Philosophy as a Way of Life

By Blitz, Mark | Humanities, May/June 2007 | Go to article overview

Philosophy as a Way of Life

Blitz, Mark, Humanities

A student who attends Harvard today might think of Harvey Mansfield as a tough-grading conservative who defends manliness on late night television. But in the early 1960s, many Harvard professors were tough graders, highbrows regarded television as a vast wasteland, and faculty did not wear their political or other preferences on their sleeves and lapels. What attracted Mansfield's original group of students, of which I was one, was his intelligence. We were impressed by his brain. He struck us as the smartest professor at Harvard. This scope and depth remains the core of his merit as a teacher and scholar. Who, after all, should not want to study with the best?

I first met Mansfield in 1963. I was complaining to a friend about the sophomore tutorial to which I had been assigned. In those days, tutorials were formed according to the House in which you lived, not the subject you believed you wished to study. My friend told me that he was going to see Mansfield, then the assistant professor in charge of tutorials, and invited me to tag along. Mansfield asked me who my "section man" had been for Introductory Government and. of course, what grades he had given me. The answers were satisfactory and I was admitted to Mansfield's tutorial, which covered, among other works. Plato's Symposium and Montesquieu's Persian Letters. I think he put it together to appeal to young men's love of love. What we admired most, however, was how he read the texts. Ours was an intellectual generation for whom the greatest books could still be among the greatest things, and Mansfield gave form and purpose to this inclination. He taught us to see problems and contradictions we had not known were present and encouraged us to believe we might discover still deeper matters. Montesquieu taught us more about politics than did a thousand articles by journalists and scholars. Plato on love was the gateway to understanding the phenomenon itself, not a dead man's musty opinions. We learned something of what Mansfield once called the truly "natural attraction of the hidden."

We also learned to think intelligently about questions of justice and to begin to see the remarkable impact the best political philosophers have on the way we live. Understanding the possibility of natural right provided us with grounds upon which to make reasonable judgments about practical affairs without substituting stupefying absolutism for thoughtless relativism. We could rationally defend America's superiority to Communism without ignoring our failings. The goal of our studies was understanding, not moral and political guidance. With Mansfield's help, we learned what it meant to use our minds.

Seminars and informal reading groups are the heart of teaching political philosophy, but lectures also have their place. Mansfield developed a style of his own that features exquisitely polished set pieces delivered with characteristic flair and rapid pace. One struggled desperately to get down every word including-especially including-the jokes. To miss a step was to fall hopelessly behind. The effect was like having a hundred Sandy Koufax curve balls aimed mercilessly at one's head. In time, his students, many of whom are now prominent figures in government, public policy, and academia, learned the proper position from which to admire the trajectory.

Genuine teaching can result only from genuine learning. Mansfield brought to the classroom the same principle of inquiry that guided his own writings. Over the course of his career, he broke new ground in several areas. His first distinctive contribution was to expose the political-philosophical root of modern institutions. He began with a puzzle that few recognized, but anyone can notice now that he has pointed it out. Why do we think today that parties are respectable and, indeed, desirable when for two millennia after Plato we thought formally organized opposition to be dangerous? Mansfield discusses the shift to party government in his first book, Statesmanship and Party Government, and the papers associated with it. …

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