“Gentlemen. Virtue. Soul.”
These three words are Harvey Mansfield’s favorites, according to one former student, and they capture the central ideas of a conference held Friday afternoon celebrating the longtime professor of politics at Harvard.
The conference, titled “Philosopher of Politics: A Tribute to Harvey C. Mansfield and His Enduring Influence,” was cosponsored by the Hudson Institute and the Foundation for Constitutional Government.
Mansfield has sought to uncover “the philosophical root of political institutions,” said Mark Blitz, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, and this focus has led him to give “illuminating attention to virtue and nature.”
Jerry Weinberger, a former student of Mansfield’s and a current professor at Michigan State University, opened his comments by saying that Mansfield is a “political philosopher of the human soul.”
“His attempt to breathe life into virtue is especially apparent in Manliness,” said Blitz, referencing Mansfield’s treatise on the role masculinity plays in society.
The idea of manliness has been a prominent “theme of his work” over the years, said Kathryn Sensen, a recent graduate student under Mansfield, and this theme featured prominently throughout the three-hour conference.
The idea of manliness demonstrates the “complexity of the relationship between philosophy and politics,” said Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, who moderated the second panel, titled “Harvey Mansfield on America.”
The two panels, designed to reflect Mansfield’s influence on philosophy and day-to-day politics, ranged from the ancient Greek philosophers to our current political debates to personal reminiscences about the professor.
The recurring theme of manliness also provoked some laughter. Sensen assured the audience that Mansfield’s emphasis on manliness is not because he does not like women but, to the contrary, because he does and “wants them to remain women.”
The high level of respect those in attendance had for Mansfield, 80, did not preclude a few jokes at his expense. Weinberger described Mansfield’s voice as a “yelling whisper,” which he then proceeded to demonstrate by imitating Mansfield’s pronunciation of his three favorite words. This demonstration, simultaneously deeply honoring yet slightly mocking, apparently struck Weinberger as a touch inappropriate, as he glanced over at his former professor in the front row and quickly said, “Sorry,” as the audience laughed.
Others contributed to the jesting, which made the conference feel, at a few points early on, like a roast. Before describing Mansfield as having an “unmatched elegance of mind,” Kenneth Weinstein, president of the Hudson Institute, called Mansfield a “threat to Estée Lauder and plastic surgeons everywhere” because of his perpetually youthful, and dapper, appearance.
The jokes came from a place of clear affection for the man and respect for his influence. Mansfield has written, according to a biography provided by the conference, on political parties, indirect government, liberalism, constitutionalism, and executive power.
Adam Schulman, a tutor at St. John’s College, focused his remarks on Mansfield’s essay, “Liberal Democracy as a Mixed Regime,” which he considers to be a seminal work of political science. Schulman said the essay was “written in the spirit of a friend of liberalism,” that is, he explained, by one who is not himself a liberal but supports liberalism.
Schulman then explained that today’s presidential candidates fall quite neatly into the two categories that, according to Mansfield’s essay, make up the American regime: liberals and democrats. Liberals, Schulman said, are a remnant of the aristocracy, today’s businessmen and intellectuals, epitomized by Mitt Romney. Democrats are of the people, their flag carried by Barack Obama.
George Will, a columnist for the Washington Post, also noted that this year’s election displays a “Mansfieldian theme.”
Almost all of the panelists had been Mansfield students at some point, and while most discussed his ideas, influence, and good sartorial sense, Ross Douthat, a columnist at the New York Times, directly discussed Mansfield’s teaching.
Mansfield, Douthat said, brings a critical distance to subjects, and taught him that it is possible to love your country and constitution while still keeping an “appropriate” distance from them.
Mansfield has always had the goal of “preserving room” for disagreement, conflict, and uncertainty, noted Jeremy Rabkin, a professor of law at George Mason. Mansfield wants to restore “excitement … to politics,” avoiding mindless conformity.
Avoiding conformity can lead to isolation, and standing alone has been a characteristic of Mansfield’s career, noted Weinstein. Long “denied the honor he deserved,” he said, Mansfield stood for a long time as a “chorus of one” at Harvard.
He no longer stands alone, however, as the conference demonstrated. And some hope to carry his ideas out even further: a multimedia website dedicated to his work, HarveyMansfield.org, was announced at the conference.