Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Mansfield on Greatness and Democracies

Prof. Harvey Mansfield writes a thoughtful essay on the question of greatness in democracies. It ends on the following note: "We democrats need to know that democracy has both a towering need and a limited appetite for greatness." But it also reminds us--somewhere around the middle--that "[i]n displaying Socrates in speech and in action, Plato conveys to us that greatness does not necessarily consist of heroic exploits full of stress and drama. A philosopher can be great; a woman can be great." This is an essay very much worth reading, and pondering, and reading again. It is also an interesting read in light of his recent work on Manliness and, I think, connected to it.    

Discussions - 13 Comments

It’s a fine piece. Best thing about it is its pithy definition of thumos (aka "spiritedness") as "the quality of soul... that prompts us to assert a principle by which to live--and for which to die--as opposed to surviving by any means possible." Straussian scholar-nerds like me love that sort of thing, you know.

Yes, that is good. But I liked, "The cure for individualism, Tocqueville shows, is partly to release the human impulse of intractability, the grouchy desire not to be governed by others. This negative sentiment is much in evidence in modern democracies, and it is mostly wholesome because it curtails ambitious schemes of patronizing control from big government." and that end bit Julie mentions with this that precedes it, "You can be grateful for what great men have done for our country and at the same time take note, at least, of what they have refrained from doing." The first quote is gratifying because I had been feeling weary lately of explaining to others my grouchy desire for a limited government. The latter I like because it is one of the most enjoyable discussions to incite when teaching American history.

When this turned up the other day, I threw it about the Internet, by email, to my sons and to former students and I hope it does them good.

Kate, how do you square the first passage you note with this one? "Behind the claim lies the democratic dogma, as Tocqueville calls it, that each person is sufficiently competent to run his own life."

John Lewis, Do you find them irreconcilable? Didn’t our democracy/republic/Constitution presume personal competence? I know you like Locke. Some of his irreconcilables come in trying to define how the individual fits in the whole. Tocqueville notes this as a practical dilemma for Americans. It is that "E pluribus unum" thing again, wherein we sometimes look at the "unum" and see "pluribus" like crazy and can only wonder how we can EVER find "unum" in the mess. That is the obvious problem with Iraq, unity seemingly possible within groups while unity between those groups seems impossible.


But that latter’s not the point of this piece. It just relates to some other, previous discussions on the blog.

People have that grouchy desire not to be governed by others because they presume themselves to be capable of governing themselves. (Whether they actually are able, or not, as Mansfield notes and as anyone of us might might become self-aware enough to question from time to time.) Anyone teaching teens or very young adults knows their struggles with the individualism/individual issue. When they write about themselves, they can make the most outrageous claims about their individuality. "You will never meet anyone like me." which is almost true, except my memory will have trouble separating the memory of you with the memory of that other student, so very like you, who made the same claim in the last semester’s class. Partly it is because they have so little experience of other people, and partly it is that desire for greatness that Mansfield discusses and partly is just figuring out how one as unit fits in the unity that is society.


I think this piece is also interesting in thinking about who and what kind of person, runs for president, and who and what kind of person, can we look to and for in an hour that seems to cry out for a great man. Do the great just go bobbing up to the surface of society? Can greatness be suppressed by democracy? I am thinking about Steven Hayward’s book on Reagan and Churchill and greatness. That Churchill rose is less of a marvel than that Reagan did, but C. rose in a less democratic place than R. and that is interesting.


I have to go think about this some more. while doing the needful in my day.

Interesting comment, Kate. I wonder what the writing prompt was that caused a student of yours to say "you will never meet anyone like me." Pretty audacious, and out of character with most of the students I’ve encountered.

But John’s right-to-the-point question remains unanswered, I think. The quote he refers to is what Tocqueville calls the "corollary to the dogma of sovereignty," and growing numbers of Tocqueville scholars, most vividly Pierre Manent, think it is one of the very most important principles, and perhaps the most paradoxical, that Tocqueville ascribes to democracy.

It is paradoxical because on one hand it undoubtedly reinforces the sort of individualism that Toc decries, and is a lie to boot, since it simply ain’t the case that each is the best judge of his own interests, while on the other hand, this principle is not simply applied to individuals, but to townships, counties, states, and the national government, so that this idea that "each is the best judge of what properly concerns it" is the foundation of American federalism, and of the sort of subsidiarity theory that Toc so strongly recommends as the way to preserve liberty in democratic times. And it is true that each individual or township is the best judge human political wisdom can appoint to decide those issues that seem most obviously proper for it to decide. As our discussion on the "Oreos or liberty" thread below indicates, no human can plausibly say "I judge that eating trans-fat deep-fried food is in my interest, and therefore it is," but it really is the case that handing over food-decisions to Nurse Bloomberg might violate the best political wisdom.

So you cannot just toss out the corollary, regardless of whether it is a democratic dogma, or contributes to negative individualism, even the particularly anti-philosophic (and sinful) sort exhibited by relativists such as Kate’s student, becase you need it to preserve liberty, and you need it to turn human intractibility in a direction that will serve Liberty.

But, Toc teaches, you should have no illusions about the corrosive side of this dogma, and about human intractibility in general. Unless other elements are added to the equation, natural intractibility + democratic dogma = bad individualism. Greatness is one of the few resources you have to keep democrats dedicated not to individualism, but to Liberty. Which is why, I think, a great man (and Tocqueville student) like Mansfield wants us to consider it.

Carl Scott, On the first day of class (Freshman Comp.) I asked my students to write an essay about themselves so that I could get a feel for their writing and know what I had to deal with in terms of the mechanics of their writing. Mine is a community college and this class ranged in age from 16 to 34 years old. Almost half of my students were under the age of 18 years and in the Post-Secondary Option program that Ohio offers to high school students wherein they can claim high school and college credit at the same time. Perhaps a quarter of the class of 26 students had some variation on the claim I cite above. Yes, that false self-esteem taught in the public schools fed that bad individualism. They would not have written the same essays at the end of the semester.


I wish I could rewrite that comment #4, as I was clearly not thinking about my writing when I wrote it.

Carl Scott, Thank you for the explanation of John’s comment, and the instruction on Tocqueville.


I am NOT arguing, I am asking. Is this just another way of complaining about the fallibility of men? Sovereignty is a wonderful thing, except insofar as we are fools. That we might sometimes do something right, and even more than right, is a saving grace. Since men are fallible, the only thing worse than ruling ourselves is being ruled by (fallible) others. Seeing human dignity in these circumstances can be a triumph of hope. Yet, we need to live together, or in some sort of society. Does Greatness and thinking about greatness make that bearable, as a counter-balance to the seemingly inevitable foolishness?

Carl, Interesting and good reply...obviously the question is difficult. What I was suggesting is that to seperate natural intractability from democratic dogma is a rather interesting project in and of itself, given the way Mansfield defines it. To me democratic dogma is the belief that as long as the majority agrees upon something it is correct. Natural intractability on the other hand is precisely the view that I as a thinking individual am competent to run my own life, regardless of the majority opinion. This simple sort of construction seems to be the view of the first quote given by Mansfield. In other words natural intractability serves as a sort of check upon the democratic dogma of majority rule. So natural intractability is either distinct from democratic dogma or it is not distinct from democratic dogma, or there are multiple and contradictory aspects of the democratic dogma, in which case the democratic dogma represents a whole way of thinking that includes Majority rule and minority rights.

Also I would say that the post on Oreos confirms that humans are able to say that "I judge that eating trans-fatty foods is in my interest and that therefore it is." Of course humans are able to say anything...and this doesn’t need to be confirmed scientifically...this is one of the first things I could know apriori...and even a blank slate baby starts out by saying anything...(but perhaps a baby couldn’t start out by quoting Shakespeare...so there are limits to what humans can say...after all...but those limits are only the extent to which they can add concepts, and then give voice to them...such as gold and mountain, a la Hume) Is it really in anyones interest to eat a lot of junk food? Of course not...or maybe it is...it all depends upon how they prioritize things. So the question is who should do the Ontological Structuring? The democratic dogma in the simplest sense says majority rule, the intractable individual/libertarian(anti-philosopher/de-ontologist) says the individual. The democratic dogma contrued to include both aspects would say certain questions are not open for ontological debate and that certain questions are...and that the questions that are open are retained as minority rights, while those that are not are left to majority rule. Note that I see the point in that the democratic dogma would see all ontological questions as being answerable by majority rule...and therefore open in a sense, that could be brought back to the view that human beings are capable of governing themselves. That is the democratic dogma in the broadest sense is de-ontologica even as it includes within itself a non-philosophical(or perhaps simply empirical) means "majority-rule" of answering questions concerning what is good.

My question to you is if there is a Truth that is independent of political wisdom...as you seem to suggest...or if it is the political wisdom because it is the Truth. That is to say that the question of whether or not to eat transfat food is ontologically dependent, therefore there can be no rulling that isn’t simply ideological, therefore because thinking people can disagree it is tyranical to leave it up to Nurse Bloomburg. You seem to say that thinking people can’t disagree...but they do...they disagree on ontological priority...and human beings are always intractable for ontological reasons. Is there any room for the existence of Truth in questions of onotological structuring retained as minority rights? That is...Why isn’t it the best political wisdom, because it is the truth? Why set a Truth up against political wisdom? Doesn’t political wisdom point to a deeper truth?

It is the political wisdom because it is the truth, in the same sense "that each individual or township is the best judge human political wisdom can appoint to decide those issues that seem most obviously proper for it to decide."

If it is the best judge then it is the only truth?

Kate, yes, I do want to pose the idea that "each knows best" against the facts of human fallibility and sinfulness. You end your post by admitting that we have to be in society, but earlier you suggest that "since men are fallible, the only thing worse than ruling ourselves is being ruled by (fallible) others." But the fallibility of man cuts both against being ruled by the majority and by one’s own judgment, right? Your mention of our necessarily being in society points even to the impossibility of pure self-rule, even if we had the capability to do it well. We just aren’t human if we aren’t living with others. So humans have to have enough reason and devotion to justice to work together and to recgonize deviations from truth and justice. Thinkers like Toc, Aristotle, and others, see this potentiality as best realized in a situation where we can "rule and be ruled" in turn, a situation best realized in a smaller community. And so Toc and many American founders thus felt that you needed different levels of self-government, national, state, local, familial, and individual. The Catholic Church and other Christians teach this ideal today under the name of subsidiarity.

But of course, the problem of human fallibility remains, at every level of government. And, what ought to be assinged to each level is often quite debatable.

What has Greatness to do with all this? Well, Mansfield’s essay has to do especially with the need to appeal to Greatness in democratic education. Without a focus upon Greatness, perhaps, democratic man is led into formulating a way to finally, finally, fit Equality and its majority rule with Individual Freedom and its insistence on infallible judgment of one’s own interest, and thus to rule out truths that upset this. That is my big-picture read of what John Lewis is trying to do, particularly when he says "The democratic dogma contrued to include both aspects would say certain questions are not open for ontological debate and that certain questions are...and that the questions that are open are retained as minority rights, while those that are not are left to majority rule. Note that I see the point in that the democratic dogma would see all ontological questions as being answerable by majority rule...and therefore open in a sense..." No big T-truths allowed in the democracy of John Lewis. That’s just how a lot of Americans think now: "Fascination with Truth, with Right and Wrong, is ultimately anti-Democratic, and the idea that these should play a role in our politics is an immediately dangerous one." Greatness in education, that is, reading the Great books, forces us, at the least, to wrestle with the possibility of capital-letter Truth, Justice, and so on, and to wrestle with the possibility of God, and it forces us to wrestle with the possibility that these do not exist. But to recognize the difficulty and perennial nature of these questions is to at least see that no democratically-derived formula for what can or cannot be regarded as truth is appropriate, OR POLITICALLY WORKABLE.

John, I admit that there are host of fascinating and problematic things you bring up that I am not pursuing--my reluctance to go into them is mostly a matter of time, but involves intellectual laziness too. Most importantly, if there is no Truth, "what political wisdom is" becomes a strange question, but it remains unavoidable. Perhaps someone like Hume is a plausible guide if this is our situation, although I don’t know if that is your position.

I’d like to cap off all my comments here with three quotes from one of Tocqueville’s teachers, the great French liberal Francois Guizot: 1) “Sovereignty of right cannot be granted to any individual or collective being, because no one can rightfully claim to fully possess or represent reason, truth, and justice…Given the imperfections…of human nature.”

2) “The superiority that is felt and accepted [by others] represents the original and legitimate link in human societies.”

3) [the aim of elections is to find] “…true legitimate aristocracy…”

That’s the classic Aristotelian way of thinking about these issues, that absolutely refuses to expel Greatness, as well as Reason, Truth, and Justice, from its sight, DESPITE the serious imperfections of human nature. Toc. explains how that thinking has to take modern democratic circumstances into account, which is why he comes across as much more pro-democratic than Guizot or Aristotle. But unlike John, I think, he keeps some distance and rightly refuses to ground democracy in a democratic epistemology. Enough.

Apparently, not enough! John, I suspect my half-guessing critique of your position largely rides on to what degree you endorse the deontological "broad sense" of the democratic dogma. I apologize if I have assumed too much.

And I of course know that people can disagree...it’s just I think it is rational for them to trust that there really is an ultimate standard of what is just, and thus that there is any point to discussion. Indeed, I don’t see how society could hold together were we intellectuals to somehow prove that this trust is unfounded.

Carl, thanks for the replies and the frank and honest approach. I tend to think that you are 100% correct in noting that "But to recognize the difficulty and perennial nature of these questions is to at least see that no democratically-derived formula for what can or cannot be regarded as truth is appropriate, OR POLITICALLY WORKABLE." Only I would probably drop the democratically-derived portion, and end up with more of a paradox in considering your final point..."I think it is rational for them to trust that there really is an ultimate standard of what is just, and thus that there is any point to discussion. Indeed, I don’t see how society could hold together were we intellectuals to somehow prove that this trust is unfounded."

Only I would also discount the effect of intellectuals in terms of persuading people...and say that the perenial questions would manifest themselves despite the observations of the intellectuals.

In fact I would probably say that this is not a very abstract discussion...that in fact politics is only about competing ultimate standards.

To bring it back to some basic Machiavelli...No matter what Ultimate Standards or ontological structures are adopted as principles of private morality, there is no guarantee that other people will follow them, and that puts the honorable or virtuous individual at a distinct disadvantage in the real world. In order to achieve success in public life, the Prince must know precisely when and how to do what no good person would ever do. Although philosophically Ontological structures are a matter of obtuse arguments concerning divine approval and abstract duties...in public life only the tally of praise and blame counts. And ultimately it is what is cause for praise and what is cause for blame that serves to give the abstract ontological structures (or ultimate standard) character. Greatness or those who are held to be great in other words are just as much molders of ontology as philosophers could ever dream of being. Great human beings...Princes...that are praised and also avoid blame end up setting the standards of rightfull and wrongfull conduct for society at large. In the end that for which one is praised and that for which one is blamed ends up determining the ultimate standard for what is just...and philosophers by and large are rebels argueing that this praise is in some way unfounded.

That is it works both ways...for most people ontological structures or a belief in some ultimate standards determines to some degree the actions of those people...the great princes on the other hand either play into the ontological structures or remake them to suit the ends they have in mind...

Carl, Yes, exactly. But the fallibility of man cuts both against being ruled by the majority and by one’s own judgment, right? I think we are in a warm flurry of agreement, here. I am just not an intellectual and so am unclear. When I said "since men are fallible, the only thing worse than ruling ourselves is being ruled by I recently described equality as a (fallible) others." what you said, "But the fallibility of man cuts both against being ruled by the majority and by one’s own judgment, right?" was, yes, exactly what I meant.

If the coin is to be a democratic one, then we are merely examining the two sides of that coin. Flip it, and I am looking at the fallible person trying to be autonomous, retaining sovereignty. Flip again, and I am looking at that person, necessarily in society and being ruled by some other fallible fathead. Which is why subsidiarity is certainly the way to go. (Though my education on that is incomplete, your reference to the theory yesterday being the first I’d heard of it - well, the theory, not the idea, which is evident - and necessitated my spending a happy while searching the web for the reference, reading until I thought I got it.) Despite having the two faces, the coin itself is valuable. Liberty is to be loved even more than democracy, and if democracy proves itself enemy of liberty, than I say, let’s abandon it. Abandon it in favor of what? That gets sticky, doesn’t it?


As to Greatness and Truth, I happen to believe in absolute Truth, though I also believe that man, no man, is capable of grasping it. There is that fallibility issue, again. I agree, we HAVE to go looking for it and try to grasp what of Truth that we can manage. I agree that we have to teach the value of the search and on the value of Great Books in the hunt. Greatness IS undemocratic, and equality is a polite fiction, necessary for getting along in a democratic society. I think, being merely of the equal, that I can say that. Although if the great were to preach it at me, I might prove intractable. A political demand for equality seems to be necessary to liberty.

Kate, i assumed we were basicaly on the same page all along. As to your "sticky" question, Toc is right about modern times...there is just no supporting of liberty at the permanent expense of democratic government. One has got to be a defnder of democracy to defend liberty, even if one must defend it against its own dogmas, and even though one must be ready to see when certain peoples are not capable of democracy. Mixed-regimes that exclude classes from suffrages just cannot survive in this day and age, and so mixing of democratic and aristocratic elements must occur largely along Constitutional and cultural/associational lines.

John, Raymond Aron has a good piece on what taking Machiavelli AND morality seriously demands of political morality, in an Aron collection entitled In Defense of Political Reason, ed. by sometime NLT commenter Dan Mahoney. All for now, thanks for your response.

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