Different people will mean different things by a word like “manliness,” but one possible interpretation treats the word as referring to a virtue, or a constellation of virtues. Roughly speaking, the idea here would be that there are certain virtues which are good for their own sake without reference to a person’s sex, but which seem to be, on average, more readily acquired by men than women and so have built up a conventional association with masculinity. (See the end of this post for a few caveats and clarifications.)
In a society of minimal virtue, with little love for moral excellence, an admiration of manliness can be a good thing. Men can be made more easily ashamed at having a lack of manly virtue, and conversely, we can be more easily inspired at the thought of progressing in manliness, more easily made proud of our accomplishments in that arena.
If the choice is between no virtue and manly virtue, as the choice very often is, then it’s a clear decision. Manliness must win out, should be fostered and celebrated. It can be the starting point for a journey of virtue, the foundation for a lifetime of further moral growth.
It’s important not to forget, however, that manliness is neither the entirety of virtue nor the highest part of it. We shouldn’t spend our whole lives focused only on manliness, or assume that the attainment of manliness means the end of our moral striving.
Manliness is only one part of virtue, and if we’re honest with ourselves, it is a fairly brutish portion of the moral life. It is the domain of aggression, swagger, courage, confidence, conquest, strength. There is a place for all this, and in particular an important place for it within a context where traditional social safeguards are breaking down or endangered for some reason. But virtue is much bigger than just this one element.
Manliness should be encouraged, but on top of it gentlemanliness, and where possible, philosophical wholeness. For Plato, only the true philosopher is able to attain real justice and virtue. That should be the goal. For some who are overly concerned with manliness, that goal will be forever out of reach, either because of a fear that philosophy will appear insufficiently manly to onlookers, or out of an apathy generated by philosophy’s apparently inadequate preoccupation with masculine things, or on account of a misguided conviction that only clearly manly things can qualify as true philosophy. To set out with these motivations or assumptions is to travel with blinders on, blinders that will sooner or later hinder us in the pursuit of virtue and wisdom.
In all these cases, a fixation on manliness becomes not a spur but an obstacle to growth in virtue, and that is a great misfortune.
Some clarifying thoughts: To speak of “manliness” as a virtue doesn’t mean that what most men do is virtuous, or that a thing is virtuous because men do it, or that what women do is less virtuous, or that conventionally masculine pursuits are natural rather than conventional. A woman can have an abundance of the virtues associated with masculinity and when that happens it’s a good thing, though subject to the same dangers and temptations that are present for men who possess an abundance of it. There are virtues that come more easily to women than to men, and it is likewise a good thing when men can attain those virtues. Just as there are virtues that may be more closely associated with men, there are vices as well, and probably many more vices than virtues. The distinctively masculine vices are, not infrequently, twisted versions of masculine virtues (warped either through excess or deficiency).