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Harvey Mansfield
July/August 2010

 

Even among professors with tenure, there isn't a large number of genuinely Socratic thinkers. Harvey Mansfield, the Professor of Government at Harvard, is an exception. He is known for his widely used translations of Machiavelli's works, especially The Prince, and for a distinguished edition of Tocqueville's Democracy in America, which he co-translated and co-edited with his late wife, Delba Winthrop. Over his long career, he has inspired many students who toil in the academic vineyard, government service or journalism. He is a scholar, teacher and public intellectual. 

His abiding interest in Machiavelli and Tocqueville reveals his political and philosophical commitments as a controversialist, an advocate in his own distinctive voice of Leo Strauss's thought, a neoconservative in foreign policy and, in Manliness (Yale, 2006), the author of a powerful rejoinder to radical feminism's dominance in academia.

Mansfield has been known to tell his students: "Locke in the short run, Aristotle in the long run." As a neoclassical political thinker, Mansfield is devoted to the liberal democratic tradition at its best, and is a partisan of the historical achievements of the Anglo-American tradition. With Tocqueville, he recognises the virtues of liberal democracy while honouring the aristocratic virtues as a check on the self-destructive tendencies of democratic polities to radical egalitarianism, to the administrative state and to soft despotism. 

He is a political realist, acknowledging Machiavelli's admonition that human conduct is so far removed from how we ought to live that to neglect the implications of this is to court disaster. To defend liberal democracy in a hostile world, we cannot rely on abstract idealism or on speculative hopes that history must evolve towards a favourable end. The emergency situation requires the exercise of strong executive power. As Mansfield said in Taming the Prince (The Free Press, 1989), we need executive power to defend the polity even as we take measures to restrain that power. This conundrum is a permanent feature of political life. There are no perfect solutions. There are only approximations and thus the need of discretionary judgment will always be required.  

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