In the beginning, the poetic birth of the city becomes visible in the Iliad in the warrior camp of the Achaeans, in what Pierre Manent calls—in one of his most striking formulations—the “republic of quarrelsome persuasion.”  We are not, of course, concerned here with the city as defined by, say, urbanology or archaeology, but with the city “invented by the ancient Greeks,” the very crux of the Western dynamic.  For the purposes of political theory, the city is not an agglomeration of people drawn together—as we moderns would have it—for reasons of commercial exchange; it is, rather, the place where the struggle between the many and the few is enacted and mediated, a struggle in which the many are persuaded to submit to, while at the same time being given a share in, the values of the few—the descendants of Homer’s aristocratic warriors.  In this discovery of the “common thing,” the city was born.  Most importantly, the emergence of the city can be understood as the “domestication” of war through the discovery of political justice—“justice” here meaning the standard of value in the quest for the common good.

In his Introduction, Manent indicates that this, his most ambitious work, is an “interpretation of the political development of the West,” but it is also apparent that the thrust of his interpretation is intended to offer a fresh examination of the origins of modernity, to uncover what he terms a “primary disposition” in the unfolding of the Western experience.  Whatever else it may be, modernity is a project, a vast collective action that in an important sense begins with the Greek invention of the city, for it is the city that is the arena of human action par excellence, the place where “people discover that they can govern themselves,” that their lives are not altogether at the mercy of the gods.  Typically, historians view modernity as a radical break with the past, locating its origins variously in the Reformation, or in the Scientific Revolution, or in the convulsions of 1789.  Nor does Manent deny that the period following the Middle Ages has been characterized by profound changes.  Yet he insists that the revolutionary dynamism of the modern era is of secondary significance when measured against the accomplishment of the Greek city, “a development of human energy of unprecedented intensity and quality.”  All subsequent Western history, he writes,

appears as the ever-renewed quest for the political form that would permit the gathering of the energies of the city while escaping the fate of the city, of the city that is free but subject to external and internal enmity.

While Manent’s reflections on the Greek experience provide valuable insights, it is his extended discussion of the Roman “enigma” that is most compelling.  In the genealogy of political forms, the city and the empire are the two antithetical “mother forms” of the ancient world.  Within the parameters of the Greek political experience, there is no rational process by which a republic might be transformed into an empire.  Such a metamorphosis might arise only by way of a decisive rupture.  Both Athens and Rome began as tribal monarchies and developed into republican regimes.  Athens, however, “consumed itself” and was eventually simply absorbed into the Macedonian Empire.  Rome, on the other hand, “renewed itself entirely” in the passage to empire.  This unprecedented transformation poses a number of problems that have all too often been neglected by political theory.  Moreover, Manent suggests that the Roman metamorphosis, properly understood, is not so much an abandonment of the form of the city as its “monstrous distention.”  Under the rule of the caesars, the city of Rome was not, like Athens, absorbed into the fabric of the empire; rather, the empire became a vast extension of the city, even as the republican form of the city became increasingly attenuated.  As Rome expanded territorially, her conquered subjects were transformed into citizens.  Yet as this process unfolded, the idea of the civitas began to lose definition, to blur at the edges, and to break free of the autochthonous understanding of the city so deeply embedded in Greek political thought.  This notion of a city “without limits” becomes visible especially in Cicero’s works, particularly De officiis.

Manent’s analysis of Cicero’s attempts to come to terms with the birth of the empire reveals striking anticipations of the modern era.  Unlike Aristotle, for whom the civic bond develops through speech and reason “in a community that is real . . . that can be seen, named and . . . touched,” Cicero extends the gradus societatis hominum to include the fellowship of the human race itself.  But, as Manent astutely notes, “it is impossible to consider humanity as such as a political form.”  Under the influence of Stoicism, reason and speech become detached from any particular city or regime and are placed at the service of a universal morality said to be the common inheritance of all civilized men.  Any “active concept” of the citizen is thus lost when the good citizen is defined, as Cicero defines him, as a privatus, a “simple citizen” whose primary attribute is his “equality” with those who dwell within the all-embracing pax of Roman authority.  As the role of the citizen is increasingly relegated to the private realm, the role of the magistrate, the dispenser of the rights guaranteed by the state, is elevated.  “Is this not,” Manent asks, “a sketch of the modern State that, elevated above society and separated from it, returns to it to assign to each member of society his or her rights?”

Manent asserts that from the time of Cicero to that of Montaigne there “extended a long—a very long—Ciceronian moment.”  What characterizes this protracted era, he argues, is the

indefinite character of the concrete political form and the need to formulate a rule of common life in the absence of this form. . . . [W]hat we call the Renaissance is the culmination of the Ciceronian moment and prepares its denouement.

At first blush, coupling Cicero with Montaigne might seem an unexpected move, since, after all, Montaigne was not a political philosopher.  Yet in the Essays there are a number of influential passages that draw parallels between the political disorder of Cato’s Rome and 16th-century France.  In these Montaigne abjures the ancient Greek and Roman quest for the best political regime.  Generalizing upon the disorder apparent in times of crisis, he notes that “human society holds and is knit together at any cost whatever.”  In short, there is a certain necessity in human affairs that we ignore at our peril, a necessity that “reconciles men and brings them together.”  Laws are merely rationalizations after the fact.  “These great . . . altercations about the best form of society and the rules most suitable to bind us, are altercations fit only for the exercise of our minds.”  If there is no “best regime,” Montaigne advises, then men would do better always to remember and to be guided instead by “our natural condition.”

Thus, Montaigne, along with his predecessor Machiavelli, prepares the “denouement” of the Ciceronian moment.  Like the author of the Essays, Machiavelli, in The Prince, renounces “imaginary” republics in favor of what he calls the “effectual truth,” which is not far removed from what Montaigne means by “our natural condition.”  If one wishes to found a new and lasting political order, the place to begin, Machiavelli argues, is not with a blueprint for the ideal regime or, for that matter, with the model of some particular regime in the past.  Rather, one must begin by going back to the beginning, to the reality of human disobedience.  However, it is Thomas Hobbes who, in his Leviathan, brings the Ciceronian moment to a decisive end, who brings to fruition what Montaigne and Machiavelli had begun.  Hobbes, too, assumes the “primordial fact of human disobedience,” but, unlike Machiavelli, he places at the center of his political theory not the prince (he who commands) but the subject (he who obeys).  This move is a masterly “simplification” insofar as it places Hobbes’s politics on a seemingly more “scientific” basis, for it shifts the focus toward the general condition of humanity, presumed to be “natural.”  Moreover, he effectively reduces politics to something instrumental.  The goal is no longer to seek the best among a variety of possible regimes; it is to find a political solution to a problem that is itself prepolitical.  Most importantly, Hobbes’s remedy for the dangerous consequences of disobedience sets up what Manent calls the “plane of equality.”  In the Hobbesian “war of all against all,” each man is equally subject to the presumptuous pride of the others; each man’s life and property is equally subject to dispossession.  Thus, it follows that if life, property, and the liberty of association are to be preserved, each man must be equally subject to the authority of the sovereign.  This atomistic and abstract notion of equality, Manent argues, is the cornerstone of the modern nation-state, replacing the struggle between the many and the few with the subjection of the all by the One.

It may be objected at this juncture that in leaping from Cicero to the Renaissance Manent’s account of the metamorphoses of the city has overlooked 15 centuries of Christian development.  It is of course the case that during this long interregnum the political problems that vexed Cicero and his contemporaries—the tension between empire and city, between imperial law and republican virtue—continued to be pondered.  But in Manent’s view, “Christian doctrine plays only a very weak role in political elaboration,” both before and after the collapse of the empire.  This is so because Christianity, unlike political theory, lacks an “operational discourse”—that is, a discourse that might justify a choice between competing political regimes. For that reason political debate during the Middle Ages tended to draw heavily upon Greek and Roman political concepts and exempla rather than upon Holy Scripture.  On the other hand Christianity does introduce a factor, elaborated most fatefully by Augustine, that contributed in a profoundly existential way to the social and political disorder that prevailed at the dawn of the modern era.  Augustine’s exhaustive anatomy of the two cities—the City of Man and the City of God—sets up what might be termed a metapolitical antithesis, for it posits the existence of an ideal city, the Heavenly City, over against which the justice of the earthly city must be measured and found radically insufficient.  The most ambitious attempt to reconcile the claims of the two cities was undoubtedly Dante’s De Monarchia, but it was, once again, Hobbes who, four centuries later, brought this double vision to an end by reducing the problem to one of power.  The claims of the spiritual power must be suppressed and all power placed in the hands of the sovereign, a solution which had already been in the making for some time during the rise of the absolutist monarchies.

Yet the Hobbesian solution simply prepares the way for a new division of power between the sovereign state and civil society, a division that is refined by such subsequent thinkers as John Locke.  By abolishing the duality of powers and erecting the state as the supreme arbiter of the rights of the individual, the architects of the modern regime sought a new unity—not the “given” unity of the ancient city which arose spontaneously through the struggle of the many and the few, but an artificial unity externally imposed by the state.  This is a unity that bears within itself a new separation, or what Karl Marx would characterize as “alienation.”  The citizen of the modern political state, Marx argues,

leads, not only in thought, in consciousness, but in reality, in life, a double existence. . . . He lives in the political community, where he regards himself as a communal being, and in civil society where he acts simply as a private individual.

Marx hoped, of course, to improve upon the Hobbesian conception of unity by revolutionary means that most would regard today as a formula for totalitarian rule.  But Marx’s analysis of the modern regime does, at least, recognize that the modern nation-state is not the objective arbiter that it pretends to be, but rather relentlessly pursues the neutralization of civil society by robbing it of any direct participation in the political process.  Manent notes the principle of separation that we accept almost without question today has spread inexorably through every aspect of our lives: “The State has mediated all the communities—the Church, the nation, classes, families.  [Yet] the unifier of all of them is at the same time the divider of each.”

In short, the modern state claims for itself a universality that was once claimed by the Church, though, as Manent is careful to note, the “universal community” of the latter never ceased to be rooted in the particularity of the Chosen People (the Church understood as the “new Israel”).  The modern state claims to have overcome the divisions both of the ancient city and of Christendom, but what is the nature of this novel universality?  The answer is that the nation-state, in a reprise of the Stoic vision of Cicero, makes its claim in the name of “humanity” itself.  Each nation-state is merely a particular manifestation of this elusive notion of the “human community.”  But what or whom does such a community include?  Everyone, of course.  But what, Manent asks, does that mean?  “Everybody living?  But by what right are those who are dead cut off from humanity?  By what right are the unborn cut off from humanity?”  Such an ill-defined and “undetermined” concept is clearly open to ideological manipulation and lacks any substantial political form.  Indeed, the appeal to “humanity” as a universal principle of mediation has become increasing shrill since the catastrophic events of the two world wars, and its fragility is more than evident in the ineffectual attempts of the United Nations to arbitrate international conflict.  At the close of his book Manent appears less than sanguine about the prospects for a rebirth of the city in the ancient sense of that term, a city that is authentically political.  Is there perhaps a new principle of mediation that would supersede the false transcendence of “humanity”?  He does not deny this possibility, but suggests that the appeal to humanity can “only protect what is and prohibit what could be.”  The Hebrews were lucky, notes Manent with grim irony, for “they only wandered forty years in the wilderness.”  As for us, we are for the foreseeable future condemned to suffer a self-imposed exile under the imperative of a modernity whose resources are now exhausted.

There is no question that in this work Manent has further established himself as one of the few political theorists in the Western world worth listening to.  At one point in his comments on Cicero, he notes that Cicero’s “lack of originality” is what “constitutes his originality.”  In a sense, that is true of Manent, as well, for like his Roman predecessor he “seeks to shed light from elsewhere on an experience that has not yielded its own clarity.”  Manent has no political program to promote, though he is clearly a conservative and, one might add, a deeply Catholic thinker.  Like Leo Strauss, whose influence is evident at many points in this text, he is a subtle interpreter of classical and early modern texts.  His genius lies in the details of his analyses, which can hardly be captured in a review of this length.  Some of his arguments will no doubt be contested, but what cannot be challenged is that The Metamorphoses of the City sheds fresh light on nearly every aspect of the Western political dynamic, reminding us forcefully that we are political animals (in the Aristotelian sense), and that our humanity depends on that recognition.


[Metamorphoses of the City: On the Western Dynamic, by Pierre Manent, translated by Marc LePain (Harvard University Press) 376 pp., $39.95]