At First Things, Pierre Manent has a lengthy, provocative essay, which begins:
We French have for some years been overcome by a furor for republicanism and for citizenship. There is no activity so humble that it cannot take on an intimidating nobility as soon as it is associated with citizenship. The republic calls us, besieges us, smothers us—but where is the republic? Are we part of a republic, or does our intemperate usage of the term mean only that we have forgotten its meaning?
I raise these questions in a nonpartisan, non-polemical way. I do not mean: Our republic is no longer republican enough; we must try harder! I mean: This collective body that we make up together, is it still legitimate to call it a republic? This question can only be raised seriously if we suspend our participation in the current political debate and strive to grasp “republic” as a discernable and shareable object of thought and subject of action.
(Emphasis supplied.) While Manent is better situated than we are to diagnose a French furor for republicanism and citizenship, he would not be wrong to say that, even in the United States, “there is no activity so humble that it cannot take on an intimidating nobility as soon as it is associated with citizenship.” Indeed, he would not be wrong to say that about nearly any liberal democracy. But as we work through Manent’s argument, it becomes clear that his vision of the republic is fundamentally illiberal. Indeed, it seems to be a rejection of the liberal-democratic regime altogether. To an illiberal Catholic of an integralist bent—as we shall soon see—Manent’s arguments (at least as we understand them) are not especially novel. But they do point out the basic problem with liberal western democracy: the rejection of the common good.
Pushing his initial question—where is the republic? are we part of a republic?—Manent writes:
What, then, is the basis of republican government? We hardly ever pose this question; or rather we answer it in a hasty way. We say in effect: The basis of republican government is in principle the pursuit of the general interest. But, unfortunately, in practice particular interests usually prevail. Equipped with this important information, we citizens are full of admiration for our good intentions and pitilessly severe towards the politicians who of course betray them. How might we avoid this mix of moralism and skepticism that makes us both idle and querulous citizens?
For once we must think not of ourselves but of those who govern us. What is the basis of their action? We must not by any means ask them, since they will repeat the platitudes called for by the representative system. Whom to ask, then? The advantage of the non-representative republic, especially the Roman Republic, is that it makes available to us the spirit and motives of republican government, which are more visible because they are not veiled or distorted by the enormous artifice of representation. Without necessarily following Montaigne in “taking up the fight” for Pompey or Brutus, we would thus be well-advised to interrogate the Romans.
(Emphasis supplied.) We take Manent to mean by “general interest” the “common good.” (He says as much later in the article.) But the pursuit of the general interest—the pursuit of the common good—is the basis for all government. Indeed, we contend that this is an ordinance of the natural law. In other words, Manent’s definition of “republican government” is simply the definition of “government.” Manent trades in a tautology: the definition of government is government. And because this is the case, as we’ll see here in a couple minutes, we very quickly depart from the liberal-democratic ideal of the republic. That is, we get away from a broadly representative democracy with a generous franchise and a separation of powers.
Before exploring Manent’s point, we must raise, if not a classicist’s objection, then an antiquarian’s objection. Manent goes on to “interrogate the Romans” through Shakespeare, arguing that,
Shakespeare’s Roman plays follow faithfully Plutarch’s Lives. A historian and philosopher, Plutarch was admired by Montaigne and Rousseau for his acute judgment of human actions and for his skill in revealing the bases of these actions. The drama of the theater adds to these qualities, for it is all about action, and there all speech serves action or is bound up with it, thus bringing to the surface, by its very form, the springs of human endeavor. Shakespeare’s Roman plays thus make available to us not, of course, a historical document, but an interrogation or inquiry into the motives of the actors of the Roman Republic, the regime that left the deepest mark on the history of Europe and of the West.
On one hand, it seems to us that this is a reasonable approach. Certainly generations have looked to Rome or Shakespeare or both of them for insight on human nature and government. On the other hand, there is rather a lot of mediation here. We interrogate the Romans by interrogating Shakespeare who interrogated Plutarch who interrogated the actors of the Roman Republic. There are, of course, other sources available to us, including some of the key players of the Roman Republic, like Caesar and Cicero, to say nothing of other observers like Horace and Catullus. We have, also, authors who wrote in the wake of the collapse of the Republic and the early decades of the empire, like Seneca and Tacitus. All of these authors had the austere virtues of the Roman Republic in mind and the balance of these virtues with the paroxysms shaking Rome at the time. Consider, for example, Horace’s Carmina II.15:
Iam pauca aratro iugera regiae
moles relinquent, undique latius
extenta visentur Lucrino
stagna lacu, platanusque caelebs
evincet ulmos; tum violaria et
myrtus et omnis copia narium
spargent olivetis odorem
fertilibus domino priori,
tum spissa ramis laurea fervidos
excludet ictus. Non ita Romuli
praescriptum et intonsi Catonis
auspiciis veterumque norma.
Privatus illis census erat brevis,
commune magnum: nulla decempedis
metata privatis opacam
porticus excipiebat Arcton,
nec fortuitum spernere caespitem
leges sinebant, oppida publico
sumptu iubentes et deorum
templa novo decorare saxo.
(Our poetic sense is not so good as to provide an excellent English rendering of this poem, which many of our readers likely read in a high school or college Latin class. Certainly Horace has been translated.) One might well find in Horace’s poem echoes of the discourse of any number of American or European conservatives. While it is true that Plutarch or Plutarch-through-Shakespeare might dramatize “motives of the actors of the Roman Republic,” it is no less true that these actors or their coevals themselves left a record of, if not their personal motives (though Cicero, for example, certainly did that), then the ideals they wished they were motivated by. Yet Manent sets out to explore the Roman ideals mediated through Plutarch and Shakespeare.
Can Plutarch and Shakespeare really be better sources on the Roman Republic than M. Tullius Cicero, one of the last great defenders of the Republic in its final years? Or Q. Horatius Flaccus, one of Brutus’s soldiers at Philippi and then a poet in the circle of Augustus and Maecenas? This is to say (elaborately) that we suspect that Manent takes Plutarch-through-Shakespeare in part because Montaigne and Rousseau recommended Plutarch and everyone recommends Shakespeare. In other words, we are given the Enlightenment-approved commentator on the Roman Republic mediated through an Elizabethan dramatist of unusual talent. We think Manent is playing a game with us here. Plutarch and Shakespeare are cornerstones of Enlightenment, liberal thought. However, as we have said, we will see that Manent comes to some conclusions entirely at odds with the liberal-democratic regime. One might expect someone quoting lengthy passages from Cicero and Horace to be an illiberal, but someone quoting Shakespeare? Never! Perish the thought! How could someone derive something so wicked from that most humane dramatist?
Back to Manent, though.
Recall that Manent defines republican government as government generally (at least as Aristotle, Thomas, and Leo XIII would all define government). At first, this seems to present a problem for Manent’s argument, not least because he uses terms like republic, which have specific content in this age. But Manent’s argument, upon closer inspection, is really not about the republican form of government at all. Instead, Manent wants to make a point about true politics in the age of liberal democracy. Unfortunately, because Manent uses the language of liberal democracy, he cannot make his point as easily or as directly as someone who is not bound to that language. It would be, to put it another way, much easier for a Thomist, especially one familiar with De Koninck and Grenier, to make Manent’s argument directly and fairly simply.
Let’s work through the problem a little bit, to see what we mean. First of all, Manent cannot mean a republic in the sense that most liberals mean. That is, he cannot mean a representative democracy with a broad franchise and separation of powers. His definition of republican government—the pursuit of the common good—is wholly incompatible with that liberal concept of a republic. Such a statement, we acknowledge, may take some careful justification. Consider first what St. Thomas Aquinas says in the De Regno (c. 1):
Si ergo naturale est homini quod in societate multorum vivat, necesse est in hominibus esse per quod multitudo regatur. Multis enim existentibus hominibus et unoquoque id, quod est sibi congruum, providente, multitudo in diversa dispergeretur, nisi etiam esset aliquis de eo quod ad bonum multitudinis pertinet curam habens; sicut et corpus hominis et cuiuslibet animalis deflueret, nisi esset aliqua vis regitiva communis in corpore, quae ad bonum commune omnium membrorum intenderet. Quod considerans Salomon dicit: ubi non est gubernator, dissipabitur populus.
In Phelan’s translation, as revised by Fr. Eschmann (while we have not the poetic sense to translate Horace, we do have just enough Latin to judge that this translation is good enough, in addition to its other charms), this is rendered:
If, then, it is natural for man to live in the society of many, it is necessary that there exist among men some means by which the group may be governed. For where there are many men together and each one is looking after his own interest, the multitude would be broken up and scattered unless there were also an agency to take care of what appertains to the commonweal. In like manner, the body of a man or any other animal would disintegrate unless there were a general ruling force within the body which watches over the common good of all members. With this in mind, Solomon says [Eccl. 4:9]: “Where there is no governor, the people shall fall.”
(Emphasis supplied.) Recall that we know from Aristotle and Thomas that, man being a political animal, it is natural for man to live in society. And since there must be some sort of government in society—otherwise the society would fall apart—we may say that it is natural for there to be government. In nature, Aristotle reminds us at the beginning of the Politics, there are rulers and ruled. This government, if it be true government and not tyranny, must be aimed at the common good (De Regno c. 3):
Contingit autem in quibusdam, quae ordinantur ad finem, et recte, et non recte procedere. Quare et in regimine multitudinis et rectum, et non rectum invenitur. Recte autem dirigitur unumquodque quando ad finem convenientem deducitur; non recte autem quando ad finem non convenientem. Alius autem est finis conveniens multitudini liberorum, et servorum. Nam liber est, qui sui causa est; servus autem est, qui id quod est, alterius est. Si igitur liberorum multitudo a regente ad bonum commune multitudinis ordinetur, erit regimen rectum et iustum, quale convenit liberis. Si vero non ad bonum commune multitudinis, sed ad bonum privatum regentis regimen ordinetur, erit regimen iniustum atque perversum, unde et dominus talibus rectoribus comminatur per Ezech. XXXIV, 2, dicens: vae pastoribus qui pascebant semetipsos (quasi sua propria commoda quaerentes): nonne greges a pastoribus pascuntur? Bonum siquidem gregis pastores quaerere debent, et rectores quilibet bonum multitudinis sibi subiectae.
Again Phelan and Eschmann:
Now it happens in certain things which are, ordained towards an end that one may proceed in a right way and also in a wrong way. So, too, in the government of a multitude there is a distinction between right and wrong. A thing is rightly directed when it is led towards a befitting end; wrongly when it is led towards an unbefitting end. Now the end which befits a multitude of free men is different from that which befits a multitude of slaves, for the free man is one who exists for his own sake, while the slave, as such, exists for the sake of another. If, therefore, a multitude of free men is ordered by the ruler towards the common good of the multitude, that rulership will be right and just, as is suitable to free men. If, on the other hand, a rulership aims, not at the common good of the multitude, but at the private good of the ruler, it will be an unjust and perverted rulership. The Lord, therefore, threatens such rulers, saying by the mouth of Ezekiel: “Woe to the shepherds that feed themselves (seeking, that is, their own interest) : should not the flocks be fed by the shepherd?” Shepherds indeed should seek the good of their flocks, and every ruler, the good of the multitude subject to him.
None of this is especially complicated from the perspective of a Thomist. (We will see more of this in a moment.) But to summarize: it is natural for men to live in society, and in order to live in society, there must be a ruler. The ruler must order the society to the common good. (Aquinas repeats that the unity of peace is the temporal common good.) If the ruler does not order society to the common good—if, in other words, the ruler pursues its own private good—it will be “an unjust and perverted rulership.” He will be a tyrant. Government, therefore, supposes rule ordered to the common good.
Aquinas goes on to argue that that rule by one is best, insofar as it accords best with nature, to say nothing of God’s rule over the entire universe. In nature, we see all sorts of corporate entities ruled by one. The body is ruled by the heart and the soul by reason. Even the beehive is ruled by one bee, Aquinas observes. Thus, rule by one accords with nature. By the same token, Aquinas contends that rule by many is inherently unstable, and incapable of guiding the state in the unity of peace. Now, it becomes more stable as the many becomes fewer, but one is still better than a more united few. Following Aquinas’s argument, then, we see that he holds that a monarchy is best able to preserve the unity of peace—that is, the temporal common good—which is the end of government, a natural component of society. As the number of people with a share in the government increases, the ability of the government to rule according to the common good is diminished. In consequence, one could very easily say that a monarchy is the form of government required by nature.
One would be, well, not quite right to say that nature requires a monarchy, however. The recent magisterium—recalling the divine mandate to the Church to interpret and defend the natural law—makes clear that the options are broader than monarchy. Leo XIII in Diuturnum illud observed that,
There is no question here respecting forms of government, for there is no reason why the Church should not approve of the chief power being held by one man or by more, provided only it be just, and that it tend to the common advantage. Wherefore, so long as justice be respected, the people are not hindered from choosing for themselves that form of government which suits best either their own disposition, or the institutions and customs of their ancestors.
(Emphasis supplied.) And in Immortale Dei, he returned to the point, stating that:
The right to rule is not necessarily, however, bound up with any special mode of government. It may take this or that form, provided only that it be of a nature of the government, rulers must ever bear in mind that God is the paramount ruler of the world, and must set Him before themselves as their exemplar and law in the administration of the State. For, in things visible God has fashioned secondary causes, in which His divine action can in some wise be discerned, leading up to the end to which the course of the world is ever tending. In like manner, in civil society, God has always willed that there should be a ruling authority, and that they who are invested with it should reflect the divine power and providence in some measure over the human race.
They, therefore, who rule should rule with evenhanded justice, not as masters, but rather as fathers, for the rule of God over man is most just, and is tempered always with a father’s kindness. Government should, moreover, be administered for the well-being of the citizens, because they who govern others possess authority solely for the welfare of the State. Furthermore, the civil power must not be subservient to the advantage of any one individual or of some few persons, inasmuch as it was established for the common good of all. But, if those who are in authority rule unjustly, if they govern overbearingly or arrogantly, and if their measures prove hurtful to the people, they must remember that the Almighty will one day bring them to account, the more strictly in proportion to the sacredness of their office and preeminence of their dignity. “The mighty shall be mightily tormented.” Then, truly, will the majesty of the law meet with the dutiful and willing homage of the people, when they are convinced that their rulers hold authority from God, and feel that it is a matter of justice and duty to obey them, and to show them reverence and fealty, united to a love not unlike that which children show their parents. “Let every soul be subject to higher powers.” To despise legitimate authority, in whomsoever vested, is unlawful, as a rebellion against the divine will, and whoever resists that, rushes willfully to destruction. “He that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation.” To cast aside obedience, and by popular violence to incite to revolt, is therefore treason, not against man only, but against God.
(Emphasis supplied.) This is to say, therefore, that while a monarchy may be the best form of government (and tyranny the worst), it is by no means the form of government required by nature. What is required by nature, however, is that governments rule with even-handed justice, working for the common good and the well-being of the citizens. One may say, therefore, that a monarchy is the form of government favored by nature, even if the strict requirement of nature is that the form of government, whatever it is, be just and serve the common good. There is, therefore, no conflict between Leo and Thomas (on this point).
This is all sort of basic, Thomistic thinking on government. But with this thinking in mind, one easily sees that Manent simply cannot have the liberal-democratic ideal of the republic in mind. Indeed, starting from Manent’s basic definition, one arrives easily at monarchy, not the liberal-democratic state. Manent is not attempting to construct a justification for the liberal-democratic state. Perhaps the use of “republic” is the problem. Perhaps Manent would have been better off to say “government rightly conceived,” but this would set off all sorts of alarms, just as quoting Cicero and Horace at great length would set off alarms. For example, Manent’s republic is ruled by the few, not the many. This is, of course, an excellent trick; Manent observes that in France (and the United States and elsewhere) there is a mania for republicanism and citizenship. Yet, taking the basic building block of the republic at face value, one arrives very quickly at a very different model for government. As we said, Manent’s conclusions are fundamentally illiberal. But, because he discusses these matters obliquely and through the mediated content of Plutarch-through-Shakespeare, his illiberal state is not as distinct and the illiberal republic a Laval Thomist would sketch.
But make no mistake: Manent is talking about an illiberal state. One may confirm this suspicion, if it remains a suspicion, when Manent writes:
The republic is the regime that allows and encourages the most action. This can be seen in Rome, and we see it in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a “republic disguised under the form of monarchy,” as Montesquieu put it. We see it in America’s founding, an extraordinary founding, and we see it in France in the great movement of ’89, especially if this movement is understood to include, as it ought, the adventure of the empire.
Today we expect from a republic the opposite of a republic. We demand from it the least possible action, or what we call “freedom.” For us, freedom is a world without commandment or obedience. It is a world in which public action can neither begin nor commend anything. In practice, as I have noted, we ask our representatives and those who govern us to show their disinterestedness in defending our interests. In this we give evidence of a very naive immorality, especially insofar as we use a moralizing language that prevents us from grasping the moral bases of a truly republican regime. Service to the republic cannot be disinterested, because it is paid for by what is most precious in the eyes of ambitious citizens, that is, the honors granted by the republic, which boil down to public esteem. It is not disinterestedness that we should be asking of those who govern us, but rather ambition. It has been too long since we had the rare benefit of being governed by a truly ambitious statesman. The conviction has taken hold that our regime would be more republican if it ignored political rule still more. Political leaders are to serve our interests rather than commend our collective actions. The reigning social philosophy postulates the power and self-sufficiency of a spontaneous social form that would bring together order and freedom without the mediation of political rule. This is to abandon society to its inertia, that is, its corruption. Thus places and states of toxic stagnation have formed, spreading and producing cysts on the social body over the last ten, twenty, or thirty years; these places have never known the presence of political rule.
(Emphasis supplied.) We admit that Manent’s talk of action is a little opaque. But it seems to us that by action he means something in the nature of “rule.” His brief enthusiasm for “the adventure of empire” suggests something broader than mere rule, though one must remember empire may be said in many ways. Recall, for example, Benedict’s enthusiasm in Caritas in veritate (no. 67) for supranational government:
One also senses the urgent need to find innovative ways of implementing the principle of the responsibility to protect, and of giving poorer nations an effective voice in shared decision-making. This seems necessary in order to arrive at a political, juridical and economic order which can increase and give direction to international cooperation for the development of all peoples in solidarity. To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago. Such an authority would need to be regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good, and to make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth. Furthermore, such an authority would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights.
(Footnotes and formatting omitted.) In other words, one may find, if one is so inclined, a connection between rule ordered to the common good and Manent’s “adventure of empire,” and one can find both in “action.” However, action as Manent means it is almost the essence of illiberal rule.
In essence, Manent wants a lawgiver in the Thomistic sense. He wants someone who will hand down ordinances of practical reason shaped to the common good (ST Ia IIae q.90 a.1 ad 2; a.2 co.; a.3 co.). He wants someone to, as Thomas says in the De Regno, provide a general ruling force to keep the state together. And the purpose of law is to make men simply good (ST Ia IIae q.92 a.1). All of this presupposes, as we have said on previous occasions, subordination to the common good (e.g., ST Ia IIae q.90 a.3 ad 3; q.92 a.1 ad 3). This is squarely at odds with Manent’s diagnosis of the modern concept of freedom as “a world without commandment or obedience.” This is, as Fr. Grenier would say, liberalism in its fully developed state: something akin to radical individualism. In other words, Manent recognizes what any Catholic who thinks with the tradition of Aristotle, Thomas, and Leo XIII knows; liberalism is simply incompatible with good government. Good government requires the ruler—ideally, but not necessarily, a unitary ruler—to order society to the common good. This requires virtuous rulers and virtuous subjects, all of whom understand their place in this order. Modern liberalism, demanding that the ruler serve everyone’s individual interests one way and another, cannot be squared with this vision of the well-ordered state.
Manent diagnoses the consequences of liberalism well: the political form of the state breaks down. Yet Manent also recognizes that man, being a political animal, destined by nature to live in society, knows that something is wrong with the modern state. The paralysis of government, the increasingly nonexistent choice among leadership candidates, and the sense that ever larger numbers of people are being left out of peace and prosperity are all signs that something is not right. Manent suggests that into this situation various candidates have come, offering solutions in the form, on the one hand, of the European Union and, on the other, of nationalism. (The same can be said of the United States.) What he does not observe explicitly is that no one is offering a return to rule rightly conceived. No one is promising to order the state to virtue and the common good. The promises are always that this or that private good (or aggregate of private goods) will be preferred to some other private good. England over Brussels. Europe over England. The United States over Mexico. This group of citizens over that group of citizens or non-citizens. So on and so forth. Perhaps, however, this is what he means when he talks about the tragedy of the republic. Yet he’d be better to say this is the tragedy of liberalism. The promise of freedom ultimately results in the failure of politics rightly conceived.