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Boys to Men

Several male students once approached my colleague to ask if he would be an advisor for a new club they were starting. The purpose? To promote manliness on campus. He declined, tartly informing them that the first thing they needed to know is that manly men do not start clubs promoting manliness.

He wasn’t entirely wrong. There is a reason the field of “gender studies” is dominated by women. This has something to do with the history of feminism, but also with the fact that women tend to be more introspective than men. No book by a man comes close to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in exploring the experience and meaning of manliness. True, there is a sizable and active “manosphere,” but its tone and content often consist of grievances, resentment, misogyny, and crude machismo stereotypes. 

The Fading of Tacit Cultural Norms

For most of human history, the cultural and moral norms governing manliness were tacit and did not require much reflection. This was true as late as my own childhood in the 1970s and ’80s. The fifth of six boys (with one sister on each end), in a neighborhood filled with other rowdy and largely unsupervised boys, I learned how to fight, take risks, make friends, trust or challenge others, and negotiate and enforce rules for our games. Much of our experience was filtered through the books we read, like J. D. Fitzgerald’s extraordinary Great Brain series. And somehow, most of us looked forward to “growing up,” when we would assume the responsibilities of work, marriage, and family. 

Yet I sympathize with the students who tried to start the manliness club. Like so much else in our “anti-culture,” the tacit script for manliness has been destroyed. American males are in a crisis, and both men and women know it. That crisis was identified as early as 2000 in The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies Are Harming Our Young Men by Christina Hoff Sommers. It has only deepened since then, as both Leonard Sax and more recently Richard Reeves have demonstrated. Sax and Reeves highlight many of the causes for this crisis: no-fault divorce, increasing fatherlessness, the sexual revolution, radical feminism, an infantilizing entertainment culture, pornography, the “medicalization of misbehavior,” the loss of blue-collar jobs, elite contempt for manual labor, easy availability of recreational drugs, and safetyism.

These are formidable challenges. But to fully meet them we first need to know what a man is, not just an “adult male of the human species,” but a real man, a “man in full,” a gentleman. It turns out this is a most interesting question to exploreand not an easy one to answer.

The Gentleman: Historical Models

Consider the different models of men in our history and literature: Achilles and Odysseus; Aristotle and Alexander the Great; St. Francis of Assisi and Thomas More; John Wayne’s Tom Doniphon and Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard. Is there one model of manliness here? 

Perhaps it is easier to begin by identifying what a man is not. In an insightful and provocative 2004 essay entitled “Wimps and Barbarians,” Terence Moore wrote the following:

Too often among today’s young males, the extremes seem to predominate. One extreme suffers from an excess of manliness, or from misdirected and unrefined manly energies. The other suffers from a lack of manliness, a total want of manly spirit. Call them barbarians and wimps. So prevalent are these two errant types that the prescription for what ails our young males might be reduced to two simple injunctions: Don’t be a barbarian. Don’t be a wimp. What is left, ceteris paribus, will be a man.

My female students especially nod their heads at this description, though the men feel it too. But what if “wimp” and “barbarian” are, in fact, the two basic default positions of males in the absence of the right education, the spontaneous development, if you will, of latent tendencies in boys to be “babies” and “bullies”?

This seems plausible. Unlike other animals, human beings require considerable cultural investment to mature. Culture, like agriculture, does not involve dominating nature, but rather, assisting nature in its innate drive toward fruitfulness. Without the right culture, boys will become as disordered and stunted in their growth as an unpruned apple tree.

Known by Their Fruits

What is the fruit of manhood? We have a sign hanging in the bathroom for our five boys. It was inspired by a talk Jonathan Reyes gave in 2019. At the top it says “The Difference between a Boy and a Man,” and beneath it in two columns are contrasting qualities like the following: “Boys seek Comfort, Men seek a Challenge”; “Boys Complain, Men Endure”; “Boys have Bros, Men have Friends;” and (one of my own additions) “Boys break Things, Men make Things.” 

The sign has given focus to our parenting and clarity to our sons. It has also generated constructive and often amusing conversations with guests. The truth in the descriptions and contrasts is evident to anyone who has spent time working with boys, whether as a parent, teacher, or coach. The task is clear. The challenge is: how?

Plato in his Republic is the first thinker to observe natural male tendencies toward what Moore calls “wimpiness” (undue softness) on one hand, and “barbarism” (undue aggressiveness) on the other. He offers an education to shape, direct, and harmonize these tendencies. His goal is to transform natural babies and bullies into “beautiful and good men” (kalosk’agathoi), or gentlemen. This education consists of two parts, what he calls “music” and “gymnastic.” Plato’s understanding of these terms is broader and deeper than ours today. 

Music is the first and most fundamental part of education because human beings, especially children, are deeply mimetic. They respond to stories more than rational discourses and measure themselves by concrete models more than abstract principles. It is thus imperative that from a young age, boys hear the right stories, especially about God, heroes, and ordinary human beings. But Plato is also concerned with how the stories are told, “Because rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the soul and most vigorously lay hold of it in bringing grace with them; and they make a man graceful if he is correctly reared, if not, the opposite.” Plato makes clear that the goal of the music education is not to compete with reason, but to cultivate it:

And due to his having the right kind of dislikes, he would praise the fine things; and, taking pleasure in them and receiving them into his soul, he would be reared on them and become a gentleman [kalosk’agathos]. He would blame and hate the ugly in the right way while he is still young, before he is able to grasp reasonable speech. And when reasonable speech comes, the man who is reared in this way would take the most delight in it, recognizing it on account of its being akin. (Emphasis added.)

It is no accident that C. S. Lewis appeals to this very same passage in The Abolition of Man. In putting poetry before philosophy and highlighting the deeply aesthetic dimension of reason, Plato helps correct a distinctively modern and rationalist conception of reason as critical, detached, and dispassionate. Music education, which forms what Edmund Burke called the “moral imagination,” directs erotic desire beyond the merely useful and pleasurable goods to the ennobling “beautiful goods” (kala/honesta bona)goods for their own sake, like friendship and knowledgethat make human life meaningful and valuable.  

As to the gymnastic education, Plato is less detailed, but he makes it clear that the principal goal is not bodily fitness. To the contrary, Plato warns his readers against an undue preoccupation with bodily health in a way that seems written for our own age, in which the fear of aging and obsession with health drive a multibillion-dollar industry in untested dietary supplements, organic foods, and novel exercise regimens. He singles out for criticism a certain Herodicus, a “gymnastic master” who became “sickly” and “drew out his death.” “Attending the mortal disease,” Plato writes: 

he wasn’t able to cure it . . . and spent his whole life treating it with no leisure for anything else, mightily distressed if he departed a bit from his accustomed regimen. So, finding it hard to die, thanks to his wisdom, he came to an old age.

For Plato, the purpose of the gymnastic education is to train the soul in courage. To him, this means avoiding the “idleness” and “licentiousness” that are the main sources of bodily ailments and prevent the soul from pursuing the beautiful goods that are the ultimate objects of human desire. But courage also means facing adversity, suffering, and pain for the sake of those goods.

It is only at the end of his treatment that Plato reveals the full purpose of education in music and gymnastic. He first points out that men who maintain a lifelong familiarity with gymnastic education and don’t touch music are “savage” and hard. Such a man, who “never communes with a Muse” or “partakes in speech and the rest of music” becomes “a misologist [a hater of reason] and unmusical.” Plato goes on to write that he

no longer makes any use of persuasion by means of speech but goes about everything with force and savageness, like a wild beast; and he lives ignorantly and awkwardly without rhythm and grace. 

In short, he becomes a “barbarian.” 

On the other hand, “when a man gives himself to music and lets the flute play and pour into his soul through his ears,” it softens his spiritedness and he “begins to melt and liquefy his spirit, until he dissolves it completely and cuts out, as it were, the sinews from his soul and makes it a ‘feeble warrior.’” In short, he becomes a “wimp.” 

Plato concludes that “some god gave two arts to human beingsmusic and gymnastic” to correct tendencies in men toward wimpiness and barbarism, in part by refining them and directing them toward their natural ends. Music educates the erotic part of the soul, channeling latent male desires for pleasure, comfort, and security toward beautiful goods which are the ultimate object of human desire. Gymnastic educates the spirited or thumotic part of the soul, channeling latent male tendencies to aggression and violence to the protection of beautiful goods against predators and providing the means to achieve those goods. When harmonized, they make a man beautiful and good. And despite some women’s expressed preferences for gender-neutral men, this is the kind of man most women really want.  

A Practical Education for the Modern Gentleman

But how do we bring gymnastic and music into the education of boys? What does this look like? Though there is no clear prescription, there is some low-hanging fruit. For instance, families can ensure their boys have ready access to father figuresnot just actual fathers, but also uncles, coaches, and teachers. Certainly, fathers are irreplaceable. But boys need older men, “uncles” in my family’s parlance, to initiate them into habits and practices that fathers cannot always provide.

I will never forget trying to teach my oldest son, who was about ten at the time, how to water ski. It was not easy. My wife was nervous, and he was initially reluctant, but after about thirty minutes of gentle nudging (and some bribing), I got him into the water, skis on feet and rope in hand. Within an hour, we were pulling him around the lake with the other children, all joyfully screaming as the boat pulled them along.

That moment was a confidence-builder for our whole family. My wife saw that there were things only I could do with our children, and she let me do them despite her worry. My son learned he could trust me despite his fear, and he gained self-confidence in overcoming his fear to do something excellent.

My son learned he could trust me despite his fear, and he gained self-confidence in overcoming his fear to do something excellent.


We try to embrace the music education in our family, too, by teaching our children how to play bluegrass music and reading stories aloud at night. We recently read To Kill a Mockingbird. Although it is narrated through the voice of a tomboyish girl named Scout, the book is also about her brother Jem’s transition from boyhood to manhood. Atticus Finch, Jem’s father, an unassuming lawyer and the hero of the book, is a true gentleman, and it is precisely his gentleness that causes Jem to doubt his father’s manliness. What Jem learns is that Atticus’s gentleness is not a function of weakness, but of strength. 

This theme is captured in the passage from which the title of the book is taken. One day Atticus tells Jem that although he wishes Jem would only shoot tin cans, he may shoot blue jays, because they make mischief, but “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” The reason? “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy.”

Mockingbirds, notably associated here with music, represent the intrinsic goods that make life meaningful. Jem’s boyish impulse to shoot and kill them must be transformed into a manly determination only to harm what threatens the good. This lesson is reinforced later in the story when a rabid dog threatens the neighborhood. Jem watches in astonishment as Atticus brings him down at a long distance with one rifle shot. Jem discovers that his bookish father is also “One Shot Finch,” his hidden power not for self-display but for the protection of others.

Of course, the real mockingbirds in this story are vulnerable persons like the abused Boo Radley and the falsely accused black man Tom Robinson. And the real hidden powers are manners and the rule of law, forms that are acquired and maintained with great difficulty, and that exist to civilize human beings and protect the weak and innocent from the strong.

In taking up the defense of Tom Robinson, Atticus teaches Jem his deepest lesson: that true manliness does not consist in flashy display, physical prowess, lawlessness, loud self-assertion, or deference to popular prejudice, but in the quiet determination to defend manners, neighborliness, self-restraint, right reason, and the rule of law. It is perhaps the most important lesson for men today.

Image by Kostia and licensed via Adobe Stock.


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