Seeing Things Politically: Interviews with Benedicte Delorme-Montini
by Pierre Manent.
St. Augustine’s Press, 2015.
Hardcover, 240 pages, $30.
“Thomists have moralized and depoliticized Aristotle,” French Catholic philosopher Pierre Manent charges in his book, Seeing Things Politically.
Manent is maybe the greatest political philosopher you have not heard of before and should read nonetheless. This Parisian has written several books on political science and intellectual history, from Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy (1996) to Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic (2013), which analyzes the history of political forms after the death of the polis.
Seeing Things Politically, a new philosophical and autobiographical interview series with Bénédicte Delorme-Montini, revolves around Manent’s “three poles of human life”—philosophy, religion, and politics. Topics range from 1968 Paris, his mentor Allan Bloom, and political forms, to whether Neo-Scholasticism can provide a coherent political philosophy (to which Manent answers no). In contrast to an apolitical Thomism, Manent articulates an Aristotelian political science: how we can deliberate and act in common with an understanding of historical political experience.
The teaching of French Thomists like Etienne Gilson drew a youthful Manent. But encountering Leo Strauss through Bloom divided Manent between philosophical inquiry and revelation. Contrary to Aquinas’s example, a Straussian argues, “the way of philosophy and the way of religion are two self-sufficient ways that cannot be joined.” Manent still navigates between religion and philosophy, searching for an impartial reference point to see political things.
Twentieth-century Thomists, Manent says, used “the least political parts” of Aristotle’s Politics, mainly analyzing his discussion on the natural family but ignoring almost everything else. Even Jacques Maritain stopped following the monarchist Charles Maurras to support democracy without ever “changing his Thomism.” French Thomist doctrine, Manent explains, “was independent of political experience and analysis.” They fully use Aristotelian metaphysics and moral virtues, but forgo his political virtues and regime experience, “even though this experience was at the heart of Aristotle’s work.”
Manent seeks a political science of the common, a sphere of human action unique to the west in which politics is “opened toward a future that depends upon us.” Accordingly, Manent upholds the ancients and moderns. By contrasting ancient city constitutions, Plato and Aristotle provide “a science of deliberation” for actors of any regime. Likewise, moderns before the French Revolution (like Machiavelli, Montesquieu, and Publius) and after (like Benjamin Constant, François Guizot, and Tocqueville) follow Machiavelli’s formula: “the reading of ancient things, and the experience of modern things.”
Yet when comparing monarchy and democracy in De Regno, Aquinas defends singular rule without any experiential reasoning from specific historical examples. Despite its metaphysics and moral principles, Manent writes, this Thomist “school has been shaped by its lack of any living connection with political experience; it looks at political experience ‘from above.’”
One can understand better why Manent criticizes Thomism when considering why he rejects the Straussian view of the philosopher. Bloom envisioned the philosopher who, in fully comprehending human nature and the city, forgoes any attachments to city life. Such philosophers, as Manent explains, “would not have been able to discern and distinguish the role of thumos in human life if their souls had remained prey to thumos, if they had not entirely overcome it.” To which Manent says: “I don’t buy it.” The Straussian philosopher depoliticizes the philosopher and, like the Thomist Aristotle, does not account for an essential part of human life.
Yet Manent asks, “Why, finally, would the Greeks not be enough for us?” His answer is Psalm 139:15—“My bones were not hidden from you when I was made in secret, skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth.” He says the Bible, especially the Psalms with a narrator king naked before the eyes of God, is an example of human experience fully attested and God revealed as fully present.
Another example is Aniouta Fumet, who ran a French salon with her husband, Stanislas Fumet, a man of letters. This Catholic couple provided Manent with a literary home during the years around 1968. While “angels and saints filled her most ordinary conversation,” Aniouta “covered the whole spectrum of religious life and of profane life as naturally as can be.” The Fumets saw the other world present in this one and gave full justice to both.
This introduction to Manent reveals a philosopher of the city. Yet when “seeing things politically,” Manent tends to look beyond it.
Ryan Shinkel is a senior at the University of Michigan and will be a Spring 2016 Fellow at the John Jay Institute in Philadelphia.