To see Manent’s point more clearly, we might think about the prototypical modern politician, the Machiavelli’s prince, who cuts through the fog of morals and ideals in an effort to bring about real change. Is this prince not in fact a merely reactive pragmatist, dependent on fortune to set the stage and the situation to give him his cues? Hobbes’s state, too, is fundamentally reactive, designed to forestall sedition and civil war, not to inspire people to act in pursuit of a common good. Seeking to authorize the pursuit of self-interest, it has paved the way for the “disordered extension of rights” that now, Manent argues, “render[s] unintelligible the very bases” of moral and political life. The long-term consequences of the early modern effort to restore political life have brought about a situation of political dysfunction to rival that of late medieval Europe.
To revive civic life, Manent argues, we will have to revisit natural law. As he makes clear, this will require more than re-reading the Summa Theologica, as valuable as that exercise might be. For natural law today must be calibrated to respond to the political problems of our time, to offer a “remedy” for the apathy and despair that are destroying our practical lives.
Manent’s presentation of natural law therefore shies away from listing out interdictions; it is not a “guardrail law” that aims to prevent us from doing our worst. The power of natural law, he causes us to see, lies instead in the way it limns the natural outlines of human striving, and thereby illuminates the complexity of human motives that inspire our actions. Once we recognize that every human being strives to realize some combination of pleasure, utility, nobility and justice, we can better understand not only ourselves, but each other. The “objective and sharable character of human motives,” moreover, gives us a rough but “simple and concrete criterion” by which to judge whether a “society, regime, or institution” opens up space for their realization. And it sets the stage for the deliberation that is essential to engaging in political life.
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