Philosophy as a Way of Life

Blitz, Mark, "Philosophy as a Way of Life," National Endowment for the Humanities, 2007.


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.”