Profile in Courage by Emily Esfahani Smith

Emily Esfahani Smith, “Profile in Courage: Harvey Mansfield,” Defining Ideas (a Hoover Institution online journal), December 13, 2010.


Liberalism believes that there are principles by which we live, self-evident truths, and that is our founding principle, all men are created equal.” Referring back to his foil, he adds, “Nietzsche challenged that, and challenged anybody’s ability to speak of truth. He said that truth is what comes out of one’s deepest urges, and not determined by your mind, but determined by your feelings… it just comes out of you, you have to compel to come out of you.”

By challenging the very idea of truth, “Nietzsche is the author of relativism which is dominant in our time. If nothing is true, then everything is permitted. That notion is a challenge to any society, because it removes any distinction between freedom and license, and nobody can really live that way.”

Mansfield concludes that this is the dilemma of liberalism—“The challenge that Nietzsche presents us is what makes indispensable.” Trying to save liberalism from nihilism has animated Mansfield’s scholarly research for over half a century.

Is liberalism obsolete? Mansfield doesn’t think so. “Some of us are trying to defend liberalism and resuscitate it—mouth-to-mouth—give it a breath of life and keep it going. It’s our American principle and I don’t think there is any obvious substitute for it.”

Hoover Institution