Recently I have been reading and mulling over two excellent articles over at The Public Discourse. The first is a piece by Anthony Esolen. While I cannot agree with all of his thoughts (most notably his historical nostalgia and his one-sided view of the Middle Ages in some of his books) he is always an impressive scholar, an intriguing thinker, and an awe-inspiring writer. His article focuses on the inadequacy of the maternal approach alone to raising boys up to become men, maintaining that mothers cannot teach manhood, only men can do that. Part of the current crisis in our culture, he maintains, is a crisis of boys who are not growing into men because their fathers are not teaching them.
The second piece, linked in the first, is a piece by Glenn Stanton, whom I had not heard of before. It is even better than Esolen’s piece, focusing on the anthropological origins, or more precisely the ubiquity, of the understanding of the necessity of teaching manhood to the next generation. This is not simply because society cannot do without manhood (which may loosely be defined as “prosocial masculinity”) but because the alternative is either asocial maleness, or antisocial maleness.
Both pieces concur on two crucial points:
- Manhood is a learned behavior that must be taught to boys by men. It is a social shaping of male drives into a form that is useful to society rather than a drain on society, or a threat to society, and as such is ultimately at the service of female aims and ends (i.e. ordered to the stability and security of family life and the wider social environment). Nevertheless, it cannot be taught by women. It can only be taught by men. This is because…
- Manhood is also an identity that is conferred only by peers, i.e. by older men, or at least by other men. A boy will not accept a definition of manhood that does not carry with it the authority of a man that he respects.
It is the second point that I want to take a closer look at, and where I go beyond both Esolen and Stanton. Both posited that untrained maleness is profoundly asocial, and must be trained to be useful to society by other men, because a boy will only accept the lessons and the designation from another man. They did not get into the weeds about why a boy needs to hear this from a man.
I think the answer lies partially in an understanding of what teaching and learning manhood entails. At its core there is an element of competition. Competition is the heart and soul of the school of manhood. There are many explanations for this, ranging from the theological to the evolutionary, but the observed reality is that (most) boys will engage in competitive activity when left to themselves. This runs the gamut from cooperative competition (sports team vs. sports team) to competitive cooperation (competing for position within a team) to outright competition and warfare (bullying, gang violence, etc.). Regardless of the venue (farming, logging, fishing, hunting, sports, military, business, finance, politics) males will compete with each other. Healthy males will compete in healthy ways, while unhealthy males will compete in unhealthy ways. I define “healthy” competition as competition which leaves the team (family, company, platoon, etc.) stronger. That is, competition which is ordered to the strengthening of the individual members and the overall social body is what Michael Gurian calls, “Competitive nurturing.”
This calls for a re-evaluation of our original proposition, i.e. that untrained maleness is profoundly antisocial. I would argue that in the strict sense, that is not exactly true. Maleness is not oriented toward a stable, peaceful, family-oriented society ordered around the raising and protecting of children. In that sense (what we usually mean by “social”) it is antisocial. Nevertheless, maleness is social, in that it naturally tends towards the formation of what may be called the primordial male social model, the gang.
In reality, the true loner is a very rare bird. Most unattached males throughout human history tend to congregate in gangs, small groups of half a dozen to a few hundred, depending on circumstances. They establish hierarchies by competition or outright violence. They define themselves vis a vis outsiders, they adopt a gang culture which may be simple or elaborate. After that they operate toward the outside world, not as a conglomeration of male individuals, but as a unit, i.e. a gang.
It is here that trouble begins, because it is in aggregate that untrained maleness is most definitely antisocial. In fact, because of the “us vs. them” mentality, coupled with unattached male energy, the natural tendency of a gang, any gang, is towards protecting our own, and pillaging everyone else’s. All warfare, organized crime, genocide, social violence, and tyranny in human history have been perpetrated by gangs, or by gangs of gangs. Very, very little of it is done by women. Probably even less is done by lone males.
In pre-modern settings, the most stable male relationships are not male-female, but rather male-male. I believe (without having conducted an exhaustive study) that male-female friendship or comradeship were rather an exception than the rule in pre-modern society. Sexual relationships (for men) do not bring with them any intrinsic requirement for stability, fidelity or even longevity. We run into the fundamental biological sexual cross-purposes, namely that the woman is intrinsically invested in the act of procreation, while the male is not. What is to her a commitment of her entire life, and a risk of her entire life, is to him no more than a fleeting pleasure, over in moments and soon forgotten unless actively recalled.
I believe it is this fundamental biological fact that underlies the need of male-male relationship. In essence, evolution has engrained in men the default position that women come and women go, but the battle buddy, the blood brother, the comrade-in-arms, he stays forever.
This is frightening but important. The flip side to this is that there is one observable, hardwired social tendency in the unattached male, which is his need to achieve the respect of his peers, to be identified by them as “one of the gang.” The gang instinct is a real and powerful need in men, often understated, nearly always misunderstood. (For the record, this is not the only social tendency in men, it just happens to be one of the strongest, one of the most underrated by our society, and the one most relevant to this discussion).
That is why the teenage boy needs to know himself a man in the eyes of men for it to mean anything. It’s nice when a mother praises him, or a sister admires him, or a girlfriend flatters him, or a wife affirms him. It is nice, but not sufficient, because it does not come from a man, and does not come in a manly way.
Male approbation is always earned, never given. Another way of putting it is that I love you as I choose, but I respect you as you choose. It is usually based on four characteristics: courage, strength, technical know-how, and dependability. These are the virtues of struggle and combat, the virtues of a gang of men battling for their lives and their families against whatever odds, which is why they must be tested by competition with other men, or with some outside element (nature, wild animals, rock-climbing, etc.) under the judgment of other men for the verdict to be valid. When a woman admires a man’s courage, she might be making an informed decision, or an intuitive judgment, or she might just be being nice, or she might be flattering him for some ulterior motive. The one thing she is not doing is testing him against a worthy opponent because she is not a worthy opponent. She may be worthy, but she is not an opponent. Human males are almost universally hardwired to shun competition with women (violence against women is something else entirely).
These are the virtues that male brains are hardwired to admire, to look for in other men, and to demand of their peers. A healthy society of men will hold themselves accountable to these standards one way or another.
It is important to note that these are “amoral virtues” meaning they have no necessary connection to any higher moral code. They are as much the virtues required of a missionary or pioneer as they are the virtues required of a gestapo officer or cartel hitman.
To summarize, as this has been long and somewhat wandering:
- Manhood is a learned behavior that must be grafted onto basic asocial maleness in order for society to survive and thrive.
- Untrained maleness will spontaneously form into gangs because that is how males define themselves, vs. other men.
- Manhood must be taught to boys by men because of the fundamental drive of men to define themselves vs. other men.
- It is only by building masculinity onto this foundation, the gang instinct, that it will be brought into service of women, and thus the family, and then of society at large.