reviewed by Gerald J. Russello
With his talk of “manly men” and women as “the weaker sex,” Harvey Mansfield no doubt intends to stir up debate about how we think about men and women. Lawrence Summers’s remarks about women in science demonstrate that discussing what we know, and do not know, about men and women remains an ideological minefield.
Mansfield, long a professor of government at Harvard and no stranger to intellectual combat, asserts in this brilliant, idiosyncratic, and needed book that “our gender-neutral society needs to readopt the distinction between public and private that is characteristic of liberalism. . . . In public it should not permit sex stereotypes to operate; in private it should admit that they are true.” He mounts a defense of manliness against a society that has determined—against logic and experience—that there are no differences between men and women.
Virtues of Manliness
But, of course, there are differences. Books like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus explain what most people know without being told: Men and women think and act differently. And a growing body of work in several disciplines, from biology to neurology, has confirmed these commonsense observations about sex.
This research occurs amid increased concern about sexual differences. The radical rejection of traditional “gender roles” in the 1960s and 1970s has itself largely been repudiated, but its legacy has been significant cultural damage and a loss of moral bearings, the extent of which is just now being widely realized. How we perceive men and women is at the center of a number of crucial issues, from how we raise our children to economic issues, such as how we prioritize work over family, and whether certain work is more appropriate to one sex or the other.
What is manliness, for Mansfield? It is a characteristic (not limited only to men, but found mostly there) that “seeks and welcomes drama and prefers times of war, conflict, and risk. . . . Manliness is the next to last resort, before resignation and prayer.” It is assertive in its own interests, aggressive, not exactly rational, and as likely to be selfish as selfless.
Mansfield is no blind cheerleader for the more brutish aspects of manliness, but he wants us to see the whole picture. Against the vision of some feminists, for example, that manliness is a negative force fit only to be restrained, he argues for its virtues.
For example, manliness indicates assertiveness, and moreover, it tends to be assertiveness for a cause: Manly men hold their lives cheap when honor is at stake. Manly men assert their interests over others; sometimes, as Mansfield indicates, this can be done through brute force. But manly men also communicate the causes for their actions with one another. These causes need to be articulated through reason, and hence, manliness is the progenitor of politics.
This assertive defense of manliness is aimed, first, at those who might be called “gender neutralists,” who deny any differences between the sexes, and, second, at the Darwinists, who, Mansfield argues, do not really understand what drives manly behavior.
In a chapter entitled “Manliness as Stereotype,” Mansfield argues that Darwin rightly identified gendered behavior as natural, but he fell short in understanding manliness because evolutionary theory confuses individual men with men in general. Darwinian manliness is “totally unheroic; it is so functional that it does not have to be controlled or educated. It could better be understood as a loss of manliness,” because it has no purpose. Darwinism, in other words, cannot explain what makes a man act like a man.
Mansfield next takes on several important feminist theorists (Stanton, de Beauvoir, Greer, and Firestone among them) who exemplify what he calls “womanly nihilism,” the desire to eliminate women’s essential nature and the refusal to recognize manliness (even in women). This is a dead end, because the two options radical feminism has offered, either to lower women to the worst elements of manliness, or to deny women’s natural differences, cannot last and have no appeal to actual women.
Despite these defects, however, feminism has had strong effects on liberal political culture, specifically on the creation of a “genderless” public sphere. This may have been to some degree laudable, and Mansfield himself sees it as a worthy achievement, but the public denial of sexual difference has caused a similar denial in private life. This idea, that men and women can act as if their sex makes no difference, even in relationships between them, has forced itself uncomfortably on how men and women interact, with disastrous results.
The Christian Man
Manliness covers works from The Iliad to William James, Aristotle to Nietzsche, but at times it ranges too widely, becoming more of a run-on ramble than an argument. Despite its range, the obvious lacuna in Mansfield’s account is religion, specifically Christianity. He discusses religion in passing, but the discussion is left incomplete.
He argues, for example, that the Homeric age of heroes actually had a more limited view of manliness than we do. The gods in Greek myths served to place all humans, even the heroes, at the same level; that is, all were equally distant from the gods, whose conduct and behavior could not be emulated or appeased, only endured. Modern writers such as Hemingway, however, who depict men bereft of faith, can only make this-worldly distinctions. Their manly men live across an unbridgeable gap from the weak and unmanly. This understanding of manliness makes compassion of the manly man for those not like him almost impossible.
Mansfield should have gone further than he does, however, because if true of Greek religion and manliness, his insight is even more true of Christianity. However, he follows a school of thought beginning with the political theorist Leo Strauss, who tends to create a dichotomy between the classics and modernity and tends to skip over the Christian tradition almost completely.
Christianity has had the greatest effect in the West on conditioning and explaining manliness, and the Man at the center of that faith is perhaps the most widely emulated example of manliness. Chivalry and politics both developed from biblical injunction and Christian tradition, and both defined very sharply what constituted proper manly behavior.
That is to say, a Christian man, among other things, must show compassion for the weak, and indeed agree to give up his life for them, even if that means dying an unmanly death, because he recognizes in them the spark of divine creation. Similarly, a Christian man knows that he must act in ways pleasing to Christ, who is not only a fellow Man but Lord and God.
In an age when it is considered normal for women to fight in combat, yet also for men to spend hours playing video games of the most violent and desensitizing type, we have lost our bearings on what we expect from one another as men and women. Some flaws aside, Manliness reminds us that we forget the reality of sexual difference at our peril.
Gerald J. Russello is editor of The University Bookman (www.isi.org/journals/university_bookman.html)
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“Pale Male” first appeared in the May 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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