We should be astonished. For years now, the epicenter of New Year’s celebrations in England has been the tens of thousands of revelers who gather around the pillar in Trafalgar Square atop of which is the statue of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. A segment of the British public now wants him removed. Nelson led, fought, and died in the war that made possible the abolition of the slave trade, but he was not an abolitionist. For this, he must pay and be removed.
What is astonishing is not the irony involved, but that anyone cares. According to the official ideology of the West, no one is supposed to care. Beginning in the Renaissance, Pierre Manent contends, the West developed a theory of politics in which individuals are not rule-bound. In a long line of essential books, Manent has built his reputation as Europe’s principal chronicler of Western political thought. His latest, Montaigne: Life without Law explores how Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) helped shape the Western belief that it is the law that obeys us, not the other way around. Montaigne articulated one of the essential holdings of modernity: polities can make law but cannot compel citizens unreservedly; neither word nor action can be required; a quiet life is guaranteed. Along with other modern thinkers, Montaigne argues that where there is no truth, there is no law. Ultimately, modernity has been a dispute with pagans and Christians about the reach of truth, not liberty.
In light of Montaigne, for 500 years we have believed that there is no rationally agreed-upon account of a good human life, no common understanding of the meaning of justice, and so the law cannot command. Rather, as Manent puts it, Western law is dedicated to laissez-faire, designed to facilitate “the movement without-rule of goods, persons, and lives.” Modern law takes up a minimal stance, prohibiting any criterion of judgement (necessarily an impostor claiming access to unavailable truth) constraining the free circulation of beliefs, sentiments, preferences, or values. The West is the place where the idea was worked out that a human life “has the right to be without law.” Are we now seeing the return of a new form of strong law—law that demands from us specific words and actions?