Manent, The City of Man, Ch. 4, pp. 137-155, Parts 15-23



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.