Why is the “critique of modernity” such a ubiquitous genre? An easy answer is that there is something deeply wrong with the modern world. But the more subtle appeal of the genre is the pleasure of having your mind read, or your fortune told. It’s having your mental landscape sketched by someone you’ve never met. There’s something thrilling in identifying yourself as unknowingly complicit in modernity.
“Modernity” is a relational, even reactionary, term of distinction. The Latin modus means “just now,” as opposed to “back then.” To be modern means to live in the past pluperfect, to have rejected some antiquity, whereas previous epochs were not only less self-consciously epochal but also seemed to have no problem with allowing one to be world-weary. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the modern world is that we are expected to show enthusiasm for it. Even critiques of modernity must reckon with the marvels of modern technology.
Natural Law and Human Rights, the new book by formidable French political theorist Pierre Manent, provides another framework for understanding the proliferation of these critiques of modernity. Manent advances the atypical view that the modern crisis is one not of reflection but of action—that the modern problem is precisely the belief that our problems can be solved by thinking about them. Thus, the book addresses a theoretical discourse—human rights—that seems unfashionable on the intellectual left, and proposes to replace it with natural law, a theoretical tool that feels out of step with an increasingly populist right.
But in his focus on political action, Manent correctly identifies that though academia and intellectual magazines may speak Foucault, the worlds of government, policy, and law speak the language of human rights. Concerned by the incompatibility of such language with the necessary grammar of political action, Manent offers instead a novel formulation of natural law designed to recover the “archic” (i.e., rule-based) character of human agency.
Natural Law and Human Rights follows the familiar arc of the “crisis of modernity” genre. There’s the exposition of the contemporary crisis; the fingering of the culprit (usually concentrated in one figure, image, or concept); the historical narrative (which joins culprit to crisis); and a final section devoted to some alternative or indicating what is needful. Almost universally, the strength of such books lies in two of these four elements: the identification of the crisis and the description of the culprit. This book is no exception.
The crisis, in this case, is the way in which our regnant political discourse “stimulates our desire to judge while at the same time constraining our faculty of judgment.” Human rights presents itself as superior to law but is unwilling to condemn injustice in the cultural other “since judgment would risk leading to the conclusion that this way of life is inferior, which goes against the principle of equality that lies at the heart of the idea of human rights.” Manent’s example is the European propensity to condemn political positions held by traditionalist Christians about abortion or LGBTQ+ equality while refraining from judging similar perspectives held by non-Europeans. Manent argues that the tension persists because there is no alternative: Human rights discourse smuggles in a robust concept of nature, even as it criticizes the possibility of a natural basis for human things.
The “culprit” in Manent’s story is the view of nature developed by the early theorists of modern natural right. When thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau had recourse to a “state of nature” in order to locate humanity’s natural freedom and equality, they did so by “reducing us to the most impoverished common denominator,” heavily emphasizing “the separate individual” and “the fact of separation itself.” The bearers of rights are no longer recognizably “human,” but defined “by the fact that they are identical, or similar, and separate.” It then follows that, as Hobbes puts it, the differences in “manners” and “customs” are mere labels applied to a denuded substratum. Therefore, Manent writes, that which has been “constructed” by and onto the separate “individual living being” can be “deconstructed” as necessary.
More radically, it now becomes the vocation of the human sciences to undertake “an unceasing effort to authorize and encourage the individual living being to recompose all the significant elements of the human world in order to make them conform to the idea that he has of himself.” This process of mediation is the transformation of the various qualities of human existence into concrete human rights. The law of the Sabbath, or the mere observation that rest and leisure are necessary and good, becomes the human right to paid vacation. But knowing my rights does not tell me much about what makes for a life well lived: The image of the good life is presented only negatively.
The central chapters of Natural Law and Human Rights duly provide a historical narrative connecting culprit to crisis. Manent’s analysis of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Rousseau covers well-worn ground in the political theory literature, and scholars interested in how context contributes to the development of political ideas will find little of interest here. Nevertheless, Manent’s interpretation of what is perhaps the central passage in Machiavelli’s The Prince is fresh and daring.
Describing the ways in which he has departed from the orders of others, Machiavelli writes, “And many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.” One standard interpretation of that passage is that Machiavelli is leaving behind the imagination of things and turning, instead, toward the effectual truth—the truth as revealed by cause and effect, the truth that gets results. Manent, however, reads against the grain: Machiavelli is describing the significant gap that exists between what I do and what I believe I should do. The natural response to such a failing is an attempt to “close” the gap, to try to better align my words to my deeds. But don’t we usually fail to attain the good ends we set out to achieve, precisely because we are seeking our preservation instead of our ruin?
For Manent, in observing this gap, Machiavelli is offended not by its practical consequences but by its theoretical ones, by what Manent somewhat infelicitously calls humanity’s “gnoseological failure”: We fail not so much in doing as in correctly understanding our own actions. Rather than attempt to close or prevent this gap between law and action, Machiavelli, in Manent’s telling, elaborates “a nonpractical view of action—an action greater than action, or in any case an action no longer subject to the limits that spring from the fact that action is naturally produced by an agent.”
The possibility of human agency is determined no longer by what is just and noble, nor by the constraints imposed by my resources or my character, but by my ability to respond to events as they present themselves. I am no longer myself, but a generalized—and generalizable—theoretical agent, whose freedom does not quail before the law. The gap between ought and is disappears because the realm of practice does. In this way, the uncertainty of any practical undertaking is dislodged by the certainty of theory. In a strange twist, the apparent “realism” of Machiavelli is actually a pivot toward the complete eclipse of practice by theory.
The rest of the central narrative of Natural Law and Human Rights develops the far-reaching consequences of modernity’s “theoretical hypertrophy,” its abstraction from the human things to the separate individual being. Manent focuses on Hobbes’s role in systematizing the “gnoseological” decision of Machiavelli. Hobbes defines politics not by thinking about what politics is but by attempting to answer theoretical questions about nature. He thus locks in Machiavelli’s turn away from practice in the interest of a separate individual who must scientifically reconstitute the human world, reproducing the supposedly theoretical state of nature in the modern social state. Bringing about the lonely freedom and equality of the state of nature definitively closes the gap between law and life.
But as any student of modern political thought can tell you, Machiavelli and Hobbes mark only the beginning—what Leo Strauss calls the “first wave”—of modernity. When Manent brings up Rousseau, he does so not to discuss Rousseau’s “discovery” of history, but to emphasize his continuity with Hobbes. Manent does not address later modern thinkers, but it is not difficult to see how such thinkers remain essentially within the same modern project that was inaugurated by Machiavelli. The turn from nature to history inaugurated by Rousseau is a way of further closing the gap between law and action. The historicist emphasis on the contextual roots of action further complicates human agency. The “gap” between law and world ceases to exist if the human world is determined by historical necessity. Indeed, the definitive closure of the gap comes in Hegel’s compact and imperious dictum that the actual is the rational, and by Marx’s transposition of this observation onto material conditions. When Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says we must look at all of history and say “Thus I willed it,” he is only making explicit what is barely implicit in Machiavelli.
The final stage in any critique of modernity is the alternative, or the way forward. This is the most perilous moment in the genre, when, having attempted to knock down the modern edifice, the critic must lay a foundation for a new one. Manent aims to revitalize action through a novel conception of natural law. Whereas such accounts usually rely on a theory of natural teleology, Manent recognizes that to undertake such a conceptualization is to remain “a prisoner of the theoretical view that it shares with the philosophy of rights.” Manent instead provides a sort of Aristotle-inspired phenomenology of action or agency, observing that “there is no human being who is not moved by the pleasant, the useful, and the honest (the just, the noble).” An agent’s motivations are not open to revision or manipulation; we may disagree about which objects are truly useful, pleasant, or noble, but we remain bound by nonnegotiable categories.
By focusing on these motives for action, Manent tries to avoid a “dogmatically explicit” list of dos and don’ts and leave room for the “play” appropriate to practical life. Thus understood, natural law always “leaves room to deliberate and then to choose.” Rather than resolve into a passive understanding of the separate, autonomous being, real choices are always made, Manent shows, by distinct persons with characters and histories, and within the context of actual political communities. Affirming natural law in Manent’s sense grounds us in a human world that is given, not made by us. By realizing the solidity of human motivations, we can begin to develop the prudence required for good judgment, and even Christian conscience. Manent calls this a “gentle slope” from “is” to “ought.” His goal for all of this is a sober and dignified vision of a practicable, attainable, distinctively human life: “Where the natural law is concerned, humanity in its ordinary or current conditions is not this mass of perdition that the law condemns, but so many actors who take much and often fall short, who are ceaselessly straying further from and coming closer to this law of nature that does not define an ideal, but helps us to find the point of equilibrium and the optimal rule for a happy life, that is to say a reasonably pleasant, useful, and noble life.”
Natural Law and Human Rights thus contributes to the critique of modernity with the observation that modernity is not only a theoretical distinction about the relationship of law to life, but a decision in favor of the authority of theoretical distinctions over the prescientific experience of human life. In an insidious way, we understand ourselves as relentlessly pragmatic, realist, or empiricist, when in fact we mediate our naive experiences of life through the lens of theory. Modernity needs to be revealed to us, because it so successfully hides its true character, insulating itself against revision and correction.
Controversial though it may be, this claim seems sound—we are given over to reflection in such a way as to lose the appearances, the phainomenai, of human life, so that the various options of how we might live it are hidden from us. Manent’s focus on recovering the prediscursive character of human agency does little, however, to help us understand specifically how to go about effecting this recovery. The problem is that such an approach would seem to require that he refrain from some of the specific judgments he does make on contemporary controversies—about the redistribution of wealth and the relation of modernity to questions of gender and sexuality, in particular—which are not supported by the modest concept of natural law he defends in his book. Nevertheless, Manent provides a framework within which such prudential questions can be meaningfully arbitrated. But, more importantly, the space his practical view leaves open for forgiveness when we attend to the reality of the gap between law and life lowers the stakes of such discussions, and creates a space in which we might venture being wrong.