Q&A: Harvey Mansfield Talks 'Manliness'

A slight figure with a straw hat in one hand and a gray nylon gym bag in the other greeted me as I exited the elevator. I was a bit star-struck seeing Harvey Mansfield — America’s premiere political philosopher. But his intimidating intellect was quickly mollified by his manner and wit.

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I had requested an interview with him that afternoon, but his travel plans would make it too brief. He suggested that we conduct the interview at that very moment, displaying the assertiveness he praised in his most recent book, "Manliness."

His latest topic, manliness, had created controversy. However, this is nothing new for Mansfield. At Harvard, Mansfield is one of the few conservatives on the faculty. When Lawrence Summers was chastised for remarks on the differences of the sexes, Mansfield was one of the few who publicly defended Summers, who eventually was forced to resign. He has been an outspoken critic of grade inflation in higher education. In each instance he displayed civility and wit, a rarity in today’s public discourse.

We walked to a ballroom that was being readied for the Young America’s Foundation conference he would be addressing. Our soundtrack was the chatter from the custodial staff and the clanging of chairs as we talked about manliness, feminism, terrorists, Andrew Sullivan, Harry Jaffa, Leo Strauss, Allen Bloom, and scotch. He answered the question with smooth and robust baritone voice.

When he departed from our brief interview, I came away with the sense that Mansfield not only wrote about manliness, but he lived out the virtue he extolled. He disappeared into the August heat in search of coffee, but not before providing powerful insights in an understated manner.

What is manliness?

Harvey Mansfield: Manliness I take to be confidence in a situation of risk. That can be a question of danger, and it can also be a question where your authority is contested. So put those two together and you’ve got a sizable risk, say, a battle. And manly confidence and manliness means an ability to take charge or to be authoritative in that situation. Women also have confidence, but they don’t seek out situations of risk the way the way that manly men do.

Would you say that manliness is a virtue?

Mansfield: Manliness can be a virtue. It isn’t necessarily a virtue. You can have confidence in a situation of risk — if you’re very evil as the Islamic hijackers attacking the World Trade Center, that kind of manliness. So manliness by itself, I would say, is a quality, and it has to be refined or improved to make it a virtue.

Is it possible for a modern man to be manly, or is manliness and modernism at odds with each other?

Mansfield: Yes, I do think manliness and modernism are at odds. The basic idea of modern or modernism is rational control of things. It’s the reduction of risk for the sake of greater security. Manliness, manly men don’t want to reduce risk; they rather like it. They seek it out even when it isn’t in their life. They want to live an exciting existence. So they like risk, and they think that risk goes with the human situation and it’s wrong to try to reduce it. And also manly men don’t care for security so much. They consider that boring.

Do you think boys are being raised in an improper way that it’s reducing their manliness?

Mansfield: I think boys are being raised in such a way as not to cultivate their manliness. Their manliness is being neglected or ignored or put aside in favor of a gender neutral quality, which you might call feminization, but is meant to be between the sexes, or at least in no way sexist. The result, however, for boys is to leave them feeling that education is boring, and that the only way to find excitement is through challenging the indoctrination that they are getting. And so they will seek ways to be bad in class as a way of asserting the manliness, which is ignored by their teachers.

How closely is manliness and honor tied?

Mansfield: Manliness is very much concerned with honor and security. You get honor from facing a situation of risk and performing well in whatever you do. And so manliness, I would say, is very much concerned with honor, perhaps too much so. You could criticize manliness by considering its attachment to honor, its love of honor, even at the expense of an activity that might be more valuable to you. And so if you go back to the boys in the classroom, those boys are perhaps too much in love with honor, and that level of honor should be moderated or refined or contained. But you can’t do that if you aren’t aware of it and don’t address it.

Who are best equipped to refine that? Is it men or is it women?

Both. I think women are great critics of men. Under feminism, they’ve lost their faculty or at least their vocation for criticizing men, and I think that’s a great loss. And then, of course, manly men are great critics as well. They look down on unmanly men, and they are interested in boys, or often the desires of showing them how to be a man through criticism of their juvenile, puerile ways.

Why do the successes of political correctness and feminism invariably come at the cost of manliness?

Mansfield: Feminism has two minds about manliness, so it’s not a 100 percent critic of it because the feminists want to show that women can do everything, that they can do everything that men can do. And that means that they’re capable of manliness. On the other hand, they realize, if they don’t always explicitly say, that men are more manly than women, so they try to reduce the necessity or the capacities of manliness in the way they talk. Still you could say that feminism was a manly movement in itself. It picked up an issue hitherto neglected. You could say the oppression or the neglect of women’s capacities over millennia made a movement against it, and did this in the face of possible criticism and opposition. So the feminists are in a way fairly manly I would say.

Do you think on the whole, has feminism done more ill than good to America?

Mansfield: Yes, I think it has. Feminism has two main concerns. One is women’s careers, and the other is getting women equal in regard to sex. And it’s in the latter that feminists have done the most damage. But I think we could have welcomed women into the workforce without feminism, and that if we had things would be much better now. But the feminists came along with their notion of creating new identities for women. They thought that this would require that women be as adventurous in sex as men are.

So they made a very strange alliance with sexual liberation and went ahead to play a game that really is a man’s game, the game of sexual conquest. And so they’ve abandoned any standard of sexual morality for either women or men because they were so opposed to the double standard of sexual morality.

How does our declining manliness impair our understanding of the Middle East and the Arab world?

Mansfield: That’s a good point. I think our failure to understand manliness does effect our political understanding in general, and especially of the Arabs in the Middle East who seem to have a surfeit of manliness and suffer very much from the sense of being second best or of losing out compared to the rest of the world. And so they need very much to have manliness find them a more sensible outlet than the extremist politics that they’ve been carrying on for half a century now and maybe longer. It seems that Islam does not provide the same moderate critique of manliness that other religions do.

You’re a translator of Tocqueville, and he wrote about Muslims having trouble with democracy. Do you think the project to democratize the Middle East in the Muslim world is misguided because of that reason?

Mansfield: I think the project to democratize the Middle East will run into trouble for that reason. I’m not sure that we have any alternative to it. We can’t let things go on as they have been. And our principles require us to be faithful to democracy, but we need to understand the obstacles in the way of democracy in the Middle East.

Tocqueville especially referred to this Islam as a religion that did not believe in the distinction between church and state and therefore hostile to liberalism, using that word in the most generic sense that includes both liberals and conservatives today.

Can terrorists be manly?

Mansfield: Yes, I think so. Yeah, that’s how they understand themselves. They say, you’re in favor of life? We’re in favor of death. You can’t face death, we can. And therefore I think the implication is — I don’t know how much they use this word — we are more manly than you. We are more powerful, more human. We are not the kind of animal, chicken, that seeks security all the time.

That’s very interesting. Do you think even though there are impediments in the religious beliefs, that manliness or the expression of that manliness is in some ways nihilistic where life becomes the standard rather than the sacred?

Mansfield: Of course. These Islamic terrorists are not true followers of Islam, which has a law. They follow will. And they say that their religion brings them greater concentration of will than our atheism brings us. So the advantage of religion, according to them, seems to be greater will. That’s why it makes sense perhaps to call them fascists or something like fascists. They use religion for the sake of conquest, or conquering will, or will to conquer rather than for the sake of obedience to God.

How has fatherhood influenced your idea of manliness?

Mansfield: Fatherhood means being in authority, and manly men are authoritative. They radiate authority. They’re the kind of person that you defer to in a tough situation because they have this spark or spirit of authority that makes you feel confident in their confidence.

Did your father radiate that authority?

Mansfield: Yes. Actually he was a very liberal man, a New Dealer, and so he was by no means a strict parent, but he certainly set standards and you knew that there were limits to what you could do as a child. And he enforced them more by his presence than by any punishments.

You’ve taught both William Kristol and Andrew Sullivan. Would you say that Bill Kristol is a manly man?

Mansfield: Yes, I would very much, and so is Andrew. To do what Andrew Sullivan has done takes a lot of courage. He came out of the closet, which was kind of a manly act. And he has been one of the first and one of the most successful bloggers. And there he takes his own path, no doubt influenced by his sexuality, but still full of reason and emphasis.

Do you think it’s still possible to be thoughtful and serious when you’re doing punditry like Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Kristol?

Mansfield: Yes. It’s perhaps a way to be more serious than academics who never touch live political issues or who have made up, so to speak, professional or academic opinions on those issues. To say something every day or to be ready to say something every day about an issue of the day is not easy. There are many who do it very poorly and who use partisan mantras to formulate that day’s opinion. But to look at things with a fresh mind and a clear eye as they arise is, with an open mind, with the possibility of changing your mind, that’s very difficult.

You and Professor Harry Jaffa at Claremont College in California have had a long disagreement about the American founding and its origins. Give me three reasons why Professor Jaffa is wrong or misguided about the American founding and its origins.

Mansfield: Harry Jaffa is a great friend of mine, and I wouldn’t want to say anything against him. I just disagree that America is the fount of everything good. That would be my criticism of his view. I think that America is a modern regime essentially and has the virtues of a modern regime, which do exist; that it was gifted with a certain classical spirit, so it is not a bad or worst modern regimes. In fact it’s probably the best. But that doesn’t mean that you can put together Thomas Jefferson and Aristotle, or Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Aquinas as Harry Jaffa recently tried to do.

How much has Leo Strauss influenced your work?

Mansfield: Very greatly, and I have very, very great admiration for Strauss and for what he’s done to teach us all the importance of political philosophy and what it stands as the crucial subject to be studied by anyone or everyone at any time.

Would you consider yourself a Straussian and what does that term mean to you?

Mansfield: Yes, I would. It means belonging to a certain sect, you could use that term, unofficial sect. There are no badges or initiation rites, and there are plenty of disagreements, especially political disagreements. Most Straussians are conservative, but there are some who aren’t. And so, yes, I’m a Straussian, but you could say big tent Straussian.

Do you think that college students should read Strauss, or should they just read the main text before exploring Strauss?

Mansfield: Perhaps a look at Strauss beforehand would help. His book, Natural Right and History, might be the best way to do it. You must certainly not just read Strauss alone.

How close were you to Allan Bloom and how did he influence your thinking?

Mansfield: I was very close to him. He influenced my thinking by showing how brilliant a philosopher can be. I always admired his wonderful style, which I am unable to imitate, but can only wish I could imitate.

Do you think that there will be another definitive book like "The Closing of the American Mind," any time soon, or do you think that it’s an impossibility because the audience is not receptive to it?

Mansfield: That was a successful book. It makes its own success. I don’t think that the audience is any less receptive now that it was in 1987 when Bloom’s wonderful book came out. No, we would have to have another Bloom or another man who combined his insight with his brilliance of formulation.

When you’re in Boston, what clothing stores do you usually go to? Do you buy off the rack or do you go see a tailor?

Mansfield: Is this inspired by Mike Anton?


Mansfield: Author of that excellent book, "The Suit"? Well, I have in the past gone to Filene’s Basement, which is enough fallen below the basement as opposed to what it used to be. It isn’t what it used to be anyway. And I’ve had some suits made in London.

Are you a cigar smoker?

Mansfield: I’m a puffer now and again, but my smoking days would be behind me.

How about scotch? Do you drink scotch?

Mansfield: Yes, I drink scotch, also bourbon, which is probably more American, therefore more manly in a sense. Scotch is for James Bond, but I drink it anyway.