Harvey Mansfield, government professor at Harvard, stopped by to speak about his latest book
Manliness. Virile Bwog correspondent Andrew Flynn was there to report from the frontlines of the War on Girly-men…

“Be yourself… but don’t expect to be as respected.”

This was the advice that Harvey Mansfield gave to those of us who don’t fit his definition of “manliness.” As an oboist and a vegetarian, I’m pretty sure that Mansfield would not call me “manly.” But I’m not sure that I would want him to.

Harvey Mansfield is, by all accounts, a formidable scholar of political philosophy, a professor at Harvard for nearly half a century who has published important work on Burke, Machiavelli, and Tocqueville. He is also, as one questioner ventured, “sexy.” (And another: “You’ve even got man in your name.”) A spry but austere seventysomething, Mansfield looks like a straight man pulled from a 1930s slapstick comedy, complete with hat and overcoat. As a conservative, a follower of Leo Strauss, Mansfield is the academic that conservatives grumble about there not being more of – someone with intellectual rigor who is not afraid to defend unpopular ideas against his mostly liberal colleagues.

More after the jump…

A defense of manliness as a virtue, then, is certainly apt. The problem is that Mansfield’s ideas on manliness do not seem to have much intellectual weight – at least not in the casual lecture setting. I must preface this by saying that I have not read Manliness, so I have no means to attack the strength of Mansfield’s scholarship other than the impressions I got while listening to him speak. To do so here, moreover, would be pointless preaching to the converted; I refer you only to Martha Nussbaum’s biting intellectual critique, published in the New Republic (subscription required).

During the lecture, Mansfield spoke to a group made up primarily of the converted, and his remarks came off like a string of facile assertions. They included the statement that “manliness is confidence in the face of risk,” which he made assuming that it was essentially intuitive, granting us no explanation of where this definition comes from or what group of men he is making generalizations about.

He also stated that this manly virtue is necessary for our society, but that it is being quickly proscribed by gender neutrality. By means of support, Mansfield listed off a slew of complementary gender proclivities. (“Men are aggressive, women are caring, men are promiscuous, women are faithful…”). These, he seemed to assume, are biologically determined. Or, sort of biologically determined. Or, maybe an inextricable mix between biological determination and social conditioning. Or, maybe a normative account of how sex differences should be. Or, maybe supported by the data of some socio-biologists. Or, maybe just very broad generalizations… Anyways, Mansfield said they exist. Asking “why” after everything Harvey Mansfield says is a good rule of thumb. He may have a point, but it’s full of holes.

Likewise, some of Mansfield’s replies to questions were also far from the sort one would expect from a person of his tenure. Saying that “rape is a permanent part of the human condition” and that we should be “surprised that there isn’t more” is quite an untactful way of capping off a response on the connection of manliness with domestic violence. When asked about the manliness of gay sex – implied by his veneration of Achilles in the Iliad – Mansfield responded: “Yes. Of course it depends on which role you play… There are people who are bottoms and there are people who are tops.” This is a gentleman? You can do better, man.