The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 17, 2017

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

If I had found a way of escaping from this unsatisfactory (even depressing) set of alternatives, you would certainly have already heard about it! If anyone had convincingly, or even plausibly, proposed a way of reuniting freedom and truth, we would all know of it! I believe that we have to accept—up to a certain point, in a spirit of manly resignation—the indeterminate character of our liberal liberty, and hence, to use a Tocquevillian trope: we are condemned for the foreseeable future to sail in open waters. At the same time, it seems to me good for liberal liberty itself to enter into dialogue with something other than itself. The candidates one can point to for such a dialogue are numerous, they can be found both within and without the West. Here is what I suggest.

If we return to the point of departure that I briefly sketched at the outset, we recall that liberalism is a response or a purported “solution” to the theological political problem of the Christian world. One could say: liberalism embarked upon a recomposition or reworking of the Christian world by putting in parentheses the question of the truth and instituting radically new conditions of human action. The question that is thus posed to us—one I do not claim to resolve, but which we ought to consider—is the following: is the new liberal order—the one that Europeans began to establish in the sixteenth or the seventeenth century—self-sufficient, or does it merely represent a modification or reworking of the Christian condition? Historians and contemporary observers often ask if liberalism—or democracy— has solid roots or a promising future in cultural areas outside of those where Christianity existed. They ask, for example, if Japan is truly a liberal democracy, even though it was governed for the past fifty years by the same Liberal Party. I have neither the time nor the expertise to take up this aspect of the question. I will simply expand a remark that I already made.

It seems to me that the first hypothesis— liberal self-sufficiency—can be entertained if the liberal world effectively tends toward an end or condition where liberty encounters, I will not say the truth, nor will I say happiness, but a configuration of human affairs such that one can say that we have arrived at a human order that, if not perfect, is at least satisfying. One would be able to say that the liberal order was self-sufficient if the hopes of liberal progressivism were met, or at least the feeling of progress toward greater truth and happiness firmed up and became widespread. One could say that the liberal order is self-sufficient if it indicates with adequate clarity a term or goal proper to it and it alone. If this is not the case, as a vague but powerful sentiment seems to confirm; if faith in the future has deserted the liberal world; if liberalism has largely abandoned the hope in progress that it bore for such a long time; if therefore liberalism no longer has a goal or end to its efforts in mind, then it finds itself before the necessity of a heart-wrenching revision. Instead of understanding itself in view of the future, it must turn about and reflect again on its previous development, starting with its origin in Christian Europe.

How one ought to conduct this inquiry into the relations between the Christian matrix and the liberal project is a question I have to reserve for another time. My aim is merely to pose a question that many Europeans believe is already resolved because we have “gotten beyond religion.”1 It is true that liberalism has pushed Christianity to the edges of collective life. I have argued, however, that despite its triumph it cannot wholly substitute for Christianity because it only defines the conditions of action and not action’s goals or aims, as Christianity does. It remains true, even if not widely recognized, that it is liberalism’s relationship to Christianity, much more than the current question of its economic organization, that is both fundamental and formative for liberalism.2 We must turn our gaze there if we want to attain any clarity on the destiny of liberal societies.

  1. This is a reference to the French political theorist Marcel Gauchet’s contention that Christianity is the religion that prepares the way for secularism, for the human order that definitively leaves religion behind. (Translators’ note)
  2. The centrality of Europe’s “theological-political problem” to the genesis and doctrinal foundations of liberalism is a central theme of Manent’s An Intellectual History of Liberalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). (Translators’ note) This essay was originally delivered at the Institut français in Prague on March 6, 2009 and will appear as the preface to a new Italian edition of Pierre Manent’s Histoire intellectuelle du libéralisme. It is published in Modern Age with the permission of the author.
Translated by Daniel J. Mahoney and Paul Seaton
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