The 21st Century Gentleman: A Modest Proposal for Contemporary Masculinity

The Heirs of Redclyffe

The 1853 novel ‘The Heir of Redclyffe’ by Charlotte M. Yonge, although now long since consigned to obscurity, was a massive bestseller in its day. The plot revolves around the travails of Guy Morville, heir to the Redclyffe baronetcy and fortune, as he is traduced and misrepresented by his conceited and self-regarding cousin Phillip.

Guy is strongly prone to bouts of temper and brooding rage (supposedly the hereditary curse of his family line), as well as being drawn to the pleasures of indolence and wasting his time in self-indulgence. However, by a rigorous internal struggle, prayer and adherence to Christian principles, he wins his internal battle against these temptations and manages to master his own passions. This is particularly put to the test when Guy asks for a large sum of money from his guardian, and refuses to divulge the precise reasons for wanting it. He actually wants to use the money to pay the debts of his feckless uncle and support his defenceless little niece – as well as endow a religious community and their charitable enterprises. Although he is falsely accused by Phillip of wanting the money to fritter it away gambling, he refuses to reveal the true reasons as a point of honour (he has been pledged to secrecy) and is forced to give up his proposed engagement to his true love Amabel (Amy) as a result. He bears all of this with fortitude, despite the immense test presented to his virtue and self-restraint by Phillip’s behaviour.

Eventually Guy is cleared of suspicion and marries Amy. During their honeymoon in Italy, they come across Phillip, who insists on travelling through a fever-ridden area out of stubbornness, and contracts a terrible illness. Guy, who has forgiven him, selflessly nurses him through his illness and saves his life, but at the cost of his own. Guy, it turns out, has inherited a weak physical (rather than moral) constitution. He contracts the illness and dies. Guy’s heroics constitute an act of self-sacrificing love which ultimately redeems a much chastened and ashamed Phillip. Clearly, Guy’s actions are intended as an allegory of the example and passion of Christ.

Guy was intended by Yonge – an Anglo-Catholic and acquaintance of Oxford Movement divines like John Keble – as the ideal of a kind of chivalrous, Christian masculinity. I want to suggest that we would do well to return to such an ideal in age that seemingly struggles to conceive of any coherent or meaningful ideal of masculinity. In short, my proposal is that men in the contemporary world would be well advised to become themselves the heirs of Redclyffe.

Woke v Bloke

Most modern commentators would find the fictional example of Guy Morville irrelevant or simply bizarre. Contemporary debates are polarised between two visions. On the one hand, there are the woke-leftists and their raging against ‘toxic masculinity’. On the other, there are the figures, often on the alt-right, who stridently affirm all of the worst elements of contemporary masculinity, to the extent of equating manhood with the worship of strength, power and money.

Let us consider the first line of argument. It revolves around the argument that men are trapped into attempting to conform to traditional norms of male behaviour that are harmful both to themselves and women. These norms are usually seen as consisting of such things as violence, aggression (both towards other men, and sexual and physical aggression towards women), homophobia, misogyny, intense competitiveness, courage, toughness, stoicism, and similar traits. ‘Toxic masculinity’ leads, it is argued, to domestic violence and sexual harassment (and worse), as well as men themselves experiencing mental health problems, higher suicide rates, and so on, as they fail to live up to the stereotype of the dominant macho man.

This kind of view has created a backlash from those who are keen on asserting a supposedly traditional view of masculinity and gender roles in response. They tend to stress innate biological differences between the sexes and justify the norms that are seen by detractors to be the basis of ‘toxic masculinity’ as a healthy expression of ‘natural’ male traits. This tends to be seen in almost socially Darwinist terms: attractive, strong and powerful men are rightfully dominant in terms of worldly success and attracting women, and anyone who disputes this is simply a ‘weak’ man attempting to justify his own inability to successfully compete with his ‘Alpha Male’ rivals. This has reached its apogee in such distasteful phenomena as womanising internet ‘personality’ Dan Bilzerian or the ravings of anonymous Nietszchean proto-fascist ‘Bronze Age Pervert’.

Both of these lines of argument are flawed.

The ‘toxic masculinity’ argument mainly comes from critics signed up to the dogmas of the cultural-left gender studies orthodoxy that is the standard background ideology of most contemporary academics. Such academics, influenced by trendy theorists such as Judith Butler, will often deny the significance (to any degree) of biological sex and see gender roles as ‘performed’, and therefore socially constructed. They reject biological determinism only to replace it with other forms of determinism – often a form of cultural determinism which assumes that human behaviour and morals are prescribed purely by one’s cultural environment (but never biology or nature, and certainly not transcendent standards given by God).

The same critics tend to see human history as a straightforward story of male privilege and patriarchy, and therefore categorise the characteristics that have been seen as ‘typically’ male – which themselves are a curate’s egg of reasonable (stoical, courageous) and unpleasant (aggressive, misogynistic) – as by definition toxic and hateful, usually on the basis of an actually very moralistic, but very half-baked, revulsion at the status quo. Insofar as such critics have a view of what an alternative masculinity might look like, it seems to be nothing more than a negation of the traditional norms of toxic masculinity, as they define it, with very little positive content.

In contrast, the Nietszchean reactionaries are determinists of a different kind. They not only argue that biological differences between the sexes exist, but also that such natural differences should determine our behaviour and moral values: men tend to be more aggressive, they are genetically programmed to be promiscuous, they are physically stronger and better at fighting; and therefore they ought to be aggressive, promiscuous and good at fighting: such qualities are the true measure of manliness.

Both views are self-evidently absurd. The reactionaries are more easily written off, for the very simple reason that any non-psychopathic human being can see that confusing what is with what ought to be, equating might with right, is repugnant. It is a doctrine that ends in the gulag and the death camp – or in this context, in the moral ascendancy of the rapist, the bully and the misogynist.

It has to be said that the cultural left’s viewpoint is hardly much more convincing, although it is less obviously morally disgusting. Any first-year psychology undergraduate will tell you that human behaviour is always a result of the interaction between nature and nurture, and never exclusively determined by one or the other. The evidence that there are very significant biological differences between men and women which tend to shape different patterns of behaviour is immense, and everyone knows that it is true from everyday observation, however much they may deny it. Gender is not simply an arbitrary ‘performance’, it is clearly related to biological differences between men and women, even though biology does not simply ‘determine’ every man and every woman’s behaviour, and cultural norms and institutions also are significant.

Moral Chains

What might a saner position look like? It is ultimately quite simple: there are biological differences (on average – there are always outliers) between men and women, and these differences have behavioural and moral significance. So far, one must agree with the reactionaries. However, whatever the biological propensities of men may be, they certainly do not determine the moral content of masculinity: on the contrary.

At this point it is probably worth observing one of the curious features of both the cultural-left and Nietzschean-reactionary positions: they both have very implausible view of the ideal of ‘traditional’ masculinity. Both seem to accept that sexual promiscuity and aggression, for example, are part and parcel of ‘traditional’ masculinity, but it only takes a cursory knowledge of the history of depictions of ideal masculinity – of which Guy Morville might be a nice example – in western culture to know that this is obviously nonsense, at least until recently. When Edmund Burke said that, in response to a threat to the person of Marie Antoinette, he ‘thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult’, he clearly was dealing in a very different currency of masculine behaviour than modern reactionaries, who treat women like debased sexual objects. Bilzerian, in contrast to Burke’s high-minded gentlemanliness, would, one can only imagine, have used the French Revolution as an opportunity to add Marie Antoinette to his Instagram harem.

Of course, most leftists would dismiss such an idea of chivalric behaviour as nothing more than a piece of ideological chicanery. However, there is a very important element of truth contained in something like a Morvillesque-Burkean-Chivalric view. It is precisely because of the (very often anti-social) biological drives and impulses of (particularly) men that it is most incumbent upon them to place ‘moral chains on their appetites’ and show restraint, and act honourably. If anything sums up ‘traditional masculinity’, it is those ideals.

Of course, many will simply scoff and say that whatever lip service was paid to these ideals in the pre-feminist era, the reality was very different: women were still mistreated, abused and oppressed. It must be admitted that such critics are, insofar as their arguments go, correct. Many men never lived up to the traditional masculine ideals of chaste, honourable and restrained behaviour towards their wives, daughters, mothers – and, sadly, their mistresses and prostitutes. Masculinity in practice tended indeed be characterised by much of what the ‘toxic masculinity’ brigade argues. Furthermore, the kind of arbitrary power held by men in an era when women were not able to own property or vote was immense, and, men being what they are, such arbitrary power was predictably abused. So far (at least) are feminist arguments perfectly reasonable.

However, just because such ideals were often ignored in practice, and because they were caught up within a broader set of now discredited assumptions about the natural intellectual superiority of men and the need for those assumptions to be baked into a society’s social, legal and political institutions, that doesn’t mean they aren’t important, and relevant.

The traditional conception of masculinity recognised the biological imperatives of (most) men. It recognised that men do tend to be inclined more towards certain vices, such as promiscuity and aggression. Traditional masculinity did not simply endorse these tendencies – it instead focussed upon ways of restraining and repressing them, or at least regulating and channelling them into more acceptable channels, because of an acute awareness of how immoral such tendencies are, and how prone men are to indulge them. Denying the reality of these behavioural differences – differences that surely account, in part, for the fact that the vast majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by men – makes it difficult to formulate an ideal of masculinity that can adequately face up to them. Unlike contemporary discourses of ‘toxic masculinity’, a traditional conception of chivalric masculinity acknowledged these biologically-driven differences, but did not make the mistake of equating ‘is’ with ‘ought’.

Specifically, such a viewpoint recognised the importance of restraining man’s sexual drive by keeping it within the legitimate boundaries of marriage. Traditional masculinity demanded proper and respectful behaviour towards women, in which the woman’s wishes were always the final arbiter and fidelity and monogamy were the highest values. Man’s aggressive drive was to be regulated by rigid self-discipline and codes of honour, and channelled into the rightful channel of courageous defence of one’s family and compatriots – and more widely, the defenceless and the weak. Honesty and upfront, plain-dealing behaviour (and never trickery or deceit) should define one’s dealings in the world.  In other words, masculinity was a moral and cultural code that was framed around an ideal of the virtues and duties particularly incumbent on men given their characteristic infirmities and abilities  – with stoicism being the fitting emotional manifestation of such a generally selfless, even self-sacrificing, attitude. Such a general code of masculine ethics tended to be heavily bound up with Christianity. Guy Morville is a classic example of such ideals.

The list of qualities that are usually given as constituting ‘toxic masculinity’ today are a curious mixture: some vestigial elements of a genuine vision of Christian, gentlemanly masculinity have been blended with the exact pernicious tendencies that those chivalric values were designed to restrain. It is noticeable, however, that many of the genuinely traditional masculine norms are not mentioned in these lists, or are indeed inversed: dutiful self-restraint and straightforward honest plain-dealing are never mentioned as a part of ‘traditional’ masculinity by either the woke-left or the Nietzschean reactionary right. This is no surprise: such traits don’t suit the woke left’s tendency to dismiss all history and tradition out of hand as simply ‘oppressive’, nor do they suit the reactionary right’s embrace of a totally selfish and individualistic hedonism. The only traditional masculine values that have been retained are those that are sufficiently ambiguous to be easily disassociated from their essentially gentlemanly and Christian origins (such as courage).

The Spirit of the 21st Century Christian Gentleman

So, what are the characteristics of the Christian gentlemanly ideal? It seems to me that the following might be taken as the main attributes:

  • Self-restraint – There is nothing more manly than being able to show firm mastery over one’s own desires and passions, and nothing more pathetic than constantly giving into one’s short-term passions at the cost of one’s self-respect. A true man should always restrain his often disordered or exploitative desires whenever they are against the claims of chastity, sanctity or justice. This doesn’t mean just in sexual terms, although it certainly does mean that. It also means that one should show self-restraint, for example, in terms of material gain, not pursuing more wealth than one needs to live a decent life.
  • Loyalty and commitment – A true man realises that his real happiness will be found in the context of committed, long-term, stable relationships. This most obviously applies to sexual relationships. As such, a true man, if not called to chastity, should marry and be loyal and faithful to his spouse. He will show an undying love and constant, unwavering dedication to the interests of his children, whom he will help to look after and bring up. But it applies more widely: a true man should be loyal to his friends, any institutions he is a member of, and prepared to go to some lengths to fulfil his commitments to them. He will never welch on a deal, abandon his workmates on a picket line, or fail to buy a round. He is always, always faithful unto death.
  • Self-sacrificing love – A true man should always put his needs last and be prepared to sacrifice his own interests, and, if necessary, his life, to others, particularly those in need, and to women and children.
  • Hard-work – A true man will never be a free-rider and attempt to live off the work of others. He will seek to pay his way and find honest and dignified work.
  • Dedication to protecting and caring for the weak and defenceless – True masculinity is not about exploiting the weak and helpless, but rather dedicating oneself to their interests and always stepping in to defend and help them. No true man can live with himself if he fails to act to stick up for the underdog or the person who can’t defend themselves.
  • Honesty, honour and plain-dealing – The true man never lies or deceives, or acts in an underhand, dishonourable or manipulative way. His word is his bond, and he sticks to his promises. He will always be upfront, honest and straightforward in all dealings, including in his professional and private life. There is nothing more cowardly or unmanly as the cheat or the sneak.
  • Calmness and stoicism – The true man seeks to quietly and calmly do his duty, and does not look to burden others in the process. He doesn’t complain or whinge, because it is a selfish and pathetic thing to do. If he has emotional problems that affect his mental health, he seeks help discreetly and doesn’t flaunt his problems before the world.
  • Courage and firmness – A true man doesn’t flinch from doing his moral duty when it is difficult or hard, and will, if absolutely necessary, fight to protect his family, his friends, his nation and those who are weak or defenceless with courage, but never recklessness or cruelty.

Clearly these are high ideals, and few live up to them – but they are, I would suggest, worth striving towards.

It may seem that talking about the ideals of the Christian Gentleman is a bizarrely anachronistic and inappropriate foundation for a non-toxic form of masculinity in the contemporary world. Let me address such objections.

Firstly, it might be argued that such an ideal seems to be associated with a hopelessly hierarchical – even feudal – world. This seems to be a very superficial issue to me. Put simply, there is no necessary connection between the social structure of pre-20th century Britain (or Europe) and the underlying values that I want to suggest should form the heart of a modern vision of masculinity. Self-restraint, loyalty, dedication to protecting the weak and defenceless, toughness and stoicism, honesty and plain-dealing: none of these virtues are inaccessible to any man. When I say ‘gentleman’, I do not mean it in the socially exclusive way in which it was used historically: any man, regardless of social status or wealth, can be a true gentleman. Guy Morville was the heir to a baronetcy, but his virtues were not ones that particularly depended upon his wealth or social status (although his donation of money to needy causes was one demonstration of his noble nature). It is, however, doubtlessly the case that such gentlemanly virtues are probably more easily pursued by those who themselves possess economic security and an important measure of dignity, within the context of a society without gross inequalities of wealth and power. That, however, is all the more reason to simply help everyone to achieve economic security and eliminate poverty and dependence.

The Christianity issue is, in a secular age, a more obviously difficult one. As myself an Anglo-Catholic, it seems to me that the only path to achieving victory over one’s own vices and having any hope of reaching the standard of moral living inherent in such an idea of masculinity is to follow a way of life defined by faith in Christ, prayer and participation in the holy sacrament. The way of Christ can never be irrelevant or ‘anachronistic’ – if the contemporary world rejects this, then the contemporary world is simply wrong, and deeply lost. Clearly, many won’t agree with me here. However, let me give some reflections that might at least sound plausible to, at the very least, the fair minded agnostic.

I would firstly point out that Christians understand only too well the nature of human – and especially male – frailty. Most men who honestly reflect on the baser elements of their nature can recognise in those shameful elements of their thinking and behaviour a specific manifestation of Original Sin, of human beings’ propensity to wilful pride and choosing the wrong path. A Christian understanding of human baseness, but also the potential for repentance and reconciliation, reflects the moral realities that we encounter in our lives all the time and which are particularly relevant to thinking through how to be a better man specifically, given the particular strength of the temptations that men are heir to. Those who believe in an underlying, objective, God-given moral reality are far more likely to find the motivational capacity to successfully pursue self-restraint and hate sin and vice. Those with the armour of faith find themselves far better able to endure stoically the vicissitudes of life and resign themselves to God’s will, no matter how difficult to understand it might appear.

Whether these reflections sound plausible or not, they will not be convincing to those without faith. However, let us consider the implausibility of the secular viewpoint.

The criticism of ‘toxic masculinity’ has often been linked to the #MeToo movement, and the broader critique of male sexual harassment, entitlement and violence that that movement is part of. Whichever way one looks at it, it seems to me that this is, at least in part, an attack on a vice that men tend to be especially prone to. The perfectly reasonable moral point at the heart of it is that men should restrain their sexual impulses, and treat women respectfully and not simply as sexual objects. It implies behaviour characterised by restraint, honour and protecting the weak.

In practice, it obviously means that men should not use any power they have over women to humiliate or abuse them. This works at all kinds of levels: at the most obvious, it means that men should not rape or sexually assault women, but it also implies a code of behaviour that is much more extensive than that, and much more ambitious. It implies, I should think, that men should not attempt to manipulate or coerce women into sex in far more subtle ways (e.g. the wealthy boss making an advance on a younger colleague when she feels that turning him down would be more than her career is worth); it certainly implies not using prostitutes; it means that men should refrain from making women uncomfortable by staring at them inappropriately or leering at them or making suggestive or sexual comments to them; and also that men should refrain from the wider culture that encourages the attitudes that leads to such behaviour by, for example, not watching pornography and not going to strip clubs (and similar). It also means that mean should act decently towards their spouses and partners and be faithful and loyal to them: committed, monogamous, loyal relationships are far more likely to be a context for respectful and decent male behaviour than casual encounters or unstable relationships to which the man is reluctant to commit.

It seems to me that the underlying secular moral philosophies of much of the contemporary left and right are very poorly placed to come up with plausible reasons for following such a code of ethics. The underlying materialism of, e.g. Marxism, liberalism, and indeed much modern conservatism, socialism and libertarianism, encourages the idea that the purpose of human economies, societies and polities is almost purely to gratify the biological and material needs and desires of individuals. Such utilitarianism doesn’t tend to be a very good motivational or spiritual framework for encouraging self-restraint and self-sacrifice. It doesn’t have much place in it for values such as loyalty either. One might respond and say that such materialistic philosophies do have a basis for self-restraint, on the basis that harmful behaviour needs to be restrained for utilitarian reasons, on the basis of such ‘ideals’ as autonomy and consent. Such a thin view of our moral nature might be a plausible ground for forbidding rape or out-and-out sexual assault. However, it provides no basis for opposing faithlessness and adultery, or a cold, self-seeking sexual quid-pro-quo so long as the man is debased enough to desire such a contractual relationship, and the woman sufficiently lacking in self-respect to accept it. It’s no basis for opposing much pornography, so long as some form of ‘consent’ can be shown to have operated in its production. The best that the atheists might be able to come up is some Kantian talk about the ‘kingdom of ends’ and the ‘categorical imperative’, or some variation thereof – which is simply a thinly secularised version of Christianity which does not, in fact, work without belief in God in any case.

Of course, more broadly speaking, capitalism itself is pretty antithetical to the values of a genuine chivalric, Christian masculinity. Capitalism is not well-known for placing much value on self-restraint, or loyalty. Indeed, much modern consumer capitalism is an enormous exercise in profiting out of, and, as such, encouraging, legitimising and glorying in people’s vices, and attempting to commodify and debase everything, including human sexuality and honour. It doesn’t have much time for calm stoicism either: capitalists have too much to gain from monetising people’s inability to restrain their own emotional incontinence.

The other issue harks back to an earlier point. Much of the modern ‘woke’ left takes the left’s traditional emphasis on nurture over nature, environment over biology, to a ridiculous extreme, just as the modern reactionary right take their traditional emphasis on biological determinism to a similarly silly degree. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. However, both extremes, and indeed even this ‘middle path’ that emphasises the interaction of nature and nurture, implies that human beings are still mere marionettes, determined by a mixture of their environment and their genes, with no ability to make their own moral choices. The only way to escape the determinism of biology or environment is for there to be some transcendental power that instils in us the true capacity for moral decision and free-will: a spiritual nature that is neither mere material nature nor mere external influence. That requires the existence of a soul, and ultimately God. Only men with souls can choose, with free-will and responsibility, the true path of gentlemanly masculinity and live a virtuous and meaningful life – if assisted, I would add, by the grace of God, prayer and the power of the sacraments.

Can you be a good man without the help of chivalry and Christian faith? Probably, but in general this is largely because men who do act honourably and uprightly are still conforming to the ideals of those traditions, which are so engrained in our culture that they persist even now, if in a secularised and watered-down form. However, these ideals are like plants in a desert, living off their sap. They will fade without deep and real moral and spiritual nourishment. Only a recovery of the spirit of the Christian gentleman can form an enduring basis for a truly honourable and enduring masculinity.

Perhaps young men could do worse than read The Heir of Redclyffe after all.

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