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Spitting on the Beautiful by Michael W. Weyns

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Spitting on the Beautiful

Line engraving of Epicurus by Pietro Fontana after Luigi Agricola after Raphael, Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0.

Over the past few years, a species of rhetoric has been on the rise that could reasonably be called “androsceptic.” A quick glance at several, more recent entries in the ever-growing catalogue of popular philosophy should suffice to confirm this. From Rebecca Solnit’s relatively milquetoast Men Explain Things to Me, Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex, and Ivan Jablonka’s A History of Masculinity, to more overtly caustic works like Kate Manne’s Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women and Pauline Harmange’s colourfully titled Moi, les hommes, je les déteste, we are witnessing the encroachment of a distinctive undercurrent of anti-masculine sentiment. One theme common to most works in this vein is the idea that the modern West institutes a patriarchal superstructure, built in the image of a Freudian Primal Father. As was made explicit by influential neo-Gramscian and feminist author R.W. Connell, a hegemonic masculinity is said to govern our collective norms and values. We live, so the thinking goes, in an undeniably androcentric world, haunted by a panoptic ‘male gaze.’

Attributing an androcentric legacy to Western civilization seems excrescent. It should be obvious that our history largely unfolded under the leadership of men. Of course, androsceptic thought stretches far beyond a basic awareness of sexual dimorphism in the culture at large. Such thought insists, rather, on an historically oversized and intrinsically detrimental role played by masculinity. What I will refer to as hypermasculinity—an undisciplined and often rapacious superabundance of male energy—has come to be identified with masculinity tout court. As philosopher and writer, Nina Power, whose work has routinely criticised the cultural depreciation of both men and women, put it recently when analysing this trend: “Men have had it too good for too long, the cry goes up. They are responsible for the vast majority of violence. They act like they deserve good things to come to them. Their days are numbered.”

Along similar lines, the related term ‘toxic masculinity’ no longer refers to a distinctive brand of masculinity that must be avoided (traditionally: villainous behaviour), but is used to suggest an inherently noxious element in the makeup of manhood. Masculinity as such has acquired the status of something insidious, something demonic almost. We are reminded of Apollo’s plague arrows, originating from a point of nowhere, corroding everything they touch, turning life remorselessly to ash.

Contrary to the deeply respectable proto-feminism of say Mary Wollstonecraft, which reacted against an age of gross sensibility and general decadence in the relations between men and women, androscepticism expresses an intrinsic wariness of men as a social category. To be sure, the gradual conceptual slippage associated with masculinity is no mere quirk of androsceptic tendencies. Rather, androscepticism itself—and particularly in its more recent updates—belies a general trend in secular modernity inclined towards the sterilization of virility. As a result of this trend, I argue, the more distasteful aspects of male behaviour have not been dampened but are instead further inflamed. 

Beauty and the paradigm of excellence

The engineers of modern liberalism—the social contract theorists of the Enlightenment, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, among others—were all “epicures” of one sort or another. What I mean by this is that, at heart, they can be said to have reintroduced a sentiment once attributed to Epicurus of Samos: “I spit on the beautiful, and on those who marvel at it emptily, when it brings forth no pleasure.” To understand the full weight and far-reaching consequences of this pronouncement, we must consider the crucial role played by beauty in former ages. Indeed, the beautiful (tò kalón) was at the heart of all ancient notions of virtue and nobility. 

For the early Greeks, virtue was entirely bound up with displays of aretḗ. According to the pre-eminent classicist Werner Jaeger, “aretḗ was the central ideal of all Greek culture.” Aretḗ signifies “excellence” as such, the specific quality of anything supremely adapted to its environment. Jaeger adds: “The basic motive of Greek aretḗ is contained in the words ‘to take possession of the beautiful’.” Ultimately, beauty and excellence are conjoined in the most central aspect of aretaic virtue ethics: the characterisation of the nobleman as kalòs kaí agathós, as being beautiful and good, thus embodying “the chivalrous ideal of the complete human personality.”

This alignment between aristocratic nobility and beauty was never in history as pronounced as in the Homeric epics. Already in the second book of the Iliad, a man called Thersites draws a sharp contrast to the rest of the heroes. Homer calls Thersites aiskhrós, which means both “causing shame” and, more originally, “ugly, ill-favoured,” or even “deformed.” Indeed, as an outward reflection of Thersites’ reprehensible character, Homer goes on by listing a whole slew of unfortunate physical traits: “he was bandy-legged and lame in one foot, and his two shoulders were rounded, stooping together over his chest, and above them his head was warped, and a scant stubble grew thereon.” While it makes sense for a warlike people to value excellent form as an indicator of martial prowess, it should be clear that Homer’s strong sense of physiognomy does not hold in general. The association drawn by the Iliad between ugliness and villainy, so clearly embodied by Thersites, is too superficial. Whether a man is good or bad will ultimately depend on more invisible qualities.

Later in Athens, Plato would sublimate the principle of kalokagathíā by staging the unflattering, Silenus-like character of Socrates as the most enviable aristocrat of all, besotting even the exceedingly beautiful Alcibiades, who by contrast was deemed morally deficient. Far from devaluing nobility, Plato distilled what was paradigmatic of it: being in possession of a fine character, cultivating a beautiful soul. Leading a virtuous life meant taking care of oneself, and developing philautía, that is, an ennobled love of self. Consequently, the meaning of the phrase “to take possession of the beautiful” transitioned from the heroes’ unceasing strife over bright Helen to the soul’s attainment of “ideal beauty, tested by sunlight, cleansed, unalloyed” in Plato’s Symposium. Aristotle, in turn, came to associate a philautic character with grand expressions of magnanimity, or what he called megalopsukhía, greatness of soul. So, the ideal of ancient masculinity passed from the early martial spirit of the kalokágathos, over to a Platonic conception of the Socratic man as one who is agathòs kaì sophós (good and wise), finally to Aristotle’s great-souled individual as the pinnacle of human achievement.

Despite its aesthetic magnificence, no image of man is so thoroughly rejected by modern sensibilities as that of the Greek aristocrat. The megalópsūkhos or great-souled man would today be considered the toxic man par excellence. Indeed, no paradigm is as dangerous or as impossible to the presuppositions of the modern polity as that of the megalópsūkhos, who is consequently held up as a paragon of male arrogance and entitlement. To grasp why traditional displays of masculinity are regarded with such suspicion these days, we must first consider the undeniable affinity between beauty and suffering, an affinity that hinges on the prideful nature of the heroic heart.

The agony and the ecstasy

Achilles’ aspiration “always to be the best and to stand above all others” voices an uncompromising ambition to achieve divine perfection. Such an aspiration elevates gruelling competition (the ancient agōnía) above all other forms of human activity. A people that worships heroic beauty is at once beholden to a matrix of pain. On the one hand, individual men must submit to the athletic agony of ceaseless struggle and inter-personal comparison. On the other, the social fabric remains vulnerable to the dangers posed by wrath and retribution on account of status violations—Achilles’ rage vis-à-vis Agamemnon being the most famous. The ancients had a specific word for such violations: húbris, which is perhaps best rendered as “cosmic outrage.” Outrage of this kind was usually associated with the consumptive excess of unbridled youth, and the inclination to reap more than one has sown. The ancients were very testy when it came to outrageous behaviour. As such, their entire way of life depended on a sense of equity that proved exceedingly sensitive to individuals overstepping their bounds and shamelessly disregarding the proper worth of others. 

In this context, the Iliad remains the greatest commentary on masculine overreach. Its entire drama is tensed between two models of ultimate sovereignty: the imperial dominion of the sceptred king and the more primaeval, intrinsic dignity of the great warrior, embodied by Agamemnon and Achilles respectively. Since both believe themselves worthy of the greatest honour, a disastrous slugfest ensues. Achilles calls his king “heavy with wine” and “people-devouring,” on account of Agamemnon’s tyrannical, rapacious covetousness. Agamemnon calls the warrior “most hateful… of all the kings that Zeus nurtures,” because of Achilles’ excessive savagery in battle and his especial penchant for discord, his basic arrogance towards authority. Both the king and the warrior are totally convinced of their supremacy, and cannot risk parting with their “apportionments,” as doing so would diminish their honour. Achilles and Agamemnon both prove implacable, unable to rise above the situation. Neither is willing to take a step back and be the wiser man. As a result, their discord assumes a tragic aspect. 

In The Birth of Tragedy, Friedrich Nietzsche identified an artistic antagonism between the gods Apollo and Dionysus, who embody a basic polarity between dream and intoxication. Supposedly, these twin divine avatars give rise to distinct musical forms. The Apolline music of the kithara is “Doric architecture transmuted into sounds,” while the Dionysiac dithyramb (a wild choral hymn) evokes “the unifying flow of melody and the utterly incomparable world of harmony.” At first glance, it might seem strange to offset reverie against drunkenness, as these seem to us natural bedfellows. It is an intoxicated mindset that engages with the world in a dreamlike manner. And yet, the basic contention remains salient. The Apolline dream is a glamourous overlay, an autistic gloss. Apollo is the “leader of the Muses”, the animating principle of music as such. Music in the ancient sense, namely, as poetry sensu lato, is intrinsically metrical; it is beholden to a metre, a métron or measure. If we broaden the scope of a phrase once used by Slavoj Žižek, we could liken music to a “torture-house.” That is to say, music contorts the limbs of the human organism and the weave of the universe to observe a strict metrical regime. By contrast, Dionysiac revelry is entirely liquid. It is “primal oneness, with its pain and contradiction.” In the tragic sense, reverie and revelry are two sides of the same coin. The prideful impulse of the hero is poised between the two as on a razor’s edge.

Unlike say Diomedes, who remains a picture of Aristotelian virtue throughout the entire narrative of the Iliad, Achilles and Agamemnon are ultimately tragic, Dionysiac personalities. Recall how Achilles accuses his king of being “heavy with wine.” Intoxicated by an overweening sense of power, Agamemnon falls prey to over-indulgence and assumes a predatory, cannibalistic attitude towards his fellow Achaeans. Achilles, in turn, becomes drunk on his feelings of wrath and bitterly retreats from the din of battle. The wrath of Achilles, already summoned in the Iliad’s opening line, is referred to as mênis, a “maniacal” outrage of divine proportion. Curiously, mênis shares an etymological basis with the raving maenad, a name given to the wild, female votaries in Dionysus’s entourage. Fuelled by maenadic fervour, Achilles and Agamemnon become embroiled in a vicious cycle of mutually assured destruction, unleashing an oceanic sense of nihilism on the Greek sovereign order. The “abyss of being” looms large. What follows painfully validates the meaning of sparagmós, the cathartic dismemberment of all heroic striving—the end of individuated existence and its inevitable return to the oblivion of Dionysus.

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright

Every healthy masculinity resists Dionysiac hyperbole, not by ignoring it, but by achieving mastery over it—by conquering it. The severity of Apollo is sustained only through an ascetic transcendence of Dionysiac liberality. The Apolline element nourishes itself precisely by sublimating its Dionysiac underside. As such, Apolline personalities exude a kind of ‘awesomeness’ that is easily mistaken for mere terror. Their beauty inspires fear, because it is a beauty forged in the crucible of self-overcoming, a beauty reflective of dominion, which demands respect and reverence. Epicurus’ dismissal of beauty and the wonder one should feel towards it, in favour of an exclusive sensuality, is the single most concise expression of irreverence ever uttered by mankind. It enunciates exactly what irreverence means.

The real, admirative experience of beauty will always remain in thrall to something William Blake called “fearful symmetry,” or what Rudolf Otto recognized as the defining characteristic of God as mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery both repellent and attractive. This is so precisely because the beauty of excellence is exacting. Such beauty exudes a sense of greatness that petrifies. Aretḗ demands metrical severity of the whole human organism. The great-souled man is at once the great-hearted man, the man whose passionate heart, whose thūmós, beats to a cosmic rhythm. What is excellent is ultimately what is fitting, what achieves a certain harmony with its surroundings. For the ancients, ethics meant nothing less than the attunement of one’s body and soul to something the great aristocratic poet Pindar called orthós mousikḗ, “true music, a melody neither sweet, nor soft, nor pliable,” but pure and unyielding and without pleasure (hēdonḗ). These are the chilling chords of Apolline athleticism, which the god once taught to the hero Cadmus so that he might defeat the monster Typhon and become “tamer of cosmic harmony.”

Socrates’ description of philosophy as the “greatest kind of music” in the Phaedo hearkens back to this “true music.” Indeed, Platonic philosophy derives its distinctively austere and mathematical aura precisely from the “fearful symmetry” of Apolline musicality. It is no wonder then that Plato likened the hubbub of democratic licentiousness to a kind of unmathematical, “unmusical illegality.” The Athenian theatrocracy (or in modern terms: rule by the media) was governed by poets who were “ignorant of what was just and lawful in music; and they, being frenzied and unduly possessed by a spirit of pleasure [hēdonēs̃]… through their folly, unwittingly bore false witness against music, as a thing without any standard of rightness, of which the best criterion is the pleasure [hēdonē] of the auditor, be he a good man or a bad… [Thus] men became fearless; and audacity begat affrontery.” The specifically Platonic antagonism between philosophy and poetry is founded not on any straightforward rejection of poetry, but on democratic (i.e., sophistic) poetry’s rejection of musical severity. It is democracy’s inherent Epicureanism that threatens to undermine Apolline standards of disciplined excellence.

From the outset, philosophy is bent on sublimating the masculine ethic of aristocracy. Its intrinsically inegalitarian mould of mathematical severity is crystallized in Aristotle’s great-souled individual, who is accorded a Vitruvian proportionality in every psychic dimension. The megalópsūkhos inhabits the golden mean in all facets of life, perfecting the Delphic intuition of “nothing in excess.” As Socrates put it: “measure and proportion manifest themselves in all areas of beauty and virtue.” Failing to adhere to the proper measures, becoming addicted to existential inebriation, or engaging in unmusical illegality—all of these come to mean the same thing. 

In light of these ancient teachings, we can recognize hypo-masculinity and hyper-masculinity as extrêmes qui se touchent—as extremes having much in common. There is an affinity between weak-willed resentment and the bluster of machismo. Both poles exhibit unfortunate deviations from the metrical harmony of a perfectly balanced soul. Both Thersites and the suitors of the Odyssey are in violation of the cosmic order. Thersites is too little of a man; he is “of measureless speech,” and is afflicted by a mind filled with a “great store of disorderly words.” The suitors are accused of huperēnoréōn or “overmanliness,” on account of their hubristic indulgence in Ithaca’s plentiful resources and the dishonour they have inflicted on Odysseus’ kin and countrymen. Both kinds of excess, fecklessness and libertinism alike, are underappreciated by modern thought and tend to be understood as facets of a masculinity that is irremediably pathological.

This pathologized status of masculinity is due almost entirely to the social contract theories of ‘classical liberalism.’ The great liberal thinkers of the Enlightenment took every opportunity to demonize a genuine sense of philautic self-worth. Regardless of their mutual differences, when Hobbes disparaged pride or vainglory and Rousseau lamented the emergence of amour-propre, they were speaking in perfect concert. Philauty must be eschewed at all costs if pleasure and not beauty is to govern the lives of men. 

On the level of politics, the subordination of nobility to pleasure has imploded every sense of altruistic and sagacious statesmanship, subjecting governor and governed alike to the emotive whims of querulous masses. In one of Epicurus’ principal political doctrines, we read: “Natural justice is a pledge guaranteeing mutual advantage, to prevent one from harming others and to keep oneself from being harmed.” We might just as well be reading Thomas Hobbes or John Locke. It is this myopic aim of reducing justice, the arbitration of what is good, to the mere scope of harm reduction that is ultimately inimical to the “fearful symmetry” of aristocratic idealism. The beauty of ensouled greatness, accompanied by the faculties of self-esteem and judicious indignation, form a permanent and necessary opposition to every lackadaisical passivism.

Modern hedonism and the end of masculinity

Modern androscepticism is, at bottom, a tragic phenomenon. It rightly acknowledges that something is profoundly wrong with the contemporary masculine ethos. Yet, at the same time, it cannot extricate itself from a liberal (Epicurean) framework that encourages the very behaviour we have always so despised in men. In a world that pursues pleasure for its own sake and generally eschews virtue for being repressive and paternalistic, men and women both have been exposed to a nasty climate of rapacious and transgressive economism that has extended itself to even our most intimate spheres. From the casually dissolute hook-up ‘cultures’ prevailing in most forms of nightlife, to the socially abstracted, predatory environments created by online dating apps, and all of it set against a background of encouraged promiscuity in both sexes—should we really be so gobsmacked that “romance is dead and done” or that everyone is now on high alert regarding what counts as egregious behaviour?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is precisely those aspects of man deemed most lamentable by the ancients that have now become endemic. On the one hand, the hypermasculine hedonism of the suitors has been operationalized on an international scale, having birthed a precariously aloof jet-set of pseudo-elites, entirely shorn of every community-bound responsibility. On the other, more and more men are being degraded to purposeless lotus eaters, whose minds, smothered by a brilliant haze of sweet nothings, compel them to loiter, idle, tarry, and, in the words of Homer, “forget their homeward way.” The obverse of libertinism is a generation of ‘lost boys,’ inhabiting a private Neverland of protracted pubescence. We might look toward contemporary Japan’s reclusive caste of hikikomori as a paradigmatic example of this phenomenon. Defined as an extreme form of social withdrawal, hikikomori literally means ‘pulling inward’ and pertains mostly to adolescent boys who refuse to leave the sheltered atmosphere of their parental home for months or even years on end. Subsisting on an entirely vegetative lifestyle, these young men quickly become accustomed to a fate of total ignominy and irrelevance. Sadly, this unfortunate circumstance shows no signs of abating. The number of hikikomori climbs each year, and as a social category they are already well-represented beyond Japanese shores.

The weakness engendered by a hedonistic climate has left our culture defenceless against exploitation. In this regard, Yeats’ poem The Second Coming is particularly apt: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world… The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” It isn’t hard to see what would have happened to the people of Ithaca had Odysseus and his party fallen prey to “the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus.” In the absence of proper patriarchal authority, the Ithacans would have had to endure the continued deprivation of their country’s resources by foul Antinous and the rest of Penelope’s suitors, men “whose wantonness and violence reach the iron heaven.” I argue we face a very similar situation today. 

The high-minded ideal of brotherhood, espoused as the third element in the central credo of the French Revolution, was supposed to put every member of the citizenry on equal footing. In reality, however, it has served as an enduring moratorium on the cultivation of fatherly responsibility, barring everyone from the requisites for adulthood. When we favour pleasure over education and discipline, ethics is soon denatured to instinctual gratification. Everyone is fit into a prefabricated psychological profile that matches their natural tendencies, whose expressions then become exaggerated by repeated exercise. As Yeats put it: “the centre cannot hold.” Brutish men become wolves; meeker men become helpless sheep. Gone is the golden mean of magnanimity, gone the authority of wisdom. In their place we find an elusive, supra-national fraternity for the rich and famous, set against an increasingly infantilized and subdued populace. Many sensible classical liberals might bemoan the recent tendency in Western governments towards censure and oversight, or the state’s gradual alignment with monopolistic corporatists. Yet, a surveillance capitalism where ‘Big Brother is watching’ is merely the logical outcome of a politics that has traded in the stern and even-handed rule of the father for a ‘fratriarchal’ tyranny of brothers. 

In this hotbed of mediocrity, we are made destitute by a dearth of real men. The lustre of the revolutionary trinity, “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” has long since faded. Perhaps only now that we are bowed down by the full weight of its realization, are we finally able to vindicate those prophetic words once uttered by Edmund Burke: 

The Age of Chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more, shall we behold the generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone!

Long may we mourn. 

Michael W. Weyns is an independent writer with an M.Sc. degree in computer science and a background in philosophy. He currently lives and works in Belgium and divides his time between doctoral research and forays into intellectual history.