Pierre Manent’s Les Metamorphoses de la Cité is a work that seeks to trace the identity of Western civilization through its political history. To him, the polis, and by extension, the political sphere, is unique to Western identity. He is not the first philosopher to argue for this “cultural specificity” (Hannah Arendt for example had argued the same thing), but his approach is a linear one. Thus, a system is replaced by another, usually better one, until it destroys itself, and so one. We may disagree with this interpretation of events, as I do, yet this book will provide food for thought to those interested in seeking new questions to answer our current condition, where we are, and where we are going. Below is a translation of the book’s introduction:
The subject of this book is to present an interpretation of Western history, and more particularily, a political interpretation of this permanent revolution that characterizes Western civilization: the city. The thesis of my work is that the city is the root of Western civilization. Before that, men lived in the unchangeable order of the family-and still do to a more or mess great extent in various parts of the world. Through the city, mankind enters the political sphere, meaning the government of the public thing–the res publica. And so Western history can be understood as the manifestation of the four great forms of polities that have existed: the polis, the empire, the Church, and the nation. We not only deal with a step-by-step, chronological progression, but also, and more fundamentally, with a causal progression: a new form emerges out of the preceeding one that has exhausted itself. So the city exhausted its own energy in intercine and foreign wars gave way to the empire–Alexander’s, then Rome’s. Next the Church as universal community substituted itself to the empire, which was unable to bear the weight of a unity it itself promised. Through most of its history the West hesitatingly moved between these three forms of government, until it discovered the political system that would allow it to govern itself in a rational way: the nation-state. Yet, even this political organization destroyed itself in the course of the devastating wars that plagued the 20th century. Today, it searches on for a new form of polity.
This study attempts to sketch a historical narrative of Western political history, itself intimately tied to intellectual and religious history, that constantly returns to the political question par excellence: How does man best govern himself? This political history of our civilization is also a work of political philosophy.