European Empire and Pierre Manent
By Ryan Shinkel
Just two decades ago the last dominantly Christian country of Western Europe, Ireland is now the first country ever to enshrine same-sex marriage by popular vote (into a constitution dedicated to the Trinity, no less).
This legal change reflects a cultural change: As “the church’s moral authority was flagging,” the New York Times summarizes,
the Irish were finding a new identity within the European Union. They share the euro, and are more willing to take advantage of low-cost airfares for weekend jaunts to the Continent and beyond, broadening an outlook that for their parents and grandparents had been molded by the church and Britain.The medieval Church united much of Europe under a single language, religion, and university system. Today, the European Union (EU) functions similarly in pursuing a United States of Europe.
In conversation, a friend studying history at Oxford said to me that this shift reflects the larger “homogenization of culture.” The expanding markets, euro, free movement of peoples, and general directives from Brussels erase differences of member states. I replied by explaining how French philosopher Pierre Manent elucidates this EU quest for unity.
Specifically, Manent argues that the modern nation-state attempts to mediate among three archetypes of political body—city, empire, and church.
The city begins with Greek city-states. Each city is an intimate community with unique identity and exclusive membership. To be Athenian, Spartan, or Roman (before Caesar) implied a specific god(s), regime, ancestry, and place. Its political form, Manent writes in The Metamorphosis of the City, was “always the order of a given concrete community” and “the active operation of a common thing.” It pursued intimacy through direct civic participation.
Though originally a city, the republican city of Rome metamorphosized with Julius Caesar into the Roman Empire. While “Athens submitted to Philip of Macedon while retaining its form as a city,” Manent writes elsewhere, “Rome, on the contrary, underwent a complete transformation as a political form; from a city it became an empire.” This transition reached its terminus when citizenship expanded to all free males in conquered territories. Universality replaced locality as the peaceful and inclusive empire replaced the intimate and exclusive city.
A republican citizen shared in the common thing by partaking in government. Empire terminated the republican freedom of self-government by introducing the magistrate to mediate between citizen and emperor. When Aristotle said a citizen must be able to govern and be governed, he wrote about a citizen of the city before there was even a conception of empire. But in an empire, the magistrate does not have to be governed (like the citizen is governed) in order to govern. Likewise, the citizen does not have to govern in order to be governed. This separation provides a security from the dangers of governance. In this respect the Roman Empire, Manent writes, “surrendered the freedom of the city but promised unity and peace.” Rome was reorganized into the first empire and with the city, republican liberty died.
Afterwards, empire and city compete.