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.