July 20, 2010

On Becoming Manly, Part II

In the first part of this thread, I noted that the questions of when, how, and why to become a man are of pressing importance. I propose now to deal with each in turn, insofar as a humble blog such as this can treat such weighty subjects. I shall begin with the when of the matter, although I already find myself somewhat at a loss...

In 1746, or thereabouts, the Earl of Chesterfield wrote to his then eight-year-old son the following:

Everybody has ambition, of some kind or other, and is vexed when that ambition is disappointed: the difference is, that the ambition of silly people is a silly and mistaken ambition; and the ambition of people of sense is a right and commendable one. For instance; the ambition of a silly boy, of your age, would be to have fine clothes, and money to throw away in idle follies; which, you plainly see, would be no proofs of merit in him, but only of folly in his parents, in dressing him out like a jackanapes, and giving him money to play the fool with. Whereas a boy of good sense places his ambition in excelling other boys of his own age, and even older, in virtue and knowledge. His glory is in being known always to speak the truth, in showing good-nature and compassion, in learning quicker, and applying himself more than other boys. These are real proofs of merit in him, and consequently proper objects of ambition; and will acquire him a solid reputation and character. This holds true in men, as well as in boys… (Earl of Chesterfield, Letters to His Son, 1746-7).

The last clause holds the key. The spark of becoming manly occurs when the interests of boys and men begin to align. This entails that men know what their own interests are or should be, and recognise when boys become receptive to them. Fathers need to recognise their importance! We are wont to let boys be boys for rather too long, so that the vigorous, playful, unserious youth is never given a sober check, or a manful duty, until he is already physically a man. ‘Don’t let them grow up too fast’ is a phrase you’ll hear often. I would like to have parents add another clause to the imperative: ‘Don’t let them grow up too fast, but do let them grow up’. Before you know it, if you’re not careful, your boy will become just another undergraduate who does not know that it is rude to talk and chew gum in the library, with his girlfriend (rather than a book) sitting provocatively in his lap.

It is unthinkable, today, that a child of eight would receive such a letter from his father, extolling the virtues of a serious intellect, decency of character, and hard work. So when should it come? It seems to me that we rather underestimate the capacity of children, with school curricula increasingly spoon-feeding watered-down knowledge into the gaping mouths of perennial babes even up to the University years. Little room is given for initiative, for individual expression, for self-reliance, or for self-education. Since children are not given the responsibility to do anything, they do not learn that there are consequences to actions, and that they must take ownership of them. In most schools, there is no scope for building character at any point up to the age of eighteen. I suggest that, from the age of eleven or so, boys be given increasing freedom to act, within certain boundaries: to succeed and take the honour; to make mistakes and pay for them. There is no fixed point at which the boy of good sense will emerge from among his silly peers, but when he does he will likely serve as a positive example, if he can bear his exceptional status with courage. Becoming manly takes time, but at some point the process must begin.

13 comments:

  1. Doctor, I think the major change since C. is to do with what is public and private. By nature, the contests and the glory he envisages are public - and that supposes there are public criteria of judgment - and that requires a theoretical justification for the conventions. Whereas now things are private and publicized only on the assumption that the private reigns supreme: in short, everyone makes his choices and chooses a lifestyle or another - and may change it whenever indefinitely - because no choice is inherently good or bad. In fact, not even the law is seen to restrain - but only to oppress - this newfound creativity. Without public standards and a defense of the public things, I cannot see how ambition may be channeled - it must fight the private passions and it must fight comfortable self-preservation - it must make young men see their good in the public approbation of their betters: how do you recognize your betters, nowadays, anyway?

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  2. Well done, I'd have to say that I was one of those eternal youths for way too long. After my stint in the Army I changed my tune, finished college, got married and so on. I believe that youngsters haven't had anything in their lives to test them. They are permanently on glide, I speak from experience, as well as a teacher.

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  3. I fear there is not a surplus of role models. Too, too many fathers remain in a boyish state. Tragically, I was raised by American Macho. I have set about rectifying this and will bring my influence to bear, sir.

    ~Hilton

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  4. Kravien, your insight is finely tuned. If you don't mind, I will keep your terminal question for future treatment. Perhaps we can discuss it sometime soon in less ethereal circumstances.

    Thank you Mr. Styled. Perhaps you would answer 'join the army' to Kravien above? Perhaps not, but that seems like a plausible (if unpalatable to some) direction.

    Hilton, your fortitude does you credit and should give us all courage.
    VB

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  5. I love the last line. I feel it sums it up: Becoming manly takes time, but at some point the process must begin.

    Good stuff, very interesting read.

    Cheers,

    Schmidty
    www.ManVsStyle.com

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  6. Thank you Schmidty, for all your comments. I do also enjoy your website. I trust you will enjoy your American sojourn. There is much to discover here.
    VB

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  7. Eight seems a good age for it. Having been supervising a Primary School age-spread today it seemed that the nine-ten-eleven year olds are already enamoured with the influence they have over the youngest ones. If they can embrace that, they can embrace the idea of being a power for good.

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  8. Very well written. My son is seven, and we're doing our best to teach him responsibility and consquences. Luckily, even as a boy, he has never shunned from hard work, either physically or intellectually. Our key will be to continue him along that path.

    Luckily for us, as well, he has two grandfather's who also keep in on the right path.

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  9. Claire, that observation is an encouraging one. It is only to be hoped that the right influences are brought to bear at the right time.

    Turling, thanks for the compliment, and for raising the most important point about grandfathers. We don't generally take advantage of the wisdom of the elderly anymore, yet they have much to share. Sounds like your boy is on the right path. All that hard work you do in your garden must be a good example.

    VB

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  10. I don't disagree with the thrust of your argument, VB, but I find Chesterfield a difficult authority. Johnson had the man to a t: 'morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master'

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  11. Yes Tom, it is fortunate perhaps that we may take Chesterfield at his word and not at his deed. I wouldn't suggest bringing eighteenth-century strictures to bear in the twenty first; as Kravien pointed out, given the contextual differences the challenge of becoming manly is wholly different. But the historical wisdom may be mined for principles in the abstract that might still prove useful.

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  12. Alright, doctor, having given it enough time, I shall bring to mind a judgment attribute to Dr. Johnson.

    He said your present authority teaches 'the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master'...

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  13. See above, my dear, so that I do not have to replay the same passing shot.

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