One rather instructive story in James Baldwin’s Fifty Stories Retold tells of the sons of William the Conqueror of England. William had successfully invaded England in the year 1066, making himself the first Norman king of England. Like many kings, however, he worried about England after his death. And, like many parents, he worried about the kind of men his three sons would be. He asked his adviser how he might judge this, and they proposed a simple idea. They explained that one could know what kind of man one was by understanding what he admired and loved.
William then called his three sons in and asked each the same question. If you could be any bird, what kind of bird would you be?” The first son, Robert, replied that he would be a hawk, for it was brave and fearless. The second, William, said that he should like to be an eagle, for it was strong and feared by all the birds.
And the third son said that he would prefer to be a starling, “because it is good-mannered and kind and a joy to everyone who sees it, and it never tries to rob or abuse its neigh-bor."
By this, the king’s advisors concluded that youngest would be a prudent, peaceful, just, and respected king. They were right.
This old story reminds me of two more modern ones, one concerning a group of school-children I once encountered, and another of a modern social media influencer. In both cases, people’s loves reveal something about them and a serious flaw in our modern world.
A few years ago, I was substitute teaching in an inner city-middle school. I handed out the worksheets, took attendance, and hoped no student tried to murder another for the next 40 minutes. As the time went on, I became aware that the many separate conversations were giving way to a main conversation at the center of the room. A number of students were expressing admiration and wonderment at a man who had become wealthy dealing drugs. “He made over $15 million dollars last year,” one said, in obvious admiration.
Similarly, and more widely known, is the case of the social media “influencer” Andrew Tate. Tate became an online social media star and popular among many young men for his supposed unapologetic masculinity, expressed in such comments as one recent one on Twitter:
Ghengis Khan had endless women and 200 children as reward for conquest. I am the most searched man on the planet. I have conquered Earth. I am the highest status male on the planet. Females do not expect loyalty from me. They only expect that of lesser men.
While there is much that might be said about both of these cases (for example, that Tate’s “masculinity” seems like the “masculinity” of an underdeveloped adolescent who never reached manhood), the commonalities are instructive. Tate is extremely popular among young men who find his unapologetic “masculinity” attractive. And many inner-city young men have come to admire what they see as successful drug dealers, in a way that seems hard to comprehend.
The admiration of such people by large elements of our society reveals the moral degeneration of our society. Like the sons of William the Conqueror, what people love says something about them. Here, it reveals a society that is increasingly raising its young, and perhaps especially young men, without goodness or virtue. Narcissism and egoism is celebrated, faithfulness to one woman condemned as weakness, greed and drug abuse become admired. The devil is said to be the ape of God, and this is surely the work of the devil.
But this idea of masculinity apes God and goodness in another way as well. Part of Tate’s attraction is surely a modern world that seems to genuinely hate men and labels masculinity as “toxic.” Frustrated young men may find Tate’s apparently unapologetic masculinity attractive, even if it be only the ape of a genuine masculinity. The young men in my class surely also had failed to be presented with convincing models of a genuine masculinity, and so found themselves attracted to an ersatz masculinity of worldly wealth, pleasure, and domination.
This society bears much responsibility; perhaps the Church must also. For too often both have failed to present young men with an authentic form of admirable and heroic masculinity that they can admire and aspire to. Children who aspire to be drug dealers have not been given sufficient heroes. Young males who aspire to the masculinity of an Andrew Tate have not been given sufficiently masculine models and heroes. If the Church and society will not give them good and convincing models of masculinity, they will seek for lesser ones.
We should take these examples as signs of the failure to present young men with a convincing and virtuous masculinity. The pathetic masculinity of the woke will not do; a weak man who believes in nothing, seems to hate his own sex as much as the woke do, and has no interest in children and no opinion about anything except that which his girlfriend (never wife) tells him. Faced with the weak, woke male, it is hardly to be wondered that young men choose what seems to them a more masculine alternative.
There is need for a better model, both in the Church and in society. Young men need a call to discipline, self-control, courage and virtue. We might call it the good life. St. Paul’s powerful words in 1 Timothy come to mind:
For the desire of money is the root of all evils; which some coveting have erred from the faith, and have entangled themselves in many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, fly these things: and pursue justice, godliness, faith, charity, patience, mildness. Fight the good fight of faith: lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art called, and hast confessed a good confession before many witnesses. (1 Timothy 6: 10-12).
This is the real masculinity that our society and Church needs. And we need the old models of it, for there are so few new ones.
A child's father should be his role model. Unfortunately, the world and Church both are full of many bad or absentee fathers. Those of us in the Church need stories of the great saints and their heroic masculine witness: St. Tarsisius, the young boy, who was more a man than most men of his (and our) age; Sts. Lawrence, Maximilian Kolbe, St. Joseph, and many others.
Yet, some children and young men (those mentioned earlier in this article) may not be ready to adopt explicitly Catholic saints as their models. Yet, they still need heroes. Hence, it is important to present to them suitable heroes for their admiration.
We can begin with history, which has traditionally been thought to have a moral element because of the way it offered the admiration of greater men and greater deeds. Many famous figures are simply heroes, not saints, and so have their flaws, but certain figures will still be better heroes than those many boys currently have. To teach historical (if flawed) figures such as America’s founding fathers, we might emphasize specific virtues in their lives: Washington’s patience and perseverance, or Lincoln’s honesty and forthrightness, for example. We can also draw upon Catholics whose names are written in secular history: great military heroes like John of Austria and Jan Sobieski, and leaders such as Charles de Gaulle, King Louis IX of France, or Alfred the Great.
And good literature can offer stories of heroic men for admiration and imitation. What man cannot see something to admire in Tolkien’s vast array of male heroes: Gandalf, Aragon, Faramir, Bilbo, Sam, and the others? Surely modern literature portraying weak, effeminate men is hurting boys, teaching them to be glory-seekers controlled by their passions.
We need to again call boys to self-discipline, patience, courage, and all virtue. And to do this, we need to propose plausible, truly masculine heroes and virtues for their admiration.
Before my conversion, I regarded Christian men as weak and sentimental. I was uncomfortable with what I perceived as a lack of spirit and drive in the overtly Christian boys and men that I knew. I saw Christian men as always turning the other cheek in a way that made me cringe, never standing up for themselves, lacking initiative, or, if the initiative was there, I thought I perceived a compartmentalization of their faith in a sort of nostalgic inner realm of their persons, not a vital part of their motivation. I think my former perceptions are shared by many young people, and I also think that they are not always off base. Only over time, have I come to see how masculine and heroic Christ is. I think authentic masculinity is one of the hallmarks of the true faith -- the real, Catholic Faith. Your examples here are so good. St. Tarcisius and St. Dominic Savio were likeable and popular, but they would not "go along to get along". They were willing to go against the grain, to speak the Truth in season and out of season.