Where to find a better politics in our troubled world

Where to find a better politics in our troubled world British philosopher Roger Scruton

Recovering Politics, Civilisation, and the Soul: Essays on Pierre Manent and Roger Scruton, by Daniel J. Mahoney (St Augustine’s Press, paperback US$20.00; ebook)

Frank Litton

The Good Friday Agreement whose 25th anniversary we celebrate, or at the very least, acknowledge the enormous sigh of relief it occasioned, is taken as an example of politics at its finest.

It was politics as the clash of interests, the struggle for domination. Passions were more in evidence than reason, compromises reluctantly accepted, more than consensus. It was politics as Machiavelli prescribed.

Politics, he instructs us is not about doing good or being good; its goal is peace and security, won by whatever means are available. Thanks to the base motives of fallen humanity, the best means often include deceit, violence, injustice.

We should not expect our politicians to be virtuous. We should expect them to be courageous players in the games of power, adept at manoeuvring fortune to their advantage. Such virtu was much in evidence in Belfast; so today many are happy to applaud as ‘peacemakers’ those who connived in the murder of innocents. This is politics.


Few question Machiavelli’s realism, most challenge that he has said all that can be said of politics. Certainly, we want peace and security but we also want justice. How can this demand be reconciled with the grim reality, the irrefutable lessons of history that teach how the will to power dominates and devastates? This question gives political philosophy its interest and importance.

The question is particularly troublesome for the progressive liberals that dominate our politics. Of course, they want justice. Indeed, they are highly moralistic, ready to judge and condemn the character and motives of those who would disagree with them. The problem is that they lack a plausible basis for their positions. They know this, if only subliminally. This, I suggest, explains the declining standard of public debates, as reasons quickly give away to insults, and adjectives masquerade as arguments.

Daniel J. Mahoney’s essays are especially welcome in this context. He introduces the work of two political philosophers, one Roger Scruton (1944-2022), English, the other Pierre Manet (1949-), French. Both respect religion: Scruton attended Anglican worship and Manent, whose parents were active communists, converted to Catholicism as a student.

French philosopher Pierre Manent

Both are conservatives but not in the manner of the ‘New Right’ that puts politics in the service of economic doctrine. They are best described as liberal conservatives, committed to the western democratic tradition. They defend that tradition, threatened as it is by the weaknesses of progressive liberal politics.

Progressive liberals start with the individual and conduct a cost-benefit analysis to find the minimum cost that must be paid to enjoy the benefits of society. The conservative liberals start from the obvious fact that we are born into a network of relationships in which we are shaped as we grow into a sense of ourselves as individuals, responsible for ourselves and to others.

What we find in society, and can only be found in society, are the situations that provide us with the resources to act as autonomous agents in pursuit of human flourishing with our fellows. This is no easy task. There is always room for improvement. We find this improvement in acknowledging the achievements of our society, working with the grain of what has been accomplished, learning from tradition.


The problem, we could say, is to find a balance between our two basic needs for belonging and freedom. Belonging without freedom is misery; freedom without belonging is pointless. Marx, whose examination of the tensions between them is among the most famous, and certainly the most disastrous, proposed that communism would, eventually, deliver the perfect balance. It delivered only a coerced belonging under the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

Roger Scruton, motivated by his political philosophy, worked with considerable bravery to support the dissidents striving to undo communist tyranny in Eastern Europe. He organised supplies and lecturers for the ‘underground universities’ in Czechoslovakia that developed and communicated the understandings that informed and encouraged the resistance.

The liberal progressives with their focus on individuals as the atoms out which society is constructed, fail to account for our need to belong. Manent explores this failure. He exposes the limitations of the form of reason deployed by the progressive liberals. This ‘instrumental reason’ instructs us in the means we can pursue towards ends it cannot justify. Manent counters this failure in a profound study of the western political tradition, informed by history and clarified by acute philosophical analysis.

I think that Manent provides a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of politics than Scruton. This is not to diminish Scruton’s contribution. His philosophical credentials are well established. His range is wider than Manent’s. He has made, for example, substantial contributions to the philosophy of aesthetics. He has written an opera and a novel reflecting his experience in Eastern Europe. His critiques of prominent left-wing theorists are polemics at their best, his defence of conservatism, cogent.

These well-written accessible essays will help you make up your own mind. The convergences and divergences in their thought open up a political landscape that offers the possibility of a more humane politics than the Machiavelli-style offering of the progressive liberals.