March 21, 2005
Martin E. Marty
Harvard notable Harvey Mansfield's review article of two new editions of books by Theodore Roosevelt begins: "The most obvious feature of Theodore Roosevelt's life and thought is the one least celebrated today, his manliness. Somehow America in the twentieth century went from the explosion of assertive manliness that was TR to the sensitive males of our time who shall be and deserve to be nameless" ("The Manliness of Theodore Roosevelt," The New Criterion, March 2005). In sum, this is a decline-and-fall story of namby-pambies.
Mansfield swings widely, at left and right: "Here is gristle to chew for liberals and conservatives, both of whom -- except for the feminists -- have abandoned manliness mostly out of policy rather than abhorrence." Mansfield's second review book, you guessed it, is on "manliness." His two predictable cracks at feminism aside, he sticks to his praise of manliness and his attack on being sensitive. I wonder, however, what planet Mansfield lives on and what he reads and watches. I won't document in detail here what anyone who spends an hour with cable news shows and shouts, politicians' rhetoric, defenses of our go-it-alone foreign policy, and some Christians' defenses of all the above, will find: consistent attacks on sensitive people as being unworthy and un-American, maybe even un-Christian.
Without trying to appear -- horror of horrors -- "sensitive," I would at least like to recall that two sets of virtues contend in our past: the Greek and the Christian. The Greek virtues are justice, temperance (moderation), courage, and wisdom -- Plato's four -- plus pride, liberality, ambition, self-control, piety, friendship, loyalty, and patriotism. We need several of these to win wars, have a government, make the market work, and more.
Prevalent today among those who sort out virtues are criticisms of the unmanly and massive defenses of, first, courage; well and good. Then add pride and ambition, which are somewhat more complex, followed by patriotism -- a good virtue as long as it deals with penultimate matters, but a problem when it becomes the religious ultimate we are being sold today. It's Greek to praise pride and ambition, challenge and success, competition and heroism. Most of us -- including me -- are Greek enough to see positives in them. But must this choice demand sneers at sensitivity?
As I continued reading on and on in muscular-Christian, muscular-American editorials, it occurred to me to look up, for old time's sake, what the Christian virtues are, virtues that one might suppose should also be lauded in our super-godly, super-pious country. Paul's writings on Jesus focus on humility, meekness, patience, prudence, simplicity, obedience, and -- did we forget? -- faith, hope, and love. Biblical authors believe pursuit of these virtues demands courage. And these are as hard to live with as the Greek virtues. A culture may well need something of both. Think of the two as the yin and yang of Western ideals and moral templates.
Read the sports pages, consider the entertainment-page interest in what is macho, the religion-driven accents on spiritual muscularity and success, and you are likely to find evidence that Professor Mansfield misplaces his worries as to which virtues have priority in our emerging culture. Sensitive virtues, pace Mansfield, do not have much cultural cachet and are rarely prized.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.