Posted: August 30, 2001
A review of Educating the Prince: Essays in Honor of Harvey Mansfield edited by Mark Blitz and William Kristol
ften there is little unity or connection among the essays collected in a Festschrift, other than the link of respect or affection the authors have, whether as friends, students, admirers, or colleagues, for the distinguished person in whose honor the volume appears. Educating the Prince covers an amazing range of topics—from a detailed analysis of a single chapter in Machiavelli's Prince to an essay on Shakespeare's Henry V. There are also essays on classic works of the American tradition even an analysis of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, as well as chapters on Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant, the common law, international law, religion, and bureaucracy. Friends and Citizens contains fewer essays (also generally somewhat longer ones), but again a great range—from a challenging interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis, to essays on parties, Abraham Lincoln, friendship, citizenship, and communitarianism.
Space prevents me from evaluating each of the contributions here, but the essays of the two volumes are almost uniformly of high quality, readable, interesting, and in some cases important.
The honorees—Professors Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. of Harvard and Wilson Carey McWilliams of Rutgers—are two of the most distinguished practitioners of the ancient and honorable trade of political philosophy. They each have made large contributions to the field, especially to thinking through the political dilemmas of our age. Mansfield has written so much that his bibliography at the end of the volume is longer than some of the essays. He is probably best known for his masterly studies of the theoretical development of modern executive power, Taming the Prince. McWilliams's volume does not contain a bibliography of his writings, but he is well-known for having written The Idea of Fraternity in America as well as a regular series of ruminations on presidential elections and consummate studies of such topics as religion in America and the Anti-Federalists.
These two scholars are each related to an even larger giant of 20th century political philosophy, Leo Strauss. Neither was a student of Strauss directly, but each identifies himself with the broad and diffuse school of "Straussianism," Mansfield being long recognized as a leading member and McWilliams calling himself a "fellow-traveler." They share with Strauss and each other a deep commitment to the history of political philosophy, looking at it as a source of wisdom for understanding how we came to be where we are morally and politically, as well as for alternatives to the dominant self-understanding of our time. Both refuse to accept the value-free, scientific, quantitative agenda of mainstream political science. Both range widely over the field of political philosophy, but both also have paid special attention to the nature and sources of the American political tradition. Perhaps most significantly, they question whether modern political philosophy is a sound basis for modern liberal democracy at the same time that they share a deep commitment to liberal democracy. In this paradoxical stance they reveal their mutual debt to Strauss, for they are quite self-consciously following his path here. It is this stance toward American liberal democracy—friendly critics, critical friends aspiring reformers—that makes these two so worthy of our attention today.
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It would be a great mistake, however, to conclude from the foregoing list of parallels that they are in any sense identical in their diagnoses or prescriptions. Mansfield's politics are famously associated with conservatives and McWilliams's with liberal. They diverge not only from each other, but from Strauss as well, indicating, among other things, the non-monolithic character of Strauss's legacy. A first indication appears in the titles of the two books under review. Mansfield "educates the prince"; McWilliams concerns himself with "friends and citizens." Mansfield is concerned with "the few," or even "the one alone"; McWilliams with "the many."
Among the many strengths of each volume is at least one essay devoted to the thought of the honoree. Robert Kraynack presents the best brief statement of Mansfield's position that I know of. Mansfield seeks an alternative to the grounding in natural rights to explain the goodness of the liberal democratic regime. Rights are "too doctrinaire" and too likely to degenerate into a "permissive freedom" and a quest for "equality of result." They threaten the true good of politics—the affirmation of human dignity and the resultant aspiration to virtue. The inherent sense of dignity, "beyond all calculations of material interest," is a manifestation of the "pride or spiritedness or 'manliness' of men asserting their nature as rational beings in the given hierarchy of nature."
This Aristotelian understanding of human dignity supports liberal democracy, a form of the mixed regime that Mansfield believes Aristotle finds to be the best regime. The pure rule of the virtuous or wise is perhaps justifiable in a certain sense, but it is not ultimately desirable, for it treats the other residents of the city as children—arrested in the movement toward virtue and responsibility. One needs not "perfect virtue" but "diluted virtue" mixed with "political freedom under the constitutional rule of law." Mansfield's main task, then, is to recapture for American liberalism a superior grounding in Aristotelian pride, which would help prevent our democracy from sliding into its characteristic corruptions.
Notably, Mansfield differs from Strauss not only in looking to Aristotle rather than Plato, but more strikingly in maintaining, as Kraynack has it, that "Locke and Madison [are] modern Aristotelians who faced a new situation created by Christianity that required them to promote virtue indirectly, as 'disguised virtue.'" The Lockean theory of rights is better understood in terms of prideful self-assertion than in the Hobbesean terms Strauss attributed to Locke. The foundations of American liberal democracy are thus sound, needing only to be properly understood and defended.
Two essays in the McWilliams volume explain his thought almost as effectively as Kraynack does Mansfield's. Ironically, given that Mansfield is more closely associated with Strauss, McWilliams is in many ways a more orthodox member of the school. In particular, he sees the ground of modern liberal democracy more or less as Strauss did: Locke and the American founders, especially Madison, are not "concealed ancients," but moderns, and this means "possessive individuals." They established a politics and morality at odds with both friendship and citizenship, and hence are enemies to genuine community.
McWilliams is best known for his attempt to remind us of the alternative foundations of America—especially Christianity, as well as the residue of ancient philosophy—that can serve as a shadow tradition to the dominant Enlightenment culture of Locke, Madison, and the others. Within this secondary political culture, McWilliams has emphasized the influence of the Puritans (America's real founders) and the Anti-Federalists.
The organization of the McWilliams's Festschrift brings out very clearly just how McWilliams differs from Mansfield: the first part is devoted to "the problem of human pride," the next part to friendship and fraternity as the means and results of "overcoming pride." Whereas pride and manliness lie very near the center of Mansfield's affirmations, McWilliams takes quite the opposite path. Mansfield seems to sympathize to a degree with authentic modernity's (Machiavelli and Hobbes) turn against the ancients because of Christianity, and with pseudo-modernity's (Locke and Madison) concealment, for the same reason, of their allegiance to classical philosophy. McWilliams diverges from Mansfield (and from Strauss) in seeking to revive and ground his politics on religion, mainly Christianity.
Harvey Mansfield and Wilson Carey McWilliams are among today's most provocative, learned, and valuable thinkers, whose agreements and disagreements, as these books remind us, open up some of the most significant paths for pondering where we are and where we ought to be going.