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The State of the Republic in the Autumn of Liberalism

The Tragedy of the Republic. Pierre Manent. Belmont, NC: Wiseblood Books, 2020.


On February 16, 1892, Pope Leo XIII issued his encyclical, “Au Milieu de Sollicitudes.” While Pope Leo’s production of papal documents is famously prolific, Au Milieu has proven to be a truly profound, world-historical document. In it the Roman pontiff tells French Catholics to lay down their arms in the nearly one hundred year struggle to restore the monarchy and to embrace the then current status quo of republican France.

Although he tells the French faithful to accept the legitimacy of the Third Republic, Pope Leo nonetheless encourages his Francophone flock to labor, in effect, to baptize the French Republic and to labor to create a confessional state.

Despite the Roman Pontiff’s insistence upon maintaining the Constantinian Church-state relationship, Leo XIII’s (reluctant) acceptance of the French republic, represents a sea-change in Western political theory. Throughout Western (and, indeed, Eastern) history, the overwhelming majority of Christians had adhered to monarchic and aristocratic conceptions of government, even, in some cases, up into the (brief) twentieth century reigns of the Hapsburgs, Romanovs, and Hohenzollerns.

With the eventual post-World War II triumph of liberal democracy nearly world-wide dominance of specifically American liberalism during the great “American Century,” the bulk of Western Christians have at least made a separate peace with not only republicanism, but liberalism write large.

Nonetheless, with works such as Notre Dame political science professor Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, itself a continuation of critiques made much earlier by Alasdair MacIntyre in his monumental 1981 After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, as well as the rise and seeming fall of Trumpian-Brexit populism and the tenuous emergence of a host of “neo-reactionary” and “integralist” intellectual movements, the intellectual and even realpolitik dominance of liberal republicanism as come into question.

It is thus very curious (or perhaps not) that American republicanism would be lent a recent hand by French political theorist Pierre Manent to lend his voice to the debate (in perhaps not entirely dissimilar manner to King Louis XVI’s support of the American Revolution).

Within his brief piece, Manent, an emeritus professor of political philosophy at the École des Hautes Études en Science Sociales and the author of a number of prominent works that have been translated into English, including, perhaps most famously, The City of Man,.

Patrick Deneen provides rich preface to the work, which likewise serves as an introduction to the broader oeuvre of Pierre Manent. As Deneen argues, Manent’s principal concern has been the phenomenon of “anti-politics” as a product of (post-)modern politics. In place of exercising moral and political virtues such as prudence and temperance, contemporary Westerners have abandoned the craft of politics in place of a host of replacements, including, in the liberal West, the project of a totalitarian technocracy in which citizens are simply taken care of as opposed to being participants in civic life. What is perhaps most disturbing, Deneen notes, is that in the contemporary world, not quite unlike certain periods in antiquity, there is a pervasive recognition that “anti-politics” is not necessarily a bad thing, and many people are content to be apolitical.

Deneen further poses the unsettling question of whether or not the vices of the contemporary not just Western, but global political class, are merely a reflection of the rottenness of global society itself.  The problem then is not the failure of the political class, but the moral failure of the people of the world.

Deneen also notes that Manent holds that the crisis of contemporary politics lies precisely in the supposed failure of representative government. In contemporary liberal republics, the aristoi that ruled earlier regimes have been replaced by what Manent calls the “new science of politics,” which joined with the constitutional and legal apparatus of the state is meant to ensure the function of a just and virtuous community. However, Deneen argues that for Manent, a failure of contemporary politics is a failure of this system.

As Deneen argues, in his discussion of Coriolanus, Manent frames Shakespeare’s magisterial tragedy as a reflection of the system of honor in ancient Republican Rome. Aristocrats in Rome and other premodern societies competed with one another for virtue, and the people or populum, in turn, emulated the virtues (and vices) of their ruling class.

In contrast, citing James Madison’s Federalist 10, Deneen argues that Enlightenment Republicanism is built about the pronounced absence of such a ruling class. Deneen brilliantly notes that in the logic of modern republicanism, the people will factionalize based upon private interests and then elect representatives who, principally motivated by ambition, will rise to positions of power. This positions of power will be, ironically, simultaneously fueled regulated by a system of checks and balances created by the ambitions of rival parties.  This tension of competing powers with, it has been assumed, place a restrained on ambitious tyranny. All of this system is undergirded by the notion that both cooperative and competitive self-interest is the driving force of modern politics.

Those critics of Madison’s Hobbesian constitutional worldview, the “Antifederalists,” noted that this system would create a ruling class as a well as people devoid of public spiritedness and ruled only by self-interest. The ambitious ruling class further would become entirely amoral and develop a disdain for the commoners. The result of this situation would be an aching tension between irresolution and emergent violence or what Manent calls “paralysis and stasis.” The people are thus left feeling unrepresented and the ruling class will be principally concerned with their own self-interest. This situation however will end with the tragic fall of the republic  which itself will allow for a return of true political participation that itself will give birth to a new aristocratic class.

Following Patrick Deneen’s preface, Pierre Manent begins his essay with an interesting reflection on how contemporary politics, especially in France, has an ennobling function, charging seemingly quotidian actions such as recycling, with apparent dignity and an aura of seriousness. However, as Manent notes, the meaning of the republic is allusive.  Presenting a theme echoed in Harvard historian James Hankins’s recent Virtue Politics, Manent notes that the Roman republic has served as the model for Western republics since the Renaissance—Manent presents an interesting passage from Montaigne in which the French Christian skeptic notes how he knew more about the Roman republic than he did about his own sweet France: “I had knowledge of the affairs of Rome long before I knew those of my own house. I knew the Capitol and its layout before I knew the Louvre and the Tiber before the Seine…”  Indeed, Manent will later remark that in order to discern the character of the contemporary republic, we must “interrogate the Romans.”

Manent further notes the importance of a republic for the healthy social life of a people.  Manent also points out that the election of representatives is done to elect a governor as much as a representative. Although contemporaries like to believe that the republic is engineered for the pursuit of the common good when, in fact, it is created to serve individual and private interests.

Manent’s plan to interrogate the Romans will be done through interrogation of Shakespeare, which, as Manent notes, is interrogation of Plutarch through his Early Modern reader Shakespeare. To those who might object to Manent’s interrogation of Roman history through a Renaissance dramatist, he argues that drama enables him to explore human action and reveal “why humans do what they do.”  Manent identifies three Roman plays that are pertinent to his discussion: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra.

Setting aside the more global story of Antony and Cleopatra, Manent classifies Coriolanus as Shakespeare’s “most completely political play” and a work that is “obsessively political play.” For Manent there are several “main teachings” that are pertinent to his discussion. The first is that the “principle of the republic is aristocratic” and the people who govern the republic are driven by the virtuous, “capable” few who are motivated by “aristocratic pride.” Coriolanus thus functions within a system of honor or praise and blame, the marks of an aristocratic system. However, Coriolanus himself is filled with an excess of pride. Delving into a deeper philosophical and more contemporary political discussion, Manent notes that contemporary citizens of a liberal democracy expect at least the pretense of equality in their system of government. Manent further notes that “the modern device of representation” creates those who are “capable” but not necessarily virtuous.

Manent also brilliantly notes that Coriolanus is capable of great feats on the battle field while, at the same time, is inept in the battlefield of rhetoric, equally unable to persuade others as he is incapable of accepting blame. It is this incongruity between speech and deed that is one of the foundation of Coriolanus. As Manent explains, the “test of a republic” is in the “impossible task of joining speech to deed and deed to speech, each to each aptly and justly.”

As another example of this difficulty of joining speech to deed, Manent draws from Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in which Mark Antony boasts that the recent wounds of Caesar that would do the talking for him and in Manent’s own words, “bring the stones of Rome to life.” The wounds of Caesar further carry the moral pathos of Caesar’s “audacity” as well as his fall serving as both a consolation for those politicians who fear the loss of their power as well as an inspiration for those who desire the possession of power.

Manent further pairs Antony’s speech with Brutus’s, which, in Manent’s view is overly rational and simultaneously demonstrates Brutus’s moral greatness as well as his mediocrity.  Indeed, it is Brutus’s character as the “most virtuous Roman,” which is his defining feature while, at the same time, Manent argues, the Roman nobleman’s Achilles heel in as much as it lends Brutus’s actions an air of disinterestedness. Brutus, as Manent notes, is firm in his resolution to kill Caesar, even encouraging his fellow conspirator, Cassius, who, in contrast is deeply interested in the death of Caesar whom Cassius resents. If Brutus is marked by his overconfidence, Cassius is plagued by the scruples of self-doubt. Brutus’s greatness, at the same time, places him in an awkward position in regard to Caesar, unable ally himself with Caesar nor able to “kill him in a useful way.”

In “The Tragedy of the Republic,” Manent takes aim at René Girard’s depiction of Cassius as a “mediator of hate,” which in Manent’s view, neglects “the concrete reality of the action.” Cassius is a conspirator who encourages the others to “act according to their hatred” and, set the conspiratorial “mousetrap” Cassius further, according to Manent, “holds a mirror up to Brutus,” showing him who he in the sight of Rome Herself. It is, ultimately, Rome, the Roman Republic, which is perhaps the most important character in the play and whose presence unravels the friendships shared among the other characters.  Julius Caesar is thus an eminently Shakespearean tragedy, for it leaves an unresolved ironic tension in which it is difficult to sort out hero from villain.

Transitioning into a purer philosophical discussion, Manent praises Julius Caesar as a portrait of “the two great modalities of the acting human being.” Julius Caesar represented both the man who begins and the man who commands, while the facilitators of the conspiracy, Cassius and Brutus, each represented one element of these modalities. It is in Manent’s view only the noble few who are capable of this greatness, and it is precisely in the very character of a true republic to inspire action by encouraging “emulation among equals.” Manent praises the American and French revolutions as well as early Enlightenment England as manifestations of republics lead by virtuous aristocrats and men and women of action. At the same time, the French philosopher laments the current state of the managerial state that allows for individual, private freedoms for apolitical citizens.

As a solution to this malaise, Manent calls for a return of an aristocratic political class concerned with “the honor granted by the Republic” and service to the common good and ends his piece with a resounding call for new national and pan-European leadership that will overcome the “[p]aralysis and stasis” that has gripped much of the West, noting that there are many who would support a rational and virtuous political movement. This call to arms is followed by what appears to be a pessimistic vision of the tragedy of the republic. However, since tragedy is always accompanied by the death of the hero, Manent seems to be tolling the eminent death of what has been called the managerial state. Such language is, on one level, indeed edifying. Nonetheless, amidst the chaos and destruction wrought during the past year across the West and the United States in particular, it is essential to emphasize the Manent’s own insistence on rational and virtuous politics, a politics that is very real, but is also truly moral and just.

Jesse RussellJesse Russell

Jesse Russell

Jesse Russell is an Assistant Professor of English at Georgia Southwestern State University. He has contributed to a wide variety of academic journals, including Political Theology, Politics and Religion, and New Blackfriars.

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