In His Own Words

Excerpts from the writings of Harvey Mansfield.

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


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.

George III political cartoon
Photo caption

"The English Minister reading the imperial decree to George III" satirizes the king's response tupon hearing that France has blockaded England in November 1807.

—Bridgeman Art Library


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.

Copyright © 1993 by Johns Hopkins University.
Used with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.

Republican Hercules cartoon
Photo caption

British cartoonist James Gillroy derides the fighting prowess of France during the Napoleonic wars in "The Republican-Hercules Defending His Country."

—Bridgeman Art Library


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.

Edmund Burke cartoon
Photo caption

A french cartoonist depicts Edmund Burke, a critic of the French Revolution, in an unflattering light, ca. 1790.

—Bridgeman Art Library


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.

by Harvey Mansfield. Copyright © 1965 by University of Chicago.
Used with permission of University of Chicago Press.

Photo caption

This cartoon, "Bombardinian," ridicules British politicians who talk, but never listen, ca. eighteenth century.

—Bridgeman Art Library


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.

by Harvey Mansfield.
Copyright © 2001 by Harvey C. Mansfield.
Used by permission of ISI Books.