Manent Between Strauss and Heidegger

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Manent Between Strauss and Heidegger

James Tussing


The best homage that I can hope to give to my friend and teacher Pierre Manent is to attempt a discussion of his work. If I succeed in showing what makes his project at once so fascinating and so mysterious to me, that will be a better tribute than any flattering words; if I fail, my example will remind everyone of how rare and enviable is Manent’s talent for saying profound and weighty things with concision.


Manent opens his Cours familier de philosophie politique by citing Paul Claudel: “Ce n’est point le future que j’envisage, c’est le présent même qu’un dieu nous presse de déchiffrer. []Où suis-je ? et Quelle heure est-il ? telle est de nous au monde la question inépuisable.[1]” All of Manent’s books are animated by the question of how we are to orient ourselves in the present, how we are to understand it. Fidelity to the present is both the point of departure of his work and the criterion by which he asks that it be judged. Manent tends to conclude the prefaces to his work with exordia to his readers, whom he addresses not as scholars but as human beings and citizens: look, both within yourself and at the society that you live it; this is the only way to judge if what I say is true!

It is precisely this concern with the present that fuels Manent’s reflections on history. Of course Manent knows as well as anyone that in order to understand the present one must know something of what came before, but what preoccupies him is something different: the sense that we as modern people have of ourselves as historical beings, who for that reason are different from those who came before us. The effort to define, and to trace the history of the modern difference is the focus of Manent’s early works, culminating in The City of Man. In “On Historical Causality”, an article responding to some early critics of that book, Manent compares his approach to those taken by Leo Strauss and Martin Heidegger, the two philosophers whom he believes have made the most serious and sustained efforts to understand “the modern difference”. This article will orient my brief discussion[2].

Manent characterizes Strauss’s and Heidegger’s positions as being at once “rigorous and untenable”. Strauss maintains that the modern difference – and the experience of “the historical consciousness” that serves as its foundation – is a mistake or an illusion. Heidegger, on the basis of the historical experience, is led to deconstruct and reimagine the most basic notions of western thought, maintaining that not only man, but being itself is historical.

Manent does not try, even summarily, to refute either philosopher. Instead, he explains why neither provided him with a sufficient basis for carrying out the “phenomenology of modern consciousness” that he attempted in The City of Man. In the case of Heidegger, the reason is quite simple. Heidegger’s thought, for all of its profundity, is incapable of describing the world of ordinary human experience, in particular political experience. This is not simply a result of Heidegger’s philosophical idiosyncrasy. Manent even believes, as he tries to show at some length in Chapter IV of The City of Man, that something like Heidegger’s position is the inevitable result of the effort to understand the human being without reference to a human substance or nature. According to Manent, some form of this effort has characterized modern philosophy at least since Descartes and Hobbes: Heidegger’s greatness consists in his willingness to think it all the way through, to face its consequences without blinking. But Heidegger’s very rigor gives his thought what Manent elsewhere calls a “caractère polaire et polémique”[3]. Heidegger’s thought is polarizing because it attempts to take the most deeply ingrained ideas and categories of western thought and undo or reverse them. Heidegger’s most characteristic theses – that time is the horizon of being, that man is not the master but the servant of language – cannot be expressed in ordinary language, tainted as he maintains it is by the metaphysical tradition. Often one wonders if they are even thinkable. At any rate, if we compare Heidegger’s anti-metaphysical thought to the thought of the foremost “metaphysical” thinker, the polemical narrowness that Manent describes is quite evident. Whereas Aristotle ranges freely over all of the domains of human thought and experience, throughout the long arc of his development Heidegger remains fixed upon the question of being like a dog to a bone. In particular, Heidegger unlike Aristotle does not consider politics to be worthy of philosophical investigation; what he has to say about politics is valuable only as reminder of how terribly even the greatest minds can err.

The case of Leo Strauss – a thinker who has left a much more visible trace on Manent’s work than has Heidegger – is more complicated. In the article mentioned above, Manent summarizes Strauss’s analysis of modernity in these terms:

Because there is a nature, and because this nature as such remains sempiternally the same, man does not change. If there nonetheless is a change or a rupture in the modern period, it is because modern man conceived the project of mastering nature, including his own nature. The source of the modern movement is in this effort to master, and thus to change, the nature of man, which, in truth, cannot be changed. This enterprise necessarily has all sorts of effects, but it cannot change anything fundamental in the human order. For example, it cannot change anything about the order of the human soul. Modern man constructs windmills and takes himself for a giant.[4]

Manent claims to be unable to accept this position for a simple and commonsensical reason: the effects of the modern movement described by Strauss have been so profound and lasting that it is difficult to understand this movement as a mere accident. Manent describes his relation to the two philosophers by an analogy to ancient physics: the Eleatic Strauss maintains that “nothing changes”; the Hereclitan Heidegger maintains that “being itself changes”. Our writer stands irenically between them and attempts a compromise. According to Manent, there is indeed a sempiternal human nature that has been adequately described by the Greek political philosophers. This nature did not change in itself, but was disturbed by supernatural intervention in the form of Christian revelation. The modern movement is a product of the spiritual tension caused by conflict between the Greek and the Christian perspectives, between nature and grace.

The considerations I have just mentioned, however, fail to get to the core of Manent’s disagreement with Strauss, as Manent himself hints later in the essay. To explain why will require a brief digression.

Much of what is original in Manent’s interpretation of modern philosophy – and indeed of modern political and spiritual life – comes from his viewing it from what in the Cours familier he calls the “theologico-political vector”. To grossly simplify his extremely subtle analysis, Manent defines the modern movement in terms of a double negation: the negation of the Greek-Aristotelian and of the Christian position. Or, to speak with only slightly more precision: the modern movement is in its essence a rejection of Christianity. Now, the Christian affirmation does not depend directly upon what is observable in human nature, but on faith in miraculous grace. As long as this affirmation is found to be persuasive, however, politics as it had been classically interpreted by Aristotle becomes impossible.

Aristotle’s approach is, according to Manent, most revealingly presented in Book III of the Politics, which contains a sort of debate between democrats and partisans of oligarchy, each of whom claims the right to govern the city. It is the role of philosophy, of political reason, to adjudicate this dispute. This is accomplished neither by ignoring the arguments of the opposing parties in favor of an abstract theory, nor by dismissing them as ideological justifications for the desire for power. On the contrary, Aristotle’s approach to politics is perfectly captured by Tocqueville’s famous phrase: the philosopher must endeavor to see, not differently, but farther than the parties. This means that he must begin by taking the arguments of the parties seriously. According to Aristotle, these arguments are always in some sense about the just and the good, and always partly correct and partly false. Correct because they base their claim to right upon a real good that is a constitutive part of the city (free birth, wealth, virtue); false because they mistake a partial good for the whole. The task of the philosopher or prudent man is to persuade the parties of the partiality of their positions and orient them as much as possible to the true good of the whole city.

What Aristotle claims to be presenting is thus not an abstract model of politics, but the nature of political debate as such (at least in any genuinely political community). Christianity, according to Manent, poses a deep and perhaps insoluble problem to the natural rhythms of politics as they are described by Aristotle. By confronting man with the prospect of eternal salvation and damnation, Christianity introduces a kind of good that is not comparable with the partial goods of political life, one that cannot be the subject of normal political debate (because its warrant is supernatural revelation) and which so to speak trumps them in importance. The theologico-political problem is Manent’s expression for the challenge that the eruption of revealed religion brought to the politics of the West. In The City of Man and Intellectual History of Liberalism, Manent presents liberalism, and the “modern movement” more generally, as the effort to escape from this problem by negating its two components. Nature as described by Aristotle is always vulnerable to “la surenchère chrétienne,” which opposes an absolute and supernatural good to the partial, natural goods of political life. So in order to escape from grace, the moderns are led to reject nature as well. The energy and inner tension of the modern movement has its source in this double flight or double negation.

This way of understanding the religious and political history of the West is extremely fertile, and Manent is able to deploy it with enormous subtlety; it is what gives his analysis of the relationship between the political forms of Church, Empire and Nation, in particular, such great force and originality. However, Manent’s treatment of the modern response to the “theologico-political problem” reveals a deep intellectual debt to Strauss, one that Manent had perhaps not fully assimilated when he wrote The City of Man and “On Historical Causality.” It was, after all, Strauss himself who had introduced the expression “theologico-political problem” to describe the conflict between revealed religion and the nature-based position of Greek philosophy (it is, of course, an adaptation of the title of Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise). In his works on Machiavelli Strauss suggests – not loudly, perhaps, but with great interpretive ingeniousness and power of suggestion – that the modern effort to conquer nature and create a new man is in fact a response to this problem. Strauss interprets the modern movement as an immoderate reaction to Christianity and the political ravages it introduced, a reaction motivated by the passion Strauss calls “anti-theological ire”[5]. This passion led the moderns, in their crusade to defeat Christianity, to adapt some of Christianity’s most characteristic doctrines as weapons against it (“propaganda” in the case of Machiavelli), and so to abandon philosophy as it had been classically understood. The great defect of modern political philosophy, Strauss suggests, is that it intermingles or attempts to synthesize Greek philosophy and revealed religion – the two opposing constitutive elements of the Western tradition – in a manner that distorts and cheapens what is most noble and distinctive about each of them.

It might then seem – and I think that this is the opinion of many Straussians – that the difference between Strauss and Manent concerns religion. Whatever Strauss’s private thoughts may have been, the picture that he paints of the philosopher is one of a man whose deepest concern is for what is eternal; someone whose deepest satisfaction – the purest and most exalted pleasure available to the human being – comes from the contemplation of eternity, in the form of what Strauss calls the permanent or eternal questions. The philosopher as described by Strauss is a political philosopher, so like Socrates (and unlike the pre-Socratics) he is interested in the opinions of his fellow citizens. However this interest, according to Strauss, is not essential: opinions are a starting-point from which one ascends towards what is eternal and true. Religion – popular opinions about the gods or the divine things – numbers among the vulgar prejudices from which the philosopher must ascend. Manent is a Roman Catholic. Because he believes in a form of revealed religion, Manent doubts that the serene indifference to the human things to which the philosopher aspires is in fact possible. To speak in Strauss’s terms, Manent believes that the Christian revelation poses an unanswerable challenge to the philosophical life as classically understood.[6] He does not think Christian revelation cannot be dismissed or explained away as a mere vulgar opinion: it must be accepted or rejected (and the rejection of Christianity, from this point of view, transforms the philosopher just as much as its acceptance). Strauss took the challenge of revealed religion to the philosophical life very seriously, and he would no doubt have understood Manent’s project as yet another articulation of this challenge.

Manent’s difference from Strauss, however, is as much about the nature of human reason as it is about religion. I’ve already mentioned Manent’s somewhat caricatural summary of Strauss’s position: “nothing changes”. The basis for this caricature is Strauss’s belief that it is possible for human reason, in investigating the human things, to arrive at sempiternal, natural truths. These truths, as Strauss describes them, are not the “thick” metaphysical conceptions that modern philosophy likes to attribute to the ancients: they consist in the knowledge that a certain, limited number or philosophical problems are permanent. “Thin” though this sort of knowledge may seem, attaining it is nevertheless, according to Strauss, the greatest feat of which the human spirit is capable. This for a reason beautifully articulated by St. Thomas in a passage from the Summa to which Strauss was somewhat uncharacteristically attached: minimum quod potest haberi de cognitione rerum altissimarum, desiderabilius est quam certissima cognitio quae habetur de minimis rebus[7].

Compare this to Chapter VI of Manent’s recent book on Montaigne, which offers an analysis of the classical view of reason, one which is in many ways similar to Strauss’s. Manent compares Montaigne’s attitude towards reason (which he believes would become characteristic of the modern philosophers and social scientists), and the attitude of the classical political philosophers. According to Montaigne, Manent says, “reason is everywhere at work, but it does not govern”. All human customs and forms of social order are reasonable, in the sense that they have an internal logic that reason can discern; what reason cannot do, however, is furnish an external criterion according to which different customs can be compared and judged. To maintain that one social order is somehow more reasonable than another, or to imagine a perfectly reasonable regime is to demand of reason something of which Montaigne believes it is not capable. For the classical political philosophers, on the contrary, it is possible for reason to command, that is to furnish criteria for action and judgment. This fact, according to Manent, makes the classical perspective the same as the political perspective, the point of view of the statesman or political actor:

[…] if I look a human group, or a situation, from a political perspective, if I see it as a political thing, I look at it from the perspective of someone who commands, or at least someone who takes, or can take, the initiative of an action. I consider it from the “archic” point of view, from the point to view of a person who, inseparably, commands and begins. What I, the observer, share with the people I observe is the point of view of a possible action, of an action that one commands and an action that one begins. What, then, is the “epistemology” of political science properly speaking, which is originally indistinguishable from Socratic political philosophy? It consists in making explicit, and drawing all of the consequences from, the fact that observer and object of observation are both political animals, the first one potentially, the second in fact.[8]

Human action – and because of our political nature, political action is action par excellence – presupposes the existence of criteria external to itself; otherwise it would be merely arbitrary. Manent sees political philosophy, in a sense, as nothing but the effort to understand these criteria that are the wellsprings of our praiseworthy or blameworthy actions. Are they transcendent, eternal? This question seems to threaten an unwelcome detour into metaphysics. Yet if the reasons for our actions are merely historical, that is, specific to each situation in which we act, then they cannot really be commanding reasons. Instead, the situation that determines our behavior; our reasons for it come afterwards. This is the point of view which Manent attributes to Montaigne, that of “raison commandé”. It is a non-political point of view because from it, it is impossible to think action.

So: Manent sees classical political philosophy in terms of “commanding reason”, Strauss in terms of “eternal questions.” What is the difference between these two perspectives? It lies in the absolute, so to speak “ontological” separation that Strauss draws between the philosopher and the city. Manent offers an interesting discussion of this point in his book of interviews, Le Regard politique. Political philosophy, in inquiring into the reasons behind human actions, inquires into principles at once deeper and higher than man as such. This Manent readily concedes to Strauss. What he is skeptical of is the claim that the philosopher can somehow be defined in his very being by this inquiry, such that as a human type he achieves the same superiority over his fellow men as the eternal principles that he attempts to discern. That there is something inhuman or superhuman about the ability of our reason to grasp at the eternal, Manent grants; what he doubts is that this ability makes some among us superhuman. As I said, Manent no more tries to refute Strauss’s suggestion that the philosopher is the highest human type than he does Heidegger’s contention that time is the horizon for being. He only says, applying the criterion with which he concludes his prefaces, that he has looked within himself and finds the Straussian image of the philosopher – the principle source for which is Plato’s depiction of Socrates – to be psychologically implausible and, indeed, almost repulsive.

To return to where we began, it may be that Strauss’s insistence on the singularity of the philosopher is best understood as a kind of response to Heidegger. Strauss would certainly have agreed with Manent’s contention that Heidegger alone has taken seriously the common contention that “man is a historical being”. One could say that Strauss feared that any concession to history would lead to Heideggerian historicism, that the only position defensible against Heidegger’s “being itself changes” is the Socratic “nothing changes”. Yet Strauss knew as well as anyone how radically the world has changed since the time of Socrates, not least because of the emergence of revealed religion. One way for Strauss to ward off Heidegger’s attack was to claim that the complimentary man, the human being par excellence, is the philosopher. If the essential nature of the philosopher, which is determined by the eternal questions that he contemplates, does not change with time, then Heidegger’s claims about the historicity of being would be refuted. This position, if it is in fact defensible, would be equal in rigor to Heidegger’s; it would buy this rigor by becoming almost as inhuman.

On the other hand, of course, it could be said that what Pierre Manent’s position buys its humanity at the price of rigor. But perhaps it is better to say that Pierre Manent aspires to a different sort of rigor from Strauss or Heidegger. He attempts to be rigorously faithful to complicated and contradictory phenomenon he describes, the phenomenon of modernity.


[1] Cours familier de philosophie politique, Paris, Fayard, 2001.

[2] It can be found in Enquête sur la démocratie, éd. J-V. Holeindre, Paris, Gallimard, 2007.

[3] In Le Regard Politique, Paris, Flammarion, 2010,p. 137.

[4] “De la causalité historique,” p. 706. I here use the translation of the essay reprinted in Modern Liberty and its Discontents, ed. Daniel Mahoney and Paul Seaton, Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

[5] See for example, “What is Political Philosphy” in What is Political Philosophy, Chicago, 1959, p. 44.

[6] Manent’s comparison of Plato’s Apology of Socrates with some famous passages Pascal’s Pensées regarding death is perhaps his clearest statement on this subject. It can be found in the fourth chapter of recent book on Montaigne (Montaigne : La vie sans loi, Paris,Flam­marion, 2014).

[7] Summa Theologiæ, Iª q. 1 a. 5 ad 1.

[8] Montaigne : La vie sans loi, op. cit., p. 238-239.



Pour citer cet article :
James Tussing, « Manent Between Strauss and Heidegger », Cahiers de l’AMEP, no1, volet 1, 2014, p. 103-110.


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