A Politics Worthy of Man

COMMENTARY Conservatism

A Politics Worthy of Man

Jan 9, 2023 8 min read

Former Director, Simon Center for American Studies

Richard was Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
What does it mean to defend freedom, truth, virtue, and the sacred in the age of modern democratic man? And what does democracy itself even mean now? Cavan Images / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

We need a politics and law worthy of the human being, whose requirements depend upon government and who also ascends beyond government.

This national and democratic system of mutual accountability is built on everyone having a loyalty not to race or kin or tribe but as citizens of a nation.

Scientism and deterministic ideologies are everywhere at war with these features of our existence, denying the existence of the soul and even self-consciousness.

What does it mean to defend freedom, truth, virtue, and the sacred in the age of modern democratic man? And what does democracy itself even mean now?

Our period is deceitfully characterized as one of openness and progress, as defined by a European and American academic, media, and corporate class of enlightened busybodies: There is no need for the old religion, or for dated conceptions of human excellence. The past is bigoted, racist, and sexist. It must be transcended, whether it is American, British, French, or any Western nation’s. The only legitimate future is the one written by a universalist cosmopolitanism that is best understood as comprehensively borderless.

The borderless future extends beyond the refusal to defend national geographic lines. Moreover, the public philosophy that advances the borderless utopia does so under the guise of a seductive vision of a humanitarianism that promises individual emancipation, full equality, material plenty, permanent peace, and, most prominently, endless sexual liberties.

The key to this future is an ongoing consent by citizens to a globalist vision of ineluctable progress. But this simple consent is effectually devoid of the responsibility, burdens, and sacrifice that accompany real citizenship in a self-governing nation. These weights are too heavy for most persons, or so we are led to believe.

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Political action is surely required to counter this borderless future, and it has obviously begun. But action without contemplation, without a guiding public philosophy, will prove unable to replace the contemporary elite vision that we live and move in. We need a politics and law worthy of the human being, whose requirements depend upon government and who also ascends beyond government. The title of Daniel Mahoney’s new volume, “Recovering Politics, Civilization, and the Soul,” expresses well what we need.

The book is a series of reflective essays by Mahoney on the philosophical, theological, and political thinking of our best conservative theorists: Pierre Manent and the late Sir Roger Scruton. Manent and Scruton are worthy of contemplation because both have accurately and wisely penetrated the false anthropology and metaphysics that undergird our deficient politics. Mahoney’s devotion to their thought guides the reader through precisely what the errant thinking of our rulers consists in and how it should be contested at the level of ideas.

Pierre Manent’s apt formulation is that the vision of Europe’s ruling elite is for a post-political, post-religious, and post-familial continent. Much of this belief structure has etched itself into European consciousness, with dismal consequences becoming more evident by the day. The democratic politics of self-government by individual nation-states that articulate and reflect their conception of the common good, that define themselves by citizenship and a distinct loyalty to the nation, and the willingness of citizens to defend the territory of their birth and its borders, has been de-emphasized in thought and action. A distinct class of Europeans now contend that they are citizens of the world first, then citizens of Europe, and at some point, perhaps, citizens of the country of their birth.

These denizens believe in a world slowly joined together by commerce and human rights that will be administered by transnational bodies that enforce an ideological humanitarianism and egalitarianism. The political articulation required to bring a globalized borderless world into being, however, remains a near impossibility and would require tyrannical powers exercised over subject peoples, among other elements of domination. This postmodern humanitarian imperialism delights only the Brussels ruling class and the theologically corrupted members of the Vatican curia. And yet they persist.

Such comprehensive borderless thinking extends even to the human person, whose biological sex is open to redefinition. Who is to say what a woman is? The scientists will fill us in as they update their models of the human organism. The uses and abuses of science to appease official transgenderism now pour forth into virtually every major governmental, educational, and corporate institution.

The democratic nation-states of the West are led by a governing class that basks in what Roger Scruton once characterized as the “culture of repudiation.” Mahoney informs us that he has quoted this phrase dozens of times because it encapsulates “the phenomenon of Western self-hatred and self-recrimination so perfectly.” Scruton “gave a fitting name to a debilitating spirit we confront every day.” He knew its black soul well. His 1985 book Thinkers of the New Left investigated the intellectual Left, exposing their Marxist and nihilist pretensions in devastating fashion. The publisher, Longman, pulled it from publication after severe pressure from academics. Later, Scruton had to flee a public lecture in England, sensing that his personal safety was in jeopardy.

In 2019, Scruton was sacked by Tory housing minister James Brokenshire from an unpaid position promoting classical public architecture, after the New Statesman published a deceptively edited interview that made Scruton look like a racist. Although Scruton was later vindicated, after Douglas Murray proved conclusively that the interview was fraudulent, the ease with which a towering man of learning could be humiliated is indicative of the sickness deforming our public life. According to Scruton, this anti-culture aims, ultimately, to destroy national memory, Christianity, the family, self-government by free peoples, and other touchstones of culture and politics that Western nations have relied on for direction and purpose.

Both Scruton and Manent, Mahoney observes, show “the rare ability to distinguish between humane national loyalty (the love of country and the willing-ness to defend it) and the nationalist distortion of national loyalty.” An agg-ressive nationalist spirit is not the normal condition of national political membership. This distinction is denied, Mahoney argues, “by the partisans of antipolitical cosmopolitanism” who “see the leaving behind of the nation-state as the essential precondition for peace.”

Nazi Germany looms large in this critique of the nation-state. But Scruton’s response underscores that the secular nations of the modern West once took it for granted that the nation did not repudiate God, the Bible, and the moral law. Nazi Germany did these things and made the nation an idol, one that demanded murder and destruction. Under Hitler, Scruton concludes, the German nation fell prey to “anger, resentment, and fear.” The result was that “all Europe was threatened by the German nation, but only because the German nation was threatened by itself.”

The spirit of national loyalty, Scruton states, “involves a love of home and a preparedness to defend it.” In no way does it demand the marginalization of other peoples and the homicidal mania that its current detractors insist are its essential properties. Probing more deeply, Scruton argues that national loyalty is built on territorial membership. That is, citizens of diverse backgrounds root their love in the nation itself, as defined by its borders, history, and laws. This is what permits peace and prosperity to exist in Western nations whose citizens are mostly strangers to one another. Given their love of country, they can bear hardships together, defend their country, pay taxes, and accept various political outcomes they disagree with. This national and democratic system of mutual accountability is built on everyone having a loyalty not to race or kin or tribe but as citizens of a nation.

Manent sounds themes complementary to Scruton on the nation-state but speaks more forthrightly on the role Christianity should play in the public square. He emphasizes the role that the modern project of the deification of the human will plays in the EU regime and its attempt to eliminate Christianity and the self-governing nations of Europe. One part of this effort involves a limitless conception of rights, an understanding of individual autonomy that soars above every human association. Those rights are undergirded by judges and reinforced by a spiritual principle let loose in modern society of individuals who live by consent but not communion. The EU’s problem is that it has nothing to replace the nation with as far as government is concerned, Manent notes.

Communion, liberty, truth, and consent must be joined together, Manent argues. And it is the nation-state that unites these elements in a decisive political form. Consent is what citizens give after duties, rights, and the terms of political argument have been defined. But that political debate goes on and is never finally ended. The attempt to govern ourselves in common means that we understand ourselves as citizens who combine the classical virtues of courage and prudence alongside charity and forgiveness. Charity and forgiveness come from Christianity; they are the Christian mark on European states and should be cultivated while any attempt at theocracy is resisted. Communion is created, Manent observes, when a sense of “belonging” is embedded in national memory, and this communion will shape consent. The attempt to do away with communion results in its “longings” becoming, in Mahoney’s phrasing, “illiberal separatist and religious movements.” Such movements will not understand democracy, only communion.

Communion is necessary for the crucial action of citizens putting words and deeds in common as a self-governing people. As beings with language, humans must give and receive reasons for the exercise of political rule. Moreover, communion also involves recognition of virtue and excellence as the standards of public life, along with the liberty of the individual.

Against this robust conception of political self-government, the EU regime posits the sovereign individual governed without a truly political body. Even consent, the master principle of the sovereign individual, is not taken seriously by the EU governing class, Manent notes. Such “pure democracy” gave us an absurd result in 2005, “when the European elite responded to ‘No’ votes on the European constitution in France and the Netherlands by arbitrarily transforming the rejected constitution into the Treaty of Lisbon, a treaty which would not need popular consent.”

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In the end, Manent states, the EU regime embraces its own undoing. It chases from memory both Christianity and the European peoples’ experiences of self-government, while simultaneously admitting multitudes of Muslim immigrants and refugees who generally lack the EU’s secular orientation and have no self-conscious understanding of themselves as autonomous individuals. They are much more likely to locate themselves as members of a mosque and family than as the deracinated individuals of contemporary Western countries. These immigrants look at their new countries as entities devoid of moral substance and meaning. Moreover, confidence in a borderless cosmopolitan future is not shared by America, Russia, India, or China. Europe has embraced a self-righteous project, according to Manent, but such moralizing is devoid of political substance and consequently is becoming unmoored from reality.

Ultimately, both Manent and Scruton judge our public philosophy to be one that misses the full human person, embodied and under God. We separate the soul from God in a form of almost nihilistic denial. Manent’s scholarship represents the attempt to hold together classical philosophy, the Christian proposition, and the art of self-government. “The person, freedom, and the sacred,” according to Scruton, are the “three great transcendental features of human experience.”

Scientism and deterministic ideologies are everywhere at war with these features of our existence, denying the existence of the soul and even self-consciousness. In one of his most spiritually penetrating essays, Scruton argues: “Without the sacred, man lives in a depersonalized world: a world where all is permitted, and where nothing has absolute value. That, I believe, is the principal lesson of modern history, and if we tremble before it, it is because it contains a judgment on us.”

Scruton tragically died of cancer in 2019. His reflections in the face of death are worth quoting in full because “at the edge of things” his soul reached for the living God and found gratitude and love.

Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen. Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude. 

As Mahoney concludes, Scruton shows us “that the Good is not unsupported, that truth and moral value are rooted in the very ‘soul of the world.’”

This piece originally appeared in The National Review

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