“By the way, the WWII vets did not wear masks. They’re men, not cowards. Masks=enforced cowardice.” So tweeted Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, in mid-May, giving voice to how some Americans have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdown. As one spring breaker famously said, “If I get corona, I get corona.” To some, masking up, locking down, and hiding from the invisible virus feels wrong. To the spring breaker, a life in which risk-avoidance trumps joie de vivre is not worth living. To Reno, it is simply cowardice. Life is always risky, Reno seems to be saying, do you want to live your life in a sanitarium? Man up and live life.
There is a partial insight lurking somewhere beneath Reno’s tweet, one that has to do with masculinity and the conditions of modern society. But only a partial insight, one distorted and made dangerous by everything else implied in his tweet. Reno equates courage with manliness, and both with heedlessness towards danger. That seems to be the only way some men can imagine their masculinity today. I sympathize with the widespread frustration about the lack of opportunities for healthy masculinity, but Reno’s vision is not the answer. Because it reduces manliness, not to courage, but to rashness, bravado, and foolishness.
“Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result,” Winston Churchill wrote. He should know. An officer in the British Army, he served in British India along the Northwest Frontier in what is today Pakistan and wrote dispatches describing the carnage for The Daily Telegraph. Later, as a war correspondent in the Second Boer War, he took fire from the Boers, was captured and spent a few months as a prisoner of war before escaping and smuggling himself to freedom. Still later, he volunteered to serve on the front in World War I and taught himself to fly during the infancy of aviation.
Churchill was right. For some people, especially for young men full of testosterone, danger is fun. Living through danger makes one feel alive. This may sound crazy to others, but consider: you never feel so warm as when you come in from the cold to a toasty fire and the best meals are those eaten after a prolonged fast. The contrast of opposites heightens the sensation of both. For some people, the sensation of life accentuated by the possibility of its opposite is intoxicating. Life never feels more vital, more vibrant, more alive than when you are at risk of losing it.
I served in the US Army, and though I was mostly stuck behind the lines I often felt the tug, the desire to go to where the excitement was. The best depiction I know of this feeling is in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He pictures a soldier viewing the frontlines that separate armies:
“‘One step beyond that line, reminiscent of the line separating the living from the dead, and it’s the unknown, suffering, and death. And what is there? Who is there? There, beyond this field, and the tree, and the roof lit by the sun? No one knows, and you would like to know; and you’re afraid to cross that line, and would like to cross it; and you know that sooner or later you will have to cross it and find out what is there on the other side of the line, as you will inevitably find out what is there on the other side of death. And you’re strong, healthy, cheerful, and excited, and surrounded by people just as strong and excitedly animated.’ So, if he does not think, it, every man feels who finds himself within sight of an enemy, and this feeling gives a particular brilliance and joyful sharpness of impression to everything that happens in those moments.”
“You’re afraid to cross that line, and would like to cross it,” so that you can feel that “particular brilliance” and “joyful sharpness.” If Tolstoy and Churchill are to be believed, this experience is, at some level, natural and almost universal.
That does not mean it is good. Like all things that are natural, manly risk-taking can be good or bad depending on circumstance and purpose. Augustine taught us that our natural loves must be rightly ordered, and any love can become disordered and destructive. The love of risk and danger is no different. Some men make an ethic and a lifestyle searching out this feeling. For them, deliberately courting danger becomes a way of demonstrating their manliness. If I take this risk and survive, I am a man. It becomes ritualistic, even addictive, like the adrenaline junkies who invented extreme sports, base jumpers and free solo rock climbers.
The 1999 film Fight Club—one of my favorites, I admit—exploited men’s felt desire for meaningful masculinity into a nihilistic cult following. I suspect a lot of the appeal of superhero movies, fantasy films and war movies is because they function as masculine wish-fulfillment, allowing us vicariously to experience the thrill of combat. Those were the days: when men could be men and every man knew the thrill of an infantry charge across the fields of Bannockburn.
More troublingly, scholars have shown that one of the reasons some men fall into gangs and extremist groups is because they feel a need for a community of men and a context that validates and channels their biologically natural aggression, a community and a context that post-industrial civilization has largely failed to provide outside the armed forces. Something like this dynamic probably underlies both jihadist terrorism and the alt-right.
The appeal of this kind of vision of manliness seems to be spreading beyond the fringe corners of 8chan and The Daily Stormer. In 2018 and 2019 someone who goes by the pseudonym “Bronze Age Pervert” wrote and circulated The Bronze Age Mindset, a sort of manifesto of premodern masculinity said to be popular among staffers in the Trump White House. (To be clear, the Pervert does not advocate terrorism, though he seems to revel in racism and homophobia.)
At some level, many men experience the desire for danger and physical thrill as a primal need. We need an opportunity to face danger and prove to ourselves and to our brothers that we will show grace under fire, make the heroic sacrifice, and fight the good fight. Quite a lot of talk about the crisis of masculinity or toxic masculinity makes the problem worse by trivializing these feelings, treating them as a juvenile phase or a function of too many violent video games, or telling men they just need to grow up. That discourse has nothing to say to many men who feel that we were built for this, and we have to do something to obey the inner compulsion to court danger and live.
If society doesn’t give men an answer, they’ll make one up themselves, and their answers will often be reckless, nihilistic, foolish, or destructive, like daring to go maskless during a global pandemic.
How do we reconcile the apparently inbuilt nature of male aggression with the needs of peace, order, and civilization? Note that Winston Churchill’s risk-taking was for a purpose. Though doubtless he enjoyed his youthful exploits, he took risks as a soldier and a journalist, serving the higher purpose of king and country. He didn’t take risks (only) to have fun, prove himself, impress others. He wasn’t indulging in risk for its own sake; he was taking risks to achieve something larger than himself.
Churchill participated in the institutions of society—army and nation—that existed in part to give young men a way to put their natural aggression to constructive use. If a young man feels consumed by a need for physical valor, probably the most useful thing he can do is serve his country as a soldier, policeman, fireman, or first responder.
But there is something more to be said than to sign the praises of public service. Churchill was physically brave and personally encountered risk, danger, and threats to his life. We see in his life the virtue of courage. Courage is a biblical virtue. Moses commends Joshua to be courageous, and Joshua passes it on to the nation of Israel in probably the most famous biblical invocation of courage.
Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go…Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:6–9)
Note that Israel was to be courageous by obeying the Lord. Much later the prophet Azariah urges Asa to show courage by obeying God, which he does by putting away idols (1 Chronicles 15:7). Of King Jehoshaphat it was said that “his heart was courageous in the ways of the LORD,” (2 Chronicles 17:6), because he walked in the ways of the Lord and did not seek the Baals. King David boldly asked God to confirm his promise to establish his house, claiming that because of God’s greatness, “Therefore your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you,” (2 Samuel 7:27) The Psalmists twice counsel us to “take courage” and “wait for the Lord,” seemingly equating the two (Psalm 27:14 and 31:24). The Bible’s portrayal of courage is less about physical valor than the courage of conviction.
Interestingly, the few occasions in which the Bible invokes courage in connection with physical violence, it is by the bad guys. Before one battle, Israel brought the ark of the covenant to their camp to rally themselves. The Philistines heard their shout and were afraid. “Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you,” they said to themselves, “be men and fight,” (1 Samuel 4:9), perfectly echoing Reno’s equation of manliness, physical valor, and combat veterans. Later, Absalom exhorts his men to be courageous enough to murder a drunk man (2 Samuel 13: 28). These were hardly meant to be moral exemplars for us today.
I don’t fully understand what it means to be “courageous in the ways of the Lord,” though I pray I grow to understand it someday. I know enough to say that, in the Bible, courage is generally good, but usually when it is courage to obey the Lord, to trust his way when it is unpopular or difficult, to wait on his deliverance when salvation seems humanly impossible. The focus isn’t on me and the point is not to prove my manliness, but to put my manliness in the service of something beyond myself.
The least manly thing a guy can do is be so consumed with insecurity over his manliness as to endanger himself and others in his quest to prove how manly he is. Masculinity, whatever else it is, certainly includes wisdom, intellectual integrity, and the courage of conviction. It requires maturity and steadiness of judgment. It might require physical valor and even the capacity for violence in extremis—to defend oneself or protect others. It does not include performative bravado, reckless disregard for public safety, or the deliberate courting of avoidable risk to prove a point.