Lessons in Manliness
I haven't read Harvey Mansfleld's new book, Manliness, and I suspect that when I do, I will have many criticisms of it. But let me register here my disgust at Walter Kirn's "review" of it in today's New York Times. When I write my book on Puerility, I will make a point of quoting "critics" like these. The editors should be embarrassed.
But on to my (speculative) criticism of Mansfield's book, which by all accounts names Achilles as the Homeric hero who best exemplifies manliness. This seems wrong, not least because Mansfield's oft-quoted definition of manliness is presence of mind in the face of danger. If this is so, then the Homeric hero you want is not Achilles but Odysseus. It is Odysseus who exemplifies sophron, that hard-to-translate Greek word that does not just mean wisdom, shrewdness, gutsiness, grace, or persistence, but rather all of these - in essence, knowing how to act in any given situation.
Sophron is not achievable by following a set of rules; anyone can do that. Sophron means doing the right thing, the smart thing, without recourse to rules. It means being able to read the situation and the people involved, to discern the most compelling moral imperative, and to act - and all for a higher purpose than one's own aggrandizement.
Now for the movies. Manliness like this is hard to find in the cineplex these days. But here are two wildly different recommendations on DVD:
First the TV series 24, now in its fifth season on the Fox Network. The title comes from the gimmick of having each hour-long episode “occur in real time,” and except for a few plodding bits about the personal lives of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and his fellow agents at the Los Angeles branch of the fictional U.S. Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU), 24 is addictively suspenseful. And despite my misgivings about the show's routinization of extra-legal wiretapping and (especially) torture, I confess to being captivated by the character of Jack, whose alertness, courage, and cunning are positively Odyssean.
Second, the truly wonderful BBC adaptation of the Horatio Hornblower adventure novels by C.S. Forester. I have never read the novels (I do read books, though you might not get that impression from this posting), but I am tempted to do so after watching this series, which was produced between 1998 and 2003 and stars Welsh heartthrob Ioan Gruffud in the title role, not to mention British theater heartthrob Robert Lindsay as his mentor, Captain Sir Edward Pellew.
There is nothing dumbed down, campy, or forced about this vivid evocation of His Majesty's Navy at the turn of the 19th century; just great acting, great ships, and great production values (for TV). Patrick O'Brian fans especially will appreciate it, since in my opinion no one has yet properly adapted O'Brian. (I found Master and Commander painfully hurried and superficial, with no real texture to the characters.) As for manliness, there are plenty of examples to be found, including a duchess (Cheri Lunghi) who turns out to be a London stage actress working as a spy. Of course, instead of "manliness," one could just say sophron.
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