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What Is a Man? 3000 Years of Wisdom on the Art of Manly Virtue, Waller Newell

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After eighteen years in education, Waller R. Newell raised a question. The question itself sounds simple enough but it is one whose answer is surprisingly elusive. A strictly biological answer seems to beg the question: technically accurate but superficial -- completely devoid of insight. It cannot easily be dismissed, for it is too close to who we are, not just as individuals but as a species. What is a man?

Less than six months after releasing my essay “Too Many Guys; Too Few Men,” I happened across a used bookshop I'd never seen before and stopped in to see what treasures might be found. In short order, I came across a copy of Newell's What Is a Man? 3,000 Years of Wisdom on the Art of Manly Virtue. Its back cover included such teasers as “Marcus Aurelius on self-mastery,” “Jane Austen on gentlemanliness,” “Cicero on the soul,” “Frederick Douglass on determination,” “John Locke on principles,” “Plato on virtue and vice,” and “Jonathan Swift on manners.” By the time that I made it to the first page, I had already determined to buy the volume.

This book should find a ready welcome at this point in our history. More than ever (it would seem), boys have been growing up hearing conflicting messages and finding themselves confused, unsure of themselves and of their place in the world. Absent fathers cannot help boys to aspire to high principles, to act well, or to learn the art of self-restraint. Without a framework to govern and to direct the powerful force of testosterone, boys find themselves reaching physical maturity without having the emotional and intellectual maturity needed to aspire to manly virtue.

Thus, many of our young men are driven by their lust rather than learning to love the beauty of women and enjoying the simple pleasure of observation. Boys find themselves full of rage, becoming aggressive and even violent instead of learning to focus their energy to set right what has been made wrong. Boys find acceptance only among each other, and only through demonstration of physical prowess. And through movies and video games our boys are fed a steady stream of sex and violence. Aggression and self-satisfaction leads to high scores and admiration of scantily-clad women in this world. This is but a mild caricature of their own experience at school, where recognition and even esteem among peers comes from aggression and physicality.

Mothers, of course, want to help, but are completely unequipped to understand the experience of male adolescence. Without this understanding, finding a way to influence boys positively can be quite difficult. While mothers cannot relate to their sons as can fathers, they nevertheless can help them to aspire to high principles as celebrated throughout history and literature and as desired by themselves.

Education is historically the means by which our citizens, young and old, male and female, are helped to grow from whatever raw material they're given and into the mature, sensible, and productive members of society, well-prepared for the business of life. So, with all of the attention that education is given today, how is it that we have the trouble that we do?

The sad fact is that public education system in this country has in many cases become little more than a state-run daycare service. For fear of offending anyone (which is to say, for fear of being sued by a zealot), school systems and their teachers teach nothing of morals, ethics, or character. Even as the most critical matters theoretically addressed by education go hardly mentioned, parents to a large degree figure that their children are being “taught what is important” at school. Failing to take sufficient interest in the education of their children, many parents do not examine and augment the curriculum. Others instead examine the curriculum and try to get it changed to suit their own purposes, dictating the conclusions of various subjects in which they have no competence whatsoever.

What is worse, many of our young men are quite simply being left behind. Programs to encourage girls to pursue greater education, to look at careers in fields that are “underrepesented by women,” and so on. How is it that we have such effort to bring girls into computer science while lacking similar effort to bring boys into the language arts? Because the field was “dominated by men” for so long, you'll often hear. The frightening reality is that boys are badly underrepresented in postsecondary education across the board. (See “Where the Boys No Longer Are: Recent Trends in U.S. College Enrollment Patterns” by Patricia M. Anderson Department of Economics Dartmouth College and NBER.)

Even so, many of our young men go on to some additional education or otherwise prepare for work. But postsecondary education today bears little resemblance to what we saw even a century ago. Curriculum is decreasingly covering broad studies of human interest and increasingly narrow and technical in nature. Focus is on preparation for work, rather than preparation for life. Granted, work is a significant part of life, but even in matters such as citizenship we find that the education is increasingly technical, discussing how the Federal government works, often leaving people wondering why we even have government at the state, county, and municipal levels. As for the formation of character, even higher education is disturbingly silent. Who even teaches ethics except outside of law school, where ethics are codified in the profession? (If you look long and hard, you'll find some, but not much. Even that tends to be technical in nature, such as discussion of copyright law, fair use doctrine, and legal repercussions of violations.)

Our young men find themselves in adulthood and taking on the responsibility of work and family and everything seems normal. Yet many are in dead-end jobs and many will fail in their responsibility to their families, and particularly to their sons, who will in turn become the next generation of men ill-equipped to find their place in the world. Many others will find varying degrees of success, very often through lessons painfully learned.

Against this backdrop, inquiry into what constitutes a man seems a worthy endeavor. Newell acts not as the composer of a response but as the conductor of the symphony of voices defining what makes a man. The book itself is arranged in eight chapters that address a different aspect of manliness. After a brief introduction, we consider “The Chivalrous Man,” “The Gentleman,” “The Wise Man,” “The Family Man,” “The Statesman,” “The Noble Man,” “The American Man,” and finally “The Invisible Man.” Each of these is broken into sub-themes (such as “The Manly Lover,” “Unmanly Temptations,” “Manliness Toward Women,” etc.) that themselves are made up of excerpts from the last three millennia of literature. A ninth chapter concludes, with Newell's own commentary on the journey on which he has just taken his reader.

What we find in our readings is that while the world might be far different from what it was 3,000 years ago, the fundamentals of human experience—and of the male human experience—remain largely the same. Boys and the men that they become have always struggled to understand their place in society, how to balance the urges that they have for the pleasure of the moment and that for the esteem derived from virtue, from the proper blend of contemplation and action.

The disturbing lack of manly virtue in the world around us today is self-evident; actors, athletes, and businessmen can be found engaged in every sort of underhanded dealing to benefit themselves at the expense of others. Notions of fidelity in romantic relationships, willingness to compete honestly, and the courage to reject highly profitable but unethical or illegal business dealings seem lost. Are these problems new? Are men today simply ill-equipped for their roles in society today? Fortunately, an honest appraisal of the situation will show that although the bad boys grab the headlines, there are others who manage not to fall into these traps. Most men struggle daily with the compromises often needed to get things done while maintaining some sense of justice. Reading the thoughts of those who have come before us shows that the nature of these struggles is much today as it was last year, last century, and last millennium.

Real-time news provides up-to-the-instant information on whatever scandal is breaking. Yet no opportunity for contemplation is afforded. We know every fact about today's details but we spend precious little time thinking about how these things speak to what we are as species, as a society, and as men. “We know what we are, but we know not what we may be,” wrote William Shakespeare. What Is a Man? is a powerful antidote for the inability to reflect on what we want to be and how we must shape our character to achieve it.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2006-06-26 04:04 PM
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