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Late in the Iliad, the Trojan Lycaon begs Achilles to spare his life on the battlefield. Achilles refuses his supplications:

Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so?
. . . And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am?
The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life
a deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you,
death and the strong force of fate are waiting.
There will come a dawn or sunset or high noon
when a man will take my life in battle too—
flinging a spear perhaps
or whipping a deadly arrow off his bow.

Achilles exemplifies the Ancient Greek morality of struggle and victory, wherein glory cannot exist apart from winners and losers, killers and their slain. Vitalist thinkers from Nietzsche down to Bronze Age Pervert have found in this portrait of pagan warrior virtue a compelling antidote to the enervating force of modernity, which they blame on Christianity. Indeed, as moderns, we are conditioned within a Christian humanist paradigm of solicitude for victims. Under this paradigm—at least in its current, grotesquely swollen form—we aren’t supposed to see anything glorious in an Achilles exerting himself over weaker men. But we need not spurn empathy or embrace an ethic of “might makes right” for this scene to resonate, and even inspire.

“Man was called by his original God-given vocation to be master of the created world,” writes Edith Stein in her essay “Separate Vocations of Man and Woman.” “Hence his body and soul are equipped to conquer it.” Masculinity requires competition—against oneself and others. Likewise, victory and mastery mean nothing without the risk of defeat. The masculine desire to develop capacities for expansive action in the world is a given of the created order; as such it is good, as is the attendant desire to foster development in others. This latter, Stein notes, is most fulfilling in child-rearing, where “man’s more intense drive and potential for achievements make him responsible for guiding the child to fulfill his particular potentialities, to ‘make good.’”

Stein’s description of men flies in the face of the therapeutic language constraining most “crisis of masculinity” discourse. The therapeutic worldview, according to Philip Rieff, seeks to reconcile individuals to their own desires (and pathologies), rather than to their families, communities, or the created order. Under therapeutic logic, the innate orientation of men toward pursuing excellence and dominion is a cause of psychological distress. For example, the American Psychological Association reframes the natural givens of masculinity as “traditional masculinity ideology,” which promotes “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.” The APA counsels us to reject these norms and instead to affirm denatured, diverse “masculinities.”

This approach to masculinity does not resonate with many men, despite its ubiquity in the broader culture. Men do not want to have their feelings of failure and weakness validated if it will not make them less of those things in reality. Men do not want to hear that life is about finding happiness and inner peace by accepting oneself as one is, regardless of the quality of one’s character.

The APA may blame traditional masculinity for male depression, anxiety, and lassitude, but society still depends as much as ever on male achievement and the status hierarchies it produces. That it makes men anxious does not change the fact that women prefer highly-educated, wealthy men—nor should it. 

Young men gravitate to figures like Jordan Peterson precisely because they denounce the language of therapy. What’s more, they recognize the essentially tragic character of masculinity. 

Masculinity is tragic because it presents a double bind: The competitive pursuit of excellence is always attended by the enervating threat of defeat. Femininity may contain double binds of its own, yet only men seem to derive motivation and purpose from the knowledge that failing to “make good” is a terrible fate. Men are imperiled by the weight of expectations to outcompete other men at something society values; but without strong pressure to compete, especially from other men, they are completely adrift.

Mark Driscoll tapped into the tragic, painful elements of masculinity. Driscoll, a one-time meteoric megachurch pastor, is the subject of the podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” a retrospective on the 2014 collapse of his church, hosted by Christianity Today’s Mike Cosper. Many elements stand out, but of particular interest is Driscoll’s way of talking to young men, a group he was extremely effective at evangelizing. As Cosper describes, Driscoll did not speak to young men in an encouraging “you can do it” way, but attacked them “for the way they’ve been lured by the surrounding culture into being passive, lazy, weak.” Former Mars Hill staffer Aaron Gray says of the church’s male-only small groups, “there was this language, like, ‘well it’s time to go to [small group] again, time to go get kicked in the balls again’ . . . like it was this weekly bludgeoning.”

Driscoll’s rhetoric was so appealing because it sharply contrasted with therapeutic language; rather than trying to make men feel safe and affirmed, he made them feel imperiled by their own weakness. Instead of comforting men, he challenged them. He understood that men need a telos worth struggling to realize.

All this having been said, the tragic streak in masculinity, while reflective of a present reality, does not represent final reality. Masculinity in its present form is fallen, its competitive energies tainted by the libido dominandi. These energies must be continually reoriented toward God. Masculinity and femininity are not themselves products of the Fall, but when properly ordered reflect the image of God. We know this from Genesis 1:28: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” There will still be men and women in the new heaven and earth with masculine and feminine natures, but those natures will be sanctified, transcending even their prelapsarian perfection.

Twenty-first-century Nietzscheans who long for a return to a pre-Christian world are right to see something poignant in Achilles’s single-minded pursuit of victory, his acceptance of death, and his contempt for Lycaon’s begging. And yet, the world of warrior virtue inhabited by Homer has not had the last word. Just a few hundred years after Homer in the fifth century b.c., philosophers like Plato were beginning to reason away from the idea that “might makes right” to the principle that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. As Susannah Black Roberts has argued, in the centuries leading up to Christ’s birth many Greco-Roman writers seemed to acknowledge the inability of paganism to answer the question of mortality. This is present even in Homer: Achilles, once in Hades, laments that he’d “rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.” 

Christ, as the archetype of perfected humanity, presents the fullest model of masculinity. And he showed that it is more ennobling to die to self in loving service to God and neighbor than to sack Troy. The heights of human potential are realized not by the most physically powerful or the most cunning, but by the most loving. Achilles could not conquer death because his soul never knew the power of love necessary to overcome mortality. Jesus was more manful than Achilles because Jesus knew that masculinity is only perfected through participating in love’s dominion. The highest excellence, the most expansive, generative action, is kenosis.

James Diddams is managing editor of Providence Magazine.

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Image by Eugene Romanenko, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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