A Letter to a Friend- Terrifyingly Paleolithic Ideas on Why Sex is Too Important to be Thrown Around Willy-Nilly
A friend of mine asked me why I have the views I do on sex. This was my (slightly edited) response.
….Yep, that is DEFINITELY St. Teresa of Avila orgasming in the magnificent love of God (note where the Angel of the Lord is pointing his arrow.)
This is probably the best depiction of the relationship between sexuality and spirituality ever produced. Father Fulton Sheen famously said that there is no good sexual act committed by only two people; God needs to be in there somewhere (dirty minds, go crazy.)
There is nothing greater and more beautiful than human love and procreation, for it is in these two acts that Man becomes most like the Creator- human love being the closest we can get to the love shared between God and His creation, procreation being the closest we can get to the act of creation (which is fundamentally an act of love.) Both of these being the closest we can get to the physical expression of divine love and divine creation. As such, sex is not merely a physical function, but is also and inseparably a spiritual and emotional function, one that unifies independent beings and brings them to a greater communion amongst each other in which love can flourish, ie the family, and one which represents the ultimate truth of the Universe, creation through love.
Granted, there’s nothing anyone can do to prove this anymore than anyone can prove the existence of God. But nature has sprinkled the act itself and its consequences with hints all over the place- the fact that sex is fundamentally a creative act (and this is why homosexual sex is respected in some religious traditions and abhorred by others, but never, ever elevated to the spiritual significance of heterosexual sex,) the fact that the act of sex increases the emotional and spiritual connectedness of sexual partners and is made more enjoyable by a previous emotional and spiritual connectedness between them (and in response to the previous point, this includes both homosexual and heterosexual lovers,) the empirical observation that sex outside of these conditions tends to either lead to or accompany spiritual dissatisfaction and emptiness and even physical coercion, etc.
That there is indeed a sexual hunger and a sexual need in human beings is not lost on me- I believe it wholeheartedly, and I think most non-asexual individuals can attest to having felt it at one time or another.
That said, there is ALSO a spiritual hunger and a spiritual need in human beings, and that, I think, is lost on most defenders of the hookup culture. What is more, the fact that there are organic, natural ties between the sexual urge and the spiritual hunger is usually forgotten by the advocates of modernity. Spiritual health and sexual health cannot be separated; to separate them may perhaps be a convenience for the immediate urges, but is ultimately a betrayal of the better angels of our nature.
Again, I don’t think you need a belief in God to see the natural connections between sexuality and spirituality, and I think most people prefer not to make the theistic argument. I just think the theistic argument is a more artistic way of articulating the naturalistic argument. A priest of mine once told me that long before he became a priest, he hooked up once; and immediately thereafter he felt an emptiness inside of him that no amount of steamy, R-rated action could fill. How many today have felt this emptiness, and hid it from the world? How many has the world told that that emptiness could not possibly exist? How many have believed it?
Typically, those most opposed to the idea of human rights are those who claim to be most proud of Western Civilization and most disdainful of other civilizations, while those who most broadly disparage Western Civilization and celebrate multiculturalism are those who most outspokenly champion the idea of human rights.
This is a complicated issue, but I will point out the clearest, most obvious flaw I find in both opposite (and unfortunately popular) views: Human rights are not a universal conception, but a very Western historical idea that is literally integral to the Western experience.
To the Western chauvinists who disdain human rights: how can you possibly say you love your Civilization while you simultaneously disparage one of the fundamental concepts that most differentiated it from other civilizations? From the individualism bequeathed us by Greece, and republicanism bequeathed us by Rome, and the dignity of the human person bequeathed us by Christianity, everything that has made Western Civilization unique has been its unique commitment to the sanctity of the individual.
Granted, a commitment to the sanctity of the individual cannot be ALL that holds society together- there must be shared institutions of unity and order. But these are in no way unique to Western Civilization- every civilization across time has had these at its core. They don’t make Western Civilization particularly special, and indeed there is as much to learn from Ibn Khaldun and Xunzi on this topic as there is from Thomas Aquinas.
To the West-disparaging multiculturalists and human rights crusaders- how can you possibly cherish human rights as the most unifying concept of humanity, when it is nothing other than a Western construction descended from the thought of the Greeks, Romans, and early Christians, three groups which irrevocably shaped our Western heritage? For all the pain and intolerance which Western Civilization has wrought upon itself and the world, it has always been the incubator of the ideas of individual liberty that so animate activists the world over today.
Moreover, how can you despise the West but worship its rivals with such vigor? For all their grand contributions to civilization and intellectual history, all the other great civilizations only started producing any sort of thought about the political rights of the individual after contact with Western Civilization! They have all had their strengths in their own ways, but none of them has ever valued pluralism and individual dignity to the degree that activists the world over claim they do.
It’s an interesting set of contradictions not easily resolved by even the most philosophical of individuals.
As for me, here is my imperfect and deeply flawed reconciliation:
I will forever be a Westerner, for that is the civilization of my birth and upbringing. But I will always be something of a false Westerner, for though I admire and appreciate the respect for individual dignity my civilization has brought to the great conversation, I have never considered that respect for individual dignity to be either the pinnacle of human thought or the focal point of human striving. It is a wonderful addendum, wherever it is possible; but wherever it is not, it should not be necessary. Order suffices on its own, and brings a relative and acceptable degree of liberty.
Instead, I judge my own civilization and every other civilization by its capacity to keep a reasonable order, a sort of chaotic harmony which forestalls the descent to our natural state of barbarism. And while the West has certainly produced great thinkers and great works on this subject, so has every civilization and society worth its salt. All are worth appreciating, respecting, and borrowing from, of course within reason.
Thus, when it comes to the great questions of civilizational identity, I would have to say that I am something of a Westerner who happens to be a multicultural conservative, who appreciates but does not worship the idea of human rights.
I dedicate this essay to my brother Jacob Phillips, who in training his mind and body for the betterment of himself and for service to his country, is one of the manliest men I know.
Homer and Virgil, two of the usual suspects.
Pretty soon I’ll be writing up a post called something along the lines of ‘Manly Feminism and Feminist Manliness,’ and it will be an attempt to reconcile two great traditions of gendered moral thought into a coherent and pluralistic whole. I’m expecting it will mostly piss off most feminists, but it will be my olive branch- proof to subsequent generations that I, Luke Phillips, am not a vapid radical ideologist bent on discrediting my rivals, but a reasonable thinker willing to make compromise while standing up for truth as I see it.
Anyhow, in case you haven’t figured out from my writings by now, I am a staunch opponent of what passes for feminism in the 21st Century. I’ll get into the why’s of that later, but for now one big fat ‘why’ is particularly relevant: many, many feminists abhor the idea of Manliness, and either say it’s a fake social construction or that it’s very real and the source of all our problems. (Interestingly, this dichotomy within feminism corresponds to the two main groups of feminists I find myself arguing with a lot- those who believe that gender does not exist and is only an unjust social construction and that there are no men or women but only human beings, and those who basically despise men for their past crimes. Neither of these factions is entirely wrong in their way and reason of thinking; both are way too radical and extreme in how far they take their premises to the logical conclusions.)
Now, if you’ve followed my writings or even just glimpsed at a post of mine on Facebook, you will know that I hold Manliness to be the master virtue, a way of life integrating all that is good into a set of firm principles malleable enough to be practiced by any human being in any (manly) walk of life.
And if you’ve followed my writings, you will know that I don’t think only human beings above the age of 18 and possessing penises can be Manly; ‘Manliness’ is instead a catch-all term that catches all the virtues and can be caught by anyone of any gender, period. The more politically correct would rather call it virtue or integrity or character or something similar, but these terms cannot do justice to the fullness and integration of all aspects of life which Manliness requires.
Perhaps the best I can do right now is share what Teddy Roosevelt thought of Manliness, which in my opinion is the best and most succinct description of the term I have ever read:
President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the manliest men in American history.
“We need, then, the iron qualities that must go with true manhood. We need the positive virtues of resolution, of courage, of indomitable will, of power to do without shrinking the rough work that must always be done, and to persevere through the long days of slow progress or of seeming failure which always come before any final triumph, no matter how brilliant. But we need more than these qualities. This country cannot afford to have its sons [and daughters] less than men [and women]; but neither can it afford to have them other than good men [and women]. If courage and strength and intellect are unaccompanied by the moral purpose, the moral sense, they become merely forms of expression for unscrupulous force and unscrupulous cunning. If the strong man has not in him the lift toward lofty things his strength makes him only a curse to himself and his neighbor. All this is true in private life, and it is no less true in public life. If Washington and Lincoln had not in them the whipcord moral fiber of moral and mental strength, the soul that steels itself to endure disaster unshaken and with grim resolve to wrest victory from defeat, then the one could not have founded, nor the other preserved, our Federal Union. The least touch of flabbiness, of unhealthy softness, in either would have meant ruin for this nation, and therefore the downfall of the proudest hope of Mankind. But it is no less true that had either been influenced by self-seeking ambition, by callous disregard of others, by contempt for the moral law, he would have dashed us down into the black gulf of failure. Woe to all of us as a people if ever we grow to condone evil because it is successful. We can no more afford to lose social and civic decency and honesty than we can afford to lose the qualities of courage and strength. It is the merest truism to say that the nation rests upon the individual, upon the family- upon individual manliness and womanliness, using the words in their widest and fullest meaning.
To be a good husband or wife, a good neighbor and friend, to be hardworking in business and social relations, to bring up [strong, decent, and enterprising] children- to be and to do all of this is to lay the foundations of good citizenship as they must be laid. But we cannot stop even with this. Each of us has not only his duty to himself [and herself], his [or her] family, and his [or her] neighbors, but his [or her] duty to the state and to the nation. We are in honor bound each to strive according to his or her strength to bring ever nearer the day when justice and wisdom shall obtain in public life as in private life. We cannot retain the full measure of our self-respect if we cannot retain pride in our citizenship. For the sake not only of ourselves but of our children and our children’s children we must see that this nation stands for strength and honesty both at home and abroad.”
So there. That’s it, as best as can be said. (On another note, see how annoying it is to have to say ‘his or her’ every freaking time??? Teddy Roosevelt did not speak or think with political correctness, but what he meant and what he knew was blind to gender and applicable to all.)
But where does this Manliness come from?
The Art of Manliness (an excellent blog, basically a blog for Boy Scouts who never grew up, because it basically takes what the Scout Handbook tells you to do and applies it to the life of a 20-something) says all cultures across human history have had some version of Manliness, and that the mean of all them is your best bet for defining what, by first principles, Manliness can be considered to be. I agree, but I think there is a more succinct way to define what Manliness is for American civilization in the 21st Century, and that entails looking in the mirror at our Western past.
The Art of Manliness’s classic logo- you really need to click that button and check out their site.
So, two of the great bards: Homer and Virgil. Homer, the greatest of all oral poets of the war-torn, pre-Hellenic Greece, recounter of the Trojan War, and composer of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Virgil, the first and greatest poet of empire, the conscience of Rome, compiler of the works of the ancients, and author of the Aeneid.
I am no classicist, much to my discredit. I have not even read either work I’ll be focusing on (The Odyssey and the Aeneid) more than once apiece. That said, I have read them and read OF them enough that I have a general enough idea of the principles they espouse that I can draw from them certain valuable lessons for our life as a society descended from Greece and Rome. A lot of my ideas here, by the way, are courtesy Professor Timothy B. Shutt at Kenyon College, whose audio lectures about the classic works of literature have been inspirational to me and have formed much of the substance of the ideas behind this piece.
Astute readers will notice that I skip the Iliad and go straight to the Odyssey, the second of Homer’s works. Why?
Because the Iliad, for whatever virtues it had in terms of forging a Greek national identity, praising the well-deserved glory of physical prowess, and highlighting the tragedy which underlies all truly epic tales, documents a form of Manliness probably better referred to as ‘hypermasculinity,’ which is EXACTLY what it sounds like. Depictions of the first and greatest of all war stories often describe Homer’s narrative as something along the lines of “a bunch of high-school-aged boys running around slugging each other over every false slight of honor imaginable, from who gets which babe to who’s a better fighter to whose kingdom is more awesome and all the rest.”
The single major character with anything resembling what I call Manliness is Hector, Prince of Troy, and though he is the most honorable of the warriors on the battlefield, he is slain by Achilles and his body is desecrated quite dishonorably. All the rest are basket cases of the worse excesses of human vice and over-masculinity. Agamemnon has foolish, hubristic pride. Paris, seducer of Helen and catalyst of the war, falls to weakness and lust. Priam is the king of Troy and of foolhardiness. Achilles is the epitome of rash, petty adolescence, godlike though he might be in battle.
What is more, these characters are all rich, property-owning males, whose status is based upon their class rather than their character. Not ALL human beings in the Iliad are capable of this chauvinistic virtue of animals; slaves are routinely disparaged, and women are relegated either to servants or sexual conquests (in Helen’s case, literally.) There is no true Manliness here; the first Homeric epic, though beautiful in its prose and timeless in its exposure of truths, provides no (surviving) role model and depicts a world where men are nothing more than speaking animals.
-The Man of Twists and Turns
Thus I turn to the second Homeric epic, which is often (and plausibly) alleged to have been composed not by Homer himself, but by Homer’s daughter or granddaughter after Homer’s death, using Homer’s recitations of traditional Greek oral poetry as its source. This second epic is the Odyssey.
A quick word on the plot- the Odyssey is the story of Odysseus, having returned home from the Trojan War as the lone survivor of his troop, figuring out how to restore order at his home and his kingdom in Ithaca.
After Odysseus left Troy, he purportedly got lost and had a series of adventures with such fascinating beings as the Cyclops Polyphemus, the sorceress Circe, the lotus-eaters, the sea-nymph Calypso, the sirens, and the whirlpool Charybdis, in which his entire crew was eaten or otherwise lost.
This, however, is but backstory to the true plot of the Odyssey, which focuses on Odysseus using all the tools at his disposal contained with his person- his wit, his cunning, his charismatic leadership, and indeed his physical prowess and endurance- to destroy the hundred-plus young, Achilles-level-maturity suitors who have, in the twenty years of his absence, invaded his home, let his kingdom go to waste, and abused his wife, son, servants, and dog. It is not an easy feat for a single man accompanied by a half-dozen or so loyal servants, but Odysseus does it admirably well. He dispenses justice upon the suitors, saves his wife and servants (with their help,) reclaims his household, and recommences the art of ruling.
And thus, the lessons of the Odyssey necessary for Manliness:
Homer had a word for the virtue which Odysseus embodies- Arête. Arête had been used in the Iliad, but primarily to describe intense physical prowess. In the Odyssey, Arête means something closer to what we would call excellence– excellence in all traits, physical, mental, emotional, moral. It is expanded from mere animalistic physical prowess to a combination of physical prowess, cunning, creativity, charisma, self-discipline, loyalty to those you love- a marriage of inner and outer excellence, those traits which all Greeks wished to see in themselves and, indeed, which most of us Americans desire to embody if we are to be successful in the social world.
Odysseus, the man of twists and turns who could fool any man alive, who could squirm his way out of any tight spot, who could endure the travails of life, who could inspire and lead those he had not seen in decades- this is a man who embodied this different definition of Arête, of excellence in all facets. The various adventures Odysseus endured (or enjoyed) were the settings in which his plethora of skills were revealed. Each is revealed in a different time, in a different way; but combined, Odysseus’ talents for deception, inspiration, cunning, prowess, and strategy came to reveal the character of this dangerous man.
All these traits and virtues- not merely the sum of them, but the whole which is greater than the sum of its parts- constitute a significant chunk of what I call Manliness.
As was previously noted, the limited usage of the Iliad’s Arête was limited further in the spectrum of what sorts of people it was open to- white, property-owning, aristocratic males. (Though ‘twas probably no loss to women, people of different ethnicities, and the poor, that they did not get to partake in the fratricidal pissing contests of Achilles and Agamemnon.)
The Odyssey features a great many individuals of these pushed-aside groups displaying traits equal to or greater than those which Odysseus displays. His wife, Penelope, keeps a hundred-plus testosterone-fueled frat boys divided against each other for twenty years, and thus prevents any one of them from threatening their way into marrying her and seizing the household or worse. That is endurance, cool-headedness, and cunning at its finest, displayed BY A WOMAN in the highly-patriarchal society of Ancient Greece. Additionally, note that all those under Penelope’s command- the loyal servants- survive, whereas Odysseus’s entire crew is eaten by monsters. Comparison of leadership abilities much?
Various servants of Odysseus, from Eumaeus the shepherd to Eurycleia, nurse of Odysseus in his infancy, to Philoetius the cowherd, are of immeasurably greater character than the hundred-plus well-born, aristocratic suitors. Moreover, their born artificial lowliness does not make them any less capable thinkers and fighters than the suitors, as the Odyssey’s final battle scene demonstrates. This is a breaking down of the barriers of class (and presumably race, as many Greek servants were foreigners) to possessing Arête. Indeed, it could be said that in pitting the servants against the suitors, Homer placed the TRUE nobility of heart and excellence of skill in those of lower birth and station.
Thus is Arête- and what I call Manliness- truly open to all those virtuous and determined enough to achieve it, regardless of their background.
But there is yet ANOTHER dimension which the composer of the Odyssey expands the definition of Arête into.
The Arête of the Iliad is primarily focused with excellence in one’s self, and to a limited degree with excellence among one’s peers. But the Odyssey, in depicting those individuals whom do NOT possess Arête, goes a step further- not only are they not excellent in themselves and not only are they not excellent among their peers, but they are certainly not excellent in society. They violate what the Greeks would call nomos– sometimes translated as ‘the way things ought to be,’ but in my opinion best described as ‘natural law.’ There is a fundamental order of things which you do not trespass against, and part of Arête is aligning yourself with it; if you oppose it, you are a worthless piece of meat.
The servants and Penelope, in being loyal to their master/husband even though he is gone, display Arête and respect for nomos in this regard. Meanwhile, the suitors, in disregarding Odysseus’s kingship and his estate, in mistreating his wife and servants and son and dog, in ransacking Odysseus’s household and treating themselves like honored guests while treating those who visit them and counsel them to prudence quite poorly, go against nomos- very far against nomos, indeed. Thus Odysseus’s slaughtering all of them at the end is not merely a display of Achillic fury, of a man righteously reclaiming what is his, but further, an instance of poetic justice against those who would usurp the natural order of things and place their own desires above that which is right, just, and desirable in the world.
You cannot be good without being good to others, and good in society. This respect for an unchanging moral order, for natural law, for nomos, is a critical part of Arête, and for the Manliness which I describe.
Finally, the author of the Odyssey identifies Arête with something fundamental to the concept of Manliness which the Iliad either did not mention or did not need: constant trials and tribulations, constant struggle as the force which brings out the character of a man in his darkest moments and determines what he really is.
While the intrigue and little war which Odysseus finds upon his homecoming are indeed sufficient to understand the necessity of struggle in the development of character, a far more colorful series of episodes more beautifully depicts that quest- Odysseus’s wanderings in the Mediterranean and his encounters with various monsters and mythical beings.
I have already alluded to Odysseus being a terrible leader given that all his men end up dead, but there is still moral allegory to be found in his various adventures. In Odysseus encountering the Lotus-Eaters and forbidding his men from eating the hallucinogenic plant, one learns that hedonistic self-indulgement and pleasure-seeking is inherently destructive to one’s effectiveness as a person, one’s autonomous will, and indeed one’s character. In witnessing Odysseus’s disastrous decision to wait and see the Cyclops of the cave, which results in the culinary deaths of several of his men, one remembers that a leader cannot be reckless and overconfident. In Odysseus’s evasion of the sirens, bardesses of beautiful song, one realizes that beautiful words and praises can be dangerously seductive- especially if they praise oneself. We must avoid the temptation of listening seriously. In the encounter with Circe and the transformation of all Odysseus’ men into pigs and wolves, one remembers how easy it is to submit to the wolfish and piggish instincts within us, and how important it is to maintain self-discipline against these lower angels of our nature. Finally, the navigation between the monster Scylla and the maelstrom Charybdis remind us of the inherent dilemmas we must pass through in life, and the necessity of moderation between extremes, while Odysseus hanging onto a tree branch for hours on end to avoid being drowned in the whirlpool reminds us how critical it is that we hold on through the hardest moments, for relief will come and we will be glad.
Indeed, it would seem that Odysseus’s struggles and adventures tell us that we must not only bear through physical dangers- critical though that is- but that we must bear through internal struggles, too, if we are to become the best possible versions of ourselves. This is Arête. This is Manliness.
-Arms and the Man
I now turn to the Aeneid, which has been read, often, as a critique of and answer to the deficiencies of Homer’s works. I would argue that it is not so much an answer to the Odyssey, however, as much as it is an answer to the Iliad.
But first, a word on the plot- the Aeneid is the story of Aeneas, the greatest of the surviving Trojans, and his leadership of the Trojan people as they recover from the sack of Troy, meander across the Mediterranean world, settle in Italy and wage yet another bloody war, and ultimately lay the foundations of another, greater civilization from the ashes of Troy, which will someday bring order to the world- Rome.
The first half recounts the Trojans’ wanderings, with particular focus paid to the actual escape from Troy, Aeneas’s dramatic affair with Queen Dido of Carthage, and Aeneas’s journey to the underworld. After the Trojan Odyssey, the second half of the work represents a second Trojan Iliad- a brutal struggle with the Italian locals, the Latins, for dominance over the land that will one day become Rome. In the end, Aeneas emerges victorious through his sheer devotion to duty and his intrepid leadership and fortitude in the face of a thousand obstacles to his mission as Prince of Troy.
Onto lessons from the Aeneid for Manliness:
The first thing one immediately realizes about Aeneas is his dedication, his devotion, and his subverting his own personality and happiness for the personality and lifestyle he must practice in order to be an effective leader. Aeneas is no Stoic for the sake of it, but in his actions- burying his fear during the storm and encouraging his fellow Trojans not to give up hope, counseling them that one day they may look back with pride upon these trials- he certainly doesn’t let his feelings get in the way of his duty.
This is but the most obvious instance of self-denial for the benefit of the group. Perhaps more compelling is Aeneas’s abandonment of Dido, whom he loved deeply, who was in many ways his mirror and the perfect wife for a great man, in favor of his mission and duty to his people. He put his personal life second and his various duties- his duty to the gods, to the Trojan people, to his unique mission- first. The virtue of putting aside one’s aspirations for the sake of duty was called, by the Romans, Pietas, and as Odysseus is the embodiment of Arête, so is Aeneas the embodiment of Pietas.
By the logic of Pietas, one’s rights come unquestionably second to one’s duty. It is not merely being good and treating others right, though without that foundation duty would appear to be obscene self-righteousness. Pietas requires active self-sacrifice and devotion to causes greater than self. As we will see, the specific causes which Aeneas is so dedicated to include not only the causes of classic patriotism and leadership, but the very foundation of Rome’s greatness- the causes of Order and Civilization.
Integral to Pietas is a pragmatic realism, a respect for practicality of means as the path to accomplishing the objectives one sacrifices oneself for. As Pietas is itself a very idealistic goal, humans being generally self-interested, it is crucial that the means of duty are far more practicable than overtures to duty themselves.
So the action requirements of Pietas form a sort of military ethic, a team-based system focused on forging disparate individuals into a coherent and disciplined broader force capable of accomplishing great things. Individuality is not the hallmark here- the hallmark is loyalty to the created group of a form that transcends mere tribalism.
Self-control and discipline of the turbulent passions of the mind and heart; determination and endurance through innumerable challenges; patience through episodes of boredom and routine; cooperation with one’s fellows and the abandonment of personal glory for the sake of the mission; competence and skills necessary to achieve any goal that might arise; these are the soldierly qualities associated with Pietas, and Aeneas and his men display them time and again throughout the epic.
The travails of the sea-voyage to Italy demand of the Trojans a persistence and fortitude that would grind down the souls of those less patient. And the Trojan and Roman style of warfare demands not the regard for single combat and heroism so highly regarded by Ajax, Achilles, and the other Greeks, but a commitment to formation, maneuver, and command which the Trojans display aptly in their battles with the Latins. Most telling of all is the admonition of Anchises, Aeneas’s father, in the underworld, more on which later: Anchises describes the individualistic artistic and scientific accomplishments of the Greeks, and juxtaposes them with the commitments to the practical pursuits of engineering, law, warfare, and politics, which shall be the lot of Rome to master.
Thus abstract commitment to duty is wedded to a concrete commitment to excellence and teamwork- this is integral to Pietas.
All this focus on how individuals and groups should define themselves and how they should act underscores the broader vision Virgil sees and Aeneas represents- the commitment to Order and Civilization inherent in those guardians who would give their lives to the cause.
The scenes around the Sack of Troy and throughout the Latin War give testimony to Virgil’s horror at the prospect of chaos and decay. The good are slain meaninglessly, and barbarism rules, in a world without order or civilization; children cannot play without fear of death, and all the fine arts and comforts that come with society are perpetually under assault by the forces of chaos. Order, then, and the civilization that sprouts from it, is the ultimate political good, as Anchises relates to Aeneas in the underworld:
“Roman, remember by your strength to rule Earth’s peoples, for your arts shall be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law, to spare the conquered, battle down the proud.”
But with order comes a price- the sacrifice of those who give their lives to maintain it, and the guilt that comes with the amoral nature of power. And moreover, that order will never be more than a partial accomplishment, for human things decay, and the forces of chaos and dissolution ever beckon at the doorstep. But that order, however temporary, costly, and morally dubious, is worth it. Thus is justified the perpetual quest for order.
This rather dark worldview is expressed all across the Aeneid. As for the price of order, one need only look at the death toll on the Trojans’ side during the Latin War, and the grisly deaths which so many brave Trojans met in the defense of an idea and loyalty to their countrymen. Blood greases the machinery of the state and the nation.
It is a bit harder to find evidence for the moral dubiousness of empire and order, but it is there all right. The Trojans stake out their new home on the land of the Latins- a noble people, in no way barbaric, in any circumstance a people with whom the Trojans would have amicable relations. But they inhabit the land the gods have set aside for Rome, and though many Trojans recoil at the injustice, they accept the mission and the guilt that invariably comes with it. The most obvious sign of this crude amorality comes in Aeneas’s slaying of Turnus, king of the Latins- and Turnus is a an otherwise noble man, a good king for his people, and someone whom Aeneas would otherwise certainly respect had he not waged war with him. Perhaps more saliently, the founding of Rome requires a break with the Carthaginians, a friendly and amicable people who gave the Trojans more true hospitality than any other Mediterranean people. But in the subsequent rivalry and wars, Rome becomes the great power it is- and it could not become that power were it not for the Punic Wars with Carthage. Every Roman who possesses Pietas assumes upon themselves a certain guilt for the injustice that power assumes.
But most detrimental of all to the prospect of order is the fact that, despite the sacrifice it requires, and despite the guilt it brings, it is never a permanent state. Virgil describes it as a ‘false dream;’ Anchises, after admonishing Aeneas of the mission of Rome, sends his son out of the underworld past the Gate of Ivory- the Gate of false dreams. Interpreted rightly, this does not imply that Rome’s quest for order is fallacious or impossible; it does, however, imply that a quest for an immortal order would indeed be impossible. There can be no permanent achievements, and for the huge price of order, its longevity will always be in question. Don’t get comfortable, kids.
Professor Shutt describes this more succinctly than I can: “Built into the very structure of things is an unavoidable sadness and loss, and the mortality of things, and inevitable limitedness of things, touches the heart and shapes all that we do and all that we can do.” This Virgilian take on reality brings me to the final lesson of the Aeneid for Manliness.
Characteristic of Pietas and Virgil’s mentality is a somewhat fatalistic view of things. Aeneas encounters a fellow Trojan on his voyage, who tells him of a spellbound prophetess inhabiting a cave. On leaves she writes nuggets of truth, and when an outsider attempts to enter the sibyl’s cave and access that truth, the leaves are scattered across the floor. The sibyl, for her part, never bothers to re-organize these leaves. Thus it is implied, in this Virgilian worldview, that although there is truth out there and we can access it, we can never know it all- the world is far too confusing and complex for the mind of man to be able to access any more than a fraction of its truths, and thus believers both in total randomness and total rationality are mistaken. Where some would answer “Does the world make sense?” with a concrete yes or no, Virgil would say “sometimes.” And it is this doubt in the ability of Man to understand how things are that allows Aeneas the firmness to believe his cause is right, yet the flexibility to cope with the obvious contradictions it entails.
Pietas, then, is not about a rationalistic observance of certain laws and codes in order to live virtuously, nor is it about a Nietzschean faith in the greatness of the individual following their own will. It is instead founded upon a greater uncertainty in human understanding yet faith in the human spirit, ultimately seeking the best political outcomes by means of the noblest personal strivings. Here Virgil is unparalleled. Aeneas is in all ways exemplary of Pietas. He lives Manliness.
Putting it all Together
I hope my above summaries are neither too inaccurate nor too obfuscatory to be useful to the reader. I contend, still, that to understand what Manliness truly is to an American in the 21st Century, one must have at the very least a basic understanding of the virtues of Odysseus and Aeneas- the individual excellence and regard for good living that is Arête, the dedication to duty and tragic optimism that is Pietas.
From Odysseus we gain our respect for competition, for personal greatness, for cleverness and endurance, for adaptability and balance. From Aeneas we learn reverence for duty and service, the value of fortitude and teamwork, and a fuller view of the tragedy and contradictions inherent to political life, and the sort of mentality necessary to live with them and rise above them.
It does not matter whether or not Odysseus and Aeneas ever actually existed (in all likeliness, they didn’t,) and even if they did what is far more important than they were is what they represent to us today in literature. Certain truths about the human condition, certain virtues and ways of living, do not change no matter how much historical circumstance might be transformed with every millennium, ever century, every decade. They have critical value for the way we define ourselves and the way we act. In a sense, though Aeneas and Odysseus might never have had hearts of their own, they live across history and still today in the hearts of all those who identify their virtues and values as those most worth living. National myths and civilizational myths have that effect.
So what does that mean for Manliness today?
A couple things.
First off, the question of roots. While there is only disgusting posing in nativism and racism, I do believe that a sense of what Manliness means in American society today requires acknowledging the Western roots of this nation. Now, there can be contributions from every other nation and civilization the world over, and indeed I believe those can only be helpful and constructive if used properly. But though there is something the acolytes of Manliness can learn from the histories of every other culture and every other cultural mix, there is nonetheless a certain fundamental origin that had its base among the men of Greece and Rome, that ought not be smothered and cannot be displaced. This doesn’t mean that Manliness for everyone around the world came out of the Mediterranean- it merely means that we cannot possibly think of Manliness in 21st Century America without giving our civilizational roots due respect.
Second, Manliness needs to democratize to the point of being available to anyone who so wishes to live the lifestyle. For various historical reasons rooted in the last couple centuries, the gender divide between men and women has been highlighted to a ridiculous degree, prompting all sorts of ridiculous statements on gender from the Phyllis Schlafly’s of the right and the postmodern gender theorists of the left. In reality, we don’t need more pointless non-empirical theorizing on gender roles and gender as a social construction. What we do need is an empowering celebration of individual potential, REGARDLESS of gender; and the Manliness of Homer and Virgil promises just that. Note that Penelope and Dido were in every way the equals of their male counterparts and lovers, exemplifying the virtues in the exact same way to often greater effectiveness. In terms of race, class, religion, and region, I’d say there isn’t really too much getting in the way of people outside the white middle-class majority to be manly. But the narratives about the lower standards and femininity of women are not helpful and are standing in the way of more democratized Manliness, and the radical reactions from the far left and right aren’t helping. Better to take Manliness for what it is and appreciate its applicability for every human being willing to live the lifestyle.
Third, there is not enough regard in this society for the philosophical, the liberal, the artistic. The fact that most Americans today probably could not list the exploits of Aeneas or Odysseus or, for that matter, other literary cultural role models, is telling. Batman’s resurgence in the Dark Knight Trilogy is something of a start, but mass media can only partially and imperfectly compensate for the written word. Discussions of principle cannot take place in a society where education does not encourage the cultivation of such principle; that is most definitely something to be worked on.
I could go on and on, but there’s one last important point to be made about Manliness.
In order for it to mean anything, everyone seeking Manliness should have some sort of relationship to the two figures of Western Manliness, Odysseus and Aeneas. In my personal life, the first two lines of my personal ethos implicitly nod to the two of them:
Prudence and Vigor
Honor and Duty
The first line, of course, is testimony to Odysseus’s Arête, while the second to Aeneas’s Pietas. Personal excellence is non-negotiable, as is commitment to a cause higher than self. The two ancient figures better embody those principles probably better most other figures could, and thus serve as better models. They ought to be carried in the heart.
Over the course of a long-winded, inaccurate, and poorly organized monologue, I hope I have provided some background on the literary and moral foundations of Manliness as it exists in the Western canon and as it ought to exist in 21st Century America. Apologies to classicists for my inaccuracies, but none to gender theorists for my convictions. More essays on this topic will follow.
This note is the conclusory paragraph of a message I sent to a very good friend of mine. It encapsulates my thoughts on the said topics.
I guess if I had to put it into a bite-sized chunk, it would be this- I think it is very possible to be respectful to all people without being politically correct, and very possible to be appreciative of other cultures without buying into multiculturalism.
The Jains, centuries ago, would hunch over and sweep the floor beneath their feet so as to avoid squishing bugs and breaking the vow of nonviolence. I would say that political correctness and multiculturalism demand similar vows and practices by their followers, with the unintended consequence being that the person sweeping can neither walk with dignity as his own culture, nor shake hands/bow/converse with the various representatives of other cultures he meets in this world of nations and peoples. The experience of life would lose its meaning, but the sweeper would feel himself to be validated as a more moral being than the intolerant barbarians bustling around him.
But I wouldn’t say that- it would be offensive to other cultures, and politically incorrect.
Thoughts on the future of American strategy and policy towards Iraq, in light of the Islamic State’s recent gains.
A friend sent me this article and asked me my opinion; this is my response.
‘The Lop-Sided Death Toll in Israeli-Palestinian Conflicts’
Well, I’m not particularly interested in Israel-Palestine beyond its importance for general Middle Eastern politics, global geopolitics, or political theory, but because of its relevance to that I have done a lot of thinking on the matter in the past so thank you for sending- this is relevant to me.
1- No one’s denying (except asshole Bush-era officials and some of the extreme rightist Israelis) that every time the Israelis respond or occupy, they go way overboard. No one’s saying it’s just, no one’s saying it serves the Palestinians or the terrorists among them right, etc etc etc. The Paths of Man are drenched in blood, and particularly at the level of international politics, any idea of justice is primarily a phantasmic illusion.
2- That said- it’s really easy to be sympathetic to the Palestinians. Third World anticolonial complex, etc. What’s harder is to be sympathetic to the Israelis, and it’s necessary to be sympathetic to both if you truly want to have an unbiased and disinterested view of the resolution of the conflict. We Americans are lucky that Mexican drug lords don’t lob rockets over the border every other year (they only lob psychadelic drugs over every hour, which apparently is less detrimental to our republic.) However, IF the Mexican drug cartels DID lob rockets and gunshots and other nasty things over our border, I guarandamntee you we’d be responding in kind with airstrikes, commando raids, occasional occupations, and other unjust and inhumane stuff. We did it a century ago when Pancho Villa crossed the border and revolution threatened, and we’re not above doing it again.
3- So what if the Israelis ‘overreact?’ So what if they kill more people than are killed on their territory, and happen to kill more noncombatants? War is not and was never supposed to be fair. In fact I would posit that overbearing response is, if possible more humane than tit-for-tat; if the Israelis lobbed the same number of rockets over at the Palestinians as the Palestinians lobbed over, if the Israelis kidnapped the same number of soldiers the Palestinians kidnapped- if the Israelis used ‘proportional response’ and sunk to fighting wars the way Hamas does- there’d be literally no end to a tit-for-tat, Stone Age type revenge conflict, the political situation could never be solved, and what’s a tragedy would wind up being something that’s petty. If I were in Tel Aviv charged with protecting the Israeli people, I would not hesitate to respond to attacks with overbearing force. Bear in mind that the overbearing force is not directed at civilian targets the way Hamas’s rockets are- it’s directed at the suspected headquarters of Hamas cells and at the known locations from which the rockets came forth. We Americans do the same in Iraq and Afghanistan (or we did the same anyway) and collateral damage in all its unfortunateness aside, there’s nothing non-strategic about it.
4- I’m not absolving the Israelis of anything. In fact I’m of the opinion that you would be hard-pressed to find a more self-righteous, confused, pig-headed people on this planet, less disposed to stirring up trouble and seeking hypocritical hegemony in the name of security. I don’t think the constant overtures to Israel are healthy on the part of American politicians, and I don’t think the subservience we display to Israeli strategic interests is befitting of a great power. I think the Israelis are idiots for continuing the expansion of settlements on the West Bank when they know what that brings and are even worse dumbasses when they perpetually walk out of negotiations and peace talks and need American presidents to be the ones calling them back into said peace talks. Again- I’m not absolving the Israelis of anything.
I just find the opposition to Israel’s military tactics to be incredibly uninformed.
5- All this being said, we find ourselves in a dilemma that can only be resolved by military means (god forbid if it comes to that) or by political means (in which case we’ll be dealing with this dilemma until one or both peoples either evolve into something else, are absorbed into a larger power, or are extinguished off the map.)
Two peoples with legitimate national identities on a strip of land both claim for their own, with one immensely powerful but not omnipotent and the other weak but not powerless, one with supporters across the seas, the other with supporters on the same landmass. Do you THINK there can be anything we slobbish UN-worshipping multicultural Westerners could call ‘peace?’ This is a clash of civilizations and a clash of interests that was bound to be ever since it was born, and I would venture that the only ways to preclude it would have been for the Jews to have found another homeland and kicked off the inhabitants there, for the Arabs (in the late 1940s not yet Palestinians) to have summoned all their might and pushed the Jews back to the sea, for the Jews to have systematically exiled all the Arabs of Palestine to a spot off of their territory, or for a larger power to have administered Israel-Palestine as part of its empire and kept the two peoples subjugated under its might, and prevented them from fighting each other over the land (as the Ottomans, the Abbasids, the Ummayids, the Sassanids, and so many other empires so successfully did before ideas of self-determination hawked by Westerners conquered the minds of the peoples involved.)
6- All this being said, where do we go from here? Personally I don’t think any of the geostrategic preclusions I laid out above are viable at this moment in history, so we come to an unresolvable dilemma in our grandparents lifetime, our parents lifetime, our lifetime, our childrens lifetime, and our grandchildrens lifetime.
The best that can be hoped for is that cooler minds will prevail in East and West Jerusalem, that the radicals on the Gaza Strip and in the Knesset will be silenced by their peers, and that the two peoples will live, by diplomacy and negotiation so much as is possible, in a relative, uneasy peace, until the trends of geopolitics might lead the two peoples into a historic moment where a more permanent solution- not compromise, but solution- is possible.
Until then, no one ought to condemn the patriots on either side- if I were born to Palestine, I’d be participating in intifadas by night and coming to the table by day, and were I born to Israel, I’d come to the table by day and rain fire down on the Gaza Strip by night- and everyone ought to condemn the radicals on both sides, rather than condemn the radicals on the other side and absolve their own. All solutions ought to be considered, all compromises ought to be entertained, and no one ought to be made into demons, for the peace and happiness of the two peoples relies on the coolness of trigger fingers in the capitals (and, I might add, in Tehran, Washington, Ankara, Cairo, and Riyadh too.) But the sort of peace known to a people blessed by impartial imperial domination will until then be unknown to the Jews and Arabs. We should not impose our standards upon them.
7- So tldr, this isn’t a problem with a solution.
Also, radical pro-Israel types and radical pro-Palestine types, go ahead and eat me alive and charge me of ignorance and bigotry. I’m used to it.
Finally, here is an excellent and hilarious primer on conflict in the Holy Land, if you haven’t seen it yet.
Photo and Video Credit to Nina Paley, whose creativity makes cynics and wise men of us all.
FINALLY finally, the animator of the above video also made these great thematic quilts. They’re for sale online someplace if you want one.
And yes, you guessed it- if you guessed it, you guessed right! I don’t think the above dilemma is a dilemma of the Holy Land alone. It is rather an allegory for one of the most important parts of the human story in entirety, a basic foundation of the tragedy that is human life.
Yes, I do have thoughts on people who don’t identify with any country, specifically. Not so much for those who don’t identify with any religion or company or other faction, but I suppose it could apply to those too.
Teddy Roosevelt said ‘The Man who loves another country as much as his own is morally equivalent to the Man who loves another woman as much as his own.” I think it follows that ‘The Man who loves no country is morally equivalent to the Man who loves no woman.’
(gender theorists, don’t even get started- “man” and “woman” can be replaced with “person” or “partner” or something gender-neutral and non-heteronormative and it will mean exactly the same thing. Not committing to something greater than yourself is the thing at stake here.)
Anyway, sorry for digressing. ‘The Man who loves no country is morally equivalent to the Man who loves no woman.’ ‘The man who loves no woman’ is probably not a bad man. He is probably a decent enough person, who works hard, doesn’t harm others, builds himself, and is a generally all-around good person. But he’s missing something from his life, and without the maturity and joy that flow from partnership, he remains a single individual- he does not go forth to create a family, and he cannot become a full man united in civilization by the social bonds of exclusive love. He does not become more than a man.
It is the same with the man who loves no country. He is probably a decent enough person, he probably works hard, he probably doesn’t harm others, and he probably builds himself and is a general all-around good person. But he’s missing something essential to human life- he’s missing the social bonds of exclusive love, and cannot become a full man united in civilization. He cannot become more than a man.
And again, gender theorists- you know precisely what I mean. A penis and a proclivity towards liking vaginas are not what I’m talking about. I say ‘man’ in the archaic sense- a full human being, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, depending not on first principles but on the choice to LIVE.
So, long story short, I don’t think non-patriots are bad people. I just don’t think they’re getting everything they could be getting out of life, and I don’t think they’re contributing to the higher purposes binding nations.
In response to your individual points:
Mindless nationalism- the kind you see at the world cup, the kind you see being peddled by demagogues to the mobs of democracy, the kind that inspires hatred and chauvinism- that is the caricature of nationalism which those who believe in cosmopolitanism have portrayed. And that is not nationalism or patriotism as it ought to be. Here is the CIA’s take. Bear in mind CIA officers can’t be jingos, can’t be Murica-sayers, can’t be flag-wavers and can’t be blatant nationalists. They display true patriotism as it ought best be displayed:
“We put country first and Agency before self. Quiet patriotism is our hallmark.”
You are right that it is ridiculous and dangerous to mindlessly hawk American ideals- but the key word here is mindlessly.
And you are right that everything ought to be questioned. But that does not mean that we ought never have faith ever. Were we to have entire prudence, and were prudence the only necessary virtue for life, perhaps complete skepticism would be worthwhile. But the fact is, vigor is equally necessary for life, and from vigor sprouts faith, allegiance, and dedication to causes greater than self. It’s a paradox and it doesn’t make rational sense- and that’s what makes it human.
You are also right to question why anyone must bear allegiance to something they had no choice in affiliating with, though I must say that it seems to be a very adolescent perspective. The fact of the matter is that though Man has free will, Man is not born free. He is born with imperfect body, born into a torn and bloody world, born into an exclusive family, born to a historical epoch he had no choice in entering, born with DNA he did not design, born to a country he never chose. Oh yes, he has free will, and that is one of the most beautiful things about human life; but he is born with one foot in freedom and one in slavery to fate, one foot in choice and one foot in necessity, one foot in paradise, one in the waste. There’s no logical explanation, there’s no escape. The fact is: that’s the way things are. Men are born in and to times, families, countries, nations, and though the worst excesses of class and privilege can indeed be curbed, the fundamental reality of unchosen birth is a fact of human existence.
Might as well make best use of it.
The nice thing about citizenship, though, is that it can be both born and chosen. The link between Man and the State is therefore one that transcends most paradigms and is truly an organic yet artificial relationship, one defined both by will and fate, a mystery that can never be solved.
Part of the beauty of human life is those things which can’t be controlled- and that is why its beauty is fundamentally tragic, at its very core.
Anyhow, there are a multiplicity of identifications and factions and communities which we can enter, some of which are natural, others of which are artificial, all of which are communities. There’s no staying in one while avoiding the other.
I will close with something that has made me feel guilty for the longest time.
Why do people sacrifice their lives, fortunes, and sacred honors for the idea of the nation? Why do soldiers, spies, and diplomats do what they do, and give what they give? It’s not rational. It’s not selfish, it’s not about self-expression, and it’s not about utilitarian sacrifice. It’s much more sublime, and much more beautiful.
I ask you, and everyone who questions the benefit of patriotism: Can you stand before the men and women of the United States Military, the National Clandestine Service, the United States Foreign Service, and all those other agencies and departments and services whose missions center on the preservation of the American republic against all enemies foreign and domestic- can you stand before these men and women who give so much, whose comrades so often make the ultimate sacrifice, and tell them that their ideals, their careers, their very lives, mean NOTHING? That they are part of the problem? That they are not noble, but despicable or otherwise misguided? That the country they fight for and its ideals are not worth defending, and that they instead ought to retire to their homes to “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we shall die?”
They are a different and greater breed of human than most of us, and there is something, I think, which every citizen ought to learn from them. Here is the Preamble to the American Legion’s constitution, in my opinion the greatest oath of citizenship ever pledged.
“FOR GOD AND COUNTRY WE ASSOCIATE OURSELVES TOGETHER
FOR THE FOLLOWING PURPOSES:
To uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America;
To maintain law and order;
To foster and perpetuate a one hundred percent Americanism;
To preserve the memories and incidents of our associations in the Great Wars;
To inculcate a sense of individual obligation to the community, state and nation;
To combat the autocracy of both the classes and the masses;
To make right the master of might;
To promote peace and goodwill on earth;
To safeguard and transmit to posterity the principles of justice, freedom and democracy;
To consecrate and sanctify our comradeship by our devotion to mutual helpfulness.”