Reflections on the Decline of Masculinity
(Lay Witness, September, 1984, pp. 5-11)
An article entitled “Reflections on the Decline of Masculinity” must inevitably baffle the average modern man. Contemporary opinion has, after all, been led to accept a purely materialistic definition of the nature of masculinity, one that is based upon sexual appetite alone. And since studies of male behavior are hardly likely to uncover any quantitative decrease in sexual activity, anyone pointing to a decline of masculinity is bound to meet with either ridicule or bewilderment.
Still, some of us do reject the definition of man in sexual terms alone. We think that if one is just a little open minded it becomes readily apparent that manliness depends upon a wide variety of factors. And when we examine the theory and practice of masculinity from this broader perspective, it also becomes clear that the art of being a man is a seriously-threatened skill.
It is necessary to begin this discussion by making one fundamental observation about men, not as ideologues would have them be, but as they actually have been throughout history. This observation concerns the fact that men feel obliged actively to affirm things. What do I mean by active affirmation? I mean that it is not enough for a man simply to recognize the ability of his mind or the strength of his body. He must use that mind and body to shape the world around him. The active affirmation of his gifts necessarily leads him to an exercise of authority. This exercise of authority comforts and confirms the feminine soul in its special mission, which naturally looks to male leadership. It also encourages men to move forward to complete their own work.
Let us examine this phenomenon in greater detail with reference to the mind. Men have used their minds to develop both religious as well as philosophical explanations of how to wend their way through the universe. It does not matter, for the sake of my argument, that many of these explanations (Hinduism, for example) actually deny the reality or goodness of existence. What does matter is that throughout history men have insisted upon actively molding the world to conform to their own views. It has often been the persistence and endurance with which men have gone about the goal of bringing belief or desire into union with practice that has earned them approbation from other human beings. In this regard, the great institutions, like Church and State, are especially expressive of masculine character, in that they embody the desire to affirm internal values externally through action.
Similarly, in order to earn the appellation “masculine”, it has not usually been sufficient for a man merely to maintain his physique. He has generally had to use his body to qualify for this title. Hence, he has devised tests of manhood that have involved deeds of strength and physical stamina. Interesting to note in this connection is the appearance in every age of a certain breed of men who possess what might be called a warrior mentality. Such men feel no calling to the religious life. Business matters leave them cold. Academic and political aspirations do not charm them. Instead, they are thrilled by deeds of daring entailing the active application of bodily skills, particularly those involving strength.
This simultaneous affirmation of mind and body creates the authority noted above, to which authority men have felt the need to call attention in a number of ways. For example, those responsible for building or maintaining the link between belief and society—priests, kings, etc.—have clothed themselves in special robes, awarded themselves degrees and medals, sat on thrones or behind altars, and wielded scepters and other staffs of office. Those excelling in deeds of strength—the fighters and conquerors—have relied on symbols of animal vigor. They have enjoyed the aura of authority conferred by the wearing of skins and armor, and the visible manifestation of power demonstrated by mastery of the horse. Again, the ideologue may wish that this were not so, but there is little that he can do to alter the fact without altering the historical evidence.
As we move from the pagan world to Christendom, we see clearly that Christ came to perfect nature not to destroy it. Christianity, in consequence, accepted and completed the masculine character, It also purged that character of elements which superficially seemed to develop masculinity, but which actually distorted it.
One can readily see this with regard to the active affirmation of the mind. Christianity knew that society must be brought into union with belief. It inspired the creation of a Kingdom of Christians—Christendom—wherein all things might be dedicated to the greater glory of God. Christian teaching on this subject may be deduced from St. Augustine’s writings, St. Thomas’ Summae, and the Christian Humanist approach of the first Jesuits. It can be recognized in Catholic appreciation of the work of certain statesmen, of Charlemagne and the best of the Holy Roman Emperors. Christianity simultaneously disdained purely political or intellectual tours de force conducted in the name of a sterile one upmanship, which, after all, ultimately affirms nothing except personal arrogance. Our religion, in other words, gave pride of place to the active lawgiver and statesman, in particular, and to the challenge-seeking masculine intellect, in general. It did so while diverting men’s attention from insignificant goals and channeling them into important ones. It aided masculinity by causing men to affirm the most elevated of ends possible.
It is, perhaps, even more interesting to see how Christianity accepted and purged the physical masculine virtues, so easily opened to abuse, particularly when connected with the warrior mentality. Christianity did this in dealing with the hosts of Germans and Vikings who invaded Europe in successive waves between the 300’s and 900’s A.D.
The Germans were truly a people of warriors. They left agriculture to their womenfolk and commerce to the peoples whom they raided. War was their profession and their sport. Since war, by the time of the early Middle Ages, required a horse, the German warrior nobility devoted itself to the skills and manners demanded of horsemen. This cultivation of the life of a horseman is the original meaning of the world “chivalry”. Notions of the “common good” and the “fatherland” took second place to the drive to become a good warrior-horseman.
The Vikings indulged a passion for blood that far surpassed anything that the Germans ever experienced. They reveled in their annual excursions to a terrified Europe, their looting and burning of monasteries, and their destruction of the pitiful remnants of order on the Continent. So much was the warrior the only valuable member of Viking society that his widow was herself put to death when he met his end.
Did the Church seek to destroy the Germanic and Viking spirit root-and-branch? Not at all. It simply sought to transform it into the spirit of Christian knighthood. Gradually, over the course of centuries, it began to succeed in this end. The ceremony admitting a man into the ranks of the warrior nobility was no longer, as it once had been, a mere slap administered by a chieftain on the battlefield. Instead, it was enveloped in religious language and ritual, designed to emphasize the soldier’s duty to uphold the law of Christ. The idea of chivalry changed under Christian pressure, and came to mean more than simply the life of a horseman. It began to signify the life of a Christian gentleman, a man who not only kept his word to his lord, but also protected the Church, the poor, and the defenseless, and who exhibited a new reverence and respect for women, while fighting only for the noblest of causes. True, chivalry also came to mean many worldly concerns of which the Church might disapprove. This was due to the fact that ther influences, like the notion of courtly love, were also at work in shaping it. Still, none of these influences defended the earlier barbarian ideal. They softened and redefined it.
Just as the Crusade was the culmination of the process of defining the just war, the Crusader completed the identification of the true character of the Christian warrior. A member of a crusading military order, half monk and half soldier, praying when he was not fighting for the good, became the ultimate symbol of the Christian man-of-arms. If St. Louis IX as King represented the masculine desire to transform the mind’s beliefs into political and social practice, then St. Louis as soldier represented the active affirmation of the body. Again, the just pride of a soldier in his horsemanship, his manly uniform, and his physique was not merely tolerated by Christianity; it was approved of and encouraged as a positive virtue.
It is interesting to note how literature was utilized in this context. Germans and Vikings were always fond of sagas, of recounting the deeds of their great men. These songs of the deed were gradually both Christianized and written down. They form a specific type of western literature known as the chansons de geste. The Song of Roland, the story of the Cid, and the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table all belong to this type of song or poem. Chansons de geste promoted in a thousand different forms the notion of chivalry as a way of life devoted to religion, friendship, the protection of the weak, and the military virtues. These poems were then taught to generation after generation of western children as standards of warrior behavior. While it is true that warriors may have practically disregarded this standard the vast majority of time, the mere fact that they had to justify their bad actions already improved things enormously. Moreover, the adherence of even a few warriors to the newly created standard was crucial. Most of civilization is founded upon the achievements of a very few men, and a very few decent Christian warriors are capable of effecting immense gains. There is, perhaps, nothing more glorious than the sight of a man of strength protecting the weak. Christian civilization allowed for this possibility to become a reality by holding it up as the model for warrior behavior.
Albrecht Dürer has an engraving of a Christian knight wending his way through a wild forest. He is a portrait of manliness, dominating a horse that is ennobled by its rider’s control. Demons and threats of all kinds appear in the wilderness to deflect him from his path. All to no avail. The Heavenly City lies in the background, and the Christian warrior intends to use his strength to carve his way to it. The same kind of engraving, mutatis mutandis, could have been made to indicate the active, affirmative strength of the Christian teacher, statesman, or king. These are the kind of men that God wants. These are the kind of men that the world needs, and that women want.
Unfortunately, these are not the sort of men that modern civilization is likely to produce. Standards of manly behavior have fallen rapidly in the course of this century alone. The decline of masculinity in the modern world has been due to many factors, two of which I should like now to emphasize. I am personally convinced of the particular importance of these two causes because of the insidious way in which they strike directly at the principle of active affirmation of mind and body.
The first factor that must be underlined is the general collapse of an interest in ideas and in truth. I do not mean just the general collapse of an interest in the Truth, as, for example, in the dogmas of the Catholic Faith. This is a bad enough problem, but it is not yet the worst. After all, men who embrace false truths are still awake to the desire to find something for which they can live and die. They are thus still open to conversion. The truly awful phenomenon with which I am concerned here is the complete disinterest in the concept of and search for objective truth, which forms the backbone of existence, and without which man and society are emasculated. When this attitude prevails, man’s basic need to pass beyond the humdrum of daily existence and pass on towards the eternal is denied. Such an attitude now dominates the western world through the deceptive political notion of Pluralism.
Pluralism argues that societies can be formed in which all manner of beliefs may be tolerated. This, I would content, has proved to be a very debatable premise. Divided societies find it hard to stand against united ones. Moreover, the actual practice of Pluralism in countries like the United States contradicts the theoretical arguments supporting it. For Pluralism does not create the neutral forum that it claims it does. It does not allow real expression of diverse beliefs and real practice of varied ways of life. Pluralism survives only by tolerating different beliefs and ways of life up to a point. As whims, crochets, or predilections having no serious consequences, manifold beliefs and lifestyles are accepted by it—even Roman Catholicism. However, when beliefs begin to entail real commitments and real sacrifices, they are no longer welcome. As frivolities, they are encouraged. As true guides to life, which may force people to oppose such crimes as abortion, they are looked upon with suspicion and even contempt. Why? Because Pluralism creates a Dogma of Indifference to Truth which demands the primary obedience of its subjects. The Pluralist Society, in sum, is dubious. It is its quiet fraudulence which makes its harmfulness particularly difficult to discern.
The second, and, perhaps, more fundamental factor in the decline of masculinity in the modern world is egalitarianism. The Church obviously teaches that everyone is equal in the sense that they share the same human nature and are open to the same possibility of becoming sons of God. However, an egalitarian can never be content with this concept of equality. He wants equality to extend to every aspect of life. Thus, anything threatening the dream of an absolute equality repels him. The notion of authority and the idea of a superior are unacceptable to him for this reason. Every person, institution, and symbol indicating the existence of authorities and superiors contradicts this vision of absolute equality and must thus be destroyed.
I would argue that pluralism and egalitarianism are dangerous for everyone, male or female. Nevertheless, men are particularly devastated by them. This is so because pluralism and egalitarianism prevent men from doing what is essential for men to do: actively and authoritatively affirm their minds and their bodies. Pluralist-egalitarian men cannot build cultures because they have been taught to regard with suspicion anything other than a shallow commitment to a belief. Lost is the notion that men can and should construct a harmonious civilization. Pluralist-egalitarian men cannot defend a culture once created, because they fear all exercise of authority as an assault upon equality and dignity. They cannot sustain virtues such as perseverance, courage, obedience, and loyalty, because they dismantle the institutions and destroy the symbols which the Christian West has shaped to enshrine them. All that was once held dear is abhorrent to them: Christendom, the Crusade and the Crusader; Charlemagne, St. Louis IX, and the Knights of the Round Table; consistency of thought and action, as well as strength; thrones, scepters, and military garb.
Pluralist-egalitarian men suffer the fate of Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Hans Castorp was fascinated by the endless possibilities of outlook and belief which existed in pre-World War One Europe. So fascinated was he that he suspended his life for seven years in order to hear them discussed in a Swiss sanatorium. Because of his inability to commit himself to any one idea, his intellect and personality began to suffer from an anemia of indecision. In time, this anemia so drained Castorp’s intellectual vitality that he began to fade away, leaving him on the verge of becoming a non-entity, ignored even by the staff of the sanatorium. It took an event over which he had absolutely no control—the outbreak of war in 1914—to awaken him from his stupor. How sad the contrast with Dürer’s Christian knight, who knew where he was gong and how to get there!
Pluralism and egalitarianism deprive men of their essential characteristic: active, authoritative affirmation of mind and body. Therefore, even though man is not a purely sensual being, modern society makes it appear that he is denying the other, more fundamental aspects of his nature. Nothing else but sensuality is left to him. Modern man becomes a pure sensualist due to a self-fulfilling prophesy.
It is interesting to note that the sensualist who operates within this context does so in a peculiar, non-masculine way. Even his sensuality goes awry. He feels guilty about being a man. After all, insisting upon a masculine sensuality would entail distinguishing himself from the female. It would require behaving authoritatively and taking charge. Such behavior would violate the concept of equality. Hence, the modern cult of the androgynous, with its emphasis upon unisex clothing and hairstyles, and its insistence upon destroying even the differences and distinctions between male and female behavioral reactions to the sexual act itself. Even the average libertine from past ages usually understood the value of a wife and children, and shouldered familial responsibilities, despite his philandering. Not so the modern man. Indecision, non-commitment, and flight from responsibility characterize him. They lead him into endless one-night encounters and child-like escapes from the consequences of his escapades. It is not at all difficult to understand why homosexuality is so rampant in our society. It is, in the majority of cases, the ultimate indecisive, non-commitment of an individual who has been subtly taught that decisiveness and commitment are dangerous.
What happens to those men who will not accept the emasculation resulting from pluralism and egalitarianism? What happens to those who feel that they must affirm their ideas, their strength, and their authority? They are in an extraordinarily difficult position, which position is made more difficult still by the teams of psychiatrists and other social scientists who will descend upon them to examine and interpret their neuroses. If these men do not wish completely to go mad or completely to be broken, they have only three choices before them.
One of these choices is to hide in the increasingly more exotic underbrush of modern society. They can find there a large variety of subcultures in which “masculine “ways of behavior flourish. The problem, however, is that these masculine ways flourish in an unacceptable form. The subtle and sensitive aspects of masculinity are made explicit and corrupted in a way that critics of modern sex education would readily understand. Exaggerations abound. The masculine becomes intertwined with the barbaric.
An example of the kind of thing of which I am speaking can be identified within what might be labeled rock culture. Rock music has given birth to an amazing sociological and quasi-religious phenomenon. It has produced a kaleidoscope of groups that form the center of modern-day mystery religions, cults such as those which once flourished in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and the Greco-Roman ecumene. Each of these groups provides a liturgical language, a liturgy, a way of dress, and a philosophy-religion for its devotees. The mass ceremonies in which these all manifest themselves differ little from pagan rituals of the past, both in their intensity as well as in their incomprehensibility to uninitiated outsiders.
Some of these rock mystery religions are explicitly masculine in an unacceptable form. Adepts dress in and use masculine warrior clothing and symbols. They carry the cult of the strong man to the point of caricature and sickness. Whips, chains, and other objects proliferate—and not for the battlefield or the military parade, but for normal street life. War cries howl from mammoth radios. Lyrics of songs glorify violence, advocate the treatment of women as captives, and theoretically justify any aberration. In homosexual circles, lyric fantasies become realities and sadomasochistic cults thrive.
Why does this hold an attraction? Partially because society has banished so much that is innately masculine from its midst; because it offers so little in the way of color, drama, and excitement to young boys; because it has no use for tests of manhood, unless they are connected either with money making or sexual experimentation; because it falsely equates the warrior mentality with nothing but brutality and machismo; because it has childishly written off as being childish the masculine drive to express its strength, its vigor, and its authority. The attraction of subcultures, such as those shaped by rock music, will continue and grow as long as social approval, direction, and tempering of distinct masculine realities are ignored.
The second possibility for men who cannot endure the life outlined for them by pluralism and egalitarianism is fascism. What, after all, is fascism? It is the encouragement of vigorous action on behalf of what a man “feels” to be right. The fascist will not discuss. He demands submission. If he is told that he cannot act as a man, he will ignore the limitations placed upon him and continue to do what he feels to be right. (It is interesting to note in this connection the recent emergence of such self-appointed vigilante youth groups as the Guardian Angels. It would seem that these groups in some way fill the void left by modern society’s abandonment of chivalry, for which the youth possessed of a warrior mentality particularly hungers).
Unfortunately—and this is always the problem of the fascist—he is then guided by the belief that there are no rules to justify his actions other than those dictated by strength and will. Rulelessness and willfulness then open him to anti-Catholic and anticlassical behavior.
What is the third possibility for the man who will not submit to pluralism and egalitarianism? It is the only effective possibility: the return to Christian orthodoxy.
In His public ministry, Christ asked those who had eyes, to see, and those who had ears, to hear. It can be surmised from this repeated Gospel exhortation that Our Lord’s wish is, among other things, for us to see the world around us as it really is. Catholicism, in consequence, is an affirmation of reality (the affirmation of reality), with all of its wonders and its love, as well as its unfortunate evils and its hatreds. The goals of our religion are true and attainable ones, and its vision embraces the fullness of reality. Recognition of this fact should immediately reveal the potential for disaster inherent in any dissent from Church doctrine and practices, which unfortunately happens all too frequently. The more that Catholics become true Catholics, however, the more readily they will be able to deal practically with the difficulties of life in general, and with the specific problems of the age in which they are living.
In contrast, modern western civilization has been shaped by concepts that refuse to see and refuse to hear all the evidence which the world has to offer about human nature and the complexity of existence. Hence, it clashes with reality. Its goals are false. Indeed, it is afflicted by an inner principle of contradiction. Whenever modern society tries to fulfill its goals of freedom and equality, it usually achieves the opposite of what it intends, creating slavery and oppression. The more consistently it applies itself, the more damage it does. The need to explain away this contradiction of intention and result has led modern psychologists, sociologists, philosophers and experts of all varieties to erect a new Tower of Babel.
The difference between Catholicism and modernity is well-illustrated by the question of masculinity. Catholic affirmation of reality has led it to deal with this concept in a way that has proven beneficial to human life. It has taken a man’s natural desire to affirm his mind and his body and raised it to fulfill the highest of purposes, the transformation of all things in Christ. The modern clash with reality, on the other hand, has had disastrous effects. In the name of a pluralism which supposedly protects freedom, the value of commitment is denied and indecision is encouraged. In the name of an equality that is but an illusion, the principle of authority is destroyed and society is left without leaders. The modern world has diminished men, paralyzed them, made them ridiculous—an embarrassment to themselves. It has indirectly opened the door to a return of uncontrollable barbarism.
With the above-noted considerations, we have by no means exhausted the list of unfortunate consequences. To complete our list of grievances, we would, of course, have to turn to those whose lives have been most devastated by the decline of masculinity—women. Theirs is yet another story.
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