Harvey Mansfield IV Transcript

Table of Contents

I: Mansfield Meets Strauss 00:15 – 11:14
II: How to Begin to Read Strauss 11:14 – 26:29
III: Strauss and the Straussians 26:29 – 1:10:32
IV: Great Contemporaries 1:10:32 – 1:36:38

I: Mansfield Meets Strauss (00:15 – 11:14)

KRISTOL: Welcome to CONVERSATIONS. I’m Bill Kristol, and I’m very pleased to have with me today Harvey Mansfield, my teacher, to discuss his teacher, Leo Strauss. Who wasn’t actually your teacher, however?

MANSFIELD: He wasn’t.

KRISTOL: As an undergraduate or graduate student. I noticed in the acknowledgements in your first book, which was your doctoral dissertation, you thanked various Harvard professors and then you thanked Leo Strauss. So how did that happen?

MANSFIELD: Well I certainly had to thank my hero, which was Sam Beer, and I later wrote a book all about him called Manliness. He was the most manly man I ever met, and so he deserved to have a book in his honor but my real teacher was not he or not William Y. Elliott, who I also mentioned, but Leo Strauss. I developed an acquaintance with Leo Strauss.

It began by meeting Harry Jaffa in Columbus, Ohio. Harry Jaffa was one of Strauss’s students, and he was an Assistant Professor in my father’s department of Political Science. My father was a chairman of the Ohio State Political Science Department, and Harry Jaffa was in there, and so Harry as a high school student – this would be about 1948-49 – took me under his wing and introduced me to political theory. I had a previous introduction from David Spitz who was a liberal but for some reason I was more convinced by Harry Jaffa than by David Spitz.

KRISTOL: Jaffa, I guess, studied with Strauss at the New School in the 40s.

MANSFIELD: At The New School for Social Research in New York was where Strauss came when he first arrived in America as a refugee scholar. So perhaps the next stage was going through Harvard and studying with Sam Beer, and then in 1953 when I graduated I read Natural Right and History, which was Strauss’s great book on the issues that most people understand and perhaps the best way still to approach his thought.

Natural Right and History was – you could say, begins with an attack on the fact-value system, which is the way social science operates. And the way in which I was taught at Harvard. I was always dissatisfied with that because I thought there was more to value, valuing than just assertion. Just saying the way you would love things to be, or wishes. But on the other hand, I was always dissatisfied with the rigidity – it seemed to me – of the natural law position. Say the Catholic conservatism of natural law, which it seemed to me was too rigid and insufficiently flexible. Didn’t leave enough room for human prudence.

So Strauss was right in the middle between those two. He was believed that it was a matter of knowledge, say, whether someone was an honest person or not. But on the other hand, to go further than that required a lot of interpretation and a lot of thinking on which reasonable people might disagree. And he later developed the distinction between, or he does in this book, between natural right and natural law.

So that was in 1953 and then – well, a little bit later – I met him, I think. That was in about 1958 in Chicago. I had been invited to one of the conferences that Robert Goldwin, one of his students managed with public figures of one kind or another. I’ve forgotten which one in this case, but Strauss was there and he smiled at me and we met and that, and that was a great pleasure.

And later on when I was at my first job, which was at the University of California-Berkeley, I got to know him the way a student would get to know a teacher. Up ’til then I was the guy from Harvard. Strauss had a low opinion of Harvard.

KRISTOL: Shocking, really.

MANSFIELD: Yes, it was.

KRISTOL: He was right on so many other things.

MANSFIELD: Yeah, right. But he had a low opinion of Harvard, it has to be said, it was perhaps a certain sense of rivalry with a friend of his or at least a acquaintance of his from Germany, Carl Fredrick, it was of course, the most famous political theorist at Harvard at this time. But for whatever reason he somehow preferred the University of Chicago to Harvard, University of Chicago being where he now was. And so, it was graced, it was certainly graced by his presence so I can’t blame him for that.

Yeah. That little opinion of his. So I was always in a way – when I was with him, it was always with his other students and they were more diffident to him or were – rather he was more commanding to them. Or as me, I had gotten my Ph.D. from elsewhere and other people, and this paradoxically might, I think, set me on a level or equality, mock equality with him.

So he would ask me my opinion. He didn’t ask what Harvard thought but he had me down as a Protestant so that meant that I knew Luther and Calvin through and through, so when it came up, as it sometimes did, “What was the Protestant view of this or that?” I was consulted and made to rattle off, which, of course, I couldn’t do at all, what kind of wisdom there might have been in those two great but totally unknown to me thinkers.

So that was, now we’re getting into the period where I was in his reading group at Berkeley, this would have been 1960 to ’61. So he was, that year he left Chicago just to come for one year to the advanced what is it? Behavioral Center, or Center for Behavioral Studies, which was in Palo Alto, and I was in Berkeley. So the reading group met on Wednesday evening.

KRISTOL: So that was just good luck that you were both in the Bay Area at the same time?

MANSFIELD: That’s right. And he had a reading group, he had brought several of his students with him, and the two most memorable were Ralph Lerner and Martin Diamond, were there and who I got to know, made good friends with in that year. So he had this reading group on Wednesdays from 8 until 12. That was how long he went. He had had a heart attack.

KRISTOL: p.m.?

MANSFIELD: Yeah, p.m., of course.

KRISTOL: Very European.

MANSFIELD: Yeah. Oh no. Eight to 12, and he had heart attack the year before so Mrs. Strauss had given orders that he had to be stopped at 12, otherwise he’d go on and on and on, and when he stropped at 12, we all had a kind of, we had hors d’oeuvres, something to eat and something to drink and then the gossip began. And the meeting usually broke up about 1:30.

And I – Wednesday was a tough day for me because I had a class in the morning and then a seminar in the afternoon which ended at 6 p.m. so at 6 p.m. I had to make it all the way from Berkeley to Palo Alto, driving over the Bay Bridge, eating a sandwich on the way, in order to arrive at eight. And, of course, when I – the return trip was something not be mentioned.

But it was a wonderful experience. It was the most challenging intellectual experience of my life then and still now to meet someone of that brainpower. It took all my abilities to try to keep up with him. So that was a new experience for me.

KRISTOL: And what did you read?

MANSFIELD: We read some Plato. Laches, Plato’s dialogue on courage. That’s what we started from but it was mostly Aristophanes because he was then writing his book, which came out later called Socrates and Aristophanes. So that’s really my acquaintance with him. I knew him. I was – I can’t say I was really close to him, but we were friendly and occasionally he would write to me something that he found out. He took a great interest – he read my dissertation on Burke, which then was published.

The book you just mentioned, Statesmanship and Party Government. And I was told this was a great honor. I was told that Strauss had stopped Robert Goldwin, the same one of ran the conferences, in the street one day, and he told Goldwin, “I’ve just finished reading a book I wish I had written.”

KRISTOL: That is a great honor.

MANSFIELD: And but he never said that to me.

KRISTOL: Well, that would have gone to your head.

MANSFIELD: Yes it probably would have.

KRISTOL: But Goldwin told you. That was good of him.

MANSFIELD: Yes, he did. Yes, it was good of him.

KRISTOL: That’s great, though.

MANSFIELD: Alright so, but I got to see him now and again a couple times in Annapolis after he’d stopped teaching at Chicago. From this time – so that was 1961 when he was at Berkeley, then he died in 1973 so about a dozen years later.

KRISTOL: Did he ever come talk at Harvard?

MANSFIELD: No, but he came to Boston and gave a talk there. But I did invite him when I was, to give a talk at Berkeley, which he did, where I had just arrived. I had just arrived; I was totally green Assistant Professor, and here I was inviting this famous but somewhat controversial, even disliked, disapproved of, professor, and he gave a talk to the Berkeley crowd who listened not altogether respectfully, certainly not in agreement, but yeah that was, that was my time that I invited him.

KRISTOL: That’s good.


KRISTOL: Disappointing that he never set foot, apparently, on the Harvard campus, that’s to Harvard’s demerit.

MANSFIELD: I think that may have been the case.

II: How to Begin to Read Strauss (11:14 – 26:29)

KRISTOL: So I mean, there’s been so much written, so many levels and commentary on Strauss and texts on Strauss and defenses of Strauss but in a way you encountered him fresh so what would you say if someone asked what all this – Strauss, you’re a Straussian, what’s all that mean? What’s the right way to begin thinking about Strauss?

MANSFIELD: Well, I already mentioned the right approach, and that, I think, is to read Natural Right and History because, as I say, that is his analysis of the current intellectual situation in America, in the West. The background of it. So that’s the book to start with.

On the other hand, he made a great discovery. And, or rediscovery. And that was of the existence of esoteric writing, and so this is the most striking thing about Strauss. And when you become a Straussian, there’s always a point of conversion. That word, kind of religious word is almost appropriate. And that is when you discover and begin to appreciate esoteric writing.

Esoteric writing means – well, to quote a title of a recent book – “philosophy between the lines.” This is the title of a recent book by Arthur Melzer, which I very much recommend to anyone who wants to study Strauss, in which he presents the much overlooked evidence. Much of it, so much evidence there is of esoteric writing by philosophers by their references to the need for this.

What esoteric is – this, there isn’t just one audience for a philosopher, he lives in his time but also lives beyond his time so he wants to address other philosophers but he also wants to address the people in his time. These are two different audiences because the first audience, you might say, the audience of eternity deals with those permanent and eternal questions most of which cannot be answered finally or at least in such a way that everyone will agree. It’s notorious that philosophers disagree, and yet they all love being philosophers and they respect their philosophers.

Now, the thing is that to study the permanent questions means to unsettle the temporary answers or agreements that societies have. Societies can’t live on disagreement or on total dissension, or on mere skepticism. They have to have an answer, and each has to have it’s own answer, a kind of official answer. And this is true even of liberal or democracies or free societies, they have a certain amount of disagreement, which they call pluralism.

But say on a – for example, America, that all man are created equal, that the way to think about justice is to think in terms of rights, these are fundamental principles, which really cannot be questioned by an American or at least politically by an American. So society has its beliefs and philosophy has its questions and that’s a diremption, that’s a dichotomy, which cannot be, cannot ever be totally overcome.

And this cannot fail to impress itself upon any philosophers so the philosopher quickly sees the need for addressing these two audiences differently but in the same work, so it isn’t that you have a little known work that is your esoteric writing and a better known one, exoteric. No. The two were always mixed together so that the careful reader that is a philosopher can see things, problems in the text in which the careful writer inserts remarks that are intended for the philosopher and not just for the political people or moral people of his time.

And that’s what Strauss discovered or rediscovered because it was perfectly well known to all philosophers up until about the beginning of the 19th century. At that time history appeared on the scene and the notion arrived that a thinker was a creature or child of his own time, a child of his own time – that’s a phrase of Hegel, a 19th-century philosopher. Perhaps the greatest. According to that view, every philosopher is a spokesman for the myths or the beliefs or the opinions, or even the truths of his time, but of his time only.

And eternal problems don’t exist, and certainly, the several eternal solutions, which one can see in the history of philosophy, are each to them compartmentalized into stages of world history – not for us today, we’ve settled that. For example, the religious question. That’s all dead. That’s obsolete. That’s not a 21st-century question.

So that’s the historical view and that took over from the, when I say the other rival view that made room for esotericism. And it really denied that here was a distinction between what was said to philosophers and what was said to political people but the two could be blended together or needed to be blended together and that really no philosopher really had the ability to be critical of his own time. That’s really what it’s saying. If you’re a child of your own time, that means you can’t be a critic.

And that was very destructive of philosophy. So philosophy really lives on the possibility of esoteric communication. Otherwise, it’s taken over by the beliefs of it’s own time. And so that was Strauss’s great discovery, which he made. So this story – I don’t remember it very well, in a Berlin library when he was reading a text of Avicenna, on Plato’s Laws, and Avicenna remarked that Plato was understanding the legislator as a kind of prophet.

That meant that the philosopher was a, trying to give a way in which to understand the laws of any society.  Not as philosophically based but as religious, with a kind of religious foundation, or one might say, covering even. And so in that and Strauss began to expand on this marvelous insight and found all kinds of esoteric writing in unsuspecting places.

One of his great discoveries was Strauss discovered Xenophon the Greek philosopher, Xenophon who had always been despised as a kind of not very, not very intelligent, gentlemanly type. Good fellow but really not very sharp.

As Strauss showed far from that, he was a very sharp fellow pretending to be a good sort of gentlemanly type. And that he was right there on par with Plato and with other philosophers and far superior to his denigrators in modern times among classical scholars. So that was one of his, one of his many writings on Xenophon he tried to show as he once, I think he once put it, I think, tried to make a – to recover the greatness of Xenophon.


MANSFIELD: So together with esotericism, you also discover exotericism is the way in which a philosopher has to present the beliefs of his own time to the people who live in his own time in such a way as not to so much to lead them to truth as to lead them to political stability and moral decency.

KRISTOL: And also to protect themselves.

MANSFIELD: And also to protect themselves.

KRISTOL: Persecution and the Art of Writing, I mean, Strauss —

MANSFIELD: That’s right, of course.

KRISTOL: Somewhat exoterically, maybe, stresses the simplest reason why you would need to.

MANSFIELD: Simplest reason why a philosopher needs to be exoteric is to cover himself from possible attack or a fatwa or something like that. That was still a danger, today actually, and used to be everywhere.

KRISTOL: Yeah, I would think in the essay Persecution and the Art of Writing, where Strauss plays this out at least in some degree, he says persecution and then — it seems first that’s the main reason but then sort of respect for the healthy opinions, not to disturb healthy opinions of society, turns out maybe to be a slightly deeper reason but then education seems to be really also. Even if there weren’t persecution or the tension between opinions and questions maybe philosophers would still write that way. I mean, carefully.

MANSFIELD: Yeah. If only to teach future philosophers.

KRISTOL: Force you to think.

MANSFIELD: Force you to think. Yeah.

KRISTOL: I think that part is underreported sometimes.

MANSFIELD: A good teacher walks into a classroom, say, and raises a question and may give one answer and one answer on the other side and say, “What do you think?” That’s a contradiction. Contradiction is something that forces you to think. So if you put a deliberate contradiction in your text then you raise the reader.

You raise him above being a mere reader or mere follower, you force him to think on his own and when he thinks on his own he’s getting closer to you and he’s less of a disciple or mere reader and more of a thinker. So today we set greats by original thinking but thinking has to be original in everybody.

If it really is thinking, otherwise, you’re just accepting, and however original thinker you are it turns out, at the end of the day, if there aren’t 1,001 possibilities, as Nietzsche fancifully suggested. No, there are several. There are several ways to look at the world, and you can through some exercise of an effort learn what they are. Learn the principle alternatives.

And this is what would be an education, an education one can still get today in a college. And then perfected it or maybe ruined in graduate school.

KRISTOL: But luckily you can read the books.


KRISTOL: On the commentaries of Strauss and others and you and get the education that maybe that your college professors aren’t, aren’t so great. You know, that’s a great service of Strauss, too. Why people write books, maybe, to teach beyond.

MANSFIELD: Not only did Strauss write books, but he got you to read the books that he wrote about. He never used his books as text, and indeed while he was alive most Straussians, or students of his, treated them as if they were sacred things that one mustn’t read even, or certainly not comment on publicly and not defend publicly because Strauss wasn’t like, let’s say, Michael Oakeshott who wanted Oakeshottians to read Oakeshott.

But no, he wanted you to read the great books as opposed to Natural Right and History, Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau. Those, and so if you were a Straussian, he would give a course on those books and not on Strauss. However, we might read Strauss in order to teach those books if you wanted to do a good job.

KRISTOL: Because that’s himself was commenting on all these books not on giving his own teaching.

MANSFIELD: But when I was in undergraduate, the typical course in political theory was to read excerpts from books and then read the textbook, which would explain those excerpts. Usually from the historicist point of view. But since then, and this is an effect Strauss has had on the teaching of politically theory, generally in America now, people read entire books and they read the original.

KRISTOL: I was struck even when I got to Harvard, I mean, some teachers would still talk about, “Study X thinker and learn his doctrines,: and I do think one of Strauss’s greatest services was right away making you see whatever doctrines might be presented by various thinkers those were for whatever reason official or not the real thought, you know?

MANSFIELD: Those are exoteric. Those are the things that he thought would be good for you to learn or to be known to believe.

KRISTOL: Or to go through a stage of thinking about, maybe, and then realizing the limitations of or something. Yeah, so. I mean. That’s really the fantastic thing that you don’t get, you get beyond the sort of “so-and-so believed X and so-and-so taught Y,” and you really have to think through the text.

MANSFIELD: There’s certainty such a thing as a Straussian but never such a thing as Straussianism. There’s never. There’s not a Marxism that finds a parallel in Strauss.

KRISTOL: That’s a good point.

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