Boys will be boys, and men must be men

From a talk at the Institute of United States Studies by Waller Newell, the professor of political science at Carleton University, Ottawa
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The Independent Online

There is a crisis of manliness. A spate of best-selling books testifies to the range and seriousness of the debate. We need to recover the positive tradition of manliness, a lost history of astonishing depth, complexity and brilliance. From Homer through the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Bible and the Stoics, tales of medieval chivalry, the code of the Renaissance gentleman, the stormy temperament of the Romantic man of feeling, down to the fragmentation of manhood in the protests of rock and rap.

There is a crisis of manliness. A spate of best-selling books testifies to the range and seriousness of the debate. We need to recover the positive tradition of manliness, a lost history of astonishing depth, complexity and brilliance. From Homer through the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Bible and the Stoics, tales of medieval chivalry, the code of the Renaissance gentleman, the stormy temperament of the Romantic man of feeling, down to the fragmentation of manhood in the protests of rock and rap.

There is a fundamental consistency to how our ancestors understood manly honour and pride, a consistency that is more important than the differences. When we read Winston Churchill's description of Lawrence of Arabia as "a soldier as well as a savant" we hear a language that stretches back in an unbroken pedigree to Aristotle and Cicero.

This combination of the active and contemplative virtues is one of the most enduring themes in 3,000 years of experience of what it means to be a man.

To describe the history of manliness as "lost" implies that it was lost at a specific point in time, and can be found again. How did this collective amnesia overcome us? What are the underlying causes? They revolve around the troubled relationship between love and honour in the soul of man.

One cause is the stigmatisation of moral history, including the positive contribution of martial honour to the struggle for justice and the cultivation of a virtuous character. The other is the degeneration, since the Sixties, of our cultural standards for manly love and erotic passion into coarse sexual aggression and misogyny.

Feminists have half a point when they argue that boys and young men are more rambunctious, competitive and hierarchical than women. The question is: what is the best way of dealing with this impetuosity and competitiveness? The answer is not to try to get rid of such energies. The Civil War and Lincoln's abolition of slavery, the Allies' defeat of Nazism - these struggles on behalf of justice would not have taken place had they not provided a positive outlet for manly pride and righteous zeal.

Thirty years of attempting to change the nature of men have only demonstrated how utopian such a project is, doomed to failure by human nature, and undesirable anyway. We need to direct manly honour and pride away from the nihilistic violence of rampage killings, and the fantasies of aggression fed by splatter films, video games and rap, and towards a sound set of ethical aspirations.

The second cause of the war against the manly heart is the degeneration of manly love into sexual coarseness. One of the most popular recording artists in America is the white rapper Eminem, whose semi-literate lyrics detail his desire to rape his mother, murder his girlfriend and beat gay men to a pulp.

A worthy man is compassionate, decent and gentlemanly toward others out of a sense of pride. He will not stoop to behave viciously, and he will not demean himself by acting cruelly toward women or anyone else. A man does not seek out a fight, but he will fight to protect himself, his family and country. A gentleman is silent unless he has something worthwhile to say. He is reserved, dignified and mannerly. When he does speak, he pays you the compliment of being candid. Examples? Everyone will have candidates, including such giants as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Nelson Mandela.

But all is not lost. The film Gladiator, in refreshing contrast, gives us a glimpse of that missing middle ground. Strong, quiet and dignified, Maximus is a man who remains loyal to his wife and family, turning down offers of sex and advancement from an emperor's daughter. He fights for his country bravely but without relishing violence. He is relentless in avenging himself against a brutal tyrant, but generous in victory. No wonder women love this movie - and men, too.

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