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Pierre Manents critique of Leo Strauss: Thoughts on Christianity and Modernity1

In his last book, Democracy Without Nations: The Fate of Self-Government in Europe2,
Pierre Manent explores the relation between modern representative democracy and the nation as
a political form. Even though he continues in this book to display a very deep concern about the
future of European national democracies, Pierre Manents immediate preoccupation with the
actual state of European nations is rooted in a more fundamental desire to understand the essence
of modernity. His main intention is to grasp modernitys genesis3, i.e. the complex way
modernity has articulated itself with the two other spiritual masses4 that have preceded it in the
history of the West: ancient philosophy and Christianity. What is modernity for Pierre Manent?
Since its meaning has been changing throughout history, Modern appears to have no fixed
material content. The awareness of being modern rather seems to imply the formal awareness
of a difference, of my actual difference with the humanity that preceded me. Pierre Manents
interest with modernity is more precisely an interest in the coming to be of the modern
difference5, a difference which, for the last two centuries, has served as an answer to the
question that man always is for himself.
1

This short text is an excerpt from a much larger essay.

2 Pierre

Manent, Democracy Without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe, Intercollegiate


Studies Institute, 2007, 130 pages.
3

Manent, On Historical Causality, in Modernity and its Discontents, Rowman and Littlefield, 1998, p.
210.
4

Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, p. 23.

Daniel J. Mahoney, Modern Man and Man Tout Court: The Flight from Nature and the Modern
Difference, in Interpretation, Spring 1995, Vol. 22, No. 3, p. 417.

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Pierre Manent distinguishes three different periods in modernity, and correspondingly


three different material meanings of the word modernity. From 1776 to 1848, modern
expressed mans sense of belonging to the new democratic humanity, his feeling of himself as
separated from the aristocratic humanity of the past. With the appearance of the social question
around 1848, modern takes on a new meaning. To be sure, it remains the awareness of a
difference. To be modern means to demand real social equality and to declare oneself
unsatisfied with the formal equality of bourgeois democracy. Finally, from 1968 upwards,
modern takes on the meaning that it still has today. Modern is the man who has an
overwhelming feeling of humanitys unity, and who therefore wants to abolish all remaining
separations between men, whether it be a separation between the ruler and the ruled, the teacher
and the student, a man and a women, parents and their children, members of different religions,
etc. Once this stage has been reached, modernity must necessarily turn itself against national
divisions. For Pierre Manent, this ultimate development of modernity must imperatively be
fought against. We need to understand why.
In each of its three principal historical figures, the modern thinks of himself as superior to
what preceded him. In the words of Kant, he sees himself has successfully emerging from the
self-imposed immaturity6 that was crippling his forefathers. Always, the maturity that is
supposedly reached by the modern is measured by the yardstick of what Manent considers to be
the democratic dogma: human beings are free beings who have rights7. Being modern then
means being and wanting to be evermore democratic in that sense. According to Manent, this
6

Immanuel Kant, What is Enlightenment?, Akademie Ausgabe, VIII, 35. Our translation.

Manent, On Historical Causality, p. 210.

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objective is nothing but a demand for a radical transformation of mans being, a transformation
that Manent, as we have already indicated, does not indiscriminately welcome with open arms.
It is difficult, writes Manent, to be a friend of democracy, but it is necessary to be a friend of
democracy [] It is difficult to be a friend of democracy, because the democratic dogma is
destructive of the moral contents that constitute the uniqueness of humanity and therefore its
grandeur. It is necessary to be a friend of democracy because in this condition alone is it possible
to preserve under the democratic dogma, at least by reflection or analogy, and often or
sometimes in accord with the virtue of men, the reality of these moral contents8. Like
Tocqueville before him, Manent considers modernity as a historical current, a gigantic and
inescapable democratic wave which substantially alters the world of man, a movement within
which human freedom must find a way to emerge and to preserve itself. Unlike Tocqueville,
Pierre Manent isnt satisfied with a phenomenological description of our modern difference. If
modernity is indeed a movement, an ever accelerating movement that burst onto the world scene
at the end of the 18th century, it had to be set in motion somehow. Starting from Tocqueville,
Pierre Manents reflection on democratic modernity takes the peculiar form of a physicists quest
for a dynamic formula9. To fully understand modernity, contends Manent, one has to seek the
cause of a movement10, the historical causality of a process which has irreversibly changed and
is still changing mans being. It is Pierre Manents preoccupation with the historical causality of
modernity that has led him to a confrontation with the political philosopher Leo Strauss.

Manent, Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, Rowman and Littlefield, 1996, p. 129.

Manent, On Historical Causality, 210.

10

Manent, On Historical Causality, 210.

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Like Strauss before him, Pierre Manents theory of modernitys historical origins attaches
great importance to modern political philosophys part in proclaiming and recognizing the
modern change. Without a doubt, modern philosophers were very efficient in persuading men to
be suspicious of ancient philosophys pernicious prejudices. They were the first to give a clear
expression, not only to the desire for the modern change, but to the modern condition itself.
From them, we have learned to proclaim our innate individual rights to freedom and equality. As
we all know, modern political philosophys aggressive promotion of modernity had one other
very important consequence: that of presenting us with two different, successive, and
incompatible rational ways of affirming human universality11. To Aristotles understanding of
man as a rational and political animal, modern political philosophy appended its own
revolutionary affirmation of man as a free individual being endowed with rights. Leo Strauss
famously understood this problem, the so-called problem of historicism, as an opportunity to
reopen the debate ancient and modern philosophy. The result of Strauss reexamination of this
debate is relatively well-known. In order overcome the historical plurality of ways to affirm
mans nature or universality, Leo Strauss subjected modern political philosophy to a radical
critique. For Strauss, the notion of modern natural right was nothing but a conceptual tool, an ad
hoc theory invented by a few reckless philosophers (Machiavel, Hobbes, Locke) who were more
interested in mastering nature than in understanding it. Led by his uncompromising critique of
modern natural right, Strauss had no other option but to reduce the experience of being modern,
i.e. the historical consciousness of the modern difference, to the status of a vulgar illusion, a
fallacy promoted by an ill-advised and dysfunctional philosophy. No matter what modern

11

Manent, On Historical Causality, p. 211.

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philosophy had led us to believe about ourselves, maintained Strauss, nothing could change in
the nature of man. For Strauss, man was naturally immune to the virus of history.
Pierre Manent finds Leo Strauss uncompromising notion of human nature to be
untenable12. For Manent, the experience of the modern difference is the individual experience
of a very real historical condition. As such, it cannot be sidestepped as easily as Strauss seems to
suggest it can. Properly understood, the modern understanding of the individual Self doesnt just
superficially conceal our permanent nature. In truth, there is something in the modern that is
really unnatural13. Modern political philosophys praises and promotion of democratic
modernity has effectively help to carry us away from nature. Now, how can one rationally
account for this most improbable transformation? It is Pierre Manents firm belief that, long
before receiving its first subjective expression in philosophy, the modern elevation of man
above his own nature, his gradually becoming a historical being, had received its most decisive
impulse from the objective dialectic of European politics and Christianity. This dialectic was
presiding over the formation of something entirely new: the nation as a political form.
Pierre Manents critique of Strauss understanding of the modern difference could be said
to rely on one single historical observation, the discovery of a fact that had eluded Strauss
attention: the political form within which Greek political philosophers had tried to understand
and interpret human experience, the Greek polis, was no longer predominant when modern
philosophy launched its first attack on Socratic political philosophy. European monarchs had

12

Manent, On Historical Causality, p. 212.

13

Manent, On Historical Causality, p. 213.

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succeeded in imposing to their vassals and to the Christian Church an entirely new political form,
entirely unknown to the Greeks: the nation. For Manent, this historical defeat of the polis had a
huge impact on the way Westerners were to organize themselves politically in the future. The
consequences of the citys disappearance werent limited to monarchical Europe. The modern
national State, the frame which has been the bedrock of modern representative democracy for the
last two centuries, was also born out of the citys defeat to the hands of the European absolute
monarchy. The monarchical nation was destined in modernity to play the exact same role the city
had played in the ancient world. It was to become the new whole within which all the elements
of our life come together and take on meaning14. Consequently, to bring to light the historical
causality at the source of the modern movement meant for Manent to understand this most
mysterious changing of the guard, the transition from the ancient city to the nation.
In order to understand the modern difference, Pierre Manent abandons Leo Strauss too
exclusive focus on the history of political philosophy. He feels compelled rather to launch a
inquiry into the birth of a political form that has been specific to modernity, to write a history of
the national form15. So far as I can tell, the very idea of a reasoned history of political forms is
peculiar to Pierre Manent. In any case, it is entirely absent from Leo Strauss critique of modern
political philosophy. The undeniable historical progression that has taken place in Europe from
the city to the nation doesnt impair his will to promote and provoke a return to ancient political
philosophy. Disregarding it, Leo Strauss effectively disconnects Socratic natural right from the

14

Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, p. 4.

15

Manent, A World beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation-State, Princeton University Press, 2006,
p. 43.

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political form that cradled it. Why did Strauss reflect on our modern political experience in a so
un-aristotelian fashion? One may put forward the hypothesis that he had no qualms about
idealizing Socratic natural right because, as opposed to Aristotle, Strauss had no real political
interest. His main objective was to salvage the possibility of philosophy. Be that as it may, Pierre
Manents approach to modernity is certainly more Aristotelian in spirit than Strauss. On this
subject, his perspective on history is closer to his professor and friend Raymond Arons than to
Strauss. And yet, Pierre Manent does not fault Strauss more than he faults Tocqueville for
disregarding the historical novelty that the nation represents. Like Tocqueville, Leo Strauss lived
in the midst of the national era. It was easier for him to take the nation for granted. As long as the
possible disappearance16 of the national form stayed remote, i.e. as long as it could be
confidently assumed that the nation would remain the ultimate form of political life17, it had to
be more difficult, perhaps even impossible, for one to seriously devote oneself to the clarification
of the historical origins of the nation. With respect to the nation, argues Manent in the manner of
Hegel, the owl of Minerva cannot commence its flight before the beginning of dusk18.
Conversely, Pierre Manents inquiry into the nation is to be interpreted as a confirmation that the
dusk of the nation has begun.
Indeed, Leo Strauss historical naivety toward the nation, his downplaying of the reality
of our historical finitude, is a luxury than Pierre Manent feels can no longer be afforded. For the
first time since its creation, the nations future is really imperiled. Of course, this is especially

16

Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, p. 15.

17

Manent, What is a Nation?, in The Intercollegiate Review, Fall 2007, p. 1.

18

Cf. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, First Preface, in fine.

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true of European nations. There are of course good historical reasons for that. Two World Wars
that have bled Europe dry, and the horrific crimes perpetrated by the Nazis, have significantly
contributed to the weakening of European nations self-assurance. These events are an important
motive behind the project of the European Union. It motivates the planed attempt to overcome
the national divisions with the autonomous creation of a new a-political body, a supra-national
and indefinitely extended association of individuals and sub-national cultures, all protected by
the judicial power of a State that Pierre Manent fears will be more disciplinary19 than
democratic. Manent never tires to criticize his fellow Europeans for the self-congratulatory way
they like to think of a post-national Europe as the new leading light of modern democratic
humanity. But, the European project isnt for him just a proof of Europes chronic deficiency in
manliness. More seriously, Manent sees it as being rooted in an illusion, an illusion which
encourages the assumption that modern representative democracy will be able to survive outside
of its old national frame. Pierre Manent refers to this illusion as the democratic empire20.
This last expression is not chosen randomly. Like the city and the nation, the empire is a
political form in its own right, and a natural one at that. Its origin, contends Manent, is an idea, a
confused yet very compelling idea. The idea of the empire is the idea, both natural and
noble, of the gathering of the human race under one sole governor who is the instrument and
symbol of its unity21. Why then does Manent understand the illusion of the democratic empire
to be specific to modernity? What gives the noble idea of the gathering of the human race the

19

Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, p. 59.

20

Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, p. 6.

21

Manent, The City of Man, Princeton University Press, 1998, pp. 205-6.

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uncanny power it has recently been wielding over democratic modernity? The modern illusion of
the democratic empire is fostered by our nurtured tendency a tendency that the democratic
empire fuels back in return to conceive of the individual as the most basic element with which
our societies are to be constructed.
For Manent, America is not immune from the effects of this uncanny dialectic. Most
recently, the democratic empire has also animated Americas foreign policy. The influence of
the vague idea of human unity22 is mostly visible in the so-called neo-conservative rationale
behind the late invasion of Iraq by American military troops. Ironically, the neo-conservative
foreign policy manifested the same idealistic contempt toward the historical presuppositions of
modern democracy than the Old Europe23 they so much despised24. They too understood the
universal validity of individual human rights as a sufficient justification for the foreign policy
they wanted America to adopt. They too seemed to hold these individual rights as providing a
sufficient warrant for the smooth functioning of modern representative democracy. Under the
spell of the democratic empire, argues Manent, both the European nations and America have
shown little appreciation for the historical presuppositions of modern representative democracy.
In Europe in particular, the total disregard of the fact that our modern democracies have come
into the world in pre-existing historical nations is endangering the survival of these very nations,
and by extension the political freedom that they had made possible (balkanization of European
nations, mounting concern throughout Europe with immigration, resurgence of extremist
22

Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, p. 6.

23

Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, p. 64.

24

For a critique of neo-conservatism which present a similar argument, see Daniel J. Mahoney,
Conservatism, Democracy, and Foreign Policy, in The Intercollegiate Review, Fall 2006, pp. 3-13.

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political parties, mutual estrangement of Europe and America, etc.). To counteract this fateful
trend, Pierre Manent has taken upon himself to remind us of the frailty of modern being and
freedom. Modernity, he contends, is not natural to man. It is rather, as Tocqueville understood it,
the feature of a distinct breed of humanity25. Now, continues Manent, modernitys
distinctiveness, our self-awareness as individual selves, would never have been possible in a city.
It presupposed the prior availability of the nation. Just like the Greek who was a polis-tical
animal, the modern is to considered as a national animal. Manent goes so far as to say that if
nations were to disappear, each of us would as a consequence become a stranger, a monster to
himself26.
What is missed by those who labour under the illusion of the democratic empire is the
long and painful modification of the human soul which first gave the modern his peculiar
capacity to live in national communities. This modification of the human soul also underlies
what Manent describes as one of the fundamental traits of modernity: the clear-cut separation
of political power and religion27. The numerous problems encountered by the US in Iraq is a
painful reminder of the fact that a political bodys capacity to govern itself through democratic
representation hinges on the objective predominance of national ties over other possible human

25

Cf. Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book II, op. cit., p. 318: There are certain vices and certain
virtues that were attached to the constitution of aristocratic nations and that are so contrary to the
character of the new peoples that they cannot be introduced into them. There are good inclinations
and bad instincts that were foreign to the first and that are natural to the second; ideas that naturally
present themselves to the imagination of the ones and that the mind of the others rejects. They are
like two distinct humanities, each of which has its particular advantages and disadvantages, its goods
and its evils that are proper to it.
26

Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, p. 4.

27

Manent, The Truth, Perhaps, in Modern Liberty and its Discontents, p. 35.

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ties, tribal or religious. For Manent, since they are both objective modes of communion28,
religion and political freedom cannot but objectively interfere with each other. Such an idea
certainly goes against our very own democratic and tolerant way of apprehending religion. As
moderns, we tend to deprive religion of any objectivity to equate it rather with an interior
sentiment, a subjective disposition29. As such, we assume that religion can thrive without
necessarily having any noticeable impact on the way our political existence is organized. In the
view of Manent, this secular understanding of religion is both erroneous and dangerous. An
extreme consequence of the modern separation between Church and State, it also proves to be a
serious threat to the latters survival. Indeed, comforted by this faulty conception of religion, we
run the risk of underestimating the political importance of religion both for ourselves and for
others.
Our recent inability or unwillingness to see religion as the great collective fact, the
objective political fact30 that it has always been in the history of the West has done a great deal
to deprive us of any defense against the illusion of the democratic empire. We should now know
better. In Islamic countries in particular, the objective character that religion can have has
recently become quite obvious. For the last seven years, Islams objectivity obstinately has
manifested itself repeatedly in putting up strong resistance to any attempted democratization of
it, either domestic or foreign. Time and time again, the Islamic law has proven a stumbling block
to the numerous efforts put into modernizing the Middle-East. Where could we find similar

28

Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, p. 49.

29

Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, p. 48.

30

Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, p. 46.

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traces of Christianitys objective causality? Pierre Manent reckons that Christianitys objectivity,
i.e. the decisive importance it has for our concrete way of life, can be observed in its unique
contribution to the emergence of the modern nation.
In our opinion, it is on this particular point that the gap between Leo Strauss account of
the modern difference and Manents becomes blindingly obvious. In Strauss history of
philosophy, Christianitys contribution to the modern project is presented as subjective and
negative in nature. Modern philosophy was necessitated by the spiritual constraints that
Christianity was putting on human nature, constraints which were limiting the scope of
philosophical freedom. In explicit contrast to Strauss, Manents appreciation of Christianitys
role in the genesis of modernity is more objective and positive. Would it not have been of
Christianity, points out Manent, the West would most certainly still be trapped in the alternative
that the Greeks thought was natural for man: the agonizing choice between the freedom of the
city and the power of the empire. Thanks to Christianity, we have finally been able to escape the
Cornelian dilemma of freedom and security. As Manent sees it, the modern nation is an
advantageous synthesis of the city and the empire, a synthesis that would not have been possible
without Christianity. For our enjoyment of the benefits afforded to us by the nation, we are
indebted to Christianity. Moreover, and since it can never be fully paid off, this debt has to be
acknowledged. Now, specifies Manent, this debt isnt just a debt of gratitude. In fact, Pierre
Manent has nothing but contempt for those proponents of the secularization theory who, with
grateful thanks, are in effect reducing Christianity to a forgotten page in the history books.
Acknowledging our debt to Christianity is for Manent a matter of bringing our own situation to
light in order to act upon it more prudently.
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To be sure, this isnt an easy task. Because it is historical, the nation confronts us a
disconcerting enigma31. On the opposite, and because of their naturalness, the two other
political forms the city and the empire are much easier to define. As far as the city is
concerned, Manent fully agrees with Strauss who understood it as the complete association
which corresponds to the natural range of mans power of knowing and of loving32. Similarly,
the empire is easily assessed. It is a natural political idea33, the idea of an all-encompassing
gathering of all men under one rule, ultimately the gathering of the whole human race, or the
whole human kind under the same rule34. The same level of clarity is simply not attainable with
respect to the nation. To come to terms with our own political form, we are then forced to adopt a
more historical perspective. A rapid survey of the history of the West reveals that, for a long
time, the city and the empire were the only available political forms35. The emergence of the
nation was only a slow process, a process that was originally neither deliberate nor democratic.
The modern nations ancestor is the national monarchy36. European nations were gradually
forged in response to the pressure exerted on the monarchs by another entity that one cannot
really describe as political: the Christian Church. Originally, the nation was an ad hoc answer to
a problem entirely specific to the West: the so-called theological-political problem37.

31

Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, p. 32.

32

Cf. Strauss, Natural Right and History, University of Chicago Press (1950), 1974, p. 254, n. 2.

33

Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 3.

34

Manent, What is a Nation?, p. 3.

35

Manent, What is a Nation?, p. 5.

36

Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, p. 3.

37

Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, p. 12.

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The theological-political problem is created by the unexpected appearance in its midst of


a political community of a particular group, in this instance the Christians, who pretend to be
incomparably superior to [] the rest of the political body38. To tighten our grip on this
problem, it is useful to look back briefly at Aristotles Politics. According to Aristotles depiction
of the polis, the just political order must emerge from a balancing act between the two main
conceptions of human excellence that are being put forward by the different parts of the city: the
aristocratic conceptions of the few, and the democratic conceptions of the many. Provided that
there is no common denominator between these two conceptions of human excellence, the
establishment of the just political order always requires prudence. To overcome the difficulty
generated by their mutual incompatibility, Aristotle relies on the agency of a legislator whose
careful calculation will allow for a compromise to be reached between the few and the many. In
turn, this compromise will insure the fragile unity of the city. The eruption of the Christian claim
in the midst of the city fundamentally alters this situation. Since the Christian alternative of
damnation and salvation is absolutely incommensurable with the other, natural conceptions of
human excellence promulgated in the city, it does not allow the process of arbitration between
the citys different parts to go on as before. Hence, it presents man with a problem that Aristotles
Politics simply cannot solve39, a theological-political problem. To solve this problem, argues
Manent, it will ultimately become necessary to sever man from the complexity of groups and
goods, both natural and supernatural, to decompose human sociability, both natural and
supernatural, and then finally to reconstruct the political body from the element that survives at
38

Manent, Christianity and Democracy: Some Remarks on the Political History of Religion, or, on the
Religious History of Modern Politics, in Modern Liberty and its Discontents p. 102.
39

Cf. Aristotle, Politics, III, viii.

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the end of this effort of abstraction: the free individual40. This new, reconstructed political body
will become the nation.
The problem that the construction of the nation was to solve resulted from the ambiguous
position adopted by the Christian Church toward the political world. The modern separation
between the religious and the political was originally thought of as a way to circumvent this
ambiguity, an ambiguity which is a consequence of the Christian understanding of mans nature.
In affirming the continued goodness of the creation even after the Fall, the Christian Church
acknowledges the earthly citys capacity to organize itself more or less autonomously. The
Christians are indeed summoned by Christ himself to render unto Caesar the things which are
Caesars41. But for all that, never does the Church advocate an absolute separation between the
temporal and the spiritual. She cannot accept her own reduction to pure subjectivity, i.e. her own
secularization. As the only truly perfect society, the Christian Church sees herself as duty bound
to insure the salvation of her members. Her divine mission is to lead men to their own salvation.
Therefore, she must be allowed to have a say in the way men lead their individual life and
organize their life in common. The head of the Church, the pope, must hold the plenitude of
authority or power (plenitudo potestatis)42. Consequently, and even though the Church
understands the necessity for her to remain aloof from the temporal, Christianity is not and

40

Manent, Christianity and Democracy: Some Remarks on the Political History of Religion, or, on the
Religious History of Modern Politics, in Modern Liberty and its Discontents p. p. 103.
41

St. Matthew, 22:21.

42

Manent, Christianity and Democracy: Some Remarks on the Political History of Religion, or, on the
Religious History of Modern Politics, p. 108.

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cannot be a purely apolitical religion. In Manents own words, the spiritual needs temporality,
that grace needs nature and liberty43.
Pierre Manent sees the Christian articulation of the temporal and the spiritual, of the city
of men and the city of God to be the pivot, both evident and mysterious, on which human
history turns44. Because of her refusal to abandon the city of men to itself, the Christian Church
will have played a very important role in the historical genesis of the European nations.
Indirectly, it will also have contributed to the genesis of our modern difference. Like we already,
her contribution to this genetic process wasnt only negative. According to Manent, the transition
from the city to the nation would never have been possible without the transformation that the
human soul underwent thanks to the Christian virtue of charity. What we must account for is the
formation of an unnatural political body, a political form which strikes a middle ground between
two natural opposites: the city and the empire. Admittedly, the nation has one important thing in
common with the empire. Its size is too great to be, like the city, readily surveyable
[eusunoptos]45. For this reason, the nations unity cannot rely exclusively on natural perception.
It must also involve imagination. That being said, the national imagination has a very singular
character. It is at the same time quite ample and neatly circumscribed46. In spite of its more
important size, the nation demands, this time more like the city, the existence of a certain kinship
between its members. The nations unity is not to be obtained by the sole attractive power of the
43

Manent, Charles Pguy: Between Political Faith and Faith, in Modern Liberty and its Discontents, p.
93.
44

Manent, Charles Pguy: Between Political Faith and Faith, p. 93.

45

Aristote, Politics, 1326b, trad. Carnes Lord, University of Chicago Press (1984), 1985, p. 205.

46

Manent, What is a Nation?, p. 6.

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ideal unity of mankind. It has to be a real unity, a unity greater and even more pervasive than the
citys.
The nation must then realize what Aristotle and latter on Rousseau thought to be
impossible: a real unity or political kinship which exceeds mans natural power to know and to
love. Pierre Manent contends that the nations overcoming of mans naturally limited capacity to
know and to love one another was positively prepared by the Christian virtue of charity.
Through charity, writes Manent, the Church goes deeper than the city and farther than the
empire. To be sure, Manent never goes so far as to say that Christian charity could ever become
the true animating principle47 of a real political association. The Christian city was to remain a
celestial one. And yet, the Christian teaching about charity was nevertheless able to substantially
modify the way human beings relate to each other. It was able, explains Manent, to alleviate the
pressure of those naturally close to me while drawing closer those who live faraway, thereby
weakening the grasp of localism and assuaging at the same time the vertigo of faraway
domination48.
Once again, and in spite of the important role played by charity in its genesis, Pierre
Manent understands the nation to be a profane political body49. Even though national kinship
could only be formed with the help of Christian charity, the modern nation was born out of a
secular quest: the quest for a political form better able to resist the Churchs pretension to
indirectly rule over it. In this quest of a new kind of political unity, the national monarch was to
47

Manent, What is aNation?, p. 5.

48

Manent, What is a Nation?, pp. 6-7.

49

Manent, Democracy Without Nations?, p. 56.

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play a decisive role. One could say that in the European absolute monarch, one is presented with
the first truly effective nation-builder. The absolute monarchy had one important advantage: it
could mesh better with Christianity than either the city or the empire. On the one hand, as
opposed to the city, its objective unity made it possible for the monarchical power to conform to
the Paulinian axiom according to which there is no authority that doesnt come from God50. On
the other hand, the monarchical powers claim to national sovereignty was limited in nature. It
did not directly challenge the Churchs aspiration to universal monarchy. To the contrary, given
the fact that the level of political activity in a monarchical regime was always lower than what it
could be in a city, it was to be expected that the inhabitants of national monarchies would not be
prevented to be good Christians by any pagan attachment to their earthly city. And yet, in the
long run, the secular power of national monarchs gradually became strong enough to limit to a
minimum the temporal claims that, from time to time, the Church felt obliged to make. Seen in
this light, the European national monarchy appears less as a particular and static regime than as a
long historical process51. For Manent, it is this process that has oriented the history of Europe,
propelling Europe out of the old dynamics, the ancient, or natural, conflict between city and
empire52, and into our national predicament. Powered by the Church, the national monarch
plowed for centuries the European soil, thereby unknowingly planting the seed of the national
democratic bodies that were destined to end his reign.

50

Saint Paul, Epistle to the Romans, 13:1.

51

Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, p. 8.

52

Manent, What is a Nation?, p. 5.

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