March 12, 2010

Wimps, Barbarians, and Virtuous Men

I was sent a lead to an amazing article titled, Wimps and Barbarians: The Sons of Murphy Brown. It was written in 2003 and appeared in the winter, 2003 issue of the Claremont Review of Books. While just a little outdated, the ideas expressed by its author, Dr. Terrence Moore, are very relevant for those of us thinking about creating a positive and realistic vision of manhood to offer our boys. You'll have to dig a little in his somewhat idea-packed article, but if you do, there are some real gems

Manhood is not simply a matter of being male and reaching a certain age. These are acts of nature; manhood is a sustained act of character. It is no easier to become a man than it is to become virtuous. In fact, the two are the same. The root of our old-fashioned word "virtue" is the Latin word virtus, a derivative of vir, or man. To be virtuous is to be "manly." As Aristotle understood it, virtue is a "golden mean" between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Too often among today's young males, the extremes seem to predominate. One extreme suffers from an excess of manliness, or from misdirected and unrefined manly energies. The other suffers from a lack of manliness, a total want of manly spirit. Call them barbarians and wimps. So prevalent are these two errant types that the prescription for what ails our young males might be reduced to two simple injunctions: Don't be a barbarian. Don't be a wimp. What is left, ceteris paribus, will be a man.

I'm not at all convinced that you can identify "a man" by what's left over after removing barbaric and wimpy tendencies, but those two poles do show up in the lives of today's boys. Dr. Moore goes to some lengths to describe the characteristics of boys who are wimps, those who have chosen the barbarian path, and the cultural forces that push boys in those directions. He says, for example, "A close look at the culture in which boys are raised reveals not only that they are no longer encouraged to become vigorous and responsible men, but also that practically every factor affecting their development is profoundly hostile to the ideals and practices of traditional manhood and the painstaking steps necessary to attain it. The demanding regime of physical and moral instruction that used to turn boys into men and the larger cultural forces that supported that instruction have been systematically dismantled by a culture that ostensibly enables all individuals but in reality disables men."

Dr. Moore looks back at previous eras when there were easily identifiable rites of passage that helped turn men into boys. He says modern culture is lacking in those passage experiences and he feels today's boys  " . . . mill about their adolescent and post-adolescent years lacking any formal, approved rite of passage that would turn them into men. The American frontier disappeared in 1890. The call of the sea did not survive much longer. All-male colleges, where young men used to compete against each other in the lecture halls and on the playing field, can now be counted on the fingers of one hand."
Other than a return to the boy civilizing forces of the old days however, Dr. Moore is missing a prescription for turning boys into men that will work in today's world. That said, there is a lot of value in considering what used to work as we try to shape man-making experiences and processes for our boys. When you have a moment, give the article a look and see what you think.

 Dr. Moore currently teaches history at Hillsdale College. A former Marine, he was, for seven years, principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado, one of the highest ranked public schools in the nation.

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