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In Defense of Manliness

An interview with Harvey Mansfield
by Ross Robertson


“Today the very word manliness seems quaint and obsolete,” begins Dr. Harvey C. Mansfield in his controversial, thought-provoking work Manliness (Yale University Press, 2006). “We are in the process of making the English language gender-neutral, and manliness, the quality of one gender, or rather, of one sex, seems to describe the essence of the enemy we are attacking, the evil we are eradicating.”

But manliness, according to Mansfield, is not what it appears to be. With characteristic panache and no small degree of intellectual chutzpah, he spends the next 250 pages of his book exploring the virtues and shortcomings of manly men, the complex nature of manliness itself (as expressed both by men and by women), and the many impacts of the sexual revolution on traditional masculine virtues. By the time he’s through with this “modest defense of manliness,” he’s taken the reader on a whirlwind tour from pop culture to Plato and back, weaving Darwin and Nietzsche, John Wayne and the Coen Brothers, John Locke and Xena Warrior Princess into a dense, rollicking tapestry of ideas.

Suffice it to say, it left us so inspired, intrigued, frustrated, even downright confused at times, we simply knew we had to talk with him.

One of the most influential academic voices in American conservatism, Dr. Mansfield is currently William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Government at Harvard University. (Except for brief stints in the Army and at the University of California, Berkeley, he’s been at Harvard more or less since his undergraduate days in the late 1940s.) In addition to Manliness, he has written studies of and translated works by major political philosophers including Aristotle, Edmund Burke, Niccolò Machiavelli, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Thomas Hobbes. Well known in Cambridge for his outspoken (and decidedly un-PC) views on everything from grade inflation to affirmative action, Mansfield’s study of manliness stirred up its own fair share of ire, only this time on the national stage. He’s been ribbed by everyone from Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central to Naomi Wolf on ABC. But not all of his critics were unsympathetic. “Mansfield courts wrath and indignation on almost every page,” writes Christina Hoff Sommers in The Weekly Standard. “But many women will be charmed by his effrontery, and grateful for the truth and wisdom in Mansfield’s elegant treatise.”

In our research for this issue, Dr. Mansfield was a rare find—a serious academic who was willing to take seriously many questions about the value and significance of masculinity that are mostly taboo in the contemporary discourse on sex and gender. As one of his Harvard colleagues has said of him, “Harvey Mansfield is a Harvard treasure, a one-man antidote to liberal complacency. I disagree with almost all of his political views, but his presence enlivens the government department, and Harvard, immeasurably.”

We hope you find his ideas enlivening as well.

–Ross Robertson

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This article is from
Constructing the New Man