Pierre Manent: How the West Created Modernity

Roundup: Talking About History

Pierre Manent is a French political scientist. His essay was translated by Alexis Cornel.

We have been modern for several centuries now. We are modern, and we want to be modern; it is a desire that guides the entire life of Western societies. That the will to be modern has been in force for centuries, though, suggests that we have not succeeded in being truly modern—that the end of the process that we thought we saw coming at various moments has always proved illusory, and that 1789, 1917, 1968, and 1989 were only disappointing steps along a road leading who knows where. The Israelites were lucky: they wandered for only 40 years in the desert. If the will to be modern has ceaselessly overturned the conditions of our common life and brought one revolution after another—without achieving satisfaction or reaching a point where we might rest and say, "Here at last is the end of our enterprise"—just what does that mean? How have we been able to will something for such a long time and accept being so often disappointed? Could it be that we aren’t sure what we want? Though the various signs of the modern are familiar, whether in architecture, art, science, or political organization, we do not know what these traits have in common and what justifies designating them with the same attribute. We find ourselves under the sway of something that seems evident yet defies explication.

Some are inclined to give up asking what we might call the question of the modern. They contend that we have left the modern age and entered the postmodern, renouncing all "grand narratives" of Western progress. I am not so sure, though, that we have renounced the grand modern narratives of science and democracy. We may be experiencing a certain fatigue with the modern after so many modern centuries, but the question of the modern remains, and its urgency does not depend on the disposition of the questioner. So long as self-understanding matters to us, the question must be raised anew. Even if we do not claim to provide a new answer, we should at least have the ambition to bring the question back to life.

When unsure about the nature of something, we sometimes ask when and how it began. Such an approach is legitimate when investigating the question of the modern, but it immediately raises difficulties. Beginnings are, by definition, obscure. The first sprouts are difficult to discern. One can easily be mistaken. In what time period should we look for the beginnings of modernity? In the eighteenth century, the age of the American and French Revolutions? In the seventeenth century, when the notion of natural science was elaborated? In the sixteenth century, the era of religious reformation? These diverse origins are not contradictory, since modernity surely includes a religious reformation, science in the modern sense, and political and democratic revolutions. But what is the relationship between the Lutheran faith and the science of Galileo? Is there a primary intellectual and moral disposition that defines modern man? Or must we resign ourselves to the dispersion of the elements of modernity, which we would then see as held together only by the magic of a word?..

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