A Short Note On One Response to Mansfield’s Jefferson Lecture

Nasty, brutish, and thankfully very short

I don’t want to spend time railing against the above. I just think it’s stupid. No one is allowed to say that that political life is defined by “honor and respect” because to do so would be to malign all the greater things that bestow honor or constitute respect.

Actually, I do want to spend a moment on the central thrust of the article. I’ve been sitting and thinking about Mansfield’s speech a lot, wondering about the full implications. A lot of time has been spent wondering about where “love” fits into the ideas put forward, and a lot more time has been spent wondering how the divided soul the ancients posited can be used to critique more particular ideas advanced today.

Not a second has been used to say “wow, I’m really glad we’re an Empire and conquering the world for the sake of our honor, like, all this stuff goes back to the Greeks!”

I mean, to accuse Mansfield of being a fascist – which is essentially what this article does – can be done on one ground only: We’re no longer allowed to have debates.

That’s actually what Mansfield was getting at. We don’t argue any more in politics. The idea behind the social sciences is that what is good is objectively certain.

No one is allowed to have differing ideas about the Good. We know the Left is right about everything, because they embrace the notion of Progress wholeheartedly, which will allow science and all sorts of other tools to allow us to be human.

I’m ranting in a peculiar way: if you want to see why the name-calling of the article works – and it does work – you have to see that the article starts from an ideal perspective. There is a world for liberals of the sort that wrote the article. It is a world where there is no war, no poverty, no one argues, truth is simple even in the beauty of its diversity and complexity, science solves all problems and freedom is whatever we want at any given moment.

And that world is thought to exist because the evils we face in this life are conflated with injustices that have to be overcome. Of course the civil rights movement and pacifism are the same thing! Everyone knows the only difference between the evils is one of control: if people could be induced to stop the former, then the latter surely can end too.

I’ll admit it: for a second, while reading this article, I was sucked in, and almost believed this conspiracy theory.

Now I’m convinced more than ever of a point Jerry Weinberger made writing on New Atlantis: for the ancients, there was no utopia. But the whole principle underlying everything we do in modern life is that we can create utopia – if not now, maybe later – and that good strives from trying to create utopia. So since Mansfield dares to say “maybe not, maybe politics is something more elemental, more human,” he’s a war lover and a power monger.

I really, really am steamed reading this crap. Pick on me – that I don’t mind. But don’t attack people who actually know what they’re talking about. If you want to say that thumos and a defense of the executive that is purportedly outside the rule of law are problematic, and emblematic of something darker, say it (Gracchi – I’m not picking on you here. I just hate how this op-ed column runs and people aren’t reading the damn speech). Then be willing to admit that you just might be a wuss, whose principles don’t stem from the way things work, but from a thought that we can realize something ideal. Again, that’s exactly what Mansfield was talking about, the ability to have the give-and-take, and not see other people something other than people engaged in a serious enterprise.


  1. Interesting response to the Washington Post- I too have been thinking about the lecture though I’m not sure what to say. One of the things that is interesting I think is the way that Mansfield talks about science- pure and simple science that is and not political science- he seems to damn modern psychology as opposed to ancient psychology which is interesting- and I’m not sure about- I take his argument at one level but not at another. The other interesting thing I came up with having read it was how much Mansfield was interested in Neitsche but didn’t quote him- it struck me that there was a profound Neitschean influence running through it. If I’m right- and I’m no Straussian- its interesting I often wonder whether the twentieth century intellectually in the arts is the century of Neitsche- if you think figures as diverse as Mansfield at one end and Derrida at another were both influenced by him.

    Love I’m not sure about- I think to consider Love you have to move both into epistemology and to theology rather than into politics- and I suppose that would be my main interest in Mansfield- where is both the epistemology and the theology.

    Yes by the way I am that outrageous coming to executive power- I think that an unreserved ability by the executive to trump the law is not a good thing. Admittedly in certain circumstances it is- but I don’t think that in all circumstances it is- what I wanted from Mansfield and didn’t get was a defence of why in these circumstances it was necessary for the executive to break the law.

  2. I did that first response as an instant response to what you’d written but just rereading the lecture it is incredibly subtle- there are a couple of ill chosen words about science- but I think that that might be my interpretation of them- as for thumos I’m still not sure whether some of the work of modern psychologists may provide more than just thumos as the inspiration behind things and the way that we name things (incidentally what does Mansfield think fo the relationship between naming and the object named is). Its interesting though.

  3. I’m really glad I came across this post, because it is a subject for which I care deeply. I thought the Post’s reply to Mansfield’s speech was well articulated, but it was so angry that it was difficult to take seriously! I wonder what Victor Davis Hanson (I know, I know, you either love or hate [and I mean HATE] VDH) would say about this. It is refreshing to see the ancients revivified in modern politics, and one can adduce a sense of men pining for days when individual greatness wasn’t muzzled by technology – who wouldn’t want to be like a Homeric hero???

    To reduce Mansfield’s view to something like Lewis’ Screwtape Letters – “The greatest evil…is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven necks who do not need to raise their voice” – is both absurd and dangerous. Note that for the WP we are always the problem and it is never Ayman Zawahiri or Ahmadinejad – these ‘malcontents’ can always be cured with more money, more good intent, more compliance, more, more, more. Annndddd I’m ranting….

    But AK is right. Remember Pericles’ Funeral Oration, where he noted that Athens viewed deliberation not as a stumbling-block, but as a requisite, to good policy (and Truth)? The irony in the Progressive creed is that not even Darwin thought ‘progress’ was linear – natural selection would not make us angels someday.

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