Harvey Mansfield, political philosopher

March 25, 2002 at 12:21 PM
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Harvey C. Mansfield is known as a political philosopher and as a scholar of past thinkers, including Burke, Machiavelli and Tocqueville. He also is renown among his academic colleagues, as well as his students, for challenging or adding sophistication to widely accepted assumptions.

Though Mansfield is a notoriously hard grader -- sometimes called Harvey "C+" Mansfield -- each year hundreds of Harvard undergraduates enroll in his classes. Mansfield often has been called a conservative, but he rejects this label calling it "merely political in the sense of temporary."

Harvey Mansfield received his undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1946 and has been on the faculty since 1962. He now is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government. He has published a dozen books, including some that have significantly affected the modern political debate. His books sometimes grapple with great thinkers of the past, either critically or by translation.

In his first book, "Statesmanship and Party Government: A Study of Burke and Bolingbroke," published in 1965, Mansfield included a challenge of the popular view of Burke as a Christian natural law theorist and instead emphasized his pragmatism and empirical inclinations. Through such arguments he transformed the perception of Burke from being an orthodox thinker to being a modern, conservative one.

He has also written "Machiavelli's New Modes and Orders: A Study of the Discourses on Livy" in 1979, translated Machiavelli's "The Prince" in 1998 and, most recently, in 2000, he translated Alexis de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America."

Often his work incorporates great thinkers of the past to shed light on our present political condition. His 1978 "The Spirit of Liberalism," as well as "Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power," distills lessons from past thinkers and applies them to our current conditions. Mansfield finds that Machiavelli's views, which he sees as most fully and attractively displaying modern political science, show how liberal constitutionalism allows for active and ambitious politicians, while preserving room for the realms of the economy and the intellectual life. It tames princes without ruling them. Mansfield sees Machiavelli as central to the ideas and successes of the American experiment.

Although long an admirer of the U.S. Constitution as a phenomenally successful document, Mansfield, in the spirit of Leo Strauss, sees conservatives as making a fundamental mistake when they impose a consistent conservative tradition on their thought. Instead, he argues, deeply cherished traditions often rise from the very discontinuities, revolutions, and sacrileges that are antithetical to orthodox conservatism.

In a Festschrift for Mansfield this year, essays of his past and present graduate students were collected into a book called "Educating the Prince." The project seeks to celebrate Harvey Mansfield though reflection, by collecting works of his graduate students together and hoping that they cast light on the teacher. Indeed, the range and quality of the essays speaks to the prolific interests and celebrated pedagogy of Mansfield.

His most recent project is to study the topic of manliness. He hopes to rediscover the underlying intrinsic meaning of the term from beneath the political and historical confusion. As usual, his ideas are unorthodox and challenging and, as usual, they are sure to be central to the debate.

Prepared by The Harvard Review of Philosophy and edited by S. Phineas Upham

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