Boys Instead of Men

Gonna stamp out your fire, he can change your desire
Don’t you know he can make you forget you’re a man

– The Happy Mondays, “Step On”

In any other time or place, the contemporary Western male obsession over video games and pornography would be derided as pathetic. These obsessions being so obviously bound up with rising rates of suicide, depression, and drug use among men, in a saner setting, the current plight of American males would be treated as the threat to the polis that it surely is.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle contends that the end of politics is to “engender a certain character in the citizens to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions” (1099b). If we take the philosopher’s words to be our arbiter, then surely our politics are failing our citizens and vice versa. Whatever sort of phenomena porn-induced erectile dysfunction and suicide are, they’re not noble.

But it would be wrong to say that our elected officials are completely silent on the issue. In a keynote speech given late last year at the National Conservatism Conference, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) mounted a full-throated defense of the American male, correctly claiming that “American men are working less, they are getting married in fewer numbers, they’re fathering fewer children, they’re suffering more anxiety and depression, they’re engaging in more substance abuse.” Hawley also took issue with the insult typically piled on top of the suffering, that men are inherently “toxic,” and things traditionally (and correctly) defined as virtues, things such as honor, courage, and grit, are themselves rending the very fabric of society. “Can we be surprised,” Hawley asked, “that after years of being told that they are the problem, that their manhood is the problem, more and more men are withdrawing into the enclave of idleness, and pornography, and video games?”

Predictably, liberals and progressives took umbrage at Hawley’s statements. They seemed to both intentionally misunderstand the message and offer knee-jerk ad hominem attacks on the messenger. Rolling Stone qualified Hawley’s concerns an “obsession,” and a “pathetic” one at that. Arthur Delaney, writing for the Huffington Post, created a gestalt of SEO-friendly phrases about masturbation in lieu of leveling an actual counterargument. These mainstream media responses were themselves imitations of the Twitter-style of political commentary, in which fragmented jokes are leveled in second-hand online ergot, debasing both the topic and the Tweeter alike. Former California Rep. Katie Hill provided a representative Tweet with: “Lol like anyone thinks Josh Hawley is masculine.” She avoids the substance of Hawley’s claims (and seems to fundamentally misunderstand them) with humor so banal and phraseology so cliche that it might as well have been Tweeted out by a bot or Middle School bully.

The few arguments progressives did manage to make hinged on a kind of brutal economic determinism, oddly enough. For instance, Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic that “The world has changed dramatically, but the ideology of masculinity isn’t changing fast enough to keep up.” As if men should, or could, cash in courage to make way for Amazon drones and sex dolls. Liza Featherstone, herself a mother of a teenage son, gave a more nuanced but fundamentally similar view when she wrote: “Men and boys need good jobs, affordable access to team sports, an education system sensitive to their social and emotional development, public parks, mental health support, access to substance abuse treatment and paternity leave.” Which is true, but only partially so.

The manliness crisis isn’t one of altruism or of a redistribution of finite goods. There’s rotten anthropology at the center of these claims which completely ignores both the specific needs of men and the more general needs of humans. Men are fulfilled when they serve. We come into ourselves through sacrificial acts. And as humans, our acts can only really find coherency within a community. Public parks and paternity leave are nice, but these solutions nevertheless still treat the male person as if he were primarily a consumer. In fact, trying to simply pay our way out of a problem that is fundamentally metaphysical and anthropological is to remain bound tightly by the logic of the dilemma itself.

Like Featherstone’s remedy, Hawley’s diagnosis is true, but only partially so. Attaching a sense of cultural shame to manliness certainly has a negative effect on men. Drugs, pornography, and suicide, furthermore, are the direct manifestations of loneliness and purposelessness. But the issue is much deeper than can fit snugly into a convenient culture war narrative, because the adversarial terms in which these sorts of discussions take place necessarily make us more responsive to our opponents rather than the truth itself. To think otherwise is to buy into the same defunct shallowness implicated by the problem itself. Nevertheless, Hawley is an elected official whose politics are informed by philosophy, not a philosopher considering political truths. It’s understandable that he would couch the conversation in simple terms which seem to demand decisive action. The left has tossed a political bone to the right in taking a stand against, not simply manliness, but all its attendant virtues. Why? It doesn’t seem to make sense either philosophically or pragmatically.

The Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce (1910-1989) might provide a clue. Without straying too far into the weeds of his subtle and insightful philosophy, we might note his observation in The Age of Secularization that “the two poles that ultimately define all of today’s conflicts are traditionalists versus progressives, and all positive values reside with the progressive cause.” Del Noce was then writing to elucidate the student “rebellions” of the sixties, but because the forces which animated the recent past remain alive with us, the depiction still holds. The specifics of Hawley’s claims matter less to most progressives than that he’s making a claim at all, a claim which must be “bad” because he himself isn’t a progressive.

This tautology doesn’t only represent the formal cause of Twitter flippancy, a retreat from philosophy which then cascades downward into all discourse, but it also explains why progressives are skeptical of virtues as such. Without realizing it, they’ve painted themselves into a corner in which an incoherent mix of historical relativism and base materialism has left them angry and shallow. History moves, they believe, it progresses, but each “truth” towards which history strives is itself relative, as all truths must be. The result is a kind of petulant meander towards nothing which can be clearly articulated or known. Or as Del Noce more elegantly puts it in his essay “Tradition and Innovation”:

To convince ourselves that this attitude exists and dominates, we only need to think of two statements that are common today. The first is that we need to “start from scratch,” thus rejecting the old ideals without any nostalgia. The second is that the mutation that is supposedly taking place today, unprecedented in the history of civilization, should be accompanied by the awareness that every affirmation is the expression of a particular age, not of some timeless and intrinsic value. By combining these two statements, we have the precise definition of today’s situation: death of the old ideals, but simultaneously the confession that new ideals cannot be born.

Part and parcel with this predicament is the inability to clearly perceive threats. As Del Noce’s English translator, Carlo Lancelotti, explains in his introduction to The Age of Secularization, the student rebels described by Del Noce mistook the affluent post-war society in which they grew up for “tradition” as such. Doing so, they took stands against the institutions which would have aided them in their quest for meaning and joy: the family, the church, the university.

The Love generation fundamentally misunderstood itself. Setting themselves against the stabilizing institutions in which love—real love, the existential commitment to the highest good of another—flourishes, they reduced it to simply an emotion. By taking the teachings of the Church as irrational constraints, they made themselves slaves to their own appetites. And trading thought for action, they turned against the very intellectual traditions which would have prevented their lives from being co-opted and commercialized. Having replaced philosophy with praxis, they rendered themselves unable to realize that they had swallowed whole the very underlying assumptions which were ruining their lives. Cooption by corporations wasn’t far behind. Or as the Beat writer William Burroughs wryly said of his cohort Jack Kerouac, “Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levi’s to both sexes.”

We can imagine a Proud Boy and Antifa member staring at each other as if in the mirrored illusion of an infinite refraction. Lacking substantive metaphysical grounding, each becomes empty and pompous.

The same dynamic is at work in the contemporary progressive reaction against manliness. The very things which might redeem and heal the suffering of both sexes—courage, fortitude, strength—the things which men must cultivate to make themselves into good men, is dismissed out of hand as trans-political and therefore somehow unreal or dangerous because, in their solipsistic view, to claim that something is upstream of politics is really an attempt to disguise a political agenda in metaphysical garb.

There is a negative image of this progressive mistake in the embrace of “manliness” by certain outlying characters on the so-called Right. The Nietzschean bent of figures such as Bronze Age Pervert and other neo-pagans is itself merely a variation of the same mistake made by progressives. Both camps finally resort to appeals to power and become caricatures of themselves. We can imagine a Proud Boy and Antifa member staring at each other as if in the mirrored illusion of an infinite refraction. Lacking substantive metaphysical grounding, each becomes empty and pompous.

In searching for the root of mindless rejection (or acceptance) of the manly virtues, we eventually find ourselves at a rejection of the common good. By common good, I take the definition of goods which are necessary and undiminished when shared. In fact, a common good such as justice or friendship can only really be actualized when it is shared.

Against this, we have the contemporary notion of the human body, the very exemplar of a private good, as the locus of all truth and meaning. Writing in Integralism and the Common Good: Selected Essays from The Josias Volume I: Family, City, and State, Peter Kwasniewski traces this emphasis on the body and the attendant ascendency of egoism to Hobbes. After Hobbes, things external to the body, Kwasniewski writes, are seen as threats at worst and a means towards self-preservation at best. This marks the collapse of all goods into private goods, and a wild vacillation between the extremes of egoism (everyone else’s goods are subordinated to mine) and altruism (I subordinate my own good towards others). The good is always a zero-sum game for Hobbes.

What does this have to do with porn-induced erectile dysfunction? The crisis of manliness is a crisis of loneliness and disconnection. The basic philosophical underpinnings of society that would ensure true and deep connection to one another, the sharing in common goods—goods which heavily overlap with what goes by the name “manliness”—have been subordinated to private good. This is why the crisis doesn’t even exist in the minds of most progressives. They have abdicated the ability to think in terms in which human flourishing is objective, communal, and striving towards something beyond pleasure. Love itself, as something self-regenerative and self-transcendent, is traded in for a life of empty consumption. Virtue is replaced by OnlyFans and fentanyl.

It seems appropriate to end with a personal note. My son will turn one in the spring, and I fear the brutality and emptiness of the culture in which he will grow. I worry that, without some connection to the common goods through which community is possible, he will be at higher risk to fall victim to the things which are destroying American men and making a mockery of their unique gifts. I worry that he might, in a desperate bid for wholeness, turn to the isolation of porn or the squalor of drugs. I worry that he’ll be ridiculed by the culture at large simply for being.

I don’t necessarily offer any practical suggestions in this piece, other than to emphasize the important role healthy institutions play in both ordering us collectively towards high goods and in cultivating common ones. Having an intellectually sound opinion about virtue or manliness isn’t enough. We need to be able to live out these truths within our communities. My own wrestling with these issues has in part fueled my journey to the Roman Catholic Church. It is important to me that my children are members of a community that recognizes and values common goods. It is important that my children live lives in which love and charity are cultivated. My wanting this for them is itself a manifestation of my own manly virtue as their father. I suppose the Tweet disparaging this would read something like “Lol like anyone thinks Scott Beauchamp is masculine.”