On Being A Good Man

The following is a chapter excerpted from The Way of Men, edited for Thought Catalog.

Reducing masculinity to a handful of tactical virtues may seem crude, thuggish and uncivilized.

Strength, Courage, Mastery and Honor. OK. But what about moral virtue? What about justice, humility, charity, faith, righteousness, compassion, honesty, and temperance?

Aren’t these manly virtues, too?

These are fair and rational questions.

Men aren’t heartless monsters and they aren’t machines. Men think about more than hunting and killing and defending. Men are capable of compassion as well as cruelty.

Thinking men ask “why.” It’s not always enough to win. Men want to believe that they are right, and that their enemies are wrong. To separate us from them, men find moral fault in their enemies and create codes of conduct to distinguish themselves as good men. One of the finest examples of this is the Christian knight—an ascetic committed to piety and violence, fighting in shining armor for goodness with God on his side. Most men would agree that it is better to be a good man who stands up to bad men. They would rather be heroes than villains. Most men want to see themselves as good men fighting for something greater than survival or gain.

When you ask men about what makes a real man, a lot of them will get up on their high horses and start talking about what it means to be a good man.

“A real man would never hit a woman.”

“A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.”

“A real man takes responsibility for his actions.”

“A real man pays his debts.”

“Real men love Jesus.”

However, if you ask the same men to list their favorite “guy movies,” many of them will include films like The Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas, and Fight Club.

Don Corleone, Tommy DeVito, and Henry Hill were all ruthless racketeers. Scarface was a murdering drug lord. Tyler Durden was basically a domestic terrorist. There are scores of popular gang and heist flicks, among them: Oceans 11 (and 12, and 13), Snatch, Smoking Aces, The Italian Job, Heat, Ronin, The Sting, The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The calculating, morally ambiguous hitman for hire has found an especially sympathetic place in the cinematic pantheon of manliness: The Professional, The Matador, In Bruges, The Mechanic, The American, Collateral, Road to Perdition, No Country for Old Men. Hitman was both a film and a video game. Two of the best-selling video game franchises during the last decade were Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto. Sons of Anarchy, a show about a motorcycle gang, is currently popular on television. Are its characters unmanly because they are outlaws? What about Tony from The Sopranos or Al Swearengen from Deadwood?

Was Darth Vader a pussy?

Despite the moral posturing, men are attracted to these characters precisely because they are manly. Bad guys tend to operate in brutal, indelicate, and unmoderated boys’ clubs, and they seem to be particularly concerned with the business of being a man. Gangsters are status conscious, aggressive, tactically-oriented, ballsy, brother-bonded men’s men. The loner hitmen are portrayed as capable but careful smooth operators who are masters of their dangerous craft. They are not good men, but they are good at doing the kinds of things that have been demanded of men throughout human history. They are not good men, but they are good at being men.

Before film, men and boys were thrilled by tales of outlaws, pirates, highwaymen, and thieves. Whether these stories were romanticized or spun as cautionary tales, they captured the male imagination with adventurous accounts of daring and mischievous virility.

In Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth, the King promised his enemies that unless they surrendered, his men would rape their shrieking daughters, dash the heads of their old men, and impale their naked babies on pikes. Today, if a military leader made a promise so indelicate, he would be fired and publicly denounced as an evil, broken psychopath. I couldn’t bring myself to call Shakespeare’s Henry an unmanly character with a straight face.

Consider also the case of the prisoner. Do you truly believe that men who negotiate a violent, all male world every day are less manly than a nice guy who works 9 to 5 in a cubicle farm and spends his free time doing whatever his wife tells him to do?

What about suicide bombers? I’d say that hijacking a plane with a box knife and flying it into a building takes balls of steel. I don’t have to like it, but if I’m being honest with myself, I can’t call those guys unmanly. Enemies of my tribe, yes. Unmanly, no. Remember that there are hundreds of thousands of men and boys who regard suicide bombers as brave, martyred heroes who took substantial risks and made the ultimate sacrifice for a cause. We think of them as evil and flatter ourselves by calling them cowardly because they aren’t on our team, because they don’t share all of our values, and because they endanger our collective interests.

We want our external enemies to be defective and unsympathetic. Many have written about our tendency to dehumanize our foes. Emasculating them is another aspect of that—it adds insult to injury. We also want to puff ourselves up and psych them out. It’s good strategy. Insulting a man’s honor—his masculine identity—is a good way to test him. It’s a good way to get his blood up. It’s a good way to pick a fight.

We want our villains within to be equally unsympathetic. Portraying bad men as unmanly men is a good way to dissuade young men from behaving badly. Making your own cultural heroes seem bigger than life elevates group pride and morale. It makes sense to want your young men to emulate men who champion your people’s values, and young men especially tend to choose the stronger horse.

Cultures have wrestled with the idea of what it means to be a good man for thousands of years. Waller R. Newell, a professor of political science and philosophy, collected a broad range of thinking on the topic for his book What is a Man? 3,000 Years of Wisdom on the Art of Manly Virtue. Newell criticized those who came of age in the 1960s for establishing a cultural orthodoxy prone to believing that “nothing just, good, or true” had happened before their time, and for causing the “disappearance of the positive tradition of manliness through relentless simplification and caricature.” He showed what he referred to as an “unbroken pedigree in the Western conception of what it means to be a man,” which he defined as “honor tempered by prudence, ambition tempered by compassion for the suffering and the oppressed, love restrained by delicacy and honor toward the beloved.”iii His sourcebook was filled with selections from Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Francis Bacon, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy, and many others.

There is a movement to reclaim this idea of virtuous manhood—to show young men how to be good and manly men. In 2009, venture capitalist Tom Matlack started a “four-pronged effort to foster a discussion about manhood,” called The Good Men Project. The Good Men Project currently exists as a foundation, an online magazine, a documentary film, and a book. The book is filled with stories of men who are struggling to be good men in the 21st Century, and trying to figure out what that means.

The Art of Manliness website was founded by Brett McKay and his wife Kate in 2008, and boasts some 90,000 subscribers. The McKays have published two books offering their take on the subject of manliness: The Art of Manliness – Classic Skills and Manners for the Modern Man, and The Art of Manliness – Manvotionals: Timeless Wisdom and Advice on Living the 7 Manly Virtues. The site itself reveres good, manly historical figures like “Rough Rider” Theodore Roosevelt, and it has a nostalgic feel to it. It’s a bit like a Boy Scout handbook for adult males, offering advice and “how to” articles to help out men who are trying to be good protectors, providers, husbands, and fathers. An Art of Manliness workout isn’t just a workout; it becomes “hero training.”

I asked Brett McKay about what he thought the difference was between being a good man and being good at being a man. He said that being good at being a man means, “being proficient in your ability to earn and keep your culture’s idea of manhood.” He elaborated, noting that while there were cross-cultural similarities, “Being good at being a man for the Kalahari bushman means being able to be persistent and hunt successfully. Being good at being a man for a man living in suburban Ohio probably means holding a job down to support a family, being able to fix things around the house, or if he’s single, being adept at interacting with women.” McKay told me he thought being a good man was simpler.

He wrote: “developing virtues like honesty, resilience, courage, compassion, discipline, justice, temperance, etc. A man can be a very virtuous and upright man, but be horrible at “being good at being a man.” Maybe he can’t hunt or he’s terrible around women or can’t use a hammer to save his life. It’s also possible to have a man who’s good at being a man, but isn’t a good man. You can be the best hunter or mechanic in the world, but if you lie, cheat, steal, you’re not a good man.”

McKay seemed to say that being good at being a man is like fulfilling a job description, defined by what your culture needs (or wants) men to do, and being a good man has more to do with the kind of moral virtues that Newell advocated. A man can fail at the job of being a man, but still be a good person. I use person here, because these moral values are fairly gender neutral. Perhaps, along these lines of thinking, being a good man is a matter of balancing the cultural demands of manhood with a private commitment to moral uprightness.

McKay’s positive prescription for manliness is a welcome change from mainstream “men’s magazines,” which are more interested in creating sociopathic metrosexual super-consumers than writing positively about manhood. I’d agree with McKay that being good at being a man is rather like a job description, and that the description changes a great deal from culture to culture.

However, stopping there plays into the hands of those who say that being a man can mean anything anyone wants it to mean. Is manliness so flexible a concept that a community can re-write the job description however they wish? Not if we accept any model of human nature that acknowledges differences between male and female psychology. Over the past few decades, Americans have transitioned to a service economy and educators began dealing with normal boys like they were naughty girls with attitude problems. Males have become less interested in educational achievement, less engaged in political life, less concerned about careers, and more interested in forms of entertainment that feature vicarious gang drama—like video games and spectator sports.

Further, if the “job description” of being a man is written in such a way that the qualities which make a good man are basically identical to the qualities that make a good woman, then those qualities are more about being a good person than anything else. It is good to be honest, just, and kind, but these virtues don’t have much specifically to do with being a man. Manliness can’t merely be synonymous with “good behavior.”

I was raised by a decent family in rural Pennsylvania. I went to Sunday school. I was taught to be polite and respectful to others. I over-tip even when I get crappy service in restaurants, I hold doors for little old ladies, and I’m honest to a fault. When I treat people poorly, I feel bad about it—unless they really had it coming. Like many men, I rebelled against my parent’s values when I was younger. However, perhaps like Brett McKay or Tom Matlack, when I later began thinking seriously about masculinity and what it meant, the following phrase kept popping into my head: “I can’t think of anything better to be than a good man.”

I still can’t. My first attempts to describe the value of traditional masculinity in print were laced with the kind of homespun morality I grew up with.

I respect men who try their damnedest to be good men—even when I don’t agree with them concerning every little detail about what that means. A lot of men choose careers in law enforcement, firefighting, teaching, or even the military because they truly want to be good men. Wars, laws, and policies aren’t always just, but I have to tip my hat to the men who rescue civilians and pull kids out of burning buildings. Only broken hysterics refer to all soldiers and cops as “cannon fodder” or “pigs” or “tools.”

However, unless self-sacrifice and restraint are to be masculinity’s defining qualities—unless masculinity is to be an ascetic discipline and nothing more—there is a point somewhere down a road of diminishing returns that being a good man is no longer a good trade. There’s a point where a man who wants to “feel useful” ends up “feeling used.” When the system no longer offers men what they want, how long can you expect them to perform tricks for a pat on the head? How long until the neglected, starving dog turns on its master?

I agree with Newell that there is a long, proud tradition of moral masculinity in the West, and from what I can gather, there are comparable traditions in the East. Muslim men pray five times a day because they, too, want to be good men in their own way.

However, Newell’s pitch itself contains a built-in duality: honor tempered by prudence, ambition tempered by compassion for the suffering and the oppressed, love restrained by delicacy—and so forth. Civilized religious and secular attempts to show men how to be good men all seem to include these kinds of checks and balances. These “good man” codes tell men to be manly—but not too manly. They advocate restraint. Restraint of what? It seems as though in one hand we have morality and in the other we have something else—a kind of maleness that must be guarded against.

If we allow the moralizers of masculinity to define masculinity for us, we either give ourselves over to the “one true code of masculinity” and become completely ethnocentric about it—which would be the historical norm—or we end up with an endless number of “masculinities,” get bogged down in the details of their myriad contradictions and declare, as one famous transgendered sociologist has, “that masculinity is not a coherent object about which a generalizing science can be produced.”vii It is true that if a word or concept can mean anything, it means nothing. Raewyn “Bob” Connell wrote that “claims about a universal basis of masculinity tell us more about the ethos of the claimant than anything else.”viii Connell was a feminist pacifist who advocated the de-gendering of society, as well as a man who wanted to be a woman. He eventually de-gendered himself. His claims about the non-existence of a universal basis of masculinity also revealed his own ethos.

All men and women have emotional and material interests when it comes to how masculinity is constructed or deconstructed. True objectivity on this subject is a more or less successful pose. We all have a horse in the race.

For whatever it is worth, scientific evidence for biological differences between the sexes and cross-cultural commonalities between men has continued to build since Connell published Masculinities in 1995, and it is not difficult to find repeated themes in the “hegemonic masculinities” of cultures across the world and throughout history. It is far more difficult to find “masculinities” that have nothing in common. Technologies and customs vary, but the similarities between cultural ideas of manhood offer more in the way of explaining what it means to be good at being a man than the ephemeral differences. What they have in common has more to do with the gang—with hunting and fighting, with drawing and defending the boundary between us and them—than it has to do with any culturally specific moral or ethical system.

It’s dishonest to pretend that men who don’t meet a given set of moral standards are unmanly men. Men may say that immoral men are not real men, but their behavior—including the public admiration for the virility of roguish and criminal types—shows that they don’t quite believe this.

To truly understand The Way of Men, we must look for where the masculinity of the gangster overlaps with the masculinity of the chivalrous knight, where modern ideas overlap with ancient ones. We must look at the phenomenon of masculinity amorally and as dispassionately as we can. We must find what Man knows for certain, concerning his vital relations to this mysterious Universe. The “religion” of Man is not a moral code, though a man may follow his own code to his death. A man struggles to maintain his honor—his reputation as a man—because some part of him is struggling to earn and maintain a position of value, his status and his sense of belonging within the primal gang. Men want to be good men because good men are well regarded, but being a good man isn’t the same as being good at being a man.

There is a difference between being a good man and being good at being a man.

Being a good man has to do with ideas about morality, ethics, religion, and behaving productively within a given civilizational structure. Being a good man may or may not have anything at all to do with the natural role of men in a survival scenario. It is possible to be a good man without being particularly good at being a man. This is an area where men who were good at being men have sought counsel from priests, philosophers, shamans, writers, and historians. The productive synergy between these kinds of men is sadly lost when men of words and ideas pit themselves against men of action, or vice versa. Men of ideas and men of action have much to learn from each other, and the truly great are men of both action and abstraction.

Being good at being a man is about being willing and able to fulfill the natural role of men in a survival scenario. Being good at being a man is about showing other men that you are the kind of guy they’d want on their team if the shit hits the fan. Being good at being a man isn’t a quest for moral perfection, it’s about fighting to survive. Good men admire or respect bad men when they demonstrate strength, courage, mastery or a commitment to the men of their own renegade tribes. A concern with being good at being a man is what good guys and bad guys have in common.

Given enough time, every gang of men will create some sort of moral code or system of rules to govern its members. Men want to believe they are in the right, and they distinguish themselves by cobbling together some idea of what it means to be right.

In early mafia culture, honor meant loyalty “more important than blood ties.” Mobsters swore not to make money from prostitution or sleep with each other’s wives.ix They were expected to be family men and were discouraged from womanizing. If the quote “A man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man,” seemed familiar, that’s because it was from The Godfather.

Yakuza gangs modeled themselves after samurai, and increased their social standing within the larger community by showing generosity and compassion toward the weak and disadvantaged.

One Mexican gang, known as La Familia Michoacana, recently preached “family values,” passed out their own version of the Bible and used some of their profits to help the poor. The leaders of La Familia are known to have been influenced by the “macho Christian writing of contemporary American author John Eldredge.”

In dire times, men who are not good at being men won’t last long enough to worry about being good men. Strength makes all other values possible. As Han said in Enter the Dragon: “Who knows what delicate wonders have died out of the world, for want of the strength to survive?”

Men who have accomplished the first job of being men—men who have made survival possible—can and do often concern themselves with being good men. As the bloody boundary between threat and safety moves outward, men have the time and the luxury to cultivate civilized, “higher” virtues.

Gangs of men with separate identities and interests of their own are always a threat to established interests. To protect the interests of those who run our civilized, highly regulated world, men and women are mixed to discourage gang formation. Feminists, pacifists, and members of the privileged classes recognize that brother-bonded men who are good at being men will always be a threat, but forget that some of those men are necessary to create and maintain order in the first place. There is a call to do away with what even the United Nations has deemed “outmoded stereotypes” of masculinity that are associated with violence. “Outmoded” is a word you’ll see frequently in academic writing about masculinity. So-called experts talk about manhood like it was last year’s fad, in part because they subscribe to convenient but discredited blank slate theories about gender being “as lightly linked to sex as are the clothing, the manners, and the form of head-dress that a society at a given period assigns to either sex.”

Both men and women have attempted to refashion men to suit their dream of a perfect world. No matter what creed they profess, whether they want to make “Democratic Men” or “Fierce Gentlemen” or “Inner Warriors,” they can’t seem to escape the gravitational pull of some basic ideas about the underlying religion of men. To appeal to men, they speak of strength and courage. The moralizers and reimaginers of masculinity play on a man’s primal concern with his status within the male group, concern for his reputation, his distaste for being seen as weak, fearful, or inept—they appeal to his sense of honor. Their moralized and reimagined interpretations of strength and courage are simply tamed and pacified versions of the old gang virtues, suited to civilized life in a time of peace, plenty, and the sharing of political and economic power with women.

To protect and serve their own interests, the wealthy and privileged have used feminists and pacifists to promote a masculinity that has nothing to do with being good at being a man, and everything to do with being what they consider a “good man.” Their version of a good man is isolated from his peers, emotional, effectively impotent, easy to manage, and tactically inept.

A man who is more concerned with being a good man than being good at being a man makes a very well-behaved slave.

There has always been a push and pull between civilized virtues and tactical gang virtues. However, the kind of masculinity acceptable to civilized societies is in many cases related to survival band masculinity. Civilized masculinity requires male gang dramas to become increasingly controlled, vicarious, and metaphorical. Human societies start with the gang, and then grow into nations with sports and a climate of political, artistic, and ideological competition. Eventually—as we see today—average men end up with economic competition and a handful of masturbatory outlets for their caged manhood. When a civilization fails, gangs of young men are there to scavenge its ruins, mark new perimeters, and restart the world. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

More From Thought Catalog