I’ve quoted Dr. Waller Newell several times in my writing about masculinity on the Art of Manliness, and his approach towards manhood is very similar to the one that I take. So it was a pleasure to finally get to speak to him and have him on the podcast. Dr. Newell is a professor of political science at Carleton University and has written several books on manhood and honor including The Code of Man: Love, Courage, Pride, Family, Country and What Is a Man? 3,000 Years of Wisdom on the Art of Manly Virtue.
- The difference between manly and womanly virtue
- Why TR and Churchill have more in common with the ancient Greeks than we do with TR and Churchill
- Why Western society turned its back on a 3,000-year-old conception of manhood as virtue and what that has wrought
- The 5-fold path in order to achieve a satisfying life
- Why honor must exist for a code of manhood to exist
- The relationship between terrorism and manhood
- Books every man should read to understand manhood in the West
- And much more!
If you’re interested in studying more about the art and history of manliness, pick up copies of both The Code of Man and What Is a Man? Even if you don’t end up agreeing with Newell’s conception of ideal manhood, the books will definitely help you shape your own ideas of masculinity.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. I’m really excited about today’s guest because he’s someone I’ve referenced several times throughout my writing at The Art of Manliness. His name is Waller Newell. He is a Professor of Political Science at Carleton University in Canada and he’s written several books about manhood, or like the philosophy of manliness throughout western history. One book he wrote was called The Code of Man and the second was What is a Man, which is an anthology of poems, essays, speeches, excerpts from literature that speak to sort of this philosophy of virtuous manhood that he argues has existed since the ancient Greeks and goes all the way through up to the 20th century but then stopped.
Today’s podcast, Professor Newell and I discuss what it means to be a virtuous man. What manliness has meant since the ancient Greeks, through the Renaissance, through the Enlightenment and what it means today and why turning our backs on this, what he calls, a rich heritage of manhood has been disastrous for our times in the 21st century. We also get into talking about manliness and how it relates to terrorism. He also does a lot of research about tyranny, honor, terrorism; so we get into talking about what’s going on today in the world with ISIS and whatnot, and how masculinity plays a role into that.
It’s just a very fascinating discussion. If you love the great books, if you love Aristotle, if you love Plato, if you love some of the more philosophical stuff you read on The Art of Manliness, you’re really going to love this discussion today with Professor Newell, so let’s do this.
Professor Waller Newell, welcome to the show.
Waller Newell: Nice to be with you.
Brett McKay: You are a Professor of Political Science but you spend a great deal of time writing about western conceptions of manliness.
Waller Newell: That’s right.
Brett McKay: Why the interest in researching and writing about masculinity or manhood and what it’s meant throughout history as a political science professor?
Waller Newell: Well, I’d always worked on issues like ambition, tyranny, honor-seeking in classical thought and a journalist friend of mine some years back said to me, “A lot of people are interested in these issues. Why don’t you try writing for a larger audience?” That combined with some observations I had made about my students, particularly about my male graduate students who were, I’d say, in their mid to late twenties, that they seemed particularly conflicted about this issue of manliness or manhood. In other words, should you try to act that way? If you should, what should it be? Really that’s how the two things went together so I took a stab at writing an essay, which eventually was published by The Weekly Standard called The Crisis of Manliness. I’d been working on it in London, England, where I was on Sabbatical and one day I walked to my local bookstore to take a break and low and behold I came across this novel called Fight Club. As I began flipping through it I felt this mounting sense of excitement because I realized this guy has seen what I’ve seen and that’s really what inspired me to do it.
Brett McKay: What you’ve done is you go through the cannons of western thought all the way back to the ancient Greeks up until modern ties, kind of suss out what manhood or manliness means so what did you discover? How has the west defined manhood, or true manhood, throughout three thousand years?
Waller Newell: Traditionally I would say that it’s been conceived of as a balance of mind and passion, or of self-control and desire, and a kind of harmonious partnership between those spheres of life. It’s perhaps best conveyed by famous images like the Chariot of the Soul in Plato’s Phaedrus where the two passions of love and honor-seeking are controlled by the chariot hero of the mind. Just as the passions represented by those spheres will plunge downward and fall out of the sky if they’re not controlled by the charioteer, by the same token the chariot isn’t going to get anywhere without the power of those horses so it’s a kind of symbiotic relationship between the intellect and the passions. You also find that say in Cicero’s Dream of Scipio where the life of martial virtue, civic virtue is guided by the life of the mind in a kind of harmonious whole. Castiglione’s The Courtier, really down throughout the whole classical era down to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, it’s been a coherent depiction, I think, of manhood at its best.
Brett McKay: Okay, so it seems like manhood then is a culmination or a developing certain virtues, correct, like living a virtuous life?
Waller Newell: Right.
Brett McKay: If that’s the case then how does manhood differ from womanhood because women can be virtuous as well? How can you be virtuous but in a manly way?
Waller Newell: Yeah, absolutely. I would describe it as two different paths to the same goal. In other words, men and women aspire, or should aspire to the same virtues of character, virtues of mind, but the male path might be psychologically somewhat different and so I think that traditionally it was understood that men, young men in particular, have a certain kind of leaning toward aggressiveness, toward ambition, even toward belligerence, that required a different kind of shaping to enable them to aspire to these higher virtues.
What I have found interesting in the years since I first wrote my books about manliness is that a lot of current research on human psychology seems to be suggesting that these male traits of aggressiveness are hardwired in the human character, that they’re not just acculturated so there has been a lot of interesting empirical research done about that. The fact that boys, for example, respond more positively to exhortation than girls do, the fact that girls work together better in groups in school than boys do, there’s a lot of really interesting new research that seems to reaffirm some of the traditional approaches.
Brett McKay: Interesting, so I guess manliness then is sort of the tempering that aggressiveness or that Thumos, right, if you want to go back the chariot?
Waller Newell: Yes, absolutely. I mean really for Plato’s Republic the taming of Achilles Thumos you could say is really the key to that entire book. That’s what paideia or education has to do because if you cannot bring that type of excessively ambitious man into the fold then any other thoughts you might have about a just society aren’t really going to get off the ground.
Brett McKay: Okay, you have this great line in this book, in your book, The Code of Man, and I’ve quoted it several times in my own writing. I think it just really captures what’s a really great idea is you say in some ways Teddy Roosevelt and Churchill have more in common with Homer and Shakespeare than they do with us. What do you mean by that line? You have to kind of think about it, I guess. When I first read that I had to think about what that meant but what do you mean by that?
Waller Newell: Yeah, what I mean is that figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Churchill stood at the end of a tradition that was still in many ways completely accessible, a tradition that had been handed down. The one with which I began my comments, this notion of a true definition of manliness as the proper balance between the passions and the mind and despite the belief of progress in the Victorian era that history was somehow getting better and better, that wasn’t thought to be incompatible with an immersion in these deep and rich teachings from the past about the meaning of the soul. I think that for figures like that, standing at the end of that tradition it still seemed like something living to them.
Theodore Roosevelt, for example, an amazingly well educated man. He read Two Cities in the Greek several times in his life, once when he was out west prospecting, later on at night to relax in the White House. This was a living thing for them. What’s happened since then, I think, is that we’ve somehow thought that the belief in progress has to lead to the wholesale rejection of this western tradition. I think the 1960’s had a lot to do with it. The growth of what was called child-centered learning, the idea that people shouldn’t be burdened with dogmas from the past and it’s led to, I think, a rather calamitous sense of amnesia about what even three or four generations ago was still quite accessible for people.
Brett McKay: What do you think have been some of those calamitous results of turning our backs or having that collective amnesia about this sort of three thousand year old tradition of manliness?
Waller Newell: I think what it’s led to is a kind of forgetting of this middle realm between passion and the mind. It has led to what I have called the dichotomy between the wimp and the beast and this goes back to Fight Club that there’s a tendency for young men today to either veer to the extreme of Ed Norton in the movie sort of cruising twelve step programs to pick up women, buying IKEA furniture, trying to be politically correct in every way. Or the opposite extreme to become a kind of fascist brute like the character played by Brad Pitt and we’ve lost that sense of middle ground.
What happens I think is that young men receive a kind of distorted version of manliness which they identify with being a beast and then they think in order to be manly they have to act that out. Over the years, I can’t tell you the number of times that teachers, parents, have told me that when they’ve read that description of the beast versus the wimp and the attempt to kind of act out the beastly side, people have said to me that describes the boys I teach or that describes my sons and so I think that’s the problem we face now.
Brett McKay: You said you saw things in your own graduate students, particularly the male students. Was there something particular that you saw in them where you sense that they didn’t get this middle ground? Were they tending on the beast side or the wimp side?
Waller Newell: They would veer from one to the other and the more thoughtful of them recognized that the fact that although they felt pressured to be the Ed Norton politically correct guy that they were attracted to the other more adventurous and bolder side. I mean it was often something that they laughed about but they were aware of this in themselves.
Brett McKay: Also in The Code of Man you argue that men should strive to follow a five-fold path in order to achieve what you call a life that’s emotionally, erotically, and spiritually satisfying. What are those five stages or virtues on this path to manhood?
Waller Newell: What I tried to suggest was that maybe we could talk about five spheres that are connected but distinct and they would center around love, courage, not only physical but moral, pride which would also include a reflection on revelation and the limitations of pride, family, and patriotism. It’s really an old fashioned teaching. I don’t claim any tremendous originality about it. In a way it’s straight out of Aristotle’s ethics but it seemed to me that that would be kind of a road map maybe whereby we could think out way back through these traditional teachings and how they interact with our own unique conditions in the present and try to come up with some sense of wholeness that would have a distinctively masculine tone to it.
Brett McKay: Okay, you also said I thought, going back to this thought, you put an emphasis on love or the romantic part. You said the best hope for reclaiming the positive meaning of manliness lies in this sphere of romantic relationships. Why do you believe that’s the case?
Waller Newell: I think because particular teaching about courage, about pride, even about family life, and patriotism are somewhat distant from today’s readers. It’s something that you have to kind of go out of your way to look for whereas love I think, the hope of love, the stirring of love, is something that we all still feel so I think of these five paths to manliness love is the one that we don’t really have to make any effort to experience. We’re just going to experience it and I think that that feeling still stirs in us the desire to be lovable by the beloved. Again, this goes right back to Plato.
In other words when we love somebody we want to aspire to a standard of conduct that will make us lovable in their eyes and that gives us a motive for self development and self improvement. Then as we pursue that motive to be lovable by the beloved, that can act as a kind of link to developing those other virtues as well. In other words, in order to make ourselves worthy of love, we would then explore these other facets of life including courage, family life, patriotism, and so forth. I have to say that of all the reviews of my books, even the ones that were most hostile, the ones that sort of said I was an anti-feminist or something like that, they tended to like that part of the treatment the most and I think that shows that love, Eros, still touches a cord in people.
Brett McKay: That sounds very much like Adam Smith’s theory of moral sentiments, love by the beloved. I guess he got that from Aristotle.
Waller Newell: Behind that, even Plato’s symposium I think which is probably the core classical treatment of that.
Brett McKay: Okay, so you spend a great deal of time studying, researching honor and shame. What role does honor and shame play in the code of man and does that system of honor exist in the west?
Waller Newell: I would say that honor and the capacity to feel ashamed of failing to live up to our own best standards is really indispensable to educating people and it’s all an end to this favor because we’re told repeatedly that it’s bad for people to feel ashamed of themselves but it seems to me that while you don’t want to shame people in a brutal way, if you’re going to exhort people morally, and especially young people, to aspire to be good human beings then their capacity to feel ashamed for falling short of that is really important and necessary.
I think people still, I certainly still feel with students that they are very much capable of feeling shame without my even prompting if they do feel that they have fallen beneath themselves. I do think that we have a system of male honor that is still intact but it is fragile. It requires an act of recovery, I think, to go out and find it. People like you and I have done that, and others, and I think it’s an ongoing project but I’m confident now that that ship has launched and that probably we are going to bit by bit recover that heritage.
I want to add as well that, as you stressed in some of your writings, even every day manners are an important component of manliness, don’t you think? I mean, how to groom, how to act properly in certain situations, good manners, gentlemanly conduct. I think these habits are very important for us to try and establish in young people.
Brett McKay: Sure, because it’s all about how man presents himself for acts in the public arena.
Waller Newell: Yeah, that’s important, you know? Yeah, that’s right.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think one of the hard things about honor that I’ve found is that we don’t really have a vocabulary for it anymore because we’ve made honor into sort of meaning personal integrity, which is true but like the ancients had a different conception of it. That it wasn’t-
Waller Newell: It was cert-
Brett McKay: Go ahead.
Waller Newell: It was certainly more publicly oriented. We live in large mass democracies. We have a coded individualism that really trumps everything else. It’s not probably going to be possible for us to literally recover what was once held to be honor seeking because we will never quite have that same public civic direction but we can certainly enrich our own experience you know from those traditional teachings, and public honor still has an important place to play, role to play in our own politics.
Brett McKay: Several times in your writing you talk about how war can be a moral wake-up call. I believe The Code of Man was written just shortly after 911. How is that? How does war play as a moral wake-up call and what role do you think war and martial virtue should play in shaping a man?
Waller Newell: Yes, nobody in their right mind wants war but there are occasions when war is both necessary and just, certainly in the case of ones self defense, the self defense of ones country. Also at times one goes to war to protect other people or to rescue them from tyranny. That’s what sparked the American civil war. That’s what sparked our involvement in Word War II, so I think that while everybody prefers peace to war, there are going to be times when we can’t avoid the necessity of armed conflict and certainly for the moral tradition of the west, courage and combat, going back to Aristotle, was always one of the important building blocks for an education in character formation.
As Aristotle says, if you haven’t felt fear then you don’t know what courage is. They did not regard courage as the highest virtue and they believe that courage at all times had to be governed by moderation. In other words, courage is not the same thing as mad daring or insane boldness like Achilles. Nevertheless though, they did believe that the capacity for self discipline and self control that one does learn through military experience can be invaluable for cultivating those higher virtues of civic life and the mind. Yeah, I do think that remains an important introduction to the meaning of manliness.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think you made the point in The Code of Man how in academics we’re very uncomfortable discussing about the morality of war, how war can be good sometimes. You sort of make the case that we’re missing out or we’re, I don’t know, in a way not giving an enriching idea to our students about what goodness is or what it means to be a good man.
Waller Newell: Yeah, I think there’s a very deep and wide spread aversion in the academic world and in much of the world of beauty of punditry to acknowledge that there can be a positive account of military virtue and battlefield courage. Look at the controversy over the sniper film and it’s odd in a way because everybody still, I think, can see that World War II was a just war so if people can still grasp that it would have been wrong to sit out a war against Hitler, I marvel at why it’s so difficult to extend that to more recent conflicts, you Know? I mean okay maybe the invasion of Iraq wasn’t on the same level morally as World War II but certainly it had an ethical dimension so I find that very puzzling. It’s a disturbing case of group thinking.
Brett McKay: Let’s go back to continue on that idea of the talking heads or the punditry, you know in recent years you’ve made the case that policy makers, the pundits, they’re overlooking the driving force behind such things as school shootings and also terrorism. I think that’s what a lot of your research has been about lately, young men and terrorism. What’s the common explanation for these violent acts and what do you think is the underlying cause of them?
Waller Newell: What we’re told by the current administration, and it’s a view that is shared by many reputable opinion makers is that the root cause of terrorism is poverty and lack of opportunity for economic advancement. Now, I would be the first to concede that that is certainly one motivation for terrorism but I don’t think it’s the primary one. I think the primary one is a kind of perverted idealism, a kind of perverted sense of nobility in which terrorists believe that they are genuinely working toward a noble purpose, which is the establishment of, in the case of Jihadism, a worldwide caliphate, but if you go back to the French Revolution, to the Jacobean, to the Russian Revolution, to National Socialism, to the Khmer Rouge, to Maoism, in all of these cases you will find the commitment to create a Utopian society of collective in which the individual will be submerged and all sources of alienation unhappiness and injustice will disappear and that this requires armed conflict, terrorism, and almost always genocide against some designated out group that is the embodiment of all evil.
I think we really have to come to terms with this because, number one, most of the leaders of these revolutionary groups aren’t poor. They come from middle or even upper class backgrounds. Bin Laden came from an extremely wealthy family. They are certainly not doing what they do for the sake of economic advantage and I think that most of the hardened cadres, the people who plan the operations and carry them out, poverty is not what they’re worried about and so I think we really have to turn to understanding the psychology of terrorism and face the perhaps unpleasant notion that a kind of violent ambition to impose one’s will on others in the name of a revolutionary vision may just be an irreducible facet of human psychology.
Brett McKay: If we had that approach, how would we it change how we approach these wars?
Waller Newell: It’s hard to say in practice but at least you would understand that any form of extending western style pluralism and economic materialism and prosperity to these combat zones may have limited success at best in winning people away from terrorist causes. I think as well, you would have to think twice about, let’s say encouraging the overthrow of secular authoritarian dictatorships, extremely unpleasant as they are, if what you’ve to waiting in the wings in some form of Muslim brotherhood, or ISIS, or a collectivist Jihadism because then you’re going to get the state taken over by truly committed revolutionaries and ideologues and no amount of economic prosperity is going to deter them from their goal.
While it’s hard to kind of chase the headlines over this, I think we just need a kind of dose of realism about the psychological motivations of terrorists and it’s going to effect whatever calculations we make. Maybe it would have been better to have had a Mubarak with all of his failings and cronyism and so forth than the attempt of the Muslim Brotherhood to turn Egypt into a theocratic republic like Iran.
Brett McKay: I don’t know how much you know about, or how much you’ve researched Muslim or radical Islam and what their conceptions of manliness. Is that playing a role in this?
Waller Newell: You know I’m on the side of the debate that believes that radical Islamism is more of a descendant of European revolutionary nihilism than it is any way directly connected to intrinsic content of Islam. I know there are people who don’t agree with that but I really think we’re barking up the wrong tree to treat this as a so-called holy war between the Christian West and the Muslim East because I think that movements like ISIS, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, they’ve really got a lot more to do with fronts than oil and earlier revolutionary movements like national socialism than they do with the core teachings of Islam. That’s my view anyway.
Brett McKay: Interesting. I’d like to just get some ideas for our readers from you while I have you hear because you wrote another great book called What is a Man, it’s sort of an anthology of collections of excerpts from books, speeches, essays about what it means to be a man, and I would love for you if you have any suggestions on what our readers should go check out and start reading if they want to understand this heritage of western manliness.
Waller Newell: I think often you find the best discussions of these issues not so much in purely theoretical writings as in great historians and memoirs, historians like Gibbon or McCauley and also in the memoirs of statesmen like Churchill. Churchill’s Great Contemporaries for example is one of my favorite books and from there one can go back and read Machiavelli or Castiglione’s The Courtier back from there into the classical authors like Cicero, Plato, Aristotle. There’s really just an enormous wealth of insights that one can explore and graze in.
Brett McKay: Fantastic, well Professor, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Waller Newell: It’s been a pleasure for me too Brett, thank you so much.
Brett McKay: Our guest today was Waller Newell. He’s a Professor of Political Science at Carleton University in Canada, and he’s the author of several books. The ones I recommend you go check out is The Code of Man and also What is a Man. What is a Man is a fantastic book. It’s one of those things you can open up to any part and you’ll get some sort of gem that will speak to what it means to be a virtuous man. Also check out his latest book, Tyranny, very fascinating book. I’m about half way through it right now and it’s speaking to a lot of what’s going on in the world today with terrorism and how it relates to masculinity. It has interesting insights there so go check it out. You can find those all on www.amazon.com.
Well that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at www.artofmanliness.com and I’d really appreciate it if you can go the store, The Art of Manliness store. It’s at https://store.artofmanliness.com. It’s got lots of AOM swag there, t-shirts, got a coffee mug that could also double as a weapon if need be, a journal that was inspired by Ben Franklin’s virtue journal that he developed for himself, one-of-a-kind, you can’t find this anywhere else. Your purchases there will help support the podcast and what we do on the site. Again, that’s https://store.artofmanliness.com. I’d really appreciate it. Until next time, stay manly.