Manvotional: True and False Manliness

by Brett on January 4, 2009 · 19 comments

in A Man's Life, Manvotionals


While we often think that the difficulty in defining manliness is a modern problem, if one looks through books of the the early 20th and 19th century, you will find that authors of that period also had a hard time nailing down exactly what manliness meant. Manliness is one of those things where you know it when you see it,but find difficult to put into words. Therefore, this essay by James Freeman Clarke is a delight; it is succinctly defines what manliness is and what manliness is not.

True and False Manliness

By: James Freeman Clarke, 1886

MANLINESS means perfect manhood, as womanliness implies perfect womanhood. Manliness is the character of a man as he ought to be, as he was meant to be. It expresses the qualities which go to make a perfect man, — truth, courage, conscience, freedom, energy, self-possession, self-control. But it does not exclude gentleness, tenderness, compassion, modesty. A man is not less manly, but more so, because he is gentle. In fact, our word ” gentleman ” shows that a typical man must also be a gentle man.

By manly qualities the world is carried forward. The manly spirit shows itself in enterprise, the love of meeting difficulties and overcoming them, — the resolution which will not yield, which patiently perseveres, and does not admit the possibility of defeat. It enjoys hard toil, rejoices in stern labor, is ready to make sacrifices, to suffer and bear disaster patiently. It is generous, giving itself to a good cause not its own ; it is public-spirited, devoting itself to the general good with no expectation of reward. It is ready to defend unpopular truth, to stand by those who are wronged, to uphold the weak. Having resolved, it does not go back, but holds on, through good report and evil, sure that the right must win at last. And so it causes truth to prevail, and keeps up the standard of a noble purpose in the world.

But as most good things have their counterfeits, so there is false manliness which imitates these great qualities, though at heart it is without them. Instead of strength of will, it is only willful; in place of courage, it has audacity. True manliness does what it believes right; false manliness, does what it chooses to do. Freedom, to one, means following his own convictions of truth; to the other it means thinking as he pleases, and doing as he likes. The one is reverent, the other rude; one is courteous, the other overbearing ; one is brave, the other foolhardy; one is modest, the other self-asserting. False manliness is cynical, contemptuous, and tyrannical to inferiors. The true man has respect for all men, is tender to the sufferer, is modest and kind. The good type uses its strength to maintain good customs, to improve the social condition, to defend order. The other imagines it to be manly to defy law, to be independent of the opinions of the wise, to sneer at moral obligation, to consider itself superior to the established principles of mankind.

A false notion of manliness leads boys astray.

All boys wish to be manly; but they often try to become so by copying the vices of men rather than their virtues. They see men drinking, smoking, swearing; so these poor little fellows sedulously imitate such bad habits, thinking they are making themselves more like men. They mistake rudeness for strength, disrespect to parents for independence. They read wretched stories about boy brigands and boy detectives, and fancy themselves heroes when they break the laws, and become troublesome and mischievous. Out of such false influences the criminal classes are recruited. Many a little boy who only wishes to be manly, becomes corrupted and debased by the bad examples around him and the bad literature which he reads. The cure for this is to give him good books that show him truly noble examples from life and history, and make him understand how infinitely above this mock-manliness is the true courage which ennobles human nature.

In a recent awful disaster, amid the blackness and darkness and tempest, the implacable sea and the pitiless storm, — when men’s hearts were failing them from terror, and women and children had no support but faith in a Divine Providence and a coming immortality, — the dreadful scene was illuminated by the courage and manly devotion of those who risked their own lives to save the lives of others. Such heroism is like a sunbeam breaking through the tempest. It shows us the real worth there is in man.

No matter how selfish mankind may seem, whenever hours like these come, which try men’s souls, they show that the age of chivalry has not gone; that though

” The knights are dust, and their good swords rust,”

there are as high-hearted heroes now as ever. Firemen rush into a flaming house to save women and children. Sailors take their lives in their hands to rescue their fellow-men from a wreck. They save them at this great risk, not because they are friends or relatives, but because they are fellow-men.

Courage is an element of manliness. It is more than readiness to encounter danger and death, for we are not often called to meet such perils. It is every-day courage which is most needed,—that which shrinks from no duty because it is difficult; which makes one ready to say what he believes, when his opinions are unpopular; which does not allow him to postpone a duty, but makes him ready to encounter it at once; a courage which is not afraid of ridicule when one believes himself right; which is not the slave of custom, the fool of fashion. Such courage as this, in man or woman or child, is true manliness. It is infinitely becoming in all persons. It does not seek display, it is often the courage of silence no less than speech; it is modest courage, unpretending though resolute. It holds fast to its convictions and principles, whether men hear or whether they forbear.

Truthfulness is another element of true manliness.

Lies usually come from cowardice, because men are afraid of standing by their flag, because they shrink from opposition, or because they are conscious of something wrong which they cannot defend, and so conceal. Secret faults, secret purposes, habits of conduct of which we are ashamed, lead to falsehood, and falsehood is cowardice. And thus the sinner is almost necessarily a coward. He shrinks from the light; he hides himself in darkness. Therefore if we wish to be manly, we must not do anything of which we are ashamed. He who lives by firm principles of truth and right, who deceives no one, injures no one, who therefore has nothing to hide, he alone is manly. The bad man may be audacious, but he has no true courage. His manliness is only a pretence, an empty shell, a bold demeanor, with no real firmness behind it.

True manliness is humane. It says, “We who are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak.” Its work is to protect those who cannot defend themselves; to stand between the tyrant and the slave, the oppressor and his victim. It is identical in all times with the spirit of chivalry which led the good knights to wander in search of robbers, giants, and tyrannical lords, those who oppressed the poor and robbed helpless women and orphans of their rights. There are no tyrant barons now, but the spirit of tyranny and cruelty is still to be found. The good knight to-day is he who provides help for the blind, the deaf and dumb,the insane; who defends animals from being cruelly treated, rescues little children from bad usage, and seeks to give working men and women their rights. He protects all these sufferers from that false manliness which is brutal and tyrannical to the weak, abusing its power over women and children and domestic animals. The true knights to-day are those who organize and carry on the societies to prevent cruelty, or to enforce the laws against those who for a little gain make men drunkards. The giants and dragons to-day are those cruelties and brutalities which use their power to ill-treat those who are at their mercy.

True manliness is tender and loving; false manliness, cold and hard, cynical and contemptuous. The bravest and most heroic souls are usually the most loving. Garibaldi, Kossuth, Mazzini, the heroes of our times; Luther, who never feared the face of man; Gustavus -Adolphus and William of Orange, are examples of this union of courage and tenderness. Bold as lions in the defense of the right, such men in their homes and their private life have a womanly gentleness. False manliness is unfeeling, with no kindly sympathies, rude and rough and overbearing. True manliness is temperate; it is moderate, it exercises self-control, it is capable of self-denial and renunciation. False manliness is self-willed and self-indulgent…….

True manliness differs also from the false in its attitude to woman. Its knightly feeling makes it wish to defend her rights, to maintain her claims, to be her protector and advocate. False manliness wishes to show its superiority by treating women as inferiors. It flatters them, but it does not respect them. It fears their competition on equal levels, and wishes to keep them confined, not within walls, as in the Mohammedan regions, but behind the more subtle barriers of opinion, prejudice, and supposed feminine aptitudes. True manliness holds out the hand to woman, and says, ” Do whatever you are able to do; whatever God meant you to do. Neither you nor I can tell what that is till all artificial barriers are removed, and you have full opportunity to try.” Manly strength respects womanly purity, sympathy, and grace of heart. And this is the real chivalry of the present hour.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matt January 4, 2009 at 9:37 am

i’ve been reading these articles now for the last 6 months, i wouldn’t say they’ve helped me become a better man, it’s made me realise that i am a true man, all these points and idea’s i have been doing for many years, without realising there true potential, i havein the past been hating myself and wandering why everyone around me was getting what they want and i’ve got nothing, but with this site i have realised most of the people around me have got those things by misguiding or lying to get where they are now, i know that if i continue as i am things will come into place and i will be a better man than even myself could dream, thanks guys keep up the good work for 09

2 Dorothy January 4, 2009 at 10:18 am

Can I just say that this man had it right 123 years ago and that if one man changes his outlook, the world will be a better place. In fact, if men lived up to the true manliness that this article offers, women would live up to their true womanliness, and I’m betting many of the problems between the genders would disappear as a result. Keep on keeping on, o manly blogger.

3 David at Animal-Kingdom-Workouts January 4, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Wow, I loved this article, and it was beautifully written. Real truths are truly timeless, and that’s what this post. I particularly like the thought about how young men, in an attempt to be manly, take on men’s vices as opposed to their virtues. The only problem is that today it seems that grown men, not to mention our whole popular culture, celebrate the vices, and denigrate the virtue.

- Dave

4 Shaun January 4, 2009 at 1:46 pm

Once again, an excellent article – Here’s to another great year of AOM!

5 C_Hearn January 4, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Thank you so much. I have never heard such a succinct and proper explanation of manhood in all my searching. Thank you so much. God bless you.

6 Brucifer January 4, 2009 at 3:36 pm

What I find very telling is that in citing examples of heroes, Clarke never mentions sports figures. The bane of modern manliness is that moronic sports jocks are all our society seems to want to point to as far as heros…. and they are piss-poor heros at that. What do they *really* contribute to society? Nothing. If anything, they degrade society by their boorish behavior and sidetrack far too many men into watching them for hours and hours, instead of getting off their butts and out doing things for the good of the community. In Clarke’s time, men WERE different.

7 Walter January 4, 2009 at 4:18 pm

Amen, and amen! This should be required reading for all men and boys in the country.

8 Russ January 4, 2009 at 5:02 pm

I love America and I believe in every word that this essay speaks. I have subscribed to this site and love getting the emails.

Thank you for putting such great content on this site!

I feel that I am doing my best on my own in living as a younger man at 25. It seems so confusing sometimes and hard. Thanks for the inspiration!

9 Harland January 4, 2009 at 6:03 pm

Brucifer – I agree with your comment about sports heroes. What a poor choice for what has become idolitry. Policiticians are a fairly poor choice.
I believe more and more it is important to find heroes locally – those men who day in and day out live these ideals. It reminds me to reach out actively to young men and show them a little bit of a better example.

10 Rodney Hampton January 4, 2009 at 6:16 pm

Excellent post. As usual, I feel that I was born in the wrong time. Then again, looking at the rising subscription number, I think there may actually be a Manaissance in the works.

11 Kevin (ReturnToManliness) January 5, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Excellent post and great comments from the gentleman so long ago. Not much should have changed from all the time ago, but so much has. The hard part of getting a lot of guys to buy into the incredibly good message in today’s society, is that many younger guys either can’t relate to this or simply don’t want to. There are some fella’s here that get it and appreciate it, but the majority don’t or won’t.

For instance, the idea of “cowardice” and “not defending.” Great concept and is certainly core to manliness, but times are different (movie theater shooting.)

12 Bill January 7, 2009 at 5:19 pm

@Brucifer, your point is well-taken about some sports figures being poor examples of manliness. However, Clarke’s omission has more to do with the fact that professional sports as we know them today didn’t exist back in Clarke’s time — American football had been invented only a decade prior to this essay, and basketball wouldn’t be invented for another five. For all we know, the author would’ve been cheering for the Cowboys every Sunday (excluding Terrell Owens and Pacman Jones, of course).

13 Virilitas January 9, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Clarke is right that it’s very important to give our boys good books to read and to keep them away from bad books. I daresay, most boys today hardly read at all; instead, their parents let them spend much time watching all sorts of television shows that undermine strong, giving, and authentic manliness.

PS– Most of Clarke’s comments are great until he starts to give examples of brave but loving manliness: Luther, Gustavus-Adolphus, and William of Orange????? Let’s just say that it’s a good thing old Clarke didn’t write this in Ireland. ;D

14 Ian January 11, 2009 at 5:38 pm

Great article. Even if someone knows these things, it’s great to have them reaffirmed by reading another man’s perspective. I, however, found many new delightful phrases and quotes in this article and wish I could find a piece like this to replace every negative, cynical and horrific news article I have read over the years.

Keep it up.

15 Alex Chebykin July 20, 2009 at 12:15 am

Amazing body of work. The author has very easy prose. Although I think he is being a bit too idealistic in his definition of manliness, it places a very far-to-reach goal ahead of you to strive for, which is a good thing.

Thanks again for a good read.

16 Laura September 24, 2009 at 12:25 am

I just recently came upon this site because of a link to it through another site. But I have to say it is becoming one of my favorites. Kudos for this ‘manvotional’. I’m seriously going to show this to all of the guys I know, because as a woman, this really does define what I personally (and I’m sure other women as well) see as being a true man and I find all of these traits very attractive. Thanks!

17 Mike March 27, 2010 at 2:11 pm

As I continued to read this I completely forgot that it was written in 1886. We need to realize these virtues now more than ever. This is truly timeless.

18 Annalise March 30, 2014 at 1:17 pm

“False manliness wishes to show its superiority by treating women as inferiors.” Very true. One acts as a gentleman only from a position of power, this is exactly the reason why people see it as manly. Wonder what these guys would think about how weak and whiny modern men really got – men’s rights movements and such.

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