The Foreword to the new book “The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: Conservative Humanism and the Western Tradition.”
Harvey Mansfield’s Long Shadow
Of all the universities in all the towns of all the world, Harvey Mansfield walked into Harvard in 1949, and except for his years spent in the United States Army, he has been at Harvard ever since. One can hardly think of an American professor who has been more influential on so many students since that time—perched from his position at the top of the Government Department, Mansfield has been a beacon for many young conservatives walking Harvard’s halls, and his bottomless charity is known to all. More than either of these, however, Mansfield will be remembered primarily for his work in political philosophy: he was fundamental in tracing the various aspects of modernity to Machiavelli, expounding on the latitude of the American executive, and attacking the gender-neutral society in favor of a more classical conception. His most humble task is what his students will most remember him for—teaching courses on ancient and modern political philosophy, and introducing the Western tradition to young, starry-eyed greenhorns.
Much more could be said about Mansfield, and the American Enterprise Institute attempted to do so this last week with “Harvey Mansfield at 90: A Conference on Major Themes of His Work” (yes, 90: there is a reason that Mansfield is the most qualified man to speak on thumos). Opening the event was Bill Kristol, Harvard class of ’73, a man who paid far more attention to his 2020 election feed than an important lecture he may have heard from Mansfield on democracy and Book VIII of Plato’s Republic in the seventies. The first panel was on perhaps the preeminent theme of Mansfield’s work, “Machiavelli and Modernity.” One of the panelists, Ioannis Evrigenis, commented that much of the vainglory and aggression visible in modern politics can be found in Machiavelli’s original prescriptions, and that this is one of the main threats facing the world today. While Vladimir Putin was indeed the recipient of much of the scorn that afternoon in this context, it must be remarked that the passivity of domestic politics is equally, if not more of, a problem today. So called “radical” activists who push the boundaries of gender and violence are ostensibly leading the charge, but are really only obeying the orthodoxy of their masters.
Perhaps the most interesting comments on this panel, though, came from Nathan Tarcov, the co-translator with Mansfield of the Discourses on Livy. After an entertaining description of the origin of their cooperation and the translation process, Tarcov went to the heart of Machiavelli’s project. Examining the infamous phrase “effectual truth”, which is used to describe the ends of the enterprise, Tarcov noted that it is often bound up with one’s own necessity, the “necessity to not be good.” Thus, the justification for modern politics has at its core an immoral teaching. Tarcov delivers the coup de grâce when he notes that Machiavelli’s movement ought to be judged on its own grounds: its effects. Judging on this basis it is hard to say that Machiavelli as the founder of modernity was a positive good, and yet I suspect nobody on the panel would be willing to condemn his modern project.
The second panel was titled “Tocqueville and America,” and was on Tocqueville’s magnum opus which Mansfield has described as the best book on democracy and the best book on America. Up first was Peter Berkowitz, who examined the critique of liberalism that now saturates public discourse: after noting that liberalism deflates the human being, overlooks virtue, dissolves community, and misunderstands freedom, he shrugged his shoulders and asked what could replace it? Following him was Bryan Garsten, who focused on the “democratic impatience” with forms. In fact, “forms” was probably the main theme of the panel: all the speakers, including Charles Kesler, argued for the importance of forms, and the necessity for center-right people to remain committed to them. A question that was never broached, however, is what are we to do when the Left no longer recognizes forms? If the opposition cannot be said to be good faith actors, what are the possibilities and limitations of liberal constitutionalism? Alas, a question for another day.
The final panel, on the “Gender-Neutral Society” (an experiment AEI has succumbed to on its own premises in recent years), featured the most bomb-throwing of the afternoon. First up was Arthur Melzer, who gave an introduction to the classic Mansfield theme of thumos, and its place in society. While his remarks were more esoteric (in keeping with his previous writings), Professor Diana Schaub’s were not. She first gave a synopsis of Mansfield’s famous book on the subject, “Manliness,” noting that he was in fact a moderate defender of the idea, for since it had been exported to both sexes in the last half-century it has become excessive and perverse. Schaub noted that “manly” rulers were formerly kept in check by women, who were more “gentle” and set the moral horizon; in being universalized by the feminist movement, however, manliness has become nihilistic. In the words of Mansfield, Simone de Beauvoir is “Nietzsche in drag.”
Professor Schaub then moved to the hot topic of the day, transgenderism, which she observed is significantly unerotic in nature. Transgenderism is fundamentally about the self, without relation to another: it is the height of solipsism. She notes that while women were once free in their youth to be tomboys, now they must become physical men in order to play a game of baseball: in trying to free women, the liberationist movement has shackled them to their body. Transgenderism is the gnostic movement par excellence of our time, and it is already transposing itself into transhumanism. In the most powerful remarks of the afternoon, Professor Schaub argued the consequences of such a philosophy are unlimited.
Ending the day with his usual wit and charm was Professor Mansfield himself, giving a brief reflection on the relationship between conservatism and liberalism. He noted that the two philosophies had grown up together, and that like the poor, the Left will always be with us. However, he suggested there is something “grander” than just liberalism. In philosophy, there is a land of virtue, guarded by the ancients, and it is this land that the liberals know nothing of. As a conservative, and as a philosopher, Mansfield has been a citizen of this land for a long time: he has introduced generations of students to it, some of whom ignored it, but others who found in it a resting place. After he retires from teaching it is unclear who will be worthy to inherit the keys to its gates, but it is clear that Professor Mansfield will be remembered as one of its finest guardians.
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