Introduction, Pierre Manent’s Modern Liberty and Its Discontents

Notes on the Introduction to Modern Liberty and Its Discontents by Pierre Manent

by David Alexander

Daniel J. Mahoney locates Pierre Manent among “neoliberal” French thinkers, non-Marxist and non-‘existentialist’ political philosophers whose genesis he locates from the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. (At one point, he remarks that in the U.S. they would be called “neo-conservative.”) Manent is one of the “most serious and penetrating” of the neo-liberals and he writes on a wide variety subjects and teachers. Mahoney finds the unifying element of these diverse writings in an extended meditation on the nature of modern freedom and its permanent discontents. Mahoney canvases his work as a whole (up until 1998) to contextualize the essays in this book within Manent’s corpus. (Note that the essay “Democracy without Nations?” in this book is also the title of a book Manent published in 2013).

Manent, “a serious Catholic,” was influenced by the work of anti-Communist Raymond Aron, the founder of “the neo-conservative” journal Commentaire, which Manent later took over. Other major influences include Leo Strauss and Tocqueville. Manent was one of the chief writers to bring Tocqueville’s writings to a level of wide regard in France as an indispensable guide for understanding modern history and society.

Manent’s work combines history, philosophical reflection, and political-cultural analysis. At the center of Manent’s work, Mahoney notes, is an effort to grasp the meaning of “our liberal destiny” and a concern for the effects of modern democracy on the maintenance and sustenance of substantial human ties. (I am hoping that studying this topic with such a guide may help to shift from a more somnambulant, unreflective imbibing of modern democracy to a more penetrating awareness and moderation within it). He addresses especially “the effects of democratic individualism on the ‘moral contents of life,’ serious religiosity, sustained political judgment, and the full range of human attachments and affections, including a coherent national identity.”

Manent’s aim is to understand the liberal project in its entirety, its origins, nature and consequences. Mahoney alludes to a theological-political problem Manent addresses, one raised by Marsilius of Padua and Dante, Christian Aristotelians who strove to defend the independence and integrity of the profane world from ecclesiastical dogmatism and domination. Manent critiques the strategy of the Christian Aristotelians as inadequate in dealing with the radical theological-political problem. The modern state rejected their Aristotelian balancing and mixing of human goods, and the ancient regime’s ecclesiastical establishments and estates. The modern state represents only individuals, not spiritual masses. Manent follows Strauss in seeing Machiavelli as the architect of the modern enterprise and its closing off to the possibility of the common good, because Machiavelli “denies that human beings have access to a hierarchy of goods that stands above or moderates partisan claims.” The moral stance specific to modernity which Machiavelli formulates is one that recognizes the radically indeterminate character of human freedom and the “stern requirements of natural and social Necessity.” Machiavelli and Hobbes, etc., build upon the foundation of fear and loathing and the desire of people to be left alone. Mahoney writes, “As Strauss puts it, the foundation of all politics is in ‘terror’ and not ‘love.'” Manent reaches through this moral fog to attend to the substance of the common good. The modern state is not based on a positive notion of the human good but on “the democratic and morally neutral foundation of the people.”

According to Manent, the greatest threat of the modern project lies in its gradual separation of the ‘individual’ from the moral contents of life. Like Robert Nisbet in The Quest for Community, Manent addresses the diminishing status of families, churches, and mediating associations and social bodies which stand between the individual and the State. Intermediaries that embody substantive opinions about the human good are dwindling in the political life of we democratic peoples. Free and equal individuals are supposed to coexist, depending and agreeing only on their possession of individual autonomy and its protections. Manent says the ambition of modern thought to unmask the illusory character of human bonds is based on a “willful and unjustified refusal to confront the inescapable question of what human beings have in common.” (Eric Voegelin notes the same thing about modernity when he discusses modernity’s “suppression of primal questions.”) Manent affirms Aristotle’s description of human beings as “political animals” because the city, or political community, is what allows them to fulfill their natural propensity for common actions and reasons. Democratic modernity asserts the radical primacy of the will, of self-assertion. The spiritual and material elements of modernity are eliminated for the sake of unencumbered autonomy or individuality.

The two totalitarianisms, Nazism and Communism, embody the Machiavellian self-destruction of modernity. Both react against and intensify modern individualism by being in fact, despite lip service to the contrary, “virulent promoters of the absence of the natural human bond” (I am reminded here of the current push for a redefinition of marriage that would result in a cultural definition of marriage devoid of the implicit biological nexus to children, another expression of modernity’s militants against the “natural human bond.” In the back of my mind in addressing the topic of democratic modernity is an interest to see how it illuminates the Sexual Revolution, which seems to me the key ideologically tinged expression of modernity currently in play after Nazism and Communism.The idolatry of democracy by its immoderate friends is expressing itself, it seems to me, in what Lionel Trilling in his essay on the Kinsey Report called “democratic sexual pluralism.” Democracy is being turned to for spiritual guidance and is thus becoming a locus of spiritual captivity to the principalities of this dark world.) Manent argues that liberalism has fundamentally failed to understand itself and its individuals are increasingly cut off from both the moral contents of life and the minimum requirements of even liberal citizenship.

Mahoney first addresses Manent’s exposition of Tocqueville, especially in Manent’s Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy. He notes Manent’s terse summarization of Tocqueville: “To love democracy well, it is necessary to love it moderately.” (Perhaps my greatest desire in studying this book is hopes of gaining a more salty, circumspect, and moderate grasp of democracy’s strengths and weaknesses, within community). Democracy at its extreme limits creates “apolitical, apathetic individualism that risks dissolving the social and civic bonds into a ‘dis-society'”; “democracy embodies nature in a way that puts nature in danger.” Democratic despotism “undermines the associative, civic, and intellectual capacities of democratic man.” Democracy’s two main enemies are its intransigent, unreflective, reactionary opponents and its more dangerous “excessive and immoderate friends.” These later embrace the extremes of democracy, “using government to actualize the democratic dogma in every aspect of personal and social life.” (Hence The New Intolerance. See Mary Eberstadt’s essay by that title in the current First Things, or watch her speech).

Against the deformations brought about by an immoderate embrace of democracy, we are advised by Tocqueville and Manent to exercise “an art of liberty whose central feature is the deliberate cultivation of a science of associations, a political art that preserves local liberties and mediating structures between the ‘sovereign’ individual and the ‘central power’ and gives freedom and moral support (but not state establishment) to a religion that sets limits to unencumbered human willfulness.” (I am reminded in this talk of a kind of prudent reserve toward democracy of Ephesians 6:12 and the duty of Christians not to be captive idolators of the authorities and powers of this dark world). Manent notes the unfinishable character of this noble and necessary art. (Participating in the Lonergan center discussions is surely participation in such a mediating institution.)

Manent opposes any reactionary rejection of modern democracy. Manent “recognizes the classical distinction between theory and practice which embraces the coexistence of theoretical radicality and practical sobriety. Leo Strauss is less interested, in the end, in rehabilitating the moral contents of life than Manent is. Charles Taylor remarked of modernity that it had “occulted its moral sources.” Manent’s seems keen on tending to these morals sources, restoring and nurturing the virtues and their communal and societal mediating structures which serve the moral life’s flourishing.

Strauss attributed the vitality of Western civilization to the fundamental and irresolvable tension between Athens and Jerusalem. Manent in contrast sees the invigorating moral and political tension that defines and sustains the vitality of the West in the conflict between humility and magnanimity. (Alasdair MacIntyre once remarked that Aristotle praised the virtue of magnanimity but saw humility as something of a vice). Modernity understands itself as the emancipation or triumph of the will. To become truly human, to be free or autonomous, modern man risks his humanity by fleeing every authority. It is impossible to completely or successfully flee our nature but the effort to do so creates the modern world, which is neither Christian nor Greek, neither magnanimity nor humility. We must resist democratic extremism. Finally, Manent praises De Gaulle’s ‘mission’ to “both France and the democratic world to sustain a sense of national and personal honor in an era where human grandeur was threatened by both totalitarian fanaticism and the erosion of political life and of moral seriousness in democratic societies.”


Do you think the religious-political situation has changed significantly since this book was published in 1998?

Did this reading increase your interest in other books? (Tocqueville, Montesquieu,Strauss, etc.)

What do you hope to accomplish or attain from this discussion group?

How does one go about “cultivating a science of associations?