The Story of S

I mostly admire Martha Nussbaum, except when she’s talking about religion or about the need for a Rawlsian tender regard for the religious sensibilities of our fellow citizens – I mostly admire her, but there are times when she gets kind of coy, or cozy, or personal, or ingratiating, or something that gets on my nerves. The opening paragraphs of this review of Harvey Mansfield’s book about manliness is not her finest hour. It might be one of her most skin-crawling. She tells us to suppose a scholar, then proceeds to give an admiring description of herself. Um…why did she do that?

Suppose a philosophical scholar–let us call this scholar S–with high standards, trained in and fond of the works of Plato and Aristotle, wished to investigate, for a contemporary American audience, the concept of “manliness,”…following the lead of Aristotle, S would probably begin by laying out the various widespread beliefs about the topic, especially those held by reputable people. S would also consider the opinions of well-known philosophers. In setting down all these opinions, S would be careful to get people’s views right and to read their writings carefully, looking not just for assertions but also for the arguments that support them.

Good. Good S. Well done, S. Good job.

S’s inquiry would uncover much fuzziness and equivocation…(“Don’t use your feminine logic on me,” I can already hear my partner saying teasingly in the background, as he typically does when words such as “necessary condition” are wheeled onto the stage.)

Oh, gosh – did you have to tell us that? Did you have to use the word ‘teasingly’? Does he have a boyish grin when he says things teasingly in the background? Do you both chuckle? Oh dear – I so don’t want to know.

Finally S would try to produce an account that seemed to be the best one, preserving the deepest and most basic of the opinions, and discarding those that contradict them. S would then hold this definition out publicly, inviting all comers to try things out with their own reasoning, and then accept the proposed definition or improve upon it. Being a friend of the Greeks, S would naturally have curiosity about the cross-cultural aspects of this particular topic.

Naturally. Of course. Because S is a good scholar, not like those other scholars who don’t do things the right way and don’t have curiosity about the cross-cultural aspects of this particular topic, because they’re not like S, which is shocking of them, and kind of pitiful.

So S would investigate these differences, and these would naturally lead S to the copious cross-cultural literature on manliness that by now exists: to the work of, say, Daniel Boyarin, on how Jewish males refashioned Roman norms of manliness, making the astonishing claim that the true man sits still all day with a book, and has the bodily shape of someone who does just that; or to work on Indian conceptions of manliness, contrasting the sensuous Krishna, playing his flute, with the tougher norms of manliness recommended by the Raj. A scholar with S’s curiosity and love of truth would find in this material rich food for reflection.

Of course! Of course S would! Because S is good, and cross-cultural, and thorough, and has read exactly the same books that Nussbaum has.

Harvey Mansfield’s credentials suggest to the reader that he will behave like S. He is a prominent political philosopher, recently retired from a chair at Harvard University, who has written widely about philosophical texts. He regularly taught a well-known class in the classics of Greek political thought…It quickly becomes evident, however, that Manliness is not the book that our imagined S would have written. To begin with, it is slipshod about facts–even the facts that lie at the heart of his argument.

Because Harvey Mansfield isn’t S, do you see? So he doesn’t do what S would have done, and he does do what S wouldn’t have done, and that is very wrong of him, because S is a shining example to us all.

I’m sure Nussbaum is right, the book sounds sloppy and silly, but the story of S is toe-curling stuff.

2 Responses to “The Story of S”