Some years ago I read a book (Manhood in the Making, by David Gilmore) which surveyed the concept of masculinity in civilizations all over the world. The author found that almost everywhere you went, people had the same expectations: a man should be brave, economically successful, responsible, generous, sexually capable, procreative, and sociable with other men.
I commented on this remarkable similarity of ideas (from such different people as Spaniards and New Guinea highlanders), and a friend said, “Fortunately, we’re in the modern world, so we can get rid of the whole silly idea.”
Was she right? Is manliness old-fashioned and silly, best replaced with a new post-masculine ideal, in which we don’t admire courage, procreation, or the old manly ways?
It’s an easy question to answer, isn’t it? Reverse the list of manly qualities above, and ask yourself: would the human race be better off if each man were an irresponsible, impotent, stingy coward who couldn’t hold down a job or keep a friend? We can tinker with the ideal of manhood, but throwing it out entirely would be a disaster.
But let’s look further anyway. To keep it short, let’s consider one example each from three classes of manly virtues: those that only men can do; those that either sex can do equally; and those that either can do, but are more characteristically male.
Men Only: Fatherhood
Consider where the new post-masculine man has really caught on, at least in regard to procreation: Europe, and blue-state centers like Greenwich Village — that is, in certain rich locations that people imagine are the future of the world.
But they aren’t the future, and here’s why: those post-manly men aren’t fathering many children. A society without fatherhood has no future, because its members die without being replaced.
I don’t have birth rates for Greenwich Village, but you can get them for Europe. They’re crashing. Greece, for example, has a replacement rate of about 1.29; on average, if this continues, population will nearly halve each generation. Spain’s and Italy’s are about the same. The future belongs to nobody — except possibly immigrants, who will bring a different perspective on fatherhood with them, or they’ll disappear as well. Either way, this particular aspect of post-manliness has no future.
Of course not every man needs to be a father, and moderation has its place here. But if this particular manly virtue disappears entirely, so does civilization.
For Both Sexes: Responsibility
Consider a world in which males don’t take responsibility. They don’t commit to women; they father children but don’t take care of them; they have high-flown dreams but lack the discipline to carry them out. What kind of world would it be?
A poor one, for one thing, and there are parts of the First World that work that way. They’re the underclass neighborhoods where most children don’t have fathers at home or have a series of “fathers” who come and go. Theodore Dalrymple (Our Culture: What’s Left of It, Life at the Bottom: the World View that Makes the Underclass) writes about a nightmare society in Britain that works like this. Unfortunately, it’s nonfiction.
There’s also a modern glorification of never growing up (see, among others, The Sibling Society by Robert Bly). Underclass or rich, we can put off indefinitely trying to make the world a better place, turning to entertainments and drugs to occupy ourselves. But why should a man occupy himself in a less than perfect world? When there are children to mentor and causes to champion, why spend all your time playing Halo 3? Is being comfortable all there is to life?
Obviously responsibility is a virtue women can embody as well as men. But ask the women in your life if they want the men around to take less responsibility. If they’re in a good mood, they’ll laugh at you. If not, they’ll regale you with stories of the One That, Thank God, Got Away. Life isn’t so easy that half the human race can remain forever children. Men have to shoulder adult responsibilities, too.
Especially for Men: Physical Bravery
Bravery can mean daring to open up to a friend or sweetheart. (We need more of this kind of bravery.) But there is also the bravery of facing physical danger. Maybe that’s the part that’s obsolete, no longer needed in the modern world?
Maybe. If you are in a rich, civilized country, nobody is likely attacking you; you aren’t in a high-crime area; there is no natural disaster; someone else is a soldier so you don’t have to be; someone else is a policeman so you don’t have to be; someone else is a fireman so you don’t have to be; that is, if you’re very lucky, you will never have to confront physical danger. In that case, you won’t need to be physically brave in order for you and yours to survive.
So if we’re really lucky (and many of us are now, most of the time, thanks to the bravery of others), we’ll only need this manly characteristic
…for ourselves; we have a need to face danger.
…for our sons and male mentees; they need it too.
…and for our romantic attachments. Women want to date men, not aging boys.
It’s a paradox: women don’t want the men they love to kill themselves on motorcycles, but they still don’t find cowardice in men attractive. (Neither do men, for that matter.) And it’s not symmetric. I don’t know many men who would say, “I think a woman should be strong and brave, to protect the man she loves.” Or women who hope for the relationship to go that way, either.
But it doesn’t matter. Eventually, our luck will run out, and we’ll need physical bravery for physical danger again.
To sum up: why do we need manly virtues?
- It goes with who we are physically. Men are bigger and stronger; it makes more sense to have them bursting through the doors and carrying unconscious smoke-inhalation victims out of the fire, because they can actually pick those victims up. (I say “they” because I’d have a tough time picking up a 180-lb. man — but there are plenty who wouldn’t!)
- It goes with who we are mentally. Think about the difference in flavors of honesty. Women can be blunt and artless with the truth — but they’re often more nuanced, using more diplomacy and more we’re-a-team thinking. Men can be diplomatic, but we’re usually more apt to just say it. Both ways are useful — but although working on our weaknesses makes sense, it also makes sense to use our strengths.
- It delights us. Birds gotta fly; fish gotta swim; men gotta do manly stuff. Look what happens on the forum part of this site: men come so they can revel in manly stuff, from barbecuing to power tools to cars, because it’s fun. That ought to be enough reason.
- It delights women, too. To be blunt: if you say manliness is obsolete and we’re all just a mix of feminine and masculine, it probably won’t hurt you much socially with the ladies. But if you act on it — if you become that irresponsible, impotent, stingy coward who can’t hold down a job; or if you drop the symbols of manliness for a more feminine style, plucking your eyebrows and wearing a tastefully lacy dress (!) — it won’t just be other men who shudder and look away; it’ll be the women too.
But the ultimate reason to embrace manly virtues is that they are virtues. Being the best man you can be is a calling. The world may not thank us if we follow it, but thanks isn’t what we’re after. Excellence is, and charity.
Last updated: October 5, 2015