Such vices, we were told, would retard our growth into men—at least the sort of men the school could be proud of having produced—and make us allies to a decidedly unmanly culture of permissiveness and moral relativism. If we ever hoped to be “men of substance,” instead of mere products of our decade, we’d have to cut our hair, find Jesus, and get to class on time.
“Manliness,” the new book by Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53, is a lot like one of my biology teacher’s harangues, but with footnotes.
Drawing upon common sense and selected works from the Western canon, Mansfield defends the old school notion of manliness against the endless deconstruction of post-modern philosophy and the soulless analysis of science.
On its face, Mansfield’s project seems awfully platitudinous: how much elucidation does traditional manliness really require? Haven’t we all seen enough John Wayne movies to know what its basic features are?
But “Manliness” skirts irrelevance by positing itself as a response to the current trend towards a gender-neutral society. Mansfield convincingly argues that the gender-neutrality revolution represents an unprecedented shift in human social organization: no society before our own has so programmatically sought to eliminate gender as a criterion for determining occupation and social role.
This makes the issue of manliness all the more salient because the gender-neutral society tends to dismiss it as incompatible with its ideals. Mansfield warns that male nature—the product of eons of evolution—cannot be put aside in a single generation. Moreover, he makes the case that manliness is worth keeping around for the good that it produces.
Mansfield’s definition of manliness, “confidence in the face of risk,” explains why men are disproportionately likely to be leaders, pioneers, and heroes. The manly man does not hesitate to command authority in times of crisis, venture into the unknown, or put his life on the line in defense of a cause. In its most sublime form, manliness becomes philosophical courage, or the willingness to challenge dogma with new formulations of truth. Women are not incapable of manifesting these traits—Mansfield cites Margaret Thatcher as an example of the “manly woman”—but it is overwhelmingly “the attribute of one sex.”
In the spirit of intellectual honesty, Mansfield also considers the dark side of manliness. He observes that both the Sept. 11 terrorists and New York’s first responders acted manfully on that day. The hijackers exhibited manliness by forfeiting their lives in defense of their belief system. But New York’s firemen, paramedics, and police officers acted no less manfully as they undertook perilous, and often fatal, rescue missions in defense of the people of New York.
This tragic episode causes Mansfield to wonder whether manliness is, ultimately, only valuable as an antidote to the problems that it creates. This is a philosophical conundrum for which Mansfield does not seem to have a clear answer. He recommends that manliness be given “employment” in productive human enterprise so that its destructive impulses are curtailed, but he cannot imagine a solution to the problem of excessive or misdirected manliness.
Ultimately, Mansfield does not endeavor to resolve the paradox of manliness, only to defend its virtues to a generation that he fears might otherwise consign it to the rubbish heap.
The problem is that the arguments he advances, though trenchant, aren’t new. You’ve heard them all before, probably from one of your fogeyish high school teachers. If you weren’t paying attention then, there’s little chance you’ll tune in now.
—Reviewer Bernard L. Parham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Harvey C. Mansfield
Yale University Press