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Posts from — September 2017

To Be A Man

Not for ourselves alone are we born.
| Cicero

To Be a Man

The ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras declared, “Man is the measure of all things.” But what is it to be a man? This is a question that philosophers have sought to answer for millennia. The word man, in its fullest sense, is existential, something the Greeks understood in a deeply practical way, as the attainment and embodiment of numerous virtues including heroism, truthfulness, social responsibility, temperance, and others that lately have gotten lost in the shuffle of “alternative facts” concocted to whitewash gloves-off opportunism at the highest levels of government. For the time being, the worst of us have managed to seize the microphone and the limelight through brazen acts of irresponsibility, moral cowardice, ignorance, deception, and a flagrant abdication of the most basic dictates of human decency, yet the higher vision that the Greeks strove to embody remains as close to us as our willingness to recall and embrace it, like an echo emanating from deep within us, calling us to come back to ourselves.

To be a man is to be truthful, even when the truth is distasteful. It is to lift others up, not tear them down; to build consensus and community, not destroy them. To be a man is to be patient rather than reactive, to bring understanding and empathy to those who are suffering or struggling, not censure and criticism. It is the willingness not only to own and admit one’s errors but also to do one’s best to correct them, not the willful denial of responsibility through blame-shifting, excuses, and half-truths. These various virtues are all elements of a practical wisdom that the Greeks called phronesis, a word that implied skillfulness in living. Being a man presupposes maturity, self-possession, courage, fairness, and self-restraint, an open mind and heart, and above all else, that humility in the face of how little we know at any given time that saves us from complacency, dogmatism, and self-aggrandizement—failings that mark the death of dialogue and cut us off from saving truths. A man is someone who can listen to others with interest, hear them, feel their predicament, and collaborate with them on solutions; he does not always immediately change the topic of conversation to himself, his achievements, his trials. Narcissism is not manly. Recklessness is not manly. Neither are name-calling or bullying or posturing. A pathological disregard for others is a confession of unmanliness, and what is unmanly can never be made manly through tiresome, arbitrary, neurotically repetitive complaints and protests. The Greeks also had a term for those who exhibited such unmanly qualities, whose petty self-absorption precluded social responsibility and political involvement for the greater good. They called them idiotes.

It should be clear that the ennobling qualities of manhood are the same as those of womanhood, for what we have here is not an issue of gender but of excellence in humanness. To be a man or woman, in the sense that can be trusted to be the “measure of all things,” to safeguard the planet and the future and to consider and serve the common good, is after all what it means to be an adult. Without these qualities of character, these virtues, an individual fails the defining test of adulthood, and by his or her words and actions betrays that he or she is something less, an arrested psyche with a hobbled thinking life if any and no sense of others, incapable of measuring anything beyond perceived self-interest; a being who reacts impulsively to inner and outer urges, childish, erratic, unreliable, and in these deficiencies, a clear and present danger to all.

September 30, 2017   Comments Off on To Be A Man