Last month I posted a link to the video of my talk “What Makes Men Men?” delivered at the conference “Patriarchy: Fatherhood and the Restoration of Culture.” Here, slightly edited, is the text.
What Makes Men Men?
I am a little amused, because it may at first seem that one of the other speakers and I disagree about everything. He argues that manhood is not natural; I argue that it is. However, this is not a real disagreement, because the term “natural” is used in several different senses. Psychologists and sociologists generally use it to refer to what is spontaneous for creatures of our nature, and that comes easy. Ethical philosophers and theologians generally use it to refer to what reflects the flourishing or proper development of creatures of our nature, and that may come hard. I certainly don’t think males become men easily or spontaneously. But for their own good, I do think they need to become men. So manhood is natural in my sense, even though not in my colleague’s – and he and I agree about this.
So let us get on with our subject.
What is it to be a man?
And how can we know?
Some people say the best way to understand the nature of the human male is to consider the selection pressures which operated during his presumed rise from the apes. There are two problems with this strategy. The first is that on this hypothesis, the only genes that are consistently passed on are the ones for traits which have adaptive value. But obviously this isn’t so. Tell me the adaptive value in seeking to know the meaning of life, or in the ability to be awed, humbled, and transported by the music of J.S. Bach. One eminent sociobiologist claims that we have genes for believing in God, which are adaptive because belief in God unites the social group. Apparently no one told him that believing different things about God can tear the group apart. Besides -- why not just have genes for social unity?
The second problem is that even if we did develop entirely by natural selection, we don’t know what selection pressures were operating. Neo-Darwinian theory cannot say how human males had to come out. All it can do is observe how they did come out, and then spin tales of how it might have happened. After all, the primates all came out different ways. The chimpanzee is highly aggressive and dominated by males, the bonobo is less aggressive and dominated by females, and we are neither chimpanzees nor bonobos.
Other people say that the best way to understand the nature of the human male is simply to observe him. That’s better, but there are problems with this approach too. The first problem is simple variation, because men and women are not all the same. For every generalization about either sex, there are exceptions. From this, a naïve observer may conclude that there is no such thing as male and female nature. But this is a mistake.
For the fact that most women are more nurturing than most men is much more than an accident. It arises from a genuine difference in the underlying reality, the difference between womanhood and manhood as such. This difference is so powerful that men and women are influenced by it even when they defy it. For example, we say women are more nurturing. Yet some young women conceal their pregnancies, give birth in secret, then do away with the babies. Nothing more opposed to nurturance could be imagined. But wait: Consider the ways in which these young women do away with their babies. How often they place them in trash cans and dumpsters, still alive! Why don't they just kill them? That is what a man usually does if he wants to do away with a child. Perhaps a young woman imagines her baby resting in the dumpster, quietly and painlessly slipping into a death that is something like sleep. Or perhaps she imagines a fairy tale ending in which some other woman finds her baby in the dumpster and brings him up as her own. No, the act is not nurturing, but even so, the inclination to nurture hasn't precisely been destroyed; under the influence of other strong motives, it has been perverted. I daresay that such data are not captured by our psychological instruments. It is not enough to count things with a survey. One must see with the eyes of the heart.
The second problem with the “just observe” strategy is that it cannot tell the difference between how we are meant to be and how we are. For example, some observers say that by nature human males are pretty nearly but not quite monogamous. Most men like the idea of having a mate, but many men wander. Now it may be true in a statistical sense that large numbers of men lapse from monogamy. It is also true in a statistical sense that most people are sick some of the time. Do we say then that by nature human beings are almost but not quite healthy? No. What we say is that nature intended them to be healthy, but sometimes they lapse from nature’s intention. Why then don’t we say that nature intended men to be monogamous, but that sometimes they lapse from this intention too? It is as though a physician who saw only broken arms assumed that if arms have no fractures there must be something wrong with them.
How could we correct such a misguided physician? By calling his attention to the purpose or function of the arms, to their proper work. Broken arms cannot do their work as well as intact ones; therefore, brokenness is not their natural state. The nature of a thing is not determined by how something happens to be, but by what it is for -- by what it is designed to do and to become, if everything goes well.
Very well, then: What are men and women for? In one respect they are for the same thing: Being rational, they are for the knowledge of the truth, especially the truth about God. But there is a difference. A man is a rational being of that sex whose members are potentially fathers, and a woman is a rational being of that sex whose members are potentiality mothers.
The idea of potentiality needs explanation, because potentiality is not the same thing as physical possibility. Consider a man who is infertile because of some disease. Although it is not physically possibility for him to be a father, we should not say that he lacks the potentiality for fatherhood; as a man, he has the potentiality, but the disease has blocked its realization. It is just because he is a man, just because he is endowed with the potentiality for fatherhood, that the block to its physical realization is such an occasion for sorrow.
Another reason why the expression "potentiality for fatherhood" requires explanation is that although siring children is the most characteristic expression of fatherhood, it is far from its only expression. A man might sire a child yet fail in the greater perspective of fatherhood, because he fails to protect the mother, or because he fails to protect the child, or because he fails to give the child that father's love which only he can give because it is different than a mother's love.
We can carry this line of reasoning still further. A potentiality is something like a calling. It wants, so to speak, to develop; it demands, so to speak, a response. It is like an arrow, notched in the string and aimed at the target, even if it never takes flight. It intimates an inbuilt meaning and expresses an inbuilt purpose, which cannot help but influence the mind and will of every person imbued with them. Alice von Hildebrand has remarked that although not every woman is called to marry and bear physical children, "every woman, whether married or unmarried, is called upon to be a biological, psychological or spiritual mother." I am saying that for men, the reality is parallel. Not every man is called to marry and bear physical children, but every man, whether married or unmarried, is called upon to be a biological, psychological or spiritual father.
Obviously I cannot speak from inside experience of womanhood, because I am a man. Yet even a man can see that it is a very different thing to be a woman than to be a man. A man may deeply love his child, but he does not have a womb with which to carry the child in his body for nine months, or milk with which to nourish the child from his breasts. These experiences connect the mother with her child in an intimate, physical bond which we men can easily recognize, but which we cannot experience. In subtle ways they condition her emotional responses not only toward the child, but also toward herself and even toward everyone else. They also make sense of certain other differences between men and women, differences for which each sex is sometimes wrongly criticized. For example, are women in general more protective of their bodies than men, and men less careful about their bodily safety than women? Of course they are. Women, who carry children, need to be more protective of their bodies. Men, to protect them, need to be less careful about their safety. It isn’t that men, by being men, are more virtuous, or that women, by being women, are more virtuous. However, their most typical temptations are somewhat different than those of the other sex, and although they can have all the same virtues, their virtues have different inflections. A man’s and a woman’s courage are not the same, but they are both courage.
The other sexual differences make sense in this light too. As Edith Stein reminds us, men are more prone to abstraction, and women more prone to focus on the concrete. Men don't mind what is impersonal, but women are more attuned to the nuances of relationships. A man tends to be a specialist and single-tasker; he develops certain qualities to an unusually high pitch, using them to do things in the world. A woman tends to be a generalist and multitasker; she inclines to a more rounded development of her abilities, using them to nurture the life around her. The woman's potentiality for motherhood ties all her qualities together and makes sense of her contrast with men. Consider just that multitasking capacity. In view of what it takes to run a home, doesn't it make sense for her to have it? A woman must be a center of peace for her family, even though a hundred things are happening at once. But a man is designed more for the protection of the hearth and the people who surround it than for their nurture.
In speaking of the hearth it may sound as though I am saying that women should never leave the kitchen. No. Although men gravitate to careers and women to motherhood, not all women will pursue an exclusively domestic life. Even so, the potentiality for motherhood explains why women who do pursue a career, and who have free choice of career, tend to choose careers that allow them to give first place to caring for their children. It also explains why they tend to choose careers that give greater scope to maternal qualities. In fact, even when a well-balanced woman chooses a traditionally masculine career, she also tends to perform it in ways that give scope to maternal qualities. A male lawyer tends to focus on the properties of the task itself. This is worthy, but it is all too easy for him to lose sight of the humanity of his clients. Can he learn to remember their humanity? Of course he can, but he is more likely to need the reminder in the first place. A female lawyer may find the abstract quality of the law somewhat alienating, even though it is necessary. On the other hand, she is much less likely to forget that she is dealing with human beings.
It is much more difficult to speak about fatherhood than motherhood. Perhaps because the father's connection with his children is not mediated by his body in the way that the mother's is -- or perhaps because paternal absenteeism and other forms of masculine failure are so conspicuous in our day -- most of us have a dimmer idea of fatherhood than motherhood. Open mockery of fathers has become a fixture of popular culture.
The difference between fatherhood and motherhood, hence between manhood and womanhood, involves a difference in the male and female modes of love for their children, but there is much more to it than that. The difference is both greater and deeper. Manhood in general is outward-directed, and womanhood inward-directed. This is no cliché; the distinction is quite subtle. Outward-directedness, for example, is not the same as other-directedness, for many men prefer dealing with things. Inward-directedness is not same as self-directedness, for the genius of women includes caring for the local circle.
If the contrast between outward- and inward-directedness sounds like a dig at male vanity or sexual promiscuity, or a gibe at female narcissism or emotional dependency, it isn't that either. Characteristics of those sorts are not the essence of the sexual difference; they are merely vices that result from the indulgence of temptations to which the two sexes are unequally susceptible. In speaking of outward- and inward-directedness, my intention is not to call attention to the corruptions, but to the good things that are sometimes corrupted. It is a good thing that an unmarried man pursues the beloved, whereas an unmarried woman makes herself attractive to pursuit; it is a good thing that a husband protects the home, whereas a wife establishes it on the hearth; it is a good thing that a father represents the family and oversees it, whereas a mother conducts the family and manages it.
Although the directive geniuses of the father and the mother are not the same, both of them truly rule the home. We may compare the father with a king reigning over a commonwealth, the mother with a queen. These potent archetypes express different inflections of glory, nobility, and self-command. Men joke about their wives telling them what to do. The joke would have no point unless two things were true: On one hand, they would not want their wives to be kings; on the other hand, they know they are really queens.
We sometimes say that fathers and mothers share and divide the different aspects of sovereignty between themselves in much the same way as the directive functions are divided in corporations. Is this a new idea? Far from it. In one of the letters of St. Paul to Timothy, we find him using a curious pair of words -- a verb, proistemi, for what a husband characteristically does, and a noun, oikodespotes, for what a wife characteristically is. Both words indicate authority, but with a difference. The term used for the husband has a range of meanings that include standing before, presiding, superintending, protecting, maintaining, helping, succoring, and acting in the capacity of a patron -- very much like a chairman of the board. But the term used for the woman means "ruler of the house" – literally, “despot of the house” -- very much like the chief executive officer. So the idea is really very ancient.
When all goes well, fathers and mothers also exemplify and specialize in different aspects of wisdom. A wise father teaches his wife and family that in order to love you must be strong; a wise mother teaches her husband and family that in order to be strong you must love. She knows that even boldness needs humility; he knows that even humility needs to be bold. He is an animate symbol to his children of that justice which is tempered by mercy, she a living emblem of that mercy which is tempered by justice. A wise father knows when to say, "ask your mother," a wise mother when to say, "ask your father." When they do this, they are not passing the buck, but sharing sovereignty. Each of them refracts a different hue from the glowing light of royalty.
Today it is almost embarrassing to have to hear things like I have been saying. Comparisons of fathers and mothers with kings and queens seems naïve, nostalgic, sentimental, and exaggerated. They make us squirm. There are strong reasons for this reaction, but they are bad ones.
For how many parents, especially fathers, have lost their regal dignity, disbelieve in their authority, and confuse the proper humility of their office with being self-mocking and ironic? We have turned husbands and wives into androgynous "spouses," fathers and mothers into interchangeable "parent figures." We approach having a child like acquiring a pool table or wide-screen TV. Would it be fun? Would it be tedious? Would it be worth the expense? Fathers and mothers have need of recovering their sense of regal calling, taking up their ball and scepter, and ruling their dominions with love for their precious subjects. It is not for nothing that the king of a commonwealth is called "Sire"; humanly speaking, of the callings of fatherhood and kingship, the deeper and more primordial is fatherhood.
May it be needless to say that mothers and fathers must also recover the conviction of their need for each other. They must do this not only for their own sakes, but for their young. Every child needs both kinds of love. It is not enough to provide an intermediate love that is half motherly and half fatherly, or an inconsistent love that is motherly at some times, fatherly at others. Nor is it enough to give one kind of love for real, while giving only a pretense or simulacrum of the other kind. Even though the two loves resemble each other, they are distinct, and neither can be imitated by anything else. Yes, it may be true heroism when through no fault of one's own, a father or a mother raises a child all alone; yet it is better not to be alone. No woman can fully take the place of a father, any more than any man can substitute for a mother.
These differences reach even further. For men, growing up is like joining a brotherhood. Today, our grasp of this fact is attenuated by the fact that we have lost our rites and customs of apprenticeship and coming of age. Yet men naturally desire to be something like knights, who not only do hard things, but in firm and fatherly manner train squires who attend them so that these young men can learn to do hard things, too. As I was in earnest before, about the calling of all men to extended fatherhood, so I am in earnest now, about the chivalric element in this calling. A man will more readily aspire to manhood if he can taste it; his life must have the flavor of valor. This is true of how he carries himself not only toward other men, but toward women.
The fashion of the day is to think of medieval knights not as valiant but as cruel. Many were, yet even in that day, knighthood was more than a veneer for oppression. It was a great and noble ideal that did much to civilize a society still governed by a warrior caste and too often running with blood. Like the members of our own ruling class, different as it is, the members of that caste sometimes fought for the wrong things, fought in the wrong ways, or committed atrocities. All such perversions should be condemned. Yet let us not abuse the members of that caste just because they liked to fight. Are there not plenty of things to fight for in this world, and plenty of evils to oppose? Do we not even speak of the Church Militant?
After all, most men do not simply like to fight; they are too lazy for that. They like to fight when there is something worth fighting for. True, they sometimes make up things worth fighting for just to be able to fight for them, and one of the tasks of becoming a man is learning to resist that temptation. There are plenty of noble things to fight for without making them up. A woman may resist temptation, but a man thinks of making war against it. A woman may seek to reside in the citadel of virtue, but a man thinks of capturing it. In the same martial spirit, a virtuous man desires to contend for just laws, defend and protect sound traditions, attack lies and fallacies with the weapons of frankness and reason, and yes, even to make gentle war for courtesy.
By the way, if it is right at times to fight, then it is also right in some ways to enjoy fighting, even though it is also right to grieve the evils incidental to the struggle and try to minimize them. A certain militancy and a certain vigilance are an essential part of manhood, and a man's great project is not to do away with his impulse to fight, but to learn to fight nobly and generously -- to refine the raw ore, burn away its dross, and make it into purified steel.
This is an ideal to which any man may aspire. It is wholly independent of what he does for a living, of how much education he has had, or of whether he is muscular or athletic. Medieval knights engaged their enemies physically, and there is always some need for that; that is why we have armies and police. Yet there are many ways to fight besides the physical. One may fight through a word in season, a clap on the shoulder, a quiet admonishment or commendation. One may wage war by bearing witness, by lifting the fallen, by refusing to countenance evil. One may do battle by admonishing idlers, by encouraging the faint-hearted, by helping the weak.
All this makes the achievement of manhood hard work, labor that requires a firm hand with the desires and devices of the heart. The best instance of a human male is not a glorified, walking packet of urges, but a man, who, for the sake of the highest and greatest goods, commands himself, strengthens his brothers, and defends his sisters, regarding even the meanest of women as a lady. You may say this is not natural. I say it is natural, in the sense that only in this way does a being of his nature flourish.
Once upon a time the differences between men and women were not thought so strange. We have a long quest and a difficult journey before we can speak of them again with ease and gaiety. There are so many sweet and lovely things that our ears can no longer hear without odium, so many blameless things that can hardly be discussed without scandal. Just imagine the din that would erupt in the world if I were to praise and extol that great activity that comes so much more readily to the woman, and is slandered under the false name of being passive: Be it unto me as you have said! And if I were to compound the offense by pointing out that every last one of us, both man and woman, is feminine with respect to God – there would be an earthquake.
The journey back to the commonwealth of sense will be long and difficult, and we will meet trolls and enchanters on the way. I say: Laugh at them. They will obstruct passage, demand tribute, and try to lure us into byways and bogs. But since we cannot become any more begrimed and bewitched than we already are in our day, why should that discourage us? A smile on our lips, a song in our throats, a sword in our hands, and a prayer in our hearts, we may as well fight with good cheer.
Book: On the Meaning of Sex