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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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.