The Corner


Manliness and More, with Mansfield

Statue of George Washington outside the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond (Jay Paul / Reuters)

My latest Q&A is not with George Washington, looking sharp on his horse, above. He was unavailable. But he comes up in my conversation with Harvey Mansfield, here. He comes up in the context of manliness.

Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. is an eminent professor of government at Harvard, a political philosopher. He went to Harvard in 1949 as a freshman. After graduation, he served in the Army. He returned to Harvard for his Ph.D. He has been teaching there since 1962.

He has a large, and distinguished, alumni association, so to speak. Students of Mansfield are happy and lucky students indeed.

Among the professor’s subjects is manliness. He wrote a book on the subject — called, simply, “Manliness” — in 2006. I have done a little writing about manliness myself, in a glancing way. See this Impromptus column last week.

Is Vladimir Putin a manly man, swaggering around bare-chested and so on? Or is he merely brutish? Jair Bolsonaro and the rest of the populists and caudillos? Manly? Hugo Chávez?

I thought King Juan Carlos was fairly manly when, with regal indignation, he said to Chávez, “Por qué no te callas?” (“Why don’t you shut up?”) Juan Carlos spoke for millions.

Looking back on American presidents, I think, first and foremost, of Washington and Lincoln. Those were men. In our Q&A, Professor Mansfield adds FDR and Reagan — “one for each party,” he notes. Manliness is not sex-specific, by the way, at least in Mansfield’s eyes: He cites Margaret Thatcher, a take-charge woman.

That is one way in which Mansfield defines manliness: taking charge. Especially in a risky situation. Standing up, or speaking up, when others are looking around, hoping someone else will do it. Mansfield points out that the Greeks’ word for “manliness” was the same as their word for “courage.”

Also, the manly man looks out for the weak.

Today, says Mansfield, manliness “suffers from lack of employment.” Manly men are thought to be unnecessary, or counterproductive. My thought is: The manly man is unnecessary until he is necessary — at which point, society begs for him.

Mansfield’s book on manliness is dedicated to Sam Beer, who was his favorite professor. Sam Beer (1911–2009) was a liberal — the president of Americans for Democratic Action in the early ’60s. Mansfield was (and is) a conservative. But they got along like a house on fire. In World War II, Beer was “something of a hero,” says Mansfield.

Elsewhere in our conversation, we talk about higher ed: its descent into grubby, everyday politics, its harmful one-sidedness. “In American education, the conservative voice is almost totally absent,” says Mansfield. At any rate, a good professor does not preach politics at you, he says. You should barely even know his politics. What a professor does is, for example, transport you to another time or place. He broadens your horizon, makes your life bigger.

In this hour together, we talk about both conservatism and liberalism. The other week, I wrote a piece called “‘Conservative’: A Term Up for Grabs.” I said that William F. Buckley Jr. went around the country for 50-some years, giving talks. Most of these talks had Q&A periods. And the most frequent question WFB got was, “What is conservatism? Can you define it?” WFB always had a hard time, believe it or not. For one thing, conservatism is more a disposition, or state of mind, than a program. It is certainly not a dogma.

Mansfield talks engrossingly about conservatism (as about other things). I will give you just a taste.

Conservatism involves “an appreciation for conventions as well as principles” — for “the forms and formalities that give adornment to life.” The conservative is apt to dress up more regularly than other people. He “tries to give special meaning to occasions.” He seeks to “rise above what is common or mediocre or vulgar.” He is “dignified.”

Also, conservatism has two modes: go back and go slow. This leads to all kinds of difficulties, as well as satisfactions.

I will tell you what I told Mansfield, concerning dressing up. I myself can be pretty slobby. But I appreciate the un-slobbiness of others. And when I see kids in school uniforms — plaid skirts, blue blazers — my heart is warmed. That is one of the things that make me a deep-dyed conservative, I suppose.

And doesn’t every person, pretty much, have strains of conservatism and liberalism within him? I like the kid in the blue blazer, yes. But I also get the kid in the ripped T-shirt and mohawk.

Among Professor Mansfield’s books is The Spirit of Liberalism. In our Q&A, he talks of Locke, who stood for (1) the right of toleration and (2) the right of private property. He was two parties in one, says Mansfield. Eventually, those two strands — those two rights — split, and fought each other.

Highly interesting.

“Today,” says Mansfield, “the true liberals are the conservatives, and the mission of conservatism, I would say, is to save liberalism from the people called ‘liberals,’ who corrupt liberty, taking away its spiritedness or manliness.”

Let me get to the Founders, and others, in a roundabout way. Occasionally, people will ask me, “Who’s your favorite composer?” With a gun to my head, I’ll give an answer. But mainly, I consider the great composers a family: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, et al. They commune with one another, build on one another, constitute a kind of musical whole. I need them all, want them all.

I feel the same way about the Founders. You have ardent Hamiltonians and ardent Jeffersonians, and they fight, even today. I say “Yes” to the whole group — I need them all and want them all. The true American embodies them all, I think.

Mansfield is essentially of the same mind. He further says that he feels about the great political philosophers the way I do about the composers. Mansfield teaches a survey course, year-long: the ancients, the medievals, and the moderns. He needs them all, wants them all — presents them all in a basically sympathetic way, even the baddies, e.g. Marx.

There is a real teacher.

At the end of our conversation, I ask him sort of a cheesy question, and a cliché of a question: “‘A republic, if you can keep it.’ Can we?”

“We’re not allowed to think that we might not keep it,” Mansfield smiles. “What Franklin said is a kind of reminder to each generation that our Constitution and our way of governing ourselves don’t work automatically or mechanistically, like a machine that you just start and then watch. No, each generation takes over from the preceding and needs to face new challenges — or old challenges, newly appeared — and take them on and resolve them.”

So, “it’s an exciting and interesting republic that we live in. It isn’t one that stays the same, except for its principles.”

In the future, there may be a generation that “fails to follow its duty and meet its obligation to keep our republic, but . . .”

But woe to that generation, if it comes to pass. Again, my Q&A with Professor Harvey C. Mansfield is here.