There is a notion prevalent among cultural commentators that expressing concern for the welfare of men specifically or reservations about modern society’s impact on American men in particular indicates an insidious—and, we are also led to believe, new—ideology, often called “toxic masculinity” in telemedia discourse. Even among so-called conservatives, there seems to be a war over whether considerations of masculinity or the pursuit of a particularly masculine politics has a place in civil discourse.
A prominent historian at an evangelical university wrote a book denouncing the 20th-century masculine ideal represented by John Wayne as incompatible with Christianity. David French recently warned of the dangerous politics of manly toughness, and accused national conservatives of holding up Trump as the masculine ideal. (They didn’t.) It seems that those conservatives angry about sociological changes in the Republican political coalition since 2016 decided they have no use for masculine politics nor a positive discussion of manliness because of the perceived ever-present threat of Donald Trump. This is short-sighted.
Meanwhile, a rediscovery of masculinity among young American conservatives is well under way. Aaron Renn’s newsletter, the Masculinist, offers support and advice for traditional Christian men who seek to reclaim natural masculinity, shorn of the goofier evangelical polemics surrounding manliness. Oren Cass has written on men’s need, in an era of mass male unemployment, to reclaim their place as the pillar of American vocational life. Senator Josh Hawley recently issued a clarion call for a “revival of strong and healthy manhood in America.” Healthy concern for a republic that exemplifies the best of masculine (and feminine) virtue should not be merely the province of latter-day Nietzscheans or left to the derision of progressives.
Whatever excesses exist in corners of the movement to reclaim masculinity, it seems clear that societies throughout history have understood men needed outlets for their aspirations and models to emulate. In the 19th century, American intellectuals called great men of the past to their readers’ attention precisely because they understood male thirsts for achievement, conquest, and excellence as natural aspects of human life. Rather than things to be eradicated, they were seen instead as virtues to be cultivated and rightly ordered. Men needed to learn how to achieve, conquer, and excel in ways that helped the republic as a whole and did not merely aggrandize themselves or feed their egos.
Great American minds of the 19th century knew that men needed great men as models. Ralph Waldo Emerson argued in Representative Men (1850) that it was “natural to believe in great men. If the companions of our childhood should turn out to be heroes, and their condition regal, it would not surprise us.” All of mythology, said Emerson, opened “with demigods, and the circumstance is high and poetic; that is, their genius is paramount. In the legends of the Gautama, the first men ate the earth, and found it deliciously sweet.” Masculinity, in Emerson’s intellectual economy, was not a European or white construction. It was global and transcended race.
Emerson emphasized that the reality and necessity of using great men as models for masculine pursuits and human society were global in character. “The world,” he declared, “is upheld by the veracity of good men: they make the earth wholesome. They who lived with them found life glad and nutritious.” Human life was made sweet and tolerable by the beliefs of such an aspirational male society. “Actually, or ideally, we manage to live with superiors.” Men called their children and their lands by the names of great men, and their names “are wrought into the verbs of language, their works and effigies are in our houses, and every circumstance of the day recalls an anecdote of them.”
The pursuit of greatness that defined male existence was, according to Emerson, “the dream of youth, and the most serious occupation of manhood.” Men traveled to “foreign parts” to find their “works,” and if possible, to get a glimpse of the great men they might become themselves. But too often, lamented Emerson, men were “put off with fortune instead.” The pursuit of money and financial success were no substitutes for actual male greatness. Actual greatness needed to be aimed at virtue and the good of society.
The good of society was not necessarily actuated through feats of physical strength or forcing the male will upon an object or person. What determined the quality of republican manhood was the ability to self-govern, what Emerson called man’s ability to attend his own affairs, and to pursue a cultivated mind. “I count him a great man who inhabits a higher sphere of thought, into which other men rise with labor and difficulty; he has but to open his eyes to see things in a true light, and in large relations.” Thoughtful republican masculinity was not bull-headed and unwilling to change. The thoughtful man was willing to make “painful corrections, and keep a vigilant eye on many sources of error.” Constant thoughtfulness marked Emerson’s great man.
The notion that greatness was achieved through thoughtfulness meant that any man, no matter his rank in society, income, or temperament, could become a sort of great republican man. Emerson offered “great men of all classes, those who stand for facts, and for thoughts” as worthy of admiration. This habit of mind led men to exhibit real courage. Real courage was noted by men and women of the early republic because it enabled the thoughtful man in a democratic society to stand up for truth against whatever mob might oppose him. Harriet Beecher Stowe said that “no test of personal courage or manliness” was greater than a willingness to “stand and oppose a mob”—not by subduing members of the mob with brute force, but instead by “arguing with them.”
The aspirations of young men deserve attention precisely because we should shape them to aim at the high objects set by great men of the past. Tolerance comes from a position of strength. A generation of men trained to be willing and ready to stand against the mobs of the 21st century will be better able to choose to do so by thoughtful engagement, and less likely to resort first to brute force and so feed the increasingly violent zeitgeist of the age. This is vital for the continuity of liberty and self-government in the American republic.
In 2019, David French argued that Americans did their sons “no favors when we tell them that they don’t have to answer that voice inside them that tells them to be strong, to be brave, and to lead. We do them no favors when we let them abandon the quest to become a grown man when that quest gets hard.” He noted that American men also did themselves them no favors when they were insensitive “to those boys who don’t conform to traditional masculinity.” But when it came “to the crisis besetting our young men, traditional masculinity isn’t the problem; it can be part of the cure.” Then, David French was exactly right. We should hope for a republican politics that affirms the best of the masculine virtues Emerson celebrated, without regard to the partisan and intraparty squabbles of the moment.
Miles Smith is visiting assistant professor of History at Hillsdale College. His main research interests are 19th-century intellectual and religious history in the United States and in the Atlantic World. You can follow him on Twitter at @IVMiles.