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“Metamorphoses of the City” Book by Pierre Manent


The reading for this assignment consists of a part of the book “Metamorphoses of the City” by Pierre Manent. The book’s introduction attempts to define modernity as a massive collective project, the kind that would be impossible to carry out without a staging ground. Manent states that the city is the place where people can invent and implement projects, and so one has to understand the city to comprehend the project that is modernity. This essay describes Manent’s opinion on the transition from the heroic, tribal community in the city and the differences between the two.

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The Nature of the Transition

Manent describes modernity as a European concept and therefore concentrates his attention on the first European cities. As a result, he begins his exploration with ancient Greece and its system of city-states. The Greeks were aware of other forms of organization, such as tribes and empires, and considered theirs superior to both. Manent turns to poets, primarily to Homer, for the description of the process of the transition of Greek society from its previous to the city.

Homer was a poet and not a historian; as such, he did not leave behind a historical record. However, according to Manent, an analysis of his Iliad and Odyssey reveals that the poems contain a significant amount of symbolism. Manent proceeds to state that the two sides in the Trojan War represent two different social orders. The Greeks with their superior organization and greater professionalism represent the city-state order, and the Trojans with their lack of self-control and boisterous personalities stand for the tribal community. After a long and bloody struggle, the Greeks prevail, symbolizing the triumph of the new social constructs over the old ones.

Manent concludes the discussion of the transformation with a description of political philosophy’s interpretation of the process. According to that idea, people move from the heroic society to the city when they pacify war and replace it with commerce as a means of acquisition. A sovereign settles honor disputes between noble warriors, class warfare comes to a stop, and hostilities with other entities are relegated to borders, which are a concept that is not present for the heroic society. Peace and war become more and more distinct, with each adopting its original qualities to a greater degree.

Differences between the Social Orders

As mentioned above, in Manent’s interpretation Homer used the Achaeans and the Trojans to demonstrate differences between the heroic society and the city-state system. He did so by describing similar events happening in both camps and showing the different outcomes as well as the reasons behind them. The distinct social orders of the heroic Troy and city-state Greece can be seen in the events that happen in the story as well as the smaller details.

Manent provides an example of a comparison between Trojans and Achaeans in the situations of Paris and Helen as well as Achilles and Briseis. Both couples are in love, and in both cases, the woman is considered the possession of the man. However, Paris is unable to part from his beloved, and Troy cannot make him. On the other hand, Achilles gives Briseis to his superior, Agamemnon, even though the request is unjust and makes the hero furious. The different behavior displays the importance of hierarchy among the Greeks that is not present in Trojans, who exhibit disorganization and cannot force a single individual to follow a demand, which leads to their destruction.

The case of Dolon is another comparison that shows the Greeks prevailing through their superior structuration. Both sides attempt to conduct a reconnaissance operation and select a man to perform the task. However, the Greek infiltrator, Diomedes, asks Odysseus to assist him to reduce the chances of failure. The Trojan soldier, Dolon, chooses to work alone and is killed by his two enemies without much difficulty. Manent claims that this episode displays the Trojans’ entanglement in the familial and sexual order that interferes with the efficient organization.

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Differences in the Human Souls

Manent invokes the assistance of Vico to describe how the personalities of people who transformed from wanderers to citizens changed to accommodate their new lifestyle. According to Vico’s theory, the Greek cities appeared as a result of the mixing of old families and people without a home who chose to serve those families in return for protection. The patricians decided to relinquish their absolute power over their families and obey a set of laws because it allows them to retain control over their families.

Montesquieu declares that the love and attachment the ancients felt towards the concept of the city were caused by the removal of other desires that was forced on them by the social order. In his theory, desires and passions would become more powerful the fewer of them were present in a person’s mind. He draws a parallel to monastic life, claiming that the monastic orders deprive their followers of passions until only a fanatical devotion to the rule itself remains. However, according to Manent, this theory is not plausible if one looks at the situation inspected by Vico,

Rousseau is the final philosopher whose opinion Manent investigates in his attempt to define civic virtue. He expresses a view that is similar to Montesquieu’s yet utterly different from it, as to Rousseau virtue is the culmination of passions where Montesquieu considered it a result of their negation. At the same time, Rousseau’s philosophy differs from Vico’s in its refusal to acknowledge some people as superior to others, promoting a view in which everyone is equal.

Lastly, Rousseau defines the soul through its identification with the self and the whole. He claims that it is possible and preferable to abandon one of the traits entirely in favor of the others. As such, his favored modes of existence are pure self-interest without thinking of others and complete coexistence with others without consideration for the self.


Manent chooses to describe the change from heroic tribal society to city-states that characterize Greece in three main aspects. Homer provides a symbolic description of the process of transformation in his epics, where the victorious Greeks represent the new order and the Trojans perish with their old society. He also compares the two factions and highlights their primary differences throughout the Iliad, with the Greeks generally appearing superior.

Lastly, Manent attempts to comprehend the nature of civic virtue by comparing the opinions of three political philosophers: Vico, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, and highlighting similarities as well as differences in their theories. Ultimately, he does not provide concrete answers of his own, but the insights gained from the investigation form a basis for discussion further on in the book.

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