Essays in honor of harvey mansfield

Modern biology saves lives, but the old biology understands those lives better.

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The notion of thumos reminds us of our animality because it is visible to the naked eye when we observe animals. Modern biology uses the microscope and uncovers chemical and neurological counterparts to thumos , which actually distract us from analysis of the behavior they are meant to explain.

We rest satisfied when we have pronounced the word testosterone and fail to observe as carefully as old-fashioned naked-eye science. Sociobiology reduces the human to the animal instead of observing how the animal becomes human. Thumos shows that we are self-important animals. Having eliminated the soul, modern science cannot understand the body in its most important aspect, which is its capacity for self-importance.


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Modern biology, particularly the theory of evolution, is based on the overriding concern for survival in all life. This is surely wrong in regard to human life. If you cannot look around you and must insist on indulging a taste for the primitive, you have only to visit the ruins of an ancient people and ponder how much of its wealth was devoted to religion, to its sense of the meaning of human life rather than mere survival. Coming to religion, we arrive in the realm of what is particular and individual. Science and religion are nowhere more opposed than in regard to human importance.

Religion declares for the importance of humans and seeks to specify what it is. According to Christianity, men are not God, but God came to men as a man, and man was made in the image of God, the only such among the creatures of the world. A Christian is humble, but he takes pride in his humility. Although one can speak of religion generally as I am doing, religion is always a particular religion; a sociological view of its function misstates that function by making religion too general.

Every religion has a distinct view of a personal God or gods who take special care of men, keeping us on track and serving as particular guarantors of human importance. Philosophers in the eighteenth century, skeptical of religion but willing to acknowledge its power, came up with deism, the idea of God without God, caring for the universe without caring for you. True religion shows its concern for the human species by addressing individual human beings.

S trange to say, the study of religion and of human biology could learn from each other. In defending like a dog for its master, thumos defends something higher than itself. When the lower in us defends the higher in us, it exacts a price. The price is partiality to whatever is our own, a human imperfection we can never quite escape. The advantage, however, is that we can respect the importance of the human species through the defense each of us displays for himself. Self-defense in thumos is a guarantee of the bond between what is lower in us and what is higher, between the all-too-human and the divine.

The bond is mutual, and it ensures that the higher is connected to the lower, as God is not the universal goal of humanity without also being the salvation for each individual and each people. Science for its part speaks against the special importance of any object of science, including human beings, and in the theory of evolution it seeks to erode the difference between human beings and other animals.

The study of primates aims at this goal with particular relish. Hardly a day passes without a breathless science article in the press delivering to our waiting ears a fresh resemblance of chimp to man.

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But the discovery of chimpanzee religion has not yet been reported. Chimps receive names from human beings with equanimity but do not give themselves names.


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These are items yet to come in the imputed progress of chimpanzee civilization. Their greatest triumph, however, will be the achievement of science. For science, according to science, ought to be the most important attribute of human beings. Modern science especially seems to represent the control of our environment, of nature.

To be sure, science as opposed to religion recognizes nothing sacred either outside man or within him. But, collectively, science is the assertion of man over non-man, surely an unembarrassed claim to importance and rule. Yet, as individuals, scientists are anonymous factors in the scientific enterprise, each one substitutable for another.

For all science cares, scientists could as well be numbered as named. We in the humanities will summon up the generosity to give them names.

Every human being has his own name, distinguishing him from all other human beings except for the many Joneses and Kims. This is a fact by which we indicate that each of us is important as each. We are not necessarily equally important, but our importance is judged as we are individuals. Individuals do belong to groups or classes; still, they too have names, such as Red Sox Nation or Phi Beta Kappa, indicating their individuality. If we want to understand human behavior, especially the particular insistence on human individuality that we see in the quality of thumos , we must come to terms with human names.

We must not merely regard them as embarrassments to be abstracted from, suppressed, and forgotten, as standing for idiosyncrasies that distract us from the main point, which is the laws determining what we do, the generalities we resort to when we cannot establish laws. H aving considered the importance of human importance, and how it makes us individuals, we may now compare science and literature.

Let me propose that literature and science have the same aim of finding and telling the truth; but, obviously, literature also seeks to entertain. Although some of the greatest works of science are well written, science finds its elegance in mathematics and not in the charm of a good story well told. The social sciences are in a special difficulty because they cover the same field of human behavior as literature.

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As sciences, they must claim to improve upon the prejudice and superstition of common sense and are therefore compelled to restate the language of common sense, full of implication and innuendo, in irreproachable, blameless scientific prose innocent of bias or any other subtlety. In response, the name common sense gives to this sort of talk is jargon. Science is required to be replicable in principle to everyone; so it speaks directly and without concealment, thus in mathematics as much as possible.

In practice, unfortunately, lack of mathematics in the public and lack of communication skills an example of jargon in scientists leaves the latter dependent on nonscientist publicists to inform the public and, not incidentally, politicians of what science has found. These publicists usually have an ax to grind; and so science, despite its noble intent to rise above petty human partisanship, often becomes involved in it. Literature, besides seeking truth, also seeks to entertain—and why is this? The reason is not so much that some people have a base talent for telling stories and cannot keep quiet.

The reason, fundamentally, is that literature knows something that science does not: the human resistance to hearing the truth. Science does not inform scientists of this basic fact, and most of them are too consistent in devotion to science to learn it from any source outside science, such as common sense. To overcome the resistance to truth, literature makes use of fictions that are images of truth. To understand the fictions requires interpretation, an operation that literature welcomes and science hates for the same reason—interpreters disagree.

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Science is unable to reach the major part of humanity except by providing us with its obvious benefits. Literature takes on the big questions of human life that science ignores—what to do about a boring husband, for example. Science studies the very small and the very large, surely material for drama but not exploited by science because, in its view, the measure of small and large is merely human.

Literature offers evidence for its insights from the observations of writers, above all from the judgment of great writers. These insights are replicable to readers according to their competence without the guarantee of the scientific method that what one scientist sends is the same as what another receives. While science aims at agreement among scientists, in literature as in philosophy the greatest names disagree with one another.

T he greatest names : Here is the last topic for understanding politics. Human greatness is the height of human importance, where the best that humans can do is tested, and it is the work of great individuals. To be great, one must become great, requiring an effort of ambition. Not everyone has that ambition; most of us are content with modest careers in safe niches, like tenured professors.

But we all feel ambition in our small ways; moreover, we know something of great ambition when admiring it. It may be hard to believe, but the political science of our day almost entirely ignores ambition. It is, for example, anxious over the problem of how to recover our spirit of civil engagement, but it looks mostly at what moves most people to vote, which it calls by the vague term participation. Ambition embarrasses our political science because ambition smacks of greatness; it is not average enough to be the object of a science that knows nothing of individuality, hence nothing of greatness.

Even the word great is unscientific because it is pretentious. But we human beings are animals with pretensions. My profession needs to open its eyes and admit to its curriculum the help of literature and history. It should be unafraid to risk considering what is ignored by science and may lack the approval of science. The humanities too, whose professors often suffer from a faint heart, need to recover their faith in what is individual and their courage to defend it. Thumos is not merely theoretical. To learn of it will improve your life as well as your thinking.

Altogether, thumos is one basis for a human science aware of the body but not bound to it, a science with soul and taught by poetry well interpreted.

Harvey Mansfield

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