The Common Good

Harvey C. Mansfield, William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Government, studies and teaches political philosophy. He has written on Edmund Burke and the nature of political parties, on Machiavelli and the invention of indirect government, in defense of a defensible liberalism and in favor of a Constitutional American political science. He has also written on the discovery and development of the theory of executive power, and has translated three books of Machiavelli’s and (with the aid of his wife) Tocqueville's Democracy in America. His book on manliness has just been published. He was Chairman of the Government Department from 1973-1977, has held Guggenheim and NEH Fellowships, and has been a Fellow at the National Humanities Center. He won the Joseph R. Levenson award for his teaching at Harvard, received the Sidney Hook Memorial award from the National Association of Scholars, and in 2004 accepted a National Humanities Medal from the President.  He has hardly left Harvard since his first arrival in 1949, and has been on the faculty since 1962.

  • Transcript


Question: What is the common good?

Harvey Mansfield: Describing the common good the way we can all understand is … is perhaps not easy; but it … it .… it would be something that … that is above the parties, but not so far above the parties that the parties wouldn’t understand what you’re saying. So it would be something that would take into consideration, say, what both liberals and conservatives typically argue and give them … give each of them something to accept or believe in. And also something to learn or get used to. That, I think, is the common good. And so you can see that the common good is very rarely practiced or made obvious in politics. Only perhaps at certain moments. For example, at the beginning of the war where everyone sees that this is an urgent challenge. But the common good isn’t confined to what is urgent. It’s also what is most important in the long run. And that most people don’t see because they look through partisan lenses. Well, we have something of that in our country. The American founding is a political way that was set down for the long term good. And I think both parties now look to the Constitution as embodying, or at least making possible, the common good. Of course each of them has favorite parts of the Constitution. And those favorite parts change according to the political situation at the moment. So that’s not a complete answer, but I … I do think that American had a founding. And a found is something where the common good is especially in view. And there are people who are thinking about that instead of immediate political advantage.

Recorded on: 6/13/07