The Privilege of Being a Man MITCHELL KALPAKGIAN
This title is inspired by Alice von Hildebrand's The Privilege of Being a Woman (Sapientia Press, 2002), a masterpiece that defends the greatness of womanhood and captures the essence of the feminine genius while it exposes the fallacies of feminist ideology.
For example, Dr. von Hildebrand, alluding to St. Teresa of Avila, comments that "more women than men receive extraordinary graces . . . they are more receptive to God's voice and particularly capable of heroic donation when their heart is purified." Referring to Chesterton, she remarks that women "grasp intuitively the meaning and value of suffering" better than men.
Women, despite their nature as the weaker sex, possess a unique power: "Their weakness appeals to pity; it can touch men's hearts and appeal to what is best in them, namely, their chivalrous instinct to help those weaker than themselves." A woman's beauty and charm exert such irresistible appeal that they can bring a man "to his knees," and innocent young daughters possess "a sweetness and charm that most fathers cannot resist." At the marriage at Cana, Christ could not refuse the appeal of His Blessed Mother when she observed, "They have no wine."
As Dr. von Hildebrand explains, Saint Edith Stein observed that women are more interested in the personal, the concrete, and the particular than in the abstract or the universal, and woman's intuitive mind grasps reality "in wholes than in parts": "Their minds do not dissect an object; they grasp it in totality."
Another virtue of the feminine sensibility is the unity of mind and heart, women's minds thinking at their best "when animated by their hearts" and possessing a human wisdom that surpasses specialization and scholarship. Because of woman's gift of receptivity — "an alert, awakened, joyful readiness to be fecundated by another person or by a beautiful object" — God "touches" a woman in a most intimate way at the moment of conception and grants her this "extraordinary privilege of carrying two souls in her body" and of cooperating with God's creative power. These are some of the God-given, natural privileges that endow women with powers and talents that men either lack or possess in lesser degree.
What, then, is the privilege of being a man? Men of course vary from saints, heroes, and knights to brutes, boors, and fops, but true manhood possesses its special essence just as womanhood enjoys its unique nature. For one thing, man enjoys the privilege of leadership or initiation. The Greek word signifying to act, archein, means to begin, to take the first step. "The beginning is more than half of the whole" as Aristotle said. That is, to act does not mean to organize a perfect, detailed plan with safeguards against all contingencies or to have special foresight into the future that eliminates all problems.
A man discovers a great cause, feels moved by a noble ideal, falls in love, or desires a great good that appeals to him. St. Benedict acts and founds his illustrious, enduring rule and monastic order that preserved Western civilization; he takes the first step that begins a chain of events that God and nature assist as a small mustard seed grows into a great plant.
Similarly, a man notices the beauty of a woman and feels attraction. He takes one step, initiates conversation, asks her to dance, asks for a date and invites her to dinner, and begins a courtship. Having fallen in love, he eventually asks his beloved to marry him. A romance, engagement, marriage, children, and family follow because man initiated an action, took a chance, felt a sense of daring, and leaped forward without any guarantees. This is one of the traits of manhood that makes it a privilege — the courage of convictions that is not ruled by fear or doubt. To be a man is not to worry about everything but to heed Christ's words: "Do not be anxious about your life."
A second privilege of being a man is a physical and mental strength to accomplish difficult things and to endure heavy crosses that demand patience, perseverance, and endurance.
A second privilege of being a man is a physical and mental strength to accomplish difficult things and to endure heavy crosses that demand patience, perseverance, and endurance. Yes, there are weak, ignoble, and cowardly men, but that is not the true mark of masculinity. Strong men depend on themselves — on their own will power and hard work, on their intelligence and resourcefulness, and on their self-reliance and imagination to manage their affairs or to carry the burdens and responsibilities of others who need their protection.
In Virgil's Aeneid the Trojan hero Aeneas, ready to fight for his country and attack the invading Greeks, nevertheless leaves the burning city to protect his wife, young son, and aging father in a poignant scene where he holds the boy by the hand, carries his father on his shoulders, and looks back to guard his wife:
'Then come, dear father. Arms around my neck: I'll take you on my shoulders, no great weight. Whatever happens, both will face one danger, Find one safety. Iulus will come with me, My wife at a good interval behind.'
This image from Virgil captures man's desire to serve others first and place himself last. Will Durant, the historian who wrote The Story of Civilization, explains this virtue in a more whimsical way. He observes that, according to perennial wisdom, women are the slaves of children and men are the slaves of women. However, men themselves have no slaves to complete their tasks.
Noble men, of course, are not literally the "slaves" of their wives or children, but they do not complain about suffering burdens or performing menial tasks, whether walking a colicky child during the early morning hours or driving children three hours to a swim meet competition that lasts five minutes. Strong men do not beg for slaves to do their work or whine about doing their duty. They value the privilege to serve women and children and others who depend upon them. This virtue of chivalry makes men honorable, knightly, and magnanimous as the famous Don Quixote demonstrated — the knight of the rueful countenance who vowed fidelity to his beloved Dulcinea and pledged the defense of widows and orphans regardless of the mortifications or defeats he suffered for his ideals.
Men possess an enormous sense of humor, laugh easily at themselves and at the folly of others, and enjoy teasing and being teased with a light touch. Real men never take themselves too seriously because they acknowledge their weaknesses and know their limitations. Marriage humbles men as their wives remind husbands of their faults all too often. The words "human," "humility," and "humor" all derive from the same Latin root as "humus" meaning dirt. Because men can laugh at their foibles, listen to the recitation of their faults, and have no illusions about their perfections, they tend to be more "down to earth" in the dirt than lost in the clouds of illusion.
What great comedians and wits we have in witty men like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, and G.K. Chesterton! Chaucer is unafraid of ridiculing hypocritical, avaricious and lustful priests. In "The General Prologue" he satirizes the friar: "He knew the taverns well in every town, and cared more for every innkeeper and barmaid than for a leper or a beggar." Shakespeare mocks silly conventions like courtly love and grimly grave characters like Malvolio ("Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?"). Dr. Johnson unmasks pretentious language and exaggeration he calls "cant." In response to David Hume and Samuel Foote who boasted they were not afraid of death, Johnson remarked, "it is not true, Sir. Hold a pistol to Foote's breast, or to Hume's breast, and threaten to kill them, and you'll see how they behave." Chesterton makes the famous remark that "Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly."
Real men never take themselves too seriously because they acknowledge their weaknesses and know their limitations.
Men are more easily amused at their wives than women are of their husbands, laughing at women's habits like arranging an immaculate home before going on a vacation but tolerating a chaotic household in daily life. The privilege of being a man is the expansive capacity to see silliness, comedy, and nonsense everywhere and to tolerate fools gladly. As Henry Fielding, the great satirist who wrote Tom Jones, expresses this male comic vision, "And perhaps there is one reason why a comic writer should of all others be the least excused for deviating from nature . . .," namely, "life everywhere furnishes an accurate observer with the ridiculous."
Men, of course, are renowned for their hearty appetites and relish food and drink with exceptional gusto. They never cease to enjoy the simple pleasures and the innocent delights of the flesh. Fastidiousness about food and drink is not a normal male trait, but rather a robust craving for delicious meals in generous portions offers them some of life's greatest happiness.
Homer's depiction of food in the scenes of hospitality from the Odyssey epitomizes the essence of civilization and the height of happiness, "something like perfection" that occurs on the occasion of the feast: "A maid came with water in a beautiful golden ewer and poured it over a silver basin so that they could rinse their hands. She also drew a wooden table to their side, and the staid housekeeper brought some bread and set it by them with a choice of delicacies, helping them liberally to all she had. Meanwhile, a carver dished up for them on platters slices of various meats he had selected from his board, and put gold cups beside them."
Because of this male passion for hearty food and drink, happiness comes easily to men who derive great contentment at the table and look forward all day for the sumptuousness of the flavors and aromas that await them at their meals. Mothers generally tend to enjoy cooking for their sons more than their daughters, and women always consider it a compliment to their cooking when men savor their cooking and partake in generous portions as they praise her culinary art.
Men's love of sports, whether it is fishing, hunting, golf, horse racing, or baseball, keeps them boyish and young at heart. They enjoy the privilege of preserving the innocence of their childhood and fondly reminisce about the pastimes and recreations of their boyhood. They never forget that stage in life that Shakespeare alludes to as "boy eternal," the fun-loving care-freeness of a Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer always ready for an adventure or spontaneous fun. They organize youth sports, coach their children's teams, share their knowledge of the game, and relive their childhood through their passion for athletics.
Izaac Walton's The Complete Angler (1676) captures this spirit of the innocent fun of being "boy eternal" as businessmen living an active life go fishing and receive a myriad of spiritual and physical benefits from their favorite recreation: "Twas an imployment for his idle time, which was not then Idlely spent: for angling was, after tedious Study, a rest to his mind, a cheerer of his spirits, a diverter of sadnesse, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness; and that it begot habits of peace and patience in those that profess'd and practis'd it."
The privilege of being a man is that his happiness consists in the sum of little things: the outdoors, a favorite sport, a good friend, a delicious meal, and all seems well with the world. As one sportsman says in Walton's book, "Fish to morrow, and sup together, and the next day every man leave Fishing, and fall to his businesse." It takes so little to please a normal man.
Another special privilege of being a man is that he does not have to be ruled by fashion or be preoccupied about clothes or style. Compared to women, most men own a limited wardrobe and only a few combinations of apparel. Jackets, slacks, shirts and ties do not radically go out of vogue. Other than basic grooming, cleanliness, haircuts, and shaves, manly men do not spend inordinate time preening themselves or modifying their wardrobe to be in proper fashion.
In general, men who are not foppish do not think of themselves as beautiful, lovely, or glamorous and thus are saved from the snare of vanity. They do not gaze at their reflections and ask, "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?" Like Huckleberry Finn, men never lose their opposition to being excessively "proper" according to conventions of rigid formality and etiquette. Huck comments, "The widow Douglas, she took me for her son, and allowed she would sivilize me; but it was rough living in the house, considering how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; . . . I got into my old rags, and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied."
Unlike women, men never look forward to getting dressed up and appearing in elegant clothing for special occasions. Consequently, men spend less money on clothing, worry less about appearance, and hardly think about what they will wear tomorrow or for the party they are attending. They enjoy this greater freedom from the dictates of the fashion world.
Another masculine advantage is insensibility — not coarseness, callousness or hardheartedness. Men's feelings are not hurt so easily, and they are rarely guilty of touchiness — taking offense easily when no offense was intended. This lack of delicacy serves them well in political debates and honest arguments. In Life on the Mississippi Mark Twain the cub pilot — hearing a shipmate on the steamboat roar, "Here, now, start that gangplank for'ard! Lively, now! What're you about?" — comments, "I wished I could talk like that."
Dr. Johnson's Literary Club which met regularly at the Mitre tavern in London for dinner, friendship, and conversation engaged in vigorous, heated discussion and exchanges of wit that required the risk of defeat or laughter. Johnson blames Oliver Goldsmith's irritable temper because "he is so much mortified" when he does not excel in conversation. When Goldsmith enters into arguments, "if he does not get the better, he is miserably vexed" — a hypersensitivity to losing or failing that Johnson finds too delicate for the masculine nature.. Preciosity or perfectionism is a rare disease among men whose mastery of detail or nuance or the je ne sais quoi is notoriously lacking.
Men's feelings are not hurt so easily, and they are rarely guilty of touchiness — taking offense easily when no offense was intended.
Shakespeare's bluff Hotspur from Henry IV captures this unceremonious roughness both when he remarks, "By God, I cannot flatter; I do defy/ The tongues of soothers," and when he bluntly speaks his mind to his wife Kate: "Swear me, Kate, like a lady as thou art, / A good mouth-filling oath, and leave 'in sooth,'/ And such protest of pepper-gingerbread, / To velvet guards and Sunday citizens."
The privilege of being a man allows him not to be preoccupied with polished diction, mincing words, or elegant expression as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales famously illustrates. When the avaricious pardoner attempts to cheat the pilgrims with trinkets he calls "relics," the host thunders, "Stop this, it won't do, as I hope to prosper! You would make me kiss your old breeches, and swear they were the relics of a saint, though they were foully stained by your bottom!"
These privileges, however, are only the minor perquisites of manhood. The greatest honor of the male species is the title of husband and father. In awe and wonder man contemplates the miracle of woman's beauty and desires her love with a longing that pierces the soul. When he falls in love with his beloved and proposes marriage, he finds in this one woman a dream come true, a miracle from heaven. In his eyes she embodies the essence of all female virtues of mind, body, heart, and soul, and he begins to understand the transcendental nature of love as the poets write about it. As Romeo said of Juliet, "She doth teach the torches to burn bright!/ It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night/ As a jewel in an Ethiope's ear — / Beauty too rare for use, for earth too dear."
He cannot believe that God has blessed him with this most precious gift that surpasses his wildest hopes and dreams. Yes, he always noticed lovely women. Yes, he always thought he wanted to get married. Of course he wanted to marry someone who attracted him. But never in his life did he imagine anyone so beautiful, ideal, and perfect would want to marry him and honor him with the privilege of being her husband. How could this be? The privilege of being a man is to behold the miracle of love, to contemplate the divine nature of beauty incarnate in the loveliness of woman, and to "taste and see the goodness of the Lord."
In short, just as woman intimately senses the touch of God when she conceives a child, man feels the personal hand of God when he discovers the woman God created for him to marry. In this experience of heaven on earth, man encounters the intense love of God for each individual soul and naturally responds with profound gratitude, thinking like Augustine "Thou lovest us, Lord, as if we were the only one," and thinking like St. Paul, "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the mind of man, to conceive of the things God has prepared for those who love him."
A man's privilege of fatherhood also exalts him with a great honor. In his human fatherhood he is an icon of God the father. The power of God's word creates the world when He utters, "'Let there be light'; and there was light." The power of a man's word creates a family when he asks, "Will you marry me?" And there was marriage. The God of creation in his bountiful fruitfulness creates light, sky, land, seas, plants, trees, sun, moon, stars, animals, and man and woman. A man in love with a generous heart fathers a family and imitates God when he is fruitful and multiplies according to God's purpose for marriage. God not only creates and multiplies but also provides and cares for all of His creation.
There is nothing that a good father will not do for his family.
Man as husband and father also provides for his family, exercising the foresight of prudence and always thinking ahead of the future happiness and protection of his family. God is not only a father in His Divine Providence but also a teacher, ruler, and defender of His chosen people in the Old Testament. A human father too enjoys these privileges of instructing his children in God's ways, ruling them with justice and mercy, and defending and protecting them from evil influences that attack the family and rob children of their innocence. There is nothing that a good father will not do for his family. As St. Therese the Little Flower writes in her autobiography The Story of a Soul, children expect everything from their father, and believers honor God by expecting great things from Him.
In Shakespeare's The Tempest, Prospero, the epitome of wise and loving fatherhood, uses the art of "magic" (power and knowledge) that he derives from his books to bring civilization out of anarchy — light out of darkness — when he is shipwrecked on an island. As a man he governs his island and as a father he rules his family as God orders the world — with wisdom, justice, mercy, and love. With providential wisdom Prospero allows Ferdinand to marry his daughter only when he has proven his worthiness. With stern justice he punishes evildoers who plot murder. With kind mercy he forgives all who repent and show contrition: "The rarer action is/ In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent, / The sole drift of my purpose doth extend/ Not a frown further." And with miraculous love Prospero brings good out of evil, transforming a tragic shipwreck into a joyful marriage and an occasion of happy reconciliation.
It is a privilege of manhood to use power and knowledge creatively to produce beautiful works as God does and to fight evil in all its forms. In educating and refining his daughter Miranda, Prospero has created a work of art, a masterpiece, which the word "Miranda" (meaning miraculous or wonderful) signifies as Ferdinand's praise indicates: "Admir'd Miranda!/ Indeed the top of admiration."
To govern a family, to civilize children, to order the society of a household for the common good, and to punish with justice and forgive with mercy require the arts of manhood that Shakespeare calls "magic" in his play — all the talents and skills a loving father incorporates to achieve the masterpiece of a human family and a civilized world. It is a privilege of being a man, then, to make the fullest use and to exercise constantly all of his powers — physical, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional — in the creation of works of art that emulate God's wonders.
A final privilege of being a man is the honor of dying for those he loves. "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church," St. Paul writes. After the apostle enjoins women to obey their husbands, he commands men to love their wives with the willingness to sacrifice their lives for them as Christ died in his passion for the Church, God's kingdom in this world.
In Homer's Odyssey Odysseus risks his life to return to his home in Ithaca to defend his family from the barbarian suitors, almost drowned in the sea by a vengeful god and nearly killed by the savage Cyclops. In the Iliad the honorable Hector in the defense of Troy and his family duels with the formidable Achilles in the full knowledge of his impending death: "I have made up my mind to fight you man to man and kill you or be killed." The apostles and martyrs who preached and lived the Gospel knew that the imitation of Christ always incurred the risk of death: "If they hated me, they will hate you."
The profession of knighthood likewise follows the ideal of service that requires not only, in Chaucer's description of the true knight, "chivalry, truth, and honor, generosity and courtesy" but also fearlessness in battle as the knight's bloodstained breastplates signify from combat in many wars: "He had fought in fifteen large battles, in addition to the three times he had defended our faith in Algeria, and each time he had killed his opponent." This privilege of manhood, the chance to "give all" as King Lear says, is the essence of the male character. Real men exemplify liberality in every form from generosity with money to the gift of self for a noble ideal to the courage of dying for truth or justice as fathers, soldiers, knights, and martyrs do in their joy of being men.
If only the radical feminists and cowardly men grasped some of these truths about the male of the species, the relations between the sexes would return to normal, love and romance would return to an unchivalrous world, marriage and children would flourish, and everyone would recognize once again the normal, the human, and the natural.
Mitchell A. Kalpakgian. "The Privilege of Being a Man." Catholic Men's Quarterly (Summer 2009).
Catholic Men's Quarterly, a publication of House on the Moor Books, is a 44-48 page print publication that will be read and appreciated by all Catholic men. It features an eclectic array of content including humor, travel, sports, apologetics, military history, profiles of Catholic men and more. Mitch Kalpakgian is a featured writer in every issue of CMQ and also serves as editorial consultant. To order CMQ and also view Classics Illustrated comics for children, for which House on the Moor Books is the exclusive distributor to the Catholic market, visit their website www.cifundraiser.com.
Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature. He is the author of The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature, The Mysteries of Life in Children's Literature, An Armenian Family Reunion, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, and Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct. He is a frequent contributor to New Oxford Review, Culture Wars, The Catholic Faith, and Homiletic And Pastoral Review. His favorite activities include writing, long distance running, and coaching soccer.
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Catholic Men's Quarterly