Harvey Mansfield Transcript
Taped June 17, 2013
Table of Contents
I: Political Science and Political Philosophy 0:15 – 16:37
II: Tocqueville, Political Philosopher 16:35 – 27:00
III: Back to the Ancients 27:00 – 34:55
IV: Machiavelli, Teacher of Evil 34:55 – 42:20
V: Translating and Teaching 42:20 – 56:42
VI: What is Manliness? 56:42 – 1:16:34
VII: Our Corrupt Universities 1:16:34 – 1:25:16
EXTRA: Additional Footage
KRISTOL: I’m Bill Kristol. Our guest today is Harvey Mansfield, longtime professor of political philosophy at Harvard and my teacher. I’m thrilled to have you with us today.
KRISTOL: Harvey, why political philosophy? You’ve been teaching it for 50 years but I think you started off intending to be a political scientist.
MANSFIELD: Well, that’s true. I went from political science to political philosophy at Harvard. As you mentioned, I went to Harvard and I went to Harvard in a more significant way than most people because I never left Harvard.
Well, the jokes about Harvard are about what happens to you after you leave Harvard. For example, you’ll never regret going to Harvard. Others may, but you won’t. So, I learned it there because I’ve always been there.
And I started with this wonderful teacher, Sam Beer, who was a professor of comparative government, and we studied, especially, political parties and that was political science, which had a certain relationship to what was called political theory. And they felt that – Sam Beer and others like him – that political science needed theoretical background or backing up or a foundation underneath it.
And the foundation he went to, others too at that time, was Max Weber. So, when I was an undergraduate as a senior, I wrote a senior these on political parties and Max Weber as backing up. But while I was doing so I began to wonder. I was even turning to Hegel at the same time that I was reading Max Weber, and I concluded that political science was not enough by itself it doesn’t judge. When you study facts, facts ask to be judged. A fact presents itself as something, which is either good or bad or – and people who deal with facts either deserve to be praised or blamed.
It doesn’t seem to be possible to stop and say, “I’m not going to be concerned with evaluation.” Political philosophy is concerned with evaluation because political facts aren’t sufficient by themselves and they ask to be judged.
KRISTOL: And you came to this view on your own? Influenced by other teachers?
MANSFIELD: Not exactly. Certainly not –
KRISTOL: Not happy with Weber?
MANSFIELD: A little bit of all that, but I especially came under the influence of Leo Strauss, the famous – more than famous philosopher at the University of Chicago, where I did not go, but heard about and learned from through his students, especially Harry Jaffa at Ohio State, and a couple of them attended Harvard, Richard Cox and David Lowenthal, were good friends of mine.
And Leo Strauss, I think, presented political philosophy in a more much attractive way and profound way than I had ever seen before. It went beyond just theory in the sense of generalizing. It looked toward the most fundamental premises and connected those to the most obvious and superficial facts.
So it was empirical beginning from the surface of things in a way that I had never appreciated before. So I read Leo Strauss’ book, Natural Right and History, about the time that I graduated – that book came out in 1953. And I was completely – completely overthrown in all my previous thoughts and had to sit down and revise and think again.
KRISTOL: This was after your senior thesis, so you didn’t have to revise your senior thesis?
MANSFIELD: No, no, I now leave it on my shelf never to be looked at again. But it’s not worth the paper that it’s written on. But maybe the experience was worth it. And after that I went into the Army. I had plenty of time to think. Those were two years I spent away from Harvard.
KRISTOL: With time to read?
MANSFIELD: With time to read, yes. Because I was not in a very – I was not in an emergency situation.
KRISTOL: Where were you?
MANSFIELD: I spent my time in Williamsburg, Virginia, and in Orleans, France, what the Army calls good duty.
KRISTOL: Yes, absolutely. And you came back to graduate school and at that point you were determined to study political philosophy. And you turned to Burke, I guess?
MANSFIELD: Edmund Burke.
KRISTOL: That was the subject of your Ph.D. thesis.
MANSFIELD: It was.
KRISTOL: So why Burke?
MANSFIELD: Well, Burke wrote on parties. I wanted to judge parties, and other people had studied the facts about parties and generalizations about parties. But they hadn’t defended parties.
And, in fact, before Burke, a party was always thought to be a faction. It was thought to be a bad thing for a republic to suffer from party divisions. Because it meant that the common good was not understood. It was disputed and this wasn’t good.
Burke changed that with a small writing of his called Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents that came out in 1770. And so I made a study of that in my dissertation which I called Party Government and Statesmanship. Then when it came out as a book, switched it around, which changed everything from – to Statesmanship and Party Government.
KRISTOL: That was your decision or your publisher?
MANSFIELD: No, it was my decision. It was a fundamental rethinking. And statesmanship is understanding things on the spot individually and a wise man making the wisest decision in those circumstances. And party government deal with politics as it can more usually be found, which is disputes, not being sure what the wisest decision is or even what the wisest person is.
And Burke who was certainly a wise man and who made many wise decisions, nonetheless supported a way of carrying on politics through party government, which legitimized, regularized, made permanent divisions – party divisions that before him were always thought to be temporary or hoped to be temporary.
KRISTOL: So the paradox, I guess, is a statesman defending party government?
MANSFIELD: That’s just what – that’s what he did, yeah.
KRISTOL: So, why not give full rein to statesmanship? Why confine things into these parties, which are then partisan and partial and all that?
MANSFIELD: And based on principle – that was Burke’s notion that a party was a group of men gathered together based on some – acting together on the basis of some principle. And you might criticize that from the standpoint of statesmanship as – by saying that, you know, principles are generalizations that don’t always work. You can’t always practice your principles because events come, emergencies arise, which prevent you from doing that.
So, principles are always a problem, and I think Burke agreed with that, but he thought that it was better to have principle than a series of wise decisions, each of them defensible on its own, but perhaps not coherent altogether.
Because most wise men can’t – don’t have the power to act on the basis of their wisdom. They have to persuade other people who are not so wise. And one way of doing this is to take what is wisdom and try to transform it into principles.
So, for example, we have wisdom, what is wise for America to do, but we also have a principle, which is the right of consent and sometimes the right of consent gets you into trouble, it’s very inconvenient, but still on the whole we stick to that principle even though it doesn’t always bring wisdom, at least not immediately.
So, that would be an example of the way in which parties based on principle are wiser than wisdom not based on principle.
KRISTOL: I think your argument was that Burke really founded party government – I mean consciously, it wasn’t just something that grew up accidentally as democracy emerged or whatever?
MANSFIELD: No, that’s right. It didn’t just emerge from politics or political science, it was something that – he saw what was going on politically, which was the king choosing people on the basis of his own, quote, wisdom, unquote, or his own right as king to choose his ministers.
And he would choose according to – or at least he was offered the choice of choosing according to merit. And Burke thought that merit wasn’t always the best thing. You need to have merit, but also a certain amount of loyalty and a certain amount of refinement.
And, so he defended a government that – a free government which was mainly run by gentlemen. But it was possible for gentlemen not always to agree and to have different principles so it could be respectable to have party differences among respectable people. And that’s today what we have.
It’s not that the party dispute is between the nobles, the respectable people and the plebes, the ignorant mob, but we have two parties, both of which are equally respectable.
KRISTOL: So that’s party government?
KRISTOL: You came to political philosophy really, from, the study of politics. I mean, I think that’s not always been the case. A lot political philosophy professors or some – interested at a young age or whatever and the thinkers themselves, are charmed by the thinkers and –
MANSFIELD: And by theories and especially by the theory behind democracy. They think that what democracy means is theories which promote democracy, and that’s what most political theory is, I’m sorry to say, in our profession these days. “Democratic theory.” But maybe even democracy needs to be made respectable or needs to be thought out a little bit more than they do.
Democracy might have weaknesses, which would show up against an understanding of politics which took wisdom or statesmanship more seriously. And so democracy needs to address its weaknesses and not just to promote its theory and, say, in the case of democracy, which is about equality, to try to make all human life as equal as possible.
KRISTOL: I can see why you became so interested in Tocqueville. Maybe we should jump to that since we’re talking about democracy and its weakness? But had you always – I’m just curious – a bit of a skeptic about a sort of excessive glorification of democracy? Were you a sort of slightly conservative with a little “c” even as –
MANSFIELD: Well, politically, yeah, I was liberal. My parents were New Deal liberals. My father was a political scientist – same name as mine – gave me his name, thank you. That was what I had at home and, of course, growing up among professors as I did – a university brat – that’s what I heard.
But yes, I began to develop doubts and finally changed to becoming conservative after I graduated from college, and coincidentally was reading Leo Strauss’ book. But since Strauss doesn’t really promote conservatism – I think with a view from above conservatism that is generally favorable to conservatism.
So, that’s a viewpoint of wisdom – kind of pretentious, maybe, to speak of wisdom, but it’s a kind of pretension that opens up new ways of looking at things and – so to suppose, say, that conservative is always correct and that liberalism has nothing to say, that would go against what I was thinking about party government but also against what I think is true.
So I became a conservative mostly on the anti-Communist issue. And then turned to sort of more domestic –
KRISTOL: In the 60s did you react against the 60s as so many people did?
MANSFIELD: Yes, did I ever. Yes, well, that made me much more conservative in every respect, especially so-called social conservatism, because the 60s – the 60s was not so much of an attack – not so much of an attack on conservatives. It was an attack on liberals. The liberals that I had known and worked with, people like Sam Beer.
He recognized this and also defended Harvard as well as he could from invasions of the New Left. But you know, that – so that was a difficult time for us and what it – what happened was that the liberals that I knew always had underneath a certain conservatism that they took for granted and weren’t fully aware of. This was only – also true even of my own dad.
So, the late 60s brought that out a little bit, and this is one reason why the late 60s not only gave birth to the New Left but also to conservatism.
KRISTOL: I remember in your book, the Spirit of Liberalism, which came out in the late 70s, was an analysis of various liberals who were unwilling to fight for liberalism really and the weakness – showed the weakness of contemporary liberalism.
MANSFIELD: That’s right. They were lacking in manliness. This was – this is another theme –
KRISTOL: To get to another one of your themes.
MANSFIELD: Another one of my themes. Yeah.
KRISTOL: I don’t know which one to go to next, universally – possibilities –
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