People hardly know what a man is anymore. I don’t mean that we don’t know the difference between men and women generally (although sadly this isn’t always true). I do mean that the traditional man, as seen as a role model for youth, is becoming an endangered species. Not only are we incapable of defining what he is, it’s not even politically correct to talk about it.
There are exceptions, of course. And one of the better ones of late is a book by Harvard Professor Harvey Mansfield entitled Manliness. Mansfield argues that the most noticeable trait of manliness is assertiveness. Men are not only opinionated (so are women) but they are often assertive in their opinions. In some cases they’re even willing to come to blows over these opinions - which tendency they almost certainly didn’t get from their mothers.
And this is a big part of the problem. Those who insist on pushing for a gender-neutral society can’t tolerate this assertion. It can’t be trusted, they claim, and very often it leads to violence. We would be much better off getting rid of it altogether, or so they say.
And who can blame them? Any major city in the world (with few exceptions) is swarming with gangbangers and violent young men. Steven Pinker may be right that violence is declining in the world historically, but today it isn’t safe to be outside after dark in many places of the world. And the reason is because of big violent boys.
But let’s stop for a minute to consider what this means. If assertion is a defining characteristic of manliness, then there’s a pretty strong argument that it is part of human nature - at least that part of human nature carrying Y chromosomes. And attempting to change human nature is not a very good idea. Not only does it not work, it also causes a great deal of trouble.
In traditional Western society, improperly assertive men (as well as other delinquents) were dealt with in a way that was both appropriate and often successful. Manly men were put in charge of keeping them under control or of putting them in jail. Men-controlling-men was even more effective when an acceptable code of conduct was understood - as it clearly was in the age of chivalry.
The main problem with trying to do away with manliness is that it only succeeds in creating more delinquent boys, and immature men. For despite what modern feminists claim about raising boys in man-free environments, fatherless boys aren’t more caring and responsible than their peers. They are, in fact, much more likely to land in prison.
I am reminded of the story related by James Dobson a number of years ago about a greeting card company that decided to give free Mother’s Day cards to any inmate in a local prison wishing to remember his mother. The line for the cards was long and the kind gesture was seen as a great success. Everyone wanted to send a card to his mother. Then it was decided that a similar opportunity should be made for Father’s Day. This time, however, the result was much different. Not a single inmate showed up for a free card.
The truth is that our prisons are filled primarily with men, and over 90% of these men either hate their fathers or have no idea who their father is. This glaring reality begs for a better understanding than the broad anti-masculine brush stroke that is currently so popular. Clearly, boys that don’t connect with men – failing to become responsible men themselves – very often cost society a great deal. The push for a gender-neutral society is missing the point and it is costing us a great deal.
And I think that we need to pay more attention to what Mansfield has to say. Nonetheless, I don’t think that assertiveness is enough of a defining trait by itself. It serves to delineate a certain boundary in an academic fashion but it isn’t up to the task of dealing with the higher and lower expressions of manhood. This is something required of a higher value system. It is something that is required of revealed religion.
One of the best references I know of defining manhood is in Second Nephi (Chapter 1:21, in The Book of Mormon): “ …arise from the dust, my sons, and be men and be determined in one mind and in one heart, united in all things, that ye may not come down into captivity…”.
First of all, I am impressed with Lehi’s use of the word dust. This is a word with a fairly consistent meaning in sacred literature. We don’t see references of cleaning dust off the kitchen cabinet, or even from moldering scrolls. Dust is normally used as a contrast to the divine. It is used to describe that part of the world that decays – not just dry particulates. The Psalmist, for example, in describing the creatures of the sea (even Leviathan) says they will “die, and return to the dust” (Psalms 104:29).
Dust also has a very strong tie to the Creation. It is dust into which God breathes the breath of life and creates man. And it is in the Creation story that the contrast between the very finite (dust) and the very eternal (breath of God) are juxtaposed.
So when Lehi tells his sons to “arise from the dust and be men” he very likely has these images in mind. He is telling his sons that manhood requires moving beyond the mundane and mortal parts of their nature. It is a repudiation of the fallen world and a call to follow their divine natures.
Now in our post-Darwin world this has a lot more meaning. The reality of a mortal (dust) aspect of Creation now implies an animal nature as well. Survival of the fittest (to use Herbert Spencer’s summary phrase of Darwin’s insight) is something that might easily include an alpha-male hierarchy. It is also a neat explanation for male promiscuity (females, it is argued, would tend to evolve more caution in reproductive matters) and deception.
In short, Darwinian logic subsumes just about every form of human selfishness imaginable. For us today, considering Lehi’s plea, there is thus a higher sense of what a divine manhood should include. To “arise from the dust and be men” means to overcome the fallen world. It means to rise above the natural inclinations of selfishness and to shoulder responsibility. It means stepping outside the boundaries of natural selection into a higher order of divine potential.
This is a far different understanding of manhood than the one being pushed upon us by postmodern society, which sees only a continuum between healthy rough and tumble play in the nursery to the predatory male behind bars.
Which brings me to the second part of Lehi’s plea: “be men … that ye may not come down into captivity”. I think that Lehi is here recognizing that true manhood – the kind that has arisen above mortal selfishness – is the kind required to fight for liberty. This distinction seems to recognize the differences between true liberty and mere license (that ersatz liberty of libertines). And it is a task required of men.
In contrast, God has never expected his daughters to fight for freedom on the battlefield, although many of them have through the centuries. The womanly nature of nurturing cannot be asked to engage in a potential violence of freedom. This is a requirement of men. It is in men’s nature to fight for a cause – whether that fight be physical or otherwise.
Lehi’s manhood is thus a call to all the noble qualities that men are capable of. If we were destined to live our lives entirely under the constraints of Darwinian selfishness, then none of these higher aspirations would make any sense. And society would have every right to control the male social dysfunction any way it could. But we are not merely mortals, and we desperately need a manhood that will confront this reality.
Who could live in such a fallen world anyway – a world that denies our dual nature? We are so much more than just physical beings – so much more than mere animals. Our fights are not all against “nature red in tooth and claw.” Some of them are within - between a divinely inspired male and his Darwinian nature. But this is a battle that men have been fighting and winning for a very long time. And it is a battle that is meant to continue.
In the end we have to decide which kind of world we want to have. Our current postmodern and post-Darwin social constructs are experiments that cannot endure. They are neither grounded in the fallen real world or in the higher eternal one. And they have done enough harm already.
Our only real option is to stop stirring up so much dirt and sand, and let our higher natures lead us out of this storm. In the meantime we can let this dust devil die and look to stand a little taller. We will need some of Lehi’s men to do it.
Harvey Mansfield’s Manliness was published by Yale University Press in 2006. See also James Dobson’s Bringing up Boys (Tyndale Press, 2001).