The wedding reception was held in an old Cambridge college. We gathered in a wood-paneled room with a big fireplace, and black-vested waiters drifted by, handing out drinks from gleaming silver trays. I found myself next to two historians arguing about Edmund Burke. The tall historian had just read an essay claiming that Burke, above all, was a man of the Enlightenment. “Not true,” said the short historian. “Burke believed that society was composed of overlapping spheres of influence; he’s not a man of the Enlightenment but the Medieval Age.” “It’s a fair point,” the tall historian said. “But if one wants to know Burke, one should remember the obvious fact that he was a parliamentarian.”
The debate about Burke reminded me of the debate about men: what makes a man? One way of answering this question is to go about it the way the short historian approached Burke, to describe men’s beliefs and influences. The psychologist James Mahalik did exactly this in 2003 when, along with a team of researchers and postgraduates, he created a list of twelve “masculine norms . . . Winning, Emotional Control, Risk-Taking, Violence, Dominance, Playboy, Self-Reliance, Primacy of Work, Power Over Women, Disdain for Homosexuals, Physical Toughness, and Pursuit of Status.” Being a man is, in this sense, about the possession of certain qualities. Jack Donovan arrives at a similar conclusion in his book The Way of Men (2012): “Strength, courage, mastery, and honor,” he writes, “are the fundamental virtues of men because without them, no ‘higher’ virtues can be attained.” His man is a moral animal, a noticeable improvement from Mahalik, but he is still without family or future. He is alone.
Another way of making this point is to consider that all of these qualities can be found in women.
The listing of qualities also fails to account for a certain striving in men. “God hath . . . set the world in their heart,” Solomon says of “the sons of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Men have an inexhaustible longing, a vastness of desire. Nietzsche ascribes to the “exceptional man” or “overman” the same enterprising scope: such a man “conceives reality as it is, being strong enough to do so; this type is not estranged or removed from reality but is reality itself and exemplifies all that is terrible and questionable in it” (his italics). This courage is a result of man’s being, not its cause or even its measure. Another way of making this point is to consider that all of these qualities, be they winning or violence or strength or courage, can be found in women. There is nothing uniquely male about them. Donovan does argue that there’s a difference in magnitude, but this makes his man a kind of superadded woman rather than a unique being.
Moreover, these qualities so essential to manhood are subjectively defined. What is courage from one perspective can be cowardice from another. In Greek society, even a figure as prominent as Odysseus, who gained victory through deception (nighttime raids on the Trojans, the wooden horse, the cyclops, etc.), inspired disagreement. In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre observes that in the Iliad Odysseus’s “cunning is treated unambiguously as a virtue.” The tragedians, however, represented him as “dishonorable.” Within the same culture, then, MacIntyre finds “two incompatible conceptions of honorable conduct.” To say that a man is courageous or honorable says very little without establishing the ideal by which such virtues are judged.
The other problem with defining men by possession of certain qualities is that the same man often combines virtue and vice. Keith Douglas, a British soldier who served in North Africa in World War II, said that his fellow soldiers were an “obsolescent breed of heroes,” composed of both “stupidity and chivalry.” They were vulgar and refined all at once. This remark is taken from Douglas’s poem “The Aristocrats,” a later version of which he titled “Sportsmen.” The switch perfectly sums up the contrast: Douglas couldn’t decide whether his comrades were noblemen or jocks.
But back to the tall historian. He described Burke not according to his beliefs, that is, his subscription to Enlightenment or medieval ideals, but his situation. Burke, he said, was a parliamentarian. I would argue that manhood is the same. Qualities or virtues tell us something, but ultimately manhood is a role. It concerns one’s past, present, and future, as well as one’s relation to others. It’s about the situation in which one is placed and which one strives to create for oneself. That is to say, manhood is not about essence but existence.
I am reminded of one of the heroes described in Plutarch’s Lives: Lycurgus, the king of Sparta. Famous for his lawgiving, Lycurgus improved and strengthened the Spartans in a military and moral sense. One way he did this was by putting, in Bernadotte Perrin’s translation,
a kind of public stigma upon confirmed bachelors. They were excluded from the sight of the young men and maidens at their exercises, and in winter the magistrates ordered them to march round the market-place in their tunics only, and as they marched, they sang a certain song about themselves. . . . Besides this, they were deprived of the honour and gracious attentions which the young men habitually paid to their elders.
For Lycurgus, bachelorhood was shameful and deserved to be hidden away. A man joined his rightful place in the polis by taking a wife and starting a family. Manhood, then, was not about the possession of certain qualities but the fulfillment of a social role. It included passion and reason, strength and tenderness, publicity and discretion. It required a woman; it required love.
Some have described a man’s situation by reference to the stages or seasons in his life. Jacques, a young nobleman in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, famously runs through the seven stages of manhood: “first the infant . . . then the whining school-boy . . . then the lover . . . then a soldier . . . then the justice” (that is, a judge), followed by “the lean and slipper’d pantaloon” (a clownish figure), and finally, the “second childishness and mere oblivion.” A similar chronology is found in the Talmud, the writings of Solon, and Confucius.
Shakespeare, in other words, is describing the way that our biology is clothed by the state.
There is wisdom here. A man is bound by time, and his life transforms dramatically as he ages. But these roles are perhaps less useful than they first appear. Shakespeare does not mean that every man becomes a soldier and then a judge, but that every man will pass through a season of combativeness and striving, a season of action, followed by one of relative quietude. The guiding rule here is one of age, not sex. When young and hardy, we go off to war; when old and infirm, we sit in judgment; the notebook is exchanged for a rifle and then a gavel. Shakespeare, in other words, is describing the way that our biology is clothed by the state. The seasons, however poetic, tell us little about a particular man’s duties and responsibilities, about who, not what, he should choose to be.
I first realized the limitation of the seasons when reading Manhood in the Making (1990) by the anthropologist David Gilmore. He doesn’t refer to seasons directly, but he does use roles to define men. Surveying cultures across the world, he finds that “to be a man . . . one must impregnate women, protect dependents from danger, and provision kith and kin.” The website The Art of Manliness calls these “The Three Ps of Manhood”: “a male who aspires to be a man must protect, procreate, and provide.”
At first, Gilmore seems to describe men as more profound than an accumulation of qualities. His man exists in relation to others, fulfilling or failing to fulfill certain roles. But these same roles cannot be definitive in the sense that, like the aforementioned qualities, they can still apply to women. Gilmore slightly avoids this by referring to the need for men to “impregnate women.” But this would seem to be a distinction without much difference; The Art of Manliness simply calls it a need to “procreate,” an act of both sexes. And the reduction of manhood to such a role betrays the superficiality of Gilmore’s definition. Procreation, surely, is not the mark of a man but an animal.
Culture, for Gilmore, is not what men choose to pass on to the next generation but what chooses men to perpetuate itself.
In his book’s conclusion, Gilmore says that “culture is nothing more than work, physical and mental.” Within this factory, so to speak, “manhood ideals force men to overcome their inherent inertia and fearfulness and to ‘work,’ both in the sense of expending energy and in the sense of being efficient or ‘serviceable’ in doing so.” Here the source of mythic power is not manhood but culture. To call its mandates “work” is particularly revealing. Culture, for Gilmore, is not what men choose to pass on to the next generation but what chooses men to perpetuate itself. Men are its slaves, not its creators. There is something similar in Shakespeare’s seasons. The schoolboy, soldier, and judge are roles that push men out of their inertia, clothe them in certain uniforms, and put them to work. None act out of an excess of being; on the contrary, they do what they are told.
The distinction with Christianity could not be clearer. In Paradise, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). The first man, Adam, is formed not by culture but by the divine. This confers something sacred on man: it means that he is the intentional creation of a certain will and character, not an acephalous or impersonal force. Moreover, culture does not put man to work—this too is done by the divine: “And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it’” (Gen. 1:27–28). In his creation and vocation, man is more than man. He is somehow divine, made “in the image of God.”
What this means is that in Christianity, manhood precedes man. Saint John makes this point clearly in the famous introduction to his gospel. “No man hath seen God at any time,” he writes; “the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:18). The obvious point of this verse is that Christ has special knowledge of God. But it says something about manhood as well, since the role of Father and Son, two roles essential to manhood, apply to the divine before they are ever taken on by Adam and Cain. If such roles are functional, it is only in the sense that they allow us to understand the divine. That is, we are created in his image, not in the image of our social need. There may be powerful insight in Gilmore’s idea that men are born to fulfill or understand roles that are greater than themselves. But only Christianity can describe both halves of man’s horizon, that of earth and heaven.
Indeed the roles that apply to all men, the roles that are most sacred, last throughout and even beyond life: those of son, brother, husband, and father. And these roles are not exclusive to men who are married and with children. They are open to all men in some way.
All men are sons of their parents. But they are also sons of generations past. The protagonist of Chateaubriand’s novel Atala (1801) witnesses the “Feast of Souls,” a sacred festival practiced by Native Americans in which “each clan exhumed the remains of their fathers from their individual graves, and the skeletons were suspended, by rank and family, from the walls.” In this room, “elders of the various nations concluded treaties between themselves of peace and alliance beneath the bones of their fathers.” There is a similar tradition practiced in stone and bronze in Cambridge. Walking from the train station to the city, one cannot help but notice an enormous statue of a soldier in uniform with a rifle on his shoulder. Beneath his feet is inscribed on the stone plinth: “To the men of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely and the Borough and University of Cambridge who served in the Great War 1914–18.” The sculptor, Robert Tait McKenzie, modeled the statue’s expression on that of a student who served in the army. “In this face,” said McKenzie, “I have tried to express the type on whom the future of England must depend.” He is the skeleton beneath which we feast.
Shared beliefs or experiences, even shared opposition, bring men together as brothers.
All men are also brothers, regardless of their birth. What I mean is that all men are peers to other men and women in society. Often these relations are the product of a shared belief, such as the bond that Saint Paul continually refers to in his letters to the early Church. He starts off his letter to the churches in Galatia by announcing himself as “Paul . . . and all the brethren who are with me” (Gal. 1:1–2). He is speaking to family, on behalf of family. It is not unlike the legionnaires in Jean Lartéguy’s Centurions (1960), another kind of family that transcends nationhood or class, one that is bred by experience. Men like Jacques de Glatigny, “the descendant of one of the great military dynasties of the West,” stands shoulder to shoulder with Mahmoudi, a volunteer from Algeria. Shared beliefs or experiences, even shared opposition, bring men together as brothers.
Moreover, all men are husbands, if not to our wives then to creation and society, to institutions that we must care for and protect. Husband, from the Old Norse, meaning “master of a house,” was also used as a verb to mean “to till, cultivate.” (Nor has this latter sense entirely disappeared, as in husbandry.) Virgil writes at length about this latter role in the second book of his Georgics. Far from the battlefield, a farmer knows how “Earth brings forth from herself ample justice/ the simple means of life, simply enjoyed.” Farmers know the pleasures of the simple life, its stability secured not by “faithless brother fighting faithless brother” or under a justice imposed by the sword. So too is it with a husband who loves the nuances and secrecies of a certain woman. In obscurity he loves her and delights in the simple life that is found with her. Or in the case of society, men are husbands of a similar kind. They till and cultivate institutions and professions with a quiet discipline.
In a way that is unique among these roles, a husband cannot be created without a vow. It is a role that a man enters into with a promise incorporating reason, volition, emotion, and, in most cases, religion. Even the Spartans in the example mentioned earlier, who practiced a kind of marriage much different than Christianity does, sacralized the bond of marriage by the highest power that they recognized: the state.
A father is a model.
The final role to mention is fatherhood. All men are fathers—if not to their own children then to the next generation. I think of The Last Day in the Old Home (1862), a painting by Robert Braithwaite Martineau that hangs in Tate Britain. In the foreground, a man lifts a glass of wine in the air. Beside him, a young boy imitates his gesture. Auction labels are dotted about the room, pinned to paintings and pieces of furniture. The implication is that drink and extravagant living lead to dissolution. The father is passing on his approach to life which, in this case, is a kind of emptiness. And to the viewer of the painting, to those in Tate Britain, he is passing on a warning. In this sense, his fatherhood continues. A father is a model.
Defining men with these roles prevents manhood from being separated from the family. They also demonstrate the way that manhood requires vows, incorporates the divine, and exists through time—because it is an attempt in some way to approximate the divine.
Family roles deal with the vastness of manhood. In a very real sense, a father acts out of an excess of being because this role is greater than him. No one owns the name father even if he answers to it. No one is a perfect father even though he wants to be. This is because these roles find their definition in something eternal.
A black-vested waiter came alongside me and refilled my flute of champagne. Beside me was the roaring fire and the two historians still going at it about Edmund Burke. As if to bring my ruminations about manhood to a close, I thought back to the marriage ceremony that I had just witnessed that afternoon and which we were about to celebrate with a feast beneath portraits of previous members of the college. I thought back to the moment when the priest had joined together the right hands of the man and woman and said: “Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” His blessing confirmed their new roles under the aspect of eternity: “I pronounce that they be man and wife together, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 6, on page 28
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