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It's Time to be a Man Again
What Is a Man?, Waller R. Newell’s new 800-page book, is an asteroid hurtling toward our planet — and if I am not mistaken, it is headed straight for the Tower of Babel, the construction that produced the babble about sexual matters that we all now speak.
The tower to which I refer was erected as part of the largest and most ill-conceived social engineering project of the last 25 years: the attempt to create a new kind of man — an unmanly man — and eradicate psychological and emotional differences between the sexes.
Brilliantly timed, conceived, edited and introduced by Prof. Newell, What Is a Man? is an anthology of buried treasures. It is unlike any recent book for the general reader I know of on the relations between the sexes. We are now flooded with well-meaning, despairing books on the crises of the sexes, love and family. The typical one has nine chapters on how divorce frequently messes everyone up (which everyone knows) and a final, brief chapter on what to do about it (which shows that the authors are just as much at a loss as everybody else).
Newell’s inspiring book is about how to build manly virtue — which sounds antiquated because manly virtue is all but forgotten or remembered only in parody. In public discourse, and particularly in academia and government, an open discussion of manliness as a positive form of behaviour is almost taboo. “To suggest without a sneer of irony that one should ‘be a man’ would produce ripples of cringing embarrassment,” writes Newell.
But manly virtue, he argues, is our best hope of bringing men and women together with respect and dignity — a goal ideological feminism said it hoped to achieve but inadvertently undermined because of its psychological misunderstanding of men. Anyone who lived through the ‘60s recalls how gracious, “gentlemanly behaviour” such as holding doors was relentlessly belittled as condescension, while truly bad behaviour got off easy. Think of the Rolling Stones’ misogynist rant, Under My Thumb, one of the most popular songs of the ‘60s. Newell argues that “the message young males receive from feminist reasoning is not You should be ashamed of liking ‘Under My Thumb’ but That’s the way your gender thinks about women.” Belittling manly virtue gave weaker men licence to indulge themselves. Feminism’s solution was to introduce politically correct speech codes and legislation that attempted to force men to behave.
Traditional manly virtue is based, argues Newell, on the premise that men and women share the moral and intellectual virtues at their peaks, but that their passions, temperaments and sentiments, on average, differ, so that they often require different paths to obtain their shared goals. Despite social engineering, young men are generally cockier and more openly competitive and attention-grabbing, eager to impress, looking for someone to lock horns with, but also someone to praise them and give them a medal. “By contrast,” writes Newell, “female students still seem more self-sufficient, less prone to grab the spotlight, more quietly competent, less in need of hand-holding.”
The selections from the 13th-century classic The Art of Courtly Love, by Andreas Capellanus, show how a great psychologist of the past used love to transform men’s characters. Longing love, so filled with suffering, has always been able to make men more acutely conscious of their imperfections than scolding. Love can incite a man to transcend his baser inclinations and turn his potential for promiscuity, selfishness, entitlement and boorishness into fidelity, selflessness, devotion and refinement — qualities that may make him capable of tender love. Courtly love works not by compulsion but by making the whole man want to be worthy of a woman’s love.
Manly virtue has been extremely consistent from cultures as diverse as ancient Greece, Israel and India, through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the early modern and Romantic movements, until about 50 years ago. It is “honour tempered by prudence, ambition tempered by compassion for the suffering and the oppressed, love restrained by delicacy and honour towards the beloved.”
The gentleman is often ridiculed as a mere pedant of manners. But there is a profound literature distinguishing the true gentleman from the counterfeit. The following description from Jane Austen’s Emma leaps off the page. Emma Woodhouse is trying to explain to Harriet, her young protege, why she should refuse a marriage proposal from Mr. Martin, who seems decent.
“He will be ... totally inattentive to appearances, and thinking of nothing but profit and loss ... How much his business engrosses him already is very plain from the circumstance of his forgetting to inquire for the book you recommended. He was a great deal too full of the market to think of anything else ...”
Sound familiar? Since the dot-com revolution, all it seems everyone does is talk about tech stocks — i.e., money, something once considered rude. Yet in terms of its effects on our happiness, the loss of manly virtue is far more significant than the loss last Friday on the stock market of a trivial trillion.
“There is nothing so delicate as your moral character, and nothing which it is your interest so much to preserve pure,” wrote Lord Chesterfield to his son. In a section on why a gentleman must avoid vulgarity, he explains why we should keep good company, have good manners and bearing, confidence and modesty, and why these virtues are about what is on the inside of a man, not the outside. These passages are so wise that they should not be summarized, only memorized.
There are outstanding selections by Shakespeare, Cicero, Churchill (how he experienced finally taking over Britain), Xenophon, Rousseau, Roosevelt, Tocqueville and Theophrastus. There are sections on the manly lover, how fathers can earn authority, unmanly temptations such as adultery, the wise man, boys into men, the statesman, valour, integrity, honour and confused men. Especially moving is Alberti’s selection on how the childless man can be a good father, and Francis Bacon’s related observation that “the care of posterity is most in them that have no posterity.”
Drawing on 20 years of experience as a teacher, Newell observes that many young men today, half of whom are products of broken homes, appear increasingly shy, confused, uncertain, lonely and afraid to say “I love you.” If they assert their manliness, it is an archaic, untamed manliness: “Look at that squeegee kid,” writes Newell, “with his shaved head and horsehair plume, decked out like some road-warrior Achilles.” The confused teenager pierces himself to show some kind of moral and erotic constraint. Archaic, untamed manliness erupts at raves, basketball and hockey games or on MTV.
Newell is a professor and co-founder of Canada’s only four-year BA devoted exclusively to a Great Books education (at Carleton University, in Ottawa). He is a rising star among international political philosophers and himself an example of one of the ideals of mature manliness — that pleasing combination of the contemplative and the active man. His prose is exceptionally witty and accessible, and his psychological insights are profound.
This book — 3,000 years of reasoned arguments and wisdom about manly virtue by the greatest minds in history — is an outstanding achievement and a great gift for any boy or man, or girl or woman frightened or confounded by manliness; it’s an ideal bar mitzvah gift, since for Jews becoming a man is a religious rite. Since it will be available mid-May, it is the perfect Father’s Day gift for the man who has everything, except manliness. Or, who has it, but might wish to remind himself why.
What Is a Man?: 3,000 Years of Wisdom on the Art of Manly Virtue is by Waller Newell.
Doidge, Norman. “It’s time to be a man again: A new book reintroduces us to manly virtue.” National Post (April 19, 2000).
Reprinted with permission of Norman Doidge.
Dr. Norman Doidge is a columnist with the National Post and a research psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Toronto, Ontario.
Copyright © 2000 Norman Doidge