Book Review- The Image of Man

The Image of Man is written by George Mosses. He was an eminent German-American historian, who specialised in the history of Germany, the rise of Nazism and Fascism and Jewish History along with the relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish sections of German society through history. In this book, Mosse traces the contours of the evolution of the ideal of manliness and manhood in modern Western European society.

The ideal of masculinity was, according to Mosse, served the dual purpose of being both a positive stereotype and also a social function. It was the adhesive that kept the disparate pieces of post-industrial human society from falling apart and it did this by reconciling the desire for progress with the need for order. Order because of its balanced and harmonious appearance, and progress through its decisiveness, activeness, and virility.

Much like the notions of European Nationalisms and indeed the idea of European civilisation as conceptualised through the historiography of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ideal of manliness fused industrialising Europe’s reverence for the sophistication and greatness of Classical Greece with its faith in Christianity in general – in addition to what Max Weber called the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’ in particular– and pseudo-Darwinian notions.

The ideal male body symbolized a healthy, well-ordered society. The ideal male was virtuous, honourable, and merciful like a good Christian man should be. The ideal male was also strong and courageous, chaste and exercised self-control, much like the legendary men of yore from the epics. This ideal of man has lasted through the decades, evolving with the times but sticking to its core essence, and continues to remain the dominant idea of man today not just in the West, but also in other parts of a now increasingly globalised and westernised world. Mosse dates the appearance of this positive male stereotype to the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

Mosses’ analysis is subtle. He does not equate masculinity with the exercise of raw power. Few historians can equal his ability to discern what differentiates one country from another. Very few historians in the world can match Mosses’ depth of knowledge enabling him to pinpoint the differences within one country and among different countries. The book primarily deals with the situation in Pre-Nazi Germany, but also covers the situation in France, Italy, England and the United States to a lesser extent. The comparisons that Mosse makes are constructive. Why were nearly all Frenchmen considered honourable enough to duel, while in German only five per cent could give satisfaction? What distinguished the Italian fascist masculine ideal from its German counterpart? Mosse provides stimulating and convincing answers for these questions but does not consider America in any depth.

The outbreak of the First World War further entrenched the notions of martial fervour and strength as essential to masculinity. Young men were encouraged to fight the war and defeat the enemy, while conscientious objectors were looked down upon as effeminate weaklings or deviants who were parasites in society. The role of women in the construction of the ideal of man is not considered particularly significant, although not entirely absent. The book looks at institutions such as the military, schools, and clubs, which helped in shaping the manliness ideal, but fails to look into the home in any detail.

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