Manly Virtues and Vices

Craig Lambert, "Manly Virtues and Vices," Harvard Magazine, May 1998.


Don Quixote is an archetypal manly man. Supremely confident in his abilities, forthright in his dealings, passionate about righting wrongs and protecting the weak, Cervantes’ hero embodies the manly virtues. Yet Quixote was also thin-skinned, grandiose, self-dramatizing, and generally unacquainted with the feelings and actual needs of those around him: quixotic behavior is action uninformed by reality. “It’s easy to be dismissive of manliness–or, alternatively, to think that every virtue is part of manliness,” says Harvey Mansfield ’53, Ph.D. ’61, Kenan professor of government. “I take a middle position. Not all virtues are manly, and it does include its dark side–an unnecessary and unthinking aggressiveness that often issues in violence. Manliness seems to come mainly in excess. It’s hard to get just the right amount of it–if you try that, you’ll probably end up with too little.”

Mansfield is currently writing a book on manliness, an embattled ideal even in Cervantes’ time. His research combines personal observation with immersion in philosophy, poetry, novels, and films to formulate a fresh perspective on the subject and its implications. “There are two aspects of manliness,” Mansfield says. “The first is confidence in what one does, self-assurance. Second, since he is confident in his ability to run his own life, the manly man is independent. This can either make him contemptuous of dependent people, or protective of those who depend on him, like his family. The protectiveness can become political: he gets involved with others and then decides to command or rule them.”

Manliness, says Mansfield, is “an ineradicable quality in males. Its social expression changes–Achilles, the Christian knight, the cowboy, the U.S. Marine–but there has to be a place for it in society. If there isn’t, then manly men will be frustrated and will find some illegal or dangerous outlet: extreme sports, gang wars, violence in movies. Manliness involves taking responsibility for others, as in protectiveness. If no responsible manliness is permitted, it can easily pass into irresponsible manliness–deadbeat fathers, for example.”

Harvard Magazine