A World without Political Leaders?

The French political philosopher Pierre Manent has a view of politics that my readers are likely to reject, and rightly so. He has written a great deal about the French classical liberals, especially Tocqueville, but his heart lies more in the study of the classics. In his books, such as Metamorphoses of the City, he offers careful readings of Aristotle, Cicero, and many others. Few can match his interpretative depth. But there is a flaw in his method, and the flaw is not that his readings have been influenced by Leo Strauss, though Strauss may make the same mistake as the one I claim that he makes. Rather, it is that he assumes without argument that the ancient texts, as he interprets them, contain truths that we must without question accept.

The problem is evident in an essay of his that has attracted a good deal of attention, “The Tragedy of the Republic: The Decay of Political Culture in the West,” which appeared in English translation in the May 2017 issue of First Things. In this essay, Manent criticizes people in America and Europe today. The problem is that we don’t want to be commanded. “It has been too long since we had the rare benefit of being governed by a truly ambitious statesman.”

Instead, we hold a fallacious view.

The conviction has taken hold that our regime would be more republican if it ignored political rule still more. Political leaders are to serve our interests rather than commend our collective actions. The reigning social philosophy postulates the power and self-sufficiency of a spontaneous social form that would bring together order and freedom without the mediation of political rule. This is to abandon society to its inertia, that is, its corruption. Thus places and states of toxic stagnation have formed, spreading and producing cysts on the social body over the last ten, twenty, or thirty years; these places have never known the presence of political rule.

What is Manent saying here? If you don’t accept his opinion that political leaders should rule us, then you are abandoning society to “its inertia.” What does that mean? Apparently, it is that society will stay as it is; there will be no force exerted on it from the outside that moves it in a new direction. But this is a useless tautology: it just says that if political leaders don’t lead society, we will have a society that isn’t led by political leaders. So what?

Not content with one tautology, Manent gives us another. He talks of “its inertia, that is, its corruption.” This defines the present state of society—its inertia—as corrupt. Again, we haven’t been given a reason to think that there is anything wrong with letting people organize society without the help of great leaders. But perhaps I’m being uncharitable to Manent here. Maybe he means that it’s obvious that our present society is corrupt. He isn’t, in this construal, trying to make it true by definition that it is, but rather inviting us to look at the existing state of things. If we do, isn’t it evident that something is wrong? Indeed it is, but it isn’t at all evident that what is wrong is that society has been left to itself, bereft of great leaders. I’d say just the opposite: a major part of what is wrong is that political leaders, who arrogantly see themselves as superior to those they deem their inferiors, presume to order us around. In Shelley’s line, “Power, like a desolating pestilence, pollutes whate’er it touches.”

Manent has another pseudoargument on offer, but it need not long detain us. He says,

Europe cannot live indefinitely without any form. There are among us both reasonable citizens and passionate citizens who are waiting for the event that would force us to give ourselves some form, a European form for some and a national form for others. All discern the proliferation of signs of our fate, which they interpret in opposite ways.

Here the reasoning, such as it is, comes from the metaphysics of Aristotle. A substance cannot consist only of shapeless matter; it must be united to a form that shapes it. Applying this, society cannot exist formless but requires a leader to shape it. Two questionable presuppositions of this argument should be noted. First, why take it as given that “society” is a single substance rather than an association of individual persons, connected through certain relations? And if it is a substance, why must its form be imposed on it by a shaping entity from outside it? We are given no answer.

I suspect that the problem lies with Manent. He is bored by what he regards as the mediocrities of the present and longs for heroes. Thus, he says that the republic is

the regime that allows and encourages the most action. This can be seen in Rome, and we see it in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a “republic disguised under the form of monarchy,” as Montesquieu put it. We see it in America’s founding, an extraordinary founding, and we see it in France in the great movement of ’89, especially if this movement is understood to include, as it ought, the adventure of the empire.

To be a republic, as he understands it, is to be committed to heroic action, and we do not now see that heroic action as we can look back on it in the glories of the French Revolution. It is odd that the empire of Napoleon is included within this capacious view of a republic. One can only respond that if this is what Manent means by a republic, we do not want it, nor has Manent given us any reason why we should want it. Murray Rothbard liked to quote Proudhon, “Liberty, the mother, not the daughter of order.” Manent to his cost would not agree.

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