Pierre Manent’s City of Man, chapter 4, notes

Notes on Manent’s The City of Man, Chapter IV: The Hidden Man


Manent has described thus far the three major spheres in modern man’s self-consciousness: History, Society and Economy. Each of these has two facets, a homogenous set of facts and the science which concerns itself with these facts. These spheres can crisscross in unlimited, kaleidoscopic combinations. The constraints of the science of these spheres are more formal than real. Within these constraints, the scholar is absolute sovereign over his province of “facts.” However, he is formally forbidden to connect these facts to the whole. “How fortunate these scholars are to be spared the sole true difficulty of knowledge!” Manent declaims facetiously. Underlying these modern practices is a despair of philosophy, the science of the Whole. Yet there is nothing that requires one to despair of the cause of unity, for it was philosophy itself which deliberately dismembered the unity, so why would philosophy not be capable of reunifying the whole?


Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke implacably destroyed Aristotle’s doctrine of “substance,” which had been adopted by Catholic doctrine. It was in the English line, from Hobbes to Locke to Hume, that this destruction of substance was linked most clearly to the construction of the new body politic. In Aristotle, nature provides the moving force, impulse and ordering of a human world, but the world is described in all its complexity thanks to a dialectical analysis of opinions and to a phenomenology of the passions. In contrast, there is a narrowing and a compression in Hobbes’s concept. Human diversity and complexity is reduced to a single fundamental passion and the political order is deduced entirely from this passion. In Hobbes’s view, once the desire for power is held in check by fear of the absolute sovereign, the exercise of that desire will soon be celebrated as liberty. The homogenization of the diverse human faculties and passions that is exhibited in Hobbes presupposes a prior work of abstraction and denaturation. The philosopher speaks of “power” while normally men speak with natural spontaneity about wealth, science, honor and glory. This supposed quintessence of human desire is next dissolved into the nonhuman homogeneity of power.


In John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, power is expelled from the place where in Hobbes it played the most striking role. Power is conceived of as an intermediary stage on the road that leads from the world of substance to that of relation. One of the principle intentions of Locke’s Essay is to discredit the notion of substance. In Hobbes, power had taken the place of substance as the universal idiom capable of giving an account of the world. In Locke, man’s “artistic” character devours his “natural” character. Everything particular to man now appears as an effect produced by man. In this view, man is the result of his own production, but where was he before he resulted? “Thus man is labor.” What is human in man comes to be viewed as the result of labor.


Locke goes so far in his treatment of man as man’s artifice that he deems the idea of murder an “arbitrary” idea. Manent writes of this, “One has the feeling that the world of ideas is unraveling, that ideas are being trivialized…We have the feeling as it were of a moral violence at work in this intellectual decomposition of a notion.” Locke’s contention that the idea of killing has no more rapport with the idea of man than with the idea of a sheep is formally “unimpeachable, but is also substantially untenable.” Only by violent abstraction is the idea of killing treated in this fashion. The idiom of ideas which Locke’s Essay develops in European philosophy always gives a serious and plausible air to whatever thesis one may put forth. Locke’s decomposition of the wholes that give meaning to human experience makes diversity without any unity.


Hobbes’s emphatic concentration of man’s nature in the desire for power liberated the world of ideas from every natural and ontological bond.” Locke is a continuation of this gulf between ideas and reality. He elaborates moral notions as obeying rules that are governed merely by convenience for the sake of social communication. For Locke, the rules for constituting the human world are fully analogous to the rules for fabricating a table or a chair. Chairs have to be fitted enough to the nature of the man so that they can be comfortable or convenient. However, in the case of Locke’s conception of moral notions, what is fabricated is the constitution itself of the human world. Hence, the convenience of human nature cannot determine this in the same way. Locke rigorously preserves the formalism of “conveniency” against a resort to human nature. Conveniency maintains an equivocation between the universal and the particular and it is a rule without foundation or reference point, able to vary indefinitely.


Locke’s analysis of the constitution of the human world is so amorphous that it seems to preclude the establishment of a political philosophy. Moral notions are interpreted as arbitrary constructs regulated by conveniency, whatever way it is understood. However, Locke avers that a political theory as rigorous and demonstrable as mathematics is possible. If man is unknown as a substance, he is known to us by his powers and his relations. In fact, in developing political philosophy, Locke ends up presupposing the nature of man and his substance, avoiding making it the object of investigation. Unfortunately, or inevitably, Locke does not move beyond his general affirmation of the possibility of constructing demonstrative moral doctrine. Locke formulated the requirement of a rigorous moral and political doctrine while at the same time emphatically rejecting inquiry into the nature or substance of man. If he was mistaken, then our regime of modern democracy is devoid of a sure foundation since it was built on his formulation.


Locke erected the lofty structure of the liberal and democratic state on the puny base of the solitary animal in search of food.. The only teaching of nature that he does not leave open to question is the injunction of animal necessity, for survival. Locke uses a term, labor, which is proper only to man to designate an activity within reach of and characteristic of an animal because he sees in human consumption the first expression of human rapport to nature. He presupposes man in his quest for the foundations of human right. According to Locke, the human individual has in himself the necessary and sufficient foundation of property, and from that starting point, of law in its entirety. Law is said to not have its primary source in the conditions and consequences of the common life but in the isolated individual’s rapport with nature and with himself. Law according to Locke’s conception of it can only be founded on individual animality in its solitary rapport with external nature and with itself. However, if his reasoning is correct, the animals who exist also as biological individualities would also know about property and law and hence, political order.