Saturday, May 20, 2006

Darwin and Mansfield on Manliness

Harvey Mansfield's new book Manliness is one of the most profound books I have read in recent years. It is a deep study of the nature of human sex differences and of the moral and political implications of those differences.

Mansfield's reasoning about the human nature of male and female is very close to what I have said about sex differences in Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism. And yet he fails to fully embrace Darwinian science because he does not rightly understand the Darwinian account of human nature as confirming Aristotelian naturalism. Mansfield's mistakes in his view of Darwinian biology are shared with other Straussians who fail to see how Darwinism supports the idea of natural right.

Mansfield defines manliness as expressed in assertiveness and spiritedness. He regards such manliness as both good and bad, but essential for politics.

He thinks that in modern liberal society, manliness exists, but it is unemployed. The danger in this situation comes from either too little manliness (bourgeois softness) or too much manliness (Nietzschean will to power). We need to see the wisdom in the reasoning of Plato and Aristotle, who saw the need for a middle ground between too little manliness and too much.

Against the tendency to explain manliness as falling on one side or the other of the nature/nurture dichotomy, Mansfield explains it as emerging from the complex cooperation of nature and nurture. Manliness is a social construction that cultivates a natural inclination.

While criticizing the radical feminist pursuit of gender neutrality, in which manliness would be denied or repressed, Mansfield does not think we can go back to traditional arrangements--with women confined to the home and men free for public careers. Ultimately, he proposes a new liberal feminism based on the liberal distinction between public and private, state and society, so that there would be formal gender neutrality in the public realm but not in the private realm. He concludes: "We need to both respect and ignore sex differences" (228).

Mansfield surveys some of the evidence and reasoning from Darwinian biology that confirms his assertion of differences in men and women rooted in nature that are not likely to be radically altered or abolished by social engineering. But even as he does this, he makes four criticisms of the Darwinian view of manliness.

First, although Darwin rightly sees manliness as aggression, he does not see how that manly aggression among human males becomes assertiveness (48-49, 64-65).

Second, because Darwin does not recognize manly assertiveness, he does not see how such assertiveness supports male dominance in politics (49-50).

Third, the Darwinian denial of eternal, fixed nature and cosmic teleology prepares the way for nihilism (16, 83, 89, 196, 201).

Finally, Darwin assumes a "spontaneous nature" that denies the need for habituation and reasoning in cultivating natural inclinations (192-93, 196-97, 202, 215).

The first criticism is inaccurate. Male assertiveness is a clear theme in Darwin's writing. In The Descent of Man (London: J. Murray, 1871), Darwin wrote: "Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition which passes too easily into selfishness" (2:326). He saw men as showing "higher energy, perseverance, and courage" than women in the pursuit of "eminence" and "victory" (2:327-28).

Against the second criticism--Darwin's neglect of politics--I would point to Darwin's account of human sociability as manifested in distinct communities with leaders that lead them in competition with other communities (1:74, 79, 84-85, 95). Mansfield is simply wrong when he asserts that in Darwin's writing, we have no politics, because "all we have is the individual and the species" (1:49).

Mansfield's third criticism is hard to handle, because while he warns that the Darwinian denial of the eternity of species and cosmic teleology prepares for nihilism, he never explicitly affirms the truth of the eternity of species and cosmic teleology.

Mansfield concedes that Darwin himself was not a nihilist. He was not, I would say, because he believed that each species had a species-specific nature, so that there were natural ends for each species for as long as the species endured. This sustains an immanent teleology of species-specific ends as a ground for natural right without any need for a cosmic teleology by which the universe as a whole is ordered to some end. That species are not eternal does not deny the natural order of each species for as long as it exists. As Aristotle said: "The Idea of the Good will not be any more good because it is eternal, seeing that a white thing that lasts for a long time is not whiter than a white thing that lasts for a day" (Nicomachean Ethics, 1096b3-5). For as long as the human species exists in its present form, there will be natural differences between men and women, and we will need to take those diffences seriously.

Mansfield's fourth criticism--Darwin saw only "spontaneous nature"--is wrong, because Darwin repeatedly affirmed the importance of habit, custom, and reason in cultivating human nature. In this respect, as in many others, Darwin was close to Aristotle. Darwin explained that "the moral qualities are advanced, either directly or indirectly, much more through the effects of habit, the reasoning powers, instruction, religion, etc., than through natural selection" (2:404; see also 1:165-166, 1:173).

Darwin would agree with Mansfield that natural human inclinations--such as manliness--set a natural guide for action, but we are free to decide how to follow that natural guide as we deliberate about how best to cultivate and direct those inclinations.

If Mansfield--and other Straussian conservatives--were to recognize how Darwinian science supports Aristotelian naturalism, they might see the wisdom in Darwinian natural right and Darwinian conservatism.

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