Translating Politics

Political philosopher Harvey Mansfield and NEH Chairman Bruce Cole discuss the power of princes and the origins of modern government.

HUMANITIES, May/June 2007, Volume 28, Number 3

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole recently spoke with this year’s Jefferson Lecturer, Harvey Mansfield, about his love of political 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.

Harvey Mansfield image
Photo caption

—Justin Ide, Harvard University

Portrait of Macchiavelli
Photo caption

Portrait of Niccolo Macchiavelli by Christophano dell'Altissimo, ca. 1500.

—Scala/Art Resource, NY

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 Niccolò Machiavelli, on liberalism, on executive power, and on Tocqueville.

Cole: You’re a political scientist.

Mansfield: Yes.

Cole: What does a political scientist do?

Mansfiled: 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 there is a political difference, too.

Cole: What drew you to study political science?

Mansfield: By having a father who was a political scientist.

Cole: It doesn’t always work that 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: Its 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?

Mansfield: Yes.

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.

Cole: Poetry.

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.