Harvey C. Mansfield, Harvard political theorist and America's most famous conservative academic, delivered last night's annual Jefferson Lecture, the highest honor accorded by the National Endowment of the Humanities. His lecture - "How to Understand Politics: What the Humanities Can Say to Science" - focused mainly on the inability of our natural and social sciences truly to understand the most important human phenomena, especially politics. In particular, our natural and social sciences cannot account for thumos - spiritedness - and "names," that is, particular individuals. As he succinctly stated, our natural and social sciences can't account for the "importance of importance."
Mansfield explicitly criticized Harold Lasswell's definition of politics as "who gets what, when, how," and instead argued that politics is really about the WHO - who is most important, who gets to make the rules and decisions. Politics is about the assertion of our individual or partisan greatness. Politics in fact refutes the theory of our natural and social sciences, and especially the theory that only aggregates and data sets matter, not individuals. Political science, properly understood, helps to explain not how humans become animals (what sociobiology does), but how animals become humans. Mansfield sounded a very Lawlerian note in pointing out that there are no chimp universities or civilizations, so it's pointless to reduce us to glorified or slightly smarter chimps.
Related to this, Mansfield argued that literature is especially important for understanding politics because literature is about particular people with particular names, who live in particular places and at particular times. Literature reminds us of the central importance of individuals. Moreover - in a section I found particularly provocative - literature "knows something that science does not" - that people resist the truth, and perhaps especially those truths that go against the presuppositions of a regime (e.g., in a democracy, the truth of human inequality - an argument that one can't really make politically or even scientifically (witness the controversy over "The Bell Curve" or Larry Summers, but which one can portray with relative impunity, if carefully, in literature).
Predictably, Mansfield's lecture called out the usual blanket and underinformed condemnations of Straussianism. However, there is some validity in the suspicion toward a "politics of greatness," albeit one that doesn't finally have all that much to do with Mansfield's Straussianism per se, I'd contend, but rather an overemphasis on a half-truth about human nature. My own misgivings about the lecture centered on Mansfield's definition of politics as thumotic, as being about the assertion of "WHO." Certainly this is a part of politics, but it's also a profound problem for politics and political community. Politics is partly about assertion, assuredly, but also must be about the governance of assertion, the subordination of our own personal glory and honor for the good of the polity. It was interesting to me that, in spite of Mansfield's insistence upon the importance of names, he actually named almost no figure in particular (other than a great allusion to Lyle Lovett). The one literary figure he did mention was Achilles, who surely, one would have to acknowledge, is one of the poorest exemplars of a citizen ever portrayed in literature. His anger nearly results in the cataclysmic defeat of the Achaeans (and, had the Trojans won the war, where would we be now?), and the full unleashing of his wrath leads him to defy the gods, to combat and distort nature, and to viciously slay and abuse the corpse of the decent man and actual good citizen, Hector. Can this be the best exemplar that literature provides for politics?
This problem was further reflected in Mansfield's interesting, if brief, discussion of religion. Religion, he contended, can be understood as one more form of thumos. Religion - and here he explicitly named Christianity - is a functional belief in a deity who cares for US. We are not lost in the cosmos, really - there is a God who watches over us, who cares for and loves us individually. The lower - humanity - defends the higher - divinity - in the name of the low. Yet, here again, this argument ought to strike one as at best an incomplete understanding of religion in general, and Christianity in particular. Yes, God cares for us - God becomes man, an act of ultimate love and self-sacrifice - but also, in the very recognition of this profound and inimitible love, we have to acknowledge our own imperfection and partiality. Christianity urges us to practice the virtues of love and humility, not pride - or thumos. In this regard - particularly the emphasis upon individual insufficiency and the need to govern pride - Christianity and a kind of political and even democratic realism coincide to a large extent. Mansfield told perhaps half the story - and an important half in our age of socio-biology - but only half, and in my view, perhaps not even the most important half. Perhaps he acknowledged this fact, if slyly, by ending his lecture with an acknowledgement that he had not spoken about love - but, surely too, acknowledgement of this omission itself was an important but finally insufficient admission.
I don't think it's enough to acknowledge that love is important with a concluding wink. Even our sociobiology shows us to be an age defined by human pride. Ironically our socio-biologists are among the most prideful of human creatures ever to have existed - as Tocqueville suggested, having shown we are nothing but beasts, they act as if they are now gods (having established we're only animals, they argue that we now have leave to change our nature through perfectionist bio-technology). Pride remains THE problem of politics and, in sum, the human condition - a fact that Plato understood well in placing thumos in a subordinate position, subject to the governance of our highest faculties.