Being a Man
Harvey Mansfield ponders the male of the species.
Apr 10, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 28 • By CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS
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.
Mansfield's amusing, refreshing, and outrageous observations must already be causing distress for his Harvard colleagues. But many readers will be grateful to him for his candor and bravado. Today, when scholars acknowledge sex differences, they do it timorously. They follow every assertion of difference with a list of exceptions, qualifications, and caveats. Into this world strides Professor Mansfield, loaded for bear, and lethally armed with all the powerful stereotypes thought to be banished from bien pensant society. And he deploys them without apology in shocker after shocker:
[Women] shun risk more than men and they perceive risk more readily; they fear spiders. . . .
Women seem to desire more than men to make a nest and to take responsibility for making it. To do this, they sometimes need the help of their men, and they nag them responsibly and more or less charmingly according to their skill. . . .
In my experience, it is difficult for a man who is attracted to a woman not to find her cute, rather than intimidating, when she gets angry.
Mansfield reminds us that philosophers and poets were worried about manliness long before contemporary feminists began to anguish over it. He presents a magisterial survey of the role played by manliness in the thought of the great philosophers.
From the Greeks to Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Nietzsche, philosophers have extolled or deplored manliness--but mostly they looked for ways to control it. No one, says Mansfield, understood the vices and virtues of manliness better than Aristotle and Plato. They gave it its due while "remaining wary of its dangers."
Unfortunately, few modern philosophers have followed their example. The ancients well understood that too much--or too little--manliness is a bad thing. Too much is dangerous, but too little is fatal to a society's prospects for greatness--or even for its survival. Modern philosophers err on the side of wariness and suspicion and, according to Mansfield, "the entire project of modernity can be understood as a project to keep manliness unemployed."
The entire project of modernity? This says, in effect, that modern philosophy has been engaged in making wimps out of men. As Mansfield sees it, since the dawn of the modern era, philosophers have conspired against manly thumos. Hobbes, for example, ignored the higher forms of heroic and philosophical manliness: He reduced it to a simple aggressive drive that leads to a "war of all against all." It had to be broken--not accommodated--by handing over power and rights to an absolute sovereign.
Hobbes placed self-preservation at the center of his theory. But, says Mansfield, manly men do not merely want to survive: They seek glory for themselves and their causes. For Mansfield, Hobbes is the extreme--but still typical--example of modern philosophers' disdain for manliness: "Liberalism is unmanly in setting down self-preservation as the end of man, as do Hobbes and John Locke."
Mansfield himself does not mind being a loner. For years, he has fought a forlorn battle at Harvard in defense of high standards. He was the only member of the faculty to vote against establishing a women's studies major. All the same, one would have expected him to find a few defenders of manliness somewhere in the annals of modern philosophy. But he does not cite any. With the possible exceptions of Baruch Spinoza and Edmund Burke, he complains that philosophers of modernity just don't get it when it comes to understanding and valuing male spiritedness: "Modern thinking does not want to cooperate with manliness, and does not care for thumos."
In place of the heroic, but rationally controlled, conception of manliness offered us by the ancients, modern thinkers give us a pallid, cautious, risk-averse bourgeois manliness--a world of Babbitts, rather than Achilles.
But this perspective is badly skewed. Surely Mansfield would not deny that the "bourgeois" male denizens of modernity have been responsible for some of the most prodigious displays of genius in art, literature, and music. They invented science, the free market, and liberal government, and they refined the art of war, magnifying its lethality a thousandfold. It would appear that Mansfield systematically underestimates the manliness of modern man, and of philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, Francis Bacon, and René Descartes who helped create him.
His discussion of Nietzsche's powerful influence on contemporary feminism shows Mansfield at his philosophical best and manly worst. Here, more than elsewhere, Mansfield dazzles us with the aptness of his insights, while being recklessly inattentive to nuance, exceptions, and complexity. He has no doubts about Nietzsche's manliness. He sets up a dramatic contrast between the manly ideal favored by Plato and Aristotle and the unrestrained masculinity promoted by Nietzsche.
Both Plato and Aristotle developed a conception of ethical manliness based on courage, tying manliness to protectiveness and reason. Manly men (and women) are the guardians of Plato's Republic; they are the noble gentlemen in Aristotle's polis. Both maintained that philosophers, not warriors, are the manliest of all.
By contrast, Nietzsche, a classicist by training, idealized the pre-Socratic Homeric age. He preferred the warrior to the philosopher, exalting Achilles over Socrates. He criticized Plato and Aristotle for putting reason above passion. For Nietzsche, says Mansfield, "Humanity is not to be found in reason but rather in the spark of life--the assertion of each man's life by that man." Nietzsche has burdened modernity with an exceptionally dangerous philosophy that Mansfield calls "manly nihilism." Where Plato and Aristotle place severe constraints on manly expression, Nietzsche gives us a manliness unrestrained by anything outside itself. Says Mansfield: "Manly assertiveness feeds on itself alone, and does not serve to protect and defend a cause greater than itself."
So where did contemporary feminists turn for philosophical inspiration? They had their pick of any number of the polite, sensible, and sensitive thinkers of modernity. John Stuart Mill would have been perfectly suitable. But no, says Mansfield, they turned down this nice guy--"a wimp when you come down to it"--and "went mad for crazy manly Nietzsche."
Nietzsche is hardly the philosopher one would expect to emerge as the muse for modern feminism. Not only did he valorize unrestrained male assertion, his contempt for women was famously explicit:
The true man wants two things, danger and play. For that reason he wants woman, as the most dangerous plaything.
When a woman has scholarly inclinations there is usually something wrong with her sexually.
In another context, he said women were for the "recreation of the warrior." His advice to men on the subject of women: "Forget not thy whip." Why, then, did Nietzsche's point of view appeal so strongly to intellectual feminists?
"In the 1970s," says Mansfield, "nihilism came to American women. . . . What interested [feminists] in Nietzsche was the nihilism he proclaimed as fact--God is Dead--and the possibility of creating a new order in its place." Of course, most American women were not reading Nietzsche. But many did read Simone de Beauvoir, and she was the herald of the new nihilism. In Mansfield's words, she was "Nietzsche in drag." Far from being critical of Nietzsche's hypermasculine fantasies, his "will to power," and his rejection of the Judeo-Christian ethic--she embraced it all and urged women to emulate it.
Beauvoir famously said, "One is not born, but becomes a woman." She rejected the idea that there is anything like human nature or any other source of an authoritative moral order. When she said that women must seek "transcendence," she meant that they should reject all the inducements of nature, society, and conventional morality. Beauvoir condemned marriage and family as a "tragedy" for women; both are traps that are incompatible with female subjectivity and freedom. She described the pregnant woman as "a stockpile of colloids, an incubator for an egg." She compared childbearing and nurturing to slavery.
Mansfield reminds readers how far Beauvoir's "womanly nihilism" strayed from the classical feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft and American suffragists. The early feminists questioned the rigidity of sex roles, but they never doubted that there was such a thing as human nature, and that women had distinctive roles to play in the family and society. Simone de Beauvoir wanted women to be free of all roles. Toward what end? She did not specify. Beauvoir's womanly nihilism inspired apostles like Germaine Greer, Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, and (to a lesser extent) Betty Friedan. In the decades following the sixties, it became official feminist doctrine.
Of course, as Mansfield observes, women are not men, and so inevitably they are less effective at being true Nietzscheans. Unlike radicals in other social movements, the feminist revolutionaries of the 1970s and '80s never engaged in violence. None went to jail. So how did they succeed in changing American society?
As Mansfield explains, they "relied on womanly devices." They formed "consciousness raising" groups and enrolled in "assertiveness training" workshops. Pronoun policewomen went to work cleansing the language of sexism. Tantalized by the Nietzschean idea that knowledge was a form of power, and not the result of disinterested inquiry, feminist scholars went on a rampage "reinventing" knowledge. In the academy, women took full advantage of manly men's gentlemanly reluctance publicly to oppose and thwart women.
Is Mansfield being fair to feminism? Is Nietzsche its main guiding spirit? Not really. His description of "feminist nihilism" rides roughshod over many distinctions within feminist theory and the women's movement. Alongside the reckless feminism of Beauvoir, Firestone, Greer, and company, there was a quieter, more reasonable, eminently sane version (inspired by those "wimps" Locke, Mill, and David Hume) working its way through American society and bringing needed reforms. Mansfield is aware of, and appreciates the achievements of, this moderate wing, but Manliness gives the impression that Second Wave feminism was one long Nietzschean production. It was more than that.
But one forgives Mansfield his imprecision and hyperbole because so much of what he says is profoundly true. Not all of contemporary feminism is a playing out of Nietzschean themes, but a great deal of it is. He is also right when he points out that many feminist leaders emulate some of the cruder and unappealing qualities of manliness.
An example (not given by Mansfield) is Eve Ensler's male-averse play The Vagina Monologues. This is loosely based on interviews with more than 200 women on the subject of their intimate anatomy. Its more serious preoccupation is exposing male insensitivity and violence. Pathological male thumos is everywhere: The play is a rogues' gallery of male oafs, losers, brutes, batterers, rapists, child molesters, and vile little boys. It is as if honorable manliness never existed.
Mansfield's analysis of women's nihilism gives us the lens to understand these developments as caricatures of the feminist will to "empowerment." It is a form of manly assertiveness unmoderated by Aristotelian ideals. Here we have an example of women imitating masculinity in its lower range. It is the dark side of the "gender neutral society" in which we now live.
The women who champion Eve Ensler's production are rightly concerned about the problem of male violence. But the known solution is to teach boys (and men) to be gentlemen. "A gentleman," says Mansfield, "is a man who is gentle out of policy, not weakness; he can be depended upon not to snarl or attack a woman when he has the advantage or feels threatened." And any gentlewoman or "lady" is naturally more suited for the task of civilizing a vulgar, barbarous male than a whole army of gender warriors.
What would Mansfield have us do? His book is primarily a conceptual analysis of manliness. It is not a self-help book. But it should surprise no one that this bossy, opinionated, and intrepid male thinker has a lot of advice to dispense. Women who like manly men will want to pay close attention. He says a lot of useful things your women's studies professors probably forgot to mention.
First of all, he thinks we should clearly distinguish between the public realm and private life. In public we should pursue, as best we can, a policy of gender neutrality. He firmly believes that the law should guarantee equal opportunity to men and women. However, "our expectations should be that men will grasp the opportunity more readily and more wholeheartedly than women."
Though he mentions it only in passing, it follows from his position that our schools should be more respectful and accepting of male spiritedness; they must stop trying to feminize boys. A healthy society should not war against human nature. It should, he says, "reemploy masculinity." That means it has to civilize it and give it things to do. No civilization can achieve greatness if it does not allow room for obstreperous males.
In the private sphere, his advice is vivé la difference! A woman should not expect a manly man to be as committed to domesticity as she is; nor should she assume that he is as emotionally adept as her female friends. Manly men are romantic rather than sensitive. They need a lot of help from females to ascend to the higher ethical levels of manhood, and Mansfield urges women to encourage them in ways respectful of their male pride.
Men, for their part, need to be gallant to women and respectful. Above all, they must listen to them. Mansfield offers this advice to young men:
Women want to be taken seriously almost as much as they want to be loved. To take women seriously you must first take yourself seriously and after that ask them what they think. And when they tell you, try to listen.
He is not suggesting that women accept a subordinate role; on the contrary, he compares women to philosophers. They are, on the whole, less assertive, but that makes it easier for them to be observant, reflective, and calmly judgmental: "It should be expected that men will be manly and sometimes a bit bossy and that women will be impressed with them or skeptical."
The world of gender studies has never before had to confront anyone quite like this solitary rogue male professor of politics. Critics will rail against his excesses and feminists will be indignant and offended. But many women will be charmed by his effrontery, and grateful for the truth and wisdom in Mansfield's elegant treatise.
Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The War Against Boys and coauthor of One Nation Under Therapy.