Mansfield: Ambivalent Theorist?

A Review of Taming the Prince, by Harvey Mansfield.

Harvey Mansfield’s book Taming the Prince comes at an important point in the development of political theory. We live in a society that unthinkingly accepts the realities of realpolitik and the existence of political necessity without embracing the full implications of these theories. Following the democratic trend in Western culture, the people of many developed constitutional societies are uncomfortable with several aspects of Machiavelli’s political theory. In what is perhaps a cunning example of Machiavellian subterfuge and ambivalence, Mansfield “tames” Machiavelli for the democratic era and regime. It is in this way that Mansfield preserves the essential nature of Machiavelli’s prince, as applied to the modern executive, while necessarily obscuring those portions less palatable to a modern democratic tradition.

Mansfield correctly argues that Machiavelli’s recognition of the necessity of executive power founded in uno solo was the watershed point in the development of the executive authority. Specifically, Machiavelli founded the belief that necessity guides a prince, ambivalence is his shelter, and he should be a single man who does more than merely carry out the law. As such, Mansfield recognizes that prior to Machiavelli’s arrival on the theoretical scene there was no clear notion of the executive as we speak of it today. Mansfield gives a very detailed and studied analysis of Machiavelli’s core principles, as well as the evolution of these ideas over time.

Mansfield begins by summarizing the role of the executive in political theory before Machiavelli. Ultimately he concludes that any current concept of executive authority cannot stem from such philosophers as Plato and Aristotle, as they do not speak to anything resembling the modern executive. The closest thing being Aristotle’s “offices,” Mansfield writes “[t]his is the part of the regimes in Aristotle’s schema corresponding to the modern executive power, but his offices lack the unity at the top embodied in the single modern executive.” (58)

Once Machiavelli had discovered the role of a single executive, Mansfield argues that the taming process began. This process as described by Mansfield is one by which gradually the responsibilities of the executive increased. In Machiavelli’s estimation, the only true responsibilities the executive had were to continue his principality and to be bound to necessity. Once Hobbes entered the scene though, the executive gained the requirement that he protect his people from dying a violent and untimely death. This is a small departure from Machiavelli, however, Locke brings a very different responsibility to the executive. By constitutionalizing the executive, Locke necessarily constrains the executive to a set number of powers, imposing upon him certain responsibilities. To formalize the executive power completely is to rob him of his strength, but to codify at least some of his powers is necessary to prevent unchecked abuse. This is one more step along the evolutionary process of modernizing and taming the Machiavellian executive.

Proceeding on from Locke’s constitutionalism, Mansfield directs the reader’s attention to Montesquieu’s moderation of the executive. “Montesquieu presents classical virtue, not any modern institution, as the executive power of government. This would presumably be a tame, subordinate executive if it worked at all, but would it?” (223) Montesquieu focuses on republican virtue as the power from which executive authority stems. This theory of executive as mouthpiece of the people’s will or virtue ultimately completely democratizes the executive under Montesquieu. “The executive has become one partisan representative of the people—no longer is it a nonpartisan, discretionary check on legislative will, as in Locke.” (246) Ultimately, Montesquieu’s virtue argument does not pose the answer for Mansfield, in that it moderates the executive too much, replacing necessity and power with virtue and republican will.

Mansfield argues the executive came of age in the American Founding. Here the benefits of the previous interpretations of executive power were brought together. Constitutionalism and republicanism were balanced so that the executive has a clear role and responsibility, but can act outside it to preserve the spirit of the law. The executive serves more than his own interests, yet is independent of the people. According to Mansfield, the Founders created an energetic executive who posed little threat to liberty. “Yet if energy is not virtue, in the American Constitution energy leads to virtue.” (267)

Once the executive has been firmly developed from Machiavelli, the next step is to put his advice into action. Mansfield argues that the theorists and practitioners who followed Machiavelli have correctly moderated the rougher corners of Machiavelli’s prince, until we are left with the modern executive, as clearly embodied in the American president. It is in this argument that Mansfield out does Machiavelli himself. The essential nature of Machiavelli’s executive is preserved in Mansfield’s “tamed” ambivalent executive. Machiavelli’s advice to the Medici was clearly intended as candid advice from a political observer. Because of this Machiavelli is unashamed of portraying his executive “warts and all,” knowing that those reading his epistle would be in a position to appreciate that the true nature of realpolitk was meant for their eyes only. Mansfield however, is writing for a modern democratic audience, and thus cannot be as open about the necessities of executive power, so he resorts to arguing quite persuasively that one needn’t worry, Machiavelli’s prince has been tamed by having percolated through several centuries of political theorists.

By arguing the Machiavelli’s prince has been tamed, Mansfield obscures the fact that all the ambiguity and necessity that is vital to Machiavelli’s prince have been preserved for the modern executive. In doing so, he makes the Machiavellian prince not only relevant to a democratic age, but also politically feasible in such a time. So ultimately, all the executive has lost is the ability to be open about what it is he does. Mansfield shows that through the recognition of necessity the single executive can address the problems and exigencies that arise, issues to which a legislative body cannot adequately respond. But he also demonstrates that by ordering the concept of the executive within a constitutional republican system, the executive avoids the criticisms which face Machiavelli’s prince.

(Originally Completed for Presidency class with Dr. Robert Stacey. R.I.P Presidency, Spring 2006.)


Popular posts from this blog

American Superheroes - Played by Brits

Jaffa Versus Mansfield

It's all right, You can all sleep sound tonight