Seeing Things Politically

Cloth $30
Translated by Ralph C. Handock, Introduction by Daniel J. Mahoney, 240 pages, 6" x 9", introductions, acknowledgments, notes, bibliographic references, index

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Seeing Things Politically

Interviews with Benedicte Delorme-Montini

Manent, Pierre

These autobiographical and philosophical essays, in the form of expertly probing interviews, provide a superb introduction to the work of one of the most significant contemporary political philosophers and a marvelously readable perspective on the French intellectual and political arenas from the 1970s to the present. Those already familiar with Manent’s work will find an indispensable reflection on his transition from the critique of modernity brilliantly represented in his earlier books (most notably Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy and The City of Man), a critique at once original and significantly indebted to Leo Strauss, toward a perspective that emerges in his recent The Metamorphoses of the City, a monumental and profoundly original study that endeavors to situate modernity within the original Greek founding of the act of politics.

The autobiographical passages in this vivid and engaging work invite the reader into, first, the world of postwar France in which Manent grew up, in which he was presented with the choice between the Communist hopes of his father and the opposing power and prestige of all things American. There is also an impressive portrait of the rigors and spirit of a provincial lycée, where the first sparks of philosophical eros ignited in Manent’s soul, and of his studies in the legendary École Normal Supérieure in the midst of the ideological confusion associated with the ferment of 1968. The reader then is invited to an inside view of the rise of a broadly Tocquevillean school of French thought around the journal Contrepoints and its successor Commentaire.

There are a number of vivid personal vignettes offered in the book, including an affectionate one of Allan Bloom. But no portrait is more impressive than that of Manent’s mentor, Raymond Aron. It was Aron who awakened Manent to the possibility of seeing things politically—and, in the first instance, of seeing political things with dispassionate clarity and rigor. Manent’s sober admiration for Aron, “the perfect gentleman who experienced no need of transcendence” and who “gave each person what seemed to him best for that person without worrying about his own influence” leaves an indelible impression on the reader.

As Manent moves into an account of the origins and development of his own intellectual project, the reader is offered an intriguing introduction to his most recent and ongoing work. This work includes Manent’s brilliant and original reformulation of the great question of continuity and change in the classical, Christian, and modern dispensations of the Western quest to understand and to enact humanity. And it becomes clear that Manent’s project is by no means of purely scholarly inspiration, but that it is rather the fruit of a sustained and penetrating engagement with the largest practical issues of our times. Our contemporary ethic of universal human rights has deep roots in our Western tradition and appears to be practically irresistible, spiritually as well as politically. However, “since the modern order is also coming up against its limits,” because “public order can be built on the protection of private lives alone,” it is of much more than academic interest to ask, “what objective order capable of motivating a common action” might yet be possible? This deeply practical question has informed Pierre Manent’s intellectual project over four decades, and he is now unfolding it for his readers with more powerfully and originally than ever. Seeing Things Politically is the best (and most readable and enjoyable) introduction that exists to this vital ongoing quest for clarity concerning meaningful action in the modern world.