The meaning of manliness

By Harvey C. Mansfield
279 pp | Yale University Press | ISBN-13:978-0-300-10664-0 | $27.50/£18
C.S. Lewis once declared that his favourite sound was that of men's laughter, from which one might surmise that those late-night pub sessions with rum chums such as J.R.R. Tolkien were symphonies for his soul. No dry academic debate for those dons of yore, but spirited discussion brightened with honest laughter: the issue of all hearty souls, but best amplified by manly voices.
Indeed, manliness and laughter -- specifically, humor -- are complementary virtues when well expressed. (A virtuous man is good; but a virtuous man with a sense of humour is jolly good.) Yet both are dangerous topics for critical examination.

For example, a good joke is a joy. But silence is preferable to explaining what makes humour work, which is why critics have shied away from giving P.G. Wodehouse his due as a gifted humourist. Try explaining Gussy Fink-Nottle and you get the picture. So it goes with manliness. Manly men are obvious, but it seems that only tedious academics try to explain what makes, say, John Wayne a manly man. (Tedious academics not a whit like the Duke, at that.)
So this reviewer read Harvey Mansfield's Manliness with hopeful trepidation -- in trepidation because of the aforementioned, but hopeful because Professor Mansfield is a rara avis in the academic birdcage: a manly man who is a gifted scholar and an outspoken conservative, at Harvard University no less. Now that's manly.

But Mansfield gives it the old college try, giving illuminating insights into an innate quality of character and soul that was accepted as natural until the topsy-turvy thinking of modern times.

"Man cannot stand too much reality," remarked T.S. Eliot. Neither can man stand too much unreality. The proponents of a "gender neutral" society may condemn manliness as a quality both artificially constructed and outright dangerous, as if brutal aggression and the oppression of women were its hallmarks. The impulse to manliness arising from nature, however, cannot be thwarted, as proved by a famous study that Mansfield does not cite: that of little boys who were given Barbie dolls with which to play, only to point them at one another as if they were guns and then pop off their heads. Like most trite sayings, it is true that boys will be boys.

But manliness can be abused, damned like a river that overflows into swamps: World Cup hooligans and lager louts, anyone? Also the "in your face" attitude of American inner-city youths who mistake violent aggression, a trait found in most male animals, with the manliness capable only of humans of the male sex. Drawing from science (especially Darwin, whom he shows to be damnably dangerous in the logical but wrong conclusions of Darwinism), literature, philosophy, and history from Homer to the manly heroes of the 9/11 attacks, Mansfield examines manliness through the ages. He shows that it is a quality innate to men in varying degrees, and in varying degrees refined through civilization, to the honour of men and the benefit of women, who complement men with their own unique virtues.

Yes, this book will rile so-called "gender feminists," who say they believe that sexual characteristics are not innate, though ironically betray their sex in their subtle tactics: "[T]he woman's movement in America, for all the power of its oratory, preferred to make its claims for justice with the much less assertive methods of raising consciousness and changing the language." But Mansfield is not misogynistic, nor are his arguments one-sided or easily summarized. The writings of the feminist Simone de Beauvoir, for example, are given more attention than they warrant, since the thrust of her thought was propelled by philosophers who happened to be men. And he dedicates the book to his wife and credits his many female students for their assistance in its publication.
True to form as one of the world's premier Straussian political philosophers, Mansfield shines most brilliantly in illuminating the perennial wisdom of Aristotle, whose examination of the behaviour of men and women confirms the truth that "nature is pliable as well as inescapable."

The challenge of civilization is to channel the impulses natural to men -- assertiveness and aggression, love of conflict, and the concomitant desire to impose order -- in hopeful directions, and then mould manliness in virtue. Mansfield makes his points through myriad examples, for "manliness exists only in its instances...[which] define it better than any definition." And his examples of manliness range from the good, through the bad, to the confused (especially Theodore Roosevelt). They even extend to women, who may exhibit manliness in a womanly fashion (see Margaret Thatcher). Too many women, however, operate under the delusion that the new and improved model for womanhood is imitating men at their worst, as a venture into today's youthful bar scene will confirm.

The chapter entitled "Manly Nihilism" showcases the Nazis as exemplars of bad manliness. Because nobody honestly can accuse Hitler and his henchmen of being, as California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger termed some of his own critics, "girly men", they must be explained, lest manliness be given a bad name. "The Third Reich's project for purging humanity of inferior races was manliness run amok, using vicious means to an impossible end. Manliness before a background of nihilism is too serious, sometimes much too serious, about itself and issues of moralism." While the Nazis deliberately rejected the patrimony of Christendom, a garden in which blossomed a superb sort of man -- the Christian gentleman -- they could not have existed without the ideas propagated by philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche. Though Mansfield convincingly explains that Nietzsche would not have been a Nazi, his nihilistic philosophy was manure for the fell flowers of National Socialism.

A pithy conclusion offers tips on living in a world in which manliness must be positively asserted, but under conditions forever changed by the women's movement and its far-ranging effects. These, ironically, were accommodated by the "patriarchy", those men of power who misapplied good manners in deference to the wrong women (an attitude perpetuated by tired old Marxists who deny sexual identity and hate such oppressive societal constructions as the "traditional" family). Mansfield advises our gender-neutral society to "readopt the distinction between public and private that is characteristic of liberalism. In public it should be gender-neutral, in private not."

This is a scholarly book that deserves more words than this review can accommodate. Illustrating that both scholars and "men of action" may be manly in their respective fields of endeavour, Mansfield explores questions of human identity and existence that most of the men of action whom he cites would not have identified on their own, nor, if prompted, long considered. In short, this is not a breezy book for beach reading. Harvey Mansfield has been criticized as a purposefully difficult writer, who enjoys esotericism, so a certain degree of manliness is required if one wishes to finish this tome.
Matthew Rarey writes from Chicago.


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