Pierre Manent, City of Man, chapter 2, notes

Notes on Chapter 2 of Manent’s The City of Man

“All literature, all philosophy, all history abounds with incentives to noble action, incentives which would be buried in black darkness were the light of the written word not flashed upon them. How many pictures of high endeavor great authors of Greece and Rome have drawn for our use, and bequeathed to us, not only for our contemplation but for our emulation! These I have held ever before my vision throughout my public career, and have guided the workings of my brain and my soul by meditating upon patterns of excellence.” -Cicero in Pro Archia Poeta

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.” -Philippians 4:8-9 (NIV)


For contemporary society, history has become the way, the truth and the life. The feeling of living “within society” is the effective expression of living “within history,” and it has given rise to the novel and to the science of sociology.


After the French Revolution, three great schools of political thought, the liberals, the sociologues, and the socialists are unified by a notion of society, as distinct from the state and political institutions, and in the idea that society is the locus of the irreversible and irresistible movement of history. “The sociological viewpoint penetrates and dominates all modern political thought.”


Guided by Emile Durkheim, sociology cuts the ties with a praxial, practical focus and sets the parameters of sociology’s ethos by training it on being pure theory and a study of something independent of the will of man called “society.” Sociology depends for its form and existence on a deliberate refusal to take man’s nature as its object of study. [Contrast this with the aforementioned two quotations which provide instances of Ancient and Christian emphasis on emulation].


The sociological viewpoint is that of the spectator and its wrests, from the agent, initiative and reason and vests all force and causality in “society.” [The way Manent describes it, it seems like society is made into a kind of idol and we become like the idol by surrendering our humanity to it]. There is a resultant twofold dynamic: a deliberate and forceful distancing from what is real to attain the height of Science- a willful self-alienation-, and an equally deliberate and forceful effort to recover familiarity.


Montesquieu and the sociologist start from and emphasize the “infinite diversity” of human things only to then erase it. The affirmation of sociological causality is to be equated with the denial of chance, but one who grants primary causality to human nature can give chance a large role to play. “Is it even possible to stop, once the human world is only comprehensible as a causal chain without a first cause?” When man’s nature is posited only as an effect, or as an epiphenomenon, and not as a cause, a first cause is denied, and the result is that sociological studies constantly offer causes which are not truly causes. However, if they once admit man as a cause, then sociology as a science is called into question. In a sense, only the sociologist believes in the science of sociology, and that only while doing his job. Man understood as an agent by nature is best addressed by a “practical science” or an “art,” not by a science which is motivated to suppress his primal questions and occult his nature.


The deliberate ignoring of the real human agent poses problems for the sociological viewpoint. The requirement of scientific neutrality raises difficulties for the researcher which must be scrutinized. The sociologist avoids speaking about the universal, seeks to speak of the particular, and strives to elaborate a new general law, crucially only after the suppression of the pre-theoretical man’s apprehension of universals. All the mind’s focus of attention that the sociologist deems legitimate is trained on relations, but once this happens, even the memory of the most essential questions bearing on the human meaning of each of the elements that it is supposed to connect with begins to be lost. Can the sociologist speak of sociology in good conscience as a science of man?


For the Ancients and classical philosophy, man as nature and soul is the cause of the human phenomenon. As soon as this integrating principle is abandoned, the human phenomenon becomes a pure plurality. In their diversity without principle, sociological parameters are necessarily equivalent to each other, or whatever the individual sociologist can make out of them. The sociologist fails to perform the essential Socratic questioning which defines precisely the objects he is trying to relate to each other. The sociologist believes he knows what he is doing because he does not know what he believes. “The scholar’s refinements hang on the faith of the coal miner.”


Manent examines Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as a case in point. Weber admits, in one of the last sentences, modern man’s inability to give religious ideas a significance for culture and national character that they deserve.


The sociologist who observes diverse societies cannot, as a scholar, evaluate the merits of values and place them in a hierarchical order. Manent asserts that the sociological grasp of the world is “necessarily mutilated and confused.” Sociological man cuts himself off from the great Whole and limits himself to a false Whole. “No effort of methodological refinement will succeed in opening the eyes of an intellectual discipline that seeks to interpret the world by bringing into play one or the other, and one and the other, of two definitions of man.”


Manent uses Montesquieu’s listing of climate as one of the things that govern man as an example of the sociological viewpoint. He notes of the sociologist that, whatever his individual nature, he as a sociologist has already prepositioned himself in relation to the question about what is proper to man. He has placed himself in a position of essential superiority by claiming that he knows what is stronger than man’s nature and what determines it. Implicitly, he claims to know more than if he knew man himself. The sociologist as a scholarly spectator “knows” the determinability of the causality of our nature. He affects to have knowledge that is superior to the very nature of man. But is the vaunted superiority in truth a diminishing cage?


The refusal to say or know anything about man except where and when he is the effect of a social cause ought to have discredited the science of man that imposes this refusal on itself as a matter of conscience. Instead, sociological language has become “the official vernacular of modern democracy.” This is because social science plays a decisive role in the deathblow to nature that characterizes our regime. Paradoxically, conceiving man as determined is simultaneous with and involved in the ascendency of the conviction that the true nature of man is to be free. “The sociological viewpoint is constituted the moment the notion of liberty becomes the cornerstone of the human world…”

Manent notes how Montesquieu separates the government of mores from the government of laws and says that, in fact, we can only “do sociology” about mores that are “free” in this sense. More and more slips away from the hold of the political actor until the critical moment when religion severs itself from political law or is sundered from it.


Montesquieu re-conceptualizes counsels of perfection as something akin to taste that those who love perfection may pursue. For both Christian theology and Greek philosophy, the perfection of being is the raison d’etre of every human being, not just a hobby available for a few who like that kind of thing. Montesquieu’s separation ruptures this continuity.


In Europe for the first time, a religion loses strength over a long period of time at the same time that the body politic grows strong, without any new religion appearing to replace the first. In becoming purely political by way of the sociological divisions, the law raises itself irresistibly above the contents of life. How does this happen by reducing the importance of politics to a mere parameter among others? It does so by requiring that all other regimes be considered in another perspective. Because politics is so elevated and so separated in the sociological distillation, all other regimes appear confused. According to Montesquieu, the law extricates itself from confusion with nature by dividing it into two halves. One part emancipates itself from nature and becomes absolute sovereign. The other part reabsorbs itself into human matter which becomes the dense and opaque chain of social causes accessible only to the sociological viewpoint. These two extreme poles can be apprehended in terms of the other.