公 法 评 论 惟愿公平如大水滚滚,使公义如江河滔滔!


The Return of Political Philosophy

Pierre Manent


Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 103 (May 2000): 15-22.

It could be said that the twentieth century has witnessed the disappearance, or
withering away, of political philosophy. An old–fashioned empirical proof of this
statement is easy to produce: certainly no Hegel, no Marx, even no Comte, has lived
in our century, able to convey to the few and the many alike a powerful vision of
our social and political statics and dynamics.

However highly we might think of the philosophical capacities and results of
Heidegger, Bergson, Whitehead, or Wittgenstein, we would not single out any of them
for his contribution to political philosophy. Heidegger, it is true, ventured into
some political action, including speeches, but it is a matter for deep regret.
Heidegger’s was the steepest fall; on a much lower level, there was Sartre’s
indefatigable vituperation against anything rational or decent in civic life.

It is true that contrariwise, authors like Sir Karl Popper and Raymond Aron have
been worthy contributors to both general epistemology and political inquiry, always
in a spirit of sturdy and humane citizenship. And some modern representatives of
that venerable tradition of thought, Thomism, have offered serious reflection on
moral, social, and political problems within a comprehensive account of the world.
But despite such countervailing considerations, the general diagnosis seems to me to
be inescapable: no modern original philosopher has been willing or able to include a
thorough analysis of political life within his account of the human world, or,
conversely, to elaborate his account of the whole from an analysis of our political

To be sure, the effort to understand social and political life did not cease in this
century. It even underwent a huge expansion through the extraordinary development of
the social sciences, which have increasingly determined the self–understanding of
modern men and women. It might be asserted that the collective and multifaceted work
of all those sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, economists, and political
scientists has shed more light on our common life than could the exertions of any
individual mind, however gifted; that, when it comes to understanding our social and
political life, this "collective thought" is necessarily more impartial than even a
mind as impartial as Hegel’s; that in this sense political philosophy, including
democratic political philosophy, has an undemocratic character since it cannot be so
collectivized; and that accordingly its withering away is a natural accompaniment to
the consolidation and extension of democracy.

As is the case with all collective enterprises, the social sciences have many more
practitioners than they do ideas and principles. I would even argue that they rest
upon one sole principle, the separation of facts and values, which sets them apart
from philosophy and testifies to their scientific character. The demise of political
philosophy is of a piece with the triumph of this principle. I admit that generally
such sweeping statements are better avoided. Nevertheless it is a fact that the
fact/value distinction has become not only the presupposition of present–day social
science but also the prevalent opinion in society at large. In present conditions, a
teenager proves his or her coming of age, a citizen proves his or her competence and
loyalty, by making use of this principle. Nowhere has the principle been set forth
with more power and brilliance than in the work of Max Weber. The limitless and
tormented landscape of twentieth–century social and political thought is commanded
by Weber’s towering presence and overwhelming influence.

Speaking before students just after the end of World War I, Weber asks about his
duty as a teacher, about what his audience, and the public at large, can
legitimately require of him. He answers, in reflections later published as Science
as a Vocation, that they have a claim on his intellectual probity: the teacher, as a
scientist, has the obligation to acknowledge that to establish the intrinsic
structures of cultural values and to evaluate those values constitute two totally
distinct tasks. Weber rigorously distinguishes between science, which ascertains
facts and relations between facts, and life, which necessarily involves evaluation
and action.

This proposition has become commonplace today, yet it is difficult to understand
what exactly it means. To give an example that is more than an example, how does one
describe what goes on in a concentration camp without evaluating it? As some
commentators have pointed out, Weber, in his historical and sociological studies,
does not tire of evaluating even when establishing the facts; no, he ceaselessly
evaluates so as to be able to establish the facts. Otherwise how could he tell
a "prophet" from a "charlatan"?

However that may be, it is clear that for Weber, intellectual honesty necessarily
prevents us from believing or teaching that science can show us how we ought to
live; and that this same intellectual probity necessarily prevents us from
believing, for instance, that a thing is good because it is beautiful, or the other
way around. But what are the causes of his peculiar preoccupation with intellectual
probity? In Weber’s opinion, modern science exposes it to a specific danger.

Modern science exhibits a singular trait: it is necessarily unfinished—it can never
be completed. It is open–ended, since there is always more to be known. Weber asks
why human beings devote themselves to an activity that can never be completed, why
they ceaselessly try to know what they know they will never completely know. The
meaning of modern science is to be meaningless. Thus intellectual honesty requires
that we not confer an arbitrary meaning on science, that we be faithful to its
meaninglessness by fearlessly carrying on its enterprise. This necessary virtue is
at the same time inhuman, or superhuman; indeed it is heroic. Since heroism, however
necessary, is rare, many so–called scholars or teachers succumb to the temptation
to confer arbitrarily some human meaning on science, or its provisional results.
Weber believed that the scientist who thus lapses from his duty transforms himself
into a petty demagogue or a petty prophet.

What characterizes the modern situation is that only science can be the object of
public affirmation or approbation. Other "values"—for instance, esthetic or
religious "values"—cannot be publicly expressed with enough sincerity to hold their
own in the public square. At the end of Science as a Vocation, we read:

The fate of an epoch characterized by rationalization, intellectualization, most of
all by the disenchantment of the world, led human beings to expel the most sublime
and supreme values from public life. They found refuge either in the transcendent
realm of mystical life or in the fraternity of direct and reciprocal relationships
among isolated individuals. There is nothing fortuitous in the fact that the most
eminent art of our time is intimate, not monumental, nor in the fact that nowadays
it is only in small communities, in face–to–face contacts, in pianissimo, that we
are able to recover something that might resemble the prophetic pneuma that formerly
set whole communities ablaze and welded them together. . . . For those who are
unable to bear this present fate with manliness, there is only this piece of advice:
go back silently—without giving to your gesture the publicity dear to renegades,
but simply and without ceremony—to the old churches who keep their arms widely open.
This eloquent conclusion bears, and needs, rereading today. There is nothing
antiquated or quaint about it. On the contrary, the stripping down of the public
square and the flight into private realms have continued apace, coupled with the
ever growing power of science to mold every aspect of our lives, including the most
intimate. As a consequence, public life is more and more exclusively filled with
private lives: what remains of "the public" is nothing but the publicization of "the
private"—or so it seems.

Of course, this assessment could be said to miss the fundamental fact of modern
society which, under the appearance of meaninglessness, is the coming–into–being
of the noblest principles of all, democracy and self–determination. There is no
doubt that Weber, however friendly to its political institutions, underestimates the
strength and resilience of democracy, perhaps its human meaning and range. In his
eyes democracy is no match—no remedy—for the disenchantment of the world, and for
a good reason: it results from it. It is unable to reunify modern human beings since
it ratifies and, so to speak, institutionalizes their intimate divisions.

If we take seriously Science as a Vocation, we will say that there is a gaping hole,
a void, a meaninglessness at the heart of modern life since science, the highest and
sole truly public activity, is meaningless. At the same time, if modern man wants to
be equal to the task of science, he ought to look this nothingness in the face
without blinking. In this sense, nihilism, at least this nihilism, is not only our
curse but also our duty. Weber’s eloquence aimed at keeping us awake and forcing
our gaze toward this central nothingness. Thus the most authoritative, nay, the only
authoritative voice in the realm of social and political thought in this century was
a desperate voice.

It is impossible to put Max Weber behind us. Because he looms so large, it is
difficult for us to see how the human phenomenon appeared before he separated
science and life. But let us be alert enough to realize how strange and lopsided our
intellectual and moral life currently is. Each and every human thing is fair game
for science. Through separating facts from values we are able to divert the mighty
flow of reality into the bottles of science.

But there is no reciprocity: science is never allowed to come back to illuminate
reality and life. Democracy is predicated on the basic intelligence of the common
man, which in turn is predicated on the inherent intelligibility of life, at least
of the current occurrences of life. As a result, democracy is the regime that has
the least tolerance for nihilism. (And nihilism breeds contempt for democracy.) To
say that life is intelligible is not to say that it is unproblematic or without
mystery. It is only to say that what we do is naturally accompanied by what we think
and say, or that we ordinarily give some account of what we do. Our actions are
many, and our accounts often conflicting, and so we reflect and deliberate and
debate. The life of the mind is inherently dialectical—although, through the
separation of facts and values, we have often lost sight of that reality.

Weber well understood that the separation between life and science was in some sense
unbearable for ordinary mankind, and he rightly noticed that the attendant
discomfort gave rise to fake monumentalism, spurious prophesying, and pedantic
fanaticism. Certainly Europe would soon experience all those ugly phenomena on a
scale that the desperate Weber had not anticipated even in his most desperate mood.
Very roughly, we could say that totalitarianism was the attempt to fuse together
science and life. In communism, the fusion was forced through the despotism
of "science"—understood vulgarly. In Nazism, the fusion came through the despotism
of "life"—again, understood in an utterly vulgar way.

Totalitarianism was the experimentum crucis for political philosophy in our century.
Through it political philosophy was radically tested, and was found wanting. The
mere fact that such terrible enterprises could arise was proof that European
thinkers had not developed and spread a rational and humane understanding of modern
political circumstances. This claim does not presuppose the proposition, abstract to
the point of meaninglessness, that "ideas govern the world"—only the sound
observation that human beings are thinking animals who need tolerably accurate ideas
and evaluations to orient themselves in the world. This truism is the truer the more
intellectually active and able the person concerned. It would be unfair to extend
culpability for this century’s crimes into the past indefinitely, but it is true
that, after Hegel elaborated his synthesis, no other philosopher was able to give a
satisfactory, that is, an impartial, account of the modern State and society.
Political philosophy after Hegel was not able to give a nearly satisfactory account
of totalitarianism during and even after the fact.

Michael Oakeshott once remarked that great political philosophies are generally
answers to specific political predicaments. It is easy to document this proposition
from Plato and Aristotle, through Machiavelli and Hobbes, to Rousseau and Hegel. As
I observed at the outset, the twentieth century did not elicit such comprehensive
answers from political reflection, and this despite the fact that its predicament
was of the most extreme sort: devastating world wars, murderous revolutions, beastly
tyrannies. If there ever was a time for writing a new Leviathan, that was it.

But our most impressive documents are novels: which political treatise on communism
is a match for 1984 or Animal Farm or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or The
Yawning Heights? And what a strange commentary on this situation that, for some
readers at least, the most suggestive introduction to Nazi tyranny is to be found in
On the Marmor Cliffs (1939), a fable whose author, Ernst Jünger, was a soldier and
adventurer with more than a passing complicity with the nihilistic mood that
fomented Hitler’s rise to power. Some will object that this indictment is unfair,
that many penetrating books on communism, fascism, and Nazism have been written by
historians, social scientists, and political philosophers; indeed, that the notion
of totalitarianism itself got its currency and credit more from philosophy than from
literature; and that at least one philosophical book on the subject—Hannah Arendt’
s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)—won a fame and exercised a power of
fascination comparable to those of the literary works I have just mentioned. The
objection is valid as far as it goes. We need to take stock of this momentous debate.

For political philosophers, dealing with Nazism and communism was difficult. These
unprecedented political phenomena required a specific effort of analysis, yet most
of the interpreters no longer had much place in their thought for political
categories, especially the notion of regime. Their natural reaction was to make
sense of these new forms of politics by subsuming them under nonpolitical categories
with which they were more familiar. For instance, communism came to be understood as
the domination of "bureaucracy," or as "bureaucratic state capitalism," a Trotskyist
mantra widely used in France and elsewhere. As for Nazism, not a few on the left
would see in it the instrument of "the most reactionary strata of financial
capital," while many on the right saw just another avatar of "eternal Germany."

Of course these definitions, however fashionable for a time, could not long satisfy
honest or discerning people, who eventually elaborated and gave credit to the notion
of totalitarianism as a new and specific regime. We can be grateful to those who
introduced this notion, because more than any other it helped us to look at the
facts, to "save the phenomena," so to speak, and accordingly to evaluate more
adequately the thorough ugliness of the whole thing. At the same time, however,
totalitarianism remained an ad hoc construct. The discussion of it mainly concerned
the marks, or criteria, of totalitarianism: whether "ideology" or "terror" or both
together were principal or necessary components of any "totalitarian" regime. The
proponents of the notion were prone to try to outbid one another by concentrating
attention on the most extreme characteristics of these regimes, with the result
that, as in Hannah Arendt’s case, the notion is not even applicable to Nazism and
communism except in their most extreme fits of terror and murder. This bidding war
induced the mainstream of political scientists to renounce the notion completely, or
to dilute it until it became unrecognizable and useless.

The facts of Nazism and communism obliged honest and discerning observers to
elaborate the notion of a new regime. At the same time, this "regime" was the
opposite of a regime. The classical regime, harking back to Plato’s and Aristotle’
s first elaboration of political philosophy, is what gives political life its
relative stability and intelligibility. The totalitarian "regime," on the contrary,
was characterized first of all by its instability and its formlessness. It described
itself, accurately, as essentially a movement: the "international Communist
movement," or die NZ–Bewegung (Munich was called by the Nazis die Hauptstadt der
Bewegung [the capital of the movement]). Arendt herself was acutely aware of the
paradoxical character of totalitarianism. In a piece titled "Ideology and Terror,"
Arendt borrows from Montesquieu’s analysis and classification of regimes to try to
categorize the totalitarian regime. For Montesquieu, each regime has a nature and a
principle. The principle is the more important, since it is the "spring"
that "moves" the regime. Now, explains Arendt, totalitarianism has no principle, not
even fear—which is the principle of "despotism" according to Montesquieu. For fear
to be a principal motive of action, the individual would need to think or feel that
he is able to escape danger through his own actions; under totalitarianism, on the
other hand, where the killings wax and wane without any discernible reason, this
sense cannot be sustained. Raymond Aron’s commentary on Arendt’s analysis is
severe but illuminating:

One cannot help asking oneself whether Mrs. Arendt’s thesis, thus formulated, is
not contradictory. A regime without a principle is not a regime. . . . As a regime,
it exists solely in its author’s imagination. In other words, when Mrs. Arendt
elaborates some aspects of Hitlerite and Stalinist phenomena into a regime, a
political essence, she brings out and probably exaggerates the originality of German
or Russian totalitarianism. Mistaking this admittedly real originality for a
fundamentally new regime, she is induced to read into our epoch the negation of
classical philosophies and thus to slide into a contradiction: defining a working
regime by an essence which so to speak implies the impossibility of its working.
This sharp criticism undoubtedly hits the mark. But Arendt would probably hit back
that the "contradiction" is not of her making: it belongs to the "contradictory
essence" of totalitarianism.

It is interesting to note that Alain Besan?on, a distinguished French historian who
studied with Aron, rediscovered and trenchantly brought out this difficulty twenty
years later. In an article aptly titled "On the Difficulty of Defining the Soviet
Regime," Besan?on tries and exhausts Aristotle’s and Montesquieu’s classifications
of regimes, concluding that the Soviet regime does not fit into any of them. In his
eyes it is an "absolutely new" regime, and its newness lies in the part played
by "ideology." Besan?on proposes that instead of "totalitarianism" we simply
classify communism as an "ideological regime." In their different ways, Arendt,
Aron, and Besan?on all draw our attention to the problem of relating totalitarianism
to the tradition of political philosophy. The totalitarian regime seems to be the
regime embodying the negation of the idea of regime, and accordingly the irrelevance
of classical political philosophy.

More than any other thinker in this century, Leo Strauss tried to recover the
genuine meaning of political philosophy. Indeed, political philosophy as originally
understood owes its bare survival—fittingly unobtrusive to the point of
secretiveness—to Leo Strauss’ sole and unaided efforts. Without him, the
philosophy of history, or historicism of any stripe, would have swallowed political
philosophy completely. For Strauss, in seeming contradiction to what I have just
said, twentieth–century experiences were motives for going back to political
philosophy, specifically to classical political philosophy: "When we were brought
face to face with tyranny—with a kind of tyranny that surpassed the boldest
imagination of the most powerful thinkers of the past—our political science failed
to recognize it. It is not surprising then that many of our contemporaries . . .
were relieved when they rediscovered the pages in which Plato and other classical
thinkers seemed to have interpreted for us the horrors of the twentieth century."
Thus modern tyranny—Strauss carefully avoids the word "totalitarianism"—brings us
back to ancient tyranny as described and understood by Plato and other Greek

At the same time, Strauss makes clear that there is in modern tyranny something
specific, and terrible, that eludes the grasp of classical categories. The return to
the Greeks can only be a "first step toward an exact analysis of present–day
tyranny," he argued, for contemporary tyranny is "fundamentally different" from the
tyranny analyzed by the ancients. How could Strauss offer such a proposition? Recall
that he devoted his life to establishing that classical philosophy elaborated the
true understanding of the world, founded on nature which does not change, and that
accordingly it does not need to be superseded or improved upon by a new "historical"
understanding. Given that, how could Leo Strauss admit that communism and fascism
are fundamentally new? How could the political life of man undergo a fundamental
change? He answers: "Present–day tyranny, in contradistinction to classical
tyranny, is based on the unlimited progress in the ‘conquest of nature’ which is
made possible by modern science, as well as on the popularization or diffusion of
philosophic or scientific knowledge."

Strauss was perfectly aware that such a change, or at least the possibility of such
a change, needs to have been taken into account by Greek philosophy if the claim he
raises on its behalf is to be upheld. He affirms that that is the case: "Both
possibilities—the possibility of a science that issues in the conquest of nature
and the possibility of the popularization of philosophy or science—were known to
the classics. . . . But the classics rejected them as ‘unnatural,’ i.e., as
destructive of humanity. They did not dream of pre s ent–day tyranny because they
regarded its basic presuppositions as so preposterous that they turned their
imagination in entirely different directions." Thus, the Greek thinkers did not
imagine modern tyranny because they understood its principles and saw that they
would be so much against nature that there was no use dwelling on them.

However galling the affirmation that the Greeks understood us better than we
understand them, and ourselves, it is not what most impresses us in Strauss’
assessment. It is rather that the two principles that make for the specific evil of
modern tyranny are part and parcel of the foundation on which modern democracy was
built. If this is true, modern tyranny would have as much in common with modern
democracy as with ancient, i.e., "natural," tyranny.

We must not forget that these rare propositions of Strauss on contemporary political
circumstances were formulated in the context of an exchange with Alexandre Kojève,
one of the most influential interpreters of Hegel in this century. The Russian–born
philosopher and French civil servant held that the conceptions of classical
political philosophy have lost their relevance because the modern regime, or rather
State, precisely through the transformation of nature and the reciprocal recognition
implied in democratic citizenship, has basically solved the human problem. The
unpalatable traits of modern "tyranny" must not blind us to the fact that "history
has come to its end."

Thus Kojève is not much interested in the totalitarian phenomenon, the ugliness of
which disappears against the big picture. However shocking Kojève’s benign neglect,
even favor, toward Communist totalitarianism, he does draw our attention to the
disturbing fact that modern democracy shares with totalitarianism the claim to have
solved the human problem. Modern democracy understands itself not as a regime among
others, not even as the best regime, but as the only legitimate regime: it embodies
the final, because rational, state of humanity.

Here we encounter a topic as difficult and intricate as it is important. In the
classical understanding, the plurality of regimes was rooted in the intrinsic
diversity of human nature, in the heterogeneity of its parts: human beings were soul
and body, and the life of the human soul had its springs in the specific motions of
its different parts. In the modern democratic understanding, a human being is first
and foremost a self, and mankind as a whole is simply the fulfilled self writ large,
which is to say, considered universally. This generalization is valid only if all
the selves of all the human beings are in some important sense the same. The
affirmation of the self, or the self–affirmation of humankind as composed of
selves, thus presupposes the homogeneity of human nature. For the modern
understanding, the solution of the human problem is one with the homogenization of
human life.

A mighty task—an indefinite one—is contained herein, because that homogeneity can
never be complete, or it will be so only "at the end of history," when nature, human
as well as nonhuman, will have been mastered. But in some sense, and this is Kojève’
s point, we have already reached a sufficient level of mastery. The science
necessary for the conquest of nature is without end, it is true, but that means that
its power is destined to grow without end, which means that reason allows us to
imagine ourselves all–powerful already. As for human life proper, oppressive
differences will long continue to arise, but they are in principle already
vanquished by the declaration and institutionalization of the equality of rights. In
brief, the miracles of science and the good works of democracy are attested enough
to legitimate faith that liberal democracy has answered all the big questions of

Of course faith can be lost. When the good works of democracy are less apparent, or
when the delicate mechanisms of constitutional government, necessary for
guaranteeing rights, are not available in a certain situation, the temptation arises
to make good on the promises of democracy by every means available, that is, even or
especially by antidemocratic means, to bring science to completion and achieve human
homogeneity by overturning democracy.

Herein lies what has been aptly called the "totalitarian temptation." In this sense,
as the French philosopher Claude Lefort has pointed out in L’invention démocratique
(1981), his acute analysis of democracy, totalitarianism is the attempt to "embody"
or "incorporate" democracy, to transform "indeterminate" democracy into a
visible "body." Democracy is "indeterminate" because, in the democratic
dispensation, the "seat of power" is "void"—occupied only provisionally by
succeeding representatives. The King’s presence was overwhelming; the democratic
statesmen’s is ordinarily underwhelming. As long as the citizens have not
accustomed themselves to the worthy but modest function of choosing their
representatives, the representatives will not be a match for the majesty of the
people. Some demagogue will explain to the people that he will lead them to the
empty place so that they themselves will occupy the seat of power: "Totalitarianism
establishes a mechanism which . . . aims to weld anew power and society, to
obliterate all the signs of social division, to banish the indetermination which
haunts democratic experience. . . . From democracy and against it a body is thus
made anew." When writing those lines, Lefort had principally in mind the Soviet
regime, but it is clear that "race," no less than "class," can offer the basis for
the building of this new homogeneous body.

Thus Lefort, drawing part of his inspiration from the phenomenological tradition,
brings to our attention the bodily character of the political, or the political
character of the body. This close relationship, although coming to the surface of
speech in common expressions like "political body" or "body politic," has long been
obscured in our democratic dispensation. Our forefathers, on the contrary, were well
aware of it. Indeed how best to define the predemocratic order? If we look for one
synthetic trait, then we will define it as an order founded on filiation. Everyone’
s place in society was in principle determined by his or her "birth." One’s name
and estate were determined through heritage. There were only families, poor or rich,
common or noble, but each one governed by the head of family.

In contradistinction to ancient cities, in which heads of families were roughly
equal politically and participated in the same "public space," in Western
predemocratic societies there was no public space. Or rather, what was public was
the family analogy, the logic of filiation and paternity, the fact that the same
representation of the human ties or bonds circulated throughout the whole.
Ultimately, what was public, that is, what was sacred, was the person of the King,
that is, the King’s body.

This familial order, based as it was on the fecundity of the body and on accidents
of birth, strikes us today as bizarre and even disgusting. If we are sophisticated
enough, we will say with cool competence: it was the value system of our
forefathers, ours is different, and our grandchildren’s will again be different
from it and ours. I’m afraid I am not so sophisticated. This familial order was not
just a value system or a cultural construct. It drew its strength, its durability,
its quasi–universal validity (before democracy) from the general awareness that it
was rooted not only in an undoubtedly natural fact, but in the fact that, so to
speak, sums up "nature," that is, birth and filiation.

Even among scholars, it is a common mistake to confuse any political reference
to "the body" with "organicism." It is then seen either as a mere figure of speech,
or, more ominously, as a "holistic" representation fraught with oppressive
potentialities. As a matter of fact, a "body" is very different from what is
generally understood by "organism." In the latter, the part is strictly subordinated
to the whole. In the former, the whole is present and active in each part. Thus the
idea of the body is not at all a mechanical, or even a physical, idea. It is, on the
contrary, a spiritual idea: each part is at the same time itself and the whole. In
this sense, every society, every polity, is a body.

These very sketchy observations help us to understand the meaning and strength of
the order of the body, and by the same token to wonder at its swift and nearly
complete demise. Lefort describes the nature, and appreciates the enormity, of the
process as follows:

The ancien régime was made up of innumerable little bodies that provided people with
their bearings. And those little bodies disposed themselves within a huge imaginary
body of which the King’s body offers a replica and the token of its integrity. The
democratic revolution, long underground, blows up when the King’s body is
destroyed, when the head of the body politic falls to the ground, when accordingly
the corporeity of society dissolves. Then something happens which I would dare to
call the disincorporation of individuals. Extraordinary phenomenon. . . .
Why was it such an "extraordinary phenomenon"? To put it in a nutshell: while
previous societies organized themselves so as to bind their members together, while
they extolled the ideas of concord and unity, our democratic society organizes
itself so as to untie, even to separate, its members, and thus guarantee their
independence and their rights. In this sense, our society proposes to fulfill itself
as a dis–society. An extraordinary phenomenon indeed!

But will not a society thus dissociating be unable to carry on, to say nothing of
prospering? That is the recurrent fear in modern society, voiced by conservatives
and socialists alike, with even a few liberals joining in at times. But as a matter
of fact, belying all the prophets of doom, democratic societies have maintained
their cohesion, they have prospered; indeed, they offer today—the vast bulk of
mankind agrees on this point—the only viable and desirable way of organizing a
decent common life. So we must infer that their continuous decomposition has been
accompanied by a continuous recomposition. What is the principle of this
recomposition? To cut a very long story short: it is the principle of
representation. As Lefort emphasizes, the order of representation has succeeded the
order of incorporation. And the principle behind the principle of representation is
the will—the will of people—a purely spiritual principle. The ultimate mainspring
of democratic society is the fecundity of human will, or rather the capacity of the
will to produce desirable effects.

Let us retrace our journey so far. I have argued that totalitarianism has been the
experimentum crucis for political philosophy in this century, and that political
philosophy, thus tested, was found wanting. We are able now to give a more precise
assessment. The perplexities that attend the inquiry into the nature of totalitarian
regimes do not arise solely from the peculiarly enigmatic essence of those regimes.
Or rather, their enigmatic essence derives from another enigma or uncertainty, one
that also concerns democracy. The uncertainty is this: where, and what, is the
people’s will? How can a purely spiritual principle give form and life to a body
politic? The "totalitarian temptation" is made possible by, and takes place in, the
uncharted territory between the "body" of predemo cratic society and the "soul" of
democratic politics. There is much more here than a glib metaphor. Indeed, we are at
the heart of our practical and theoretical difficulties: herein lies the task of
political philosophy, if it cares to have one.

We need to return again and again to the contrast between predemocratic and
democratic societies, and to the dialectics between the two. This insistence may
seem odd to Americans, since the U.S. had no real experience of predemocratic
society and does not seem to be worse off for it: as Tocqueville so memorably
said, "Americans are born equal, instead of becoming so." But my proposal is for a
philosophical inquiry, not a historical one.

We begin with a paradox. We instinctively think that predemocratic societies gave an
advantage to the soul as opposed to the body, even as we instinctively suppose that
democratic societies have rejected the excessive pretensions of the soul and
have "liberated the body," or, in Saint–Simonian parlance, "rehabilitated the
flesh." These impressions are not simply erroneous; there is much truth in them. But
at the same time we could say that the opposite also is true. We have seen that
predemocratic societies were "incorporated" societies, rooted in the fecundity of
the body, culminating in the King’s body. As for democratic societies, while they
are not particularly religious, they are politically and morally spiritualist, even
otherwordly. Electing a representative, unlike begetting an heir, is the work of the
will—of the mind or the soul.

That spirituality holds true not only in political relations, but in social and
moral life as well. Democratic societies typically insist that all our bonds,
including our bodily ones, have their origin in a purely spiritual decision, a
decision reached in full spiritual sovereignty. We reject any suggestion that the
body could create bonds by itself, that there could be ties rooted essentially in
the "flesh." The "new family" results from the growing understanding of marriage and
parenthood as "continuous choice." Even bodily intercourse is no longer supposed to
create bonds by itself, to have meaning by itself: it does so only as far, and as
long, as the will makes it so. Such meaning the will is free to confer and
withdraw "at will." We increasingly behave, and we increasingly interpret our
behavior, as if we were angels who happen to have bodies. Carnal knowledge is no
longer such.

No wonder, then, that what goes by the name of political philosophy or theory today
is rather angel ology. In an otherwordly space—perhaps separated from this earth by
a "veil of ignorance"—beings who are no longer, or not yet, truly human deliberate
over the conditions under which they would consent to land on our lowly planet and
don our "too solid flesh." They hesitate a lot, as well they might, and their
abstract reasonings are complex and multifarious, if so hypothetical that they carry
little weight. Political thought cannot indulge indefinitely to live in an
atmosphere that is at the same time rarefied and vulgar. Totalitarianism, it is
true, has been defeated without much contribution from political philosophy, and
democracy seems to sail on unchallenged. But even in practical terms, it is not
prudent to lean exclusively on the workaday virtues of the democratic citizenry.

We need to recapture something of what democracy left behind in its march to
supremacy. Modern democracy has successfully asserted and realized the homogeneity
of human life, but it is now required to try to recover and salvage the intrinsic
heterogeneity of human experiences. The experience of the citizen is different from
that of the artist, which in turn is different from that of the religious person,
and so on. These decisive articulations of human life would be hopelessly blurred if
the current conceit prevailed that every human being, as "creator of his or her own
values," is at the same time an artist, a citizen, and a religious person—indeed,
all these things and more. Against this conceit, political philosophers should
undertake to bring to light again the heterogeneity of human life.

It might be argued that this heterogeneity is adequately taken care of through the
public acknowledgment of the legitimate plurality of human values. Nothing could be
more mistaken. As Leo Strauss once tersely remarked, pluralism is a monism, being
an –ism. The same self–destructive quality attaches itself to our "values." To
interpret the world of experience as constituted of admittedly diverse "values" is
to reduce it to this common genus, and thus to lose sight of that heterogeneity we
wanted to preserve. If God is a value, the public space a value, the moral law
within my heart a value, the starry sky above my head a value . . . what is not? At
the same time, for this is confusion’s great masterpiece, the "value language"
makes us lose the unity of human life—this necessary component of democratic self–
consciousness—just as it blurs its diversity: you don’t argue about values since
their value lies in the valuation of the one who puts value on them. Value language,
with the inner dispositions it encourages, makes for dreary uniformity and
unintelligible heterogeneity at the same time.

Certainly Max Weber would look with consternation on a state of things he
unwillingly did so much to advance. As Science as a Vocation makes clear, he devoted
his uncommon strength of mind and soul to the task for which I have just entered my
feeble plea: to recover, or to salvage, the genuine diversity of human experiences.
He was undoubtedly right to underline that the Beautiful is not the same as the Good
or the True. But then, or so it seems to me, he crossed the line. Why interpret this
internal differentiation of human life as a conflict, even as a "war"—the "war of
the gods" attendant to the "polytheism" of human "values"? Why say that we know that
some things are beautiful because they are not good? Why say that we know that some
beings are good or holy because and inasmuch as they are not beautiful? It seems
that Weber here let himself be carried away by the restlessness of his spirit. How
impatient we moderns have become! If two things don’t match exactly, then they must
be enemies.

Perhaps we have been impatient and restless from the beginning. Was not Descartes,
the father of Enlightenment, as well the father of our impatience when he
deliberately equated what is doubtful with what is false? How much wiser in my
opinion was Leibniz, who tranquilly countered that what is true is true, what is
false is false, and what is doubtful is . . . well, it is doubtful. We need Leibniz’
s equanimity more than Descartes’ impatience, so that we may sojourn within our
different experiences, and draw from each its specific lesson.

The same human being, after all, admires what is beautiful, is motivated by what is
good, and pursues the truth. Sometimes he comes across a "brave bad man," as it
befell Lord Clarendon; or he meets a fair treacherous woman. These complexities,
sometimes even incongruities, of human experience need to be described accurately.
Generally, the more bold the colors, the less exact the drawing. Human life does not
warrant despair, and the social sciences do not warrant nihilism, because human life
is humanly intelligible.

It is possible, even probable, that the democratic regime could not have come into
being without the impatience of Descartes and others; it is possible as well that
democratic citizens would have fallen asleep if not for the strident clarion calls
of Weber and others. But victorious and mature democracy would do well to temper
these extreme moods and open itself to the inner diversity of human experience as it
claims to be open to the outer diversity of the human species. This would seem to be
a tall order: for now, at least, few political philosophers have given it heed.


Pierre Manent is Director of Studies at the école des Hautes études en Sciences
Sociales in Paris. His books include Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy and The
City of Man. This essay is adapted from a conference paper delivered at the Library
of Congress in Washington, D.C., in June 1999.


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