Who Is Pierre Manent?

One of the world’s greatest living political philosophers reflects on his intellectual formation, and how he sees Europe, Israel, and America today.


Pierre Manent on June 5, 2014 in Paris. Manuel Braun/Contour by Getty Images.
Pierre Manent on June 5, 2014 in Paris. Manuel Braun/Contour by Getty Images.
Observation
Dec. 15 2022
About the authors

Pierre Manent is the author of more than ten books and dozens of essays on political philosophy, and public affairs in Europe. From 1992 until his retirement in 2015, Manent was director of studies of the Centre d’études sociologiques et politiques at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris.

Jonathan Silver is the editor of Mosaic.

Recently, Mosaic’s editor Jonathan Silver sat down for a conversation with the distinguished political philosopher Pierre Manent. The two discussed Manent’s intellectual and moral influences, Manent’s assessment of Europe’s prospects, Israel and Judaism, and what surprises him about American culture now. A new volume his essays and excerpts, The Religion of Humanity: The Illusion of Our Times, will be published later this month.

This conversation has been lightly edited.

Formation

 

Jonathan Silver:

Tell us about your origins and your earliest influences.

Pierre Manent:

I came from Toulouse, a city in the south of France. It was a big city, where I had my education until the age of nineteen, when I came to Paris, to the École Normale Supérieure. I was born into a Communist family, where I got my first political education. And in my school, the typical French Lycée, I got my classical education, and I also encountered Christianity, which would become my religion, my faith. After my Baccalauréat, I studied in the classes préparatoires, where you prepare yourself for the École Normale Supérieure. They had a teacher who was a Thomist philosopher.

Jonathan Silver:

Not a Communist then?

Pierre Manent:

No, no, no. The opposite. And he introduced me to St. Thomas Aquinas’s thought, and more generally to Catholic and Christian perspectives. So, it was the beginning of my becoming Christian and Catholic.

Jonathan Silver:

Approximately how old were you when you first encountered the Thomist tradition?

Pierre Manent:

At the time, I was between seventeen and nineteen.

Jonathan Silver:

Please tell our readers what comprises a Lycée education? What is a classical education, and what is it for?

Pierre Manent:

I would say that the emphasis in my education was on French, French literature, the French language, but also on mathematics and the classical languages, that is, Latin and Greek. And so it was a rather serious education, I must say. It was very exacting. But it was a pleasant period for me. I suppose we accepted, at the time, the discipline of education more than people do these days. But I won’t complain.

Jonathan Silver:

And at that time did you sense that the politics and the religion of your home life, Communism, were in tension with or compatible with your education? And how did you think of it in relation to your dawning Catholic devotion?

Pierre Manent:

The tension arose when I started to become more and more critical of Communism. Also, of course, when I opened myself to religion, which was off limits for my father, who was a convinced atheist, but who nevertheless was never angry at me. He was sad, but not angry. So, it went well with him and my family, although there were tensions, of course.

Jonathan Silver:

And can you say if anything in particular was calling you to the Catholic faith? Tell us about your conversion.

Pierre Manent:

Oh, it’s a long story, and it’s not really easy to narrate, because, first of all, it was mostly intellectual. I discovered that religion was not simply imagination or a flight of fancy or superstition. That there was a whole world of thought and feeling. So, it was first like the discovery of a foreign country, and I had to find my way.

As for becoming a Christian, the conversion itself—that took a few more years. When in Paris I met some very nice and settled and humane people from the circle of Jacques Maritain, a famous French Thomistic philosopher who was one of the theorists of neo-vitalism and an influential personality. And so I met people from his circle, because he was much older, of course, than I was. And then I made my way into the Catholic Church, around the age of twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two.

Jonathan Silver:

Now, there are many different motivations that bring someone to the Catholic Church. And one of them is a reaction to the instability of the ambient culture. One feels that the political foundations are crumbling, and in a world of chaos, this sort of convert seeks the order that the church offers. Did politics and culture have anything to do with your becoming Catholic? Or, when you say that it was due to your being an intellectual, do you mean something more metaphysical by that?

Pierre Manent:

It’s a very interesting question. Yes, of course. In some sense, Thomism as a philosophy and theology is attractive to people who are troubled or unhappy with the disorder of the world because it offers a complete and satisfactory ordered view of the world and human life. And certainly, that was part of the attraction it exerted on me.

But I would say I did not stop there. My religious choice was not only a matter of reacting against the disorder of the world and finding order in the Catholic Church, if only because, at the time, the Catholic Church was itself full of turmoil. And this turmoil never ceased after that, because the church in the 20th century, and most of all after the Second Vatican Council, was not really a safe and ordered harbor. So, I think I went beyond this aspiration to order. And I suppose, I hope, that I entered into the heart of the faith, which of course is the relation with God, the Creator, that is proper to the Christian religion.

 

Teachers

 

Jonathan Silver:

I want to talk about your political formation, as well as your religious formation. And here, I should like you to introduce our readers to Raymond Aron. Tell us who he was in the context of the cold war, French politics, and French liberalism.

Pierre Manent:

What your readers should know about the French political moods, if I may say so, is that from the French Revolution, or even from the 18th century, onward the drift of the French spirit is towards the left, in a certain sense. The center of gravity—not always of the body politic, but of the intellectual class—is towards the left and sometimes towards the extreme left. That tendency was particularly pronounced after the Second World War because the country was very much impressed by the victory of the Red Army over Nazi Germany. And of course, a good part of the right was discredited by its complacent or feeble response to the extreme right, and even complicity with it. And some figures on the right were discredited by straightforward collaboration with Germany. Although, I must stress that many of the collaborators, in the narrow sense, were not specifically from the right. Many of them came out of pacifism, or even leftwing pacifism.

But the right, or the extreme right, was friendly or complacent toward Marshal Philippe Pétain, who was the head of the French state during the war and who accepted the policy of collaboration with Germany. So, after the war, the right was discredited, the left conveniently forgot the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and of course the Communists and the fellow travelers were on the ascendancy.

During this time, many intellectuals, a good part of the university, was Communist or friendly to the Communists. It was in this context that Raymond Aron took his stand. His whole life, he was sober, never furious. He always kept his equilibrium. But he was a very firm, entrenched critic of Communism and its illusions. And not only of Communism as a political movement and as a political regime, but also of the intellectual drift that pushed non-Communists to be friendly or complacent toward Communism—what we called compagnons de route, fellow travelers.

Aron was a very incisive critic of the illusions of the left, and of the intellectual class. And he was, in some sense, expelled from the respectable intellectual class for much of his life. And he took this situation with an incredible tranquility of mind. Aron taught me that it was possible to live honorably without embracing, indeed, while actively opposing, your environment, your friends, and the people with whom you have studied and lived. He was a model of intellectual clarity and moral and political courage.

Aron introduced me to the seriousness of politics. When you are young, and even when you are no longer young, you think you have politics on one side and ethics on the other side, and politics is the analytical part of life. Aron was aware of the analytical parts of politics, but he also was keenly aware of what is moral in the realm of political action. There is a morality proper to politics, and making the right choices in politics with full awareness of the political stakes is one of the most important parts of a moral life.

Jonathan Silver:

Perhaps you could say a word to fill in the substantive grounds on which he mounted his critique of Communism. The inescapably moral dimension of politics is not incidental to that critique.

Pierre Manent:

No, it isn’t. One of the main things that repelled Aron in Communism was the lie—the enormous part that lying played in the Communist regime. People today speak about fake news and alternate truth, or the divided truth, or whatever. But Communism, in some sense, is a huge, enormous lie. And Aron felt keenly what Solzhenitsyn would say at the same time (although we in the West did not become aware of Solzhenitsyn until later): that the beginning and the basis of opposition to Communism was the will not to live by the lie, to refuse to live by lying and through lying. So, that was the ethical or moral heart of Aron’s opposition to Communism.

Jonathan Silver:

He was of course not only a cold-war critic of Communism. We should perhaps say that Raymond Aron was a professor and editor and the author of dozens of books on everything from Max Weber to Clausewitz to the conditions of war and peace and many such subjects.

Pierre Manent:

Yes. And he commented on political life as a journalist, a columnist. As a teacher and as a columnist, as a public figure, he had a huge place in French political and public intellectual life. But at the same time, he was always on the margins of the intellectual class. It was only at the end of his life that he received public acknowledgement. Only later did people finally consider that, well, Aron had been right. And you could say that on his behalf. Often reluctantly, many people had to acknowledge in the end that, yes, Aron was right.

Jonathan Silver:

In this respect, your work parallels that of Aron. For you too write about figures from the history of ideas and offer analyses of, one could say, the history of political philosophy. And you also comment on the culture and what’s happening in Europe and France.

Pierre Manent:

Yes, but I must add that I am much less active and competent than Aron was when it comes to commenting upon current political life. Aron, for 30 years or more, wrote two articles a week about politics, which I never did. So, I have more books than Aron. Although Aron read and wrote many books, I am more of a teacher—more exclusively a teacher—than Aron was. But it is true that, from time to time, I write something about the main political stakes in my country and Europe and the world.

Jonathan Silver:

You worked for and, to use an old-fashioned word, served as a kind of apprentice to him. What did you do for Raymond Aron? What did you learn from him?

Pierre Manent:

Officially, I had the position of his assistant. But in fact, I did not assist him very much. I was kind of his companion in conversation. I spent a lot of that time on my own work.

As for what I took away from my time with Aron, and from his example: part of the answer is what I said about the possibility of independence, of not sharing the silliness and aberrations of your contemporaries. Second, I learned the nobility and morality of politics, and the gravity of political choices—that choosing badly was a bad action, or an evil action. Taking political choices seriously was one lesson.

And of course, as a teacher, as a writer of books, he taught me many things through his books about the history of sociology, about Clausewitz, about strategic questions, and so on. He made up part of my political education.

Jonathan Silver:

Earlier you characterized Aron by his equilibrium, which I would say is a reflection on his temperament. Let me ask you about equanimity and judgment—not how Aron learned those things, but instead how a person today can come to acquire the sensibility that Aron demonstrates for us and that you yourself have tried to exemplify in your own writing. How would you recommend that a young person learn prudence?

Pierre Manent:

That’s a very good question. And the Socratic philosophers ask the same question: can you learn virtue and prudence, in the full sense of the term? It’s one of the most difficult virtues to learn because you can learn courage through exercising it yourself. Temperance too. Justice is more difficult, and prudence is most difficult of all because prudence is, as Aristotle says, the crown of the virtues. And in some sense, you need to be prudent. You need to have a part of all the other virtues, and be prudent in addition. I would not volunteer to teach prudence as such to people, because you can only teach it by showing examples of prudent decisions.

Jonathan Silver:

That would suggest that history is the school of prudence, the study of wise and foolish decisions and what came of them.

Pierre Manent:

Yes. I think that studying statesmen, ancient or modern—Greek and Roman, then European and American—would be the best way to teach people about the meaning of prudence.

Leo Strauss, who played a big role in my philosophical education, recommended that we read Churchill to learn what prudence is. Churchill was, at one and the same time, both a magnanimous and a prudent statesman. And I think Strauss was right.

I would add that reading the ancients, Thucydides, Plutarch, and Aristotle, helps us understand the political virtues. Strauss has a very good line where he says that when he was young, he did not understand what Aristotle said about magnanimity or prudence. Then Churchill appeared. And at once, he understood what it meant. You have to read to understand the prudent man, because it’s not always easy to discern who is truly prudent and who is not.

Jonathan Silver:

In some ways, the very act of attempting to discern prudence is itself a way to learn prudence.

Pierre Manent:

Yes, certainly.

Jonathan Silver:

You’ve now brought up Leo Strauss, which is another element that I wanted to ask you about in your own formation. We’ve spoken some about your religious formation, your political formation. I should now like to ask you about your philosophical formation. And you’ve already introduced us to Thomism and Catholic thought. Maybe you could say a few words about Strauss, a writer that perhaps more Mosaic readers will be familiar with because of his own penetrating writing about the Jewish condition.

But maybe you can say something about what you learned from Strauss, what you take from him, and where you’ve left him and parted ways from his analysis.

Pierre Manent:

I learned from Strauss at least two things, two very important things. First, how to read. He taught his readers and listeners to read the philosophers and understand the art of philosophical writing. This was part of my education. I was attracted to authors like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, and Leo Strauss was a master when it came to unlocking how these authors wrote, what he called the ancient art of writing. He became very famous for this manner of interpretation, and also he was reviled for it by many as a dreamer or even a conspiratorialist.

When applied to my own reading, I found his method very convincing. And even more important than that, Strauss helped to free me from the power of modern philosophy. And modern philosophy means modern politics and the modern mind.

Because one of the strengths of modernity, of the modern mind, and of modern philosophy is that it produces the feeling that it is irreversible. At work in the modern dispensation is a sense of philosophical necessity: a demand that you believe in the newness of modernity as something that evolves inevitably out of the past and is by definition superior to it. That beginning with Descartes, or some genius, a ray of truth has shone through the darkness to enlighten mankind. Leo Strauss very deftly exposed the limitations of modern thought and made you understand that ancient philosophy was a possibility, that the mind was truly free, that you are not a slave of your time, that you are not forced to think and to feel just like your contemporaries. You can accept ancient ideas even if you live in modern times. The mind was truly free. You are not forced to think certain thoughts just because you are born into a certain age.

Strauss explains that there are alternatives available—that you can find your own way between the ancients and the moderns, and between philosophy and religion. These are the two great dichotomies to which Leo Strauss drew our attention: ancients versus moderns, and Athens versus Jerusalem—that is, philosophy versus revealed religion. With Strauss, I faced the heart of my torments. He was my constant companion for, I will say, twenty years, because I felt that he gave the clearest and most powerful expression to my own preoccupations.

Jonathan Silver:

Careful readers of Strauss tend to notice that some of the questions that gave him pause about the viability of liberalism and modernity are connected to the Jewish experience. Politically, in the failure of liberalism and modernity to deal with the Jewish question in Europe, and intellectually in the inability of modernity to take seriously the prospect of commandedness in history that is the Jewish experience from Moses onward. How did you encounter those concerns as a Catholic reader?

Pierre Manent:

It was not at all off-putting. It was attractive to me. It was attractive to me because of course, when Strauss says “Jerusalem,” he was not saying something foreign to me. As a Christian I felt that when he says Jerusalem, I felt authorized to think of Jerusalem and Christianity. Of course, I knew that for him, Jerusalem meant Jerusalem, and not the church or Christianity. But the church understands itself as intrinsically tied to Jewish revelation. And so also what he said about the relation of the Jewish question to modern liberalism, analogically, I felt the same in the tension between Christianity—and specifically the Catholic Church—and modern liberalism.

The modern liberal state could not do justice to the complete Jewish experience. On the Christian side the logic of modern politics tended toward the expulsion of religion from the center of society and human life. So even before I took a serious interest in the Jewish experience and Jewish thought, I could sympathize with Strauss’s experience of the tension between the modern dispensation and the Jewish experience.

 

Europe

 

Jonathan Silver:

We have come to know a little bit about you and your formation, and now I would like to talk about your diagnosis of European nations and the European project. I want to discuss what you call “the religion of humanity,” which you describe as a grand delusion.

But for us to understand what the religion of humanity is, and why you believe it’s a delusion, perhaps first we need to understand the grammar of your political thought, the elemental building blocks that help you analyze politics. And I think the best way into that discussion is to have you articulate and explain the idea of political forms and how they emerge out of the human condition.

Pierre Manent:

I would be hard pressed to explain how they emerge from the human condition. But you observe them. You observe that you have two great political forms that shape human association. And that is, on the one hand, the city, of which the Greek cities were the example par excellence, and the empire on the other. That is, you have one form which entails a concentrated body politic that is small and very densely occupied and also has an active civic body. And on the contrary, a polity bent on indefinite territorial expansion. So these are, in some sense, the twin aspirations of the human species when it comes to politics: one is the drive for concentration, homogeneity, and intimacy of association, the other for imperial expansion. You see that the ancient world provides the fundamental alternatives, city and empire. Rome became an empire, and the cities of Greece were overwhelmed by Phillip’s Macedonian empire.

That’s why it is so interesting that in the case of Europe, it was neither the city nor the empire that prevailed. Of course, you had many beautiful and strong cities. Think of the cities of Italy, the city of Lombardi, or the cities of the Hanseatic League around the Baltic and North Sea. And also you have empires, heirs to the Roman empire. But it was another form that prevailed, which is the nation.

And so I think human history or Western history has articulated these political forms: city, empire, then the nation. The political destinies of the Western world are tied to the political destinies of the nation, the national form. This has now been the case for the last 30 or 40 years, I would say.

The national state in Europe has lost its legitimacy and internal strength. In its place a different idea has prevailed, and that is that the only legitimate and viable political association is an association without attachment to some particular people, but a mode of association which was open to, in some sense, the whole world—what the ancients called a cosmopolis. Cosmopolitanism is thus the horizon of modern policy. And as far as my own intellectual life goes, this is my fight. I oppose the possibility, legitimacy, and goodness of the cosmopolitan state.

It’s not really a serious and viable, or useful, or good possibility. Instead, I defend the national state, not unaware of its shortcomings and even potential vices, but because human destinies require loyalty to a particular people. Not blind loyalty, not loyalty leading to crime, but serious loyalty. And of course, in the case of the universal, you never lose sight of the unity of mankind, of what people like to call the universal. But your attachment to humankind, to the good of humankind is superficial, I would say, and ideological, and I would even say it is in some sense a lie.

Jonathan Silver:

You see, this is how I was imagining you might construct the argument out of the human condition: mankind requires, for its wellbeing, a receptacle for the loyalty which is natural for us to express. And the national form is the proper receptacle of political loyalty.

Incidentally, you derive the emergence of the national form with reference to classical antiquity, which of course makes sense. But let me put before you an alternative genealogy and see what you make of it.

There is a biblical articulation of the nation as well. It emerges on the one hand, as an alternative to the great empires of Assyria, and Babylon, and Egypt; and on the other, it is an alternative to the instability which emerges out of the warring tribes, not cities in this case, but the warring tribes of ancient Mesopotamia and the land of Canaan. And the political theory of the Hebrew Bible begins from the Jewish nation’s struggle to articulate a form that on the one hand has more stability than the anarchy of the tribes, and on the other hand avoids the idolatry of the empire.

Pierre Manent:

Yes, this is a perfectly defensible view, and I agree with this perspective. By the way, in my book on Pascal, I have a few pages about what Christians call the Old Testament, and I stress the political aspects of the Jewish scriptures. But Thomas Aquinas would agree with you, because when he speaks about the mixed regime, he mainly gives examples from the Greek and Romans, but he also cites Jewish history. So the two genealogies are compatible. And by the way, as you well know, for European nations, the model of the Jewish people and the Davidic monarchy at times played a very big role in their self-conception and development.

Jonathan Silver:

Now, in light of all this, what is the religion of humanity, and what’s wrong with it?

Pierre Manent:

Humanity, as such, does not exist. Millions and millions of people exist, but they do so as members of political bodies. Humanity does not constitute a community. Even the organization of the United Nations is just that, an organization of nations. It’s not the organization of mankind. Some people dream of making the UN the governing body of a global state, but of course it’s not that. It depends on the nations that make it work.

Jonathan Silver:

You mean to emphasize that the UN is a forum for sovereign nations, not itself a sovereign body?

Pierre Manent:

Yes, it’s a place where the nations meet, a building in New York. It suggests the idea of a global or world state, but it is not that.

And a world state, if it were possible, would be a tyranny because, of course, the distance between the head, the summit, and the base of the political body would be such that it could only rule through tyranny. So it’s not really a real possibility.

And moreover, what the experience of humanity, of mankind teaches, is that to get a full education, you have to live in a deeply united, articulated community. Because to learn humanity, to learn what makes man a man, you have to share many things with your brothers.

So common educations need a political structure, which is built upon common experiences, common life, common language, common references. And, to be fully deployed, human nature needs these institutions simply to exist. The creations of humanity are all mediated through specific nations. The geniuses of humanity are mediators, are educated through their own nation’s languages, down to Goethe or Shakespeare and Plato—you cannot of think of them without thinking about what they share with specific communities and people.

Jonathan Silver:

It seems to me that here, the historical experience of the Jewish people provides an illustration. The Jewish people throughout history have been a rebuke to the idea that one can access humanity in an unmediated way. This is especially true in the diaspora, where Jewish communities refused to be melted into, and quite often could not be melted into, a common imperial or national political framework. The nations did not altogether want them, and they refused to melt into the nations altogether. The Jewish people insisted upon their own particularity in politics and culture and above all else, in their religious obligations.

Pierre Manent:

Oh, yes. And in some sense, the Jewish people is the most impressive example of the solidity of and durability and irreducibility of a people. I would say that, when you look at this history of the Jewish people, you see that of course it’s a people, an exemplar of a people. But this is a paradox because at the same time the Jewish people cannot be an exemplar. So singular in its durability and the impossibility of its being fully absorbed into something other, it remains unique, I would say. The Jewish people is what people call a hapax—something without analogue. The Jews constitute a people, certainly, in some sense a people like other peoples, but they are also a people like no other people, because their experience is so singular.

Jonathan Silver:

And that paradox is expressed in the history of Zionism, too. The people that is both an example of a nation and a nation unlike any other has, since 1948, achieved and defended a political expression and a national home of its own. Israel, it seems to me, is in this sense a perfect reflection of this national paradox. But I want to defer our discussion of Israel and stay in Europe for a while longer.

When I first encountered your work, and when your main efforts to explain and defend nationalism appeared in English, we were in the midst of a very different political moment. At the time—in the late 90s and early 2000s—the nationalism debates seemed to be bound up with the relativism and multiculturalism debates, perhaps even in a sense with the exhaustion of those debates.

The current moment is a very different one. At that time, you offered up the national form as an answer to the question of multiculturalism. For this very reason, it was understood to be naturally compatible with liberalism, and in fact the nation was a natural vessel of liberalism. Now, that premise is contested. In our political moment, nationalism is a proposed as an answer to the problem of liberalism itself.

Pierre Manent:

In a few words, I think that’s a problem of European states, perhaps it’s also the case in America, but mainly in Europe. There’s been a divorce between the two components of the modern regime.

The modern regime is composed of the state as the keeper and guarantor of human rights. The state protects and warrants the equality of human rights, on one hand. And on the other hand, the modern regime is constituted by representative government, these organizations through which the body politic invents itself. And what developed in the last period is the divorcing of the two, the withering of the representative government, and the ascendancy of the state as keeper of rights.

As a result, the horizon of the citizen was no longer through the workings of the representative government, of the people governing itself, but through the state as the keeper of the equality of human rights.

Take this possibility to its next evolution. You even can imagine the disappearance of representative government altogether, and a host of jurisdictions handling human rights as they understand them. This is the vanguard view of the European governing class, who dream of a politics completely divorced from the people. European countries now find themselves in this situation where the class supposed to govern them no longer understands itself as an instrument of a truly political body, that is, an expression of the representative government. They aspire to be the promoters of a new humanity, a new political humanity built only upon human rights.

Jonathan Silver:

They wish to glide serenely above politics.

Pierre Manent:

Yes, the dream is to lead the people even though politics is abolished: abolishing political bodies, abolishing representative government. Of course, you keep some sort of hypothetical government, but the legitimacy has deserted the representative government, and legitimacy concentrates in the state as the keeper of human rights.

Jonathan Silver:

Should we understand Brexit, and the popularity of Zemmour and Orban and other political figures like that as the reassertion of nationalism, and as a reaction to the dream of government without politics?

Pierre Manent:

Yes. It’s certainly a reaction to that. The difference between this nationalism and the nationalism before World War II is that the nationalisms before World War II were aggressive and imperialist. While today, these nationalisms are defensive, I would say.

Jonathan Silver:

Let me raise another question in the European context, this time about another group that dwells in European nations and that refuses or is reluctant to assimilate. How do you analyze the political presence of Muslims living in Europe, and how it relates to the national civic forms that we’ve been talking about?

Pierre Manent:

The European nations, when they developed, of course, tended to expand their borders. And in some sense you cannot separate nationalism from some sort of imperialism when the nations are growing in strength. At some point—at the end of the 19th century and for part of the 20th—European nations ruled the world. After that, as you well know, the empire receded; Caesar disappeared.

And we thought at some point that we could just stay within the limits of our nation. In the case of France, after we left Algeria De Gaulle thought, I suppose, that now we had gotten rid of this inassimilable colony and France could be itself, could be independent. And strangely, some of the populations that we could no longer rule as colonial subjects decided to come to our shores.

After the military and political colonization of the Arab world by the Europeans, we have now a counter-movement of Arab Muslim populations coming to our shores. It is not a counter-colonization, exactly, but we are at a historical moment between going forward and retreating. Europeans do not know how to handle this situation, because they have not been able to say, “Well, now we have retreated within our borders, and we will safeguard these borders.”

In the years after Algeria got her independence, the French began to renounce their full independence. Because Charles De Gaulle was leading the country, that didn’t seem possible, so it went unnoticed. But it quickly became evident that we were tired of our independence. And so our idea of expansion, our idea of a thing greater than we were, took hold again of our mind and heart. But it was no longer our empire, it was the European Union, and we felt that we could expand through Europe.

But of course that was an illusion, and indulging in this illusion led us to abandon our national independence. We disarmed and thought we need no longer defend our borders. We accepted immigration, not with enthusiasm, but not knowing what else to do, and not finding in our heart or mind strong reasons to say no. So now we are here. It’s too late in some sense to put up a serious defense. I hope we can put up some limits on what’s happening, but I’m not sure we can.

Jonathan Silver:

If Europe cannot summon the will to defend itself, if it no longer has the confidence that it is something that is worthy of defense, then what is it? What is Europe now, would you say?

Pierre Manent:

Europe lives off its past victories and domination, due to which it still has some standing in the world, but at the same time it wants to forget this history. So it’s the reign of reputation.

Jonathan Silver:

Let’s focus this part of the discussion by seeing it through a more practical angle of vision. There was a time, maybe fifteen or twenty years ago, when the discussion of the moment was whether the frontiers of Europe extend into Turkey, and whether Turkey should join the EU. And those who were skeptical about Turkey’s accession into the European Union argued that it was a fundamentally different political culture. It’s just not the same as Europe.

In light of what’s happened in Turkey over the years, that criticism has turned out to have been warranted. Turkey operates on a different civilizational basis than Europe. But the question is, compared to that, what is the basis of Europe’s civilization now?

Pierre Manent:

I think that it’s evident for everybody that Turkey will not join Europe. But Turkey has become a mighty partner. And I suppose that, although it is not part of the organization of the European Union, it is a protagonist in the European political situation. You see, Europe is a zone of low pressure.

Jonathan Silver:

What does that mean?

Pierre Manent:

All of Europe is like an area of low atmospheric pressure. We are ceding to everything that comes to us. We are a pushover.

 

Israel

 

Jonathan Silver:

Let’s now discuss Israel, contemporary Israel, beginning with its relation to Europe and the European imagination. For certain figures leading the response to cosmopolitanism who want to reassert the dignity of the national form in Europe, Israel is often seen as an example. And by the way, sometimes the very people who imagine Israel as an example also harbor ferociously anti-Jewish attitudes. But even so, do you see Israel as an example that might instruct European nationalism?

Pierre Manent:

It’s very difficult to answer. In a sense, the answer is yes, because Israel defends itself and Israel feels itself to have legitimacy, to have the right to defend itself. And for Europeans who do not think they have the right to defend themselves, it can be a model or reference or an inspiration.

At the same time, everybody understands that Israel is not like other European nations. That there is something unique to it. And part of its legitimacy in the eyes of Europeans is the fact that you cannot understand present-day Israel without reference to the fate of the Jewish people and the destruction of European Jewry.

I think that in the consciousness of Europe, the superior legitimacy of the Jewish nation of Israel as a political body is due to the Shoah. The Shoah warrants Israel’s self-confidence and no European nation feels itself able to claim that moral right.

Jonathan Silver:

On this point, may I say that I have always thought that Europeans exaggerate the relation of Israel to the Holocaust. They exaggerate because it is a way for Europeans to atone for their own guilt. But that is not the way that Zionist history presents itself.

Pierre Manent:

Certainly, certainly. I understand that. But Israel is in some sense built on the model of the European state, yet in another sense it is freed from Europe. It’s impossible to disentangle the proximity and distance—the proximity of our nations to Israel and the distance because of the specificity of Jewish destiny. I would not risk a few quick expressions to capture this situation.

Jonathan Silver:

How do you see the future of Europe’s relations with Israel?

Pierre Manent:

I hope they will not continue to deteriorate, but I would not bet on it because the religion of humanity has deeply penetrated all sectors of European opinion. And the majority of Europeans, I would say, feel that they have neither the force, the strength, nor the right to defend themselves. They feel that they must open themselves to the world, and that there is no future if you put yourself in a defensive position.

And so, as I began to say a few minutes ago, whether it is by the Americans, whether it is by Russia, whether it is by Turkey, whether it is by Muslim populations or African population from the south, Europe lets herself get pushed around. It’s incredible to observe how much Europe lets itself be pushed around.

Jonathan Silver:

The barometer that one can use to observe this phenomenon most clearly has to do with European defense policy and the willingness to accept a truth that I believe Israelis have accepted, which is that soft power is good, and diplomacy is good, and multilateral institutions and agreements are good—but the only way to defend oneself is with muscle and steel. And unless one is willing to erect that kind of security architecture, one betrays a lack of self-regard.

Pierre Manent:

Yes. Europe has gone beyond the point where she would still be capable of building strength in muscle and steel. I really think that. I don’t know what will happen in the coming years, but I do not see how we are disposed to mount that kind of defense, having done what we have done these last 40 years. I do not see how we could bring ourselves to muster the necessary political resolution, to build up the necessary military instruments and be ready to use those instruments.

It’s a very, very strange situation because Europe is still full of wealth and capacities and talents and technical capabilities. But the Europeans do not want to defend what they love. They do not love themselves. Or at the very least, they do not want to defend themselves.

That is a very strange development in the history of the world. It is a refusal to defend ourselves coupled with a hope that either our values will win the day, or our enemies are not really so bad.

Jonathan Silver:

Let me put forth a conclusion and see if you accept its formulation. I think your analysis suggests that, while on the outside it may look like the presence of Islam in Europe is an external invasion, it isn’t. Instead, the presence of Islam in Europe merely reveals the true cause of European decline, which is an internal lack of self-confidence. The presence of Islam helps us see that more vividly, but it is not its cause. The cause of decline is the collapse of inner resolve, not the domination by an external force.

Pierre Manent:

Yes, I accept this diagnosis. A collapse of the will and a hollowing-out of the body politic. You have seen how quickly the moral traditions of France have disappeared. Religion, Catholicism, socialism, Christian democracy—all these traditions, what we called the spiritual families of France, have all withered away. And now we have the apparatus of a modern society but without its living soul. And people feel that. And they seem to say, “Oh, now so little remains of us. Why should we risk our lives for this little bit that remains of us?”

 

America

 

Let me now ask you about America. You’ve written one of the most penetrating commentaries on Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. In that work, and others, you put a primacy on defending the nobility of the political. We discussed that as one of the things you took from Raymond Aron, and that must have been reinforced in your study of Tocqueville.

Now, I see your “defense of the political” as relating to a political context that I believe has given way to something else. At the time of your writing on America, what was needed was to prevent Americans from retreating into their personal, private spaces and luxuriating in post-cold-war decadence. You drew inspiration from Tocqueville to teach us that politics has a nobility, it activates something deep in our nature, and our way of life depends on our civic health.

But when I think about those notions today, I think we have an entirely different problem in America. It seems to me that everything is over-politicized. Our problem is not the retreat into the private realm, but the incursion of politics into all realms. Partisans of the red team buy this kind of razor for shaving, and partisans of the blue team buy that kind of razor for shaving. My children’s favorite brand of cookies expresses opinions about gender ideology. Can you explain that change?

Pierre Manent:

Nobody would have bet that America would divide itself like that. What is strange is that the danger that Tocqueville said that America had escaped, a revolutionary spirit, has in fact just arrived. Who would have thought that a new constitution would have been added to the old constitution, which was based on nondiscrimination?

The old constitution was built on the Declaration of Independence, and it says that America should strive to eliminate even the smallest discrimination between the sexes, the races, and so on. That was implied in the logic of the constitutional order.

Effectively, there is upon and above the old constitution another constitution and another project. You have the old American project, the American dream, and upon and above that another project which is to reassert various kinds of discrimination in an effort to achieve perfect equity.

And of course, the Americans have put themselves in a terrible situation because this project is impossible to accomplish. Tocqueville thought that Americans are practical and he spoke about the politics of the possible. This current project strives to achieve the impossible.

Americans, who were supposed to be the pragmatists and the practical people, have now embarked upon an experiment that simply will fail. It will fail. And you will become more and more angry at yourselves for failing. First, for attempting this experiment, and also for failing at it. And so, America’s prospects are not good.

Jonathan Silver:

Tocqueville famously thought that one of the most effective ways to arrest the revolutionary spirit and democracy’s excesses was for the people to be devoted to traditional religious life, and the limits it imposes. And it seems to me that just as politics has penetrated razor blades and cookies, so politics has penetrated the confessional life of American religious institutions. And one wonders if they have the capacity to counterbalance democracy’s excesses because they are themselves expressions of the democratic spirit now.

Pierre Manent:

Yes, I think so. I do not know enough to weigh in on this point, but I think that for instance, some Catholics are the most thoughtful conservatives in America and the most thoughtful opponents of the new order. But I cannot evaluate the strengths of the different parts of American society. My guess is for that even in America religion no longer has the weight or the capacity to temper the excesses of democracy that it had in Tocqueville’s time, and even for many, many years after Tocqueville.

Jonathan Silver:

If we Americans have before us the example of the European collapse of confidence, what advice would you have for us? In particular, what advice would you have for Americans who belong to traditional Jewish and Christian communities? What can we do to prevent, or at least to arrest, the collapse in national vitality that could come to United States, too?

Pierre Manent:

The answer would be in the question. Do not let yourselves lose your principal strengths, which are a serious sense of loyalty to your people and attachment to serious religion. I think that this is clearly the only available source of resistance to what is going on, which touches on the deepest resources of the human soul.

We are engaged in a fight about the nature of man. What is in man? Either a self or a soul. Are we selves or are we souls? And that is the question that lies before us.

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