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(PDF) Pierre Manent: Natural Law and Human Rights ... - ResearchGate Pierre Manent: Natural Law and Human Rights: Toward a Recovery of Practical Reason. Translated by Ralph C. Hancock with a foreword by Daniel J. Mahoney. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame ...

Pierre Manent is one of Frances leading public intellectuals and the author of
numerous works of political philosophy on vital topics such as the European
nation state, the assimilation of Muslims into French society, the origins of
modernity, and the role of Christian faith in a secular world. Despite his rep-
utation as a formidable Catholic conservative, Manent is actually quite
balanced and moderate in his views, a reection of his intellectual heroes
Alexis de Tocqueville, Raymond Aron, and, as we learn here, Thomas
Aquinas. In this book, Manent takes on the daunting task of formulating a
Thomistic conception of natural law in order to provide an antidote to the
moral confusion that he nds in contemporary human rights.
The book is an expansion of lectures delivered in 2017 for the Etienne
Gilson Chair at the Institut Catholique in Paris, translated into elegant
English by Ralph Hancock and lucidly introduced by Daniel Mahoney.
Chapters 15 explain the problem of limitless freedom inherent in human
rights, which Manent traces to Hobbes and, interestingly, to Luther and
Machiavelli, culminating in recent phenomena such as the gender revolu-
tions, multiculturalism, and the cultural shocks of the 1968 momentin
France. The sixth chapter, along with an appendix entitled Recovering
Laws Intelligence,presents a possible solution by reformulating Thomistic
natural law as a notion of practical reason.The conclusion is a sober
Tocquevillian appeal to divine providenceand human wisdom for a
recovery of virtuous liberty under law (130). Whether Manents analysis
and proposal are sufcient is a question I shall address at the end.
Manent begins by explaining the problem of natural rights, later known as
human rights, with an account of liberalism that is both familiar and novel.
He argues that the concept of rights arose as a rejection of the classical
Aristotelian and Christian notions of government based on an authoritative
law that established an objective idea of the good life. By disavowing such
a law, the modern state deprived itself of a legitimate claim to command cit-
izens beyond the satisfaction of selsh passions such as self-preservation and
material comfort or the protection of personal autonomy. The theoretical
premise of the modern position, expressed by Hobbes, is the state of nature
where human beings are viewed abstractly as free and equal individuals
The Review of Politics, page 1 of 3, 2020.
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of
University of Notre Dame.
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without a specic nature that ties them to families, social groups, and nations.
Manent calls this process denaturalization(11) and argues that it causes the
erosion of authoritative institutions, while paradoxically increasing the power
of the sovereign state as it takes on the role of liberating individuals from tra-
ditional restraints. The inuence of abstract individualism over centuries has
made the classical ideal of liberty under law in a virtuous republic
increasingly difcult to achieve, leaving instead arbitrary freedom and an
overbearing statea situation that Manent refers to literally as an-archic,
meaning, without an arche or ruling principle to command obedience
(6474, 97). This critique is familiar to us from the writings of Burke and
Tocqueville and, more recently, from Patrick DeneensWhy Liberalism Failed
(Yale University Press, 2018).
The novel part of Manents analysis lies in the subtle way that he traces the
process of denaturalizationnot only to Hobbes but also to Machiavelli and
Luther. Machiavelli diminished human nature by reducing political prudence
to amoral necessity and by rejecting the sacred limits of conscience. Luthers
devotion to salvation by faith alonehad a similar effect in undermining
responsible Christian citizenship by denying the practical consciencethat
recognizes both the realism of the way we areand the nobility of the
way we oughtto be (3441). Thus, a complex blend of Machiavellis
realism, Luthers apolitical faith, and Hobbess state of nature undermined
the practical basis of natural law in the lower and higher impulses of
human nature. In reecting on Manents account of denaturalization, I am
puzzled by his omission of German philosophy from Kant to Nietzsche
and Heidegger for its role in diminishing the grounds of natural law and
driving freedom toward personal autonomy and moral relativism.
Denaturalization also has more recent sources, such as French existentialism,
which contributed to the 1960s cultural revolution that Manent believes dealt
a mortal blow to Frances cultural heritage (7576). One of its aftershocks was
the sexual revolution, which Manent sharply criticizes for denying the natural
differences of men and women and promoting marriage for all; these new
norms have been imposed with such zeal that they sound like nature crying
out that there is no natural law(1617).
This striking formulation is paradoxical, of course, yet it contains the seeds
of hope because it implies that natural law persists even for modern ideo-
logues, if we look to practical reasonrather than to metaphysics or cosmol-
ogy for signs of our true nature. This appeal to practical reason is decisive for
Manent, but it is not easy to grasp. Although he says that Thomas Aquinas is
certainly the author who can best help us(119) and Christian Aristotelianism
is most useful, his principal claim is that natural law must be found in the
acting person”—in the motives and goods inherent in practical choices,
which Manent identies as the pleasant, the useful, and the noble(101).
He presents these three motives as objective components of human
naturewhich can be detected in diverse cultures and in all forms of moral
deliberation. Without systematically proving this universal proposition,
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Manent indicates that it can be vindicated by the negative experiences of dis-
torted ideologies, such as communism, which tried but failed to abolish the
natural attachment to private property and religion; he also predicts that
the attempt to redene marriage as separated from its natural end of procre-
ation will fail (1089). In other words, Manents case for recovering natural
law rests mainly on what I would call the push backof human nature in
practical experience which shows that ideologies of limitless rights or com-
munism eventually fail because they defy the permanent structure of
human nature that real people perceive, however dimly, as the natural
basis of the good society. Manent concludes that such experiences reect
the Thomistic idea of natural law as a participation of the eternal law in ratio-
nal creatures and the providential ordering of the world (129).
After reading Manents challenging book, however, one feels a certain dis-
satisfaction with the brevity and thinness of his sketch of natural law. Manent
hardly engages the texts of AquinassTreatise on Lawin the Summa
Theologiae, and he substitutes his three motives for Aquinass teleological
framework, which expresses natural law in terms of natural inclinations to
the natural ends of self-preservation, procreation, and rational perfection
(129). Thomist scholars have debated extensively whether Aquinass presen-
tation is based on self-evident practical principles or theoretical claims about
mans essential nature as a rational and social animal. It would be valuable to
know if Manent is inuenced by the New Natural Law of Finnis and Grisez,
which emphasizes practical reason as the source of self-evident basic human
goods. Manent might also have compared his approach with The Splendor of
Truth (1993) by John Paul II, which formulates natural law in terms of the
acting personby combining traditional Thomism, modern biology, and
Christian personalism. There is also Martin Rhonheimers lengthy treatise
Natural Law and Practical Reason: A Thomistic View of Moral Autonomy
(Fordham University Press, 2000), which pregures Manents argument in
important respects. I conclude, therefore, that Manents book is a powerful
diagnosis of the problem of limitless human rights with an admittedly
modest proposal to preserve minimal humanity against the assaults of . . .
disordered desire(127).
Robert P. Kraynak
Colgate University
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