Recovering Politics, Civilization, and the Soul: Essays on Pierre Manent and Roger Scruton
By Daniel J. Mahoney.
St. Augustine’s Press, 2022.
Paperback, 160 pages, $20.00
Reviewed by Trevor Shelley.
The prolific author and scholar Daniel J. Mahoney has penned and published another work on the heels of his celebrated, The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation, which won the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s 2023 “Conservative Book of the Year” award. It was thoughtfully reviewed in The University Bookman on Dec. 4, 2022. The latest, Recovering Politics, Civilization, and the Soul: Essays on Pierre Manent and Roger Scruton, can be seen as something of a companion to the former, insofar as both engage in the activity of recovery. Indeed, much of Mahoney’s work is an effort to restore to mind what he previously called, “the conservative foundations of the liberal order”—foundations that our age has in large part forgotten, dismissed, or rejected. Recently retiring from Assumption College where he taught for 35 years, Professor Mahoney has by no means withdrawn from public life or writing—in fact, his output and audience have only increased. His work appears regularly at outlets including, but not limited to, The American Mind, Claremont Review of Books, The New Criterion, Real Clear Politics, Law and Liberty, National Review, The Catholic World Report, and The University Bookman. Mahoney is among the leading public voices defending American principles, and he plays a crucial role in pushing back against what Roger Scruton called the “culture of repudiation”—a trenchant phrase Mahoney is fond of quoting.
As he did in The Statesman as Thinker, Mahoney writes Recovering Politics for a broader reading public to elaborate on his characterization of Scruton, and pairs discussion of the Englishman’s life and work with that of French political philosopher Pierre Manent. Mahoney is among the leading American scholars of Manent’s work and has done much to raise his profile on this side of the Atlantic, having translated and commented on Manent’s extensive and growing body of thought. Anyone who has encountered Manent’s works will recognize that he grants access to both great texts and to the world, as Mahoney notes, and this reviewer shares Mahoney’s sense of “having discovered an exegete, a thinker, a commentator, who would be a guide for many years to come.”
Aptly titled, Recovering Politics, Civilization, and the Soul, Mahoney weaves a compelling thread across eleven chapters, as well as an introduction and “final word,” clarifying why such a recovery is imperative and how both thinkers are illuminating guides in this regard. For, as Mahoney establishes, “both admirably fulfill what Leo Strauss called the highest practical task of political philosophy: to defend sound practice against bad theory.” They stand athwart the pernicious dogmas and doctrines that percolate among contemporary elites and that otherwise circulate in the dominant culture, including the aforementioned spirit of repudiation, the combination of moral fanaticism and relativism, atheism, reductionism, and an effortless cosmopolitanism. By contrast, Manent and Scruton offer affirmation that the Good is supported in the nature of things, that human beings are capable of cultivating and acting according to political reason, and that the integrity of a national community is requisite for virtue and liberty.
The human soul is, Mahoney rightly argues, the very basis for our identity, dignity, and capacity for both thought and action. “To deny it is to deny our access to self-knowledge and a common world.” Indeed, denial of the soul is tantamount to disavowing the sources of civilization, and this dismissal precludes the possibility for authentic political life with others. It is from such nihilistic premises of modern political and philosophical thought that Mahoney’s two volumes offer recovery in the double sense of the word: restoring our often forgotten or negated civilizational inheritance and curing by way of intellectual and moral antidotes what ails our public life today. With a light touch Mahoney’s study conveys weighty insights, illuminating for us what the contemporary political thinker Yuval Levin has called, “taking the long way.” For Mahoney as much as for Scruton and Manent, what is surely needed but sorely lacking are “disciplines of the soul,” which truly are “the basis of liberal society.” In denying the soul, so much of modern political and philosophical thought has likewise jettisoned any sense that individuals must cultivate their moral and political muscles through certain habit and education, which cannot be done in isolation from others as autonomous subjects or without reference to the past and to our patrimony. As Levin writes,
bearing the duties and responsibilities of freedom without being prepared for them poses great dangers, especially the danger of abandoning our liberty in return for security or the passing pleasures and distractions of our abundant age. This danger is avoidable only if we take the long way to liberty, the way that prepares us through the practice of responsibility and through the formation and refinement of our souls.
Mahoney’s extended analysis and case studies demonstrate that the work of both Pierre Manent and Roger Scruton involve taking “the long way,” and in reflecting with them we are aided in preparing ourselves for our own duties and responsibilities regarding freedom.
For Manent, Mahoney writes, “the turning of the soul to the call which is truth,” and so conversion, is “the central act which defines the West as a civilization.” Mahoney recounts Manent’s own twofold conversion, to “an unsentimental Catholicism” and “to a robust form of political reason.” Manent believes there is much to learn from religion, and that Christianity grasps man’s nature and condition; however, he also sees the limits of the faith when it comes to politics. The Gospels do not provide the basis for a political theology. Nevertheless, “liberal freedom needs the guidance of conscience.” Thus, Manent’s thinking keeps certain genuine and experiential tensions alive, and he dwells at the nodes where they meet—in philosophy, religion, and politics—without settling for stark separations or simple syntheses. However, for Manent, it is by way of “political mediation” that we can best weigh and balance the various spheres of life, which in turn is made manifest when the political regime is ensouled in a political body—the latter remaining for us today the modern nation.
Scruton has likewise reflectively defended the national framework as the human, as well as humane, locus for political life. Resisting the contemporary tendency to disparage what is local, familiar, and one’s own—oikophobia, as Scruton dubs it—he underlines the need for citizens to defend their territorial democracy and outlines “the metaphysical grounds of human dignity” in what Mahoney calls “a politics of prudence.” Despite being a victim of numerous public attacks, or what we now call cancel culture, Scruton never failed to express gratitude and offer insights into its “multiple grounds”—“he restores gratitude and grace to their central place in the order of things”—and he continued to provide “thoughtful and spirited resistance to every form of reductive materialism and scientism.” Mahoney defends Scruton from interpreters who claim he was a sophisticated atheist or secularist, and he limns his capacious view of conservatism that faults those who singularly emphasize freedom and thereby fail to speak about “the civilized ends and purposes of human freedom.”
Early in the text, Mahoney suggests that there are important differences between the two thinkers, but that his objective is to attend more to the affinities, of which there are indeed many, as the various essays make evident. In their “largely complementary paths” both men:
clear away the ideological obstacles, so willful and distorting, that obscure the richness (and fragility) of civilized human existence. Against the reigning spirit of repudiation, they recover a horizon of human dignity rooted in gratitude and indebtedness. Man is neither an “autonomous” being nor a helpless plaything of historical and sociological forces. This dual affirmation allows moral and civic agency to be informed by salutary self-criticism, without degenerating into pathological self-loathing.
In the effort of recovery what they share in common and the degree to which they complement one another are arguably more important. Individual readers are invited to explore the works of both, and by way of Mahoney’s fine introduction they may further discover the interesting, if not significant, differences between the two—whether it be the contrasting Kantianism of Scruton (some aspects of which Mahoney expresses passing doubts) to the Aristotelianism of Manent, Scruton’s often aesthetic assessment in comparison to Manent’s political judgment, or any number of other distinctive claims and sensibilities. However, in exploring and comparing the lives and oeuvres of both, one will surely travel well down the road of intellectual and moral recovery, which Mahoney’s work enticingly invites all to do, not least in his most recent book that offers tribute and testament to two scholarly (and personal) friends who not only provide rich accounts of civilization, politics, and the soul, but whose civilized and public lives exemplify a fullness of soul to which all readers may likewise aspire.
Trevor Shelley is an Assistant Teaching Professor and Associate Director at the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. He is author of Globalization and Liberalism: Montesquieu, Tocqueville, and Manent (Notre Dame University Press, 2020), and co-editor of Citizenship and Civic Leadership (Lexington, 2022) and Renewing America’s Civic Compact (Lexington, 2023); he has also written numerous articles and book chapters on various themes in political thought.
 Daniel J. Mahoney, The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation (New York: Encounter Books, 2022).
 See, Daniel J. Mahoney, The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order, (Wilmington: Delaware, 2011).
 Daniel J. Mahoney, Recovering Politics, Civilization, and the Soul: Essays on Pierre Manent and Roger Scruton (South Bend, Indiana: St. Augustine Press, 2022).
 Yuval Levin, “Taking the Long Way: Disciplines of the Soul are the Basis of a Liberal Society,” First Things, Oct. 2014: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/10/taking-the-long-way .
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