This Socratic political philosopher combines Locke and Aristotle to explains what’s best for liberal democracy
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.
Furthermore, liberal democracy is committed to both liberty and equality, but there is no perfect resolution of the tension between the two. Locke taught that God intended human beings to live socially, but also that there was a fundamental right to property. We are social beings with rights, and hence also individuals. Herewith, Locke combines certain features of the Aristotelian tradition with basic features of the modern liberal tradition. We are by nature free, equal and independent, Locke said, but we cannot ever be equally successful in outcomes. We have mutual obligations but considerable independence too. As long as we value liberty, there will be various inequalities. Social life among individuals requires continual adjustment of these values.
Both the international and the domestic issues will forever be matters for argument, eliciting contentiously opposing views. Mansfield follows Aristotle’s understanding: politics is not, and cannot be, a demonstrative science. Politics is not always a zero-sum game, but it is never exempt from that possibility. Aristotle reminds us that we are by nature political animals, that to seek to transcend politics is to wish to be other than human, more likely descending to the level of the beasts as we fail to ascend to the level of the gods.
This is Mansfield’s Socratic turn: many wish to avoid the questions he poses against today’s fashionable intellectual dogmas. For the past two and a half centuries, under the influence of the ideals of perpetual peace and unlimited prosperity, the intelligentsia have longed for a total revolution in the
human condition through which the Machiavellian admonition and the Tocquevillian reservation could be superseded. The history of the 20th century should have induced scepticism about this. But we can see that to raise doubts about our capacity to perfect the human condition inspires strong resistance to rethinking such idealism. Many will insist that intellectual sobriety motivates current aspirations to the “international community”, to a world without war, to “making poverty history” and so on. This is the current version of the Kantian “philosophy of the future” which, even when admitting the sorry record of human history, dwells on the beauties of a hypothetical future alternative that in its abstractness appears to contradict and refute that.
Who are true friends to liberal democracy? Are they the “philosophers of the future”, who think that we can use politics to bring politics to an end? Or that we can use Machiavellian means now to achieve Kantian ends later? Or are the friends those who, like Mansfield, question the seductiveness of the philosophy of the future as wishful thinking and self-deception? Mansfield neither despises politics nor overrates the potential of politics. Political leadership today demands such realism.