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What’s in a Word?

The definition of sheer joy is the reaction of a conservative on learning that a book entitled Manliness has just been published.

By 7.14.06

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This review appeared in the June 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.

Manliness
by Harvey C. Mansfield
(Yale University Press, 304 pages, $27.50)

THE DEFINITION OF SHEER JOY is the reaction of a conservative on learning that a book entitled Manliness has just been published.

As soon as I heard about it I began churning out promotional copy in my head: "From the 300 Spartans to the men of the Titanic.... What women REALLY want: 'I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not honour more.'"

Next, I mentally wrote the jacket copy.

"...that prototype of self-discipline, the Color Sergeant in Zulu."

"...warfare as minuet: the polished courtesies observed by gentlemen officers Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens in The Enemy Below."

"...the mutual respect that springs up between the hunted white man and his African pursuers when he wins the test of manliness in The Naked Prey."

"...the chivalric ideal displayed at West Point in 1861 when cadets from Union states presented arms as their Southern classmates marched off the field to the strains of 'Dixie.'"

"...Undying admiration: Coriolanus and Custer."

"...Forgotten manliness: the nameless English soldier who fashioned a cross for Joan of Arc from the wood of her pyre."

These are just some lump-in-the-throat examples of manliness that I expected to find in this book, but Harvey C. Mansfield, Harvard professor of government, delivers nothing but a lump, the fatal kind that metastasizes whenever the faculty lounge and the University Press join hands and lock jaws.

Instead of pumping us up, he tells us everything we've always wanted to know about Plato's presentation of thumos in The Republic; women and akuron in Aristotle's Politics; virtu in Machiavelli ("To be altogether bad you have to be good at being bad, thus good"); Nietzsche's nihilism, Hobbes's Leviathan, and Rousseau's philosophy of education as set forth in Emile, all couched in a prose style guaranteed to cure insomnia in ten minutes. Trying to follow Mansfield's sentences is like trying to keep your hood ornament on the white line during a snowstorm. To wit:

Epictetus displays Stoicism in its pure form, unadapted to politics (as distinct from Cicero's adaptation), hence completely irresponsible: don't get involved is the lesson. It reminds us of the manly confidence (Chapter I) that remains aloof and does not seek to take charge of risky emergencies....

Canceling all that subjugation requires overcoming the relevant powers of nature, or, in sum (and for the sake of being sure), deny nature....

Now, of all the possible virtues, or parts of virtues, manliness seems most to illustrate virtue by not being either in one's interest (narrowly understood) or defined by principle.

Mansfield's thesis is that manliness still exists whether we like it or not, and that most of us do not like it because it threatens the gender-neutral society we have so carefully constructed. Ours is a society in which one slip of a pronoun can rouse suspicions of sexism; a society that prefers role models to heroes, weakness to strength, and guilt to pride in order to fashion the "incentives" that encourage us to become rationally controlled citizens. The rationally controlled society, says Mansfield, "fears courage more than fear," and so does everything it can to "encourage and compel behavior conspicuously lacking in drama."

Manliness is conspicuously dramatic, not always controlled, and occasionally irrational because it is all about taking risks, taking charge, and taking credit, often in a loud, commanding voice. Confronted by this 800-pound gorilla, today's Sensitive Man murmurs, "This rationally controlled society ain't big enough for both of us," and Americans, clutching their incentives, rush to agree with him.

The heyday of manliness was the world of Greek antiquity, where loud, commanding voices were the norm; Stentor had a voice like brass, Achilles never spoke below a yell, and women were akuron (lacking in authority). The aristocratic male's most prized quality was thumos or "spiritedness," a state of bristling, pawing-the-dirt fighting trim now associated with low-class drunken louts. Manliness in ancient Greece was the rule rather than the exception, respected and even cherished by the kind of men who today would look down on it: poets and philosophers.

MANLINESS LOST SOME OF ITS SHEEN during the church-dominated Middle Ages when pride became a sin and earthly triumphs took a back seat to the rewards of the afterlife. Nicolo Machiavelli, writing at the height of Renaissance humanism, took exception to medieval passivity and urged men to seek earthly rewards and power, but warned them to be careful how they went about it. Brute force alone no longer works, said the author of that guidebook to deceit, The Prince; the lion must become a fox when the situation called for it. Slyness, duplicity, and indirection -- woman's ways -- became the keys to success.

It's hard to believe that Thomas Hobbes, of all people, could do anything to thwart manliness. He was the grim political philosopher who famously called life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." That sounds like the prelude to a good free-for-all -- and it is, which is why Hobbes saw the need for iron control. To prevent what he called the "war of all against all" he conceived of an all-powerful state, a government so big and so ubiquitous that nobody could cause any trouble. To emphasize the size of the state he had in mind, he called his treatise Leviathan and commanded its citizens to "lay down your right."

Manliness fell upon serious hard times when modern liberalism took root. Liberalism is a two-edged sword to the manly man; its love of liberty suits him but its desire for security does not, and its often obsessive concern for the rights of others might just drive him over the edge, because others are not usually his first priority. John Stuart Mill, whom the author calls a "wimp" and a purveyor of "graduate-seminar liberalism," believed that we must rule ourselves but never others because "liberty demands forbearance," a quality that never mixes with thumos.

Men torn between instinct and reality became a popular theme in late 19th-century novels. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson portrays Henry Jekyll torn between the manly ideal of science, which marches on in the face of risks, and the "unmanning terror" he suffers when he realizes he has unleashed Hyde's evil. Other novels treat the conflict with unconscious humor. H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines is about three determinedly manly Englishmen who go to Africa to search for a fabulous treasure. The trip quickly turns into a more-manly-than-thou contest with their guide, revealed to be a native king, who fears that their unmanly love of money will contaminate his tribe's manliness. Watching the Englishmen shoot elephants for sport, the king remarks that it is unmanly to shoot animals except for food and arranges "a simple meal of roasted giraffe marrow." Reality rears its head in the character of Alan Quartermain, one of the Englishmen, who wonders if he might be "a bit of a coward." It is a question no manly man would ask himself, and Quartermain blames it on his "detestable habit of thinking." Yet it is precisely his habit of thinking that gets the group safely out of the cave and back to England, where they will tell manliness stories in the comfortable confines of their club.

Mansfield is convinced that it is the conscious aim of modern life to put manliness out of business. Some of its notable successes:

1. We have replaced the manly man with the "professional," who judges and is judged by objective criteria; substitutes "professional courtesy" for chivalry, and never punches anyone out -- that would be "behaving unprofessionally."

2. Technology has given us a high priest of rational control: the Customer Support geek.

3. "Health Awareness" (read educated hypochondria) has produced a universal desire for "a longer, less troubled life rather than a short, eventful life in the noble manner of Achilles."

4. The rise of Meritocrats, who "let the educational system do the manly job of self-assertion for them by awarding them honors they do not have to fight for."

5. The rise of Representatives: "...agents, lawyers, various intermediaries, are unmanly because in representing a client they discreetly avoid asserting themselves and are content with only a percentage of the reward."

6. Commerce in general has made gain more important than victory and trade-offs more important than justice.

7. About all that is left of manliness is found in the salesman, who is still free to boast and exaggerate like the bellowing Greeks of old.

Were it not for its title, this book would sink like a stone, but precisely because of its title liberals in droves are reading it, probably through spread fingers like jurors looking at autopsy photos. I hope they don't blot anything out because the book contains a sentence that is even better than the title, a sentence that could change America overnight, or for that matter, in a few seconds.

Cast your mind back to the stars of the feminist movement in its heyday. That was 35 years ago. They're elderly ladies in their seventies now. We've already lost two of them -- Betty Friedan and Andrea Dworkin -- in the last year alone. Shocked disbelief and towering rage are bad for elderly ladies. If the surviving members of the sisterhood all read The Sentence...

The Sentence: "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."

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About the Author

Florence King is the author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, The Florence King Reader, and, most recently, STET, Damnit!: The Misanthrope's Corner, 1991 to 2002 (National Review Press).