[This is an encore post from March 2005. I put it up because it relates to what I've writing about Humanity 3.0, and might provoke further discussion about it along a different track. Check the comments for a further elaboration on this idea.]
Last week I put up an excerpt of an interview with Stephen Ducat in which he convincingly described the kind of crude masculinity that seems to be at the heart of GOP identity. But I've been thinking about it since, and there is an issue here that needs a more in-depth look. While I think the macho idea of masculinity is the coarsest way of imagining what it means to be a man, there are not very many alternative images that define for young men that to which they might aspire. And the result is a kind of mushiness that I've been lamenting when using the Nietzschean vocabulary of the Last Man.
There is something in every spirited young man's soul that aspires to an ideal of noble manhood, but there are very few men in contemporary American society who can model that for them. There are lots of nice, decent men, but few heroic men. I was lucky enough to have met or to have known many fine adults in my young manhood, and I am grateful to them, but none modeled for me what I longed most deeply to become. And so I have become what I have become for better or worse, but now I think about the whole process as my fourteen-year-old son is about to go through it in the next ten years or so. We always want something better for our children than we had for ourselves, and so it's a pressing question for me. What would this better be?
For many young men entering the military has been a traditional way to realize this ideal. I have students, soldiers and former soldiers who were deployed to the Middle East, in my classes who exhibit such a nobility. They are good kids, really good kids. There is a certain naive idealism in their attitudes, but there is a more important element, a noble element. These kids are not bullies; they are idealists sent to do a bully's work. The problem they face, though, when they come back from their tours to normal life is the same as that faced by other young men, a system that seeks to redirect their energies toward objectives that are not worthy of them, and as R.W. Emerson said, "Every hero becomes a bore at last."
We have seen or heard of many extraordinary young men, who never ripened, or whose performance in actual life was not extraordinary. When we see their air and mien, when we hear them speak of society, of books, of religion, we admire their superiority, they seem to throw contempt on our entire polity and social state; theirs is the tone of a youthful giant, who is sent to work revolutions. But they enter an active profession, and the forming Colossus shrinks to the common size of man. The magic they used was the ideal tendencies, which always make the Actual ridiculous; but the tough world had its revenge the moment they put their horses of the sun to plough in its furrow. They found no example and no companion, and their heart fainted. (Emerson, "Heroism")
Our culture provides no trellis upon which these young souls can grow to realize the greatness that lies within and which longs to be realized.
A lot of women are unhappy in their marriages because their husbands, despite their early promise, failed or shriveled in the way Emerson describes. And the men feel the shame of it, and yet don't quite know how it happened. But in Emerson's day, as now, there were precious few models for them to emulate or to inspire their aspiration. In other words, there is no living tradition in which young people grow up and in which they encounter living examples of virtue and heroism. And I would also argue that men once they reach adulthood haven't been helped much by the masculinizaton of women. For if women scorn their men for lacking a robust or heroic masculinity, the men also long for robust femininity, which has become almost as rare. They are too often soul-starved by their women who have in their own way lost their souls.
American men and women these days lack a robust masculinity or femininity; they have become rather flat-souled and dull. They have become hypertrophied heads and genitals, and as such they lack what might be described as feminine virtue or masculine virtue, which are qualities of soul--not physical qualities or intellectual qualities, but soul qualities.
And I've wondered for several years now if the obsessive need for women and men to achieve an ideal of physical feminine or masculine beauty and this whole bizarre focus on sexual performance, with boob size and penis length, isn't a compensation for a culture wide loss of a soulful masculinity and femininity. It's an attempt to manifest on a physical level what is lacking on the soul level. Men think that they are failing the women in their lives sexually, but rather it's their failure to radiate a masculine spiritedness. They think they need to be bulls when in fact what they need to be is 'heroes', by which I mean exemplars of masculine virtue--mensches. Women feel that they need to be cows with augmented udders to be interesting to their men, but what men need from women is a feminine spiritedness.
I'm thinking about "virtue" in the sense that I first came across it when I was studying the Italian Renaissance as an undergraduate. As I remember what I learned then, the Italian virtu does not have the meaning of being a boyscout in the sense of somebody who is well behaved and who does as he's told. It's a moral quality, to be sure, but not a moralistic quality. The word had more the sense of masculine spiritedness and is related more to the word virtuoso, a man who has achieved excellence as a fully realized talent.
The ideal for the "renaissance man" was to be a man of virtu, which meant to be a man of many excellences--accomplished in the arts of war & politics as well as the fine arts--not as a connoisseur, but as an accomplished maker or creator, as poet, painter, and musician, and in many cases in architecture and natural philosophy. Being specialized or good at one thing was not the ideal. The ideal, rather, was to achieve balanced development and to become fully realized as a complete human being. Specialization requires to some degree the hypertrophying of one dimension of one's humanity while allowing other dimensions of one's humanity to atrophy.
Men in contemporary American society have hypertrophied heads and genitals, and atrophied souls. I call it missing middle syndrome. Women suffer similarly, but not as badly.
Self-trust is the essence of heroism. It is the state of the soul at war, and its ultimate objects are the last defiance of falsehood and wrong, and the power to bear all that can be inflicted by evil agents. It speaks the truth, and it is just, generous, hospitable, temperate, scornful of petty calculations, and scornful of being scorned. It persists; it is of an undaunted boldness, and of a fortitude not to be wearied out. Its jest is the littleness of common life. That false prudence which dotes on health and wealth is the butt and merriment of heroism.
This is an imagination of heroism that goes back to the days of the Greek and Roman republics. It is completely at odds with the type of avaricious corporate climber, or powerlusting politician. Glory and the immortality that comes with fame were motivators at the heart of this older republican mentality, but they were tempered later by forms of Christian republicanism that developed after the Renaissance and Reformation. It was an ideal that informed the imaginations of the American founding fathers.
Carlyle, Emerson, Nietzsche were all 19th Century thinkers who hated how modernity was shriveling the souls of men and women and drew on these earlier ideas of virtue and heroism as a counterpoint for the leveling, materialistic forces that was making men into the spirit-challenged humans Nietzsche called the Last Men.
Of course, Nietzsche blamed Christianity for promoting this slavish, weak-souled quality, and there is some merit in the accusation. But that's a theme I want to address in coming posts. Because now more than ever we need an imagination of future possibility that has religious roots and which inspires in us, and perhaps more importantly inspires in the young, an aspiration toward robust virtue. This is not a liberal project.