The most recent use of the word manliness cited in the Oxford English Dictionary appears in an 1880 novel by Anthony Trollope, The Duke's Children, about a widower duke who is trying to get to know his grown kids better. In that novel, Trollope writes of one man, "He was dark, with . . . that expression of manliness . . . which women love the best." At the time The Duke's Children appeared, Trollope's use of manliness was relatively conventional. But today it would seem highly unusual—even, to some readers, a bit campy. The relative disappearance of the word—which was in popular usage from the fifteenth through the nineteenth century and expressed entrenched masculinity—is what Harvey Mansfield explores and ultimately laments in his new book, Manliness.

Mansfield, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Government at Harvard University, is a respected Straussian political philosopher known for challenging accepted orthodoxies, both liberal and conservative. He has written with acuity on Machiavelli, Burke, and Tocqueville, and some regard him as a contrarian with a knack for asking incisive questions. He has also gained notoriety for his attacks on affirmative action, grade inflation, and feminism. Last October, in a talk delivered at Harvard titled "Feminism and the Autonomy of Women," Mansfield informed his listeners that men don't like the sexual aggressiveness that feminism has engendered: "Without modesty, there is no romance—it isn't so attractive or so erotic," he claimed.

So a reader may come to a book called Manliness expecting to encounter a series of provocative claims about the impossibility of a truly gender-neutral society, the proper roles of men and women, and the incontrovertible fact that manliness is not socially constructed but inherent in the Y chromosome itself. This litany is precisely what we get. But Mansfield never satisfyingly pins down just what, exactly, manliness is. He argues unpersuasively that full female equality is an ideal that makes women and men unhappy. And in an age when fluid ideas about gender have helped make women more intellectually fulfilled and have led to a more inclusive workforce—if also to a complicated and messy approach to marriage and homemaking—he argues for a return to a more rigidly monolithic view of men and women.

Mansfield's central claim is that manliness is an intrinsic quality, though one that not all men possess. (From a Darwinian perspective, he argues, the risk-taking it inculcates has helped "bring about the perfection of the species.") "Quaint and obsolete" though the word might be—a young woman at the Harvard alumni magazine was taken aback when Mansfield described a colleague as manly—he argues that manliness is our best term to encompass male virtues now in danger of being suppressed by political correctness. In exchanging manliness for masculinity, he worries, "we have lost the name we used to have for what mainly resists gender neutrality, which is manliness."

According to Mansfield, manliness is characterized by assertiveness, aggression, aloofness, and inability to adapt—all of which may be good or bad qualities, depending on the situation in which one finds them—and by the indubitably positive qualities of honor, self-determination, gentlemanliness, political courage, and philosophical courage. The origin of Mansfield's concept goes back to the Greeks, who saw manliness as a struggle between the rational aims of civilization and the irrational measures sometimes required to uphold them. Mansfield points us to the Greek notion of thumos, which is frequently translated as "passion" or "spiritedness" but which might be more accurately termed "spirited contention." He likens thumos to a dog's bristling at a strange sound. This aggressiveness might cause problems—Mansfield points us to the fight between Agamemnon and Achilles over Briseis—but it reminds society that there are higher ideals to which to aspire.

Mansfield mounts his defense of manliness in an eclectic and haphazard manner. He cuts back and forth between examples from Plato and Homer, Rousseau and Spinoza, Twain and Hemingway, and, of course, Hollywood westerns to claim that manliness helps account for many of the best aspects of liberal society. The most interesting part of Mansfield's book is his account of the tension between the rational and irrational elements of a society. Consider, for example, the manly men in westerns. In High Noon, Gary Cooper fights off a gang of cowboy criminals whom the townspeople, wanting to protect their bourgeois safety, were willing to put up with rather than risk angering. This is a classic case of liberal society gone awry: The very things society is supposed to keep us safe from (violence, anarchy, chaos) have invaded, and the system of protection has broken down. It takes Cooper's obstreperous sense of frontier justice to set things straight, even if his Quaker wife abandons him along the way because he won't act peaceably. Despite saving the day, Cooper leaves the town at the film's end (although he does get back together with his wife).

If Cooper and John Wayne represent the positive side of manliness, Mansfield argues that manliness can also be rigid and intolerant. Analyzing Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, he notes that Hank (the Connecticut Yankee who's accidentally gone back in time) valorizes merit-based democracy over the chivalric and aristocratic court of Arthur. But the democracy Hank sets up, Mansfield points out, is just as aristocratic in its way as the system he seeks to dismantle. "Manliness seeks honor for the individual man and, by implication, for the human race. Honor for the human race requires a special place for it in nature," he writes. The furthest extension of this quest for a "special place" is, of course, Nazism, which Mansfield argues is a perverse form of manliness. So is manliness good or bad? A little of both. But then, what are the conditions that shape good manliness, and what are those that shape bad manliness? How do we identify the difference? Mansfield doesn't say enough about these questions, and his taxonomy feels incoherent and unsatisfying. The examples Mansfield includes seem to have more to do with his personal affection for them than with their particular relevance. (Shane would have been a better example than High Noon, for one.) This is a fundamental failure in a book attempting to rehabilitate a supposedly despised attribute. The result is neither a rigorous history of manliness and how it changed over time nor a forthright polemic.

Consider Mansfield's analysis of Achilles in the Iliad. At the heart of the epic is the argument between Agamemnon, king of the Greeks, and the warrior Achilles over Briseis, a Trojan woman captured by Achilles and claimed by Agamemnon for his own use. The standoff between the two men, Mansfield argues, reflects the clash of two types of authority: the authority Agamemnon possesses "by virtue of his lineage" and the authority Achilles possesses by virtue of his battlefield accomplishments and his manly courage. Mansfield argues intriguingly that manliness thus helps pave the way toward a more democratic authority:

The quarrel is not so much over the woman as between the two parties, Agamemnon claiming the authority of his lineage and Achilles the power of his virtue. The eternal dispute between ancestral and natural right opens up among the he-men because lineage, even to the gods, does not guarantee virtue, or as we would say, birth is one thing and merit another. . . . Manliness appears first not as a claim of authority but as the assertion of virtue against authority, an assertion always required because authority is always in the way of virtue and virtue never gets a free welcome from authority. In the course of asserting itself against authority, virtue becomes a possible claim on the basis of which one can assert one's worthiness to rule, thus a claim to authority.

But in claiming that this détente is an example of the "assertion of virtue against authority," Mansfield assumes that Achilles is more manly than Agamemnon. He never explains why he thinks this. This omission is a problem, because Achilles is not a figure who at first seems to fit Mansfield's paradigm of manliness. He doesn't fight Agamemnon to win Briseis back, as an assertive and aggressive manly man would do. Instead, he retreats to his tent. Mansfield writes, "Achilles' assertiveness causes him to sulk in his tent—which is the aloofness of the manly man, as we have remarked." Well, hold on a minute. The aloofness
of the manly man Mansfield has previously described—typified by Cooper and Wayne—seems very different from Achilles's petulant anger. In fact, Achilles's sulking has seemed vaguely feminine to many critics. (Dante's Purgatory apparently contains an allusion to Achilles's rebirth as a woman.) But Mansfield fails to examine the difference, presumably because he has to claim Achilles as "manly" here in order to argue that advances in liberal thought were shaped by competing notions of manliness.

Mansfield's definition of manliness is so capacious that it ultimately includes intellectual courage as well as the aloof physical prowess of John Wayne. The real question, then, is why this attribute must be called manliness and not something else—honor, ambition, virtue, courage, or just stubborn willpower. On this point, Mansfield is not persuasive. After all, the tension he describes exists primarily between the radical individual and conformist society. It's not only men who experience the conflict between life lived by the book and life lived according to one's own code, nor is it only men who agitate for change. (Indeed, Mansfield declares that feminism is itself a manly movement—a piece of logic so circular it's dizzying.) Consider Electra, or Scarlett O'Hara, or Joan of Arc. The majority of our representations of this type of manliness may be male. But that's largely because women didn't have much autonomy until recently, and we don't have a strong cultural script associating women with power. Mansfield would argue that that's because women don't really like or want power. But until we have much firmer evidence of this than we do—and, frankly, a few social science studies aren't persuasive enough—there are reasons to presume that this difference has as much to do with social reinforcement as with
an obdurate truth about the identity of women as a group.

* * *

In theory, a history of manliness and its role in shaping liberal thought could be very interesting. The problem is that Mansfield undermines his argument by allowing his obsession with modern feminism to intrude. In the end, Mansfield's book is not primarily about manliness but about feminism. Specifically, it is about his quest to indict the tactics of '70s feminists (some of which do need deeper scrutiny than they have received) and to appoint women to the role of nurturing caretakers. This role, Mansfield argues, is naturally
a woman's. He fully supports women in the workplace, but—though he soft-pedals the scope of his argument to the very end—he wants women to recognize their inferiority at the most challenging intellectual tasks and to admit that they ought to spend more time homemaking than their husbands do. The tension between pursuing work and homemaking is one Mansfield ignores completely. And he is unsympathetic to evidence that in the main the sexes are far more similar than different—though he himself notes it at one point. This line of thinking isn't provocative; it's predictable and retrograde.

Mansfield frames his argument around the specious assumption that feminism today hasn't changed very much from the 1970s or '80s. He fails to grasp many of the nuanced debates taking place today—or perhaps willingly overlooks them. He thinks that anyone invested in a gender-neutral society should be called a feminist. In order to indict feminism, he relies on an impoverished notion of just what feminists and women want:

"Choice" is the byword of modern women, and not only in regard to abortion. But being devoted to "choice" as a principle also limits your choices in practice, because it requires you to choose work, which has more choice in it because you can change jobs, over home, where a woman is stuck with her husband and children. . . . [T]he true, the effectual, meaning of women's equality is women's independence—which in turn means, so far as possible, independence from men and children. . . . [T]o gain maximum feasible independence, women will want to imitate men, lead the lives of men.

Setting aside the clotted run-on sentences—characteristic of Mansfield's prose—this passage makes a remarkable number of unsubstantiated assumptions. Mansfield is getting at something potentially interesting, which, if I may interpret for him, seems to be the notion that at least in the early days of feminism, the obsession with choice was itself, from a certain perspective, a form of lack of choice. This is true in its way. But thirty or forty years on, choice means something far less self-conscious and charged than it did in 1976. Plenty of married women can choose not to work, and do. Those who do work aren't choosing to get jobs in order to "imitate men" or "lead the lives of men." When young women who grew up with working mothers establish careers, they hardly think of their ambition as a way of imitating men, or as stemming from a desire for "independence from men," in his phrase. And, of course, there is a strong economic motivation for women to work that has nothing to do at all with choice and everything to do with the financial. Mansfield barely acknowledges this.

Indeed, Mansfield seems not to realize that what women want is simply independence—not independence from men. Independence, in this light, means economic freedom (the freedom to make money and buy a house, let's say), intellectual freedom (the freedom to pursue lines of inquiry that were largely closed to women before the late '60s), and sexual freedom (the freedom to choose sexual partners without experiencing censure). Presumably, he would argue in response that all female independence by necessity means independence from men, because the history of women is the history of their subordination by men. But this seems narrow-minded. When the United States signed the Declaration of Independence, it was a declaration of independence from England. Today, license plates that read "Live Free or Die" don't make us think, Live free from England or die. The freedom has become metaphorical, fluid, shifting. The same is obviously true of independence for women.

Mansfield thinks it isn't, because women are biologically different from men: less strong, less willing to take risks, and less skilled at abstract thinking. He tells us that women still do the cooking, while men still mow the lawn. He claims that in all places men are still in charge at the highest levels. "Men have the highest offices, the leading reputations; they make the discoveries," he writes. "Men run things; women follow, accompany, imitate, elaborate, develop." What's more, "most [women] show a secret liking for housework" (and diaper-changing), "take nature's pleasure in giving [breast] milk," and "don't fly off the handle easily"—though they do "flinch, at every danger," particularly spiders. Most curious of all, he assumes that women don't enjoy sex, let alone sex outside a loving relationship. As he explains, "When men do think about marital bliss, they focus on lots of sex rather than the mere kissing and hugging that women prefer."

We might feel more confident about these generalizations if Mansfield seemed relatively in touch with contemporary life. But he often seems more like a recent arrival from Mars than a guy who has experienced life in America after 1962. "Men can spit, cuss, tell dirty jokes, read porn, and drink beer," he informs us. "Modern women are doing their best to catch up. . . . But they remain way behind men." Many of his questions are unintentionally humorous. "Is it possible to teach women manliness and thus to become more assertive? Or is that like teaching a cat to bark?" he wonders. Nor does he betray a deep knowledge of popular culture or much interest in it, though a thoughtful investigation might have had interesting implications for his argument. He dutifully cites Xena: Warrior Princess as a rare TV show about a strong woman and examines the film Fargo for its portrayal of an effective female cop, Marge Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand). Gunderson's slow and steady work style is a characteristic counterpoint, in his mind, to the manly single-mindedness embodied by Theodore Roosevelt. But he doesn't grapple with the examples of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Alien, and La Femme Nikita, to name a handful of contemporary films that portray hard-nosed female action heroes—precisely the type he claims we have a hard time imagining.

This isn't to say that biological differences between the sexes don't exist. Plenty do, and we learn more about them every day, and Mansfield suggests, with reason, that it's important to consider how sex differences affect gender characteristics on average. But the cavalier assumption that the way things are is the way biology meant them to be is less than intellectually rigorous, if not laughable. Whatever areas women still prove "inferior" in, it's more remarkable how quickly women have proved themselves capable of taking on what was until very recently thought of as "men's work." And the complexity of the evidence about differences between the genders—and the potentially oppressive misapplication of it—requires a complexity of argument, one that understands that socialization and biology are so intertwined that if, forty years after the sexual revolution, women are still doing more housework, it may have as much to do with social construction and bias as with something as amorphous as "human nature." Yet Mansfield doesn't interrogate his often-flimsy evidence that women are hardwired so differently from men that they must be treated as another class altogether.

Frankly, the most predictable aspect of Manliness is the expectation, on the part of Mansfield and his reputable university press, that it will "provoke" and "demand" response. Mansfield believes that he is courageously saying what all other men think but are afraid to say. In doing so, he betrays a pernicious vestigial sexism, rather than the kind of thoughtful provocation he pretends to espouse, evidenced most clearly in his untenable final proposal.

In his conclusion, he argues that what society really needs is for men to tell women "that they are inferior in certain important respects." This inherent inferiority, he proposes, means that women should take a cue not from the feminism of Shulamith Firestone but from that of John Stuart Mill. In Mill's version—at least according to Mansfield—women had careers, but they also were guardians of hearth and home, where they did the housework and the child rearing. Mansfield advocates for a publicly gender-neutral society, where both men and women work, complemented by a private liberal society where women do the caretaking and make use of their behind-the-scenes influence, in homes where men do the ruling. Ultimately, Mansfield thinks, such a role comes more naturally to the vast majority of women and is more important to them. Therefore, he argues, a "better feminism might begin from the idea that women, as many of them say, ‘want it all.' They want a career and they want to be women too." Despite the numerous stabs Mansfield has taken at female autonomy along the way, it's a surprise to encounter his assumption that having a career and being a woman belong in two entirely different categories. Even so, he argues, women should continue to have access to the careers that once were exclusively male, even if women are "inferior in certain important respects." After all, women like working, and it's good for the economy—and therefore better for everyone, he acknowledges. How gentlemanly of him. Unfortunately, by the end of Manliness you still won't be sure whether gentlemanliness is a peculiarly nineteenth-century form of manliness, or a perversion of manliness, or both. What is certain, though, is that Manliness passes up an intriguing opportunity to anatomize the concept of manliness in order to inveigh against women who believe equality between the genders is a necessary starting point for
a liberal society.

Meghan O'Rourke is the culture editor of Slate.