Finding the Masculine Genius

Interview With English Professor Anthony Esolen

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PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island, APRIL 23, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Men must learn to seek the company of other men for the sake of women, the Church and the world, says a Catholic author and English professor.



In this interview with ZENIT, Anthony Esolen discusses the growing trend in rediscovering masculinity, and what it takes to make men and boys flourish.

Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College and senior editor of Touchstone Magazine. He has recently translated and edited Dante's "Divine Comedy," in three volumes, for Modern Library. His book, “Ironies of Faith,” is forthcoming this summer from ISI Press.

Q: In your recent articles you have discussed masculinity and manhood. How do you see your own understanding of these differ from the way others use these terms?

Esolen: When a virtue falls by the wayside, when it is no longer a lived reality recognized by a community in its manifold forms, we recall only a scrap of it here or there, or we can only imagine a gaudy caricature of it.

That, I think, is the case now for both manhood and womanhood.

Many millions of boys in America, for instance, are growing up in homes without fathers, so they find "fathers" of their own on the streets or in the diseased and silly fantasies of mass entertainment, musclemen who can take down a city, or charismatic gang leaders who move caches of drugs and make exciting things happen.

They miss the more subtle fortitude of moral vision and farsighted self-sacrifice. Male heroes in popular literature for boys, 80 or 90 years ago, might be all right with a gun or a sword, but they might also be bespectacled dons like Mr. Chips whose discipline was a form of love.

I see manhood as the drive to lead -- to serve by leading, or to lead by following loyally the true leadership of one's father or priest or captain.

The man exercises charity by training himself to be self-reliant in ordinary things, not out of pride, but out of a sincere desire to free others up for their own duties, and to free himself for things that are not ordinary.

The man also must refuse -- this is a difficult form of self-sacrifice -- to allow his feelings to turn him from duty, including his duty to learn the truth and to follow it.

A man loves his own family, but he also loves his family by refusing to subject the entire civil order to the welfare of his family; he understands that if he performs his duty, other families besides his own will profit by it.

A man must consider his life dispensable for the sake of those he leads; he must obey his legitimate superior; if and only if he does so will he become really necessary and really worthy of the obedience he claims, with scriptural authority that need not embarrass anyone.

Q: Books on manhood, such as "Wild at Heart" by Christian author John Eldredge, have been gaining popularity recently. What is it about our society and Church that is making men look at new ways of understanding their manhood?

Esolen: Men are lonely -- and they are also not universally fooled by the androgyny that is preached to them every day, in school, at church, in the workplace and in the media.

Unfortunately, I don't think they are finding "new" ways of looking at their manhood. They are finding very old ways of looking at it, or rather, they are finding a strange and finally unsatisfying version of those old ways.

Really, the human race has not changed since the days of Homer and Moses; men and women have not changed. And the mysteries of manhood and womanhood have been probed in literature for thousands of years. So we need to step back a little, take a look at that literature, or take a look at what men within our own lifetimes used to do.

For instance, though men are certainly wilder creatures than women -- the source of both their dynamism and their destructiveness -- it is men, not women, who create the civil order, as it is women, not men, who create the domestic order.

Our inability to distinguish between these orders, and our neglect of both of them in the pursuit of individual "dreams," has left us with a poor and thin domestic life, while in most places in America and probably Europe a vibrant civic life is hardly a memory.

Q: There has been a lot of discussion based upon Pope John Paul II's discussion of "the feminine genius." What about the "the masculine genius"?

Esolen: Men have a passion for the truth, and they seek that truth not generally by means of the affections, but by complex structures of various sorts.

These may be structures of authority or intellect, so you have the great university system invented by the friars and the student guilds in Europe, whose curriculum was often a kind of Euclidean geometry or Newtonian calculus of theological and philosophical propositions.

Men fashion "grammars" -- means of organizing and understanding almost impossibly disparate phenomena. Even the humble back of a baseball card, with its grid work of subtle statistics, testifies to this fascination.

Without this literal "discernment," I mean the clear separation of what may be predicated of a thing and what may not, with systematic means for judging the matter, there can be nothing so intricate as law, the government of a city, higher learning, a church -- not to mention philosophy and theology.

Even men who do not possess powerful intellects naturally fall in with such structures of order, and here the affections do play a vital role; men will fall in admiration of a leader, with a powerful combination of loyalty and friendship, as naturally as they will fall in love with a woman they may wish to marry.

If a society does not train boys to become such men, or if it does not allow mature men to form such natural alliances with other men for the benefit of civic life, it will degenerate.

I won't claim that this is a theory. It's a fact borne out by American and European cities right now.

Q: What could men learn from Christ, the ultimate man, in terms of developing masculinity?

Esolen: The first thing they could learn is not to be embarrassed by their manhood. It is holy! It has been created by God, and for a reason.

Then they might notice that Jesus is not the cute boyfriend that many of our churches make him out to be, the one who never goes too far -- forgive me if that is a little coarse.

Jesus loves women, as all good men must; Jesus obeys his mother at Cana; but Jesus does not hang around the skirts of women; he speaks gently, but as a man speaks gently, and when he rebukes, he rebukes forthrightly and clearly, as a man.

His closest comrades are men, though they are not necessarily the people he loves best in the world. He organizes them into a battalion of sacrifice.

He is remarkably sparing in his praise of them; certainly, as is the case with many good and wise men, he is much more desirous that they should come to know him than that they should feel comfortable about themselves.

From his apostles he seems to prefer the love that accompanies apprehension of the truth, rather than love born of his own affectionate actions toward them.

In fact, they respond to him as men often respond: They admire and follow with all the greater loyalty the man who rebukes them for, of all things, being frightened when it appears their ship will capsize in the stormy Sea of Galilee!

Men can learn from Jesus to seek the company of other men, at least in part for the sake of women, and certainly for the sake of the village, the nation, the Church and the world.

They can learn that there are two ways at least in which man is not meant to be alone: He needs the complementary virtues of woman, and he needs other men.

A soldier alone is no soldier.

Q: From your study of ancient and medieval works, such as Dante, what remedies could be applied to the many relational ills that plague society, such as high divorce rates, low birthrates and high numbers of children born out of wedlock?

Esolen: A good question. People can learn from both the Catholic and the Protestant literature of the past an appreciation for the wonder of the body, and of the virtue of chaste love.

They can learn from Dante that the love of man and woman is a glorious motif in the symphony of love fashioned by him who moves the sun and the other stars.

From Torquato Tasso and Edmund Spenser they can learn that the typical sin against love, occasioned by unchastity, does not so much stoke the flame of desire as it dampens it, making both the heart and the mind feeble, ineffectual.

From Spenser they can learn that marriage is not a private matter -- one of our greatest and silliest errors -- but a deeply social bond that unites those two fascinatingly different sorts of creatures, man and woman, in such a way as to link them to the families who have gone before them and to the families that will be born from their love.

If you have a view of marriage that does not include all mankind, all the natural world, the physical cosmos, heaven and earth, the dawn of time and its consummation in eternity, then your view of marriage is a cramped and hole-and-corner affair. So at least the old poets teach.

Maybe the most important thing they teach, though, is the delightfulness of the good: the lovely and modest woman -- Miranda in Shakespeare's "Tempest" -- and the brave and gentle young man -- Florizel in Shakespeare's "Winter's Tale."

Our children's imaginations now are a war zone, or what is left of fields and hills after the bombs have blasted them and the poison gas has infested them for 15 years.

Even fairy tales, those deeply Christian and incarnational folk parables of the West have been poisoned by feminist revisers.

So I guess I am saying that we will cure none of those ills, not one, unless we rediscover the virtue of purity, and we will not rediscover that virtue unless our imaginations are engaged by its beauty, and that from our childhoods.

Q: Are there things you are doing to raise your own son that is different from the way men of your own generation were raised?

Esolen: My son, my greatest blessing from God, is autistic. He can talk to you all day about computer systems and then take your computer apart with screwdrivers to fix it.

Most of these troubles of our time cannot touch him, especially since we teach him at home.

I'll say that the public schools in America are so poor, and are so universally slanted against both how boys learn and what they enjoy learning, that I would move heaven and earth rather than place a son of mine in any of them.

We desperately need single-sex schools for boys, and we need not apologize for them, either. Boys thrive in them, and unless the boys thrive, our society is finished.