Of Mansfield and Machiavelli

Article excerpt

"I remember when I was a freshman, one of the teaching assistants in a government course I took said, 'It's in the cards for you to become a political scientist,'" says Harvey Mansfield, the 2007 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities. "I don't remember ever seriously considering any alternative." In this issue, he talks with NEH Chairman Bruce Cole about the more than forty years he has spent teaching and writing about political philosophy. In recognition of his career, Mansfield is receiving the highest honor given by the federal government for achievement in the humanities.

For Mansfield, political science means grappling with the works of philosophers, such as Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Niccolo Machiavelli. In their writings, he locates the genesis of many of the elements and debates that define our political system today. Burke argued that political parties should be regarded as legitimate components of a free society, rather than symptoms of political rot. Tocqueville worried that democracy would promote intellectual conformity, thereby laying the groundwork for majority tyranny. He also fretted that American idealization of individualism would lead to "big government." "To him, it was a disease of democracy that people felt incompetent or impotent among a mass of other people," says Mansfield.

As for Machiavelli, Mansfield finds him troublesome and potentially dangerous. "He's very bad on the surface, but underneath, he's worse," says Mansfield. "He wants to bring on a very general revolution in our way of thinking about morality and politics." Mansfield holds Machiavelli responsible for introducing the idea of exercising power in the name of someone else as a way to obscure your actions. "This is something that had not been thought of or invented by the ancients, by Plato and Aristotle, it's a modern idea," he tells Cole.

In this issue, we also look at those who took an entrepreneurial approach to fame and fortune. …