Harvey C. Mansfield and the Perils of Equality

Equality between men and women was the feminist ideal. It was our utopia. Now that my husband and I have achieved something like it, on a one-household scale, I can see that in some ways it’s a pain in the ass.

Equality is terrifically inefficient. There are always too many cooks in our house, too many decisions made by argumentMansfield Manliness and committee. “Who’s going to the store? How much milk do we need? What do you mean you can’t find it? Do you have time to pick up the kids today? No? Do you think your work is more important than my work?”

It’s infinitely easier to divide up the tasks, setting up little fiefdoms of expertise. We’ve tried that too: one of us does all the carpentry, grocery shopping, and vacuuming, while the other takes care of cars, computers, cooking, and the laundry. But it means that we’re helpless in each other’s world: confronted by a TV remote or a child’s underwear drawer, we panic. I understand, now, all those widowers who can’t boil water and divorcées who don’t know how to pay the bills. It’s the price of a system that, when it works properly, makes perfect sense.

Roles are easier to cope with and to understand—which might explain something else about household equality, its invisibility. On the one hand, there’s nothing more attractive to many women than a man wearing a baby in a carrier. On the other, in the great debate over women’s work, men who do contribute to the household work simply don’t exist. In real life, I look around me at the parents I know—not just the artistic types but the software engineer, the house painter, the plumber—and everywhere I see men working part-time and caring for their children. [Part-time work is much more common in the Netherlands than in the US, and is especially popular with working mothers.] Yet anyone who steps out of the statistical pattern is not only undervalued but unseen.

Giving men and women back their fiefdoms, and their recognition, is the goal of “Manliness,” by the philosopher Harvey C. Mansfield. He believes that roles work better than improvisation, and that they are actually better at allowing people to be themselves. He doesn’t want to spend his life negotiating and explaining his motives. He feels that men are naturally confident, aggressive leaders who should not be asked to do “women’s work” or be judged by female standards.

Mansfield, 75, teaches at Harvard University, where, in the relatively progressive American academic climate, he stands out for his conservative politics. A writer for neoconservative journals and nurturer of that movement, he advocates for a strong presidency and has written books on Machiavelli and Edmund Burke. In “Manliness,” he has clearly tackled a hot issue: the book has been widely reviewed, he has been much in demand as a speaker, and now, two years after its American publication, the book is being published in Dutch translation.

It’s a sign of the need for a book like this that it’s been so popular, because there’s not much enlightenment to be gained from actually reading it. Between the brief definition of manliness at the beginning (aloofness, authority, “confidence in the face of risk”) and its defense at the end, there lies, like the gray meat of an unappetizing sandwich, a long discussion of philosophy and literature that is vague, tedious, self-contradictory and occasionally wrong.

Mansfield begins his defense of manliness by rejecting all evidence from psychology, anthropology, and even biology. The social sciences, he contends, are inaccurate, inadequate and full of hidden agendas. This is typical of American neoconservatives, who on the whole have no patience for empirical evidence. Ultimately, science as a whole fails his test: intellectual rigor is not manly.

Instead he seeks in his own field, classical philosophy, and comes up with Aristotle’s thymos, which Mansfield describes as “spiritedness,” “bestial courage,” and bravery in self-defense. Thymos is “what gives us personal pride and makes us individuals.” It is George W. Bush’s “stay the course” and a street kid’s demand for respect. As Mansfield uses it, it might also be translated as “underbelly,” and he admits that it is not appealing unless tempered. He says over and over again that male aggression is both a positive and a negative force. But like a junkie, he is willing to ignore the side effects for the rush.

Set against this manliness, and poised to undermine it, is feminism, which Mansfield sees as enemy number one. He has been teaching at Harvard since 1962, long enough to be battered by several waves of the feminist movement; I bet it hasn’t been easy. But that’s no excuse for his drastic misrepresentation of the feminist project. The goal of feminism, he claims, is women’s independence from men and children. Most of what’s been written about women’s desire to combine work and family he disregards, noting only that American women have suggested government-subsidized day care. But he can’t imagine why women would “put their trust in impersonal bureaucracy rather than in a man who loves them.”

His worst-case scenario is “the gender-neutral society,” by which he means, as I understand it, a flattened existence of people who compete with each other at work and suffer at home, because the men can’t express their true nature and no one wants to do the housework. Because bravery and risk-taking are frowned on, he fears, no one will achieve anymore. We are, he says, “downsizing greatness to ‘individuality.’” Instead, he feels we should permit men, and the occasional woman (Margaret Thatcher), to be manly, while requiring women to be responsible for manliness. They should appreciate it, allow themselves to be protected by it, and gently correct its excesses.

In fact, feminists don’t seek a sexless society; they seek a society in which they are not automatically, because of their sex, allowed less opportunity. There should, you’d think, be plenty of room for heroism here. But certainly the equality model, with its improvisations, compromises, and arguments over the groceries, is complex. Mansfield can’t see a pattern in it, and so it looks gray and dreary to him.

Of the examples of manliness that he gives, few come from this contested ground that is real life. They mostly come from the world of art: Achilles, Tarzan, Gary Cooper in “High Noon.” They’re often quite appealing examples; the problem is, they’re imaginary. They are our fantasies about what men should be, not our knowledge of what they are. They’re also selectively, deceptively chosen: you’ll find Rudyard Kipling’s poetry of empire, but not his grief-stricken rejection of the warrior ideal after his son was killed in France in 1915. Nowhere mentioned in “Manliness” but everywhere between its lines is the Iraq War, a real-life example of what happens when Mansfield’s manly qualities—excessive risk-taking, disregard for the evidence, inability to tell fact from fiction—are put into practice.

If there’s a strong strain of nostalgia in “Manliness,” it’s not entirely because modern society has tamed all the heroic males. It’s also because the greatest heroes have always lived in the past, which is another way of saying, in our fantasies. Far older than feminism is the ubi sunt lament, in which the poet cries, “Where are the young warriors who went before us? Where is the great lord, the giver of gifts? Alas, he is gone, I am alone.”

And so Mansfield cries, “Where is John Wayne? Where is Teddy Roosevelt, the great hunter? Where is my boss at Harvard, Larry Summers? Alas, he had to resign because he said women couldn’t do math. Will his like ever be seen again?” It isn’t that Mansfield himself wants to do great deeds; he longs to sit at the feet of a man greater than himself. He wants to serve the alpha male.

In his discussion of feminism, Mansfield accuses Simone de Beauvoir of nihilism—Nietzsche’s “will to nothingness”—because she prefers the unknown future to the options that women already have. It’s true that we don’t know what’s there, but that doesn’t mean we can’t, in Mansfield’s terms, take the risk and embrace it. Equality may be a messy nuisance, but it still feels more real and more forward-looking to me than any of Mansfield’s elegant fictions. If it means sometimes running out of milk, then, heroically, I’m willing to pay that price.

Trouw, January 19, 2008. Harvey C. Mansfield, Manliness (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006); Mannelijkheid (Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 2008).