The Greatness and Misery of Liberalism

PIERRE MANENT teaches political philosophy in the Centre d’études sociologiques et politiques Raymond Aron (CESPRA) in Paris. His many books include Democracy Without Nations? (ISI Books, 2007) and, most recently, Les métamorphoses de la cité: Essai sur la dynamique de l’occident (Flammarion, 2010).

Contrary to what is often said, liberalism
is not foreign to France. Some of
the most profound, incisive, or influential
authors of the liberal tradition are French.
It is true that the tone of French liberalism
in general is more serious, even somber,
than upbeat and victorious. France is
the country of “sad liberalism” or “liberal
melancholy.” I do not claim to belong to
the great French liberal tradition, but you
will get the impression, I fear, during the
course of these remarks that I share at least
its sadness or melancholy. I would have
liked to have brought better news, but I
could not.

Perhaps the best way to enter directly
into the question that concerns us is to see
that, in its fullest meaning, liberalism is
the revolution of the rights of man (or of
human rights, as one says in English).

By “revolution” I do not mean a sudden
upheaval like the French Revolution, nor
a gradual, very long-term development
like “the democratic revolution” that Tocqueville
both contemplated and analyzed.
I understand revolution as the crystallization
of new principles of collective order,
with the various effects of reworking and
reordering the world that these principles
will soon have on human life in all its

The Revolution of the Rights of
Man: An Effort at a Definition

How can we most appropriately approach
this crystallization of new principles, this
“moment of the rights of man”? It seems to
me that the history of philosophy provides
the most relevant point of reference: the
revolution was really inaugurated when
the notion of the rights of man was philosophically
articulated, that is, during the
second half of the seventeenth century.

Where did this notion come from? To
what did it respond? It responded to the
following problem: What, it was asked, is
the best possible government for Christian
peoples? By “Christian peoples” I mean
the peoples who have heard and accepted
the Christian message of a new City, of a
true universal community.

This Christian affirmation introduced
an unprecedented political problem: How
can each political body govern itself, while
also recognizing the superior authority of
the universal religious community? What
place should be given to the spiritual power
when, because of it men, “seeing double”
as Hobbes so vividly phrased it, no longer
know whom to obey? Rousseau’s diagnosis
and judgment were harsh: “From this
double authority there results a perpetual
conflict of jurisdiction that has made any
good government impossible in Christian

It then became a question of finding a
new principle of government that would
reunite men who were internally divided
by the separation of the two powers, the
temporal and the spiritual. One therefore
was obliged to reconsider the very foundations
and meaning of collective life. Until
then, to live humanly meant taking part in
the human association, whether political
or religious, and therefore obeying the law
that was the rule of that association. This
principle had obtained for all the associations
known until then: for the Greek cities
as well as Rome, for the Church as well
as the Jewish people, for the new kingdoms
of Europe, etc. Henceforth—this is
the new principle—it will no longer be a
matter of obeying the law, but of asserting
one’s rights. The new meaning of the
political order is to protect the rights of
individuals. Until now what was common
had held the highest authority. Now, legitimate
order springs from the individual
and returns to him. Listen to the Declaration
of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,
Article 2: “The goal of every political
association is the preservation of the natural
and imprescriptible rights of man. These
rights are liberty, property, personal security,
and resistance to oppression.”

“To preserve natural rights”: that
expression, which perfectly sums up the
new principle, is nonetheless somewhat
deceptive because of its “conservative”
connotation. It really isn’t a matter of
conserving anything! “To preserve natural
rights” meant to unleash the greatest
movement of human affairs that has ever
been seen.

Natural rights come into view in what
the philosophers called the state of nature
or the natural condition of mankind, when
human beings, living without law, are free
and equal individuals. The philosophers,
to be sure, had different ideas about this
individual, about his passions and motives.
For Hobbes, the individual is moved by a
desire for power that ends only in death.
For Locke, it is uneasiness, the discomfort
or restlessness of a life assailed by needs
that move him. In any case, the movement
that moves men—in truth, that bears
them away—has neither end nor term: it is

Thus the individual comes into the
world as a quantum of movement. “To
preserve his rights” means not to inhibit
his movement or even to remove the
obstacles to his movement. The revolution
of the rights of man, that is, liberalism, liberates
the movement of human affairs. The
free circulation of men, of goods, of ideas,
of capital, of sentiments, and so forth: liberalism
is first and foremost the party of

The liberal revolution therefore will have
two sorts of enemies—or at least adversaries.
On one hand, there are those who want to
apply the brakes to the movement (the conservatives)
or even to return to the pre-liberal
past (the reactionaries; the word “reaction”
belongs first of all to the language of
physics). On the other hand, there are those
who want to accelerate the movement, “to
emancipate the productive forces” shackled
by the capitalist relations of production. If
communism wanted to suppress capitalism,
it was in order to surpass it, to accelerate
its movement. As for the non-revolutionary
Left, it wanted at a minimum to speed up
“social mobility.”

Thus we have—in the simplest, most
synthetic terms I could find—the principle
of the liberal revolution: the rights of man.
We now have to consider the arrangements
by which people attempted to put
this principle into action.

The Liberal Arrangements

The liberal arrangement is one of polarities.
A liberal political order is constituted
by two poles coexisting in tension, which
serve for each other both as an instrument
and an obstacle. I obviously have in mind
the state and civil society.

The sovereign state—that is, the “absolute”
state—is the condition of possibility
for the liberal order. If its members wish
to protect their equal rights, they must
generate “the greatest power that can be
imagined,” which is capable of moving an
otherwise quite unequal society to fundamental
equality. They must construct
“an abstract place” (Hobbes’s phrase), an
Archimedean point that is qualitatively
distinct from the society, so that it can
govern impartially. Only a state that is thus
elevated above society can govern us while
also leaving us free.

The other pole is society. If the state is the
invention or the artifact of liberal politics,
society is its discovery: society as a “commercial”
or “market” society. At the same
time the “vertical” state was constructed,
it was noticed that men tended to produce
spontaneously a “horizontal” order. It wasn’t
necessary—at least it was no longer necessary—to command them from “on high.”
It was enough to establish the rules that
allowed them to seek their interests freely
by exercising their rights. It was enough to
leave them free, not only in the economic
order but in all the orders of life. In Benjamin
Constant’s classic formulation: let the
state content itself with being just, while we
(members of civil society) will take upon
ourselves the task of being happy.

The state and the market, or the “market
society,” are therefore the two poles of
the liberal order. They need one another;
they mutually condition one another. The
market society needs the state to establish
and enforce rules, first of all the fundamental
rule, that of the equality of rights.
On its side, the state needs the market in
order to have at its disposal the greatest
amount of power. It is by leaving men free
to follow their interests, freely exercising
their independence and their talents, that
the greatest amount of wealth and, hence,
power are produced. The enemies of liberal
regimes discovered this to their great
cost during the previous century.

All this is quite fine, you might be
tempted to say, but we are in the middle
of a crisis, at once economic and financial,
that is shaking the very foundations
of the liberal order. Isn’t liberalism itself
called into question today in its fundamental
arrangements, perhaps even in its very

The Current Crisis

Does the current crisis radically call into
question this “order of movement” that I
sketched above? It is obviously impossible
to answer this question with complete
assurance at this point. The crisis has not
fully revealed all its economic effects, and
we can only conjecture about its near- or
long-term political ones. This uncertainty
being admitted, I will say that the crisis we
are experiencing does not seem to me in
and of itself to call into question the liberal

What is often designated as “the return
of the state” in today’s circumstances does
not contradict the original liberal formula.
I myself just underscored the importance
of the state’s role in the production of the
conditions of what we might call “liberal
life” based upon human equality and freedom.
Perhaps this is a good time to observe
that what passed for “liberal” in the historical
period that has just ended was in fact
a considerable modification of liberalism.

I would explain the point this way. We
had moved—without particularly noticing—from “liberal government” to what
I might call “the neo-liberalism of rules.”
The latter rested upon the principles that
Hayek articulated with great care and
amplitude, which go under the famous
phrase “spontaneous order.” The “problem”
with Hayek, to put it a little disrespectfully,
is not that he was “too liberal”
(which is often heard), or “ultra-liberal”;
it is rather something that Raymond Aron
pointed out: he had a false idea of liberal
regimes, of what I would call “real liberalism.”
He saw liberalism’s superiority in the
progressive elaboration of a set of rules that
no one in particular designed or willed but
which are accepted because of their great
effectiveness, not only for the economic
order but more generally for civilization
itself. This is the “spontaneous order” of
which he made himself the theoretician.

What this view neglects is the extent
to which liberalism—far from being the
confident, even “quietist” abandonment
to a spontaneous order—initially was, and
always remains, the search for and the construction
of better government. To be sure,
as I indicated above, this better government
realizes itself by leaving men as free
as possible, by granting them a heretofore
unprecedented latitude for action. But the
government, as I also said, harvests the fruits
of this freedom in increased prosperity (and,
hence, growing revenues), by a more and
more accurate grasp of society’s needs,
and finally, by greater means and capacity
for action. It would only be partially true,
but illuminating in this context, to say that
liberal regimes have carried the day because
they govern better than their rivals.

On the other hand, it is true that the
liberal order necessarily, even “structurally,”
contains oscillations—sometimes great
oscillations—between its two poles. Sometimes
it is the state, sometimes the market
that inspires confidence to the detriment
of its competitor (which is also its complement).
Periods of equilibrium are indeed

The recent period that ended with the
crisis was characterized by a strong, even
vehement movement in the direction of
the market; people imagined not only that
one could do without all state regulation
but even that the way had been opened to
an unprecedented mode of human association:
globalized humanity. This “liberal
utopia” extended its influence well
beyond the economic domain. All of social
life appeared ripe for the “governance of
rules.” Instead of government’s being
responsible to a body of citizens forming a
people, we would have rules elaborated by
an indefinite number of bodies and agencies
responsible to no one. These agencies
would be legitimated, it was said, by
the manifest goodness of these rules. The
financial and economic crisis has struck
a sharp blow to this idea of governance.
The regulatory bodies that plumed themselves
on their expertise and “competence”
divorced from all political “contamination”
are today rightly discredited. Thus
the necessary responsibility of all (including
experts) to the body of citizens has
returned to the fore. The illusions of “governance”
gone, government returns to its
place. This does not mean, to be sure, that
every government will be up to its tasks,
but this does open the way for a “repoliticization”
of the common life of our societies.

However, it is difficult to imagine what
form this repoliticization might take. Also,
the distinctive “contents” of the major
political parties, whose alternation in
government makes up the life of modern
democracy, largely evaporated during the
previous period. Both the Right and the
Left have abandoned those who originally
gave them their legitimacy. In France in
any case, the Right abandoned the nation,
the Left, the workers, and both have
sought their new identity in the “European
project” that aims at producing a
“democracy without a definite people”—one governed by rules. It is hard to see
how the Left and the Right today could
make politically plausible again the commitments
they so eagerly jettisoned not so
long ago. As I say this, I am not particularly
blaming anyone. In a certain way the
weakening of these great collectivities of
the nation and class was inscribed in the
principle of liberalism, the rights of man.
The principle, in any event, contained this
possibility. Marx only saw half of the liberal
revolution, but he saw it quite clearly:
the rights of man are the rights of “man
separated from man.”

In the present situation we do not know
whether we should deplore the weakening
of these civic and social bonds or rejoice.
If we cast a glance at history, we see that
the crisis of the 1930s reactivated the great
collectivities of the nation and of class
but with consequences that we certainly
do not want to see repeated! But one still
has to ask: on what principles of cohesion
could the repoliticization that appears to
be occurring take place?

At present it is striking to note that what
one can call the crisis of capitalism, or the
crisis of liberalism, is not generating forces,
or even ideas, on the part of the decidedly
anti-capitalist or anti-liberal portions of
opinion. They, too, call upon the state as
the insurer of last resort, not upon the class
or the nation (or any other collectivity for
that matter) as the principle of a new order
that should succeed liberalism. We fear
for our savings, but that does not make us
socialists or nationalists. For the moment
at least, the liberal order remains in the
saddle, at least by default. None of those
who criticize liberal capitalism has the least
desire to take upon himself the responsibility
of coming up with an alternative to
it. It is for this reason that in France Nicolas
Sarkozy is not content to enact, or try
to enact, reforms of a liberal nature, but
he also takes upon himself the task both
of criticizing and “refounding” capitalism.
In a depoliticized political society the government
takes upon itself in succession (or
simultaneously) all the available positions
on the political spectrum.

Perhaps we have to say that the revolution
of the rights of man has succeeded
beyond its founders’ expectations. We have
ended up really becoming individuals constituted
by our relationship to our selves,
as was true of the individuals of the state
of nature, and we no longer know how to
attach ourselves to anything common. It
certainly is not the financial or economic
crisis by itself, the crisis of individual
accounts and losses, that will produce a
renewed sense of what is common. In this
view, what one can reproach liberalism for,
at least in the form it assumed in the recent
past, would not be the crisis to which it
led: this crisis belongs rather to human
nature, to the human condition. Rather,
we should reproach it for having devalued
and “devitalized” collective bonds,
whether natural or inherited attachments,
to such a point that we no longer know
where to turn when the promise of a governance
of rules in a globalized humanity
fails. The economic crisis is the most
spectacular aspect of the present situation,
but it is not necessarily the most interesting
or important. In fact it risks hiding from
us the deep weakness of the liberal revolution,
which resides in the order of the soul
rather than in the external organization
of our common life. This will be my last
topic for reflection.

The Human Being of the
Rights of Man

The liberal order is therefore carried along
by the faith in movement, by confidence in
liberty. Liberty in the liberal sense of the
term is not what the pre-moderns called
“free will,” the capacity proper to man to
move himself in accordance with motives
he has adopted rather than from external
causes. “Liberal liberty,” if I can put it that
way, is indifferent to the question of the
freedom of human acts, so indifferent that
most of the philosophical founders of liberalism
described human action in ways
that made it something “necessary.” To
repeat: according to liberalism, to be free
is not to be inhibited by obstacles outside
the individual or subject.

The difficulty then becomes: if being
free is not being shackled by external
obstacles, what is one to do when external
obstacles are removed? What does it mean
to be free when liberty, or, more expansively,
liberties are already guaranteed? As
long as there are obstacles to liberty, the
principle of liberalism is to overcome them
and to remove the shackles. But when
this revolutionary and emancipatory task
is accomplished, what is the principle of
movement when there is clear sailing?

Take freedom of opinion. Everyone
understands what the struggle for freedom
of opinion means when there is censorship.
As long as there is a censor, everyone
knows that “free opinion” is an opinion
that has escaped from censorship. But what
does “free opinion” mean when censorship
no longer exists?

Or take “the right to the pursuit of happiness.”
Everyone understands what this
right means in a situation where a religion
or government claims to impose a certain
conception of “the good life.” But when
churches as well as governments have
renounced this claim, what does the exercise
of this right mean?

To defend freedom of opinion is certainly
noble and necessary, but it does not
tell us what a judicious opinion is or how
to form one. To defend the right to the
pursuit of happiness is certainly noble and
necessary, but it does not tell us how to
pursue happiness. Liberalism is a doctrine
so powerful that it has defeated all other
political, philosophical, and religious doctrines.
And yet, among them all, it is the
only one that does not provide a positive
rule for the conduct of life. Those who
oppose some religiously inspired rule or
law to liberalism are rarely the friends of
human liberty, but they point out a real
weakness in the liberal order. Not that we
have any desire to receive orders, but how
can we orient ourselves in the world when
the only thing we hear is, “You’re free!”?
It is this inherent and troubling indetermination
of liberal liberty that feeds much
of the protest against liberal “corruption,”
which we unfortunately, if understandably,
have a tendency to dismiss too quickly.

How can liberalism overcome this difficulty? We cannot be content to say,
“You’re free; do what you will and don’t
ask questions!” To this real difficulty liberalism
responds with faith (either implicit
or explicit) in the future convergence and
coincidence of external liberty and internal
dispositions. Freedom of opinion will lead
necessarily to an increasingly true opinion.
That, at least, is the hope. In the same way,
the right to pursue happiness will lead necessarily
to a growing happiness for individuals.
At least, that is the hope. If one
didn’t believe this, the desire for liberty
would be in vain. The same Benjamin
Constant who declared, “Let the government
content itself with being just, we will
assume the task of being happy,” was led to
recognize that the goal of humanity was
not so much free happiness as “improving
[itself ],” indicating that it was impossible
to consider human life seriously without
desiring for it a goal beyond that of liberty.
Liberty is perhaps the best condition
for human action, but it cannot by itself
give any finality or purpose to it. It was
not a coincidence that faith in progress
accompanied the development of liberal
civilization: the intrinsic difficulty of liberal
doctrine, its anthropological indeterminism,
can only be overcome by faith in
the future.

What happens, then, when faith in the
future disappears or is seriously weakened—when one no longer believes that
freedom of opinion will always lead to
significantly truer opinions, when one
no longer believes that the free pursuit of
happiness will produce significantly happier
individuals? It seems to me that even
before the crisis occurred this faith had
already become considerably weakened.
One could already see signs of our loss of
confidence in the capacity of human nature
to attain the natural objects of its desire,
even to get within hailing distance of such
an end. We are subject to a deep internal
weakness that merits at least as much attention
as the more visible economic crises.

To be sure, one could say: we must find
our way out of liberal indetermination and
find the truth or true happiness. But how
can we avoid falling back into the political
and religious dogmatism and despotism
from which liberalism has happily delivered
us? Are we therefore condemned to
vacillate between an increasingly empty
freedom and “truths” arbitrarily decreed?

If I had found a way of escaping from
this unsatisfactory (even depressing) set
of alternatives, you would certainly have
already heard about it! If anyone had convincingly,
or even plausibly, proposed a
way of reuniting freedom and truth, we
would all know of it! I believe that we have
to accept—up to a certain point, in a spirit
of manly resignation—the indeterminate
character of our liberal liberty, and hence,
to use a Tocquevillian trope: we are condemned
for the foreseeable future to sail in
open waters. At the same time, it seems to
me good for liberal liberty itself to enter
into dialogue with something other than
itself. The candidates one can point to for
such a dialogue are numerous, they can be
found both within and without the West.
Here is what I suggest.

If we return to the point of departure
that I briefly sketched at the outset,
we recall that liberalism is a response or
a purported “solution” to the theologicalpolitical
problem of the Christian world.
One could say: liberalism embarked upon
a recomposition or reworking of the
Christian world by putting in parentheses
the question of the truth and instituting
radically new conditions of human action.
The question that is thus posed to us—one
I do not claim to resolve, but which we
ought to consider—is the following: is the
new liberal order—the one that Europeans
began to establish in the sixteenth or
the seventeenth century—self-sufficient,
or does it merely represent a modification
or reworking of the Christian condition?
Historians and contemporary observers
often ask if liberalism—or democracy—has solid roots or a promising future in
cultural areas outside of those where
Christianity existed. They ask, for example,
if Japan is truly a liberal democracy,
even though it was governed for the past
fifty years by the same Liberal Party. I have
neither the time nor the expertise to take
up this aspect of the question. I will simply
expand a remark that I already made.

It seems to me that the first hypothesis—liberal self-sufficiency—can be entertained
if the liberal world effectively tends
toward an end or condition where liberty
encounters, I will not say the truth, nor
will I say happiness, but a configuration of
human affairs such that one can say that we
have arrived at a human order that, if not
perfect, is at least satisfying. One would be
able to say that the liberal order was selfsufficient if the hopes of liberal progressivism
were met, or at least the feeling of
progress toward greater truth and happiness
firmed up and became widespread.
One could say that the liberal order is
self-sufficient if it indicates with adequate
clarity a term or goal proper to it and it
alone. If this is not the case, as a vague but
powerful sentiment seems to confirm; if
faith in the future has deserted the liberal
world; if liberalism has largely abandoned
the hope in progress that it bore for such a
long time; if therefore liberalism no longer
has a goal or end to its efforts in mind,
then it finds itself before the necessity of
a heart-wrenching revision. Instead of
understanding itself in view of the future,
it must turn about and reflect again on its
previous development, starting with its
origin in Christian Europe.

How one ought to conduct this inquiry
into the relations between the Christian
matrix and the liberal project is a question I
have to reserve for another time. My aim is
merely to pose a question that many Europeans
believe is already resolved because we
have “gotten beyond religion.”1 It is true
that liberalism has pushed Christianity to
the edges of collective life. I have argued,
however, that despite its triumph it cannot
wholly substitute for Christianity because
it only defines the conditions of action and
not action’s goals or aims, as Christianity
does. It remains true, even if not widely
recognized, that it is liberalism’s relationship
to Christianity, much more than the
current question of its economic organization,
that is both fundamental and formative
for liberalism.2 We must turn our gaze
there if we want to attain any clarity on
the destiny of liberal societies.

  1. This is a reference to the French political theorist Marcel Gauchet’s contention that Christianity is the religion
    that prepares the way for secularism, for the human order that definitively leaves religion behind. (Translators’ note)

  2. The centrality of Europe’s “theological-political problem” to the genesis and doctrinal foundations of liberalism
    is a central theme of Manent’s An Intellectual History of Liberalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).
    (Translators’ note)

This essay was originally delivered at the Institut français in Prague on March 6, 2009 and will appear as the preface
to a new Italian edition of Pierre Manent’s Histoire intellectuelle du libéralisme. It is published in Modern Age with the
permission of the author.

Translated by Daniel J. Mahoney and Paul Seaton

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