The Western is a genre of literature, cinema, or other arts that depicts life in the American Old West during the latter-half of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th century. A common feature of such depictions is a vision of grandeur, limitless horizons, and untamed wilds. Lawmen vie with outlaws in desolate places to bring American civilization and order to new lands.
In the Western genre dreams of greatness are often expressed: a hope at establishing a new life “out West,” finding a fortune in the gold rushes of California, seeking personal revenge, or finding fame through heroic acts against Indian tribes or bandits. The modern version of the knight errant, the lone ranger seeking justice, is bound no social institution but only to his internal sense of honor. Continue reading “Focusing on The Smaller Things”→
The Western man is often presented with two conflicting views of manhood that I term the “soft male” and the “hard male.”
The “soft male” is emasculated, effeminate, speaks softly, mawkish, emotive, defers to others at all times, and virtue signals to reveal his conformity with modernist/post-modernist sensibilities Conversely, the “hard male” is one who abandons all refinement, embraces the accoutrement of criminality, and promotes violence as the only solution for his and others’ problems.
I believe that the “soft male” and “hard male” paradigms create a false dichotomy and neglect to embrace a classical Western form of manhood as exemplified by the Greek heroes, the Roman emperors, and Christian knights.
The “soft male” paradigm is often promoted by second and third wave feminists as an alternative to traditional masculinity. The “soft male” is a “safe male.” Not only do academic and radical feminist promote such a model of manhood, but many in Western Christianity also promote such a model, whether explicitly or implicitly.
I grew up in a non-denominational Christian mega-church. Many of the young men in my childhood church and in others like it adopt a highly effete sense of style, emaciated physiques, and effeminate mannerisms. Since many youth pastors and worship leaders adopt these bearings the young women of these churches accept the weak male as the ideal and reinforce this concept of masculinity creating a negative feedback loop.
You may simply look at the clothing worn by the average twenty-something at the closest mega-church to see examples of which I am referring. The music in these churches is a reflection of the trends in pop-culture. In their men’s conferences emotivism is center stage and attendees are constantly reminded of their shortcomings so that a sense of contrite spirit is inculcated.
Likewise in many neo-pagan movements the other extreme is manifested. All things considered the “hard male” model should be considered a better option than the “soft male” model since strength, mental and physical, is an intrinsic part of the scheme. However the “hard male” concept is still an imbalanced prototype and hence not the ideal pattern.
In some so-called “heathen” communities the ideal of the outlaw biker is promoted. While the imagery of the One Percenter is an appealing alternative to the weak male of the cosmopolis, associating a movement with criminal elements of society is a recipe for disaster. Not only will you attract degenerate types of men, you will also marginalize your own movement by associating it with such antisocial groups.
Additionally the dictum that “violence is golden” may be correct in some ultimate sense, the idea that violence should be the initial or even secondary method of resolving debate is asinine at best. Instead of teaching men the ancient art of rhetoric, backed by the ability to apply violence systematically, these groups tend to promote violence as the ideal means of resolving one’s troubles.
“Heathens” may balk at this statement, however to understand that my comment is a correct assessment of their position one may simply look at the clothing the sell or books they author, which are merely a reaction to a normative culture that promotes weakness.
Refinement, advancement, knowledge, a respect for law, aristocratic garb, coupled with physical training, martial prowess, and rhetorical expertise (pathos, ethos, logos) aimed at the ultimate telos of self-conquest are the ideals I promote and those promoted by the ancients. Any concept of masculinity that is imbalanced or distances men from either our primal natures or civilizational advancements must be shunned.
I believe that there exists a third option that supersedes the simplistic notions of the “soft male” and “hard male.” Robert Bly provides an analysis of this third option in his book Iron John: A Book About Men through the German fable of “Iron John” or “Iron Hans.”
The story begins when something strange began to happen near the king’s castle. When hunters go into a nearby forest they disappear and never return. Group after group go into the forest, but never come back.
From that time on, no one dared to go into these woods. The king proclaims the woods as dangerous and off-limits to all. Years later an unknown hunter showed up at the castle and asked the king, “What can I do? Anything dangerous to do around here?”
The king said, “Well, I could mention the forest, but there’s a problem. The men who go in there don’t come back.”
“I’m not afraid,” the young man replied, “That’s the sort of thing I like.”
The huntsman entered the woods only accompanied by his dog. The dog picked up a scent-trail that lead him and his master to a pond in the middle of the forest. All of a sudden an arm reached out of the water and dragged the dog into the lake.
The next day the huntsman returned with three men and drained the lake with buckets. When they could see to the bottom, there was a wild man lying there. His body was brown like rusty iron, and his hair hung over his face down to his knees. They bound him with cords and led him away to the castle.
The wild man was kept in an iron cage and no one was allowed to release him under pain of death. The queen herself safeguarded the key. From that day the forest was safe to enter.
The story is teaching men to look deep within themselves. Under the surface of the water of your soul, lying under the rarely explored recesses of the psyche, lies an ancient wild man. Making contact with this man is a step most men have yet to take. The “bucketing out” process is only beginning to stir in our stifled culture, often in misguided directions such as the “soft male” and “hard male” paradigms.
There is fear surrounding the discovery of the man as there is around all change. Uncovering authentic masculinity, in its active and receptive forms, is a frightful process. The man who drains the pond uncovering his true nature is able to don armor and go out to war.
However uncovering the wild man at the bottom of the pond is different than touching him. The wild man is frightening compared with the shallow, hairless, sanitized man that is advocated in mainstream society. As Bly puts it, “Contact with Iron John requires a willingness to descend into the male psyche and accept what’s dark down there, including the nourishing dark.”
For generations our society has warned men to keep away from Iron John. The church, mostly in its Mainline Protestant and non-denominational variants, also warns its male parishioners to stave off the desire to seek the wild man since he will reveal the harsh nature within.
Like the huntsman in the story, some men have taken the hairy man from the pond’s bottom and placed him in a courtyard within the confines of a cage. He is revealed to the world, but is safely kept at bay.
An improvement over being kept in a dungeon, he is still kept in a cage.
The stories continues.
One day while the king’s son was playing with his golden ball, he accidentally rolled it into the cage.
“Give me my ball,” the boy told the wild man.
“Not until you’ve opened the door for me,” the iron-skinned man replied.
The boy told the wild man that the key was beneath his mother’s pillow. The prince hesitated at first, but eventually snuck into his mother’s room and stole the key. With key in hand he released the wild man.
The wild man was released and revealed his name to be Iron John. Afraid that he will be sentenced to death the prince begged Iron John to take him with him into the forest. The iron-skinned man agreed and took the boy with him into the wilds.
The golden ball is a man’s youthful wholeness before the modern world divided him into acceptable and unacceptable portions. The prince lost his wholeness and realized his loss.
We men have been told we will find our catholic nature in the sensitivity and nonaggression of the “soft male.” We have also been told that by rejecting any of aspects of high society and to return to a tribal setting we will find ourselves, the “hard man.” Both are lies. Both are falsehoods.
The boy, each man, will never find the golden ball in the world of the feminine. He cannot ask his mother, representing all women, who has been given the key to the cage, to return it to him. He cannot find the golden ball by seeking the feminine within himself. He cannot break the cage open by force or any amount of strength. He must use his mind, his tack, stratagem to retrieve his lost fullness.
He must steal the key.
Boys in ancient Sparta were taken away at a young age from their mothers and trained for war. An aspect of their training was learning the skill of forging for food, which included the skill of thievery. We too much learn this art so that we too may steal our sustenance, our golden ball, the key that will free the wild man caged in the courtyard.
The freed wild man is superior to the caged wild man.
Once free Iron John and the boy journeyed together to the forest.
The wild man and boy sat down next to a stream. Iron John told the boy not to allow anything to drop into the water. While staring at his reflection to the water he bent down and his long hair touched the cool surface. He stood up but his hair had turned to gold.
Disappointed in the boy’s failure Iron John told the boy that he must learn what it means to be poor. He sent him into the world, but said that if the boy ever needed him he could call out “Iron John” three times and the wild man would help him.
The prince traveled to a distant land and offered his services to its king. Since he is ashamed of his golden hair, he refuses to remove his cap before the king and is sent to assist the king’s gardener.
After we have stolen the key and freed the once caged wild man we must venture into the world.
Our time in society is a journey into the wilderness; the forest is the conceptual womb where we had a chance to unite ourselves with the wild man, but we were yet unworthy.
While we must seek and preserve the highest aspects of our culture, whether art, music, or even fashion, we must be wary of being corrupted by modernity, which has twisted the roots of our society.
However the roots are not yet dead and must be tended by the master gardener and his apprentices.
The Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” We must heed the word of the apostle and go into the world to conquer it, but must not let it conquer us instead.
The boy failed the test given to him by the wild man to remain pure and untainted by the vices and superfluities of life, and hence was not allowed to remain with Iron John. Being sent into the world, into unknown lands, the prince cannot yet reveal his shortcomings and keeps it hidden beneath a cap.
Not ready to reveal the transformation that has begun within him, the boy is told to assist the king’s gardener. One day, when ready, he will call upon the wild man and tend the king’s garden.
Years later, when war came to the kingdom, the prince saw his chance to make a name for himself. The king gathered together his people, not knowing whether or not fight back against the enemy, who was more powerful and had a large army.
Then the gardener’s assistant said, “I’m now a man. Give me a horse to ride to war!” The men of the kingdom laughed and told him he could tend the horses left behind.
The men went to war and the prince went to the stable. The only horse left was lame, but the prince mounted it and rode to the woods. When he came to the edge of the woods, he called “Iron John” three times.
The wild man appeared immediately, and said, “What do you need?”
“I am going to war. Give me a stallion to ride into battle!”
Iron John went back into the woods, and before long a horse came out of the tree line. Behind it followed a large army of warriors, outfitted with iron armor, swords, and shields. The prince donned a set of armor of his own and mounted the stallion.
The prince led the force to the battle and won the day.
After spending time in the world, his true nature hidden from prying eyes, the boy turned man is ready to tend the king’s garden and protect it from attack.
We who have seen, captured, and freed the wild man within ourselves were not yet ready to call upon this wild man to help us. We wandered in the world and learned all manner of knowledge from those with more experience, but once ready, and once a challenge presented itself, we rose up and resolved to meet it.
The prince is laughed at by the men of the kingdom. They do not see his true nature that the wild man woke within him. They still see a boy, a gardener’s assistant. They do not see a prince and son of a king. The prince is therefore forced to ride out on a lame horse and call the wild man to aid him in his quest.
Instead of merely providing the prince with a horse to ride into battle, the wild man, Iron John, gifts the prince an army and conceals his identity beneath armor.
Once equipped the prince rides to battle at the head of his host and defeats the enemy, however he is still not ready to reveal himself to those in the world.
The men that call upon the wild man within them are now different than others. We may repeat the words of Jesus to our detractors that have yet to elevate themselves by calling upon the wild man, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.”
Now that the enemy had been defeated the king wished to celebrate the victory.
He announced a banquet and offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to any one of the knights who could catch a golden apple thrown into their midst. The king hoped that the mysterious knight who saved the kingdom would show himself for such a prize.
Disguised as a knight, the prince caught the golden apple. The prince was forced to reveal himself and was recognized as the gardener’s assistant, but his golden hair revealed something magnificent about his nature.
“If you’re able to win battles and do feats like this you must be someone special,” the king exclaimed, “Who’s your father?”
“My father is a powerful king.”
“I knew you weren’t a peasant when I saw your golden hair,” said the king, “Can I do anything for you?”
“Yes,” he answered. “Let me marry your daughter.”
The maiden laughed and said, “He doesn’t follow protocol! When I saw his golden hair I knew he was special.” She then kissed the prince and agreed to marry him.
The prince’s father and mother came to the wedding and were happy to see their son again. They had given up all hope in seeing him.
While they sitting at the wedding feast, the music suddenly stopped, the doors opened, and a proud king came in with a great retinue. He walked up to the youth, embraced him, and said, “I am Iron John. I had been transformed into a wild man by a magic spell, but you have broken the spell. All the treasures that I possess is now yours.”
When a man overcomes an obstacle he naturally will wish to celebrate his victory, but many times a sense of shame, humility, or nihilism prohibits him from doing so.
The “soft male” is self-effacing and cannot bring himself to acknowledge the strength within. The “hard man” is a nihilist and sees all victory as transient. Both outcomes do not match with the festive attitudes that the ancients exemplified.
In the Roman Republic and Empire a triumphus or triumph was held to publicly celebrate the success of a military victory in the service of the state. A truly exceptional military commander was given the high honor of being named a vir triumphalis, a man of triumph. This general would be “king for a day,” and was considered to be closest to the gods. He would don the apparel of Jupiter and be drawn to the god’s temple while his peers watched. Banquets and games would follow.
In our tale the king wishes to celebrate his kingdom’s victory by hosting a banquet complete with a game, the winner of which would marry his daughter. He hoped that the mysterious knight would win the game.
We took are called to seize the prize after an accomplishment, which in our case is calling upon the wild man to help us conquer the enemy, the weakness and brutishness within each of us.
Once victorious the prince like a Roman general revealed and even reveled in his higher nature. Seeing that the prince was no commoner and did not abide by the rules of the commons the princess agrees to marry her champion. At their wedding the prince is reconciled with his parents, and in culmination Iron John is transformed into a rich king.
At the end of each man’s journey in freeing himself from the strictures of the requirements of the “soft male” and “hard male” models the man is now free to become the “higher male,” or as Bly puts it, the “deep male.”
The restitution of our lives, reconciliation with the world, and our victory over the slavishness of modernity results in the wild man being transformed into the king that he is.
On September 9, 1965, while flying from the flight deck of the USS Oriskany on a mission over North Vietnam, Naval aviator James Stockdale’s Douglas A-4 Skyhawk was hit by antiaircraft fire. His plane was disabled and began to fall out of the sky. Stockdale made the decision to eject from his aircraft over enemy held territory. In 1993, in a speech delivered at the Great Hall of King’s College, Stockdale described his thoughts immediately after realizing he must abandon his plane:
After ejection…I whispered to myself: I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus… as I ejected from that airplane was the understanding that a Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are ‘up to him’ and (B) those things that are ‘not up to him.’ Another way of saying it is (A) those things that are ‘within his power’ and (B) those things that are ‘beyond his power.’ Still another way of saying it is (A) those things that are within the grasp of ‘his Will, his Free Will’ and (B) those things that are beyond it. All in category B are ‘external,’ beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them. All in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement. They include my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my judgments, my attitude about what is going on, my own good, and my own evil.
Stockdale, who upon his return to the United States was awarded the nation’s highest medal for valor, the Medal of Honor, explained what he meant by what “my own good, and my own evil” by quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn who suffered in the Soviet Union’s gulag system: Continue reading “Stoicism: Panacea for a Modern Dark Age”→