The following is the Part 2 of a talk, “What Makes Men Men?” delivered by Professor J Budziszewski at the Touchstone Conference on Patriarchy: Fatherhood and the Restoration of Culture, held in October 2018. The text of the talk was first published by Touchstone Magazine and is published here with the permission of Touchstone and the author. Video/audio of the talk on men is here.
Fatherhood and motherhood, kings and queens
It is much more difficult to speak about fatherhood than motherhood. Perhaps because the father's connection with his children is not mediated by his body in the way that the mother's is — or perhaps because paternal absenteeism and other forms of masculine failure are so conspicuous in our day — most of us have a dimmer idea of fatherhood than motherhood. Open mockery of fathers has become a fixture of popular culture.
The difference between fatherhood and motherhood, hence between manhood and womanhood, involves a difference in the male and female modes of love for their children, but there is much more to it than that. The difference is both greater and deeper. Manhood in general is outward-directed, and womanhood inward-directed. This is no cliché; the distinction is quite subtle. Outward-directedness, for example, is not the same as other-directedness, for many men prefer dealing with things. Inward-directedness is not same as self-directedness, for the genius of women includes caring for the local circle.
If the contrast between outward- and inward-directedness sounds like a dig at male vanity or sexual promiscuity, or a gibe at female narcissism or emotional dependency, it isn't that either. Characteristics of those sorts are not the essence of the sexual difference; they are merely vices that result from the indulgence of temptations to which the two sexes are unequally susceptible.
In speaking of outward- and inward-directedness, my intention is not to call attention to the corruptions, but to the good things that are sometimes corrupted. It is a good thing that an unmarried man pursues the beloved, whereas an unmarried woman makes herself attractive to pursuit; it is a good thing that a husband protects the home, whereas a wife establishes it on the hearth; it is a good thing that a father represents the family and oversees it, whereas a mother conducts the family and manages it.
Although the directive geniuses of the father and the mother are not the same, both of them truly rule the home. We may compare the father with a king reigning over a commonwealth, the mother with a queen. These potent archetypes express different inflections of glory, nobility, and self-command. Men joke about their wives telling them what to do. The joke would have no point unless two things were true: On one hand, they would not want their wives to be kings; on the other hand, they know they are really queens.
We sometimes say that fathers and mothers share and divide the different aspects of sovereignty between themselves in much the same way as the directive functions are divided in corporations. Is this a new idea? Far from it. In one of the letters of St. Paul to Timothy, we find him using a curious pair of words — a verb, proistemi, for what a husband characteristically does, and a noun, oikodespotes, for what a wife characteristically is. Both words indicate authority, but with a difference. The term used for the husband has a range of meanings that include standing before, presiding, superintending, protecting, maintaining, helping, succouring, and acting in the capacity of a patron — very much like a chairman of the board. But the term used for the woman means “ruler of the house” – literally, “despot of the house” — very much like the chief executive officer. So the idea is really very ancient.
When all goes well, fathers and mothers also exemplify and specialize in different aspects of wisdom. A wise father teaches his wife and family that in order to love you must be strong; a wise mother teaches her husband and family that in order to be strong you must love. She knows that even boldness needs humility; he knows that even humility needs to be bold. He is an animate symbol to his children of that justice which is tempered by mercy, she a living emblem of that mercy which is tempered by justice. A wise father knows when to say, “ask your mother,” a wise mother when to say, “ask your father.” When they do this, they are not passing the buck, but sharing sovereignty. Each of them refracts a different hue from the glowing light of royalty.
Recovering the sense of a regal calling
Today it is almost embarrassing to have to hear things like I have been saying. Comparisons of fathers and mothers with kings and queens seems naïve, nostalgic, sentimental, and exaggerated. They make us squirm. There are strong reasons for this reaction, but they are bad ones.
For how many parents, especially fathers, have lost their regal dignity, disbelieve in their authority, and confuse the proper humility of their office with being self-mocking and ironic? We have turned husbands and wives into androgynous “spouses,” fathers and mothers into interchangeable “parent figures.” We approach having a child like acquiring a pool table or wide-screen TV. Would it be fun? Would it be tedious? Would it be worth the expense?
Fathers and mothers have need of recovering their sense of regal calling, taking up their ball and scepter, and ruling their dominions with love for their precious subjects. It is not for nothing that the king of a commonwealth is called “Sire”; humanly speaking, of the callings of fatherhood and kingship, the deeper and more primordial is fatherhood.
May it be needless to say that mothers and fathers must also recover the conviction of their need for each other. They must do this not only for their own sakes, but for their young. Every child needs both kinds of love. It is not enough to provide an intermediate love that is half motherly and half fatherly, or an inconsistent love that is motherly at some times, fatherly at others. Nor is it enough to give one kind of love for real, while giving only a pretense or simulacrum of the other kind. Even though the two loves resemble each other, they are distinct, and neither can be imitated by anything else. Yes, it may be true heroism when through no fault of one's own, a father or a mother raises a child all alone; yet it is better not to be alone. No woman can fully take the place of a father, any more than any man can substitute for a mother.
Chivalry, and things worth fighting for
These differences reach even further. For men, growing up is like joining a brotherhood. Today, our grasp of this fact is attenuated by the fact that we have lost our rites and customs of apprenticeship and coming of age. Yet men naturally desire to be something like knights, who not only do hard things, but in firm and fatherly manner train squires who attend them so that these young men can learn to do hard things, too. As I was in earnest before, about the calling of all men to extended fatherhood, so I am in earnest now, about the chivalric element in this calling. A man will more readily aspire to manhood if he can taste it; his life must have the flavor of valor. This is true of how he carries himself not only toward other men, but toward women.
The fashion of the day is to think of medieval knights not as valiant but as cruel. Many were, yet even in that day, knighthood was more than a veneer for oppression. It was a great and noble ideal that did much to civilize a society still governed by a warrior caste and too often running with blood. Like the members of our own ruling class, different as it is, the members of that caste sometimes fought for the wrong things, fought in the wrong ways, or committed atrocities. All such perversions should be condemned. Yet let us not abuse the members of that caste just because they liked to fight. Are there not plenty of things to fight for in this world, and plenty of evils to oppose? Do we not even speak of the Church Militant?
After all, most men do not simply like to fight; they are too lazy for that. They like to fight when there is something worth fighting for. True, they sometimes make up things worth fighting for just to be able to fight for them, and one of the tasks of becoming a man is learning to resist that temptation. There are plenty of noble things to fight for without making them up. A woman may resist temptation, but a man thinks of making war against it. A woman may seek to reside in the citadel of virtue, but a man thinks of capturing it. In the same martial spirit, a virtuous man desires to contend for just laws, defend and protect sound traditions, attack lies and fallacies with the weapons of frankness and reason, and yes, even to make gentle war for courtesy.
By the way, if it is right at times to fight, then it is also right in some ways to enjoy fighting, even though it is also right to grieve the evils incidental to the struggle and try to minimize them. A certain militancy and a certain vigilance are an essential part of manhood, and a man's great project is not to do away with his impulse to fight, but to learn to fight nobly and generously — to refine the raw ore, burn away its dross, and make it into purified steel.
This is an ideal to which any man may aspire. It is wholly independent of what he does for a living, of how much education he has had, or of whether he is muscular or athletic. Medieval knights engaged their enemies physically, and there is always some need for that; that is why we have armies and police. Yet there are many ways to fight besides the physical. One may fight through a word in season, a clap on the shoulder, a quiet admonishment or commendation. One may wage war by bearing witness, by lifting the fallen, by refusing to countenance evil. One may do battle by admonishing idlers, by encouraging the faint-hearted, by helping the weak.
A long quest and a difficult journey
All this makes the achievement of manhood hard work, labor that requires a firm hand with the desires and devices of the heart. The best instance of a human male is not a glorified, walking packet of urges, but a man, who, for the sake of the highest and greatest goods, commands himself, strengthens his brothers, and defends his sisters, regarding even the meanest of women as a lady. You may say this is not natural. I say it is natural, in the sense that only in this way does a being of his nature flourish.
Once upon a time the differences between men and women were not thought so strange. We have a long quest and a difficult journey before we can speak of them again with ease and gaiety. There are so many sweet and lovely things that our ears can no longer hear without odium, so many blameless things that can hardly be discussed without scandal. Just imagine the din that would erupt in the world if I were to praise and extol that great activity that comes so much more readily to the woman, and is slandered under the false name of being passive: Be it unto me as you have said! And if I were to compound the offense by pointing out that every last one of us, both man and woman, is feminine with respect to God – there would be an earthquake.
The journey back to the commonwealth of sense will be long and difficult, and we will meet trolls and enchanters on the way. I say: Laugh at them. They will obstruct passage, demand tribute, and try to lure us into byways and bogs. But since we cannot become any more begrimed and bewitched than we already are in our day, why should that discourage us? A smile on our lips, a song in our throats, a sword in our hands, and a prayer in our hearts, we may as well fight with good cheer.
J. Budziszewski is a Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin. The text of his talk is republished from his blog, The Underground Thomist, with permission. Part One is here. For further reading on this subject see his book, On the Meaning of Sex.