by Nathan Greppi

A term that has been circulating a lot in feminist circles in recent years is that of "toxic masculinity": in practice, having virile or masculine attitudes is associated with aggression and insensitivity, which is contrasted with a supposedly more empathetic approach to externalizing one's emotions.

In this era, with the ever increasing entry of controversial issues related to gender and sexuality into the public debate, it is necessary to rediscover what it means to be a male, beyond ideological preconceptions. To have predicted in times not suspected many current drifts is the American academic (of conservative tendency) Harvey C. Mansfield, who in the United States is an authoritative figure in the field of political philosophy. In 2006, many current developments, especially with regard to the excesses of feminism, were already foreseen in his essay Manliness, re-translated into Italian in 2021 by the publishing house Liberilibri.

Manliness is responsibility towards the weakest

Already in the first chapter, Mansfield makes his position clear on what he believes to be the underlying misunderstanding in most discussions of virility and masculinity: those who attack them generally do so because they believe that in them are inherent aggression and a tendency to impose on the weak, and particularly women.

The author explains that there are two types of manliness: the one just described is the negative one, in parallel to which there is a positive one, which consists in using your mental and physical strength to defend yourself and those you love from any abuse. In other words, recognizing, for example, that men are statistically stronger than women should not give them privileges, but rather responsibilities. In general, the archetype of the virile man in a positive sense is represented by soldiers who go to war and risk their lives to defend their mothers, wives, daughters and sisters.

There is also a brief historical excursus on how the division of roles between men and women in contemporary society has changed, especially in recent decades. It is explained how women wish (rightly) to have more choices about what to do with their lives, in most cases giving priority to their working careers and putting domestic work on the back burner. On this point, Mansfield argues that, while on the one hand it is more than acceptable that everyone wants the opportunity to realize themselves as they see fit, on the other hand this goes to affect a certain social order. He believes that what is needed is a rediscovery of the positive aspects of motherhood.

Against Gender Neutrality

More than a decade ahead of the time when the subject emerged in the public debate (at least in Italy), Mansfield attacked the efforts made by various intellectuals to impose the idea that there are no pre-established sexual genders and that male and female categories, as we usually understand them, are only stereotypes, the result of a social construct that should be gotten rid of. His basic counter-argument seems to be that, for every person with an aggressive nature, there must be another with a more caring nature: the two complementing each other.

Departing from an analysis of the very concept of stereotyping, he explains that, while the way men behave has changed radically throughout history, the roles they play are different facets of one large macrocategory. He also makes several references to the fact that, despite over the decades many feminist researchers have made countless efforts to claim otherwise, science also confirms the existence of undeniable differences between men and women. For example, in 1995 Alice H. Eagly, a psychologist working at Purdue University in Indiana, backtracked from her previous positions in favor of gender neutrality, because the results of the analysis she had conducted confirmed the existence of unbridgeable gaps between men and women in psychological terms. More recently, Canadian researcher Debra Soh has also sought to reaffirm this reality, in her 2020 book The end of gender.

A sub-theme to which little more than a mention is dedicated, but which would have deserved much more space, is the contribution made to gender studies by the writings of the American anthropologist Margaret Mead. A scholar of the indigenous populations of the islands of the Pacific Ocean, in her 1928 essay Coming of Age in Samoa, Mead reported that young Samoan women were free to live their sexual identity without the external conditioning that would characterize Western civilizations. Her theories, in the century since the book's publication, have been idealized by gender studies theorists, who on several occasions decontextualize the traditions of tribal populations to find confirmation of the idea that sexual differences are only a social construct. L’adolescenza in Samoa la Mead riportava che le giovani samoane erano libere di vivere la propria identità sessuale senza il condizionamento esterno che invece caratterizzerebbe le civiltà occidentali. Le sue teorie, nel secolo intercorso dalla pubblicazione del libro, sono state idealizzate dai teorici degli studi di genere, che in più occasioni decontestualizzano le tradizioni di popolazioni tribali per trovare conferme all’idea che le differenze sessuali siano solo un costrutto sociale.

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The text is full of quotes from classical literature to show how manliness has been represented from antiquity to modern times. From Homer to William Shakespeare, from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway, each has represented the conception of the male as it was understood in his time. A defect of the book is that, apart from the case of Eagly and a few others, there are few specific references to scientific sources, which could have made the arguments more solid; Mansfield himself, at the beginning of the book, states verbatim that his intention is to address the issue from a purely philosophical point of view. If on the one hand this allows him to range among the topics on which he is most prepared, on the other hand this ends up focusing the discussion mostly on theoretical arguments, to the detriment of the search for practical solutions to the problem.

New nihilisms

An opposite problem, from which the philosopher wants to warn readers, is that the excess of manliness can lead to nihilism. To be more precise, the idea that there is no higher entity or eternity in the spiritual sense of the term can lead to excessive anthropocentrism, whereby everything exists according to human needs. Mansfield identifies two types of nihilism.

The first is the " manly nihilism", opposite to what he calls "correct manliness". The nihilist one is based on a kind of social Darwinism and on Nietzsche's theory of the super-man, for which the only law that counts is that of the strongest. If the good manliness serves to fight abuse and not to be submissive, the bad one leads to the abuse of some against others. According to him, the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century were the highest expression in contemporary history of nihilistic manliness.

"Feminine nihilism" arose as a direct consequence of the previous one: feminists of the 1970s would try to appear manly and repudiate their femininity in order to become equal to men.


Toward the end of the book, Mansfield appears somewhat melancholy: while he asserts that manliness will always exist - no matter how much proponents of gender neutrality try to eradicate it - he also argues that manliness itself fails to find a place in contemporary society. And yet, it remains necessary when it comes to defending oneself against violent threats, such as enemy armies or terrorism. It is not a question of imposing some kind of social role: no reasonable person thinks that men who cry are all effeminate, or that women can only be the angels of the hearth. It is simply a matter of remembering that in addition to rights, there are also duties. Among other things, he quotes (with reservations) Niccolò Machiavelli, for whom men had to be both strong and cunning, both lions and foxes. It is no coincidence that the fox and the lion are the symbols of the Centro Studi Machiavelli...

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A freelance journalist, he has written for the newspapers Mosaico , Cultweek and Il Giornale Off . Member of the Council of the UGEI (Union of Young Jews of Italy). He was editor-in-chief of HaTikwa and communications officer of the US-Italy Global Affairs Forum .