Issue Date: September 22, 2006
Reviewed by ROBERT ROYAL
Its a safe bet that the National Organization for Women will not be offering Harvard political scientist Harvey Mansfields new book Manliness as a membership gift any time soon. The very title, which he has made a point of emphasizing, seems to be a rallying cry against the womens movement. But it would be unfortunate to read this rich text as a mere partisan case. Professor Mansfield has much to say about the shortcomings of the gender neutral society, yet he believes that neutrality is right and long overdue in the public sphere -- and wrong in private. About manliness itself he recommends giving it its due and remaining wary of its dangers. In short, this is a book that tries to think deeply -- not merely polemicize -- about being a man or woman.
Dr. Mansfields point of departure is the common human experience that men and women are different. There are exceptions, of course, and a free society will want to make room for them. Still, even the womans movement itself has claimed that women needed to be heard to offset the self-importance, assertiveness, abstract rationality and outright aggressiveness characteristic of manliness. Women, in psychology professor Carol Gilligans influential formulation, speak in a different voice, are more cooperative, contextual, relational. If this is true in broad statistical terms, it cannot also be true that the average man or woman will appear in equal proportions in various occupations. There are likely to be more male firefighters and more female elementary teachers in any society. Social psychology and evolutionary biology, Dr. Mansfield says, confirm that the stereotypes of men and women are basically correct.
One wing of feminism, then -- the current that, with Simone de Beauvoir, all but denies biology, claims women have no essential nature and can simply remake themselves by an act of rational control -- is operating ideologically, refusing scientific facts and the more realist insights of other feminist currents. But in reviewing this material, Dr. Mansfield is not arguing that older patriarchal relationships should be the norm. Modern developments that he accepts have made more equal social roles for women, where appropriate, a just recognition of the equal dignity of women. The problem has been that in pursuing these claims we have tended to play down and even ignore the value of manliness to society, a limited value, to be sure, but one that includes steadiness in danger and protectiveness -- essential since societies are always under threat from the downside of manliness, which is all too evident. Men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of rape, robbery and other violent acts. There are Darwinian explanations for all this, explanations that are given too much credibility in Dr. Mansfields view since, for human beings, it is not enough merely to survive. We want to survive as certain kinds of beings, beings who embody goodness and purpose.
Dr. Mansfield traces the ramifications of all this not only through the recent literature of science, sociology and feminist theory, but in a sophisticated and sensitive way through such writers as Ernest Hemingway and Homer; Rider Haggard, William S. Burroughs and Rudyard Kipling; Henry James, Mark Twain and Stephen Crane. He also shows how the modern project, from Descartes to Nietzsche and beyond, of rational control over nature, which has given us the facile assumption that social roles are socially constructed and may be easily be bent to human will, is inferior in humanity to a classical view that understands nature and nurture as mutually related. Nature, in that older view, is not merely material resistant to human manipulation but is a reminder of human dependency that, properly understood, connects us with meanings that we sorely feel the lack of today.
One large lacuna in this argument is that Dr. Mansfield never seriously addresses how the Biblical tradition, especially Christianity, has influenced Western thought and practice. Great Christian figures like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and many others elaborated ideas, not merely faith statements, that have had a profound effect on our views of men, women and society. To take only one obvious example, women religious who ran their own convents in Catholic countries according to certain spiritual disciplines enjoyed a social context quite different from other women. In Protestant countries, the redefinition of vocation as something to be pursued in ordinary life effectively reduced the role of women to one function: a wife and mother in a patriarchal family. Christian ideas are integral to manly notions like chivalry, which Dr. Mansfield makes much of, and did not merely lead to an effeminate world as Machiavelli claimed. Indeed, medieval conflicts, the Crusades, and the wars of religion suggest that there is a rich mine of things, both positive and negative, about Christian manliness -- to say nothing of the manliness of the ascetic life or prophetic witness -- that does not come into Dr. Mansfields field of vision.
But even as is, this is a brave effort to tackle a difficult subject. Most people are either too enthusiastic about manliness or too dismissive of it, Dr. Mansfield warns. Reading his analysis will cure you of either tendency.
Robert Royal is president of the Faith and Reason Institute.
National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2006
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