Pierre Manent’s Defense of the Nation-State

“Putting in common [koinonein] speeches [logoi] and deeds [pragmata].” —Aristotle

“That great synthesizer of European life, the nation-state.”—Pierre Manent[1]

“Breathes there the man with soul so dead / who never to himself has said, / This is my own, my native land!” —Sir Walter Scott

Pierre Manent is well known today as a defender of the nation-state, especially in its European form. He has written incisively and at times lyrically about this distinctive political form.[2] Since the early 1990s, he has written profoundly, that is, philosophically, about its nature and historical raison d’étre, but in terms that touch the soul. In this combination of sobriety and lyricism he brings to mind the great French statesman Charles de Gaulle and even more so the philosopher-poet Charles Péguy, passionate yet thoughtful partisans of a French nation belonging to a Europe des patries. In his turn, Manent has written appreciatively of both men’s thought and action, while adding his own considerations and advocacy.[3]

Less well known is that Manent’s preference for the nation is a consequence of deeper philosophical analysis and convictions concerning man and politics, and of a thoroughgoing critique of the current European alternative to the nation-state, the European Union. His advocacy of the nation is far from being rooted in any version of nationalism, least of all ethnic,[4] and it takes into account relevant circumstances. The nation-state has intrinsic and relative merits, above all political and democratic, but deeply human ones as well. Manent goes so far as to say that it was the nation, “with its inseparable physical and spiritual aspects, on which we predicated everything that is still worthy of being cherished in our several national histories as well as in our common European history.”[5]

In a different but complementary vein, his acknowledgement of ambiguities in the nature, and excesses in the history, of the political form have not always been recognized.[6] This is a shame for several reasons. Important philosophical and theological issues brought to light by Manent in connection with the form have not been adequately discussed; then, too, the rather tempered character of his advocacy has not always been appreciated.

Some have assigned Manent to a school of thought known as “sad” (triste) or chastened liberalism. I have never been entirely comfortable with that characterization of him, but certainly his advocacy of the nation-state today is shot through with an acute awareness of its past hubris and apprehension over its current weakness. That weakness notwithstanding, he argues that democracy needs a “political body” and “instruments of government” and the nation-state provides these essential requirements. Man, the political animal, still needs a “real,” that is, circumscribed, “community of belonging” to deploy his nature.[7] In today’s circumstances, the old nations need renewed respect and revivifying, not rejection.

As the epigraph from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics indicates, important figures in Western history have been interested in the form. Because of its complicated relationship to Christianity, which made the historical nation-state more than a natural political achievement yet less than the city of God, philosophers and believers necessarily have questions and even serious reservations about it.[8] In different ways, the philosopher and the theologian were challenged by the nation-state’s Christianity-derived and Church-competing claim to be a “sacred community,” in its heyday “the only true mystical body,”[9] while according to Manent even today it continues to bear a substantial, albeit mysterious, “Christian mark.”[10]

In his most recent book, Beyond Radical Secularism (2016), the “beyond” goes quite far. Concluding that work, he suggests that politically weakened European peoples who lack confidence in their own powers to effect necessary changes may (re)turn and draw from the same source as their Christian forebears and renew the inspiring (and measuring) Covenant with the Biblical God.[11] This no doubt provocative counsel is a direct consequence of his analysis of the nation’s historical vocation.

He also sketches out in that book what the various “spiritual masses” on the European scene might contribute to heal the political as well as spiritual maladies of the times.[12]  Assuredly, there is much matter here for philosophical and theological discussion! There may be “a specific sacredness of the political order as such,”[13] but that only starts the discussion between Aristotle and Martin Luther and Thomas Hobbes (not to mention contemporary theologians who take a jaundiced view of this claim) when it comes to la nation sacrée, or what Manent regularly calls “the Christian nation,” and more recently “the nation with a Christian mark.” These bold phrases and claims deserve searching discussion, especially since they are so foreign to contemporary modes of thinking, whether secular or religious.[14]

The contemporary democrat who surveys the history of democracy’s relationship with the form cannot fail to be chagrined by democracy’s complicity in the excesses of the nation’s development, whether internal or external, revolutionary or colonial. In fact, the creation of the European Union was fueled by worry over such excesses. Led by enlightened elites, democracy in Europe has increasingly disassociated itself from its birthing form, opting to supersede it with an unprecedented humanitarian project. Still the democrat may, after trying out the shiny new European vehicle of his post-national hopes and discovering that it has grave defects, see fit to return to the garage and bring out the older model, happy to discover anew its merits and dependability. In today’s circumstances, argues Manent, less would be more for democrats and democracy alike.

In sum: the nation-state was not perfect—no political association is—but it has virtues that for some time now have been underappreciated and that meet real civic and human needs. Today, the nation-state is arguably the best political home for chastened democratic men and women. Chastened, because they have experienced the political and democratic deficits of the European project, especially in its post-Maastricht iterations.  Chastened, too, because they know that democracy can wrongly attach itself to the nation, as happened in the 19th and 20th centuries, in their colonial adventures and ethnic or racial circumscriptions.[15] Perhaps now democracy and the nation can find a new point of equilibrium. That searching for it is imperative, is Manent’s chief proposition to contemporary European democrats.

His argument, as we said, involves a thoroughgoing critique of the contemporary alternative, the European Union, in the light of a fuller view of political life, of liberal democracy, and of the unique contributions the nation-state made and can make to both. It is at once retrospective and prospective, but rooted in permanent features of political existence and of democracy itself. It emanates from a Frenchman who candidly declares his own powerful national feeling—“my own national passion, which is quite real,” in his words—but whose mind is given over to the demands of dispassionate thought. It thus is an exemplary expression of “man, the political animal, because the animal possessing logos.” However, unlike the originator of this famous enthymeme, Manent and his fellow Europeans have heard a Word from Above. Assuredly, this additional Logos complicated matters; but it has also enriched their dialogue, as well as possibilities of community. In Manent’s judgment and presentation, the nation-state was central to that dialogue and those possibilities.


In his writings, the French Catholic Manent, born in 1949 in Toulouse,[16] presents himself first and foremost as a political philosopher. Both the substantive and the modifier are essential, but the adjective needs special emphasis if we are to come to terms with his thought. It is philosophical through and through[17], but its constant focus has been “the political” (le politique, la politique), on the nature and status of the political in human life and the human world.

Three phrases sum up his discoveries and commitments: 1) man’s nature as a political animal, desirous of being tolerably governed, at his peak, ambitious to govern himself in a free and independent community; 2) the nature of the political as a constantly reenacted “putting speeches and deeds in common” by just such a self-governing community that thereby constitutes itself as such;[18] and 3) what he calls “the political condition of mankind,” the telling and massive fact that humanity has divided itself into different authoritative groupings. Clear-eyed thinking will recognize this fact and take it into account when considering possible forms of human community and action, of, precisely, political community and action.[19]

The latter, however, is precisely what the contemporary European Union fails to do. It is predicated on a diametrically opposed view of humanity, positing a Humanity that already is, or soon will be, fully integrated, with no significant differences posing real obstacles to its unification. The European Union is the first fruit of this irenic vision, the avatar of a new world order, as member European countries present to the world a new legal-moral order leading inexorably to unprecedented heights of justice and peace. It seeks to be, and to progressively extend, an “empire of law” and “of morality.”[20]

Manent analyzes this vision in its constitutive elements and deems it “an illusion,” a “will o’the wisp” that is bound to break upon the shoals of reality, political, military, and human. Essential political requirements of human coexistence are unmet, even unacknowledged, by this vision, and authentic political action is inhibited by its byzantine and bureaucratic embodiment.

Moreover, democracy itself is torn asunder by the new regime. Instead of a composite of individual rights and collective self-government, of man as an individual and a citizen— the duality that needs to be kept together in liberal democracy—the contemporary EU is a monstrous hybrid of the stifling rule of The Rule, ascendant judges and bureaucrats, and a two-tiered system of dictators and dictated-to’s. It comes as no surprise that the system is kept in place by strictly enforced, politically correct speech that is uttered in two registers: dulcet humanitarian moralism and stentorian denunciations of the reactionary enemies of Humanity. It has some resemblance to the most recent regime of the Lie.

My description, I confess, has lapsed into sarcasm and disdain. I was not, however, simply expressing my own sentiments but echoing Manent’s own. For example, he writes:

Under a flashing neon sign proclaiming “human unity,” contemporary Europeans would have humanity arrest all intellectual or spiritual movement in order to conduct a continual, interminable liturgy of self-adoration.[21]

Ouch. Contemporary European humanitarianism has no need for Socrates or St. Paul. There’s no need to give an account of oneself (logon didonai), because one’s self is already quite adequate. As Manent explains elsewhere, under the regime of absolute respect for human dignity, Europeans are commanded to respect contradictory beliefs, convictions, and lifestyles. Such a moral imperative, however, is contrary to the natural inquisitiveness of the human spirit, which spontaneously wishes to know why a person thinks and believes and acts as she does. In enforcing the endorsement of contradictories, contemporary European humanism is anti-rational: along with Socrates and St. Paul, Aristotle need not apply.[22]

More to the point, this humanitarianism denies what is politically obvious: the significant collective differences that actually articulate and move humanity. While the leadership cadres of the European Union obstinately pursue the utopian dream, powers like China and Russia, India and Pakistan, not to mention Iraq or North Korea, continue their adventures. Of course, underneath the humanitarian veneer lurk the unacknowledged realities of national existence; but these operate in the shadowlands, objects of suspicion, hypocritical dissimulation, and resentful repression. Brexit was a lancing of the festering wound, a puncturing of the historical inevitability of the project. As we absorb the shockwaves from the June 2016 vote of the British people, it is an auspicious time to listen to Manent’s words in favor of the nation-state.


Following Aristotle and Jean Baechler, Manent notes that the nation-state classically consisted of three interconnected “autarkies”:  economic; strategic and diplomatic; and sentimental (that is, the affective allegiance to the nation reigning supreme).[23] Globalization has compromised the first, Pershing’s arrival in 1917 announced the eclipse of the second, and the third exists in attenuated form today, visible in athletic contests, for example, but looked upon with suspicion from above. In short, the classical European nation-state is no more, but exists in much weaker form.

There is a need therefore to assess its weaknesses and to search for sources of strength and renewal. Manent does both. With his philosophical anamnesis of the origins and eventful history of the nation-state, he recalls forgotten virtues and points to untapped resources. A study of its “political genesis” leads to an understanding of its “substance,” and both can serve present-day needs.

As early as 1986, he maintained that the theological-political problem of European princes and peoples—deemed “our theological-political-political problem” to distinguish it from Leo Strauss’s—after the collapse of the Roman Empire was to find a “political form,” a “political regime,” that was neither the city-state nor the empire, and which could coexist with the Catholic Church. Historical hindsight showed that the nation-state was that form, forged by the remarkable historical agent, the absolute, or absolutizing, monarch. To understand these results of history, Manent laid out the form’s comparative advantages vis-à-vis the other two forms—city and empire—and vis-à-vis the supernatural Institution firmly ensconced on earth. All this was a model of political philosophical analysis.[24] Subsequent study and reflection enriched this original understanding.

As often happens, deepening understanding could be presented in distilled, even lapidary, form. In 2010, Manent ventured that “the cause” of the emergence of the nation-state is

the need or desire of human beings to be governed and, preferably, to be well-governed or not too badly governed. The source of European development is the desire or the need for a political order that is at least somewhat reasonable, somewhat coherent. The cause of history is humanity’s political nature.[25]

This natural desire, however, occurred within a specific context:

I must immediately add that this universal human need for order or for good government expresses itself in Europe in a context defined by two specific conditions. The first is obviously the pagan political experience of civic life and of the difficulty or the impossibility of recovering civic life once it has been lost, . . . . The second is the Christian proposition of a human community at once more extensive and [more tightly knit together] than any political community, . . . . In Europe, the human desire to be well-governed is sharpened and complicated by this double condition.[26]

In 2015 he put it most succinctly: “This was, then, the starting point and the principle of European history: to govern oneself in a certain relation to the Christian proposition.”[27] (Emphasis in original.)

Thus, one might say, Aristotle met the Church, the zōon politikón met the imago Dei, and human logos and koinōnía were supernaturally enriched and challenged. What Manent particularly emphasizes is the “indeterminacy” contained in both, a latitude and vocation for human freedom. The European adventure began with the  task of articulating distinct vocations of freedom: one natural, the other supernatural, and the two together. I belabor this beginning, because it defined the European, according to Manent.

What eventually emerged from this Christian-inflected arché was the nation-state. The Aristotelian, “semi-Thomist,” Manent maintains that the nation-state had “substance” and, as such, was “a political form” and a “political body.” It combined “spiritual and material” components, “physical and spiritual aspects.”

The great source of its unity was its chief agent: the enterprising monarch exploiting the latitude of action granted him in the Christian dispensation. He was the agent designated and legitimated to do the work of politics, which is, as noted, “the putting of things in common, or giving form to what a certain number of people have in common.” In fact, “form” in the first instance is “the framework” (cadre), the Whole, within which “a definite circumscription of humanity” leads its life. “The first thing a political order puts in common is a certain territory and a certain population,” Manent writes in Democracy without Nations? (2007). These material components, as well as “meaning” (sens), make up the community of belonging par excellence.

As the animating principle, form involves a specific inner life. Here too Manent lays particular stress on the contributions that the Christian faith made, often indirectly, to the formation of the social imaginary of the peoples and nations of Europe. It critiqued the pride of pagan man even as it offered unprecedented possibilities of human association and communion. The political life of Christians could not but be deeply affected. Manent is particularly keen to note and appreciate that the nation’s social imaginary was something of a golden mean between the city’s “little” and the empire’s “immense.”

The contemporary EU, in contrast, would have its members imaginatively embrace all of humanity, imagined as a virtually united Humanity. This imagination, however, is palpably false and militates against real collective deliberation and action; it requires the strictures of political correctness to be enforced.

Nor, according to Manent, was the nation’s self-image or understanding merely particular or particularizing:

The nation in Europe . . . succeeded in a manner comparable only to the ancient city in realizing the articulation of the particular and the universal. Each great action and each great thought produced by one of our nations was a challenge to and a proposal for the other nations, a proposal by humanity for humanity.[28]

As much as he emphasizes form and what we might call the nation’s social psychology, Manent is far from thinking that it is only those things that constitute the nation. It is also a “political body.” After explaining the Christian king’s essential role in the formation of the nation, Manent precludes a possible misconception:

However addicted to inference and deduction I may appear, I do not intend to deduce the bodies of the European nations from their kingly souls! Innumerable circumstances, both natural and human, contributed to their extraordinary variety. More importantly, the contingent character of their bodies belongs to their essence.[29]

This is not an observer who needs to be told of the constructed character of the nation. Those who only know that about the nation, though, may have something to learn from Manent concerning its nature (and politics in general).

Among other things, this contingent-constructed character of the nation puts the contemporary issue of assimilation in a old-new light. What was once brought together and formed into a viable whole may continue that work today. The Manent epigraph with which I began this essay indicates this essential work of the nation. (Beyond Radical Secularism, which I have written about for Law and Liberty here, is an extended reflection in this vein.)

Of course, previous methods of nation-formation may be inappropriate. Or not. Cardinal Richelieu’s violence in breaking the Huguenots’ “state within the state” is one thing; public education focused upon a common language and its excellent practitioners, another. The latter is the more elevated method because it combines logos and the nation. Manent dilates on the bond first pointed out by Aristotle:

The bond between human association and speech is very tight, but it is not symmetrical; the two terms are not synonymous.  It is not speech that produces the community, but the community that produces and maintains speech. To be sure, there are all sorts of speech and hence all sorts of communities. But all speech finds its first site and primary meaning in the political association, in the City. If human life takes place between prose and poetry, between the prose of the useful and the poetry of the noble and great, it is held together by the mediation of the just, which is the proper work of politics. The political community holds the entire register of speech together and makes it resound.[30]

Learning one’s national language, therefore, is an opportunity to deepen one’s membership in a community of centuries-long standing and to come to terms with essential moments of its history:

Our languages in fact do not send us back principally to an ineffable lost origin or a series of incommunicable experiences, but to a rather intelligible political history, one to which our familiarity with the language gives access.[31]

This capacious familiarity can also temper the twin democratic vices of presentism and pride. As Manent puts it, “Who ever spoke French better than Joan of Arc before her judges?”

The weakening in the instruction and standards of French (or German or English or Italian) is thus a sign and aspect of a more generalized weakening of the nation in Europe today. In the mid-1990s, Switzerland was an ominous example:

I am told that in Switzerland the great “national” languages, especially German, are less and less in use among the young because they have lost their prestige in favor of the local dialect on the one hand and worldwide “English” on the other. The concrete universal of the national-cum-universal language has given way to the sterile juxtaposition of the patois of the “people from here” and the impoverished “brutal” language of people from nowhere.[32]

Curricular or merely cultural solutions, however, are unlikely to succeed:

A national language cannot be preserved and reanimated unless it is the instrument by which the nation proposes something for humanity at large and, first of all, for Europe. It must be an instrument for larger national and political purposes. It cannot merely serve the subpolitical task of promoting commerce and communication.[33]

It is primarily in the political community that men seriously put forth speech that seeks to inform their common deliberation and actions, that may decide war or peace, that involves justice. Speech severed from deliberation and action, especially collective action, loses its raison d’être. This, however, is the case in the Europe of the current European Union, primarily because of the character of the Union itself and the concomitant decline of the representative character of the state. What has happened is that

in the most recent period, the political word (la parole politique) has been progressively freed from all essential relationship to a possible action. The notion of a program, now reduced to that of “promises,” has been discredited.[34]

Manent wrote that in 2013, in Les Métamorphoses de la Cité. He may nuance that judgment today in light of Brexit.


His discourse not only retraces the genesis and moral substance of the nation-state, but also sketches the broad phases of its subsequent adventures in time. As a political philosopher, he pays particular attention to the “political instruments” by which it led its specifically political life. And combining the two foci, moral and instrumental, he is particularly struck by the energy with which it conducted itself, as well as the inventiveness it displayed, so as to meet new challenges and continue its adventure.[35] Sounding a distinctly Péguyan note, Manent writes:

No matter how one interprets it, one cannot but admire the long duration of the European nation-state. . . . most of our nations are recognizable over the course of at least seven or eight centuries. . . . The question then arises: why this long duration, why this continuity across and despite the most enormous transformations and reversals? This is one of history’s most disconcerting enigmas.[36]

Manent himself declines to pursue this particular worldly mystery. But he is fascinated by the eventful pageant that comes into view:

Whatever reason or reasons one comes up with to account for it, one can observe that the European nations, during the course of centuries, knew how to invent new, unprecedented political instruments that would allow the adventure to continue. When the political arrangements, which are also indissolubly social and moral arrangements, seemed to have exhausted their possibilities, . . . Europeans knew how to invent immense and audacious artifices launched as it were like great arches over the ravines of time.[37]

These great artifices were, successively, the modern state and the liberal reform thereof, representative government. Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes help us understand the former, John Locke, the Baron de Montesquieu, and François Guizot, the latter.

Then came the transformative moment: the advent of democracy. Democracy seized hold of these instruments and transformed its host, the nation-state. In turn, democracy received real content—an actual dēmos—from the preexisting nation-state. Here was the great adventure of the 19th and 20th centuries: how would democracy conjoin with what preceded it and made it possible? This was also the period of nation-building, with Germany and Italy providing the most important instances. With the two tracks, one can trace the checkered career of the nation. World War I and World War II, the Cold War and decolonization, the beginnings of the construction of a united Europe, the collapse of Soviet communism—the historical record was eventful and honor is due those who comprehended it while it occurred. Chief among them in Europe was Raymond Aron.

Mentored by Aron, Manent debuted in 1986 with a preface to an anthology of liberal thinkers entitled, Situation de Libéralisme. Ever since then he has tracked the career and condition of the European nation-state. It is in the light provided by the study of political philosophers and political history that Manent analyzes the ongoing “present situation.” His epigrams sometimes distill the analysis. For example:

I would put matters this way: the state is less and less sovereign, and government is less and less representative. The political instruments of the democratic nation are more and more functional-bureaucratic and less and less political.[38]

A chasm has opened: “Our political contrivances are more and more artificial, and each day they recede further from the natural movements of citizens’ souls.”[39] (One does not often hear the term “soul” these days used to describe civic life. Plato and Tocqueville, however, would understand immediately.)

The chief political contrivance, of course, is the European Union, constantly under construction. Here, as we have seen, the political philosopher is most acerbic, because he detects the absence of his object, the political:

Governed by these instruments of governance (not government), European peoples become the instruments of their instruments, the discontented but docile matter of a layering of governances. From local government to the United Nations, these governances have the sole purpose of preventing any individual or collective action that is not the simple application of a rule or regulation authorizing rights. Embracing democratic “values,” we have forgotten the meaning of democracy itself—its political meaning, which is self-government, the self-government of a people. The time of enlightened despotism has returned.[40]


For some time now, opinion polls have shown significant popular discontent with the direction of things in Europe, as proposed and mandated by their elites. (This is even true concerning the pride of the elites, the abolition of the death penalty.) Before Brexit there were efforts by this or that populace to resist the dictates of their masters; the Lisbon Treaty of 2007, for example. Brexit, however, bids fair to be the first successful one. Others may be in the offing.

Therefore, while Pierre Manent already has a considerable audience in Europe, now would be an even more propitious time for the peoples of Europe to listen to the political philosopher who most profoundly has articulated their civic discontents, as well as their civic and patriotic—their national—sentiments. Reading him would refine opinions and enlarge vistas. It would temper unreasonable expectations and point the way to the work to be done. And it would reaffirm for us the vocation of the political philosopher as civic educator, one who is capable of showing us that

Our old nations, it is true, are tired, unwieldly, slow to move, obtuse, and pretentious. But they are also substantial and enduring; they are infinitely precious “condensations” of thoughts and actions; above all, they are the only political entity that we have between us and “the state of nature.”[41]

Weak, estimable, indispensable—Revivre la nation!


[1] Pierre Manent, Democracy without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe, translated and with an introduction by Paul Seaton (ISI Books, 2007), p. 30.

[2] “What we call a nation is the political form proper to Europe, since it was produced by a complex of circumstances and purposes exclusive to it and its American offspring.” (Democracy Without Nations?, 90) The concept of “political form” is a Manentian discovery and contribution to political science. It was hiding in plain sight, but Manent had to come to recognize it. In his 1986 Intellectual History of Liberalism, he used “political regime” and “political form” interchangeably. But subsequent reflection showed him that they needed to be distinguished. The ancient city, the polis, hosted a number of regimes, that is, forms of government, with distinct ends of the community, and a dominant human type as ruler. Similarly, the modern nation knew any number of political regimes, from monarchical to democratic to tyrannical. (A Frenchman would be especially cognizant of this fact.) So, it was necessary to distinguish political form from regime.

This enabled him to see the political and spiritual history of the West in terms of a series of political forms, the city, the empire, the nation, while also including a “wholly new” (tout à fait nouveau) form of community, the Christian church. Later reflections caused him to go back further in history and to emphasize the Greek invention of politics, as a distinctive form of human action (praxis) and community (politikē koinōnía), as well as “the enigma of Rome,” to understand the Sonderweg of Western humanity. See Pierre Manent, The Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic (Princeton University Press, 2013).

[3] On Charles de Gaulle, see “De Gaulle’s Destiny: The Modern Nation as Object of Thought and Action” (unpublished lecture given by Manent in Munich in November 1993); and the Foreword to Daniel J. Mahoney, De Gaulle: Statesmanship, Grandeur, and Modern Democracy (Transaction, 2000). On Péguy, see Pierre Manent, “Charles Péguy: Between Political Faith and Faith,” in Modern Liberty and Its Discontents (Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), edited and translated by Daniel J. Mahoney and Paul Seaton; and Manent’s Foreword to Charles Péguy, Temporal and Eternal, translated and with an introduction by Alexander Dru (Liberty Fund, 2001), ix-xiv. In his Foreword, Manent writes: “The European nation-state is an object of pressing interest for every political animal—that is, for each of us, because it is the political form in which for better or worse we all live. It is indeed a contested and weakening form, but it is still the only real political entity we have.”

[4] “The question of nationalism is clearly an important historical and political question. But unless one is to equate nation with nationalism, it is necessary to know something about the nation before nationalism or independently of it in order to understand what nationalism is. . . . Comparing nationalisms is not enough. If we wish to understand what the nation is, we must compare it to other non-national political forms.” Pierre Manent, A World beyond Politics?: A Defense of the Nation-State (Princeton University Press, 2006), Chapter 4, “The Question of Political Forms,” 43.

[5] Democracy Without Nations?, 102. The passage cited above refers specifically to the “national imagination” but can be applied to the nation as such.

[6] For example, he is forthright in acknowledging that the construction of the nation-state was far from a peaceful endeavor: “Those political and spiritual mergers were no harmonious pageants, no unanimous ceremonies. They involved forceful, and at times violent, measures” (Foreword, Eternal and Temporal, x).

Before one condemns the results because of the means, one would have to compare these means and their results with the contrary means and results of the “the construction of Europe,” that is, the contemporary European Union. The scales would not simply tip to one side. Manent has pointed out the duplicitousness and sometimes dictatorial paternalism of constructivist elites going back to Jean Monnet, but reaching a tipping point with the demand that the Maastricht Treaty be reconsidered (in other words ratified) when it was initially rejected. (See Democracy without Nations?, 34 and Pierre Manent, “Autumn of Nations,” Azure, No. 16, Winter 2004, 32 and  41-42.) The Lisbon Treaty continued this “You must answer as we wish” relationship between elites and recalcitrant populations. Other egregious examples of elite chicanery could be given, including the judiciary.

Manent is also acutely aware of the imperial temptations and endeavors of European nations. Speaking of the Great War, he writes: “[I]ts primary cause undoubtedly lay in the imperial urge, the self-adoration, and the fateful hubris of the major European nations” (“Autumn of Nations,” 37). And casting his net more widely, he notes with irony “how the political imagination of most European nations caught fire at the thought of the endless territories lying beyond the horizon, with their benighted populations waiting to be baptized, civilized, or simply exploited”; and in a subsequent phase, “how, as the nineteenth century was drawing to a close, new imperial ideas of class or race superseded the national imaginations.  Soon nationalist – or rather imperialist Europe – would destroy itself” (Democracy without Nations?, 101). Manent’s is no rosy-colored portrait of the European nation. However, it is not wholly negative either. In this he sets himself apart from many opinion leaders in Europe (cf. Democracy Without Nations?,  31-32).

[7] See Democracy without Nations?, especially pp. 81-84. “The nation provided a concrete context and gave ‘flesh’ to the democratic abstractions of the sovereignty of the people and of the general will” (74). This is a permanent need of democracy because “the democratic principle [of individual consent] does not define the framework within which it operates” (76).

[8] The classical political philosopher, for example, would find that the enormous size of the nation precludes authentic political life, which requires citizens knowing one another well, so as to be able to judge their character and fitness for office. At most, citizens should know each other “at one-remove.” Manent addresses this objection in A World beyond Politics? (45-46). There, he advances the modern inventions of “representative government” and “the extended republic” and its “multiplication of interests” as addressing and obviating natural defects of the Greek polis. Thus he argues that the polis was not the unsurpassable achievement of political life, far from it. Moreover, the nation has comparative advantages vis-à-vis the city. They include its more egalitarian notion of justice, extending (with qualifications) to all human beings, as well as its greater latitude for private life and its pursuits and pleasures. Similarly, “civil society” is an invention and development coterminous with the rise of the nation-state (cf. Situation de Libéralisme, 1986).

Still, it is remarkable how “polis-ized” his articulation of the nation is (at least the city as analyzed by classical philosophers). For example, in Democracy without Nations? he uses the same criteria, freedom and civilization, that Aristotle employs to characterize the Greek achievement of political life, to help define and justify the nation (31). Similarly, Manent follows Aristotle in making justice the defining work of the political community:  “If human life takes place between prose and poetry, between the prose of the useful and the poetry of the noble and great, it is held together by the mediation of the just, which is the proper work of politics” (29). Cf  79-80.

[9] Manent’s Foreword to Temporal and Eternal, x. Even worse, “[t]he Christian nations went so far as to absorb the church, even to the point of transforming the nation into a church” (Democracy without Nations?, 68-69). He is quite forthright: “But we should not confuse the nation with the church” (69).

[10] Pierre Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge, translated by Ralph C. Hancock, Introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney (St. Augustine Press, 2016), 19. I would add that, contrary to what the translator’s note states, Manent does employ the phrase “Christian nation” in his work (for example, in Democracy without Nations?, 52, 68). The note may only be referring to Beyond Radical Secularism; still, the phrase is found there as well, for example on 62, 101, and 102 (“the neutral state and the Christian nation go hand in hand”). In the 2016 work, Manent has France principally in mind, and he specifies that by “a Christian mark” he means “stamped mainly but not exclusively by Catholic Christianity, including also significant Protestant and Jewish elements.”

[11] Beyond Radical Secularism, 113-115; cf. 64-66; 69-72. These condensed, incisive, and provocative passages call for reflection and rumination, as well as critical discernment.

[12] Beyond Radical Secularism, 103ff. He names “the five great spiritual masses that determine the figure of the West . . . Judaism, Islam, Evangelical Protestantism (mainly American), and Catholic Church, and, finally, the ideology of human rights” (103).

[13] The first phrase in the sentence comes from Manent’s essay on Péguy, “Between Political Faith and Faith,” 94. For Aristotle, see Nicomachean Ethics, I, 2, 1094b10-11: “For even if the good is the same for one person and for a city, that of the city appears to be greater, at least, and more complete both to achieve and to preserve; for even if it is achieved for one person that is something to be satisfied with, but for a people or for cities it is something more beautiful (kallion) and more divine (theioteron).” (Joe Sachs translation.) For Luther, see his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520). For contemporary theologians adamantly against the nation-state as an idolatrous simulacrum of the church, see, honoris causa, two works by William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2009) and Migrations of the Holy (Erdmans, 2011).

[14] The following Manent passages and suggestions are essential reading in this regard: “Nothing is more important than to get an effective grip on our centuries-old development.  And that means first of all that we must again become fully aware of the original Christian character of our nations. . . . It is not a matter of remembering our roots! It is a matter of becoming aware of our political genesis and substance (Democracy without Nations?, 102). What does this investigation reveal? “The church is not strictly a political form, but it introduced such a deep reconsideration and recomposition of human association that it would be prudent to include it among the political forms, if only never to lose sight of the part it played in constituting the European political landscape, especially through its role in giving birth to the political form proper – even exclusive – to Europe:  the nation” (95-96). How so? “Through the specific characteristic animating it – that is, through charity – the church goes deeper than the city and further than the empire. The mere notion of charity – love of the neighbor for the love of God – opens up perspectives and possibilities that are enough to reorder the way we look at the human association. … Here is the heart of the matter. The church decisively and definitively changed the way that Europeans looked at the human association, and thus it decisively and definitively transformed the conditions of their political life” (96).

This especially affected that faculty of the soul, the imagination, in its collective bearing: “In this connection I submit this thesis, or rather, hypothesis: this searching for the mean, the circumscribing of the national imagination, presupposed and built upon Christian qualities. … I am not suggesting that charity as a theological virtue directly produced these political effects, only that whether this virtue was effective or not the perspective derived from charity informed the imagination of our forefathers and helped them discover a middle dimension between the little [the city] and the immense [the empire], thus preparing their souls for the nation that was then in formation” (99; italics in the original).

In general, Manent speaks of “the unprecedented possibilities and constraints of the Christian dispensation … and their indirect but no less formative power” on European political development (103); of “spiritual reasons, which have political consequences” (96). In this connection, it is important to distinguish the effects of the unchallenged Catholic Church and those of the Reformed churches. In connection with the latter, Manent is particularly keen to emphasize the “nationalization” of Christianity and the abolition of authoritative mediation in the spiritual life of European peoples.

[15] In 2006, Manent wrote: “And where are we now? We are back to square one, in the sense that we again confront the meaning of the European nation as such, shorn of nationalist or imperialist fantasies and pretensions.” (Democracy without Nations?, 101.)

[16] Speaking expressly as a French Catholic, Manent has written: “Nous appartenons à de vieilles nations chrétiennes dont il est légitime et honorable de vouloir préserver, voire renforcer, la marque chrétienne, non par affection pour nos “racines”, mais parce que c’est ainsi que nous remplirons la responsabilité politique que chacun de nous a à l’egard de son people.  Responsabilité pour le “salut temporal” du people, mysterieusement lié au salut eternal de chacun de nous, comme Péguy l’a ressenti et expliqué de facon inoubliable.”  “Libéralisme et Christianisme” (Le Nef, n. 194, Juin 2008).

[17] Manent is a deft employer of philosophical categories, often classical ones, in his analyses. The following passage displays his adroitness with Aristotelian ones: “To summarize: our forebears had at their disposal three modes of human association, three political forms [city, empire, church] that could neither be reconciled nor made compatible. How did the nation evolve from such a hopeless situation?  How did a nation-based order develop from this chaos? I do not underestimate the role of subpolitical factors – of geography, language, mores, etc.  But these belong to what Aristotle would call “material causes”; as such, they do not give access to the form – to this unprecedented political form. The nation could come into being only through the action of the form itself, of what is the most formal in the form – that is, its unity. The entering wedge of the nation-to be was the Christian king. The European nation came into being through obedience to the Christian king.” Democracy without Nations?, 97. Manent’s consideration and critique of “modern self-consciousness,” The City of Man, translated by Marc A. LePain (Princeton University Press, 1998), is the best extended display of his philosophical acumen.

[18] The reader will appreciate that I am just touching the tip of the iceberg with this formulation. Manent draws heavily from Aristotle in articulating the political. It is a distinct type of human action (praxis, a putting-in-common that effects-the common); it is the type of community (politiké koinonía) that is or aspires to autarky; “the common” involves bringing together material, martial, and moral elements: definite territory and population, a collective sword and shield, and a shared but contestable sense of justice and nobility.

[19] “The requisite morality is simply that of recognizing political reality, which means the objective character of political bodies and, more generally, of human communities. ‘Objective’: that means above all that we think independently of what we hope or fear, believe or imagine.” Democracies without Nations?, 44-45. For Manent, the apocalypse of September 11, 2001 was the following: “We were suddenly recalled to political reality. Whatever their dimensions and other characteristics, human communities are dense, compact, hard to penetrate; each one is endowed with a distinctive perspective on the world.” “But the attacks on New York and Washington revealed the existence of another wall: the mutual impenetrability of human communities, despite the prodigious and ever-growing ease of communications” (28). In short: “present-day humanity is marked by much more profound, much more intractable separations than we had thought” (27). (Emphasis in original.)

[20] “Since we believe that the European Union is the avant-garde of Humanity in the process of its definitive unification, we have no other point of view than that of Humanity itself.” (Democracies without Nations?, 65) For a fuller treatment of Manent’s critique of this humanitarianism, see my “European Dreamin’: Democratic Astigmatism and Its Sources,” in Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Globalization, edited by Lee Trepanier and Khalil M. Habib (University Press of Kentucky, 2011), pp. 305-337.

[21] Democracies without Nations?, 8-9.

[22] A World beyond Politics?, 193-194.

[23] A World beyond Politics?, 51-54.

[24] Manent began by listening to what partisans of the city and the empire said about their forms, then he turned to the facts of history: they tended to belie the claims of the partisans and advocates; hence there was a need for new categories to understand the actual course of history. He structured this new take on things around “nature” and the Church, that is, the intrinsic nature of the form and its relative position ideologically  vis-à-vis the church. To do so he introduces the quintessential philosophical terms “universal” and “particular,” as well as a phrase he learned from Auguste Comte, “statics and dynamics,” that is, the structure and dynamic tendency of the forms. Subsequent analyses of the political form of the nation-state will be even more Aristotelian and Christian (in the sense of recognizing the essential contributions of the Christian proposition to the substance of the nation).

[25] Pierre Manent, Seeing Things Politically: Interviews with Benedicte Delorme-Montini, translated by Ralph C. Hancock, with an Introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney (St. Augustine Press, 2015), p. 116. The French original, Le Regard Politique, appeared in 2010, published by Flammarion.

[26] Ibid., 119. I have altered one word in the translation, étroite. It can mean “narrow,” as Ralph Hancock renders it. But it can also mean “tight,” as in “tightly bound.” In my judgment, the context of the passage and the content of Manent’s thought on the comparison and contrast between the Church and the two political forms requires something other than “narrow,” something closer to “tight.” Manent’s thought is that “charity,” the spiritual well-spring of the Christian communion, was more “extensive” or embracing than whatever assembling of humanity was achieved by the empire and its fraternal bond as sons and daughters of the Father was more intimate and deeper (“tighter”) than what was achieved by civic friendship (philia politiké). “Narrow” does not really convey this chain of thoughts.

[27] Beyond Radical Secularism, 63. “From the time the inhabitants of our continent received the Christian proposition and began to pay attention to it, they found themselves confronted with a two-fold task: they had to govern themselves, and they had to respond to the Christian proposition of a ‘new life,’ henceforth accessible to every person of good will, which consisted in participation in the very life of God.” (62-63)

[28] Democracy without Nations?, 85.

[29] Ibid., 98.

[30] Ibid., 29.

[31] Ibid., 30.

[32] Ibid., 85.

[33] Ibid., 85-6.

[34] Les Métamorphoses de la Cité (Flammarion, 2013), pp. 13-14 (my translation).

[35] “The European nation-state . . . was an extraordinarily audacious endeavor, one that required mobilizing the souls not only of leaders and those who inspired them but also, of all citizens. It was an enterprise unprecedented in intensity and above all in duration, as well as in the variety of its psychic registers, as I alluded to above. The nation-state extended civic life, the condition of ‘living free’—which until then even in the best case had been the privilege of a small number—to associations of countless numbers of human beings. It was a matter of governing immense collectivities of men while leaving them free.” Democracy without Nations?, 31.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., 33.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 40.

[41] Ibid., 84.

Paul Seaton

Paul Seaton is associate professor of philosophy at St. Mary's Seminary and University.

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