The Magazine

Being a Man

Harvey Mansfield ponders the male of the species.

Apr 10, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 28 • By CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS
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Manliness

by Harvey C. Mansfield

Yale, 304 pp., $27.50

ONE OF THE LEAST VISITED memorials in Washington is a waterfront statue commemorating the men who died on the Titanic. Seventy-four percent of the women passengers survived the April 15, 1912, calamity, while 80 percent of the men perished. Why? Because the men followed the principle "women and children first."

The monument, an 18-foot granite male figure with arms outstretched to the side, was erected by "the women of America" in 1931 to show their gratitude. The inscription reads: "To the brave men who perished in the wreck of the Titanic. . . . They gave their lives that women and children might be saved."

Today, almost no one remembers those men. Women no longer bring flowers to the statue on April 15 to honor their chivalry. The idea of male gallantry makes many women nervous, suggesting (as it does) that women require special protection. It implies the sexes are objectively different. It tells us that some things are best left to men. Gallantry is a virtue that dare not speak its name.

In Manliness, Harvey C. Mansfield seeks to persuade skeptical readers, especially educated women, to reconsider the merits of male protectiveness and assertiveness. It is in no way a defense of male privilege, but many will be offended by its old-fashioned claim that the virtues of men and women are different and complementary. Women would be foolish not to pay close attention to Mansfield's subtle and fascinating argument.

Mansfield offers what he calls a modest defense of manliness. It is modest, not because its claims are cautious--Mansfield courts wrath and indignation on almost every page--but because, as he says, "Most good things, like French wine, are mostly good and accidentally bad. Manliness, however, seems to be about fifty-fifty good and bad. . . . This is what I mean by a modest defense."

"Manliness," he says, "is a quality that causes individuals to stand for something." The Greeks used the term thumos to denote the bristling, spirited element shared by human beings and animals that makes them fight back when threatened. It causes dogs to defend their turf; it makes human beings stand up for their kin, their religion, their country, their principles. "Just as a dog defends its master," writes Mansfield, "so the doggish part of the human soul defends human ends higher than itself."

Every human being possesses thumos. But those who are manly possess it in abundance, and sometimes in excess. The manly man is not satisfied to let things be as they are, and he makes sure everyone knows it. He invests his perception of injustice with cosmic importance.

Manliness can be noble and heroic, like the men on the Titanic; but it can also be foolish, stubborn, and violent. Achilles, Brutus, and Sir Lancelot exemplify the glory of manliness, but also its darker sides. Theodore Roosevelt was manly; so was Harry "The Buck Stops Here" Truman. Manly men are confident in risky situations. Manliness can be pathological, as in gangsters and terrorists.

Manliness, says Mansfield, thrives on drama, conflict, risk, and exploits: "War is hell but men like it." Manliness is often aggressive, but when the aggression is tied to the concept of honor, it transcends mere animal spiritedness. Allied with reason, as in Socrates, manliness finds its highest expression.

Women can be manly--Margaret Thatcher is an example--but manliness is the "quality mostly of one sex." This creates problems for a society such as ours that likes to think of itself as "gender neutral," egalitarian, and sensitive. Manliness is not sensitive. Today, we mainly cope with it by politely changing the subject. The very word is deemed quaint and outmoded. Gender experts in our universities teach as fact that the sex difference is an illusion--a discredited construct, like the earth being flat or the sun revolving around the earth.

And yet, the complex range of behavior that "manliness" characterizes persists. It is still mostly men who embody it. We have succeeded in bringing the language to account, but we have not managed to exorcise masculine thumos.

After almost 40 years of feminist agitation and gender-neutral pronouns, it is still men who are far more likely than women to run for political office, start companies, file for patents, and blow things up. Men continue to tell most of the jokes and write the vast majority of editorials and letters to editors. And--fatal to the dreams of feminists who long for social androgyny--men have hardly budged from their unwillingness to do an equal share of housework or childcare. Moreover, women seem to like manly men: "Manliness is still around, and we still find it attractive," says Mansfield.