Last week, I experienced the culture shock of driving from Amish country in Ohio to a conference in Washington, D.C. As I drove past effete corduroy-wearing, exfoliated metrosexuals walking their dogs on Dupont Circle, I couldn't help but compare them to the man behind the counter of the corner store gas station on a gravel Ohio road with no name and the picture of his rough, greasy hands and stubbled-face with a lingering smell of cigarettes behind a cracked checkout counter.
This juxtaposition of two very different images of manhood brought the question of what it actually means to be a man into mind.
Men in American society seem to fluctuate between two extremes, listing toward one or the other. We have tough, hard-nosed men in business, politics, sports, and the tough manual-labor intensive jobs of construction and farming. Then, we have soft, narrow men without passion or fight in them at all. They are all-too-content to be good at “Call of Duty” or dressing fashionably, without any higher ambition.
Now, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with tough demeanors or exfoliated fashion, but I think these two surface-level examples could typify, as a professor at my alma mater often argues, the archetypal extremes of the barbarian and the wimp.
The barbarian and the wimp both exhibit traits similar to real manhood: positively, we think of barbarians as tough, rugged, individualistic, and firm; we think of wimps as caring, often intelligent, and usually savvy in some unexpected way.
Negatively, we see barbarians as stupid, dangerous, and gross. Wimps are awkward, pushed-over, and also gross.
It seems barbarians are the kind of men women fall for from a distance, and then despise when they get close – the “bad boy” image. Wimps seem to be the kind of men women despise from a distance and then get to know and start to care for as good provider, “beta males.”
But neither barbarians nor wimps are fully men.
I argue that real men fall in the medium, the mean between these extremes.
Manhood is not a mixture of barbarism and wimpiness. It is a standard from which barbarians and wimps deviate. In the much more eloquent words of Dr. Terrance Moore, a former marine and the epitome of manliness himself,
“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.”