Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Mansfield’s Jefferson Lecture

The WaPo’s Philip Kennicott writes with some appreciation about Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr.’s Jefferson Lecture (text available soon), but in the end he can’t help himself:

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.

He was set off by the WSJ’s version of the Claremont Review piece I cited yesterday. Read it, and decide whether you think that it’s nihilistic. Consider, for example, this paragraph:

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?

Update: Inside Higher Ed offers a less polemical account of "Mr. Mansfield Goes to Washington," including a podcast interview.

Discussions - 21 Comments

In his book, Mansfield criticizes Darwin's denial of eternal species and cosmic teleology. But Mansfield himself never explicitly asserts the truth of eternal species or cosmic teleology. While he opens and closes his book by apparently endorsing the teaching of Plato and Aristotle that "manly virtue" is rooted in nature, the central chapter of the book (Chapter 4) is devoted to the "manly nihilism" of Teddy Roosevelt and Friedrich Nietzsche. He thus leads his careful reader to suspect that the secret teaching of the book is the truth of "manly nihilism." "The most dramatic statement of nihilism," Mansfield asserts, "would be the one where the man is the source of all meaning," which is nihilism (p. 82). Nietzsche is "the philosopher of manliness in modern times" (p. 110). Teddy Roosevelt is the best political expression of manly nihilism, particularly in the "assertiveness of executive power" (p. 97). In his Machiavellian defense of executive prerogative outside the rule of law, Mansfield has been defending President Bush's displays of the "assertiveness of executive power." Is this all in the service of "manly nihilism"? Does this show that Mansfield and other "Eastern Straussians" really are nihilists?

Thanks, Joe. The pairing with L*****n is just right.

I assigned the WSJ version on the presidency to my class on American Political Ideas. The students were, as I hoped they would be, awakened and a little troubled. It cast some of the Federalist in sharper relief than I had managed to get by myself.

Kennicott is a democrat who finds it hard to distinguish responsiveness from responsibility, but his astonishment -- and confusion -- upon hearing Mansfield is part of what makes a mixed republic enduring. Presidents need room for maneuver, and they also need brakes.

As he says in the CRB piece, "In other circumstances I could see myself defending the rule of law."

Yes, and I have no doubt that Mansfield is troubled by less nuanced defenses of executive power than his own.

So the "womanly nihilists" are Mansfield's real heroes too? Perhaps Margaret Thatcher and all rather than the sainted Simone? No, the book is generally an ascent, the peak of manly virtue and human greatness is found at the end. Just as Mansfield says. He's a man you can trust.

Sorry, Larry, I agree with Robert. Manly nihilism is the end only if there is no "cosmic order" to the universe.


Can you quote a passage from Mansfield's book where he asserts the truth of "cosmic order"?

Here's a more measured version of Prof. Arnhart's criticism, for those who wish to consider it. I'm for the moment especially interested in this:

Third, [Mansfield says that] the Darwinian denial of eternal, fixed nature and cosmic teleology prepares the way for nihilism (16, 83, 89, 196, 201).


Mansfield's third criticism is hard to handle, because while he warns that the Darwinian denial of the eternity of species and cosmic teleology prepares for nihilism, he never explicitly affirms the truth of the eternity of species and cosmic teleology.

Mansfield concedes that Darwin himself was not a nihilist. He was not, I would say, because he believed that each species had a species-specific nature, so that there were natural ends for each species for as long as the species endured. This sustains an immanent teleology of species-specific ends as a ground for natural right without any need for a cosmic teleology by which the universe as a whole is ordered to some end. That species are not eternal does not deny the natural order of each species for as long as it exists. As Aristotle said: "The Idea of the Good will not be any more good because it is eternal, seeing that a white thing that lasts for a long time is not whiter than a white thing that lasts for a day" (Nicomachean Ethics, 1096b3-5). For as long as the human species exists in its present form, there will be natural differences between men and women, and we will need to take those diffences seriously.

How would Darwin have handled--how does Prof. Arnhart handle--the prospect of what some have called transhumanism? There's some clue here and here. The answer seems to be: "human nature will endure as long as human nature endures." Human beings can't transcend or overcome themselves. But in our finitude without infinity, can't we produce monsters? And on what basis can we call them monsters and argue that producing them is wrong?

Doesn't the belief in the eternity of species and cosmic teleology contradict any fear of "transhumanism"? If this teleological order of the cosmos really is eternal, and if it includes the human species as eternal, then why should anyone fear "the abolition of man" by technology?

Two thoughts or questions. First, must species be eternal anywhere other than in the mind (however that's understood) of the creator (however that's understood)? Second, does creatureliness preclude sin? Can't the Tower of Babel be built pretty high before it's knocked down, by whatever mechanism it's knocked down?

Can't we merely fear the complication of man by technology?

That was a poorly written article by Mansfield. He creates a non-existent conflict between the executive branch and "rule of law", therby playing into the Democrats hands. (See Steve Thomas.)

There will always be some degree of tension or even conflict between the different branches of government, I hope. That is the way the system is designed to function. But "rule of law" is not a peculiar property of any single branch.

We now return to Larry Arnharts threadjack already in progress.

I don't agree that the conflict between executive and legislative powers is "non-existent." Even more, I don't understand how Mansfield plays into the Democrats' hands. Agreed, the rhetoric is a challenge: that is, the "rule of law" sounds like it must always be the winner, must by definition trump execution -- and that perhaps in that sense Mansfield gives some current Democrats a big target to shoot at. But Democrats haven't always shrunk executive power to the mere execution of the law. By the same token we have had weak (in Mansfield's sense) Republican presidents.

I don't get the "see Steve Thomas." For what it's worth, I am a Democrat, and I think Mansfield has it right.

As usual, Steve, you are not seeing what is said, and seeing what is not said. I did not say "the conflict between executive and legislative powers is "non-existent."" In fact, the opposite is the case. I said this conflict did and should exist. I also said that there is a non-existent conflict between the executive branch and the rule of law. And that it was foolish for Mansfield to frame things in the fashion he did.

Yes, I figured out you were a Democrat some time ago.

But Democrats haven't always shrunk executive power to the mere execution of the law. By the same token we have had weak (in Mansfield's sense) Republican presidents.

No argument there. I'm simply saying that Mansfield could and should have argued for a strong executive without flat out stating that a strong executive is counter to the rule of law. Apart from being stupid from a tactical standpoint, it is factually untrue.

Yes, I did misstate your first point.

As for the rest, I guess you disagree that executive responsibility can sometimes run counter to what we ordinarily understand to be the rule of law, that the rule of law sometimes needs some defense other than another law, and that the constitution provides it.

I guess you disagree that executive responsibility can sometimes run counter to what we ordinarily understand to be the rule of law

If you would care to point out where I said that, I'd be much obliged.

I don't think that the "rule of law" means "whatever Congress says", and I doubt you really think that yourself, although you seem to find it expedient to suggest it. Is the idea of separate branches of government, each with their own powers and responsibilites, really such a wild and unknown concept that I need to explain and defend it here?

Could the man who says this be a nihilist?

Thumos, like politics, is about one’s own and the good. It is not just one or the other, as if one might suppose that politics is simply acting on behalf of what is one’s own—realism—or simply advancing the good—idealism. It is about both together and in tension. One’s own is never enough on its own; it needs a reason to justify it. But the reason generalizes one’s own to what is similar to one’s own and thus puts one’s own in a class with others; reason socializes and politicizes. But if you are in a class you are part of a whole; your own is part of the good, the common good. Your realism turns into your idealism. Even the most self-centered libertarian wants everyone to be a libertarian; for the world would be a better place if only everyone were perfectly selfish. Yet the good too is not as independent as it seems to be. If the good is to become actual, it must be established in a society. This requires a political effort to win a contest against an opposing notion of the good in the status quo. In politics you never start from nothing, but always in the face of the good you find inadequate. To defeat this dominant good, you have to espouse the good that you see and make it your own. At that point your motives are no longer pure, and your idealism is tainted with realism. To become accepted, the impersonal good needs to gather support, and in the process it becomes someone’s partisan good and loses its impersonality.

Still, I'm touched that you are so concerned about other branches of government intruding on the legislatures turf. I'm sure that the next time some judge orders taxes be raised in order to fund some mandate he found lurking in the Constitution, you will be up in arms about it.

John - When I misstated your view I acknowledged it. You have now gone on another of your sarcastic, ad hominem riffs, putting words in my mouth. Sorry, this is a busy time of year; no interest in exchanging views with you.

So, does manliness trump the rule of law, or vice-versa. Just so we great unwashed will know.

dain - Mansfield is interested in defending both executive power and manliness -- to a point in both cases. But as I understand it, they are not the same. Executive power has constitutional constraints. Others will be better able to say what constrains manliness - I think that's the question at issue.

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