What Does it Mean to be a Man? Part 4

In part three I focused on the emotional, and presented the first positive signifiers of manhood. Prior to this I had only presented negative signifiers of manhood. For instance, a child is not a man, a mental vegetable is not a man, and similarly I have shown that certain commonly revered qualities (such as wealth, physical strength, or attractiveness) are completely unimportant in a discussion of ‘real’ masculinity. Immanuel Kant, in Critique of Practical Reason, provided an interesting point that has, in some ways, guided my rational in determining the qualities that must appear in a true man. Kant argues that those things which truly define us are those things that are truly capable of being respected. For instance, one does not respect an individual who was gifted with great natural strength or beauty. One may admire those persons, but there is a significant difference between admiration and respect. We admire those qualities that we find desirable in others (i.e. strength, beauty, wealth, charisma, etc), but we respect those qualities that an individual has achieved through their own means (i.e. emotional stability, strength of character, a good work ethic, etc). For instance, wealth itself is not inherently respectable. A man who inherited $20 million from his father’s death and through no practical effort of his own is not respectable for his wealth. However, a man who earned $20 million through hard work and wise decisions is certainly respectable. However, in this man it is not the wealth that we respect, but the qualities that helped him attain that wealth. The means by which such wealth was obtained may change our respect for the individual. For instance, a man who earned $20 million through questionable practices such as extortion or ruthlessness is less respectable than a man who earned $20 million through hard work that exemplified a care for those around him and a concern for fair play.

In the last section, I argued that a man who is not emotionally mature cannot be called a ‘real’ man. Whether the individual is emotionally closed off and incapable of dealing with his feelings in a healthy manner, or emotionally frail and prone to excessive sensitivity and outbursts, the lack of emotional maturity is not a respectable quality. Emotional maturity, on the other hand, is very respectable. A similar argument is true in the case of skill. Often certain skills are attributed to ‘real’ men. For instance, ‘real’ men know how to cut down a tree, kill and skin a deer, repair a car, build a house, start a fire, etc. The various lists of skills attributed to ‘real’ men is rather lengthy and certainly monotonous. However, the problem is that each list connects ‘real’ manhood with a particular skill set. One group argues that ‘real’ men are men of the wild. They have skills associated with survival away from civilization. Another group argues that ‘real’ men are builders. They have skills associated with the construction of certain items, often items that require a degree of physical strength to create (i.e. many argue that real men build cars, work with stone, wood, etc. Few argue that real men knit doilies). A third group argues that ‘real’ men are warriors. They have skills associated with finding and killing the enemy. The problem with each of these is that none of these skill groupings is inherently more or less respectable than the other. All have value in the world, all are important in maintaining an orderly, functioning society, and all are equally difficult to master.

So, does this mean that skills can have no impact on a meaningful discussion of ‘real’ manhood? Absolutely not. While no particular group of skills can be identified as ‘manly’ or supremely respectable in and of itself, the effort, determination, and drive to master a particular skill set is certainly a highly respectable quality. While a soldier is no more or less respectable than a carpenter or an academic, a bad soldier is certainly less respectable than a good soldier. The ‘manliness’ of skills lies not in the choice of skill to master, but in the achievement of mastery in that skill. For instance, a man who is unwilling to put forth the effort necessary to master a skill, who waffles from one skill set to the next, dabbling in many things until the learning becomes ‘too difficult’ or ‘too tedious’ to continue is not particularly respectable, nor is he particularly manly. However, a man who puts out his best effort to master a skill and, through drive and commitment does so, is certainly both respectable and manly.

However, this brings us to a problematic question: does this mean that a male who lacks natural aptitude at a particular skill is not a man? Again, it does not. This is, I think, an entirely positive qualifier for manhood. Those who have set forth and made the effort necessary to master a skill are certainly respectable and manly. Those who (and this crosses somewhat into the realm of character which I will discuss later) lazily give up because something is too difficult for them to try are not particularly manly. However, there is a third category: those who put forth the effort to master a skill, but still fail. Every individual has a different set of inherent aptitudes that, to some degree, limit their ability to learn a particular skill. For instance, my friend… John… plays the Piano. However, if John and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart put in the same amount of effort and practice, Mozart will still be significantly better than John at playing the Piano. This is because Mozart had a very high natural aptitude for the piano and John has only an average aptitude for the piano. John may work his hardest to improve, but he will still not surpass Mozart. However, this does not make John less respectable or less manly than Mozart. Kant’s argument concerning admiration and respect applies here. Mozart’s devotion to the piano is respectable, as is John’s. However, Mozart’s aptitude for the piano is not more respectable than John’s aptitude because it was not earned in any way. Mozart’s aptitude for the Piano is more admirable than John’s, but it simply makes him better at playing the piano. It does not make him better at being a man.

Admittedly, as I mentioned above, parts of this discussion of manhood and skill are inextricably interwoven with the discussion of manhood and character. This will be my next topic, but some presuppositions concerning that topic can certainly be made from this discussion.

What Does it Mean to be a Man?

In modern America we have no clear concept of manhood. There are a thousand different voices shouting from a thousand different directions about what they think manhood should be. There are people who think that a boy becomes a man when he can grow a beard. There are people who think a boy becomes a man when he makes his first million. There are people who think that having sex makes a boy into a man. There are people who think that having a large penis is the real mark of manhood. There are people who think that taking another human life makes a boy into a man. There are people who think that a first job makes a boy a man. All of these point to the desire for a rite of passage. A clear marker of the shift from childhood into adulthood (and lets be honest here, simply saying that a child becomes an adult at 18 is both arbitrary and ridiculous).

However, even if we accept any one of these rites of passage, there is still no clear idea of what manhood is or what it means to actually be a man. American culture of the mid 20th century argued that manhood meant a desire to acquire and possess a modest amount of meaningful things (this is exemplified in the entertainment of the day which focuses strongly on the ‘desire of a man’ to own his own home). Of course, if we run the clock back a hundred years then the mark of a man was not owning a home, but owning land and buidling his own home upon it. However, ownership of anything seems ridiculous as a mark of manhood. Ownership of land, a home, a car, etc says nothing about who the person actually is or of what he is capable. Ancient rites of passage emphasized a trial of ability instead of a test of means.

This can be seen in the rites of many tribal groups which provide a task of some kind for the boy to complete. He may have to hunt and kill a bear, build a canoe to escape a deserted island and return to his home island, or survive in the wilderness on his own for a period of time. This is certainly a better mark of manhood. These tests of ability also show some degree of the character of the individual. Hunting a bear requires great courage. Building a canoe requires patience. Surviving in the wilderness requires endurance and determination. These trials both test the individuals ability to be a positive addition to the tribe and aspects of his character that are important in each particular culture.

This is a part of the problem we have in America. Every voice shouting about manhood has a different idea about what aspects of character are important. Some of them emphasize wildness, some emphasize greed, some emphasize brutality, etc. Some of them really say nothing about the character of the individual (i.e. getting your first job). The problem is that we don’t have any clear idea concerning what a man is, and thus we don’t have any clear idea concerning how to identify a man. Hopefully, over the next few days, I can codify my own thoughts on this and at least have some clear idea of what I see as manly and why.