Stereotypes of 'Manliness' and Its Classic Roots

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 26, 2006 | Go to article overview

Stereotypes of 'Manliness' and Its Classic Roots


Byline: Joseph R. Phelan, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Manliness has been out of fashion for at least three decades. Where once the world viewed the likes of Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum as the celluloid embodiments of an ideal of manhood, their persona have long since faded from the popular memory. These were men whose self confidence in the face of war, conflict and risk was breathtaking.

Beginning in the Seventies a new kind of male personality, represented by the likes of Alan Alda, Dustin Hoffman and Donald Sutherland made their way across the screen. The sensitive, caring and sharing pacifist vegetarian was the ideal put forth by Hollywood, admired by enlightened women and held up as a model for boys and men.

The backlash against the Vietnam War together with the movement for the liberation of women and homosexuals in the Seventies all contributed to the decline of traditional manliness. "Be a man" was no longer the ultimate expression of contempt for weakness. Finally social scientists and other academics began talking about "masculinity" as a social construction which could be changed and twisted into whatever shape societal elites wanted.

But with September 11 and its aftermath, the manly virtues of courage, sacrifice and risk-taking have taken on a new aspect. We know that these virtues are being shown everyday in far off places and all commentators, whether they be in favor of or opposed to the Iraq War, have made a point of expressing their respect for the armed forces of the United States.

Harvey C. Mansfield Jr., the distinguished professor of government at Harvard and well known author of a number of books in political philosophy has been thinking about this phenomena for many years. His new book entitled simply "Manliness" amounts to a spirited defense of the male psychology which lies at the foundation of manliness and its accompanying virtues.

Mr. Mansfield begins by warning us that American society has embarked on a radical new project of the gender neutral society without ever having seriously asked the question of whether on the road to this new goal we can or should proceed to deny the aspirations and ambitions of the male ego.

Common sense and everyday observation tell us that there are important differences between men and women, the most striking of which is that men are more aggressive than women. This may be a stereotype but according to Mr. Mansfield the findings of psychology and evolutionary biology largely support it.

Yet these same sciences do not know what to do with this inherent aggressiveness. Scientists never truly ask why men are aggressive or what they are aggressive about. At bottom they ignore the political and philosophical aspects of manliness. The manly man's aggression takes the form of an assertion of importance of himself and of the issues he raises.

Manly men are driven willy-nilly to put forth reasons for their self assertion. This is the "existential demand" of manliness: to give reasons to justify how he lives or wants to live.

In order to illustrate what he is getting at in his analysis of manly assertiveness, Mr. Mansfield turns to some of the greatest names in literature from Homer to Hemingway.

Homer's Achilles is the classic paradigm of the way manly assertiveness can turn into a positive good. Achilles expands his complaint against Agamemnon from stealing his girlfriend to a claim that the King had failed to pay him due honor as the very best man among the Greeks.

Achilles' taking umbrage at his being undervalued by the "authorities" necessarily contains the suggestion that rulers should always honor the best members of the community. This claim transforms a private or "personal" wrong into a claim that the state is not being well governed under its current executive leadership.

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