Since time immemorial, men have carried weapons. They have done so—if they were real men—not to pick fights or unnecessarily injure other men, but in response to the heavy burden of walking life’s path in this world as a protector. Only a few centuries ago, a gentleman would wear a smallsword or spadroon just in case the need arose to defend his good name, as well as all those who shared in that name. As the smallsword was increasingly regulated by the law of the land, and gentlemen relied more on the State or, if it came to that, the courts, to settle their affairs, gentlemen nonetheless carried canes—around which sprang the martial art made famous by Sherlock Holmes: Bartitsu.
G.K. Chesterton, in his autobiography, reflecting on the unusual purchases he made on his honeymoon, brings to the fore the desire of everyman to fulfil the imperative to be a protector of those whom he loves:
It is alleged against me, and with perfect truth, that I stopped on the way to drink a glass of milk in one shop and to buy a revolver with cartridges in another. Some have seen these as singular wedding-presents for a bridegroom to give to himself, and if the bride had known less of him, I suppose she might have fancied that he was a suicide or a murderer or, worst of all, a teetotaller. They seemed to me the most natural things in the world. I did not buy the pistol to murder myself—or my wife; I never was really modern. I bought it because it was the great adventure of my youth, with a general notion of protecting her from the pirates doubtless infesting the Norfolk Broads, to which we were bound; where, after all, there are still a suspiciously large number of families with Danish names. I shall not be annoyed if it is called childish; but obviously it was rather a reminiscence of boyhood, and not of childhood.
Any normal man grows up with the fantasy firmly lodged in his head that this world is full of pirates, and his job is to kill them. This fantasy, in fact, is not a fantasy at all but a myth. Like all great myths, it recurs in every balanced psyche, and appears in a thousand forms in every existent culture, for the sole reason that it represents a fundamental truth. Any man will invariably see his life, at bottom, as a tale of loving those to whom his life is linked and hence killing the ‘pirates’ that seek to frustrate both their lives and his own.
Of course, by ‘killing,’ in an age in which smallswords and even revolvers are out of fashion, I mean metaphorically killing. Clearly, the revolver that Chesterton bought was never meant to be used, but was purchased as a reminder of that fundamental myth: his life would have meaning bestowed upon it inasmuch as he accepted the responsibility to protect.
Being a protector, however, is just one aspect of a much broader imperative with which every man is faced: the imperative to be a servant. The dichotomising of leadership and service—a real dichotomy for the pagans, as Nietzsche exhibited so well—was so deeply undermined by the life and death of the Good Shepherd that an entire civilisation emanated from its eventual obliteration. To lead one’s family, one’s business, one’s parish… is to place oneself at the service of a community and put one’s own flourishing in second place after those whom one leads, a process by which one’s own flourishing—paradoxically—is obtained.
These are all rather deep, and perhaps excessively moralistic, points to be making. Allow me, therefore, to bring things down to the mundane: pocketknives. It is my conviction, based on innumerable experiences, that a pocketknife is an essential bit of kit for any man who wants to be a great servant-leader. My father has always carried a pocketknife, as I’m sure did his father, and his father, as have my siblings, as have I. In adulthood, rarely has a day gone by on which I haven’t reached for my pocketknife for the small benefit of someone else. In this way, carrying a pocketknife is itself a small act of charity.
My pocketknife, being a Victorinox (and therefore exquisitely made), is more than just a knife. Besides the non-locking 2.5″ blade (making it a legal everyday-carry in the UK), it has scissors, a bottle-opener, a can-opener, two screwdrivers, a wire-stripper, a ballpoint pen, a toothpick, tweezers, a hook, a nailfile, a corkscrew, and a needle (perfect for getting out splinters). My pocketknife—the Victorinox Compact—is extremely useful. Many a time, for example, have friends and I found ourselves in the desperate situation—something I wouldn’t wish on anyone—of discovering that we were without a corkscrew. Before despair engulfed us, however, I was able to save the day with my pocketknife.
I grew up regularly witnessing how useful my father made himself by use of his pocketknife. As early as possible, I petitioned to have my own. My son, aged five, began to do the same recently, so I bought for him a toy Victorinox pocketknife, of which he is very proud indeed. The desire of boys to carry pocketknives, it seems to me, is one that should be nurtured. Each time I draw it from my pocket to peel an orange for my child, or crack open a few foraged walnuts whilst out walking in the woods (something I only did for the first time yesterday), or open a bottle of beer for a chum, I enjoy a glimpse of the hunter-gatherer life. That is, of the self-reliance that our ancestors knew, from which our technologized society so swiftly removed us. A pocketknife makes one more useful to others, and being at the service of others is what turns a boy into a man.
Last summer, I took my wife and children camping in the West Country. On the last evening, we popped over to a shop in a nearby town and bought a bottle of wine and some bottles of rose lemonade for the children. We also bought marshmallows for toasting. The wine was opened with the corkscrew on my pocketknife. The lemonades were opened with the bottle-opener on my pocketknife. The marshmallows were put on sticks cut from a tree with my pocketknife, the bark of which had been cut away and the ends whittled down to a fine point—all with my pocketknife. That night we kicked back with a couple of plastic wineglasses filled with a robust Amarone and watched the children’s happy faces illumined by the firelight. I can instantly recall their giggles of excitement as they toasted their marshmallows. That evening remains one of the happiest memories of my fatherhood—and it was largely made possible because I carry a pocketknife.
It is common among the internet-Right to complain about a crisis of masculinity that is, they claim, corrupting the West. There is surely much truth in this view, but the causes are so far out of our control that highlighting the fact leads more to desolation than action. When one steps back and looks at the challenge before us, it is difficult not to be discouraged. From such a standpoint, one sees everything from the disappearance of the family wage, the rise of feminism, the mainstreaming of the sexual revolution’s most radical elements, and the accelerating fall in both testosterone and sperm count, through to everyday occurrences like inordinately tight trousers, the wearing of nail varnish, and the retreat from the real realm of responsibility to the virtual one of computer games.
No doubt the growing acknowledgement of this depressing deficit in masculinity accounts for the success of Jordan Peterson’s various Rules for Life, in which he offers some very practical and rather quotidian suggestions like “clean up your room” and “maintain a good posture.” Much of what Peterson says in these Rules was, of course, what every young man heard growing up until only a generation or two ago when the deception of ‘personal authenticity’ finally eradicated the last residue of healthy prejudice. Men thereafter began to believe the lie that self-actualisation comes by self-discovery rather than the truth that it comes by self-forgetting, and in turn they ceased to be men. Now, many men are trying to find their way back. May I, then, add my own old-fashioned ‘Rule’: men, start carrying pocketknives again.