The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

February 20, 2018

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The Greatness and Misery of Liberalism
Pierre Manent (from MA 52 03) - 02/02/11

“To preserve natural rights”: that expression, which perfectly sums up the new principle, is nonetheless somewhat deceptive because of its “conservative” connotation. It really isn’t a matter of conserving anything! “To preserve natural rights” meant to unleash the greatest movement of human affairs that has ever been seen.

Natural rights come into view in what the philosophers called the state of nature or the natural condition of mankind, when human beings, living without law, are free and equal individuals. The philosophers, to be sure, had different ideas about this individual, about his passions and motives. For Hobbes, the individual is moved by a desire for power that ends only in death. For Locke, it is uneasiness, the discomfort or restlessness of a life assailed by needs that move him. In any case, the movement that moves men—in truth, that bears them away—has neither end nor term: it is unceasing.

Thus the individual comes into the world as a quantum of movement. “To preserve his rights” means not to inhibit his movement or even to remove the obstacles to his movement. The revolution of the rights of man, that is, liberalism, liberates the movement of human affairs. The free circulation of men, of goods, of ideas, of capital, of sentiments, and so forth: liberalism is fi rst and foremost the party of movement.

The liberal revolution therefore will have two sorts of enemies—or at least adversaries. On one hand, there are those who want to apply the brakes to the movement (the conservatives) or even to return to the pre-liberal past (the reactionaries; the word “reaction” belongs first of all to the language of physics). On the other hand, there are those who want to accelerate the movement, “to emancipate the productive forces” shackled by the capitalist relations of production. If communism wanted to suppress capitalism, it was in order to surpass it, to accelerate its movement. As for the non-revolutionary Left, it wanted at aminimum to speed up “social mobility.”

Thus we have—in the simplest, most synthetic terms I could find—the principle of the liberal revolution: the rights of man. We now have to consider the arrangements by which people attempted to put this principle into action.

The Liberal Arrangements

The liberal arrangement is one of polarities. A liberal political order is constituted by two poles coexisting in tension, which serve for each other both as an instrument and an obstacle. I obviously have in mind the state and civil society.

The sovereign state—that is, the “absolute” state—is the condition of possibility for the liberal order. If its members wish to protect their equal rights, they must generate “the greatest power that can be imagined,” which is capable of moving an otherwise quite unequal society to fundamental equality. They must construct “an abstract place” (Hobbes’s phrase), an Archimedean point that is qualitatively distinct from the society, so that it can govern impartially. Only a state that is thus elevated above society can govern us while also leaving us free.

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