Mansfield’s speech might be seen as a quaint little academic exercise -- hark back to the Greeks, take a few gibes at complaining minorities, work in an obscure and cryptic reference to pop culture, and end with a suggestion of even bigger questions unanswered ("Have I left out love? The answer is yes, I have"). But there is something rumbling beneath it that needs to be taken desperately seriously.
Not quite a week ago, Mansfield wrote an astonishing defense of executive power for the Wall Street Journal, a defense that went way beyond the standard argument that sometimes, when in peril, a republic needs a strong leader who may suspend some traditional liberties.
"The case for a strong executive begins from urgent necessity," he wrote, "and extends to necessity in the sense of efficacy and even greatness." Unpack that and you have an argument for suspending civil liberties not just in the sense of martial law, but pretty much any time a strong, impetuous leader -- stoked to the gills with thumos -- deems it efficient and, more frightening, conducive to enlarging his historical reputation.
So thumos is no quaint philosophical idea borrowed from Plato and dusted off for the humanities crowd at the Jefferson Lecture. It is the underlying sense behind an almost nihilistic view of politics as the plaything of great men, a form of play that is more exhilarating and interesting and compelling to scholars such as Mansfield than the rusty old rule of law that might constrain greatness.
But even though his argument was made with his trademark unflappable intellectual calm, it also had a hint of desperation -- an argument showing signs of strain as the evidence arrayed against it mounts to crushing proportions. Plato once compared thumos to a dog that defends its master, a metaphor that suggests the passion of a cornered animal. Call it whatever you like, manliness, thumos, Straussianism, the worldview of boyish battle and braggadocio is looking awfully dangerous in light of recent events. It takes a lot of thumos to keep arguing for thumos these days.
Now the rule of law has two defects, each of which suggests the need for one-man rule. The first is that law is always imperfect by being universal, thus an average solution even in the best case, that is inferior to the living intelligence of a wise man on the spot, who can judge particular circumstances. This defect is discussed by Aristotle in the well-known passage in his Politics where he considers "whether it is more advantageous to be ruled by the best man or the best laws." The other defect is that the law does not know how to make itself obeyed. Law assumes obedience, and as such seems oblivious to resistance to the law by the "governed," as if it were enough to require criminals to turn themselves in. No, the law must be "enforced," as we say. There must be police, and the rulers over the police must use energy (Alexander Hamilton’s term) in addition to reason. It is a delusion to believe that governments can have energy without ever resorting to the use of force. The best source of energy turns out to be the same as the best source of reason—one man. One man, or to use Machiavelli’s expression, uno solo, will be the greatest source of energy if he regards it as necessary to maintaining his own rule. Such a person will have the greatest incentive to be watchful, and to be both cruel and merciful in correct contrast and proportion. We are talking about Machiavelli’s prince, the man whom in apparently unguarded moments he called a tyrant.
What sets Kennicott off is the same thing Abraham Lincoln recongized here. Are we to deny the existence of the spirited love of fame? Does recognizing that it is in tension with the rule of law mean that we can’t distinguish between good and evil? As Mansfield notes, even justice and mercy are in tension with the rule of law. Doesn’t Kennicott understand this?