The Magazine

Democracy and Greatness

The education Americans need.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Though social scientists would hate to admit it, social science is still a form of Social Darwinism which suffers from the attempt to explain the evolution of man by a principle, the principle of survival, that is manifestly untrue to the facts of human life, and above all to human greatness. Any education that wants to appreciate greatness would have to be critical of social science.

Modern democracy is envious of great men insofar as it is egalitarian. Even if great men have humble origins, they still belong to the few rather than the many. But to a surprising degree, by virtue of the now almost universal constitutional structure that incorporates executive power, modern democracy depends on one-person rule. American democracy especially welcomes great presidents when they appear and honors them after they die. To Americans, such presidents validate the wisdom of the Founders in endowing them with an office that permits them, calls them forth, to be great. Great presidents remind us Americans of the greatness of our Founders. Any American education in greatness could begin by appealing to the admiration most of us already have for those who initiated the society we now enjoy. I know, of course, that such an appeal is not as easy as it ought to be. It must overcome or bypass the denigration of the Founders by the social scientists, today's version of the democratic historians, enemies of greatness, that Tocqueville warned against.

When we think today of the perils of democratic self-esteem, the focus is on the claim for unearned praise endorsed by doting educationists. Behind the claim lies the democratic dogma, as Tocqueville calls it, that each person is sufficiently competent to run his own life. That dogma may contain more than a little vanity. But what of the opposite case of a great man who deserves more than the esteem he can get from a democracy? "Towering genius disdains a beaten path," said Lincoln in his Lyceum speech. The desire for distinction in a great man represents a threat to the established institutions of a democratic republic. Yet it is not likely that a democracy is going to express its gratitude to such a person for not overthrowing it--any more than a man will thank his guest for not raping his wife. Thus the great man in a democracy must show his modesty in noble condescension to his fellow citizens, as he must consider them. Lincoln did this, and so did George Washington, whose name Lincoln recommended to be revered "to the last."

It does no good to recommend reverence to an audience of college students, but you can perhaps show them good reason for reverence. You can be grateful for what great men have done for our country and at the same time take note, at least, of what they have refrained from doing. We democrats need to know that democracy has both a towering need and a limited appetite for greatness.

Harvey Mansfield is a professor of government at Harvard University and the author of Manliness. This article is based on an address he delivered to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni earlier this fall.