A Strauss Primer, With Glossy Mansfield Finish

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Ever since the Iraq war began to go badly, there have been dark mutterings about a political philosophy called Straussianism that is supposedly the mysterious intellectual force behind everything the Bush administration does. Paul Wolfowitz, the former Defense Department official and current World Bank president, is called a Straussian, as is William Kristol, the conservative pundit who argued vociferously for war.

Last night at the Warner Theatre, Harvey Mansfield, considered a dean among Straussians, gave the Jefferson Lecture, the National Endowment for the Humanities' annual bash that has brought luminaries such as Tom Wolfe and David McCullough to Washington. An esteemed professor who has held forth on political science at Harvard for more than 40 years and the author of a book titled "Manliness," Mansfield is a master scholar on the big names of political thought -- Plato and Machiavelli among them -- who were the wellsprings of Leo Strauss's cantankerous worldview. His speech, the first intellectually substantial Jefferson Lecture since the tenure of NEH Chairman Bruce Cole began in 2001, was complex, elliptical, erudite and wry.

Much nonsense has been written on Strauss's political thought -- often caricatured as crudely anti-democratic, obsessed with secret meanings and in love with white lies told by powerful men to keep the rabble in line. Some have suggested a dark cabal of Straussian intellectuals secretly pull the strings of the Bush administration -- which is ridiculous: The mistakes and false suppositions that led us into the Iraq war are all on the record and understanding them requires no supplemental speculation about ulterior motives or conspiracy theories.

Still, it was bracing to see a major Straussian in action. Mansfield is a dapper man, physically trim and always well dressed. When he speaks, he divides almost every sentence into two parts, then markedly emphasizes the last word of each phrase, as if unable to break the habit of 40 years of lecturing to dozing undergraduates. He smiles when he says something provocative, like a boy tweaking his elders. The delivery was so genial, so good-natured, that it required close attention to his prepared text to realize how radical he is.

Mansfield argued that standard political science does a very poor job of understanding thumos -- the Greek term generally translated as "spiritedness" but with suggestions of ambition, pride and brute willfulness as well. This is a popular topic of Mansfield, whose "Manliness" is really a long defense of thumos.

On the surface -- Straussians love surface narratives that hide more obscure ones -- Mansfield was hammering away at the dry abstractions of science, as opposed to the nuance of the humanities. He had special scorn for new forms of political science that are quantitative or analytical. He prefers the old men, a noble lineage of great thinkers disagreeing and disputing all the way back to Socrates and beyond.

Politics, argued Mansfield, is not some dry, economic contest of rational interests. There is a good deal of beautiful irrationality in it, too, the kind of irrationality that leads men to die for causes larger than themselves, to identify with groups and ideals even at the expense of their immediate self-interest. "Politics is about what makes you angry, not so much about what you want," he said.

Anyone who has spent time listening to the perfervid displays of loud thumos on cable television or talk radio will agree that Mansfield has an important observation about the way political discourse transpires. But he isn't just describing the politics of thumos; he admires it, too. His speech was essentially a paean to a Homeric worldview, a fantasy of great men striving for great things, adding their names to the roll call of history. Rather like Tom Wolfe, who argued last year that the world boils down to a savage desire for status, Mansfield argues that it boils down to a never-ending contest to make others submit to your partisan view of the good, all deriving, ultimately, from thumos, the force that connects our base needs to our intellect, and unites men in factions to seek power.

He says of the civil rights and women's movements that "they were initiated not for the sake of gaining benefits but to gain equal honor and respect."

So it wasn't about getting lynched or having no choice but to send your kids to inadequate segregated schools. The leaders of the civil rights movement were just out for honor.

"Dissed," Mansfield noted dryly, is "a word invented by blacks to designate the feeling of being disrespected." Cue the impish smile.

And thumos, we might add, is a word reinvented by conservative academics who need to put a fancy name on a political philosophy that boils down to "boys will be boys." Francis Fukuyama, the author of "The End of History and the Last Man," was going on at length about thumos -- he spelled it thymos -- 15 years ago, when he worried that with the end of communism our manliness was likely to wither under the burdensome weight of peace and prosperity.

Mansfield's speech might be seen as a quaint little academic exercise -- hark back to the Greeks, take a few gibes at complaining minorities, work in an obscure and cryptic reference to pop culture, and end with a suggestion of even bigger questions unanswered ("Have I left out love? The answer is yes, I have"). But there is something rumbling beneath it that needs to be taken desperately seriously.

Not quite a week ago, Mansfield wrote an astonishing defense of executive power for the Wall Street Journal, a defense that went way beyond the standard argument that sometimes, when in peril, a republic needs a strong leader who may suspend some traditional liberties.

"The case for a strong executive begins from urgent necessity," he wrote, "and extends to necessity in the sense of efficacy and even greatness." Unpack that and you have an argument for suspending civil liberties not just in the sense of martial law, but pretty much any time a strong, impetuous leader -- stoked to the gills with thumos -- deems it efficient and, more frightening, conducive to enlarging his historical reputation.

So thumos is no quaint philosophical idea borrowed from Plato and dusted off for the humanities crowd at the Jefferson Lecture. It is the underlying sense behind an almost nihilistic view of politics as the plaything of great men, a form of play that is more exhilarating and interesting and compelling to scholars such as Mansfield than the rusty old rule of law that might constrain greatness.

He didn't mention the war, which is the big embarrassment to proponents of manliness and powerful executives and especially to neoconservatives (who adore Mansfield). It is the elephant in the room at every gathering of conservative intellectuals today, the thing that threatens to undo all their arguments and credibility. Mansfield, who defines manliness as the willingness to accept, even welcome, big risks, had nothing to say on the biggest gamble in recent American history. A strange omission.

But even though his argument was made with his trademark unflappable intellectual calm, it also had a hint of desperation -- an argument showing signs of strain as the evidence arrayed against it mounts to crushing proportions. Plato once compared thumos to a dog that defends its master, a metaphor that suggests the passion of a cornered animal. Call it whatever you like, manliness, thumos, Straussianism, the worldview of boyish battle and braggadocio is looking awfully dangerous in light of recent events. It takes a lot of thumos to keep arguing for thumos these days.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company