Profile in Courage: Harvey Mansfield

Monday, December 13, 2010
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Barbara Kelley

"Nietzsche is the most indispensable philosopher of our time."

Those words sound paradoxical coming from Harvey Mansfield, a conservative professor of political theory at Harvard University. After all, Mansfield, who is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, devotes a considerable amount of his scholarly time combating the very nihilism borne out of the writings of that 19th century German philosopher. So did Mansfield just endorse him?

On the contrary, Nietzsche is Mansfield’s foil. Speaking deliberately, Mansfield explains that without Nietzsche, we would not have had the "crisis of thinking—what I refer to as the crisis of liberalism" whose relativism ultimately led to the decay of the very concept of objectivity, truth, and virtue in our culture. "Liberalism is in crisis because it could not prevent the skepticism it applied to traditional principles from being applied to its own principles," Mansfield tells me. "A ‘liberal’ is no longer someone who stands up for liberty. It is now a person who stands for nothing and takes umbrage at anyone who defends any principle at all, but especially at those who would defend liberty. To defend liberty is to betray it by claiming its superiority to other principles."

Harvey Mansfield
Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Born in New Haven in 1932, Mansfield was only a child when he saw liberal ideals of the West nearly collapse in the lead up to World War Two. The events of his childhood were colored by the war: he recalls moving to Washington D.C. in 1942 "because of the war." Before that, his father had been a professor of political science at Yale.

In DC, his father worked in the Office of Price Administration, while his mother raised a family of four children. Happily, Mansfield recalls, "It was an exciting time: I remember all the parades"—one for victory in Europe, and another for victory in Japan. Mansfield also recalls seeing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral parade. He cites Roosevelt as one of his chief heroes.

To Mansfield, "a ‘liberal’ is no longer someone who stands up for liberty. It is now a person who stands for nothing."

Eventually, his family moved to Columbus, Ohio, where Mansfield attended public high school. But his eyes were set back east. At 16, he sent his application in to Harvard University, and matriculated there a year later, as a 17-year old freshman in 1949. Mansfield entered Harvard during a period of change: "The president at the time was attempting, among other things, to democratize Harvard and to make it more meritocratic. He had the notion of institutional national scholarships to get people from all over the country to come—from public high schools, and that was me, from Columbus, Ohio."

Having grown up with a father who devoted his time to political science, the studious Mansfield came to Harvard with similar ambitions. With the Cold War in its infancy, he wanted to carve out a niche for himself in Soviet studies. "I studied Russian and was on my way to becoming a Soviet expert—until my sophomore year, when I ran into the classes of Sam Beer." Beer, Mansfield notes wryly, "was a very manly man"—he had earned a medal fighting for the U.S. in World War II.

Under the influence of Beer, a scholar of Western institutions and comparative politics, Mansfield decided that rather than become a Russian expert "reading mindless Soviet documents," he would devote himself to "studying these wonderful books that Beer introduced me to," like Jean-Jacques Rousseau's "Social Contract" and John Locke's "Second Treatise."

Around the same time, a teaching assistant in one of his classes told him "it’s in the cards for you to become a political scientist." Mansfield never gave much thought to an alternative career.

But how did Mansfield take the leap from the comparative politics of Sam Beer to the political theory to which he has devoted his life? "I graduated in 1953. That was the year Leo Strauss’ book ‘Natural Right and History’ was published." Then he adds, "It really entranced me. I became, thereafter, a Straussian, and have been one since."

Mansfield earned his doctorate in political theory from Harvard in 1961 and, having received tenure in 1965, has been teaching there ever since. "I spent my whole life here at Harvard, except for two times: my first job was at UC Berkeley, that was between 1960 and 1962. And I also spent two years in the army from 1954 to 1956."

Since 1965, he has published 14 books and innumerable articles and essays, covering a wide range of topics, including the importance of partisanship in politics, the "essential" conservative philosopher Edmund Burke, and the "misunderstood" Niccolo Machiavelli, whose ideas about a strong executive, Mansfield says, likely inspired the very notion of the American presidency. Beyond translating Machiavelli’s works, Mansfield has also translated Alexis de Tocqueville, the great sage of American democracy, and he has written two books on liberalism and constitutionalism. Mansfield’s most recent—and controversial—book was called "Manliness," which was "a bit of a departure," he laughs.

His work on "Manliness" led him to his current scholarship on the manly virtue of courage. The Greek word for courage, he explains, is the same as for manliness: andreia. But Mansfield is quick to note that "you can define courage without reference to males. It’s a person who takes a risk in defense of something—Aristotle tried to narrow it down: it’s the gravest of risks, he said, which is death in battle, because that is an immediate and violent risk—as opposed to death in sickness."

Though courage seems to be universally identified as a virtue—"everyone can recognize courage, even to the extent that you can appreciate it and recognize it in an enemy"—it has been rendered nearly meaningless by relativism.

"What relativism does is to make you think that all the ends or causes are equal. But if you say that all causes are equal, then you’re saying that the cause, or end which moves people to be courageous, doesn’t matter. But that is not favorable to courage because it doesn’t seem that anything is worth fighting for or dying for, and when you think that, why be courageous? Or why take a risk to defense something?" He concludes, "It softens you. This relativism softens your soul and prevents you from being resolute. And that I think is how courage is especially endangered in our time."

As Mansfield writes in a recent essay titled "Our Courage in Danger," "Relativism says that good reasons have no objective grounds, and it endangers courage by depriving it of the rational basis one might have for exercising courage. If there is no good reason to die for your country, then why do it?" This essay will be part of a forthcoming online volume on endangered virtues, put out by the Hoover Institution’s Boyd and Jill Smith Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society.

Beyond the physical courage on the battlefield, there is also moral courage, which is endangered, too. Moral courage is, "standing up to the crowd," Mansfield tells me. "I’ve done that from time to time," he laughs, adding self-effacingly that "you can’t compare fighting in battle with talking to a hostile faculty."

Here, he is referring to his vociferous criticism of politically correct dogma—also a byproduct of relativism—that has infiltrated Harvard specifically (and academia generally) since the 1960s. Two examples come to mind: at a Harvard faculty meeting in the 1970s, Mansfield declared his opposition to having a separate academic department for women, arguing that it would be a front for the agenda of militant feminism. "You can’t study women without studying men as well," he said at the time.

Mansfield has also "raised hell at Harvard,"—as he puts it—with his stance on grade inflation. Affirmative action, which brings less qualified students to Harvard, is the true cause of grade inflation, Mansfield has argued. "White professors, afraid that they would be seen as racist, gave black students high grades they didn’t deserve," as the Harvard Crimson reported in an article about Mansfield from 2003. In his personal fight against grade inflation, Mansfield assigns his students two grades: the one they actually deserve and the inflated one that he will ultimately send to the registrar. Mansfield calls this "ironic grading." His students call him "Harvey C-for-C-minus Mansfield."

In his political battles, Mansfield—one of only three conservatives in Harvard’s 45-strong government department—is a proud fighter who calls "raising hell at Harvard" his proudest achievement. But inside the classroom, he regards his role with humility. Reflectively, he tells me, "the role of the professor: modest. The professor shouldn’t pretend to be the philosopher, he can be the student of philosophy. It’s better to learn from and read from your betters than to try out a career of pseudo-originality."

Those "betters" that Mansfield refers to are the great thinkers and writers of Western civilization—the authors of the Great Books. Another casualty of relativism that Mansfield laments is the death of great books learning and, with it, the heroic ideal—an ideal that celebrates excellence.

"The heroic ideal has left us—we speak of role models instead of heroes today…we resent heroes a little bit. We like to believe that it’s possible to live without them. Even to admire something, because you are admitting a pretty important inequality—somebody you look up to—doesn’t seem to democratic, so that’s in trouble. The heroes are in trouble in a democracy, and especially one that overflows with relativism."

Beyond FDR, Mansfield cites Ronald Reagan as one of his "cheerful heroes." Strauss is his "philosopher hero." And Sam Beer is his "teacher hero."

Referring back to his work on courage, Mansfield thinks that the death of heroism is connected to the danger that courage is in. "A hero is a kind of extreme of nobility and nobility is doing something beyond the call of duty, which brings you risk. So courage is a part of being a hero. And great books take their measure of nobility."

Trying to save liberalism from nihilism has animated Mansfield’s scholarly research for over half a century.

In their own way, the great books like Plato's "Republic," Aristotle's "Politics," Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" are ennobling, and kindle the fire of courage and heroism that would otherwise lie dormant in ordinary readers.

"They have bearing on your life because they affect how you live, even if you’re not aware of it. If there is a lot of relativism and materialism in your society, that will produce consequences for the way you live and the kind of life you make for yourself and your children—people who live for pleasure will not stand up for their principles…Your idea of what affects you is only you as you know yourself right now, but if you read books that give you new ideas and enlighten you and elevate you—and make you think not just about yourself but about the whole country and the whole human situation—you’ll be a freer person and have a more open mind."

The great books, therefore, are intimately connected to the mission of liberalism—to the mission of a liberal arts education. But having spent over fifty years at Harvard, Mansfield has witnessed the changes, sometimes radical, that have overcome the academy in recent decades. He has seen how the vogue of moral and intellectual relativism undid the academy, demoralizing the spirit of liberalism, almost to the point of devastation.

"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."