February 22, 2013

Uncommon Interview: Harvey Mansfield

Courtesy of Christian Verhulst

Professor Harvey Mansfield has taught political philosophy at Harvard for over 50 years and has written on subjects as varied as Tocqueville, the Great Books curriculum, and the quality of “manliness.” Editor of the University of Chicago Press edition of The Prince, which is used widely throughout the Core, Mansfield considers Machiavelli the “original insight behind the American presidency.” He delivered a Chicago Society–sponsored lecture on liberal education and the effect of non-sciences on the sciences. Before his talk on Monday, he sat down with the Maroon to discuss the Core, the relevance of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the risks of David Axelrod’s influence.

Chicago Maroon: You’re very familiar with the Core Curriculum here. What is its primary function?

Harvey Mansfield: The alternative to a liberal arts education is a technical or scientific one, and I don’t think that technology or science has all the answers. It doesn’t really address the human questions or human problems, and that’s because it tries to understand everything in terms of the laws of physics, fundamentally, and mathematical laws. Human beings are individuals with names, and scientists don’t pay attention to individual names. So I think there is a strong reason for finding technology and science by themselves to be inadequate.

CM: Is it essential for undergraduates to have a highly structured curriculum based on requirements?

HM: I think so, very much. Harvard is closer to Brown than Chicago. We don’t have any Great Books education. I’d love it if we had the kind of undergraduate program that you have here at Chicago or Columbia, or Yale has a voluntary Directed Studies program that has something of the same feel. I think that a liberal arts education should be structured around the Great Books—authors who have addressed these human questions more fundamentally and with greater interest. Almost all of them disagree with one another, so it isn’t that you’re getting a canon of people, all of whom say the same thing. On the contrary, I think that if you don’t study the great writers, you’re stuck with the thought of our time, and maybe even a narrow slice of that too.

CM: How far do you think the Core, or any undergraduate curriculum, can go in constructing an identity for a college or university?

HM: I’m not a great student of the universities, but I’ve always thought of Chicago as the most intellectual university in the country, more so than Harvard. I’m glad that we have a football team, but I do think that Chicago is more inward-looking than Harvard. Harvard professors are closer to Washington, and I think the atmosphere in the faculty is more political than here. There are a lot of professors who spend a lot of time on the shuttle from Boston to Washington.

CM: Do you think there’s more of an effort to brand the college at Harvard?

HM: Oh, it’s just that Harvard is a much more political place. The students are very ambitious, some of them intellectually, but most of them politically in a very broad sense of “politically.” They want to be something and have an impact on the world. That’s also true here, but maybe to a lesser degree. It’s more political and more worldly there.

CM: David Axelrod recently started an Institute of Politics on campus, similar to the IOP at Harvard. What’s the appropriate kind of political engagement for college students?

HM: Well, Harvard has a professional school, the Kennedy School of Government. I don’t know anything about the Axelrod initiative. It might be something quite good, but it surprises me that so partisan a man would suddenly want to found an institution at the University of Chicago. I’m happy to see students take an interest in politics, but within limits. These are the four years of your life where you’re most free from your parents, from your future boss, your future responsibilities with family, and so you should take advantage of these four years to develop your mind as a student. Don’t do too much public service. The Harvard undergraduates do that to an excess.

CM: So when is a good time to work outside of the more academic political activity?

HM: In the summer time, and always with a view to learning something. There are people who are just natural partisans when they’re students, and they just want to do this. Harvard has more of this type than Chicago does. I see them around. But one doesn’t want to discourage that, especially with my love of Tocqueville. Anyone who wants to get involved in elections and the process of self-government I admire and want to encourage, but within limits. It’s better to do partisan political work than goody-goody service of a more humanitarian style. The most essential task of our country is to keep our political liberty alive.

CM: What effect does the digital revolution have on the kind of reading and writing you’re most interested in?

HM: Technology can be very helpful. I had a computer for my Tocqueville translation, which I didn’t have for the Machiavelli translations. So just the memory of a computer and the ability to search and find all instances. I had to remember them and write them all down. How did I translate this word before? All of that makes it much easier to present an accurate translation, and also to do a lot of the gut work of looking up things. With Google, some kind of vague memory of a quotation sort of runs through your mind, and all you need is a little bit of it and they find it for you. Whether the digital revolution really causes people to lose their attention span and to require quick answers to everything and to be satisfied with what pops up from Wikipedia or what people say—it’s so democratic. You’re encouraged to have a quick reaction and not to think about it. The blogging entices a lot of people to write and to make arguments and to contend with one another. It makes some people sacrifice their privacy to the boredom of anyone who tries to read about their private affairs. It also encourages and lets you express yourself, but not well, or carefully, or with style.

CM: Is there a difference between what you do as a professor of government and what a more traditionally titled political science professor does?

HM: I think there’s not much difference. That’s just a name. It’s a name that was given to the department by A. Lawrence Lowell, who was a famous political scientist at the beginning of the 20th century, when political science was just getting started as a separate science. It was connected to the rise of the progressives, although Lowell was not a progressive. I don’t know why he called it a government department. Cornell and Dartmouth also use that word, but at most places, it’s just “political science.”

CM: Is it important to maintain a distinction between the social sciences and humanities, particularly in the more ambiguously defined disciplines like history?

HM: Yes, and it’s hard to know whether history belongs to the humanities or to social science. I think historians differ on that. I’m old and old-fashioned, so I like it better when history is considered a part of the humanities. It has to do with individuals much more than social science does. Social science tries to be like science, or to imitate science. It doesn’t succeed very well in this. It’s always looking for universals, and it exaggerates the ease with which one can find universal truths, especially about human beings, who are much more variable than other parts of the universe. In general, I think the humanities are more successful than social science, just because they really can’t pretend they’re science. They’re forced to try to distinguish themselves to find something else. The trouble is that they’ve sort of lost their voice and no longer really speak of history or literature as much as they used to, but of structures and patterns of oppression. This is called race, class, and gender studies, which imitate social science.

CM: What’s the place of literature in a discussion of the social sciences?

HM: I think much of literature could easily substitute for the subjects of social science. If you want to find out about the American Midwest, is it better to read some sociologist or Mark Twain? That tells you that there is a kind of generality or universality in literature. Tom Sawyer is an individual, and he represents a type of American boy or boyishness in general. People who are great authors of literature have a way of capturing what is universal in an individual and presenting that. That’s much more true to life, or closer to the truth, than the kind of abstraction that social science tries to do in order to be objective.

CM: President Obama, with his academic background, has been known for reading a lot of political theory and philosophy. Do you think he struggles to balance his more academic side with the political and pragmatic demands of Washington?

HM: I question that he reads a lot of political philosophy. That I don’t really see in the way he talks. He’s at home in a university. He’s an academic, a certain kind of Chicago academic liberal. He takes the goals of the most advanced kinds of progressivism together with the means of Chicago politics, with people like Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, who are very effective and helped him win reelection last year. I see almost none of the reflection or impartiality that such a study of political philosophy would give him.

CM: What does reading canonical works contribute to an understanding of how our political system works today?

HM: Reading The Federalist, you’d get a much better understanding of Congress, the presidency, the Judicial Branch, than any political science book of our day. I’d say that for sure. You’d understand the spirit of our system: Is it dysfunctional or doing what it’s supposed to be doing right now? If you want to address that question, I think The Federalist would be the first place to look. And if you want to look at the problems of democracy, there’s nothing better than Tocqueville. He saw them all a long time ahead, and he sees them better than we do because we live amongst them. The great advantage of living at the beginning of the democratic era was still some leftover memories of his own, through his family, of what preceded him, of the Old Regime in France. If you read his book on democracy, he’s always comparing it to the aristocracy. That’s never done anymore, and every time he does it, it’s very enlightening.

CM: Is there a lesson in that for Congress? Should our politicians be reading more history and philosophy?

HM: Yes, they should, and comparative government. Look at the different regimes, the main ones in the world right now, but with some historical background. Study the French Revolution; read a book about it which is written from a political person’s point of view and is not so academic. For example, the history books of Churchill are excellent for the study of a politician. If Obama read those, he would be in good shape.

CM: What can studying the Greeks and Romans contribute to a liberal education?

HM: A much better understanding than we have. That’s very general, but I’d leave it at that. The ancients are wiser than the moderns. The only question is their relevance. What Plato and Aristotle said about democracy isn’t as relevant to us because we have these huge states with representative governments, which they didn’t see. Our democracies are the size of their empires, so they would have been surprised that democracy could be as large as ours. But still, the analysis and understanding of politics is far superior. Moderns have an agenda. By moderns I mean the modern philosophers and political scientists. They want to make the world better. This hurt them in trying to understand the world. In order to make it better, they had to simplify. And when they simplified, they exaggerated and buried doubts or questions that people might have raised about their projects for bettering the world.

CM: You’ve done a lot of work on Edmund Burke, the writer who’s still considered a prominent voice on conservative politics. What kind of influence does a writer like Burke have on a common understanding of the different types of political institutions today?

HM: It tells you something about the character of our politics today. It tells you that it was made at the time of democratic revolutions, and it still carries the qualities that one can see Burke discuss. He says that it [the French Revolution] was a revolution such as had never been seen before, a revolution in the mind of people, not just in their politics or even in their way of life. It was a revolution which attempted to make a new kind of man, and to apply science to this project. Burke says at one point, “We’re at war with an armed doctrine.” The importance of ideology in politics—that’s something you’d learn from Burke. He’s the first one who saw it and understood it and analyzed it.

CM: Are Burke’s themes still universal?

HM: Burke wrote about America. He wrote a couple of famous speeches about it which used to be studied in American high schools in the good old days. A speech on conciliation with America—a very interesting analysis of the American spirit which still pertains today, about how Americans are different from Englishmen—the same background but a greater passion for liberty. So you can learn about America from Burke in that way. But yes, I do think you would learn from his reflections on the French Revolution something of the difference…. He made a contrast between the French Revolution and the English. For some reason he didn’t want to talk about the American. If only the Europeans in the 19th century had paid more attention to the American Revolution, they’d use that as their model and their example. But no, they had to spend their time looking at France. Hegel, Marx...they all make references to the French Revolution. They knew all the events of it. Marx writes a pamphlet in 1851 called The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. If they’d looked at the differences between the Americans and the French, and the great superiority of the Americans in regards to politics, free politics, which is really the theme of The Federalist and Tocqueville.

CM: Are people now just not as interested anymore in the kind of learning that can come from reading the Great Books?

HM: Well sure. Great states can decline. They can decline because they think that they’re exempt from things that trouble others, troubled the Roman Republic. This gets into my conservatism. I’ve seen analogies made between America today and the late Roman Republic, the way in which people are dependent for their living on foreign booty, or government programs, government handouts. These were individual handouts from people like Julius Caesar and Pompey. They began to work less and to argue more.