What Is Enlightenment: What is manliness?
Harvey Mansfield: I define manliness as confidence in the face of risk. And this quality has its basis in an animal characteristic that Plato called thumos. Thumos means bristling at something that is strange or inimical to you. Think of a dog bristling and barking; that’s a very thumotic response to a situation. It seems that all animals have this more or less, some way of resisting what is endangering to them. The opposite of thumos would be eros—love, yearning, opening. Eros is opening yourself up to the strange; thumos is closing it off. And manliness seems very much to be a kind of thumos. You feel the need to defend yourself, not the need to improve yourself.
Of course, in every human action there’s a mixture of eros and thumos, but manliness is by far mostly thumos. It’s being satisfied with yourself and knowing yourself to be superior, or at least satisfactory, as you are. You’re not apologizing; you’re not yearning for something better. You are what you are, and other people often don’t meet your high standard. So a manly man is very judgmental. He looks down on those who don’t have this obviously good characteristic—which is obviously good according to him!
An occasional woman can have that kind of manliness—my great example is Margaret Thatcher—but more men than women have it. I also think it’s really a minority of men who are truly manly, and that minority often looks down on the rest of men for not being manly. That’s not the whole picture—it’s a very partial picture of the whole human being—but I do believe it’s the way manly men think. When people study manliness, they tend to either fall in love with it and exaggerate its goodness or dismiss it as nothing. I think the proper way is in between. I don’t think a manly man is all human excellence wrapped into one. And manliness has more than one aspect as well.
What I call philosophical courage or philosophical manliness, for example, is really the opposite of ordinary manliness. It’s more on the side of eros than thumos. Ordinary manliness is being satisfied with yourself, even a little bit complacent, whereas philosophical manliness is challenging or being willing to question all of your precious, darling ideas—everything that’s precious to you, all of your possessions, wondering whether they are really valuable or not. It takes a certain courage to stand up to your own previous opinions or positions and perhaps also the public opinion of society at the time.
WIE: Has manliness always been the same, or has it evolved over time?
Mansfield: Well, I think manliness is in human nature. You can find it in every human society, in some version or another. A knight is different from a samurai is different from a cowboy, but there’s something similar in all of them, too, and I don’t see that changing.
If we just take Western history now, very broadly speaking, there was a more frank recognition of manliness in Greek culture, for instance. This was exaggerated even more by Homer and Achilles. On the other hand, the Greek philosophers were critical of manliness. A lot of what Plato and Aristotle said was a criticism of manly Greek culture, which they thought was inadequate and inferior in many respects. When the Romans came along, manliness took another big step forward. Roman culture was very manly—very imperialistic, dominating, and assertive. Then Christianity went back in the other direction, bringing with it a combination of anti-manliness and a denial of human pride. Manliness is very proud and very desirous of honor, whereas Christianity teaches humility. It has a lot of femininity in it. It’s full of women saints and, of course, the worship of Mary. But it also brought with it a transformation of manliness into something more Christian—the gentleman or the chivalrous knight who was devoted to a woman, who fought battles in order to please or at least impress a lady.
In more recent times, we see a kind of attack on manliness in modern philosophy and modern science. It was thought that manliness encourages wayward passions and keeps people from acting rationally and regularly. So the founders of modern liberalism took up against thumos, or pride or vanity or vainglory, thinking that this was the cause of war—and also, strangely enough, the cause of religion, of men trying to glorify themselves by supposing God was on their side.
WIE: When the founders of modern liberalism launched this attack on manliness for being an irrational force that would lead to social instability, what did they want to replace it with?
Mansfield: Well, Hobbes and Locke, for example, tried to base their philosophy on the bourgeois notion of rational self-interest, which was a way of calculating your own advantage that would keep you from the passionate extremes that cause trouble for you and for society. Self-interest usually runs contrary to what your pride and your honor tell you to do. It’s almost never in your interest to get angry, for instance, and almost never in your interest to fall in love either. So the life of the bourgeois is, in many ways, unmanly. The commercial character of modern civilization is unmanly as well. Commerce means that you’re willing to trade anything, that you don’t regard anything as so much yours that you would never give it up without a fight. Everything is for sale. Everything has a trade-off. There’s nothing you would insist on, whereas manliness is a form of insistence and a willingness to fight in your own defense.
WIE: Where do we stand with manliness today?
Mansfield: These days I don’t think manliness has gone away or become less manly, but it certainly has much less of a reputation. It’s what I call “unemployed,” meaning there’s nothing responsible or respectable for it to do. It’s still there, of course. You see it in sports and the attention we give to sports. You see it in extreme sports, too—taking crazy risks, the desire for adventure, and things like that. Those are not necessarily responsible forms of manliness, but they are expressions of it when nothing else is expected, when it isn’t expected of you.
Today, we live in a gender-neutral society. It’s a society in which your sex matters as little as possible. It doesn’t give you your rights or your duties, and certainly not your place. And this is new. The gender-neutral society is really a kind of experiment. It’s something that hasn’t been done before in human history, at least not that we know of. Every society before ours has been stratified by sex, and men were always on top because they did the politics or the business or the public work. But nobody in public life can defend special status for men over women anymore.
Gender neutrality is what we believe now, and what we aspire to, even if we don’t fully practice it. About two-thirds of the housework, it seems, is still done by women and one-third by men. Also, about two-thirds of the family income is brought home by men and one-third by women. We still lean toward the traditional division of the sexes and toward their traditional roles. This inequality doesn’t seem to be getting any closer to fifty-fifty, and I think this is something that both sexes have to come to terms with. Feminism still hasn’t succeeded in sensitizing males to the extent that they’re willing to do half the housework. They’re doing a lot more than they used to—although come to think of it, my father used to do quite a bit.