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  • Democracy Contra Politics
  • Clifford Orwin (bio)
A World Beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation-State. By PierreManent . Translated by Marc LePain . New French Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. ix + 216 pp.

There are French thinkers flashier than Pierre Manent, but none more worth attending to. A student of Raymond Aron, a reader of Martin Heidegger and Leo Strauss, and a devout Catholic, Manent has smelted from these rich ores an alloy distinctively his own. Although he has published six books (four are now available in English, as well as a collection of his essays) never before has he donned a garb so congenial to readers of the Journal of Democracy. He offers here a comprehensive survey of world affairs, which prominently includes issues of democracy and democratization.

The original French title of this work describes it as a cours, that is, an academic course of lectures. The setting was the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris. Reflecting these origins, the book contains nineteen relatively brief chapters, each offering a compact but extended meditation on one aspect of the global political scene. Together they amount to a comprehensive survey.

More must be said of the original title, which the American publisher has replaced with a less perplexing one. On the basis of my summary so far, you might suppose that Manent would call his course an introduction to world politics. In fact, however, he entitled it Cours familier de philosophie politique. Familier may be rendered as "informal." Philosophie politique needs no translation.

Why entitle a survey of world politics a course in political philosophy? [End Page 171] Manent does not say, but the answer appears to be as follows. For Manent as for his teachers, the key to grasping modern times is modernity itself, and he views modernity as a philosophical construct—indeed, a political philosophical construct. True, modernity could not have arisen except in the specific historical context of the Christian-absolutist world that had supplanted feudalism. It did not, however, emerge from this world as its continuation. Rather it began as a grand strategy of political innovation devised by minds of the very first rank: Machiavelli, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Montesquieu, and the like. We live with the consequences of that strategy, both intended and unintended.

So it is not accidental but necessary that Manent's exposition of the current world scene is at the same time an account of political philosophy. Each of his chapters, beginning from a common institution, cliché, or other seemingly unremarkable feature of contemporary life, lays bare its roots in the deepest stratum of modern thought. Because modernity arose as a conscious negation of the premodern, we cannot understand it except vis-á-vis the latter. And because modernity as we know it is "late"—the product of an ongoing evolution of the original modern conceptions—we cannot grasp it without understanding this evolution. We must possess a command not only of the innate dynamic of modern thought, but of all the historical accidents that have shaped and sometimes distorted it.

The path of modernity has been a twisting one. Fortunately, we could hardly hope to find a better guide to it than Manent. What he can accomplish in just a few pages of combined theoretical and historical discussion of the "movement of democracy" or the "rule of law" or "the empire of morality" is stunning. Since Manent has invested more thought in each chapter than most of us do in entire books, the argument is so rich and compressed as to defy recapitulation. Yet his formulations are remarkably clear, and his final chapter does provide a useful overview of the themes of the book as a whole.

What then of the title that the American publisher has foisted on the book? Manent does indeed query the notion of a world beyond politics, and he does indeed offer a defense of the nation-state. This last is an important feature of the book, but ultimately not the central one. Manent defends the nation-state as the distinctively modern locus of politics, and it is politics as such that he undertakes to defend.

While the movement of modernity is by design and necessity...