For more than forty years, Harvey Mansfield has been writing and teaching about political philosophy. His commentary "demonstrates the virtues that should guide scholars of the humanities," writes Mark Blitz, a former student. Blitz explains those virtues as "patient exploration of the intention of a superior author, attention to other scholars and generosity to trailblazing teachers, brilliance and wit, and an eye toward what can improve us here and now."
Mansfield examines both contemporary politics and their historical origins. His fourteen books delve into the words of past thinkers such as Edmund Burke and Machiavelli, where he finds answers to puzzles such as why we believe today that political parties are respectable or desirable. The "Settlement of 1688," Mansfield writes, "…resolved the religious issue by demoting it. . . . Party government required such a separation, because it was the operation of the religious issue in politics which caused great parties."
Mansfield credits Machiavelli as the mastermind behind modernity. "I think he was responsible for the original insight behind the American presidency," says Mansfield. "Our country is the first republic that had strong executive power, as previously it was thought that executive power was contrary to republican principles. But we managed to combine this princely power with the people's authority."
Mansfield grew up immersed in the field of politics—in New Haven, where his father was a professor of political science, and also in Washington, D.C., where his father worked for the Office of Price Administration during World War II. Mansfield remembers D.C. as an exciting place to be: "I saw many famous events, like Franklin Roosevelt's funeral and the two parades, for victory in Europe and victory in Japan." Years later, when he was an undergraduate at Harvard, a teaching assistant noted, "It's in the cards for you to become a political scientist." Mansfield recalls, "I don't remember ever seriously considering any alternative." He went on to earn his PhD from Harvard in 1961, and began teaching there the next year.
Mansfield's first book, Statesmanship and Party Government: A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke, came out in 1965. Since then he has published thirteen more books including three translations of Machiavelli and a translation of Alex de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, which he co-translated with his late wife Delba Winthrop. Articles and political analysis by Mansfield frequently appear in periodicals such as the Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, the National Review, and the Times Literary Supplement.
Mansfield's most recent book, Manliness, looks at the effects of the sexual revolution on traditional masculine virtues. He defines "manliness" as "confidence and command in a situation of risk," and offers examples of leaders who display this quality—from Achilles to Margaret Thatcher. "My book is a defense, but a qualified defense of manliness," says Mansfield. "The good side is when the risk is of evil and the confidence is justified."
Mansfield's numerous awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Humanities Medal. He has served as a member of the Council of the American Political Science Association and the National Council on the Humanities, as a fellow of the National Humanities Center, and as president of the New England Historical Association. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Philosophy as a Way of Life
BY MARK BLITZ
A student who attends Harvard today might think of Harvey Mansfield as a tough-grading conservative who defends manliness on late night television. But in the early 1960s, many Harvard professors were tough graders, highbrows regarded television as a vast wasteland, and faculty did not wear their political or other preferences on their sleeves and lapels. What attracted Mansfield’s original group of students, of which I was one, was his intelligence. We were impressed by his brain. He struck us as the smartest professor at Harvard. This scope and depth remains the core of his merit as a teacher and scholar. Who, after all, should not want to study with the best?
I first met Mansfield in 1963. I was complaining to a friend about the sophomore tutorial to which I had been assigned. In those days, tutorials were formed according to the House in which you lived, not the subject you believed you wished to study. My friend told me that he was going to see Mansfield, then the assistant professor in charge of tutorials, and invited me to tag along. Mansfield asked me who my “section man” had been for Introductory Government and, of course, what grades he had given me. The answers were satisfactory and I was admitted to Mansfield’s tutorial, which covered, among other works, Plato’s Symposium and Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. I think he put it together to appeal to young men’s love of love. What we admired most, however, was how he read the texts. Ours was an intellectual generation for whom the greatest books could still be among the greatest things and Mansfield gave form and purpose to this inclination. He taught us to see problems and contradictions we had not known were present and encouraged us to believe we might discover still deeper matters. Montesquieu taught us more about politics than did a thousand articles by journalists and scholars. Plato on love was the gateway to understanding the phenomenon itself, not a dead man’s musty opinions. We learned something of what Mansfield once called the truly “natural attraction of the hidden.”
We also learned to think intelligently about questions of justice and to begin to see the remarkable impact the best political philosophers have on the way we live. Understanding the possibility of natural right provided us with grounds upon which to make reasonable judgments about practical affairs without substituting stupefying absolutism for thoughtless relativism. We could rationally defend America’s superiority to Communism without ignoring our failings. The goal of our studies was understanding, not moral and political guidance. With Mansfield’s help, we learned what it meant to use our minds.
Seminars and informal reading groups are the heart of teaching political philosophy, but lectures also have their place. Mansfield developed a style of his own that features exquisitely polished set pieces delivered with characteristic flair and rapid pace. One struggled desperately to get down every word including—especially including—the jokes. To miss a step was to fall hopelessly behind. The effect was like having a hundred Sandy Koufax curved balls aimed mercilessly at one’s head. In time, his students, many of whom are now prominent figures in government, public policy, and academia, learned the proper position from which to admire the trajectory.
Genuine teaching can result only from genuine learning. Mansfield brought to the classroom the same principle of inquiry that guided in his own writings. Over the course of his career, he broke new ground in several areas. His first distinctive contribution was to expose the political-philosophical root of modern institutions. He began with a puzzle that few recognized, but anyone can notice now that he has pointed it out. Why do we think today that parties are respectable and, indeed, desirable when for two millennia after Plato we thought formally organized opposition to be dangerous? Mansfield discusses the shift to party government in his first book, Statesmanship and Party Government, and the papers associated with it. The change is not accidental, but results from a choice prudently made and defended by Edmund Burke. His choice fits with and helps to advance the restricted goals of politics that follow Niccolo Machiavelli’s advent and John Locke’s arguments. Political philosophers make economic security, acquisition, individual rights, and consent the new grounds of government and discover and adjust institutions accordingly. Attention to commerce is united with religious toleration. The political divisions that religion exacerbates are submerged and parties based on religious splits are set aside. The “Settlement of 1688,” Mansfield writes, “. . . .resolved the religious issue by demoting it . . . . Party government required such a separation, because it was the operation of the religious issue in politics which caused great parties.”
Mansfield uncovers a similar change in many institutions. He demonstrates the roots in modern political philosophy of our view of revolution, representation and, especially, the executive, showing how what seems inevitable or merely accidental in these institutions and practices is in fact formed and adjusted by design. Taming the Prince looks at the executive, or the places one might expect to see an executive, in thinkers from Aristotle to Publius. Executives are central for us, but missing in Aristotle. If executives are missing in Aristotle’s thought, they are not an inevitable element of political life, or of just political life. Our President reminds us of a king, but is not a king. Mansfield shows how the heart of the modern executive is ambivalence. Governing is understood or disguised as service to a higher master that to be effective must also take some prerogatives of rule. This practice of indirection originates in Machiavelli’s assimilation of Christianity’s success to human enterprise. As his successors absorb and adjust his teaching, it develops through Hobbes and Locke to our American republican executive. Modern government represents the people rather than rules them. We can properly understand the executive power and the political parties that modernity favors and employs only in light of this new purpose. Modern government is limited, and princes are tamed, but not eliminated. “The beauty of executive power,” Mansfield tells us, “…is to be both subordinate and not subordinate, both weak and strong. It can reach where law cannot, and thus supply the defect of law, yet remain subordinate to law. The ambivalence in the modern executive permits its strength to be useful to republics, without endangering them…To examine the nature of executive power [is] to see how its ambivalence was purposefully conceived and developed.”
Taming the Prince follows Mansfield’s New Modes and Orders, a commentary on Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy that is nearly as subtle and bold as the work it interprets. His commentary demonstrates the virtues that should guide scholars of the humanities: patient exploration of the intention of a superior author, attention to other scholars and generosity to trailblazing teachers, brilliance and wit, and an eye toward what can improve us here and now.
New Modes and Orders helps to restore commentary to its rightful place as a form of philosophical inquiry. It is in my judgment the most searching of Mansfield’s writings, rivaled among his contemporaries only by Seth Benardete’s commentaries on Plato’s dialogues. It is the first of his books on Machiavelli and (co)translations of his major works. Leo Strauss illuminated Machiavelli’s true importance. Mansfield, who never hid but instead makes obvious his debt to Strauss, further clarifies Machiavelli’s arguments and helps to dissipate the scholastic fog for another generation.
The other thinker Mansfield translated, together with his wife, the late Delba Winthrop, is Alexis de Tocqueville. One of his signal contributions, indeed, is to help restore Tocqueville’s genuine importance, so that he cannot so easily be reduced to a nascent sociologist, fountain of (sometimes concocted) quotations, or uncritical friend of associations. Mansfield elevates Tocqueville from his all too familiar semi-significant perch as an uncannily prescient observer of American life to the commanding height of a central figure in political understanding. There is no more important task than helping to restore to their proper place earlier thinkers and modes of inquiry.
Tocqueville’s view of the place, or absence, of formality in liberal democracy, together with what we glean from Machiavelli and his successors about institutions and from Machiavelli and Aristotle about virtue, become central elements of the constitutionalism that Mansfield recreates and recommends to his fellow citizens and political scientists. The turn in political science and everyday life toward the dominance of informal power and material causes, and away from observing forms and taking them seriously, overlooks the political science of the founders and endangers our liberty. “Forms or formalities,” Mansfield writes, “equalize human relationships while preserving necessary inequalities, by preventing them from being relationships of mere unrestrained power.” Mansfield developed a constitutional standpoint above partisan liberalism and conservatism and beyond narrow proceduralism and populist excess. This formal standpoint governs the essays in America’s Constitutional Soul and the earlier Spirit of Liberalism. “The constitutional viewpoint as I see it is a formal one,” he writes, and it is endangered by the galloping informality or increasing democratism of our politics,”
Mansfield’s scholarship has also sought to restore the question of virtue to its honored place. Intelligent discussion of government forces us to wonder about its purpose. This purpose is happiness, and happiness is inseparable from virtue: virtue is politics’ chief goal and statesmanship’s guiding resource. “When executive power is made constitutional and republican,” he argues, “it gives Machiavellian necessity its due by maintaining some of the maneuverability and flexibility of the prince. But it does so, at its best, without loss of responsibility for acting with virtue.”
Mansfield’s effort to breathe life into what for us has become a bloodless phenomenon is especially visible in his recent book, Manliness, which culminates in a discussion of “manly virtue.” In the book, he continues and develops his program of vindicating rational choice against both nihilism and deterministic invariability. “But what is virtue?” he asks. “Perhaps it is the perfection of the soul,” he answers, “not an easy thought in these times, but bracing, refreshing, restorative.” For Mansfield, manliness as a virtue is “the assertion of meaning when meaning is at risk.” It is rational assertiveness, not simply Nietzschean nihilism or Stoic unconcern. “The manly man thinks and asserts that he matters,” Mansfield claims, but he is not all that matters because, at the same time, “forms matter.” “Since human beings do not have instincts enabling and compelling them to be perfect virtue is reasoned, reflective, deliberate rather than spontaneous.” Nature is a guide, he concludes, “but does not supply us with an uncontestable result. Our nature in the sense of our human good is not easy to discern or convey in a manner that closes off argument.”
To restore attention to manliness is to make breathing room for an element of our humanity and possible excellence that has been suffocated under the weight of academic distortion and political correctness. It reopens the question of the substance and limits of nature. It also indicates how political philosophy can be useful as well as precise. Our own constitutional forms of liberalism “depend on, and at the same time nourish, manliness in a free people.”
Thinking about statesmanship and manliness need not produce prudent or courageous action, but in Mansfield’s case it has. Over the course of his career, he has stood against developments in the academy that he correctly believed to be detrimental. Political science during the past fifty years has careened wildly along various approaches, most seeking the one true road. As it turns out, or as one could have seen in advance, this is a road to nowhere. How can we reach political understanding when our behavioral-mathematical methods necessarily block our access to the central political phenomena? Mansfield (and others) fought this growing orthodoxy not just in words but in the thousand actions where most find it is easier to go along than to defend their own more fruitful paths. Courage of the intellect sometimes requires courage against the intellectuals.
The new orthodoxy was at one time kept at bay by philosophical or humanistic approaches to government. But when the humanities are overwhelmed by historicist and deconstructionist views, the true objects of the social sciences are placed at risk. Mansfield placed himself against these currents, in lectures and articles, such as “Political Correctness and the Suicide of the Intellect,” and in standing, nearly alone among his Harvard colleagues, against the creation of a Woman’s Studies major. Mansfield’s attempt at restorative academic reform also includes his well known use of the ironic grade, which calls attention to grade inflation and its causes and effects. His academic courage is one of the characteristics that have earned him the life-long loyalty of generations of students. He shows us all that proper assertion belongs together with essential modesty and intellectual excellence.
How can an author be a prince? How can the author of The Prince be considered one among the many princes he describes? An author and a prince seem quite distinct. One leads a soft, retired life thinking of intangibles and invisibles- as sheltered an existence as he can make it; the other lives through heat and cold, luxury and privation, dealing with facts, appearance, and realities. As a result, the author, self-detached, thinks of the world beyond himself; the prince thinks of himself and in doing so makes everything else pertain to his advantage.
In the philosophical tradition the distinction is between the philosophical or contemplative life and the practical life. Plato put it most starkly in the image of the cave in the Republic, in which those in society, including rulers and ruled, are contrasted with the philosophers who have access to the sun outside. Aristotle made the same point more soberly with his distinction between moral and intellectual virtue. Machiavelli dismisses that distinction. The philosopher's virtue is not in thought or speech apart from deeds and more perfect or more self-sufficient. His truth is the effectual truth, the truth shown in the outcome of his thought. The truth of words is in the result they produce or, more likely, fail to produce. Deeds are sovereign: when confronted by a necessity, Machiavelli advises, do not worry about justice, but act and the words to justify your action will come to you afterward.
The effectual truth of effectual truth thus seems to eliminate the power of ideas; words respond to deeds, not deeds to words. With such a notion of virtue, Machiavelli seems to accommodate the evil deeds of Renaissance princes. Far from being a prince himself, he seems to efface himself from politics and to leave the field to its practitioners. In accordance with this impression, Machiavelli offers his "homage" (servitú) to Lorenzo de Medici in the dedicatory letter of The Prince, and gives the impression that he composed that work, the most famous book on politics ever written, to gain employment with a third-rate prince ruling the city of Urbino.
Against that impression we have the unforgettable scene described in Machiavelli's letter of December 10, 1513, in which he enters "the ancient courts of ancient men" and feeds "on the food that is mine alone." Here he proudly asserts the distinction between the philosophers and "the vulgar" and maintains the continuity of the tradition of philosophy from ancients to moderns. Nonetheless, in following the effectual truth, he says he departs "from the orders of others" who construct imaginary principalities and republics—surely the very ancient authors with whom he converses. His own writing, moreover, is as far as can be from the stale practice of rationalization. He does not serve princes by supplying platitudes for their speeches, like speechwriters in our day. How can it be that Machiavelli's ideas escape his apparent dismissal of the power of ideas? How, again, given his understanding of an author's virtue, can this author consider himself a prince?
From MACHIAVELLI'S VIRTUE by Harvey Mansfield. Copyright © 1996 by University of Chicago Press. Used with permission of the University of Chicago Press.
Executive power is power exercised in the name of someone or something else—God or the people or the law. We sometimes forget this fact and cover it up when we speak of "the executive," simply, without specifying of what. And in contemporary American speech one can hear: "The Bears really executed on that play." The verb here is intransitive, and in the appreciation of perfection one loses the sense of reference to something outside the agent. Still, when we think about it, the executive remains an agent. But though formally an agent, the executive is usually much stronger than that because his job is not as easy as its harmless title promises. Yet when he encounters resistance, and needs to disarm resentment, he can say that he is merely carrying out the will of another—the Congress, the Commanding Officer, the people, the Good Book, the Board, the Company, or any other formal sovereign—even History. His formal weakness, in short, enhances his informal strength.
This seemingly simple idea is not so simple, because its essence is ambivalence. It seems simple to us because it has become so familiar; and it is familiar because it has succeeded so remarkably. How else but as amazing could one describe the acceptance of, or rather enthusiasm for, so much one-man rule, which is what we call executive power in our modern democracies? I do not mean to say that government is always the same however it is named. But a fair look at those we call presidents, secretaries, commissioners, commissars, or executives by whatever name, in free governments as well as in the unfree, would leave one wondering why, given the power of these individuals to capture our attention and dominate our lives, we no longer speak of kings and tyrants. Someone has sold us on the idea so well that we are no longer aware of the marketing effort.
From TAMING THE PRINCE: THE AMBIVALENCE OF THE MODERN EXECUTIVE by Harvey Mansfield. Copyright © 1993 by Johns Hopkins University. Used with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.
The danger in unemployed manliness comes from too little manliness and too much of it. Too little manliness would follow from the success of the modern project of rational control, for the very meaning of rational control is to do away with erratic, obstreperous manliness. The great Tocqueville dwells on this possibility; he sees democracy in a long trend toward similarity in its citizens and conformity in their behavior. He wrote more than a century and a half ago, yet his insight gave his predictions such force that he remains by far the best authority on American or any other democracy. Tocqueville feared the gradual construction of a new democratic despotism, an "immense tutelary power" over the people that "would take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living." To oppose this trend he would rely on every democratic institution of self-government that strengthens individual pride. What we lack most is not humility but pride, and he says he would trade several small virtues for that vice. And although he agreed that democratic equality makes men unwilling to accept anyone's authority, hence intractable, he says he admires "that obscure notion . . . at the bottom of the mind and heart of each man"—can we call it thumos?—that serves political independence.
Tocqueville holds on to manliness as the remedy for democratic despotism; it is the spirit behind the democratic institutions and practices he describes. Yet if we turn to Nietzsche, we find the danger of too much manliness. Nietzsche denouncing modern softness sounds much like Tocqueville deploring democratic despotism; in his attack on herd morality he repeats Tocqueville's fear that each nation will be reduced to "a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd." But in the face of the same threat, Nietzsche turns his back on Toqueville's moderate politics and calls for a cultural transformation, a transvaluation of values. He remarked that men will rather will nothingness than not will, and with his call for will to power, he illustrated the danger he warned of. He would surely not have agreed with the Nazis, but he inspired them. And if he did not inspire the Communists, he showed what they were about. The Communists spoke of "the struggle for peace," but they were always much more interested in struggle than peace. They were war lovers as much as the Nazis and with the same ruthlessness. The Islamic radicals of our century overflow with the same spirit; though they say they are pious, they use the name of God to strengthen and serve their own will, not to direct it.
Our judgment on manliness has to take its bearings from the dangers it poses on both extremes, too little and too much. If you keep your eye only on one extreme, you back unawares into the other. The modern philosophers behind the project of rational control were mainly afraid of thumos and its incitements to idealism; they laid the ground for a dull, bourgeois society lacking in both love and ambition. Nietzsche, in revulsion against this uninteresting landscape, released manliness from all restraint except the self restraint needed to strengthen one's self. Of course those who followed him forgot what was noble and embraced what was brutal. Yet our situation is not so different from the one faced by the classical philosophers. True, our extremes are more extreme than in their time. We are, or we claim to be, more rational than they, and at the same time the history of our totalitarian regimes shows us to be more willful as well. The uncompromising reason with which we have destroyed divine authority is accompanied by the untrammeled will that has destroyed self-government and been guilty of genocide. Can it be an accident that the first atheist regimes in human history were the first totalitarian regimes? Still, our experience only confirms the conclusions of Plato and Aristotle on manliness that the true way is in the middle between too much and too little. In this general strategy they can be our guide.
From MANLINESS by Harvey Mansfield. Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Used with permission of Yale University Press.
Change is the most powerful natural law, but natural law is not simply change; it is a refraction of natural rights. Men maintain contact with their original natural rights through natural law, though this connection is not direct. When Burke says that change is by nature the most powerful law, he means that things have a law of change as a nature—that is, in classical terms, they have a law rather than a nature. Then there must be a means of continuity in the agent of natural law, which endows or secures the lawfulness of things, so that society does not drift away from its concern to protect natural rights. Such a means of continuity is the reason of men, the stock of reason, the "collected wisdom of ages." The stock of reason could be made up of laws or prudence. Laws are man-made, according to Burke; "the nature and description of a legislative act" is that "arbitrary discretion leads, legality follows." But laws are also "beneficence acting by a rule"; the laws ensure prescription, which is part of natural law. Thus the laws are man-made rules to effect the ends of natural law, and in this sense, "only declaratory." The laws reach but a little way, however. Prudence must then be beneficence acting by less of a rule than a law, in areas where the laws cannot reach. But prudence needs rules to ensure that its ends are secured according to natural law, for there are no first principles of political things by which prudence may be safely guided. The rules of prudence, not first principles, keep society moving according to law. Consequently the rules of prudence acquire the attributes of natural law, and the result is the "lawful prudence" which has been described. Furthermore, as the obligation to reform is derived from natural rights, however refracted, the task of reform is the protection of those rights, which have been defined by prescription. Prudence accordingly aims at safety first and prosperity second.
Whatever the reasons which deflected Burke from the traditional notion of prudence, two very practical differences between that notion and his can be identified, prescription and political economy. The theory of prescription limits the prudent statesman by requiring that he not attempt to form society's establishments; he may only reform them to answer particular grievances. Moreover, since the establishments raise up men of presumptive virtue, prescription ensures the sovereignty of these men over men of actual virtue. The virtue presumed of these honest men is thus fortunately a limited prudence, suited to their capacity. Honest men—Burke's "true natural aristocracy"—are presumed to have virtue because they stand upon an elevated ground. It is well that prudence, the supreme director of the virtues, can be simplified for their use. Prudence becomes a consequence of place; it is therefore a duty, since there is no possible excuse for not exercising it; and because the supreme director of virtues is a duty, presumptive virtue in general can be considered definitively as duty. Our reason is a "disagreeable yoke," Burke says, in a revealing simile; reason does not rule but yokes. Its influence is naturally unpleasant and happily limited.
From STATESMANSHIP AND PARTY GOVERNMENT by Harvey Mansfield. Copyright © 1965 by University of Chicago. Used with permission of University of Chicago Press.
DEFINING POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY
Politics always has political philosophy lying within it, waiting to emerge. So far as we know, however, it has emerged just once, with Socrates—but that event left a lasting impression. It was a "first." I stress the connection between politics and political philosophy because such a connection is not to be found in the kind of political science that tries to ape the natural sciences. That political science, which dominates the political science departments today, is a rival to political philosophy. Instead of addressing the partisan issues of citizens and politicians, it avoids them and replaces their words with scientific terms. Rather than good, just, and noble, you hear political scientists of this kind speaking of utility or preferences. These terms are meant to be neutral, abstracted from partisan dispute. Instead of serving as a judge of what is good, just, or noble, such political scientists conceive themselves to be disinterested observers, as if they had no stake in the outcomes of politics. As political scientists, they believe they must suppress their opinions as citizens lest they contaminate their scientific selves. The political philosopher, however, takes a stand, with Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59), who said that while he himself was not a partisan, he undertook to see, not differently, but further than the parties.
To sum up: political philosophy seeks to judge political partisans, but to do so it must enter into political debate. It wants to be impartial, or to be a partisan for the whole, for the common good; but that impartiality is drawn from the arguments of the parties themselves by extending their claims and not by standing aloof from them, divided between scientist and citizen, half slave to science, half rebel from it. Being involved in partisan dispute does not make the political philosopher fall victim to relativism, for the relativism so fashionable today is a sort of lazy dogmatism. These relativists refuse to enter into political debate because they are sure even before hearing the debate that it cannot be resolved; they believe like the political scientists they otherwise reject that nothing can be just or good or noble unless everyone agrees. The political philosopher knows for sure that politics will always be debatable, whether the debate is open or suppressed, but that fact—rather welcome when you reflect on it-does not stop him from seeking a common good that might be too good for everyone to agree with.
NEH Chairman Bruce Cole recently spoke with this year’s Jefferson Lecturer, Harvey Mansfield, about his love of philosophy and the importance of liberal education. Mansfield has taught at Harvard University for more than forty years and is the author of fourteen books.
BRUCE COLE: How would you describe your scholarly activity or intellectual interests?
HARVEY MANSFIELD The book I recently published on manliness is my most topical and has attracted the most attention by far. That has a good amount of political philosophy in it, political philosophy being my subject and my love. But it also has some literature and even some science, social psychology, and evolutionary biology. Before that, I did a series of books on Edmund Burke and Niccolo Machiavelli, on liberalism, on executive power, and on Tocqueville.
COLE: You’re a political scientist.
COLE What does a political scientist do?
MANSFIELD: A political scientist is supposed to study politics. There is a great division among political scientists, between those who use mathematical methods and those who don’t. I’m very much in the second group, and there’s a kind of—war is too strong a word—conflict between those ways of studying politics. The main difference between them is whether you begin from political issues that actually exist, say, for example, the issue today over abortion, or whether you try to distance yourself from current politics and abstract from it using mathematical formulae of one kind or another.
COLE: How do you do that?
MANSFIELD: You change the wording. You don’t use the words that people actually in politics use.
COLE: This is a much more theoretical approach, right?
MANSFIELD: It is theoretical, even though it doesn’t go very deep theoretically either.
COLE: But what’s the practical application of this mathematical approach?
MANSFIELD: The practical application is usually to seek peace. Political disputes are set in terms of what threatens stability. They can be overcome if they are understood abstractly or theoretically. So those who adopt that point of view have, in general, an inclination toward agreement or peace or harmony, and in great part they are liberals. So thereis a political difference, too.
COLE: What drew you to studypolitical science?
MANSFIELD: By having a father whowas a political scientist.
COLE: It doesn’t always workthat way.
MANSFIELD: Right, but I never rebelled. I remember when I was a freshman, one of the teaching assistants in a government course I took said, “It’s in the cards for you to become a political scientist.” I don’t remember ever seriously considering any alternative.
COLE: And what kind of political science did your father do?
MANSFIELD: He did American politics and public administration, constitutional law. He was a great New Dealer.
COLE: Did he work for the government?
MANSFIELD: He worked for the government during World War II, so I lived in Washington, D.C. during the war, which was a very exciting place to be. I saw many famous events, like Franklin Roosevelt’s funeral and the two parades, for victory in Europe and victory in Japan.
COLE: Other than your father, who else helped to shape you as a scholar? Who were your influences?
MANSFIELD: Sam Beer, my manly professor at Harvard, was one. Leo Strauss, who showed me the way from politics to political philosophy, was another.
COLE: Let’s dig into your work a bit.Your first book was on Burke. What drew you to him?
MANSFIELD: His run of the language, the obvious plausibility of his remarks, the power with which he was able to argue, if not persuade.
Burke was the great conservative Englishman of the late eighteenth century and a great opponent of the French Revolution. He was also a reformer and one of the things that he did was to write a famous pamphlet, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, which for the first time argued that political parties are a respectable feature of a free society. Before that, everyone had thought that parties were always a sign of faction and distrust and disease. Burke changed that opinion. I studied him and that particular work of his as a way to show this great change in the politics of a free society.
COLE: Burke is often called the Father of Conservative Thought. How do you think he’d regard conservatism as it exists today? Would he recognize it?
MANSFIELD: I think he would. He, by the way, never used the word “conservative.” He once said, “To conserve, it is necessary to reform,” which I think is still true. But the word didn’t come into usage until the early nineteenth century, after he died. But, yes, I think he shows, first, that conservatism is reactive, and so it reacts against something that it finds deplorable rather than advancing new propositions for further progress. Even when it reforms, it’s to cure or to address worse reforms that have been proposed by revolutionaries. Second, I think he shows the dilemma of conservatism, which is between going back and going slow. The conservative has a choice of going back to better times that used to exist. The trouble with this is that it’s disruptive and causes a kind of revolution of its own. Or conservatism can go slow, which means toning down the shrieks of those who demand progress.
COLE: And it’s tempering.
MANSFIELD: It’s tempering, and modifying, and moderating. The trouble is that in this second mode it continues, accepts, and accommodates change that may not really be progress.
COLE: Burke is an interesting character because he supported the revolution in the American colonies, right?
MANSFIELD: He did.
COLE: How did that tie in with his conservatism?
MANSFIELD: Well, he thought that it was the English who were trying to impose new regulations on colonists who were mainly English in origin. He was not fully in favor of revolution in America. But he took the side of the colonists.
COLE: Is there still a lot of interest in Burke?
MANSFIELD: Less, I find. As conservatism has been on the rise in America, interest in his conservatism has waned. I tried publishing a book of Burke’s letters in the Reagan years and it was a flop.
COLE: After Burke, you moved on to Machiavelli. That seems to be a leap or is it?
MANSFIELD: Actually, Machiavelli had some of the same views as Burke on parties. Machiavelli thought that parties were a good thing for a free society, but he didn’t think that it was good for them to be respectable, or that respectable people would divide into two parties. He thought it would always be the respectable versus the popular. But he thought that the conflict between the two made Rome—he used Rome as his example—both more free and more powerful.
COLE: That’s interesting. When people think about Machiavelli, they tend to think just about The Prince, and the idea of Machiavellianism. But obviously the context for Machiavelli is important.
MANSFIELD: Most scholars white-wash Machiavelli. They think that he’s misunderstood and that he was fundamentally, and even overtly, a good guy on the side of the angels. That’s not my reading. I think that he is, on the contrary, even worse than he appears.
COLE: That’s like what Mark Twain said about Wagner’s music: “It’s better than it sounds.”
MANSFIELD: Yes. He’s very bad on the surface, but underneath, he’s worse. He wants to bring on a very general revolution in our way of thinking about morality and politics. And he was in good part successful in this. I think he’s a figure of tremendous importance—the founder of modernity, modern thinking.
COLE: How so?
MANSFIELD: Well, I talk about this in my book Executive Power, which looks at the influence of Machiavelli on modern politics. I argue that executive power is power that exercised in the name of someone other than yourself, so it’s a kind of indirect government. It’s a way of acting without taking responsibility for your actions. In that sense, executive power is something weak or it’s something that you present as, “I’m sorry, I would like to help you, but the law says I can’t” or “I’m sorry, we need to do this because the people have spoken.” You always find some other authority besides yourself in which to supply clothing for your own actions. This is something that had not been thought of or invented by the ancients, by Plato and Aristotle, it’s a modern idea.
COLE: This discussion seems to be heading towards manliness. That’s the title of your most recent book, right?
COLE: At first sight, Manliness seems to be a departure from your earlier work, but it really isn’t, though.
MANSFIELD: Manliness, you could say, is the opposite of executive power. Manliness, instead of being indirect, is very direct. It’s frank and open, and, therefore, somewhat oblivious to one’s surroundings and not, as we say today, sensitive. I’d say the present day opposite of a manly man is a sensitive male.
COLE: You lament this.
MANSFIELD: I do. My book is a defense, but a qualified defense of manliness. It has a dark side, an evil side. You could make a case that the Islamic hijackers who flew planes into the World Trade Center were manly. After all, they were committing suicide while murdering.
COLE: That’s definitely the dark side.
MANSFIELD: But perhaps then we need manliness in a good sense to save us from manliness in the bad sense.
COLE: What do you consider manliness in a good sense? How would you define that?
MANSFIELD: Manliness is confidence in the face of risk. The good side is when the risk is of evil and the confidence is justified.
COLE: I find it interesting that in addition to writing about political theorists, you’ve also translated their work. What is attractive about doing a translation?
MANSFIELD: I like to translate, because it brings me much closer to the text.I’ve translated Machiavelli and Tocqueville. Those are authors in two different languages, two different times, two very different styles. Machiavelli is more difficult to translate, because his Italian is closer to Latin—long sentences, very hard sometimes to get the meaning—whereas Tocqueville has a very lovely, open style, where almost every sentence is a beauty.
COLE: You really have to tease out the meanings of every word with Machiavelli. That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought about that before. You mentioned Tocqueville. Democracy in America has become an enormously important book, because of his observations about how the country started and who we are. That book is Tocqueville’s signature piece. What impact did his book on America have in France?
MANSFIELD: Not very much, at least politically. In fact Tocqueville was a liberal, one of the three or four chief French liberals of the early nineteenth century. The liberal point of view didn’t make much headway at all. It was overcome by stronger forces on the right and on the left. France experienced another Napoleon and autocracy on the one hand, but it also was one of the birthplaces of socialism on the other. The liberalism that Tocqueville represented, though it had some political existence in the Third Republic, was overlooked or, indeed, despised by the majority of French intellectuals. There was very little work done in France on Tocqueville until Raymond Aron in the middle of the twentieth century made him popular once again as a middle between the right and socialism or communism.
For Tocqueville, the book’s publication had a huge personal impact. He came here in 1831-32, when he was in his middle twenties. He went back to France and, after completing his research, wrote the first volume, which is about 350 pages, in less than a year. That’s the one that had the big success. The second volume was delayed until 1840, because he went into politics.
France was going through a series of revolutions, and he was more involved politically than a typical philosopher. The second volume has more about democracy in society, culture, and literature—and oratory—and less directly about politics. It wasn’t as successful when published, but today it seems more powerful than the first volume.
COLE: Why do you think Tocqueville continues to have such resonance today?
MANSFIELD: Well, all you have to do is open it up and look at almost any random page and you’ll see the insight and the beautiful formulations of Tocqueville.
COLE: Tocqueville didn’t come to the United States to write about democracy. His original project was on prison reform, right?
MANSFIELD: Yes, but there is a letter in which he says that was a pretext.
COLE: Oh really?
MANSFIELD: It got him a traveling fellowship.
COLE: I never heard that before.
MANSFIELD: He and his friend Gustave de Beaumont used the fellowship to come to America. They were interested in the prison experiments occurring at that time—attempts to rehabilitate prisoners, but also to keep them or to make them penitent so that the word “penitentiary” would actually describe what was going on. They wrote a book together about it.
Tocqueville’s other great book is the one he didn’t quite finish. It’s on the old regime and the French Revolution. He finished the part on the old regime, but died before he could finish the part on the revolution. The old regime, he shows, transforms itself into a kind of democracy, in a certain sense, before the revolution. That was his famous thesis. One of his famous theories was that revolution is more likely when things are getting better than when things are getting worse. When things are getting better, people want them to get better still and lose patience more quickly.
COLE: I also wanted to ask you about Tocqueville’s concept of soft despotism. Do you think that’s relevant for understanding intellectual conformism in the United States today?
MANSFIELD: Even “soft” or “sweet” or “mild despotism” I think perfectly describes what’s going on today in America. It’s another term for political correctness, I would say. Tocqueville was already thinking about it in the nineteenth century.
The big difference between the second and the first volumes of Democracy in America is that in the first volume Tocqueville says the main danger is majority tyranny and in the second he says it’s mild despotism. Majority tyranny sounds like something active and forceful, but mild despotism is a kind of conformity that happens almost without your feeling that you’re being oppressed by it. It’s all about the questions that are not raised or ideas that are put aside. Mild despotism tutors tyranny. It feeds people as children and keeps them or makes them unwilling to raise dissent or ask questions.
COLE: Is Tocqueville’s use here akin to Margaret Thatcher’s terms of the “nanny state”?
MANSFIELD: Yes, very much that, too. He thought that “Big Government” was a consequence of what he called “individualism.” That’s a word today which is usually given a positive sound as in “rugged individualism.” But he didn’t think it was rugged. To him it was a disease of democracy that people felt incompetent or impotent among a mass of other people. One person couldn’t do anything on his own, or lives seemed to be run by huge, impersonal forces that nobody can contend with, and, therefore, it’s reasonable to withdraw into yourself or into your family or your small circle and not try to affect things politically. So individualism and big government, which is a consequence, go together. Because you think you can’t do anything, you’re perfectly willing to let the government take it on.
COLE: I’m interested in your career at Harvard. You’ve been there more than fifty years, as both a student and a professor.
MANSFIELD: Yes, right. I first came here as a student in 1949.
COLE: That gives you a long perspective. What’s changed? How different is it now from when you were an undergraduate?
MANSFIELD: In some ways, it’s the same. At Harvard, there are still a lot of very bright students. They continue to be attracted towards political philosophy, so I’ve had a congenial time all these many years. There are some differences in who the undergraduates are; above all, women. When I was an undergraduate, Harvard only admitted men. The women attended Radcliffe, but took classes at Harvard. That meant there were fewer women in the classes. That changed altogether in the 1970s. That change has many good aspects, because it means that conversation between the sexes is easier, more natural. It’s almost more like brother and sister than a boy and girl on a date. In fact, dates hardly occur any more, so I hear. So that’s good, but on the other hand, I think there’s a kind of damper on the high spirits of male undergraduates that one used to see. It’s as if the male undergraduates were premature husbands, because a man is always afraid of making a fool of himself in front of women. If there aren’t women at the dinner table, as it used to be, then there are more high spirits and a lot more foolishness, but also perhaps some more interesting ventures of thought.
COLE: How has the curriculum changed?
MANSFIELD: There I think we have definitely gone downhill. I can’t speak for the sciences, because the sciences are always expanding, but in my field the mathematical political science that I spoke of is a lot more powerful than it used to be. I think that’s a bad thing, because it distracts students from dealing with actual political questions. And then, too, there’s much less reading of great books in the humanities and the social sciences than there used to be. At that time, Harvard had a general education program which was, not in principle but in fact, a great books program.
COLE: These great books were read by all the students?
MANSFIELD: Everybody didn't read the same books, but the books they read were all great books. That has slid downhill to the point where we have a so-called core program, which has just been replaced. The core program only taught approaches to knowledge. And it was done in such a way that many of the courses had gimmicks or were on subjects intended to attract people from outside the field.
COLE: What does Harvard have now in place of the core program?
MANSFIELD: Hard to say—it hasn't begun. There is a sentiment for more substance, less attention to approaches. But there is also an opinion that no agreement on what constitutes education is possible.
COLE: You've lamented the rise of grade inflation.
MANSFIELD: That's right. When I first started inveighing against this in the 1970s—quite a long time ago—I thought it was not that important in itself, but a sign of something worse. Now I think it is getting to be that something worse. It has created a new atmosphere of consumerism among the students, who are demanding high grades, always negotiating for higher grades, and insisting on being able to produce a transcript that is near perfection. They are afraid of getting a "B," if you can imagine that. It used to be a "B" was a grade many students never saw, but once or twice in four years. Now it's considered almost an insult. Grade inflation is also very bad for professors, because what they're doing is saying that any student who takes their course is excellent or near excellent—an "A" or an "A-." Nobody who takes a subject seriously believes that everybody who works in it is excellent. Nobody who's a baseball fan believes that all players deserve to get in the Hall of Fame.
COLE: That would make the Hall of Fame meaningless.
MANSFIELD: Exactly. That would be the naive attitude of someone who is amazed that somebody could catch or hit a baseball. So now courses have become like drivers' instruction, where everybody expects to pass at the highest level.
COLE: But in fact that is happening.
MANSFIELD: That is happening, and I think that's a very bad attitude.
COLE: I know you're a hero to a lot of people because you took a strong stand on it. Are you still giving the students two grades?
MANSFIELD: Yes, because even though under Larry Summers the Harvard administration began referring to grade inflation as a problem, nothing has yet been done.
COLE: Tell me how the two-grade system works.
MANSFIELD: One is a private grade from me, the grade that I think the student deserves. The other is a public grade that goes to the registrar and is put on the transcript. It's based on the Harvard average.
COLE: What kind of student reaction have you had from that?
MANSFIELD: They sort of laugh. It does get me more customers, because I'm no longer punishing the students for taking my course by comparison to what they would have gotten in other courses. It's certainly attracted attention, but it hasn't yet changed the practice.
COLE: I know from my own teaching experience that what students expected just crept up and up over the years. It really started in the 70s, don't you think?
MANSFIELD: Yes, it did. Well, the late 60s and the immediate aftermath.
COLE: At the end of the day, it's made many grades meaningless.
MANSFIELD: That's right. The main victims of it are the best students. Everybody else gets the grade that only the best deserve.
COLE: You talked about consumerism. Do you think consumerism has become much more a part of university life than when you were an undergraduate? I'm not talking just about Harvard, but everywhere.
MANSFIELD: That's right, and in all parts of university life. For example, the food is much better than it used to be.
COLE: Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
MANSFIELD: It's a good thing, but it's a bad sign. It shows that universities are more concerned with pleasing students, or more afraid of displeasing them, than they used to be. Universities are softer and so are students.
COLE: Well, in terms of the competition for students, schools now have to offer fancy dorms and bowling alleys and an enormous amount of extra curricular activities. Then there's the whole world of sports and the like. It's something I've noticed increasingly over the years.
What about graduate education? Has that changed? I think what people study now is very different. Some of the fields in the humanities and social sciences have become very fragmented.
MANSFIELD: Oh yes.
COLE: And there's increasingly sub, sub specialties with more and more professors only talking to an increasingly small number of their cohorts. Do you agree with that?
MANSFIELD: Yes, that's very true. The professors think that there's an amazing coincidence between the subject they want to study and the subject that students ought to learn. So they insist on giving courses on what they're writing about or thinking about instead of looking at undergraduate education as a whole for what students need to learn.
COLE: There is also great concern at the moment about what people regard as the decline of liberal education. What is a good liberal education? What's the purpose of it? It's a big question.
MANSFIELD: Well, the purpose is to make a beautiful soul. I think it would help if people admitted that there is such a thing as a soul, or, if you want to use a foreign word, psyche, that we have that we're trying to improve. To do this, you need to use words that describe beauty, like "beautiful" and "impressive" and "well formed." You have to consider that the object is not merely to convey information or even knowledge, but also to refine and to beautify the souls of students. That is the special work of the humanities. Students shouldn't go through college without experiencing various kinds of beauty-art, architecture, and music, and literature.
MANSFIELD: And poetry, and so on. All of that should be done with an overtly edifying purpose.
COLE: It is where students get their grounding really, to gain a kind of perspective. They begin to learn how to think critically as well and that prepares them. I agree with you. It should be a wonderful four years where you get a grounding for what you are going to do for the rest of your life.
MANSFIELD: Yes. It's so easy to be mundane.
COLE: I think that there is increasing pressure from parents and from the universities and colleges themselves to emphasize vocationalism. Undergraduate education seems to have become a way to prepare for a job.
MANSFIELD: That's right.
COLE: Vocationally, not intellectually. I think that is where the humanities can play a central role. What do you think the place of the humanities is in a liberal education?
MANSFIELD: The place of humanities in liberal education is right at the center.
COLE: I like that.
MANSFIELD: What is human life? It's a life which is indeed partly devoted to necessities, but also devoted to what is above necessities, to something noble. We don't live without directing ourselves towards something beyond mere life, some picture of the good life. I think it's the duty of the humanities, the work of the humanities, not so much to inspire, because I think students come to our college with a kind of inspiration, but to refine and shape and direct the inspiration they have on arrival, and not to kill it. We need to think much more in terms of the good and the noble and the beautiful, and not always seek to deconstruct or tear down these high notions with low explanations.
COLE: Well, that's a good, beautiful, and noble way to end. Thank you for speaking with me today.
How to Understand Politics: What the Humanities Can Say to Science
You may think I have some nerve coming from a university to Washington to tell you how to understand politics. Well, I mean how to understand, not how to practice. In any event the understanding I propose comes from practice, not really from a university, and it has something to do with nerve—which is not often found at universities. Still less is it understood.
A person with “nerve” thinks himself more important than he is. But how do we back up the reproof: How important is he, how important are we? This is the central question in politics. Politics is about who deserves to be more important: which leader from which party with which ideas. Politics assumes that the contest for importance is important; in a grander sense it assumes that human beings are important.
Political science today avoids this question. It is inspired by the famous title of a book by Harold D. Lasswell, published in 1935, Politics: Who Gets What, When, How? The focus is on the benefits you get—what, when, and how. It ought to be on the who—on who you think you are and why you are so important as to deserve what you get. Poets (speaking broadly of all literature) and philosophers have the answer or at least address the question; science does not. The ambition of political science to be scientific in the manner of natural science is the reason why it ignores the question of importance. Scientific truth is objective and is no respecter of persons; it regards the concern for importance as a source of bias, the enemy of truth. Individuals in science can claim prizes, nations can take pride in them, but this sort of recognition is outside science, which is in principle and fact a collective, anonymous enterprise. Political science, which by studying politics ought to be sensitive to importance, to the importance of importance, aims to abstract from individual data with names in order to arrive at universal propositions. Survey research is an example.
Yet human beings and their associations always have names; this is how they maintain their individuality. Names mark off the differences between individuals and societies or other groups, and they do so because the differences are important to us. You can think your way to an abstract individual or society without a name, but you cannot be one or live in one. Science is indifferent to proper names, and confines itself to common nouns, but all human life takes place in an atmosphere of proper nouns. “To make a name for yourself,” as we say, is to become important. “To lose your good name,” to suffer a stain on your reputation, is to live thinking less well of yourself, or among others who think less well of you. Does this matter? It appears that human beings like to think they are important. Perhaps they have to think so if they are to live responsibly, for how can you do your duties if they are not ascribed to your name?
Tonight I want to suggest two improvements for today’s understanding of politics arising from the humanities. The first is to recapture the notion of thumos in Plato and Aristotle, referring to a part of the soul that makes us want to insist on our own importance. Thumos is psychology or biology, hence science as conceived by those philosophers, but I say it is proper to the humanities now because, having been expelled from modern science, thumos lingers, unnoticed and unemployed, in the history of science, which is a museum of rejected science. The second improvement is the use of names—proper to literature and foreign to science. Literature tells stories of characters with names, in places with names, in times with dates. While science ignores names or explains them away, literature uses and respects them.
Let us make our way to thumos from an elementary observation. Politics is about what makes you angry, not so much about what you want. Your wants do matter, but mainly because you feel you are entitled to have them satisfied and get angry when they are not. Many times people who seem to us poor do not complain of their wants, because they do not feel entitled to those wants. When you complain, it is not so much that you lack what you want as that you feel slighted or offended in not having what is rightfully yours. In our democracy politics is motivated especially by the sense that you are not being treated equally. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement are obvious recent examples. They were initiated not for the sake of gaining benefits but to receive equal honor and respect. We do not worry so much about the wants of the rich and their desire for inequality. In a democracy that desire is latent and suppressed, though in our kind of democracy, a liberal democracy, we make room for the rich and allow inequality in practice if not in principle. But the rich are not allowed to get angry unless their democratic rights are violated.
You can tell who is in charge of a society by noticing who is allowed to get angry and for what cause, rather than by trying to gauge how much each group gets. Blacks and women wanted benefits only as a sign of equality, not to give themselves greater purchasing power. Power is too vague a term when separated from honor; when we say that people are “empowered,” that means they have the power that goes with honor. Those not empowered are dissed, a word invented by blacks to designate the feeling of being disrespected.
The two honor-seeking movements I mentioned have been generalized in the concept of identity politics, illustrating the tendency of political science to perform abstractions and to avoid proper names. For how can you have a politics of identity or of meaning without using the names that go with identity and meaning? Lyle Lovett has a song “You’re not from Texas” that ends like this: “That’s right you’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway.” Lyle teaches us the central problem of multiculturalism: if it’s so important to come from Texas, how can Texas want you if you’re not? Those of us not from Texas have to live with the shame of it, rather doubtful that Texas wants us anyway. For with honor goes the shame of dishonor.
With honor also goes victory, for although you can lose with honor you must gain it in a contest as opposed to a calculation. Politics is not a fluctuation of gain and loss as in an investment account, or the seeking of power after power, as in a certain modern political science; it is a series of victories and defeats in which every victory for one side is a defeat for the other. True, the series never ends in a final victory. The Left will never finally defeat the Right, nor vice versa—just as war will always return in the next war, and sports always looks forward to next year. Yet along the way politics is punctuated with victories and defeats, many of them ephemeral, some of them decisive if not final. As in war and sports, politics delivers winners and losers, bearing pride and dejection, resentment or shame, not negotiated percentages of power or generalized self-esteem.
Generalized self-esteem or self-satisfaction or power arises from the modern concept of the “self,” which has a history back to the sixteenth century that I will not go into. It is enough to say that the self is a simplification of the notion of soul, created to serve the purposes of the modern sciences of psychology and economics, both of which want you to be happy in a simple, straightforward way they can count. As against simplified modern self-interest I too will simplify—but in a manner that leads away from simplification. In the pre-modern thought of Plato and Aristotle, the soul was inferred from the possibility of voluntary action—what moves you to action—and from the possibility of thought—which makes you stop and think, perhaps think about yourself. This is complication, marking a difference between the contrary requirements of practice and theory. When is it necessary to act, when is it proper to reflect? And when you add to that complication the need to determine what is the good you move towards and think about, science becomes uneasy and looks for a way out.
Why is science uneasy? Science wants to overcome the discrepancy between practice and theory so that theory can go into effect, for example so that the discovery of DNA can be put to use. The need to count, more generally the resort to mathematics, serves the goal of application. Science wants the fruits of science, and it does not tolerate much doubt about the goodness of those fruits. If you have a doubt about the use of DNA, that is your affair; it is not the business of science to question whether all fathers should be found out. Scientists had a bad conscience about making the atom bomb, it’s fair to say, but their doubts were not prompted, still less endorsed by their science.
Now, the way out from complication and doubt is to reduce the good to pleasure, something close to the body, or to utility, something useful to the body, or combining the pleasant and the useful, to power, the energy of the body. The body is considered as a factor all human beings have in common, hence an easy basis for generalization; its tendency to hold us apart, by being individual, is ignored. One’s own identity is as foreign to science as the good, and just as the good is reduced to something palpable, one’s own is raised to something vaguer but shareable.
The bodily self has a simplified object, its self-interest. Acting in your self-interest is not noble but it is excusable, as for example to leave a country where you are paid fifty cents an hour and go to one where you earn ten dollars. Nobody could blame you for being tempted. That is because self-interest, when simple, is universal; I would do the same as you. I would be propelled toward an obvious good, or toward a good I thought obvious. If self-interest is obvious, it is not really your very own; it has been generalized, perhaps artificially. The conflict of self-interests so propelled is what political science today is all about. But not politics.
Thumos, in contrast, is by its nature complicated. It is a part of the soul that connects one’s own to the good. It represents the spirited defense of one’s own characteristic of the animal body, standing for the bristling reaction of an animal in face of a threat or a possible threat. It is first of all a wary reaction rather than eager forward movement, though it may attack if that is the best defense. The reaction often goes too far when the animal risks its life in all-out attack in order to preserve itself. To risk one’s life to save one’s life is the paradox of thumos, the display of an apparent contradiction. One can even condemn one’s life, and say you are sorry and ashamed, for shame is due to thumos. Is shame in your interest? It’s hard to say yes, and just as hard to say no. Apparently you have a self above your self that’s sometimes critical of your self and makes you ashamed. Let’s call that a soul. Soulful people are complicated by virtue of holding themselves at a certain distance from themselves. But aren’t we all like this, more or less?
In thumos we see the animality of man, for men (and especially males) often behave like dogs barking, snakes hissing, birds flapping. But precisely here we also see the humanity of the human animal. A human being not only bristles at a threat but also gets angry, which means reacts for a reason, even for a principle, a cause. Only human beings get angry. When you lose your temper, you look for a reason to justify your conduct; thinking out the reason may take a while, after the moment of feeling wronged is past, but you cannot feel wronged without a reason—good or bad, well considered or taken for granted.
Now consider what happens when you produce that reason. What did Achilles do when his ruler Agamemnon stole his slave-girl? He raised the stakes. He asserted that the trouble was not in this loss alone but in the fact that the wrong sort of man was ruling the Greeks. Heroes, or at least he-men like Achilles, should be in charge rather than lesser beings like Agamemnon who have mainly their lineage to recommend them and who therefore do not give he-men the honors they deserve. Achilles elevated a civil complaint concerning a private wrong to a demand for a change of regime, a revolution in politics. To be sure, not every complaint goes that far. But every complaint goes in that direction, from anger to reason to politics. The reason is not that Achilles is making a point everyone would concede, as with self-interest. Just the contrary. Because the reason he gives opposes the rule of Agamemnon and challenges the status-quo, one expects it to be contested. To complain of an injustice is an implicit claim to rule. It is a demand that the rulers adjust their rule to provide for you, and not merely as a personal favor but as one case of a general principle. Since the rulers already hold their own principles, you might well want to remove them to make way for yours. Politics is about change, or to speak frankly, let us say revolution—large or small, active or latent. It is not about stability or equilibrium, the goal that political science today borrows from the market.
In a contested situation the asserted reason typically has to be made with bombast and boast because one cannot prove it. Certainly one cannot prove it to the satisfaction of one’s opponent or enemy. That is why the atmosphere of politics is laden with reasons that convince one side but not the other. Assertion is a passionate statement with a conclusion to which the asserter is far from indifferent. Socrates said that reasoning means following the course of the argument regardless of where it goes, and of how much it might hurt you: this is the dispassionate spirit of science. But in politics, people make assertions that they try to control; the argument goes where you want it to go. Today this is called spin. Sometimes, of course, the argument turns around and comes back to bite you, as for example when your party gains the presidency after you have loudly attacked the imperial presidency. Here we see the resistance of logic to imperious political assertions. But let us not underestimate human ingenuity in reasoning its way around reason.
Politics is not an exchange between the bargaining positions of a buyer and a seller in which self-interest is clear and the result is either a sale or not, and without fuss. Self-interest, when paramount, cools you off and calms you down; thumos pumps you up. That we get angry if we feel cheated, or that we succumb to the charm of salesmanship, shows that self-interest does not explain even commercial transactions. More than a small measure of ego enters into the behavior of those who pride themselves on calculation. In politics there is bargaining, as in commerce, but with a much greater degree of self-importance. People go into politics to pick a fight, not to avoid one. Self-interest tends towards peace, and if it could replace the thumos in our souls it would accomplish universal peace. Meanwhile, however, people want to stand for something, which means opposing those who stand for something else. In the course of opposing they will often resort to insults and name-calling, which are normal in politics though never in your interest. The demand for more civility in politics today should be directed toward improving the quality of our insults, seeking civility in wit rather than blandness.
The notion of thumos tells us further that politics is about protection, not primarily about gain. The reason you assert in your defense protects you and people like you that are included in the argument you advance. In an assertive, political argument you assume that you are perfectly OK. You are not apologizing for your self or your soul. The problem lies in things outside you, accidents that have happened or might happen, or the faults of others besides yourself. You therefore want to be protected in your self-satisfaction. If being protected requires gain, so be it. Even the most ambitious and vicious imperialists of our time wanted to conquer the world for the sake of protecting the Aryan race and the proletariat. When on the contrary you are ashamed, you believe that the fault lies in yourself, and your assertiveness falters, even turns against yourself. Consider the reaction of the democracies in Germany and Japan after World War II, or of the American sensitive male in response to the women’s movement.
Thumos, like politics, is about one’s own and the good. It is not just one or the other, as if one might suppose that politics is simply acting on behalf of what is one’s own—realism—or simply advancing the good—idealism. It is about both together and in tension. One’s own is never enough on its own; it needs a reason to justify it. But the reason generalizes one’s own to what is similar to one’s own and thus puts one’s own in a class with others; reason socializes and politicizes. But if you are in a class you are part of a whole; your own is part of the good, the common good. Your realism turns into your idealism. Even the most self-centered libertarian wants everyone to be a libertarian; for the world would be a better place if only everyone were perfectly selfish. Yet the good too is not as independent as it seems to be. If the good is to become actual, it must be established in a society. This requires a political effort to win a contest against an opposing notion of the good in the status quo. In politics you never start from nothing, but always in the face of the good you find inadequate. To defeat this dominant good, you have to espouse the good that you see and make it your own. At that point your motives are no longer pure, and your idealism is tainted with realism. To become accepted, the impersonal good needs to gather support, and in the process it becomes someone’s partisan good and loses its impersonality.
The simplified notion of self-interest used by our political and social science cannot tolerate the tension between one’s own and the good, for that tension leaves human behavior unpredictable. One cannot penetrate into every individual’s private thoughts, and there is no clear way to judge among different conceptions of the good. So in order to overcome the tension, science tries to combine one’s own and the good in such a way as to preserve neither. It generalizes one’s own as the interest of an average or, better to say, predictable individual who lives his life quantifiably so as to make its study easier for the social scientist. And for the same purpose it vulgarizes the good by eliminating the high and the mighty in our souls (not to mention the low and vicious), transforming our aspiration to nobility and truth into personal preferences of whose value science is incognizant, to which it is indifferent.
Our human thumos reminds us that we are animals with bodies that we must defend. But when we defend ourselves using reason, we are also reminded that we have bodies that are open to our souls, and souls that are open to the whole of things. Precisely the part of our soul most concerned with the body is the vehicle for rising above it. When we are impelled to give a reason for our anger, we say in effect that what we are defending is not just our bodies; and when we risk our lives for that reason—now become what we call a cause—we imply that we are not to be identified with our bodies. Rather, we are the cause toward which we strive. Our bodies have become bodiless. To borrow from President Clinton in a way he might not like, the meaning of is is to be bodiless.
The biology of Plato and Aristotle, unlike modern biology, takes account of the soul, the sense of human importance. Modern biology saves lives, but the old biology understands them better. The notion of thumos reminds us of our animality because it is visible to the naked eye when we observe animals. Modern biology uses the microscope and uncovers chemical and neurological counterparts to thumos, which actually distract us from analysis of the behavior they are meant to explain. We rest satisfied when we have pronounced the word testosterone and fail to observe as carefully as old-fashioned naked-eye science. Sociobiology has come up with the concept of turf, an unnoticed reference to thumos that we all use today to designate the marking out of one’s own. But in human beings, one’s turf is one’s family, one’s party, one’s country, one’s principle.
Sociobiology reduces the human to the animal instead of observing how the animal becomes human. Thumos shows that we are self-important animals. Having eliminated the soul, modern science cannot understand the body in its most important aspect, which is its capacity for self-importance. Modern biology, particularly the theory of evolution, is based on the overriding concern for survival in all life. This is surely wrong in regard to human life. If you cannot look around you and must insist on indulging a taste for the primitive, you have only to visit the ruins of an ancient people and ponder how much of its GNP was devoted to religion, to its sense of the meaning of human life rather than mere survival.
Coming to religion, we arrive in the realm of what is particular and individual. Science and religion are nowhere more opposed than in regard to human importance. Religion declares for the importance of humans and seeks to specify what it is. According to Christianity, men are not God, but God came to men as a man, and man was made in the image of God, the only such among the creatures of the world. A Christian is humble, but he takes pride in his humility. Although one can speak of religion generally as I am doing, religion is always a particular religion; a sociological view of its function misstates that function by making religion too general. That is why I just mentioned Christianity.
Every religion has a distinct view of a personal God or gods that take special care of men, keeping us on track and serving as particular guarantors of human importance. Philosophers in the eighteenth century, skeptical of religion but willing to acknowledge its power, came up with deism, the idea of God without God, caring for the universe without caring for you. True religion shows its concern for the human species by addressing individual human beings. Strange to say, the study of religion and of human biology could learn from each other. Religion can be seen in the very animality of the human body, in the nature of brutish thumos, always defending one’s own but always reaching beyond oneself in willingness to sacrifice oneself. In defending like a dog for its master, thumos defends something higher than itself. When the lower in us defends the higher in us, it exacts a price. The price is partiality to whatever is our own, a human imperfection we can never quite escape. The advantage, however, is that we can respect the importance of the human species through the defense each of us displays for himself. Self-defense in thumos is a guarantee of the bond between what is lower in us and what is higher, between the all-too-human and the divine. The bond is mutual, and it ensures that the higher is connected to the lower, as God is not the universal goal of humanity without also being the salvation for each individual and each people.
Science for its part speaks against the special importance of any object of science, including human beings, and in the theory of evolution it seeks to erode the difference between human beings and other animals. The study of primates aims at this goal with particular relish. Hardly a day passes without a breathless science article in the press delivering to our waiting ears a fresh resemblance of chimp to man. But the discovery of chimpanzee religion has not yet been reported. Chimps receive names from human beings with equanimity, but do not give themselves names. These are items yet to come in the imputed progress of chimpanzee civilization. Their greatest triumph, however, will be the achievement of science. For science, according to science, ought to be the most important attribute of human beings. Modern science especially seems to represent the control of our environment, of nature. To be sure, science as opposed to religion recognizes nothing sacred either outside man or within him. But collectively, science is the assertion of man over non-man, surely an unembarrassed claim to importance and rule. Yet as individuals, scientists are anonymous factors in the scientific enterprise, each one substitutable for another. For all science cares, scientists could as well be numbered as named. We in the humanities will summon up the generosity to give them names.
Every human being has his own name, distinguishing him from all other human beings (except for the many Joneses and Kims). This is a fact by which we indicate that each of us is important as each. We are not necessarily equally important, but our importance is judged as we are individuals. Individuals do belong to groups or classes; still, they too have names, such as Red Sox nation or Phi Beta Kappa, indicating their individuality. If we want to understand human behavior, especially the particular insistence on human individuality that we see in the quality of thumos, we must come to terms with human names. We must not merely regard them as embarrassments to be abstracted from, suppressed, and forgotten, as standing for idiosyncrasies that distract us from the main point, which is the laws determining what we do, the generalities we resort to when we cannot establish laws.
Having considered the importance of human importance, and how it makes us individuals, we may now compare science and literature. Let me propose that literature and science have the same aim of finding and telling the truth, but, obviously, literature also seeks to entertain. Although some of the greatest works of science are well-written, science finds its elegance in mathematics and not in the charm of a good story well told. The social sciences are in a special difficulty because they cover the same field of human behavior as literature. As science, they must claim to improve upon the prejudice and superstition of common sense, and are therefore compelled to restate the language of common sense, full of implication and innuendo, in irreproachable, blameless, scientific prose innocent of bias or any other subtlety. In response, the name common sense gives to this sort of talk is jargon. Science is required to be replicable in principle to everyone; so it speaks directly and without concealment, thus in mathematics as much as possible. In practice, unfortunately, lack of mathematics in the public and lack of communication skills (an example of jargon) in scientists leaves the latter dependent on non-scientist publicists to inform the public and, not incidentally politicians, of what science has found. These publicists usually have an axe to grind, and so science, despite its noble intent to rise above petty human partisanship, often becomes involved in it.
Literature, to repeat, besides seeking truth, also seeks to entertain—and why is this? The reason is not so much that some people have a base talent for telling stories and can’t keep quiet. The reason, fundamentally, is that literature knows something that science does not: the human resistance to hearing the truth. Science does not inform scientists of this basic fact, and most of them are too consistent in devotion to science to learn it from any source outside science such as common sense. The wisdom of literature arises mainly from its attention to this point. To overcome the resistance to truth, literature makes use of fictions that are images of truth. To understand the fictions requires interpretation, an operation that literature welcomes and science hates for the same reason: that interpreters disagree. Literature is open to different degrees of understanding from a child’s to a philosopher’s, and yet somehow has something for everyone, whereas science achieves universality by speaking without rhetoric in a monotone, and succeeds in addressing only the company of scientists. Science is unable to reach the major part of humanity except by providing us with its obvious benefits. Literature takes on the big questions of human life that science ignores—what to do about a boring husband, for example. Science studies the very small and the very large, surely material for drama but not exploited by science because in its view the measure of small and large is merely human. Literature offers evidence for its insights from the observations of writers, above all from the judgment of great writers. These insights are replicable to readers according to their competence without the guarantee of scientific method that what one scientist sends is the same as what another receives. While science aims at agreement among scientists, in literature as in philosophy the greatest names disagree with one another.
“The greatest names”: here is my last topic. Human greatness is the height of human importance, where the best that humans can do is tested, and it is the work of great individuals. The great Tocqueville—and I refuse to give a lecture on politics without mentioning his name—alluded to himself and his favorite readers as “the true friends of liberty and human greatness.” Somehow liberty and human greatness go together, a hint that nature cares only for the human species and leaves its greatness to be revealed by free human action, by our assertiveness prompted by thumos. To be great one must become great, requiring an effort of ambition. Not everyone has that ambition; most of us are content with modest careers in safe niches, like tenured professors. But we all feel ambition in our small ways, and, moreover, we know something of great ambition when admiring it. Now it may be hard to believe, but I must tell you that the political science of our day almost entirely ignores ambition. It is, for example, anxious over the problem of how to recover our spirit of civil engagement, but it looks mostly at what moves most people to vote, which it calls by the vague term “participation.” The trouble is that ambition smacks of greatness; it is not average enough to be the object of a science that knows nothing of individuality, hence nothing of greatness. Even the word “great” is unscientific because it is pretentious. But we human beings are animals with pretensions.
My profession needs to open its eyes and admit to its curriculum the help of literature and history. It should be unafraid to risk considering what is ignored by science and may lack the approval of science. The humanities too, whose professors often suffer from a faint heart, need to recover their faith in what is individual and their courage to defend it. Thumos is not merely theoretical. To learn of it will improve your life as well as your thinking. It is up to you to improve your life by behaving as if it were important, but let me provide a summary of the things that you will know better after reflecting on the nature of thumos: the contrast between anger and gain; the insistence on victory; the function of protectiveness; the stubbornness of partisanship; the role of assertiveness; the ever-presence of one’s own; the task of religion; the result of individuality; the ambition of greatness. Altogether thumos is one basis for a human science aware of the body but not bound to it, a science with soul and taught by poetry well interpreted.
At the end someone might object: Have I left out love? The answer is yes, I have. For tonight. Love is a further complication.