Philosophy as a Way of Life

Wit and insight are trademarks of Mansfield's scholarship and teaching style.

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

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 curve 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 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 Niccolò 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 tolerance. 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 lifelong loyalty of generations of students. He shows us all that proper assertion belongs together with essential modesty and intellectual excellence.