confronts a people with what is really held in common and what is threatened existentially.
Manent notes that contemporary France assumed its present form after its political experience of the defeat of June 1940. He claims that France finds its center of gravity and vector in General de Gaulle, who chose on behalf of the whole. The Resistance, not the defeat, embodies France’s last great formative experience. “The events” of May 1968 in contrast are like a solvent, their effective truth being merely the de-legitimization of collective rules. “The citizen of action was followed by the individual of enjoyment.” (A hedonism fattens the sheep). This later movement was essentially an apolitical movement which has brought with it a growing incapacity to propose goals for common action. The solvent is a “limitless freedom.” The project of “the construction of Europe” is an enterprise that delegitimized the political framework of the nation. This has left France, despite its material and intellectual resources, politically without strength and facing citizens taking up arms against it brazenly and implacably, with at present only a feckless response.
[Manent’s reflection on the political formation of nations brings to mind the Biblical story of the formation of Israel, which was also marked by formative political experiences such as the Exodus. It also raises the question about what the USA’s formative political experiences are that have given it its present shape and disposition. Also, as I read this, I think in contrast of my pacifist friends that I have known whose view of the nation-state is especially negative. They associate it with the hubris of Nazi Germany. Manent’s positive view of the nation-state and his grieving at its dissolution contrasts markedly with their stance.]
Reactions to recent terrorist attacks in France confirm France’s “disconcerting immobility.” The attacks should be a formative political experience awakening to action and political self-defense. What is nullifying this? There is a pathos in Manent’s perception of France’s (and by extension the West’s) inability to act. He calls it “the tragedy of a great country that refuses obstinately to take a defensive position.”
To shake off the besetting paralysis, the relevant elements of France’s situation must be discerned and set in order. As yet, there is great difficulty even in describing the situation in a summary way since France cannot agree even on the terms they should use to describe what is happening to them. “It is clear that we are condemning ourselves to a going around in a sterile circle, and not without the ritual exchange of offensive epithets. The civic conversation thus becomes ever more acrimonious without becoming any clearer.”
Manent states his goal in this book as being to analyze France’s situation in such a way as to contribute at least to elaborating the terms of a useful political debate. He notes that the first cause of the disarray that paralyses today is the perplexity experienced before the phenomenon of religion. Europeans and Westerners have come to a point where they are almost incapable of speaking of religion “as a social or political fact, as a collective reality, as a human association.” Due to our history, we tend to view religion as a “an individual opinion, something private, a feeling that is finally incommunicable,” essentially William James’s view of religion. This stance is strengthened by its being dictated by Western liberal political regimes and by the French, etc. being good citizens.
Enlightenment prejudice and triumphalism has left France, and the West, unprepared for political Islam. The victorious emergence of political Islam, which can be dated to the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, “was an unforeseen detour from the great narrative shared by liberals and socialists, both equally confident that religion could no longer intervene as an active political factor in world affairs.” [The resurgence of religion undermining the false confidence of socialism and Enlightenment liberals is well established. I can think of several books I read recently where it is treated, Adam Kirsch’s Rocket and Lightship, which is a book of literary essays, and Christian Smith’s The Sacred Project of American Sociology]. Manent urges that we work at correcting this error, revising or suspending “the postulate, according to which religion is destined to vanish from modern and modernizing societies.”
[The book The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict by William T. Cavanaugh is a very helpful book in confronting the out of control and blinding Enlightenment prejudice against religion which seeks to locate all illegitimate violence in religious sources.]
Underlying the redundancy and fecklessness of modern liberal France’ s status quo political position, Manent asks the pointed question, “What is the relevance of a supposedly scholarly debate that is supposed to address change and yet has not changed in its terminology for decades?”
Manent gives his opinion that the most salient feature in the international order is the disagreement between the average Western and the average Muslim views. We organize our society around the guarantee of the individual’s rights while, for “them”, it is first of all the morals and customs that provide the concrete rule of a good life. Europeans were able to govern themselves less and less by moral customs and more and more by law and rights because of their development of the modern State. In marked contrast to the strength of the State is the fragility and the instability of political instrumentalities in the Arab-Muslim world, a fragility which contrasts strikingly with the stability and the cohesive power of moral customs in the same world. “While we for our part strive to live with no law and no moral rule other than the validation of the ever-expanding rights of the individual, they hope to find in divine law a just order that political law has too rarely or too sparingly provided.” On both sides, there is a growing addiction to a unique and exclusive principle, the unlimited right of the individual in Europe and the unlimited power of Divine Law in Islamic countries. “..what communication, what accommodation, what contact can there be between the extremism of subjective rights and the extremism of an objective rule?” Both sides are committed to a process of depoliticization, distancing themselves from a political approach to common life.
Manent asks how the French can accept the Muslim way of life as the way of life of fellow citizens without allowing it to be confused with or to take the place of the law. He notes the hopes of some that personal radicalization in Islam, being an autonomous act, will lead to autonomous individuality down the road, but he rejects this as a hope that is too much based on individual psychology and too incognizant of collective reality. He points to the example of communism to illustrate how free adherence to a community which excludes freedom does not inevitably lead to an ultimate favorability that is directed toward the enjoyment of freedom.
Manent believes the main intellectual and political obstacle to a judicious evaluation of France’s situation is secularism. He proposes that the presence of many Muslims in Europe requires Europeans to accept it as it is in terms of the way of life that is shared by Muslims. He argues that the means of secularism are ill-adapted to bring about reform within the Muslim community. The actual experience of French secularity has been characterized not only by the separation of Church and State but also by a form of collaboration and interpenetration between the being of a secular State and a Christian society that is profoundly marked by Catholicism. This does not exemplify or point to the being of a religiously neutral common life nor a state that merely protects individual rights but, instead, it exhibits “the following trinity: the neutral or ‘secular’ state, a morally Christian society, and the sacred nation.” The French experience of secularism has very little to do with what is now meant by the term.
Islam and Catholicism have completely different histories in relation to France. In the case of Catholics at the end of the 19th Century, there was no question of having to integrate them but rather of emancipating civic life from the pressure of the Church and its “clerics.” In contrast, even setting aside the conflict and violence that was linked with colonization, the difference between the Muslims and those indigenous to France which defined the colonial situation led to the existence of separate lives. There is a separation which flows historically from the lack of participation of Muslims in French history, except as subject populations or as a long-inferior labor force.
For the last thirty years enlightened opinion [in other words, Enlightenment prejudice] has proceeded as if the solution to the problem was in hand and that it only lacked a form of coherent and firm application: secularism. In reality, all that has happened is that an illusory city, “the secular Republic,” has been constructed and it is believed that its application to a supposedly docile part of the civic body has been mastered.
[Manent is addressing the difficult situation of how to acknowledge and engage with the disaffected Muslim enclaves and communities without surrendering French identity at its core.
Indeed, on what basis do Westerners have such confidence that they are capable of assimilating recalcitrant Muslim communities? Why such faith in the “negative capability” of secularism to affect this change?]
In terms of possible solutions, as a point of departure, the problem must be acknowledged. The French must realize that the State which they expect will produce a secular society is much weaker than would be necessary for even some slight success in this task. First, the French State has abandoned its representative ambition and pride in joining with the E.U., thereby losing a good part of its legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. People look to “Europe” rather than to France and the French people as a national community are being politically delegitimized and even morally disqualified. The function of politics has been reduced to the libertarian protection of individual rights, which themselves are indeterminate and limitless.
The resultant State does not feel itself authorized to require much of its citizens. Conscription is shelved along with a truly common education. Equality is leveling all, including levels of discourse, national histories, and the difference between great works of art and others. Now when the State assigns to secularism the task of repairing the social fabric, it takes up a task that goes against everything that it has declared desirable over the last forty years. “Under the name of secularism we dream of teaching without content that would effectively prepare children to be members of a formless society in which religions would be dissolved along with everything else.”
The idea of a process of neutralization through secularism amounts to making religion disappear as something social and spiritual by transforming the objectivity of the moral rule into the subjective rights of the individual. It is an “imaginary transposition of a misinterpreted historical experience to a misunderstood new situation.”
The situation is unprecedented and the pretense that secularism provides a political means of neutralization that needs to only be rediscovered, renewed and taught is blinding. The situation is unprecedented and unprecedented political means must be developed to face it. The great instrument of modern politics, the State, has reached its moral and spiritual limits.
Despite the successes of the liberal and “democratizing” State in Europe from 1848 to the Great War, the State nevertheless experienced an enormous political and spiritual failure in how it dealt with the Jews in Europe.
The development of anti-Semitism at the end of the 19th Century into a decisive factor signals the first great failure of the liberal State. The liberal project deals with individual, not religious groups. Clermont-Tonnerre formulated its emancipatory project: “to refuse everything to Jews as a nation, and to grant everything to Jews as individuals.” The project turned out to be a patent failure in the 20th Century. Instead, the result was the founding of a Jewish nation, and the contemporary Jewish condition in which Jews are not “contained” in either the state of Israel or the States where the Jews of the diaspora are citizens. The Jews are liberated from the form of the State and have become a factor in world affairs as a people.
The Jews of France have doubts about France and their safety in the State against the Muslims of France. Just as the Jews had to rediscover the continuity in their history, the French, understood as an open whole, must search in their history for resources that are still latent in order to preserve a union with their Jewish fellow-citizens and forge one with the Muslim fellow-citizens. The “material and spiritual weakness of the State requires both parties to outline the contours of a new association that will no longer be simply contained in the political regime, as indispensable as that regime remains.”
Manent says the French pretend to be alert to the return of anti-Semitism but are blind to the arrival of something new. The hunt for anti-Semitism and the placing of faith in secularism spring from the same anachronism. “We have very largely left the political and moral world in which these terms had a quite clearly determinate meaning… The new reality needs to be named more clearly: war. The Muslims sometimes target only Jews, but they also target Christians, blasphemers, the police, and the authorities and institutions of the Western nations.”
People avoid naming the reality because it is unpleasant to think that the whole human realm in which they live is the object of religious enmity that motivates a war in which the Jews are a permanent but not exclusive target.
Manent calls the major fact of France’s situation the radical loss of authority of the main and decisive instrument of modern politics, the State (or the French Republic). There is a tendency to return to the pre-modern situation in which there is no border between the interior and the exterior and there is no longer a potency to the State capable of reducing the constituent groups of France into citizen-individuals. The modern movement of politics consisted in the subjection of the transnational bodies which were largely independent of the State, the Church, the aristocracy, and the dynasties, to the State by making the State the representative instrument of the nation. [If it is true that what we call the wars of religion might better be called the birth of the modern nation-state, it would seem that we are beginning to pass into an ambiguous realm beyond the borders of the order that that period established].
The deliberate effacing of borders can be seen in the case of Europe which attempts to homogenize the nation-states of Europe into the European Union. It is also passively observed under the rubric of “globalization.” [In the United States, we can observe it in the liberal castigation of any attempt to maintain physical borders and legal citizenship as “racism.”] Manent observes that it is often ignored that the effacing of political borders often leaves religious or spiritual borders intact, possibly even strengthening them to become the main borders. “There has never been, there is not now, and there will never be a world without borders.”
The question of Islam for European countries, and especially for France, is a question of high and great politics because it is a question at once of the internal and the external. Domestic questions cannot be treated without treating foreign policy and vice versa. The problems France faces will become insoluble without the development of a coherent and stable disposition that defines France’s relation to Islam. Reality itself has become largely independent of the weakened, legitimate political order. The essence of the Republican project is the common good, or civic friendship, and this must be worked out with Muslims on bases other than the dominant, scholastic interpretations of the Republic.
Islam should be considered as a whole that is both external and internal to France because it is. It fulfills the three dimensions of human time, giving stability, compactness and completion to the umma. Islam, understood as a meaningful whole, is in motion. Europeans, plagued with guilt, are trying to start over at zero with a historical ignorance they are trying to preserve. They are disarming while others are arming.
[As friendly fellow citizens, we need to try to wean ourselves and liberals from their intellectually handicapping, pseudo-sophisticated therapeutic terminology. It is mentally stunting to always be reflexively associating preservation of the physical and legal boundaries of the modern nation-state with racism and white supremacy…. Is there something about the modern nation-state that makes it more dangerous toward the stateless?]
A simple description of the situation in Europe is that Islam is putting pressure on Europe and advancing into Europe. It is doing so by establishing numerous Muslim populations such as those in France (in the banlieues), and by the growing influence of Gulf countries with seemingly unlimited capital, and by Islamic terrorism. Manent notes an eagerness to interpret the crimes committed in January 2015 (the Charlie Hebdo massacre) and later the shootings in Copenhagen, Denmark in a way that allows the French to keep their illusions as well as their self-esteem. Manent considers the meaning of such acts of terrorism for those who perpetrate them and those who inspire them to be the extension into Europe of Sharia law. Strange the static that prevents such straightforward conclusions from being uttered. Though the three elements he mentioned are distinct and should not be conflated, he regards such a precaution as in itself insufficient since the three link together. The question naturally arises, “How could such enmity be born and grow in our midst?”
The terrorist acts are not merely isolated, odious acts, but are guided by an aim of war and the intent to ruin the very possibility of common life between Muslims and non-Muslims. The French nation-state’s provision of military protection to Jewish institutions and its army’s considerable intervention in West Africa are not because of the acts of a few “lone wolves.” Manent concludes that Europeans, and especially the French, must address Islam as a phenomena that is both external and internal, and they must do so by developing a stable disposition, a disposition that is essentially defensive.
Europeans find themselves in a defensive position against Islam and this is the first time in a long time that they are facing something new in the West that did not come from within Western life. Europeans must defend themselves from no other standpoint than that of defending themselves and preserving as much as possible of their material, moral and spiritual goods. This necessitates a self-transformation through progress in self-understanding. A defensive policy must be elaborated. Some warn against a non-existent threat that a reactionary “crusade” will be launched but there is no evidence of that ever being likely to happen any time soon.
The dominant opinion has been gravely mistaken in attributing to secularism the power to transform the Muslim way of life into individual rights. Considered as a group, or as part of French society, Muslims tend to conduct themselves as Muslims. Furthermore, France is witnessing the extension and consolidation of the domain of Muslim practices rather than its shrinking and relaxation.
Manent concludes that the French regime must concede and accept the Muslim’s ways since they are fellow citizens. A tacit contract has accompanied Muslim immigration to France for the last forty years by which they were accepted as they were. It is foolish to countenance the idea that a unilateral renunciation of this contract would be possible if only an energetic, xenophobic government comes to power. The political body of France has been substantially, even essentially, transformed by the presence of Muslim populations.
This situation is why the position is defensive, because concessions are forced by the circumstances. It is a defensive politics because, despite French and European weakness, there are still great moral and spiritual resources that can be renewed, activated and mobilized. The politics of the possible can be embraced through leaving behind dreams of “fortunate diversity” and the half-repressed desires to return immigrants “to their own country.” This politics consists of a compromise of the Muslim citizens with the rest of the civic bodies based on two principles: accepting Muslims as they are, renouncing authoritarian attempts to “modernize” their way of life, and preserving and defending certain fundamental features of France’s physiognomy.
Manent does not pretend to know how to resolve all the problems and frictions which would result from the broad acceptance of the Muslim way of life that he counsels, but he remarks that it seems to him that Europeans could be more generous in giving Muslims who wish for it the way of life that they believe to be obligatory or desirable without hindrance or accusation. He criticizes, for example, politicians in a program of “strengthening secularism” making a single menu, with pork obligatory, for school lunches. This confronts Muslim families with a choice between violating a dietary prohibition and withdrawing their children from the lunch program. It is mean-spirited.
Manent notes what he regards as the most serious objection to this broad acceptance of the Muslim way of life: “Such a policy risks consecrating, reinforcing and so to speak embedding in the body politic what appears to most of us to be the subordinate condition of the Muslim women.” He replies that the tacit immigration contract said nothing to the Muslims about having to adhere to a Western idea of relations between the sexes. However, the exclusive legality of monogamous marriage was included in this contract.
Manent thinks it also a right of the rest of the French polity to prohibit the burqa as inadmissible, not only because it affects women exclusively and constitutes an inequality, but first of all because it prevents the exchange of signs by which a human being recognizes another human being. The visibility of the face is one of the elementary conditions of sociability. “To present visibly one’s refusal to be seen is an ongoing aggression against human coexistence. Europeans have never concealed the face, except the executioner’s. Indeed, human groups are rare that have imposed on themselves this lugubrious servitude. We have the right and the duty to impose the most absolute prohibition on this manner of dress.”
Manent is advising a defensive politics for France and Europe with a two pronged approach. First, an increase in the open acceptance of Muslim ways and second, a reinforcement of elements of France’s “ancient constitution.” The politics he advises are to prevent a transformation of France by means of which the authority of Muslim ways would penetrate the whole of France’s common way of life. He claims that this transformation is already advancing apace under the protection of “secularism,” which vainly promises a transubstantiation of Islam that will never happen. The deliberate increase in acceptance of Muslim ways will only accomplish the capitulation to Islam without the simultaneous reinforcement of a core French “constitution,” but it is necessary in order to see squarely the place Islam has assumed in the life of the nation, in order to make correct political evaluations of the current state of affairs.
Manent is sparing in what he would prohibit: polygamy and the burqa. (What about female circumcision of children?) There are mainly two principles that he would have all affirm including France’s Muslims as constituent elements of France’s common life. The first principle is complete freedom of thought and expression. He says that the French must absolutely reject a circumscription of their freedom in order to accommodate a new element of European life that lacks the habit and therefore the taste for freedom. Currently, freedom of thought and speech concerning Islam is repressed under the name of “Islamophobia.” “…what is repressed is the capacity to treat Islam in the same way all political, philosophic, and religious elements of our society have been treated for two centuries.” This immunity from criticism is the worst service that can be rendered to Islam when demands for its reform are heard on all sides.
We can and must respect persons because they are human beings when they believe in dogmas that seem absurd to us. “The masterpiece of a free society consists in knowing how to combine the vigorous criticism of opinions that seem to be false with respect for persons.” The worst thing that could happen to prevent things going forward instead of the maintenance and replenishment of this art of democracy is a meaning for “freedom” that means unbridled speech with respect to persons while at the same time certain “protected areas” spread and are consolidated. “We would thus be at once degraded by license and numbed by the multiplication of prohibitions.”
Manent underscores that it is because freedom of criticism has such a strong tendency to provoke passions that it is so important to obey the law that commands us to respond to critical speech, if one is to respond, only by critical speech. He sums up the first principle by saying that whoever lives in Europe must accept that the political law puts no limit on what may be thought, spoken, written, or drawn.
One factor that explains the current impasse is the lassitude of Western freedom. Freedom is recognized only in its exaggerated and degraded forms of insult and obscenity. In the more regulated and noble forms, freedom is found strangely boring. The notion of freedom can become formalistic, leaving society weak and sluggish, incapable of governing itself with a modicum of reason.
The Muslim community in France is too strong for French secularism. More is called for than the French secular regime, which brings us to the second principle, that of the “ancient constitution,” which Manent would have the French emphasize and stress. He would yoke a greater open embrace of Islam in public with a return to a “way of life” that is not separable from the regime but which is distinct from it, which conditions the regime and which surpasses it.
Is it true that Europe has been shaped more by the nation than by empire in comparison to Islam?
France’s way of life is determined by both internal and external factors and Islam presents a quandary to both the French nation and to European civilization and history. The question of what “true Islam” is is detached from the actual context in which political action must take its bearings. In order to seek for an orientation in the great political question of Europe, whether with regard to European unification or relations with Islam, France cannot abstain from advancing propositions regarding European history. There are a number of major facts which structure European life without which the physiognomy of Europe would be unrecognizable, facts which seem to hold meaning for the past, the present and the future. A meaningful relation to the past does not of course mean a dictating of the decisions in the present.
Manent offers the following brief synopsis: While Islam throughout its history has largely preserved the form, the impulse and the consciousness of empire, Western Christianity, despite being born in an imperial form and subject to great missionary and conquering movements, has found its relative stability instead in the nation or in the plurality of nations called “Christendom,” then Europe.
The moral character of empire is less certain than the city. As the pride of domination flourishes, there is an expansive movement that has no natural limit. Empire is subject to a principle of boundlessness that prevents or hinders the mind’s self-reflection. The city in contrast retains a sense of limits and of the limits of human things. Ancient Israel preserved its knowledge of the meaning of humanity in between the empires of the East until the Western empire destroyed the Second Temple.
The form of Empire is relatively weak, particularly in governance of the parts furthest from the center. Because of this there have been enormous fluctuations in the empires of the East. This characteristic has ceaselessly affected the political life of Islam. The secular tendency in this civilizational area seems to be a weakness in both unity and diversity. Christendom in contrast found its formula and its form in the constitution of a system of nations that we know today as Europe.
Manent questions the validity of the genealogical narrative which attributes the modern separation of Church and state to the words of Christ regarding Caesar and taxes. The narrative implies that it was only by the radical separation of European political principles from the principles of Christianity that it was possible to bring to light the principle that this radical separation was something which was fundamental to Christianity. In any case, separation is not a political principle that is sufficient unto itself. Europeans need to look for what has been the principle of unity and of the association of European humanity throughout our history. The starting point and the principle of European history has been to govern oneself in a certain relation to the Christian gospel. In attempting to align themselves with these two determinations, Europeans left behind the imperial matrix. Beneath the rivalry of Church and empire there was “the divergent and complicit operation of two principles of freedom.” In the fructifying tumult a new political form, one ignored by the ancients, was born. What distinguishes Europe is not the separation between religion and politics but a more intimate union which exists between them.
The Christian Church is the only religious institution which presents itself as produced by a purely spiritual act, the act of faith. “The object of Europe’s ceaseless quest can be defined, in theological terms, as the common action of grace and of freedom and, in political terms, as the covenant between communion and freedom.” The European nation remained throughout its history a kind of community of spiritual education that wove together self-government and a relation to the Christian proposition, a two-fold intention which opens up a plural and indefinite history.
By assuming the end of the nation and also the end of religion, the thesis of separation takes such a hold on the mind that it renders one incapable of holding within the mind the two great stakes and henceforth excludes them from the European conversation, thereby preventing Europe from remaining Europe.
Because the history of Europe is held at a distance in the way that is above described, Islam’s entry into European life appears to dominate opinion as “a problem that does not arise.” The abstracted social space in which the sole principle of legitimacy now resides in human rights understood as the unlimited rights of individual particularity, no significant associations or communions are acknowledged to exist. It is even believed that they are “pretended realities,” only invoked to block newcomers. The treatment of old nations and old religion as realities is assumed to mean an attack on Islam.
The keepers of the gates of European culture do not consider Islam to be an association or a community. The impetus for this rests in self-consciousness. The belief that Europe is empty of common national or religious substance is willed. It is a question of verifying the absence of anything common politically or religiously, and the presence of Islam is the supreme marker of this spiritual evisceration, precisely because it has been the supreme enemy of Christianity over the centuries, and because its moral practices are now the furthest from those of the Europe of human rights.
Manent writes, “If I have one ambition, it is that the analysis I propose of the European experiences might be adequate to allow us to see Islam as an objective reality, instead of its remaining the reflection of our self-misunderstanding.” He wants to help make it possible for Europeans, and especially the French, to really come to terms with Islam.
Manent remarks that Europeans have lost faith in Providence or in the primacy of the Good. He thinks Americans still pray for divine protection for their nation in contrast to Europeans. He holds that Europeans never excluded their neighbors, allies, or enemies, from divine benevolence until they were subjected to regimes that explicitly rejected the God that is announced in the Bible. To reject Providence because of the Shoah only sets us back to the religion of Epicurus. If we do not give up on life, then we must act. This confidence must not be forbidden out of scruple which prevents us from acting for the common good. An argumentative relation with divine Providence is replaced by an abject submissiveness to blind forces such as the global marketplace. Post-Providence man organizes himself in order to have less and less need of free will. The prestige of this false replacement for Providence must be dissipated.
Despite most beliefs to the contrary, the only chance for Islam’s tolerably successful participation in European life lies in the revival of nations and not in their effacement. “Islam can only be received within a community of action that engages it and essentially obliges it to participate in what is common; in an arrangement without a common goal, one that merely guarantees and respects human rights, it can never be more than suffered.” The old inhabitants of France are not allowed to be named by any of their collective affiliations so as not to make the Muslims feel excluded. Muslims are made to disappear as well by prohibiting their being named as a group.
The notion of Islamophobia, borrowed from Islamic propaganda, makes it possible tendentiously to disqualify all speech on Islam or on the Muslims. Once the notion of Islamophobia is established and validated, it is impossible to speak of Muslims except to state their grievances, and they cannot speak except to complain.” It is not surprising that Muslims give into the temptation but what is surprising is the dereliction of governments supporting the notion in that they do not realize the harm they are doing to the social body, and to Muslims first of all.
European governments are increasingly abandoning the domain of actual political action. They treat social life as a spectacle and the parts of the body politic as objects the perception of which is subject to command. They go to ridiculous lengths to command their citizens not to see. Muslims are lured into “the great game of complaint” which for some time has been “the preferred vocal register of the constituent groups” of France. The transformation of the public conversation into a tearful quarrel has deleterious consequences for society as a whole and for each of its parts, consequences that are all the more serious for those parts that are more distant from the heart of national life.
[Manent is giving solicitous attention to the ground rules and principles necessary for there to exist at all real public discourse. There is a dignity to man as a political actor that is being denied to citizens by the therapeutic strategies of the modern regime which ostensibly are for the benefit of the citizens. The citizens are infantilized so that politics becomes the dispensing of fair amounts of milk].
The social movements summed up in the word “socialism” were driven by an affirmation concerning the social truth. Socialism considered the life and action of the group of the “exploited” within the perspective of the positive transformation of the social whole. Contemporary claims are of a very different kind in that they aim directly at no transformation of the social whole, which they do not in effect acknowledge. They are circular or self-referential. “We proceed as if there were no social and political life, but a state of affairs that a detached observer might look over in order simply to verify that equality is properly respected.” By ignoring the form of society in which one is supposed to arrive at equality, Europeans ignore the decisive question.
The assessment of collective perspectives is particularly tricky in the case of Muslims in France because of the vague and incomplete knowledge of the extent of their claims. The present arrangement seems to induce a passivity in most Muslims, excluding those Muslims who assimilate and become indistinguishable and those Muslims who declare themselves “enemies” of France, etc. Most Muslims, Manent observes, in France remain in a condition that is too passive and too inarticulate to know with any clarity what they want and how they would respond. Often the French, with the best intentions in the world, dissuade the Muslims from expressing themselves with candor. The modern European wants to be an unencumbered individual, without significant attachments, and he wants to see around him only such individuals. This social commandment does not have the power to deeply transform the substance of the Muslim ummah, but it is sufficiently intimidating to shape the way the substance of the Muslim group is expressed.
If things continue the way they are now, without everyone learning to address the whole and face the question of the common good, the situation will exacerbate with the spread and consolidation of what is called a “morality-based group.”
Muslims will be able to leave behind the immanence of traditional moral practices only if society as a whole, the political body in its entirety, rids itself of the immanence of rights and of their exclusive authority. Our rights do not provide us with a form. “Rights, deprived of life and the fecundity of a form, are abandoned to their sheer transgressive virulence.” As understood now, human rights imply the disappearance of Islam as a form of common life but Muslims will not consent to this. The only political form available for the transformation of the life and consciousness of Muslims is the national form, the form of the old nation.
Manent points out that his proposal does not make the vain requirement of a “reform of Islam,” which he does not deem a pertinent political question since non-Muslims would never have more than a small influence on such a metamorphosis and nothing indicates it in the near future. Manent asserts that the political and spiritual weakening in Europe is the major fact of our time. It ought to be plain by now, he says, that Europe cannot be the new political form that might shelter European life as the nations did up until now.
If Islam continues to spread and consolidate in a space that is deprived of political form in which all forms of common life are delivered over to insidious criticism from the standpoint of individual rights, “now the source of all legitimacy,” then all that remains for the future of Europe is Islamization by default, which he calls “the latent truth of our situation.” Manent stresses the urgency of making a transition from a passive coexistence between the society of rights and and the society of Islamic morality to the active participation of both groups in a common political form which can only be the national form.
The weakness of France and the other European nations is primarily political and moral, not material. The question of Islam has become prominent for Europeans precisely at the moment when they are experiencing growing doubts concerning the merits of economic denationalization. Manent’s intent is not to propose something desirable to a few citizens with a certain turn, but to know if the nation can still be the framework and agent of deliberation and action providing for a desirable and meaningful future for all its citizens.
The present regime has brought about its paralysis and possible demise by the ever narrower and more unilateral way it has understood its principles. “We are probably the first, and we will surely remain the only, people in history to give over all elements of social life and all contents of human life to the unlimited sovereignty of the individual.” What is at work under the terms “equality” or “secularism” is the disqualification of all shareable contents of life for not being chosen by the individual. The regime has taken to drawing more and more on a principle upon which it happens to be impossible to found anything at all. Survival requires awakening from “the vertigo of dissolution.”
The modern state tends to deny the importance of the question of the regime or political form because, by guaranteeing members of the society the enjoyment of their rights, it seems to dispense them from having to govern themselves. It stands between man and God and arrogates to itself the task reserved to divine Providence. The secular state is the presumptuous and bloodless heir of the modern state. The modern State, at its strongest, drew its strength from peoples that were seeking the best means to govern themselves in obedience to divine government. The governance that wraps itself now in the European cloak is entirely detached from the political order, and any regime and any political form. It is a power that holds itself aloof from both the people that it would represent and God, when it is in fact at their mercy.
Q: What would re-legitimate the political form of the state in such a way as to summon secularists and Muslims and other spiritual powers from their passivity to pursuit of the common good in politics? What would neutralize the delegitimizing cult of the self and of the “immanence” of the Islamic sharia?
There are two major questions left gapingly open by European governance which must be returned to reality, the question of regime and the religious question. It is urgent that a representative regime be recovered but this presupposes a people to be governed. The governments of Europe are responsible to their respective peoples and not to “the European Idea.”
Manent proposes that the initiative that would be most likely to forge the relationship of representation and to engage an animated civic conversation would consist in commanding France’s Muslims to establish their independence from the various Muslim countries that send out imams, and that finance and sometimes administer or guide the mosques. This is first of all a question of political sincerity. The point is that each party to the national debate must show that it is serious by taking certain actions that cost something and that show a commitment.
Such a defensive position does not imply that one considers Islam to be an enemy but rather it prevents enmity from taking root. The “imperial” lack of a distinction between the internal and the external characteristic of Islam must be confronted rather than exempted from obedience to the national political order. Failure to do this will mean an act of political and spiritual submission that France will not be able to recover from. These commands will only have the desired effect if French Muslims ultimately consent. Mastering the difficulties of this task is the only way that the government and the nation will show themselves capable of welcoming Muslim citizens while at the same time defending themselves against the external pressure of Islam.
Manent again stresses that “secularism” allows the French to “take a position” but in no way guides public action in a way that takes account of current conditions. The rule Manent is calling for does not make the active participation of Muslims in national life more difficult, but rather it clears the ground and makes possible such participation. “The indifference that asks nothing of them under the pretext of respect in fact abandons them… to a general demoralizing passivity.”
Manent says he is looking for a way out of the impasse between two passive groups. Islam is passive in the immobility of its moral practices and its closed community. Europe is passive in its surrender to the processes that pervade it. Only an encounter that is active on both sides will revive the representative vigor of the French regime.
Q: What borders would Manent strengthen and what barriers would he break down?
Does not citizenship understood as a stripping of all attachments tend to destroy citizenship? What happens to the community of citizens to which such a citizen-individual belongs? The “citizen” of today is someone who has understood that citizenship cannot be circumscribed by a national attachment, since this most often depends on birth. The understanding of citizenship as a detachment or a breaking free leads to the absorption of the rights of the citizen by the rights of man, leading to the formation of a new figure, the citizen-individual (a devotee of the cult of the individual).
Manent’s contention is that Muslims are not going to find their place in a society that is defined by this kind of citizen. Citizenship cannot mean tearing away from religious community for them or other members of the civic body. Muslims will become truly citizens only by seeing themselves as Muslims and as members of the national community.
In the exchange called for, Muslims experience a shrinking and an expansion, a shrinking because one must accept being part of a whole; an expansion through participation in that whole, which is larger than itself. Islam on imperialistic terms is unacceptable.
Manent says communitarianism constitutes a degraded form of religious and political life. It confuses religion and politics because it has not brought to term the distinct movement by which it gives itself to the political community and receives itself from that community. Communitarianism is best defined by a distrust that is both religious and political. It maintains souls without generosity. He ventures to assess that France’s Muslims have not yet settled into communitarianism. The question has not been decided because the Muslims have not yet received a credible proposal and so have nothing to respond to. They have been left with the abstract and possibly specious choice between communitarianism and secularism, understood as the neutralization of religion in society.
Secularism is a governmental arrangement that does not exhaust the meaning of common life and only provides an impoverished and abstract picture of it.
Manent identifies secularity in its proper sense as the rigorous separation of political rule from all religious commandments and precepts and he says that this is necessary and salutary. Catholics must make the same movement of soul and Muslims must give themselves generously to the political whole. If they do not, refusing to take a part, and wishing secretly to rule, they will deprive themselves of the elevation and the enlargement that are inseparable from a generous contribution to the common good.
“A period of trial is beginning, one that will be as decisive for the subsequent physiognomy of Catholicism, and thus of France, as were the Revolution and the Second World War.” Manent warns Catholics against the “circle the wagons” mentality at this juncture because it is insufficient to face the hazards that are attendant to the fragility of the political body as it stands. A simply reactive response is neither noble nor politically judicious and exhibits deficiencies in hope and charity. He believes that the Catholic Church is marked by its calmness and equilibrium and by its being the only spiritual force that approaches matters so as to take into account the views of others in a deliberate and thematic way.
The Church has entered into a constant dialectical and moral debate with the doctrines of the universalism that is contained in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which represents a derivation from the Christian doctrine and a rupture with it. This dialectical opening of the Church has not been repaid since the ideology of human rights has taken on a virulence in recent times that is directed especially against her. Manent asserts that the Catholic Church is the least intolerant and the most open of the spiritual forces that concern France. It should therefore have a sense of responsibility for the whole. The task of Catholics lies elsewhere than in mere self-defense. They have a special responsibility for the common good of France. The Catholic Church’s companionship with the French nation has been the most extensive and deepest among all the spiritual forces that are contending in her. The relationship has been reciprocal. France’s common life will suffer spiritual atrophy and a defect of sincerity as long as it remains incapable of publicly addressing the intimate relationship that links France to the Church.
Q: Where does Manent’s understanding of Christianity and political engagement leave what is being called “the Benedict Option”? (Does his conception of Christian political engagement clash with, for example, Rod Dreher’s, or Alasdair MacIntyre’s?)
Q: How can we give ourselves to our nation in the most Christian way?
For human groups as for individuals, either they find their good within the common good, or they fail at the common good, thus losing their own good and losing themselves. He holds that the Catholic Church has a special responsibility to the common good but recognizes that other spiritual forces (including evangelical Protestantism} may not be disposed to recognize it. He says this is only fair, as those who feel responsible for the whole can only bring others to accept their special role if their own contribution to the common good is sufficiently convincing.
France’s Muslims will only find their place in French society if they find it in the nation. They will only find it in the nation if the nation accepts them according to its truth and according to their truth, not simply as rights-bearing citizens accepting other bearers of the same rights, but as an association that is marked by Christianity that is granting a place to a form of life with which it has never before mixed on an equal footing.
Some degree of communitarianism is inevitable. The Muslim communities will be surrounded by a nation possessing a Christian mark in which Jews play an eminent role. There is no choice but to set about this undertaking. Success would be glorious.
Q: In what way, if at all, should Christians assert a Christian history and a Christian stamp to their nation, should they perceive one? How is this to be done with respect to believers in different faiths such as Jews and Muslims?
Europeans seek repose in movements that are unimpeded by borders. A life without law in a world without borders has been the horizon of Europe’s utopian dream for at least a generation. Islam also in its own way disregards borders. “How is it that Europeans have come to hate autochthony to this extent?…We think, feel, and often act as if we were confronted with the alternative between autochthony and rootlessness, and of course, we choose rootlessness, under the name of globalization or free exchange, out of horror of a volkisch autochthony.” With the failure of imagination and memory so that they do not recall an alternative in which they do not have to choose between autochthony and rootlessness. Europe was great through its nations when it was able to mix Roman virtues, courage, and prudence with a faith in a God who is friend to every person.
The collapse into violent immanence that has characterized the 20th Century derived from the weakening of Christian mediation, when nations, especially the youngest and most powerful, and those for which the mark of Christianity was profoundly troubled by the duality of confessions, claimed immediate expressions of humanity itself.
There is no future for Europeans, either on the side of autochthony nor on the side of rootlessness. This deadly either/or is due to our establishment of ourselves within immanence as the true place of humanity. [In Mark Edmundson’s Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals, he argues for the case that Shakespeare was a great shaper of modernity by his anti-heroicism and by his opening of a space for bourgeois existence that is not much concerned with the transcendent. I am reminded of his argument when I hear Manent’s remark that we have established ourselves within immanence as the true place of humanity]. Our self confinement to this either/or has left us only with a choice between being rooted and being uprooted. The arc of European history with its stamp of Christianity has become unintelligible to contemporary Europeans. To declare or even guarantee the rights of human beings is not sufficient to bring men together. A form of common life is need and the future of the nation of a Christian mark is a cause that can unite the spiritual forces in France.
Q: What does Manent mean when he says that the collapse into violent immanence has left an false either/or choice between rootlessness and autochthony? What is the solution he urges?
Message from David Alexander: I would like to propose that we read Beyond Radical Secularism by Pierre Manent and do so on the following schedule:
26OCT- parts 1-5, to pg. 28
16NOV- parts 6-10, to pg. 49
30NOV- parts 11-15, to pg. 16
14DEC- parts 16-20, to the end
I am open to accelerating this even more because the book is shorter and less dense than The City of Man, but perhaps like this we will allow for more discussion. If we hold to this schedule, we could then break for the holidays and resume with a new book after the New Year.
After the Beyond Radical Secularism, I would like to take a break from Manent and read some on the philosophy and theology of education. I’d like to read either Beauty for Truth’s Sake: The Re-Enchantment of Education by Stratford Caldecott or Beauty in the World: Re-Thinking the Foundations of Education by Stratford Caldecott, probably the former because I think it is the first in his trilogy of works on the topic. After that we can decide together whether we would like to study this subject further with Caldecott, or turn again to Manent.
If we return to Manent, I am most interested in Manent’s insights into modern democracy and spirituality and I would like to approach him again from this angle, topically. I would like to propose if we return first reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and then Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy by Pierre Manent, and then Democracy without Nations?: The Fate of Self-Government in Europe by Pierre Manent. But that is projecting a long way into the future.
Please invite anyone you think might be interested in participating.
For more details on books I would like to study on the two different topics of democracy and the philosophy and theology of education:
Other books I would like to eventually read by Manent:
An Intellectual History of Liberalism
Metamorphoses of the City
Other Lines of Study:
Reading specifically on democracy and spirituality:
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy by Pierre Manent
Democratic Faith by Patrick Deneen
Christianity and Freedom, Volume 1: Historical Perspectives (edited by Timothy Samuel Shah)
Reading on Education
Beauty for Truth’s Sake: The Re-Enchantment of Education by Stratford Caldecott
Beauty in the World: Re-Thinking the Foundations of Education by Stratford Caldecott
The Radiance of Being: Dimensions of Cosmic Christianity by Stratford Caldecott
The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman
The Idea of the University: A Rexamination by Jaroslav Pelikan
C.S. Lewis: A Philosophy of Education by Steven R. Loomis
A Primer for Philosophy and Education by Samuel D. Rocha
Education for Human Flourishing: A Christian Perspective by Paul D. Spears
Locke does not deny that man has an essence or a substance but claims, in fact, that it is unknowable. Man’s being is enclosed in the opaque tautology: “X = X.” Man is the being who defines himself by the fact of having rights, but man is not defined and rights are not defined, other than to say they are “human rights” (which brings us back to our first difficulty). Before “the great instauration” or the establishment of the liberal regime, anthropology was necessarily ontological or ontocentric, while ontology was necessarily anthropocentric. Locke and other moderns separate thought about being from thought about man. Manent remarks that the pure ontology that was conceived was nothing other than modern science. Manent wishes to show in what follows how anthropology emancipated itself from ontology.
Locke is “the most explicit and formal witness to the formal decision to declare man’s being unknowable,” leaving us with “X = X.” The presupposition of the being of man and its simultaneous dismissal as an object of thought led the way to a second tautology: the whole of man’s humanity is contained in his rights and in the fact that he has rights and that these rights are exhaustively defined by the fact that they are human rights. This is a “pure anthropology.” By it, man forgets Being.
Severed from being, the notion of human rights lacks ontological density. There is nothing under the moon that is not capable of becoming the occasion and matter of a human right. The man who has rights is like a pure, self-contained activity, having no need of an end outside of him, and containing all rights, including the yet unconceived (eg. the right of a biological man to go into a women’s bathroom unmolested). At the same time, the man is pure passivity, having nothing to do, no arete to pursue, already being the entitled holder of the totality of rights.
The most serious philosophic critique ever directed against the modern idea of human rights was that by David Hume. But Hume continues and radicalizes Locke’s critique of substance by offering an internal critique of human consciousness. Hume contends that Locke confuses the idea of property and the idea of the right to property by assigning them the same origin. Property in general is founded on urgent and evident necessity in society, but the right to property is often based on frivolous foundations. Though basing property on the interest of society, Hume does not, like Aristotle, make property depend on political justice. Hume observes that one cannot attach the individual’s right to property to one idea, as Locke attempts to do with the idea of labor, because every idea necessarily entails other ideas, and ideas take form as a society does.
Locke’s idea of power confuses two ideas: the idea of unknown qualities and the idea of the necessary connection between an antecedent and a consequent idea. These two ideas are distinct, the first being insignificant but the later having meaning.
For Hume, moral notions were in no way founded upon the nature of things or of man, but their cause cannot be discerned, leaving them as absurd as the ideas of superstition, albeit useful superstitions. There is thus no meaning at all in wanting to attach a “natural” right to the individual. Both Locke and the modern attitude say that there is no essence or substance, that man has no nature or ends. Hume’s critique requires us to acknowledge an unbridgeable gap between the idiom of rights and the idiom of ideas. Locke’s mistake is in assuming that the idea of human rights was not an idea like other ideas. The entire domain of ideas and moral valuation, indeed, the properly human world as a whole, is suspended by the philosophers.
In Locke, the skepticism of ideas is combined with the dogmatism of rights, but in Hume there is an even more radical skepticism which does not spare the notion of rights but leads to a dogmatism of the common occurrences of life. In Hume’s view, reason cannot condemn or approve anything morally.
The source of the moral sentiment is within the frame of our human nature, which is unknown to us.
The language of rights is the only reflexive principle of a man who has no ends. Does the “moral sentiment” provide a satisfactory principle of action when the imperious sentiment dictates action but the observer sees there is no justification for it in reason? An abyss stretches between practical sentiment and theoretical reason. There is no common ground between the viewpoint of the observer and the agent. The philosopher must forget the fatal secret that annihilates good and evil before he returns to the world of action. Hume embodies the precocious twilight of the Enlightenment which, in critiquing superstition, finally falls under its own critique, “admitting” that all ideas are equally superstitious.
“Not leaving a single stone unturned when it comes to obtaining the recognition and guarantee of his rights at home, Western man is often marvelously complacent when he views societies whose ways are foreign to his lifestyle and he even rejects the right to judge them…Thus liberal dogmatism and sociological or anthropological relativism divide our souls between themselves.” The doctrine of human rights faces the least obstacles in the United States, where Hume’s argument has the smallest chance of spreading. “On the tabula rasa of the continent, the appeal to rights gets carried away and loses patience, bursts of strident indignation disperse the already thin topsoil of human tradition; and from one side to the other, all the elements of the human world are attacked in the name of human rights.”
The one-sided assertion of rights in the United States in a sense represents the victory of Locke over Hume. Rights and ideas make up the twofold determination resulting from the rejection of human essence and produced by the analysis of human substance. But human rights take the place of human nature. The state of nature concept is important because it posits that man has no “innate ideas.” If man had ideas which he did not author, he would first have to bring to light what they contain or imply about himself and his condition. Man would have rights, but they would be subordinated to the recognition of the objective order of his ideas.
There is a contrast in the spirit of modern democracies between reforming activism under the banner of universal human rights and scientific passivity in the name of cultural diversity. An example is the denouncing of the lot given to the women in the West in the name of human rights while simultaneously accepting the lot of women in the Islamic world in the name of the sovereign particularity of each culture.
The doctrine of rights and the theory of culture both issue from the rejection of the “substantial” definition of man. The two propositions that man is the being who has rights and a cultural being both compress the same movement of thought, though specified in different ways. Man is presupposed in his indetermination, his idealess reflexivity. Then, on his own, he comes out of the indetermination and defines himself and explicitly fashions himself under a particular law which eventually shows little concern for his rights.
The two propositions that man is a being who has rights and a being of culture are born of the dissolution of the notion of substance. Both propositions are part of a movement of thought for which the notion of human nature appears cumbersome and sterile, and appears to denote an arbitrary halt in the movement of thought.
Human nature is a synthesis between the particular and the general, being only real when it is particular. With the dissolution of substance these two aspects come to be viewed as two moments that cannot coexist, necessarily successive. [Manent is describing a deep schizophrenia in modern man]. The separation of the two moments has major effects on the perception of the human world. Bringing in human nature as a foundation and an explanation short circuits the coming and going from indetermination to determination. It is a style which paralyses analytical thought by placing it before a reality that is always too and too little determined [infinite (but really finite) evasion of the real?].
Early modern philosophy replaced the real simultaneous presence of the particular and the universal in substance with the two successive moments of presupposition and determination. Existentialism begins by confirming the duality and tension between presupposition and determination, between implicit and explicit humanity. Man is enjoined to understand that the process between presupposition and determination makes him what he is, and that he truly exists when he is conscious of this process. “The modern scheme presupposes man’s humanity; but this presupposed humanity is never present to itself…In order to be free and powerful and wise, modern humanity is organized on the active forgetting of itself.” Modern man is the parasite of his hidden double, the one who makes culture and the diversity of rights.
Self-affirmation of the presupposed self consists of the dormant double taking a hold of himself and, freed of past, present, motives, projecting the self toward the future. The precedent of early modern thought prevents self-reflection, as there is an equivocal lack of clarity whether it has posited the nonexistence or only the unknowability of human nature.
“Modern consciousness – it seems to me that I have written this book only to make this point – comes into itself in the two moments of the presupposition of ‘X’ and the objectification of ‘X.'” Existentialism is the resolute affirmation of X but X is a hidden person or thing. Dasein, or liberty, takes the place of “man.” Modern consciousness makes its most heroic efforts in overcoming its own duplicity in moderns like Martin Heidegger.
John Locke agrees that man is different from the animals, distinguished by his power of abstracting. It is only that we do not know what his substance is and only know that for certain that he is an animal. We assume that man is man, but that simply means for us that “X = X.” Locke is neutralizing the effects of uncertainty over human essence in order to proceed. He does this by drawing a line between the perfectly clear, such as that man is an animal, and the decidedly obscure. We then proceed with the assumption that we do not know X and we never will. The way is cleared to construct a human order that is beyond criticism. This is not at all like ancient skepticism in that we are not invited or constrained to refrain from judgment and action as the ancient skeptic was, but on the contrary, we are urged to forge a just society that is founded on demonstrative moral theory.
Locke holds that moral notions are arbitrary creations of man and that right, first and foremost the right to property, is a creation of the individual who is strictly isolated from his fellows. The human “X” is the tacit companion of this deduction of rights. The superiority of “X” is not denied, but is considered in his animal locus. Rather than reducing the higher to the lower, Locke acknowledges that everything that is part of man, including the animal in him, is nothing but man. Locke and the Moderns do not reduce the higher to the lower, but envelope the lower in the higher and absorb it.
“Modern thought despairs that men will ever agree on what is proper to man, on human substance and ends, and thus it wants to bracket the question of what is proper to man.” Locke conceptualizes a way for man to take his bearings from what is not human but animal, in order to make a human world that is independent of human opinions where man can affirm himself without knowing himself.
Although Locke would thus dispense with human essence, it is difficult to pursue this line of reasoning to the very end as it irresistibly gives rise to propositions about substance despite itself. Hence, labor becomes for Locke, modern philosophy, and modern man generally the “essential” characteristic of man. One cannot completely dispense with giving an account of human motives, even if refraining from advancing such propositions. What incites man to labor? We want an answer. Locke cannot escape the necessity of at least sketching a description of action, an analysis of human motives.
The fundamental formula of Locke’s “anthropology” is that “desire is always moved by evil, to fly from it.” For Locke, the primary question raised by the tradition, what is the supreme good of man?, by which the tradition was divided according to the various answers given by the schools, sects, and religions, is a perfectly idle question. For Locke, the question of the good is inseparable from the question of human essence and both are unanswerable. These two questions are two expressions of a sterile vanity. Once moral choice comes to be regarded as intrinsically arbitrary, classing it as a matter of animal taste is nothing to take exception to.
Hobbes had already denied the fact that there is a summum bonum and had said that good and evil only have meaning with reference to the person involved. Locke is distinct from Hobbes by what is encapsulated in his writing that “the greatest present uneasiness is the spur to action.” Man according to Locke does not have great desire or magnanimity. He is neither Christian nor Greek, but the tireless laborer and consumer, the man with no ambition who moves and stirs modern society. He takes it as a truism that man flees first and foremost the evil he experiences in the present and present ill being is always stronger than a future good. According to the tradition, man always seeks the good through a thousand obstacles and illusions but according to Locke, man always flees from evil in spite of a thousand inclinations to the good.
Locke’s though takes him a long way from Christianity, but he openly preserves the basic tenet of Christian doctrine that God is the supremely desirable supreme good. Man is motivated in his schema by evil and threat, not the good and promise.
Locke’s analysis, however, does not contradict his need to bracket human nature and suspend any analysis of it. He is confined to a hazy presupposition of it. If man is always moved by the most urgent ill-being, the first principle of his action will be the uneasiness of the animal in him, which he strives to appease by labor. Rational organization of labor takes the place and function of “the policeman God.” The fear of God is retained as a fallback for those incapable of conducting themselves by reason.
Locke’s fundamental propositions are that man fashions his moral notions, that he has rights, and that he labors. Historically, these three propositions became separated and were even sometimes opposed to each other. However, at the present time, they show themselves to be quite compatible elements of the moral atmosphere of democracies. These groups of notions have a common fount in Locke, and they are three ways of saying that the question of human essence has no solution or meaning, or that man has no ends. They are ultimate propositions which cannot be ranked and cannot be deduced from one another.
Labor does not determine the human organization that would correspond to it, nor does “culture” or “values” help in this role. It is only by defining himself as the one who has rights that man can finally embrace the tautology by which he wants to affirm himself: “X = X.” In this tautology, man already has and is since it is his right to have it or be it.
Ends are an indispensable element in the human dynamic of ethos. By pursuing ends which we think fulfill our nature, we seize up our identity in the pursuit, while recognizing we have not attained that which we pursue. “This intermediary character of man opens a space where he can reflect on himself and recognize himself as a man. But for the one who no longer has ends but rights, how shall this indispensable distance be opened, this interior space that allows man to think and speak for himself? For him, there is no longer any differential tension between empirical and completed being, between potency and act, between what is fulfilled and what is desired.”
Whether the rights of man are respected or scoffed at changes nothing in the conditions or state of man as a possessor of rights. This contrasts with natural ends and law and grace because right in this new sense does not modify in any way, whether it is violated or guaranteed, the condition of man as a possessor of rights.