Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Thumos in Washington

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.


Anonymous said...

Nice post, a thoughtful response (especially given the alacrity with which you came up with it). A gentle rejoinder, or two: 1) I strongly suspect that Harvey was doing what Strauss himself frequently did (following Plato's/Socrates's lead): let's take one feature/item/element (of the soul, of nature, of political reality) and draw it out; say: thumos. We'll dialectically consider it; then we have to recognize another - say, eros - and do the same for it; we'll leave it up to our readers to try to weave the partial discussion together. That, to me, was the import of his closing remark, an explicit acknowledgement of incompleteness. So, I think Harvey's "one-sidedness" was required by time-constraints, philosophical method, and a judgment about what the times (and politial science) especially require. 2) Harvey explicitly mentioned "Tocqueville" by name and declared that he (Harvey) refuses to talk about politics and such without mentioning or referring to "Tocqueville." And, as you well know, Tocqueville - like Mansfield - wants us democrats to acknowledge that there's greatness or grandeur out there in the world (and in some souls) as well as the democratic "justice" of human equality. Liberty - human liberty - needs both components, i.e., to look horizontally and vertically, yes? And in a hyperdemocratic age like ours - which is an odd combination of self-flattery and self-denigration - we probably need people both to remind us of greatness and ambition (Harvey) as well as humility and fraternity (you know who). (Good to see you at the reception.)

Anonymous said...

Just time for a quick thought. I appreciate Pat's and Paul's comments, but would add this: to the degree that HCM was talking about politics, could we not say that it's probably appropriate not to talk about love? I'd want to complicate that thought eventually, but I've got to run.

Anonymous said...

Joe, taking another tack - i.e., not being contrary but being dialectical - don't we have it on good authority that all politics is about action and all action is toward the good. And the good is what is loved or desired? In this view, thumos would be a secondary spring of the soul, since it protects the good but doesn't directly seek or enjoy it. (I have in the back of my mind the scholastic versions of thumos and eros, which are ira et amor, or the concupiscible and the irascible parts of the soul. I'm not always willing to speak Greek rather than Latin.)

Anonymous said...

That's the complication I didn't have time to talk about. Spirited liberalism (the kind HCM likes) tends to privatize love and publicize respect; the one attracts, the other repels. To the degree that love serves as the basis of a community, couldn't we agree that it lends itself more to "small" communities of family and friends, perhaps also (at its very limits) a polis (with the proviso that the perfect community can only be the City of God)?

Anonymous said...

Joe, I appreciate your response. I'm intrigued by what you say is the tendency of Harvey's spirited liberalism to privatize love (and publicize respect). I wonder: where does his obvious patriotism fit in? Since it appears to blend love and spiritedness? Further query: what does, or would, measure his patriotism? (Pace certain Straussians isn't doesn't have to be "wisdom" or even a single criterion! The world can be complex and thought, too!) A final point (against those who hate the nation-state, which apparently is increasingly both members of the left and the right): doesn't greatness - America's greatness, America's worldhistorical significance since 1917 - factor into the sentiments we should feel toward/about her? Pride, yes, awesome responsiblity as well. Doesn't that complicate the adequacy of the polis-focused analysis of man's political soul? (Manent writes well of the inbetween-character of the nation-form, between the city and the empire: the city - pace Strauss and cruncy cons - isn't necessarily the natural political home of man. (I venture that to get some Deneen et al. reaction.)

Anonymous said...


I as thinking of that complication as I wrote and don't have a good way of handling it. I suspect that pride or thumos is capable of greater abstraction than is love, so I wonder if patriotism isn't more closely related to the former than the latter.

Patrick Deneen said...

I am always happy to be rejoined by my friends Paul Seaton and Joe Knippenberg. To Paul's thoughtful response, I would agree in part that Mansfield's attentiveness to thumos and the politics of greatness (and not only Harvey of course, but most of his students and fellow travellers) may be one part of what is needful, but it has been the only part that he has emphasized in his recent work and arguably over the course of his career. If we are to infer that even Harvey would recognize that this is only "one-sided," are we to conclude that our condition is one in which what is most needed is the assertion of manly thumos?

Perhaps - but I am of the view that thumos, and even pride, is more often the problem than simply the solution. I submit (repeating myself) that even our Darwinian sociobiologists seem to be brimming with a kind of pride - that by displacing humanity from the care and protection of Providence, we are given leave to alter our creatureliness at will. We find ourselves back at the original impetus for humankind's original sin - the aspiration to be akin to Gods.

I would submit that to be manly, properly, must involve our ability not to act like men. We must sufficiently manly to subordinate our manly instincts for the good of our marriages, our families, our communities. As Susan McWilliams has written recently, real men have to govern their inclination to throw heavy things around. This may not be fully be love, but it is a politics that draws on the wellsprings and habits of ways in which love leads us to govern our self-assertion.

While I averred that Harvey's emphasis on thumos may not be altogether Straussian, perhaps I spoke too quickly. Thinking about this further, it may reflect Strauss's own bifurcation of "reason" and "revelation, or "Athens" and "Jerusalem." Athens was marked by a kind of manly assertion of human reason; Jerusalem is defined by a kind of submission to revealed truth and the dominion of the gods. While Strauss contended that reason could not refute revelation and that revelation could not finally refute the claims of reason, nevertheless Strauss's main interest and approach was philosophic, thereby suggesting a preference for, and belief in the superiority of, reason. Strauss recoginized in theory the equal claims of reason and revelation, but implied in fact - through his own approach - a preference for reason. So, it may be that Strauss and his students are inclined more toward a politics of assertion than a politics of humility. All that being said, perhaps a simple division of the knowledge between reason and revelation is not defensible, as the Catholic tradition maintains.

Tocqueville, yes, is a necessary corrective. A generation or more of Strauss's students have read Tocqueville's discussion of religion as purely functional - i.e., as inspired by the example of Machiavelli or Rousseau, not Pascal. Lawler is an exception in reading Tocqueville in the tradition of Pascal and Augustine (surprise - I think Lawler is right). Where would you submit that Mansfield and his students are situated on this continuum?

Anonymous said...

Very glad to hear more of your thinking, Pat (and you, Joe, as well). Like you, I have a day job, so I'll ponder Pat's meaty (I'll resist the temptation to say spirited-in-defense of humility) post, in the midst of various academic duties (and my swim) and get back later.
A few quickies: I totally agree with your paragraph #2.
I think Harvey needs to be connected with Strauss, but I think that there's always the danger of explaining the unknown or obscure by the even more unknown or obscure. (Although I made the connection first!) The differences between the two strike me more than the similarities. (A small indicator: it was pointed out to me many years ago that Harvey calls Burke a "political philosopher" in his Burke & Bolinbroke book, while Strauss never did. That's an expression of independence of judgment from rather early on.) Of course Harvey regularly expresses his deep debt(s) to Strauss, and not only in his Machiavelli work. But even there (in the Mach. work) I find differences of focus and emphasis.) I find Harvey to be a very distinctive sort of Straussian and, more importantly, philosopher. He merits acute study in his own right. Harvey, I believe, is a philosopher; he has chosen to be a political philosopher, which means his access to nature or the whole is through politics and the political animal and the human soul. He himself is very much a political animal, and thus has a special attunement to his "data." (As Aristotle taught us, being a political animal means that one is both concerned with the noble and the just things and with logos.) I think he is fascinated with/by the human soul and wants to take care of the soul under modern democratic (and scientistic) circumstances. Aren't we all so fascinated? Aren't we all so inclined? How he specifically and personally does so is the $64,000 question!
#3: on the Tocqueville and Straussians (the genus) and Mansfieldians (species) front: Dan Mahoney, Jim Ceaser, Ralph Hancock, me, Joe, Peter, Chris Kelly (and others of the BC theorists), others I'm forgetting, and our students all know the deep, soul-focused, Tocqueville of Pierre Manent. Heck, even Bill Allen said he read Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy. I think things are and have been improving since the early days of Straussianism (see below). Pierre and Harvey are good friends, so I'd be very surprised if Harvey's students don't hear about Pierre's Tocqueville work, one way or another. I know, for example, that Cliff Orwin - a Harvey student - knows Pierre's work, and Susan Shell - another - refers to it from time to time; Bill Kristol - yet another - knows Pierre (but doesn't show any indication of agreeing with or having learned from Pierre's Tocqueville, or anything else Pierre's written or said.). (As you can tell, I'm taking knowledge of Pierre's Tocqueville as a touchstone of "Pascalian (not Augustinian)" Tocqueville. Frankly, I do not find a Mansfield school or set of followers, so I find it hard to point to a politics of greatness crowd. (I think Bill Kristol got his from disgust and despair over the Clinton administration; not from Mansfield or Tocqueville.) You're right, though, an earlier generation of Straussians were improperly introduced to Tocqueville as such and on religion; the execrable Zetterbaum piece on Tocqueville in the Strauss-Cropsey reader is the sad relic of that earlier day. The Claremont people, of course, have a love-hate relationship with Tocqueville, because he left out the Declaration and natural rights and therefore doesn't know the one thing most needful about America. But in general, I think that the Straussian world has largely moved on from the Tocqueville of the 60s and 70s.
Finally, Bob Kraynak has a superb piece on Harvey's thought, which came out in the festscrift devoted to Harvey (published by Rowman & Littlefield) - about the same time as the festschrift in honor of Carey came out. Maybe I'll get it out and reread it.
Gotta go!

Carl Scott said...

Great stuff, everyone. In response to Joe's quickies, I see in the Jefferson Lecture an attempt by HCM to say that the thumotic appropriation of one's own can most easily expand to the political level when a small community is involved, as every gang member knows. Something similar was said by Carey Wilson McWilliams about the interaction of the senses with a sensible polis. Y'all can tell me how eros and fraternity fit with that, or not. As to Paul's second comment, a Republic (book eight) "wrinkle" I would add, is that however the Good really is, most humans are guided most of the time by regime-specific goods, which are precisely pieces of the Good that have been erected and overblown by dastardly ole thumos.