The lives of men and women are inescapably intertwined. If it is true, as I mentioned last week, that we have experienced a depreciation of femininity, then masculinity has suffered a similar decline. The idea of a gender-neutral society has left both genders a bit “watered down.” Manliness, for its part, has quite possibly become “over-civilized.” The idea of man as warrior, king and philosopher seems to be sputtering out like a dying flame deprived of oxygen. He is no longer viewed as a dynamic being with “fire in the belly,” or “thumos,” as the Greeks called it. Because of this, certain things are being forgotten simply because they are incompatible with the new ideas about civilization. But insofar as society isolates itself from certain things, it risks isolating itself from manliness.
Here are a few of those forgotten things:
HONOR: Honor was central to past traditions of manhood. If a man’s honor, or the honor of someone under his protection, was impugned, the offender would likely answer for that insult in combat. I’m not, of course, saying that we should bring back the dueling pistols (perhaps because I’m a terrible shot). However, right now this notion of honor is gone. The closest thing we have is the idea of slander and libel, enforced mechanically by the legal system. You can no longer really attack a man’s honor; you can only hurt his legal rights. An arrogant pundit can call a child an insulting name on national television, but as long as he doesn’t legally slander anyone, no father will offer him a knuckle sandwich. That seems very unfortunate.
LABOR: We have certainly not lost dirty, earthy, manly, physical labor. However, that labor has lost its social dignity. Even though it offers great rewards to men mentally and physically, it is the labor least rewarded materially. The more successful a man becomes, the more clean and sedentary he becomes. The most esteemed jobs are immobile and air-conditioned, while sweat and dirt are undignified. Also, as one moves up the professional scale and physical labor decreases, stress often increases. This odd predicament of stationary psychophysical distress is a good recipe for a heart attack, which is exactly what we see in many professional men. As women have joined men in those professions, they are also joining him in his high blood pressure.
WEAPONRY: I was at a gun-show the other weekend when my fiancé observed that, while weapons once played a large part in the lives of men, they no longer really have much of a purpose. Rather than praise civilization for such an achievement, she simply said, “That’s too bad.” She is insightful like that. Again, I’m not suggesting that we need more violence in society. But I will be intentionally provocative and suggest that a reintegration of weaponry into the daily lives of our men might actually decrease violence. And more pertinent to this discussion, it would rekindle some of that forgotten spirit of manliness.
PHILOSOPHY: Isaac Newton was a physicist, astronomer, natural philosopher, mathematician, and theologian. Abraham Lincoln could talk for hours about pretty much anything. These men were philosophers. In our time, the philosopher has been replaced by the specialist. Pastor, paleontologist, or programmer —you may choose, but you may only choose one. The more successful you wish to become, the more you must sacrifice that inner curiosity that seeks wide-ranging insights. Wisdom is lost to information. Unfortunately, the more a man amasses information on a single subject, the more he sacrifices a broad understanding of the universe as a totality. He is an expert on trees but he knows nothing of forests.
BOASTING: Ah, the good old days, when the nobles and knights could strut around like peacocks, boasting like Beowulf of their conquests and lineage. Today it is bad taste to be a braggart. This does not mean that men brag any less, of course. They can’t help it. It is just less obvious now: They brag by wearing a uniform, a particular brand-name, or a drab suit that costs a lot of money. This is too indirect, and it rots the fruit of the whole affair. This is proper boasting turned on its head.
As an example of proper boasting, producing excellent fruit, I remember Maslow’s account of the richest man in the Indian village. He piled up all the possessions he had accumulated that year in the center of the village. After that, he strutted, bragged, and made speeches in front of the whole community. Finally, after thus inflating his ego, he proceeded to give every last thing away. He gave EVERYTHING away. He fueled his ego in a manner that we would find appalling, and then he showed a generosity that we would find incomprehensible. And that is the interesting point: Once allowed to embrace his manly urge to strut like a peacock, he had no difficulties letting go of all the material gains of that entire year. As his head grew, so did his charity.
Such are the lost things of a modern society. Whether or not the loss is good or bad, the reader is free to decide. These are reflections more than lessons. These are observations without explanations. Take from them what you will.
This column is dedicated to social philosophy, religion and all other subjects that seek to keep us sane. If you have any related questions or suggestions that you would like to see explored here, simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.