Review

Strong Men Build a Strong Civilization

"Two Men Turning over the Soil" (1866), a 69.9 x 94 cm pastel and black conté crayon on wove paper by Jean-François Millet (1814-1875).

Photo: Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The 21st century has been remarkable, both for its tumultuousness and its quiet mediocrity. Vices ranging from video games, to pornography, to drug use. Even in the decadence of the latter 20th century, these habits were largely considered the purview of “bad people.” They are now not only pervasive, but are celebrated by the media as normal and healthy activities. We are saturated in self-indulgence and laziness.  

On the other hand, the West has undergone upheaval on many fronts. We have seen the rise and tragic (at least partial) failure of the War on Terror. Not only the institution of marriage, but the very notion of gender and sexuality has been radically transformed. A global pandemic has sent the world into near economic free fall and psychological collapse. Throughout the later 20th century, there was an implicit understanding that, despite political differences, both right and left-wing political parties were working for the common good of their nations, that elections were a peaceful and legal “changing the guard” from one party to the next. However, the post-World War II liberal truce is breaking down and an increasingly aggressive populism is clashing with an equally aggressive globalism. 

It would seem that these times would call forth a new age of heroes—men who could hold back the tide of decadence and resentment on which an emergent technocratic system is being built. The effects of our societal decay are felt in many arenas of daily life. In public spaces, universities, and municipal buildings, memorials for men and women who, until fairly recently, were considered virtuous are now destroyed on a routine basis by both violent mobs and administrative fiat. Citizens are monitored for their health and political opinions. Non-compliance with the new status quo can result in severe personal and professional consequences. Freedoms that we took for granted are being challenged in this shifting political and cultural landscape. The very foundation of our heritage is being refashioned as a source of guilt, rather than pride and gratitude in the Western mind. 

Where are the men holding the line in defense of memorials of their ancestors? Who is standing in defense of our freedoms and civilization?

Upon first glance, few of such men exist. Certainly, there are figures such as Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson who have made strong and principled stands against this cultural onslaught, but too few are following their example. The majority in the West (and the Far East) are effectively trapped, working away under the unfriendly glare of office lights in increasingly hostile work environments; many simply collect a government check while playing Xbox Live in their parents’ home. There is no question that the developed world is facing a crisis of masculinity. 

In response, many young men are attracted to various fitness and lifestyle routines, as well as a host of internet personalities promising truly masculine philosophies on which to build a meaningful life. Some of these groups and personalities present a violent, selfish, and narcissistic path in which individual fulfillment and (digital) glory is the goal of life in the ruins of Western Civilization. Others argue that politics is the key to reestablishing a masculine society. If certain labor and social benefit laws, such as giving men a living wage or rewarding merit in the workplace, are introduced, hiring policies in the private and public sector will change. Women will return to the home, making the workplace Mad Men-esque testosterone-fueled power houses, or so the argument goes. 

In his recent work, No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men, Anthony Esolen, Magdalen College writer-in-residence and author of numerous scholarly and popular works and translations, presents a more comprehensive and measured view of manhood than what is generally found on social media and in podcasts. 

Taking aim at feminist arguments that men are no longer necessary adue to the computerization and robotization of manual labor, Esolen argues that male labor is still needed and that becoming dependent on fragile computers and robots is a recipe for potential disaster. He gives the example of the Colonial Pipeline, which in 2021 suffered a cyberattack that disrupted its function. During his testimony of the event, Colonial’s CEO admitted that most of the men who could repair the pipeline were dead or retired. This is a common issue that plagues many industries. Many lack skilled and dedicated workers. 

Since the dawn of mankind, men have provided the raw material for human civilization and have ordered an often hostile and fallen world for human habitation. When this impulse is suppressed, the consequences can be grave. 

As an example, Esolen argues that the contemporary collapse of American infrastructure is the result of men becoming physically and mentally lazy. Many young people today assume that things run on “magic” and the world that they inherited simply appeared out of nowhere. On the contrary, much of the United States’ highway system is inadequate to the needs of contemporary motorists. While faulty infrastructure may not elicit serious concern at present, it is indicative of further decay to come should the masculine spirit continue to be crushed. 

Throughout the book, Esolen emphasizes the masculine drive to pursue the arrow or to seek out, explore, build, and conquer. Men want to be great. Without this desire, human society deteriorates. The transcontinental railway, the Apollo program, and (almost) all of modern science and medicine were driven by male thumos, “spirit” or “drive.” This does not mean unfettered thumos this has no negative consequences. Moreover, there certainly are ambitious women who embody that drive.. However, as a rule, Esolen claims that women are generally more focused on the hearth and home. These masculine and feminine roles complement one another and provide a stable foundation for civilization. Human society needs tenderness and strength, caution and aggression, hierarchy and compassion.

Although this so-called patriarchy is often presented as merely a fabricated imposition, Esolen argues that the modern push for women to imitate men is itself a social construct. As an example, Esolen claims that boys naturally create ‘pick up’ games of basketball, baseball, and other sports. This is because men are hardwired to compete with one another and to engage in purifying combat that rewards excellence. Girls, on the other hand, often engage in structured sports programs motivated by the pressure of a wider social order. Esolen gives the example of two famous soccer matches in which boys high school teams trounced professional women’s soccer teams. Esolen’s point is not only that men are physically stronger than women, but they are more hardwired for combat and competition. 

Esolen notes that this masculine drive can take a negative or shadow aspect in the form of chaotic violence—whether that violence is other-directed or self-destructive. However, toxic masculinity is ultimately the lack of masculinity, not its natural character. Toxic masculinity, which manifests itself in irrational and frequent violence, selfishness and narcissism, as well as in a narrow and materialist worldview is rather the “shadow” or negative side of masculinity. It is masculinity that is uncontrolled and immature—the tyrant or beast as opposed to the king or hero. 

For much of the political Left, any form of masculine strength or aggression is “toxic” and is responsible for the worst crimes in human history. If masculinity is deconstructed and ultimately destroyed, then a new androgynous system will emerge, bringing peace and happiness. Esolen does admit that masculinity can be toxic, but this is the result of a deformation of masculinity; it is not a manifestation of authentic masculinity. 

The book further argues that men are hardwired to work together as a team. They enjoy sparring with each other and proving their worth, but do not allow themselves to become overwhelmed by violence and resentment. According to Esolen, men have a greater ability to compartmentalize emotion and are quicker to let go of grudges and rivalries than women. As a result, like Jordan Peterson, he sees masculine society as a natural hierarchy built by merit and welded together by friendship. Difficult tasks, Esolen argues, requires a hierarchy of orders. Everything from building a house to sailing a ship necessitates varying levels of command and skill. Esolen implies—whether rightly or wrongly—that feminists are, in a certain sense, correct: feminine society can be more caring and egalitarian. However, this would ultimately lead to a societal collapse because ingenuity would be stifled and fairness would be prized over excellence. 

One of the notable qualities of No Apologies is that Esolen grounds his arguments in literary expressions of male friendship and the masculine desire for sacrifice and struggle. He relies on traditions to illustrate what masculinity is and how it serves mankind. Esolen provides the examples of Enkidu and Gilgamesh from The Epic of Gilgamesh as two warriors who sharpened each other’s skill in contest, as well as various stories of ‘coming of age’ quests that heroes had to endure in folk tales from around the world. Most of these stories chronicle a Bildungsroman or story of a boy becoming a man through struggle, sacrifice, and endurance. These ancient texts present ideals, but these are ideals that have served as the foundation myths of entire civilizations. The West itself was literally built on the stories of King David, Hector, Charlemagne, and Arthur who demonstrated the need for self-control, piety, and friendship in the forming of an authentically masculine character. 

Finally, Esolen’s work ends with an emphasis on men’s need for union with the Heavenly Father. The masculine drive can only be satisfied in union with God and discipleship. Men will not be content by merely building, discovering, and creating. He rejects Nietzschean and Randian paradigms. Rather, men ultimately seek God’s face and will only be satisfied in mystical union with God. The pagan worldview of constant struggle ultimately leads to fatigue and despair. Christianity demonstrates that nothing on earth can satisfy a man’s heart—not even a great woman. As St. Augustine said, all humans have a “restless heart” that can only rest in peace with God. 

In his discussion of religion, Esolen also criticizes what he views as the effeminization of the Church. Esolen argues that much of Christian worship is more “horizontal” than “vertical,” and liturgies today appear more focused on social sanction than the worship of God. In other words, the Church is beginning to exclusively embody the feminine urge for interpersonal acceptance, rather than the masculine drive of reaching greater heights and perfection. Esolen sees the broader societal war on gender as ultimately an attack on God. The natural order was built by God who created men and women as compliments to one another who, as Aristotle and then St. Thomas Aquinas after him noted, build a family and then a village and ultimately a city and kingdom. An attack on gender identity is fundamentally an attack at the root core of human civilization. 

No Apologies is a broadside against the culture of resentment and hatred for nature and nature’s God and is a passionate call for young men to take up the challenge of masculinity again.

Jesse Russell has written for a number of publications, including Front Porch Republic, Catholic World Report, and Dappled Things.

 

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