Sunday, December 04, 2011

The End of Manliness?

Steven Pinker's history of declining violence in The Better Angels of Our Nature seems to be a history of declining manliness.  A pervasive theme of his book is that violence comes from men fighting over matters of honor, and therefore the historical trend towards declining violence requires a turn away from the culture of manly honor. 

In the past, wars were fought as contests of honor.  But now we know that Falstaff was right about honor--it's only a word, or a social construction, as we would say today (247).  War is not glorious and exciting.  It is stupid and cruel.  We need to puncture the swollen egos of men who fight over who's most important.  After all, it's only the silly games of little boys.  If we get rid of that macho striving for honor and glory, then we can see that moral progress is measured, as Pinker declares on the last page of his book, by our success in allowing "a greater and greater proportion of humanity to live in peace and die of natural causes" (696).

But can we be satisfied by a world of peace without honor, a world of feminine values without masculine virtues, a world of bourgeois comfort without manly courage?  In Pinker's long book, he raises this question in one paragraph, only to quickly dismiss it.  He is speaking about the historical trend towards a feminized culture favoring peace over violence.

Feminization need not consist of women literally wielding more power in decisions on whether to go to war.  It can also consist in a society moving away from a culture of manly honor, with its approval of violent retaliation for insults, toughening of boys through physical punishment, and veneration of martial glory (chapter 8).  This has been the trend in the democracies of Europe and the developed world and in the bluer states of America (chapters 3 and 7).  Several conservative scholars have ruefully suggested to me that the modern West has been diminished by the loss of virtues like bravery and valor and the ascendancy of materialism, frivolity, decadence, and effeminacy.  Now, I have been assuming that violence is always a bad thing except when it prevents greater violence, but these men are correct that this is a value judgment, and that no logical argument inherently favors peace over honor and glory.  But I would think that the potential victims of all this manliness deserve a say in this discussion, and they may not agree that their lives and limbs are a price worth paying for the glorification of masculine virtues. (686-87)
Although Pinker does not identify these "conservative scholars" who worry about the decline of manly spiritedness as a flattening of the human soul, I suspect that Harvey Mansfield--one of Pinker's colleagues at Harvard--must be one of these people.  After all, he's the one who's written the book Manliness, in which he worries that the sort of liberal humanism defended by Pinker fails to satisfy the human need for manly self-assertion.

A few years ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on Mansfield's case for manliness in the modern world as an expression of a counter-Enlightenment tradition evident in the work of Straussians like Mansfield.  Mansfield is correct, I think, in seeing that the biology of Plato and Aristotle recognises the complementarity of male and female virtues in human biological nature, while also recognising that manliness can be either bad or good, so that we need a virtuous mean between too little and too much masculinity.  But I also think that Mansfield is wrong in failing to see how a Darwinian biology supports this ancient insight.  If Mansfield were to embrace a Darwinian understanding of the sexual complementarity of evolved human nature, he would not be seduced by the "manly nihilism" of Friedrich Nietzsche and Teddy Roosevelt, which leads him to argue for "one-man rule" by the American President serving a policy of "imperial ambition."

Pinker fails to elaborate a Darwinian response to this Mansfieldian manliness.  But there are some hints in his writing as to how the evolutionary psychology of human nature recognises the comprehensive complementarity of male and female virtues, which can promote a decline in violence without a decline in true manliness.

Pinker observes that the greatest human suffering from violence has been caused by the narcissistic personality of tyrants, who show the grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy characteristic of people inflated by unearned self-esteem (519-21).  But Pinker fails to point out that such narcissism is different from what traditionally has been recognised as "greatness of soul"--the magnanimity of those men who have earned their self-esteem and who are contemptuous of those who derive sadistic pleasure from the suffering of innocent people.

Pinker describes a new martial arts program of the United States Marine Corps, which teaches "a new code of honor, the Ethical Marine Warrior."  The chant for this new code is "The Ethical Warrior is a protector of life.  Whose life?  Self and others.  Which others?  All others."  A former Marine captain who helped to implement this program wrote to Pinker: "When I first joined the Marines in the 1970s it was 'Kill, kill, kill.'  The probability that there would have been an honor code that trained marines to be 'protectors of all others--including the enemy, if possible' would have been 0 percent" (264-66).

Pinker doesn't reflect on the deeper implications of this--that the liberal humanism of declining violence might be best promoted, not by denigrating manly honor, but by "a new code of honor" in which men can take pride in their courageous self-discipline in defending human life.  After all, if Pinker is right in declaring that "violence is always a bad thing except when it prevents greater violence," doesn't that require manly courage from those trained to use violence to prevent greater violence?

Pinker devotes a lot of attention to the argument that the atrocious killing of World War II was caused ultimately by the maniacal narcissism of one man--Adolf Hitler.  But he gives no attention to the fact that England's refusal to surrender to Hitler's assault depended crucially on the glorious resoluteness of one man--Winston Churchill.  Although there are some dubious facets to Churchill's character and policies, one can see him as manifesting a manly magnanimity that is compatible with, and even necessary for, modern liberalism.

Some of my blog posts on Mansfield can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

You should also see Mansfield's manly interview with Stephen Colbert.

Martha Nussbaum has written a manly attack on Mansfield.


chris said...

War/violence is about obtaining reproductive status and hence mating opportunities.

Men without honor or pride, resign themselves to cuckoldry/reproductive extinction.

JPVV said...

Your articles are eye-opening.

As an atheist conservative I tend to agree with everything you write.

Keep up the good work.

JPVV said...

The interview with Colbert was pathetic. Mansfield should avoid at all costs that type of exposure.

His views were twisted as that of a backwards scary man.

Mopenhauer said...

Its funny that you so often use Leo Strauss and Mansfield as strawmen to argue against their notion of supposedly Non-Darwinian manliness. Just because their version of manliness doesn't explicity draw on Darwin does not mean its anti-Darwinian or incompatible.

I was reading an interesting book on the influence of Kojeve's End of History on Leo Strauss, Alan Bloom, Fukuyama and the Neocon movment. It seems like a lot of the Nietzschean concerns about the end of manliness parallel your Darwinian concerns. The world will be peaceful, friendly, and nice, and there will be no place for Nietzschean Master morality. We will all have to submit to the bourgeois boring accountants shopkeepers and bureaucrats.

I guess the problem is that the decline of the Hitlers of the world, means the decline of the Churchills of the world. Men like Patton might wish for more Rommels, so that he gets to play the hero. But I don't know if Churchill would wish for more Hitlers.

Manly virtue has its place. In the face of Hitler, we can't just be Christians and turn the other cheek. On the other hand, does it make sense to lament the end of Hitlers, since it means the end of Churchills? We can defend the use of defensive violence, without celebrating the virtue of violence for the sake of violence.

Like Sherman said the glory of war is all moonshine. America doesn't have the Prussian warrior tradition. The same boring accountants and bank clerks who Nietzscheans lament as Last men, are the ones who kicked the butt of Hitler's Aryan supermen. The dopey boy scouts beat the Hitler youth, and then went home to live boring lives with the house in the suburbs with the white picket fence.

I think the defenders of manliness, from the evolutionary psychology perspective often start to echo the most radical feminists. They assign all the traditional Christian virtues to women, and all the sins to men. And then argue that society is oppressing manly virtue. Too much of evopsych seems to me, to be saying men are evil, so any attempt to suppress evil is anti-male.

There is always the French Foreign legion to run away to if a young man really wants action and adventure. But how many men, who lament the decline of manliness, are really serious about leaving behind their safe comfortable 21st century suburban lives, and looking for cavemen conflict in the parts of life where they can still find it?

Empedocles said...

It seems to me that women are still attracted to athletes and tough guys, and nerds are still desperate for a date on Friday night, so masculinity won't go away any time soon.