Interview: Harvey Mansfield
Interviews Society Philosophy

Interview: Harvey Mansfield

Hansong Li

William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Government at Harvard University

Harvey Mansfield is a renowned contemporary political philosopher, currently the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Government at Harvard University. An iconic spokesperson of the “Straussian School,” Mansfield presents in this interview his life-long reflections on the nature and methods of political philosophy as both a scholarly practice and a way of life. He explains the nexus of political theory and practice in light of his work on the executive, indirect government, and liberal democracy as a mixed regime. As a prominent teacher, he shares his critical perspective on the current state of higher education. Finally, he reacts to competing approaches in intellectual history by elaborating on his own understanding of historical context and its relation to philosophical inquiry.

Hansong Li: What is political philosophy, and how does political theory inform political practice?

Harvey Mansfield: Political philosophy, I would understand as the raising of philosophical questions more than the presentation of philosophical answers, though they obviously go together. So, it is to be distinguished from political theory, which would be the presentation of solutions. Political theory, too, doesn’t have the same permanence as political philosophy, which, insofar as it focuses on the questions of philosophy, implies that those questions are permanent and with us always. It is not to suggest that there are no solutions; or that if there are, there are more than one, so the question remains. And to get solutions, one often insists on the clarity of result. Political theory is more easily understood, since its meant to be understandable to all, but especially to a given time. Political theory, I would say, can be superseded, whereas political philosophy is always with us.

Political philosophy is especially interested in the philosophical questions on our resistance to philosophy. Why is it that philosophers are not listened to and immediately obeyed, being wiser than the rest of us? So, political philosophy deals with the study of philosophical questions of the questionableness of philosophy. It doesn’t take philosophy for granted. In other words, political philosophy would be that form or mood of philosophy when it is not taking itself for granted. And that refers both to the fundamentals of philosophy, but also to the difficulties of making philosophy prevail. And that is how I would start with political philosophy as a definition.

Hansong Li: Rousseau professes in Du contrat social, “if I were a prince or legislator, I would not be wasting my time saying what should be done; I would either do it, or else shut my mouth.” (Si j’étois prince ou législateur, je ne perdrois pas mon temps à dire ce qu’il faut faire; je le ferois, ou je me tairois.)[1] Is a moment in your life, after studying political philosophy for decades, you ask yourself: what if I were a prince? Or do you believe, not unlike Machiavelli, that you’re fulfilling some kind of princely function without being a conventionally defined prince?

Harvey Mansfield: Yes. And Rousseau could have thought that as well and decided to conceal his actually being a prince in the form of a wish, or merely a supposition. In other words—I think you can find this in ancient writers too—by talking about politics, you’re already in politics. And being in politics, you’re offering advice in general terms, sometimes specifically disguised as general terms, so you might think of the prince, having in mind both the generality and a particular prince of your own time.

In my life, I can’t say I’ve practiced politics. Perhaps I would have liked to go to Washington for a year or two to see what it’s like. But there is no demand for political philosophers as such. You have to have a specialty as a political scientist or some kind of social scientist, or at least know some particular field of expertise, such as on some country or area. In other words, you can’t be in politics now as a philosopher, but only as an expert. I’m not any kind of expert, and I’ve never been asked. I noticed that when I am occasionally invited to go on TV, almost every time I’m asked—I usually say yes—they find some other guest who is more suitable for that particular night than I am, and it gets called off. This has happened more than once, more than twice. So, I begin to laugh when I get such a request. The only time I got on TV and it held was when I wrote the book on manliness.[2]

Hansong Li: That’s the Colbert Report?[3]

Harvey Mansfield: Yes, and then I was topical.

Hansong Li: You mentioned in response to the first question that philosophy is not wanted, and in response to the second that political philosophy holds a difficult position in political practice. But you have offered political advice, either directly or, as you said, disguised in general terms. William Bennett, former Secretary of Education, remarks upon the edition of Educating the Prince: Essays in Honor of Harvey Mansfield that “Mansfield’s influence extends beyond the walls of the academy. His insights have deep practical and political importance. Throughout his career, Harvey Mansfield has taught us important things about self-government; we need, now more than ever, to heed his wise counsel.”—what are the counsels?[4] Can you name some of your counsels that the public heeded, and some others that you wish the society had heeded?

Harvey Mansfield: Maybe there are some general propositions, not usually in the form of counsel. You can counsel indirectly by praise or blame. So, you could say that a critic is a kind of counsel even if not paid or officially hired for that purpose.

So, what have I counseled in that sense? I have perhaps raised more questions than direct counsels. I’ve written on the idea of indirect government, that is, achieving your ends through indirection, something that I think modern political philosophers invented or at least set forth to display in the idea of representations.[5] When the government says that it can represent you, then it’s yours to some degree and in some argued way, even though it seems to be an imposition on you from the outside. The example of this is a priest who rules you by claiming to have spoken with God, to know God, and have received God’s counsel, so that he is merely conveying something to you, and not imposing himself on you. A representative government, borrowing from this religious example, says to its people: we are just doing what you asked us to do. You gave us a mandate, and as Kant says, the criminal is the author of his own punishment. Morality consists in making laws for yourself. So, democratic politics, or the politics of self-government, is made more agreeable or congenial through erasing the appearance of imposition of outside rule. So, this is the way I talk. I don’t know whether that has any practical import, maybe as a way of making democratic politicians a little more aware of what they do, if they were to read this.

I have also worked on the executive, which is another instance of indirection.[6] The executive government says, “I’m merely executing some other will, maybe God’s will, the will of Congress, the will of a higher Court, or maybe your will, if you appointed or elected me, or elected the person who appointed me. There is some notion that removes the responsibility of the political, and transfers it to the apparent object or victim of the political. These are all Machiavellian tricks, and I’ve written a lot on Machiavelli. Maybe reading them enables you to see what has been done to you.

Contrast that way of indirect government with taking responsibility, which means identifying yourself as a ruler, saying why you want to rule somebody, and why you want your ideas to rule not only your own conduct, but those of other people and the society in general. And this is what most people do when they take a political attitude, or a partisan attitude. They say, for example, on the abortion question, that those against abortion are not satisfied with the solution, “then don’t have one.” Instead, you don’t want to live in a society in which people are free to have abortions. And the same applies to the other side: they don’t want to live in a society where people are not free to have abortions. So even when a free society claims to be leaving decisions to personal choice, there is much less of it. In fact, the personal choice seems to be the choice of a partisan attitude, which is the rule that applies not only to you but also to all of your fellow citizens. So, that would suggest from the opposite that government is an imposition. Though to the extent that you can justify it with reasons, it’s an imposition of reason, and in this way, it can be distinguished from tyranny. All of this is general reasoning, and I do not know what kind of counsel it amounts to.

Another point I made is about liberalism. In an article that people have mentioned as having an influence on liberal democracy, I say that liberal democracy is a mixed government of liberals and democrats: the liberals, the selected elites and the democrats who want to be outstanding in some way or the other, and the other people who are content with not being outstanding, and would be upset or at least uncomfortable if they must give rules to other people.[7] So, a liberal democracy as it has developed is divided between liberals who are intellectuals and liberals who are businessmen, two elites disagreeing and conflicting, representing our two parties. This is, you can say, in the consequence of Rousseau, who took up against the economic man and tried to replace him with the political citizen. And in that way, we are all in a hidden fashion indebted to Rousseau for good or ill, in our most outstanding political distinction between Republicans and Democrats, between those who want to be rich so that they can be honored and powerful, and those who want to be with it intellectually so they can have the same two things: honor and power.

Hansong Li: What then is the essential relationship between the philosopher and politics? Leo Strauss in On Tyranny distances the philosopher from his polis.[8] Surely there is an involvement in politics, if only so that philosophy would be left alone in its freedom from the state, that the philosopher would be left to his own musings, and Socrates should happily descend to Piraeus to converse with the youths without Pericles policing his conduct. But in any case, Strauss cautions philosophers against getting involved in actual governing.

I’m sure you get this question very often. What is a certain proposition by the usual reference of “West Coast Straussianism,” that echoes somewhat Kojève’s arguments against On Tyranny, that by associating with politics, even though there is no guarantee of a perfect polity, philosophers would at least strive to prevent the polity from going astray?[9] You also mentioned that you were first introduced to Leo Strauss by Henry Jaffa. So, do you have one or two comments on “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is not a virtue”?[10]

Harvey Mansfield: Right. Well, Kojève, having been a Soviet spy, doesn’t seem to have a close acquaintance with the distinction between tyranny and freedom. He is the one who would have been well advised to stay out of politics.

Harry Jaffa discovered Abraham Lincoln for the Straussians and for American political thought in general, so that was a very substantial discovery. Perhaps he carried it too far. We are looking at the fact that Lincoln was not a philosopher himself. although he thought philosophically and must have read philosophers. Still, it seems that the ideas he used were not as sufficiently distant from the politics of his time. When you read his speeches, you are inspired by his love of freedom and understanding of what that requires. You are impressed, too, with his use of religion: “with malice towards none, with charity for all,” begins his greatest speech.[11] And that could lead a thoughtful person to study philosophy and to work out the relationship between politics and religion. But you would need philosophical works too. Lincoln’s use of the Declaration of Independence, which Jaffa made much, does seem to have a partisan and somewhat parochial intent behind it, against the continuance of slavery in America. This is my great departure from Henry Jaffa, remarking once that “all men are created equal” as a self-evident half-truth: the other half of the truth is that we are created unequal. That’s in Plato and Aristotle as much as and perhaps even more than the equality. So, maybe that’s also behind my notion that liberal democracy is a mixed regime, aiming at inequality as well as equality. And to this extent the influence of Lincoln, making the egalitarian spirit the American spirit, has not always been a good thing for us. So, to the extent that West Coast Straussianism puts together Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the American Founding and Lincoln, I think that goes too far. America is, I think, in terms of natural right, a partisan regime on the side of democracy. That is a reasonable choice, but not necessarily a required one.

Hansong Li: Isn’t there still a distinction between a philosopher advising a prince and a philosopher being the prince? Plato’s not-so-successful adventure in Syracuse, which Strauss famously cites in his writings, is an example of advising. At the same time, there still persists a captivating notion of philosophers being the king.

Harvey Mansfield: Yes, it seems that Machiavelli was a prince, or a kind of prince. He was the kind of prince who advises but whose advice was sufficiently definite so that he himself can be understood as a prince, a leader and master conspirator. By contrast, one would not describe Plato in such terms as leading a political or intellectual conspiracy, but simply as a philosopher who is very thoughtful and experienced in the ways of men and would give good advice, which might or might not be taken. And he might in fact give advice which is likely not to be taken: advice that is good for you but not necessarily that you would accept. What Machiavelli introduces is the erasure of that distinction between good advice and acceptable advice. And hence, he removes the chanciness of philosophical wisdom serving a good result. And that brings with it the danger of tyranny, in the sense that the advice would be an imposition on freedom of men to govern themselves. This is the risk of all modern philosophy following Machiavelli. It’s better, I think, as Plato would have it, that there would be a coincidence between philosophy and politics, rather than the conjunction being manufactured ahead of time by making philosophy in advance agreeable to its acceptance. So, philosophy isn’t free unless it can count on its being subversive. So, freedom is limited by the need to keep it distinct from actual rule by its lack of specificity. It stands for a natural right, not a political right. Those two aren’t the same. I think that the West Coast Straussians, under Henry Jaffa, tended to try to make them the same.

Hansong Li: Why is it that, as many real and great benefits as Machiavelli offered to the princes—not only advice on self-preservation condensed in a piccolo libro, but also a well-organized militia which achieved some moderate military success—he still failed as a conventional prince, and as a result, had to embark on this other “princely” project of founding a “new modes and orders” (nuovi ordini e modi) of thinking?[12] Could he have achieved more success in Florentine politics?

Harvey Mansfield: My late colleague Judith Shklar, I remember, used to sympathize with Machiavelli, out there in the hot sun, hot boiling Italian sun, drilling his troops.[13] So, Machiavelli discovered that his time was right not for consummating but for initiating a revolution, so that’s what he did when he was out of office, not in office. I don’t know how much he meditated on it while in office.

Hansong Li: In your Jefferson Lecture, you commented on the effect of the rise of modern science on philosophy: “Science wants to overcome the discrepancy between practice and theory so that theory can go into effect…Science wants the fruits of science, and it does not tolerate much doubt about the goodness of those fruits.”[14] I wonder if some political theorists also feel the same urge to apply their theories into practice, precisely because they do care about the goodness of those fruits, but they think theirs are definitely the good fruits?

Harvey Mansfield: Sure, yes. You could begin a discussion of science from the ambivalence of science and its fruits. Everybody can see it is dangerous to live in a world in which human beings possess the power to destroy themselves. So, that immediately subjects the sciences and their benefits to questions. The benefits are not small, say modern medicine, because of which I am living.

Hansong Li: That makes it harder to question scientific progress whereas it is much easier to question a philosophical proposition.

Harvey Mansfield: Yes, because that is unnecessary. But still, it is questionable. People don’t reckon up both of them when they think of modern life.

Hansong Li: To conclude our discussion on the practice of political philosophy, I would like to refer to Machiavelli’s “la mia impresa”—his enterprise of benefiting mankind by founding a new way of thinking about politics, an expression which you like to mention in your writings.[15] How would you characterize la tua impresa—your enterprise? Is there a link between his and yours?

Harvey Mansfield: I’ve spent some time studying Machiavelli. So, yes! It’s Machiavellian in principle that truth is effectual, and that the effectual truth is the most important truth and maybe the only truth. It means that, given that I am a professor, a professor’s effectual truth is his students, people that he has advised. So, Machiavelli laughingly identifies Aristotle as Alexander, his student. When he is talking about Alexander I think he is also talking about Aristotle. And those are my people up there from that shelf (photographs with students), the ones that are my effectual truth. That is always a good reductive understanding of what a professor tries to do. It is maybe to communicate the love of learning, thinking, questioning, writing, and being able to formulate what you’ve found. It is, in short, to get other people started.

Not exactly on the side, I am a Straussian. I am part of Leo Strauss’s sect. So, I do want to promote that in every sensible way, which means never proselytize, but always try to make it available. That is the way I think philosophy in our time can best be advanced, maintained, or helped to survive. So, it’s more la nostra causa than la mia impresa.

Hansong Li: So, you still see the possibility of genuine philosophy, as opposed to history and historiography of philosophy, in Strauss’s approach to political philosophy?

Harvey Mansfield: I do.

Hansong Li: Would you say that in the professional philosophy of our time, philosophical thinking is dead and replaced by the practice of poring through commentaries on commentaries?

Harvey Mansfield: It is. Philosophy has become a profession, instead of a way of life. It has certain limits and requires a lot of respect for your contemporaries. This is one big difference, I would say. It would refer to a contemporary philosopher, which is just a professor, really, in the same breath as Rousseau and Plato, which is a giant promotion for our vanity.

Hansong Li: We have just touched on the topic of education. In “Higher Education Scandal” published by Claremont Review of Books, you say, “today’s liberals do not use liberalism to achieve excellence, but abandon excellence to achieve liberalism.”[16] What are your thoughts on today’s crisis in liberal arts education? And taking it a step further, isn’t the “liberal arts education”—even in its most excellent existing form—still different from the philosophical life that Plato and Aristotle imparted to their students? Should excellence be strictly preferred to liberalism? Should there still be a distinction between the wealthy, aristocratic, beautiful, intelligent, promising politicians-to-be that Socrates ran after and Aristotle devoted all of his time to, and the rest of the many, nowadays uniformly dubbed as “leaders” and “experts”? Or are we living in an age that has eliminated this distinction?

Harvey Mansfield: That’s a lot in there in your question. Eighteenth-century liberals used to use liberalism as a way of promoting excellence, of which they had a somewhat narrow picture: the talents, like Napoleon, in a way. It’s about the career being open to the talents. So, excellence in their understanding opens the way for the narrowing of philosophy from a way of life to an object for which you might have a talent. In this way, it removes the distinction between philosophy and other learning.

Using excellence to serve liberalism is illustrated in political correctness and professionalization—creating and sustaining professions. This is a narrow excellence to social benefit, of lawyers and doctors, not unnecessary or to be condemned, but still in the service of society. And that is a society in which the most ambitious types have access to choices of professions. This keeps them from tyranny, you could say, by channeling their tyrannical impulses toward careerism, or making a name for themselves. They become honored, too, in many different ways, and not just politically. So, the depression and instrumentalization of excellence goes with a creation of the narrow specialties that absorb one’s attention, and seems to justify it with its own rewards.

And then there is an egalitarian desire, a part of liberalism that has become increasingly powerful within this ideology, that says: you are not free to do something unless you are able to do it, and that you are not able to do it unless we give you the equipment. This can become a justification for grade inflation, if the equipment you need is self-esteem. So, you won’t get off your duff unless you think it’s worth doing so, which means you have to think well of yourself. So, we have to give you good grades throughout your life and for everything. That’s why I’ve spent a lot of time arguing against grade inflation, both at this university and elsewhere, as an example of excellence being debased for the sake of liberalism. I remember you also asked about the philosophic education?

Hansong Li: Yes, I asked if there is still a distinction between liberal arts education—perhaps the best we can do today—and the philosophical education? Should institutions of higher learning set excellence and virtue as the goal for the ambitious, and liberalism or careerism for others?

Harvey Mansfield: There isn’t so much on education for the ambitious. The Americans are based on the idea of ambition, or the idea of popular ambition. Rising out of the people, getting ahead, or as our Constitution framer uses ambition in a famous phrase: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”[17] Ambition is not quite Plato and Aristotle’s goal. They wanted a leisurely class, or gentlemanly class, that was perhaps above ambition. If you had ambition you were slightly embarrassed about it. It was not something you boasted of. And your education will teach you not to boast of it, both for political and moral reasons: be a better person. If you are not always looking for your own advantage, don’t always have your eye on the main chance.

In that way, I would say that ambition has been specialized, as I was arguing before, so instead of being taught classics in order to do politics as the English gentlemen in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, you go to a school of leadership or public administration, or law school, that in an economical way, teach you how to get ahead. So yes, we’ve lost sight of the gentlemen, that’s for sure.

Hansong Li: So, you think that Socrates tried to direct the tyrannical part of the soul of Glaucon and Alcibiades to possibly a philosophical life—it didn’t really succeed, though that may be the hope—whereas today, the best a professor like you can do is maybe to direct those ambitions to an excellent career so we students feel fulfilled and honored.

Harvey Mansfield: Turning Glaucon and Alcibiades into philosophers, that might or might not happen. But Socrates tried to make them more doubtful of the goodness of politics, while becoming or going into politics. It’s about a greater sense of the responsibility of politics, or to be cognizant of its own limits. And the noble—this is a controversial question among the Straussians—whether the status of the noble is something to be encouraged or discouraged by philosophy. I think that philosophy itself is a noble life. If you cannot quite be there, it still gives you a sense of noble enterprise.

Hansong Li: At least we can look up and behold the beautiful and good from afar, fully aware that they are there.

Harvey Mansfield: That’s right. You are looking up instead of down.

Hansong Li: This is another question on education. The Socratic dialogue Meno (Μένων) begins with Meno asking Socrates: can virtue be taught? (ἆρα διδακτὸν ἡ ἀρετή)?[18] You gave a Jefferson Lecture on thumos. So, my question is: can thumos (θυμός) be taught?

Harvey Mansfield: If you don’t have it, it’d be hard to teach!

Hansong Li: It is certainly a natural inclination. But still, is there a way to practice and further it by education?

Harvey Mansfield: Yes, I think there is a way to teach it. To tame it.

Hansong Li: Read Taming the Prince?[19]

Harvey Mansfield: Read Taming the Prince. Or tame it. Perhaps the most outstanding Straussian discovery that one could give to someone outside that sect as his main contribution would be the discovery of thumos. Thumos is discovered or rediscovered by Plato in the Republic. You can read through that without making very much of it. Or as Strauss did, make very much of it. I think that is perhaps the main single thing that those on the Straussian side have to teach others.

Now as to whether it can be taught, a person lacking thumos is always going to be handicapped as a student of it. Well, maybe not! Maybe the best way to study it is to be abstracted from it. That is really a question.

Thumos is also about a strong sense of one’s own self and power. The way in which modernity has treated it would be, I think, the most valuable lesson about our modern life: how it tried to repress thumos and at the same time express it. You see this especially in science, which is a great enterprise against thumos and self-importance. But it’s at the same time a great assertion of human self-importance. For we don’t have to take the world of nature as it’s given to us, but can change things. So, there is an ambivalent attitude in modernity toward thumos. That is a secret to understanding our lives today.

Hansong Li: I wish to dwell on a particular field of education: political philosophy. Today, there are departments of political science and philosophy. Machiavelli’s works and Plato’s Laws are seldom studied by graduate students in the philosophy department. How do the “Great Books” get divided along modern disciplinary lines? Should “philosophers” read the Prince and the Laws and other texts studied in political theory?

Harvey Mansfield: Well, one obvious thing you can say to a philosophy graduate student is that in Plato’s Laws, there is the best account of pre-Socratic philosophy, so turn up your nose! That’s something valuable as a part of the history of philosophy. As for Machiavelli, you simply don’t understand modern philosophy without having read and understood Machiavelli. That’s what I’ve been working on recently: the idea of Machiavelli in the discovery of fact. Machiavelli was not only responsible for modern ethics and modern politics, but also for modern philosophy and epistemology. The value of bringing greater clarity to our philosophical understanding by looking at the effects—that is, looking politically at philosophy, at what it does and brings about. He left it, you may say, to be elaborated by such as Hobbes and Descartes. The fundamental idea is that effectual truth requires a promotion of material and the effective causes, the two causes as Bacon saw that underlie modern science and epistemology. In Machiavelli, you can see both modern rationalism and modern empiricism. The discovery of fact—he uses the term effect (effetto) rather than fact (fatto), which are in the same Latin root of “doing” (facio)—and the use of effect as opposed to imagination or wish, together with the use of imagination, once one is deprived of the facts for the purposes of what Kant called “concept formation” (Begriffsbildung) whose essential modern character is to not elaborate your perceptions, but to accept them as given. So, this leads science into the understanding and search for loss of motion, rather than description of essences or beings. That begins with Machiavelli.

But you would also have to be aided by Strauss’s interpretation of Machiavelli, which shows you his tricks, hints and hidden messages. Because Machiavelli without esotericism is not really Machiavelli. You don’t appreciate his influence unless you see that the modern philosophers who succeeded him all acknowledge their debt to him without ever naming him, except certainly in the case of Bacon. So, Machiavelli should be right there in Philosophy One.

Hansong Li: You briefly mentioned esotericism in your comment on Machiavelli. You said in the preface to Machiavelli’s Virtue that Machiavelli speaks on two levels, that “he has something to reveal that he also wants to conceal,” and that we have to look for the “hidden communication.”[20] In light of Strauss’s Persecution and the Art of Writing, could you reveal how exactly you read “between the lines”?[21] What are some of the secret tools that are necessary to perform this mysterious task? To start with, knowing the language is a necessary tool to purge the confusions of inevitably faulty translations, but what else do you need to know to get at the hidden meaning?

Harvey Mansfield: First you begin with the evident contradictions in the text. Try to see whether they can be harmonized. Most interpreters do that—they come out with an interpretation which they regard as adequate, but which is disputed by other interpretations. That characteristically doesn’t succeed in establishing itself as the sole true interpretation. And then you have to see whether he might have had some reasons to say both things, and if it is necessary for him to contradict himself. It was, for example, necessary for Machiavelli to praise princes and also republics.

And this leads you to see how it is that the truth can be subversive. If there is a kind of political truth, which is in a way a lie but also not a lie, because it corresponds to the true political situation, this aspect of truth focuses on religion. Most people believe in a religion which philosophers in reason can show is not true, but is true for them. For it advances some natural need in human beings, which philosophers cannot simply dismiss but need to address.

So, the “exoteric”—that is political truth—goes with the “esoteric.” It isn’t just that there is an esoteric truth that the philosopher has, and thus, he looks down on everybody else. But he also needs some exoteric truths to do some good in the world, as well as to protect himself and his own freedom.

But then there’s some empirical work you can do, and that is just to add up—you can read Arthur Melzer’s new book Philosophy Between the Lines which adds up and brings to earth lists of an impressive number of philosophers who have referred to this practice of double-writing: addressing two audiences, through the ages, not only in ancient but also in medieval and modern times.[22] Maybe one can find it in other cultures too. Put that together with the need for tact—which everybody understands in common life—just tactful carried to the Nth degree.

And there are certain tricks that philosophers use. For example, they use the idea of putting the most important in the center, a practice that Strauss emphasized. Most people, when they listen to a speech, listen to the beginning and the end and fall asleep in the middle. So, the middle is the place where you can slip across what you really mean to be most attractive to those who don’t fall asleep. And if you crystalize this into a rule of thumb, that invariable necessity, then you can begin to discover things that are being said to you.

Then there is also in Plato’s dialogues, the action of the dialogue, which means something as well. Statements of interlocutors, and in general, the action and rhetoric of the writing in question.

Consider also what is said at the beginning. Usually, there is a dedicatory letter, or some kind of preface, in which philosophers indicate something but perhaps not all of his intent, and the double audience he has in mind to address. So, things like this. You can talk with other people, who share their insights. It’s important to understand that esoteric writing wouldn’t work if it could be uncovered using the methods of a cryptographer or a scientist, saying that this must always be interpreted this way, or that the essential item of the list must always have this meaning and that it is of central importance at least in that context. Rather it always requires some effort on your part, and it has to be an effort of imagination. For example, there is a scene in a chapter in Gulliver’s Travels, where Gulliver is in Brobdingnag—the country of the big people. The person that most annoyed him was a monkey.[23] I happen to think that the monkey is a representation of Machiavelli. I’m doing that using my imagination: the fake human being who failed Gulliver with his monkey food, i.e. his learning is books. But you know, if you require proof, that this must be the meaning and no other, that I cannot offer.

So, the search for esotericism accepts the doubtfulness of interpretation, and it also has a disadvantage of leaving to wild conceits. Many of which don’t deserve the time of the day. But I think that’s a necessary evil. So, it isn’t true that the esoteric method gives you license to anything that goes. That’s because it would be very difficult to establish an interpretation which answers every question that a reasonable person might have about the text. So, I don’t see that there is a great risk of being misled and misleading others, as long as one accepts the requirement that the interpreter uses his imagination, that what the writer wants is to appeal to people who reach out to him, to try to understand sympathetically what he is doing. And that reaching out requires not only a talent and certain intellectual virtue and capacity, but also a presumption that a person who looks like a great thinker isn’t going to make easy mistakes and obvious errors. And this presumption can be fed by having read Arthur Melzer’s book, discovering that it is a fact that many philosophers have spoken as if there were such a thing.

Hansong Li: By way of another example, I am most impressed to hear from Nathan Tarcov your esoteric interpretation of Messer Nicia in Mandragola as a smart man who has known the whole affair all along.[24]

Harvey Mansfield: Right, the person who appears to be the stupidest is actually the smartest.

Hansong Li: I wish to ask about history and historicism. In the preface to your translation of the Florentine Histories, you said that there is a difference between the Florentine “histories” meant by Machiavelli and “history” as we mean today in terms of the historical discipline. In general, in the classical historical tradition, from Herodotus and Thucydides to maybe even Machiavelli, there are characteristics of their histories—or “inquiry” (ἱστορία, historia)—quite contrary to what we do today in history departments. They have inserted speeches, re-interpretations and innovations, political comments on human nature, personal experiences and reflections, some transcendental truths, universal principles and moral lessons that would appall historians nowadays. You also mentioned that from the angle of historicism, this is one of the dangers to our practice of philosophy today, to reduce everything to historical contexts, which may prevent us from getting at the truths. What is history and what is the problem of historicism?

Harvey Mansfield: It is true that there is such a thing as historical context. People live in a time, and that time has certain characteristics which a thinker will most likely address. So, in Machiavelli’s time, if we take him for an example, its outstanding characteristic is perhaps the corruption of the Church. Every thinker had to deal with that differently. So, if you look at Machiavelli who composed the Prince in 1513, there are only a couple of years after that until 1517, the time of Martin Luther nailing his theses on the door of a Church. And there was Thomas More writing a dialogue on Utopia. So, all three of them faced the common problem of the corruption of the church. But they treated them as differently as one could imagine. So yes, these writers have a historical context, but they are not determined by it. And often, they seem to be more influenced by it because they see the need of esoterically addressing their fellow citizens or fellow humans at a certain time. So, they may seem to be more topical than they are. Whereas actually, they are addressing permanent questions—they may be rephrasing, revising or restating them, but those are permanent questions. It is a part of history to address permanent things as well as impermanent things.


1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique. Édition 1762. Ch. I. ^

2. Harvey Mansfield, Manliness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. ^

3. The Colbert Report, April 5, 2006 – Harvey Mansfield ( ^

4. Mark Blitz and William Kristol eds., Educating the Prince: Essays in Honor of Harvey Mansfield,Lanham, MD.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. P. 324 & back cover. ^

5. Harvey Mansfield, “Hobbes and the Science of Indirect Government,” The American Political Science Review, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Mar., 1971), pp. 97-110. ^

6. Harvey Mansfield, “The Ambivalence of Executive Power,” in The Presidency in the Constitutional Order, J. Bessette and J. Tulis, eds.,Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1981, pp. 314-334; Harvey Mansfield, “Executive Power and the Passion for Virtue,” in Studies in American Political Development, Vol. 6, No.1,1992, pp. 217-222; Harvey Mansfield, “Gouvernement représentatif et pouvoir exécutif,” Commentaire, 1986/4 (Numéro 36), pp. 664-672 ; Harvey Mansfield, “Republicanizing the Executive,” in Saving the Revolution:The Federalist Papers and the American Founding, Charles R. Kesler ed., New York: The Free Press, 1987, pp. 168-184; Mansfield, “The Modern Doctrine of Executive Power,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1987, pp. 237-252; Mansfield, “The Case for the Strong Executive,” Claremont Review of Books, vol. vii number 2, spring 2007, Reprinted in the Wall Street Journal, 2 May 2007. ^

7. Harvey Mansfield, “Liberal Democracy as a Mixed Regime,” The Alternative: An American Spectator (The American Spectator), 8.9 June-Ju1y, l975), pp. 8-12. ^

8. Leo Strauss, On Tyranny: An Interpretation of Xenophon’s Hiero. New York: Political Science Classics, 1948. p. xi, p. 174 & passim. ^

9. Alexandre Kojève (1902-1968), Russian-born French philosopher and statesman. See, Kojève, “The Emperor Julian and His Art of Writing” in Joseph Cropsey, Ancients and Moderns: Essays on the Tradition of Political Philosophy in Honor of Leo Strauss, New York: Basic Books, p. 95-113, 1964; Kojève, “Tyranny and Wisdom” in Leo Strauss, On Tyranny—Revised and Expanded Edition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 135-176, 2000. ^

10. Henry Jaffa (1918-2015) political philosopher, columnist and professor of political science at Claremont McKenna College. The line, uttered by Barry Morris Goldwater (1909-1998) at the Acceptance Speech as the 1964 Republican Presidential candidate, is purportedly written by Jaffa. ^

11. Abraham Lincoln, “Second inaugural address” see Speeches and Writings 1859-1865: Speeches, Letters, and Miscellaneous Writings, Presidential Messages and Proclamations. New York: Library of America, 1989. ^

12. Niccolò Machiavelli, Il Principe, Torino: Einaudi, 1961 (orig. 1513). Ch. VI. ^

13. Judith Nisse Shklar (1928-1992), political theorist, John Cowles Professor of Government at Harvard University. ^

14. Harvey Mansfield, Jefferson Lecture: “How to Understand Politics: What the Humanities Can Say to Science” delivered in Washington D.C., on May 8, 2007. ^

15. Niccolò Machiavelli, Santissimo e beatissimo padre signore nostro clemente settimo lo umile servo niccolò machiavelli, Istorie fiorentine (dedicatory letter to the Florentine Histories), Firenze: Sansoni, 1971. ^

16. Harvey Mansfield, “Higher Education Scandal,” Claremont Review of Books, Vol. 8, No.2 2013,n. 2. ^

17. James Madison (or Alexander Hamilton) Federalist No. 51, “The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances between the Different Departments” New York Packet Friday, February 8, 1788. ^

18. Plato’s Meno. 70a. ^

19. Harvey Mansfield, Taming the Prince, New York: Free Press, 1989. ^

20. Harvey Mansfield, Machiavelli’s Virtue, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. xvi. ^

21. Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952, passim. ^

22. Melzer, Arthur M. Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2014, passim. ^

23. Jonathan Swift. Travels into several Remote Nations of the World. In four parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships. London: Benj. Motte, 1726. ^

24. Niccolò Machiavelli, Comedia facetissima intitolata Mandragola et recitata in Firenze. Rome (?): s.n., 1524; La Mandragola, (ed.) Pasquale Stoppelli. Milano: Mondadori, 2016. ^