Harvard scholar sheds light on Machiavelli

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Mansfield elaborates on the idea of ‘effectual truth’ 

 Clare Myers, Staff Writer

 

Declaring that people today are “too impressed” by a vital part of Machiavelli’s “The Prince” might seem like a bold move.

But in his lecture on Friday, that is just what Dr. Harvey Mansfield did.

The Harvard professor and world-renowned scholar, who has produced influential studies on thinkers such as Machiavelli and Edmund Burke, to name a few, visited the University of Dallas and gave a presentation entitled “Machiavelli’s Veritá Effetuale.” Mansfield expounded on the political philosopher’s idea of “effectual truth,” which, according to Mansfield, is really the heart of the message of “The Prince.”

“Machiavelli used the phrase, ‘effectual truth’ just once in his writings. Yet it is not only the basis of his morality and politics, but also of his philosophy.  From this phrase emerged modern epistemology and the discovery of ‘fact.’”

Machiavelli’s invention and use of this term represents a significant shift toward the modern way of thinking, according to Mansfield.

Mansfield lectured on Machiavelli’s political and philosophical perspectives this past Friday. -Photo by Peter Sampson
Mansfield lectured on Machiavelli’s political and philosophical perspectives this past Friday.
-Photo by Peter Sampson

Before Machiavelli, most thinkers focused on the question of what it meant to be good. The ancient philosophers examined the world in the context of “imagined truth,” or a virtuous ideal. Machiavelli recognized that man would never reach that ideal in this world and chose to base his political theories on practical necessity instead.

This emphasis on “a world of sense, a world of fact,” as Mansfield put it, was a revolutionary way of thinking that essentially ushered in the modern way of understanding the world.

Yet Mansfield ended his lecture with the assertion that “we are altogether too much impressed by effectual truth.” In the talk, he questioned the assumption that all truth is effectual truth, pointing out Machiavelli’s rejection of higher truths such as Christianity.

After the hour-long presentation, which was co-sponsored by the politics department and the Braniff School of Liberal Arts, Mansfield stayed at the podium for a 30-minute question-and-answer session.

He took several questions from the audience, an engaged assortment of undergraduates, graduate students and professors that nearly filled Gorman A. Although it was a bit difficult for many in the room to hear the soft-spoken professor, his answers often drew a reaction from the crowd, from head nods to chuckles.

“He clearly knows a lot,” junior politics major Mike Pitstick, who attended the lecture, said.“I’m happy UD was able to bring in such a notable political theorist.”

Mansfield is indeed notable, for, in addition to being a well-respected Harvard professor and prolific author, he has produced popular translations of Machiavelli texts such as “The Prince” and “Discourses on Livy.”

Despite his busy life, this is not the first time he has come to Irving. He has a close relationship with UD professor and fellow Machiavelli expert Dr. Leo Paul de Alvarez, whom he acknowledged at the beginning of his presentation. Mansfield has visited UD several times, including in 1984 as the McDermott lecturer.

He expressed his appreciation for the responsiveness of the audience and added that he enjoys coming to UD. “The students are the […] bright ones [as always],” he said. “It’s like coming home.”

The politics department has announced that it will make a video recording of the event available online.

 

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