The Force Behind Modernity

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 are the major forces behind modernity?

Harvey Mansfield: The most influential forces have been philosophical. And I … and I would say the modern philosophers who first conceived and began this thing we call modernity, this revolutionary thing we call modern. And it’s also thinkers who have had second thoughts about modernity. So the original modern thinkers are people like Machiavelli and Hobbes and Locke and de Carte. But then there are those who came along later like Rousseau and Neitzsche who had second thoughts about modernity, and who formulated was is known today as “post modern” – post modern thought or behavior. I really do think that thought or philosophy is at the center of human life, even though not everything we do is directed by thought. And that … and that’s because the … the … the stupid things that we do are still inspired by some notion – some stupid notion perhaps – which has a notion to the early and classic and original thinking that was done by the great thinkers. So I really do believe in the power of ideas, and the fact of trickle down from the top.

Recorded on: 6/13/07