Political scientist Harvey Mansfield, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard, will travel to Washington, D.C., in May to deliver the 2007 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
The lecture, in place since 1972 and accompanied by a $10,000 honorarium, is the most prestigious honor bestowed by the federal government for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.
Mansfield ’53, Ph.D. ’61 — a prolific writer, editor, and political commentator — joins a select group of scholars and artists so honored. Previous Jefferson Lecturers include Lionel Trilling (the first, 35 years ago), Robert Penn Warren, Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman, Walker Percy, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, Arthur Miller, Helen Vendler, and (last year) novelist Tom Wolfe.
“It’s awe inspiring,” said Mansfield of the company he is in, adding that he was informed of the honor several months ago. The NEH just announced it.
In naming this year’s honoree, NEH chairman Bruce Cole praised Mansfield in a written statement. “With a distinguished career of thoughtful — and thought-provoking — discourse on political theory and higher education, Harvey Mansfield has captivated his readers and students with the strength of his convictions and the depth of his courage. This prolific author and engaging teacher offers a truly distinctive perspective on political thought and practice.”
Three of the last six honorees, Mansfield included, are members of the Harvard faculty. In 2002, the lecture was delivered by literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. In 2004, the lecture was delivered by poetry scholar Helen Vendler, the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor.
Mansfield will present the Jefferson Lecture at 7:30 p.m. May 8 at the Warner Theatre, a performing arts venue close to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. His topic is “How to Understand Politics: What the Humanities Can Say to Science.”
In the lecture, Mansfield will look at thumos, a concept in ancient Greek that conveys the idea of “spiritedness,” and the depth of emotion and desire that underlies the basic human need for recognition. Thumos is more important to understanding politics than power or self interest, said Mansfield. “It’s what is excited when you are angry, and also when you are ashamed of yourself.” Thumos can turn anger at a slight into a principle that ultimately informs a political movement — like feminism, he said, admitting that part of his lecture will “shade into my book on manliness.”
Mansfield will also advance a novel idea: Why not enrich the study of politics by requiring its students to read more literature? It would put “proper names” back into political discourse, he said, and counteract a tendency among political scientists to define society and institutions as abstractions. “You don’t live in them,” Mansfield said of abstractions. “You live in America.” He offered, for instance, that Mark Twain’s 1889 fantasy “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” illuminates the idea of a capitalist manager or entrepreneur. Shakespeare, too, said Mansfield, “has a wonderful political understanding.”
Mansfield has no plans yet to reprise his Jefferson Lecture at Harvard, as Vendler did in 2004.
His many books include “Manliness” (2006) and “A Student’s Guide to Political Philosophy” (2001). Mansfield was translator, with Delba Winthrop, of “Democracy in America,” by Alexis de Tocqueville (2000).
Mansfield’s political analysis has appeared in The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, The New Republic, the Claremont Review of Books, The American Enterprise, The Chronicle of Higher Education, National Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and numerous academic journals.
Among Mansfield’s many awards and honors are a Guggenheim Fellowship (1970-71), an NEH Fellowship (1974-75), the Joseph R. Levenson Teaching Award (1993), the Sidney Hook Memorial Award (2002), and the National Humanities Medal (2004).