Harvey C. Mansfield is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Government at Harvard University. Mansfield’s many contributions to the study of political philosophy include translations of Machiavelli and Tocqueville, nine books and extensive scholarship on a broad range of subjects, and commentary on contemporary politics.
History of Political Philosophy
In A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy (2001), Mansfield provides a concise outline of the major philosophers and topics in political philosophy from Socrates to Heidegger. In addition to summarizing the main themes prevalent throughout the history of political thought, Mansfield also discusses the unique character of this tradition. In his words, “the history of political philosophy is required for understanding its substance” because “the great political philosophers read the works of their predecessors and commented on them.” Mansfield argues, on the one hand, that modern political science, which falsely claims to be above political philosophy, nevertheless cannot supersede it because modern science itself arose out of political philosophy. On the other hand, the arguments of political philosophers can transcend their historical circumstances and speak to readers in all times. As such, it is the reader’s task to study the great works of political philosophy with care.
In other books and essays, Mansfield discusses in much greater detail virtually all of the thinkers and themes introduced in the Student’s Guide. However, a large portion of his work focuses on the following topics:
Mansfield’s scholarship on Machiavelli begins with close textual interpretation and leads to much broader commentary on themes such as the differences between ancient and modern philosophy as well as practical political issues like the scope of executive power.
Machiavelli’s Virtue (1996) primarily addresses Machiavelli’s novel concept of virtue in the context of his larger project to introduce “new modes and orders” in both politics and political thought. Although Machiavelli seeks to revive ancient Roman political or active virtue—which, in Machiavelli’s view, has been weakened by Christianity—he attempts to do so by making significant departures from classical virtue. Summarizing very roughly, these changes include de-emphasizing classical philosophic or contemplative virtue and the idea of the good, while emphasizing man’s overcoming of necessity and fortune. These innovations and their profound implications, Mansfield argues, achieved a revolution in political thought and initiated the development of modernity.
In this respect, Mansfield’s title may also refer to Machiavelli’s own virtue as an author, who can be described as a “prince” himself insofar as he is a ruler of men’s minds and a founder of the modern world. However, Mansfield, alluding to Hobbes and other modern authors, also casts doubt on the success of certain aspects of Machiavelli’s project, suggesting that Machiavelli’s successors, “in attempting, other, more regular and scientific modes of overcoming fortune” thereby “emasculated his notion of virtue.”
Mansfield addresses these themes and others in his book-length commentary on the Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli’s New Modes and Orders (2001), and in several scholarly essays offering detailed interpretations of specific topics and themes in Machiavelli, including, among others, essays on Machiavelli’s comedy La Mandragola, the Florentine Histories, and “Machiavelli and the Modern Executive.” Mansfield has also completed highly regarded translations, all of which include scholarly introductions, of The Prince, Discourses on Livy, the Florentine Histories, and The Art of War. Mansfield acknowledges the influence of Leo Strauss on his study of Machiavelli in the essay “Strauss’s Machiavelli.”
Read more: Machiavelli
In the introduction to his translation (2000) of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Mansfield calls it “at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.” In particular, Mansfield’s scholarship emphasizes Tocqueville’s originality in understanding democracy as a comprehensive “way of life” reliant upon certain philosophic underpinnings rather than simply as a form of representative government. Differing from contemporaries such as Mill, Madison, Constant, and Guizot, Tocqueville is less confident that the potential problems of democracy—including individual apathy and “soft” or administrative despotism—can be avoided by a proper ordering of laws or institutions. For Tocqueville, these vulnerabilities are inherent in the intellectual fabric of democracy.
Mansfield also situates Tocqueville within the larger history of political philosophy, noting, for example, his divergence from the state of nature doctrines of Hobbes and Locke as well as the influences of Montesquieu and Pascal. In other essays, Mansfield discusses present-day issues in American politics with an eye toward Tocqueville’s insights.
Read more: Tocqueville
Mansfield began his career with a focus on Edmund Burke and developed several themes that would appear in later writings, including representation, partisanship and party government, the philosophy of history, and the role of religion in politics. According to Mansfield, Burke’s defense of party government is inseparable from Burke’s broader political philosophy, which, summarizing loosely, seeks to manage perpetually changing human affairs through the “prescriptions” of prudence and mankind’s accumulated wisdom or tradition. Burke’s prudential, “insensible change” requires the honest, legally bound competition of interests and principles through parties that are mutually respectable in a pluralistic system. Perhaps paradoxically, Mansfield further argues that, for Burke, “respectable party government meant government by parties which were not great.” In other words, modern party government—under which multiple parties can claim respectability—presupposes that the greatest questions concerning religion and first principles have been settled among the parties or that these questions cease to hold preeminent importance.
Drawing on his study of political philosophy, Mansfield has authored two books and many articles focusing specifically on American politics and political institutions. In these works, Mansfield discusses how developments in political thought have shaped the debates between partisan actors and the practical effects of these developments in everyday politics. The Spirit of Liberalism (1978) addresses the changing meanings of modern liberalism from its break with Aristotelianism in Hobbes and Locke to its transformation to populism and progressivism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This reinvention of liberalism, Mansfield argues, is directly linked to specific political phenomena, including, for instance, the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and intellectuals arising after Marx, constituencies whom seventeenth-century liberals considered natural allies against the aristocracy and clergy.
America’s Constitutional Soul (1991) defends the centrality of the Constitution in ordering American government and defining American political life. Mansfield describes how the Constitution at once rendered the idealism of the Declaration of Independence in a more practical form while encouraging aspirations to higher virtues within a liberal society. As with many of Mansfield’s other works, America’s Constitutional Soul draws attention to parallels between the history of political thought and more immediate academic and political arguments. The late twentieth-century critiques of the Constitution and the founding period, Mansfield argues, can be traced to the challenges to rationality raised in late nineteenth and twentieth-century political philosophy.
Mansfield wrote Manliness (2006) as a “modest defense” of manliness in hopes of providing manly virtue with “honorable employment” in today’s gender-neutral society. Mansfield explores literary and scientific understandings of manliness from Plato to the present and argues that gender distinctions should be acknowledged and accorded proper respect in liberal society, rather than totally suppressed as some feminists advocate. Mansfield critiques contemporary feminism for its unreflective espousal of Nietzsche’s illiberal doctrines and its misappropriation of Nietzsche’s perhaps excessively manly philosophy. Regarding feminism’s current ideological orientation, Mansfield observes that “womanly nihilism is the repetition and the culmination of manly nihilism.”
In some respects as a corollary to his study of manliness, Mansfield also discusses the different contributions of the sciences and humanities toward understanding political events. In his Jefferson Lecture (2007) and elsewhere, he has encouraged political scientists to develop a deeper appreciation for modern science’s origins in literature and philosophy and the implications thereof.