Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Mansfield, Again

Mansfield, Again
P. Schultz
April 2, 2013

            Attached is yet another interview with Harvey C. Mansfield, which is just about as interesting as the other interview I have written about here. This interview is from the Harvard Crimson, is entitled “The Harvey Mansfield Story: Harvard’s Political Philosopher,” and was published in 2012. Here are some observations based on this interview.  

            Once again, Mansfield seems content, despite his appeals for the virtues of “Manliness,” to play the victim.

“Mansfield has kept teaching—and researching, and writing—for the past five decades, but he says he feels he has been passed over by the academic elite. He mentions, for one, that he’s never been honored by the American Political Science Association. “It doesn’t bother me a whole lot because it goes with the territory,” he says, referring to his conservative convictions and controversial stances.”

And again:

“The problem transcends Harvard. Mansfield is routinely frustrated when his graduate students don’t get appointments at other universities, and he bristles at the suggestion that this is because of anything other than a bias against their approach. “It’s not just a feeling,” he declares. “It’s an observation.”

“Mansfield wants Harvard to practice affirmative action for conservatives.”

            Ah yes, the difficulty Mansfield’s students have had getting positions at “other universities.” I imagine that really is a great difficulty although no examples are provided of this apparently national campaign of discrimination against those with “conservative convictions” who take “controversial stances.” Some of the names mentioned and some of those Mansfield students who are quoted could make one wonder about the efficacy of this campaign, such as Bill Kristol and Nathan Tarcov to name just two. 

            But there is an issue here that the article does not adequately explore: Just how “conservative” or “controversial” is Mansfield and his “convictions” and “stances?” In a review of his book, Manliness, Martha Nussbaum wrote

“that Mansfield might not be the patient philosopher but instead be a familiar character from Plato’s dialogues: the sophist. “Far from seeking truth, the sophist seeks to put on a good show. Far from wanting premises that are correct, the sophist seeks premises that his chosen audience will find believable.”

I mean how “controversial” is it to be a fan of Margaret Thatcher? Or a fan of Ronald Reagan? Or Mitt Romney? Or the Republican Party because you “like to win?” Where is the controversy in such “stances?” And how controversial is a book on the “forgotten” virtue of “manliness,” in a society that has embraced its warriors and war with a passion most often unleavened by any questions? 

And Nussbaum’s description of the sophist does not emphasize that the sophist seeks not the truth but prominence and power. I mean a sophist might stumble upon the truth, in fact perhaps often does, but that is not the goal. And unlike Socrates, the sophist does not seek to “make his soul the best possible.” Rather, the sophist is looking to make himself great, just as was Athens. 

And how “conservative” is the pursuit of greatness, both individually and politically? One could argue that the differences between the Federalists, the supporters of the Constitution, and the Anti-Federalists, the opponents of the Constitution, come down to a difference over whether human beings should pursue greatness or goodness. One could also argue, quite easily today, that it is far more controversial to ally oneself with the Anti-Federalists in this debate than with the Federalists, to advocate for the “small republic” than for the “large, commercial republic” of the Constitution. Or, to put it more succinctly, where is the controversy in putting “the Constitution on a pedestal?” 

I will conclude with the following. Having read Mansfield’s work, most recently his work on Machiavelli, as near as I can determine – and this is in reference to my limitations, not Mansfield’s – it is about as thoughtful and insightful as anything I have read. He sees in ways that few human beings do. But then there is what might be called this “public persona” which seems to relish supporting some of the most shallow persons and causes available, and supported with an abrasiveness that borders on arrogance and sometimes even crosses that line. 

Is this not irresponsible, especially when the shallowness of our politics is fortified with power that allows us to destroy and kill almost at will? How do the important questions, those of imperialism and oligarchy for example, get raised if we are content to “put the Constitution on a pedestal” and to support, aggressively if not arrogantly, the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, or from the other side Barack Obama? Mansfield’s public persona does not then serve the cause of genuine diversity, diversity that forces people to see and grapple with the really difficult questions, those that would force people to confront what I like to call “conventional wisdom,” which amounts to little more than a shallow and war-like patriotism. And this is, at bottom, irresponsible.  


And another post on Mansfield:



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