The Art of Manliness

April 4, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Victorian Men“I see some men that are men in mind and body and a great many that are only men in body.”[1]  So said a Union soldier who fought in the Civil War.

In her book, The Gentlemen and the Roughs, Lorien Foote, professor of history of Texas A&M University, outlines two distinct types of masculinity prevalent during the Civil War.  One was a gentlemanly type of masculinity, centered on self-control, character, and faithfulness.  This type of masculinity embodied what we might think of today as “the family man.”  The other type of masculinity was that of the “roughs” – those who are “rough around the edges,” so to speak.  This type of masculinity focused on physical domination and sexual exploitation.

Writing for The New York Times, David Brooks outlines these same two types of masculinities when he writes:

The ideal man, at least in polite society, gracefully achieves a series of balances. He is steady and strong, but also verbal and vulnerable. He is emotionally open and willing to cry, but also restrained and resilient. He is physical, and also intellectual.

Today’s ideal man honors the women in his life in whatever they want to do. He treats them with respect in the workplace and romance in the bedroom. He is successful in the competitive world of the marketplace but enthusiastic in the kitchen and gentle during kids’ bath time.

This new masculine ideal is an unalloyed improvement on all the earlier masculine ideals. It’s a great achievement of our culture. But it is demanding and involves reconciling a difficult series of tensions. And it has sparked a bad-boy protest movement and counterculture.[2]

Brooks’ “new masculine ideal” is not really all that new.  It shares much in common with the older masculine ideal of what it means to be a gentleman.  Foote, in her book, writes about Francis Lieber, a nineteenth century political philosopher who outlined some rules for warfare that eventually came to serve as the basis for the Geneva Convention.  Along with rules for warfare, Lieber also outlined traits essential to being a gentleman that included “self-possession,” “calmness of mind,” “a studious avoidance of giving offense to others,” and a refusal to indulge “in careless vulgarity, unmanly exaggeration, or violent coarseness.”  The New York Illustrated News, in a fawning review of Lieber’s gentlemanly characteristics, wrote, “Let us have a new chivalry instituted – a new order of intellectual and moral knighthood.”[3]  Lieber’s ideal masculinity was nothing short of a perfectly balanced chivalry that shares much, though not everything, in common with Brooks’ “new masculine ideal.”

There is much for us, as Christians, to learn from these two types of masculinity.  Although neither comports perfectly with what it means to be a Christian man, one certainly comports better.  A masculinity that is crude, sexually exploitive, and ostentatious not only does not make a man, it hurts a man because it is flatly sinful.  On the other hand, masculinity cannot simply be reduced to a list of traits, as Lieber and Brooks attempt to do, no matter how virtuous those traits may be.  After all, not every man is the same, so different men will inevitably display different traits, and not every life situation calls for the same masculine characteristics.  Ultimately, to be a Christian man is much more about living out a vocation – a divine calling – than it is about living up to a checklist of virtues that inevitably changes, both in content and in emphasis, with each successive generation.  To be a Christian man means to reflect Christ.  To hearken back to the Union solider quoted at the beginning of this blog, being a man is not about only your body biologically, it is also about your mind.  You can be a man in body without being a man whose mind has been renewed by Christ (cf. Romans 12:2).

In his column, David Brooks’ concern lies in how faulty masculinities affect the political arena.  He notes that in this election cycle, there has been “a revolution in manners, a rejection of the civility codes.”  This is certainly true and it is certainly troublesome.  But what is even more troublesome is not how faulty masculinities affect our politics, but how they affect our families.  Study after study has shown how men who reject their vocation to reflect Christ adversely affect their families.  Faulty masculinities do not just plague national elections, they plague your neighbors down the street.  And, if you’re really honest, they may even plague you.

So gentlemen – and I hope you do fashion yourself as and aspire to be gentlemen – the next time are tempted toward a masculinity that does not reflect your Savior, remember, to quote one more time from David Brooks, “This is the world your daughters are going to grow up in.”

That alone should be enough to make you stop and think.

__________________________

[1] Cited in Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs:  Violence, Honor, and Manhood in the Union Army (New York:  New York University Press, 2010), 3.

[2] David Brooks, “The Sexual Politics of 2016,” The New York Times (3.29.2016).

[3] Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs, 55.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Jon Trautman  |  April 4, 2016 at 10:52 am

    Great advice for securing your ”man” card. Thanks Zach!!!!

    Reply

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