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“The M-word” personal response
My book club recently read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I was struck by his model of manhood, both in terms
of his own statements, and in regard of the men he credits as his teachers and idols. Important qualities on my list are
assertiveness (he was an Emperor of Rome!) and stoicism (he was influenced by the Stoics and by Stoicist men,
leading to his being “stoic” in the modern sense of the word.) In Aurelius’ case the assertiveness is tempered also with
several values: reason, respect, honesty, integrity, and self-control. In fact it seems every quality of manhood is
modified by some balancing value:
“To be free of passion and yet full of love. To praise without bombast; to display expertise without
(of his adopted father) “His willingness to take adequate care of himself. Not a hypochondriac or
obsessed with his appearance, but not ignoring things either.” “He never exhibited rudeness, lost control of
himself, or turned violent. No one ever saw him sweat. Everything was to be approached logically and with due
consideration, in a calm and orderly fashion but decisively, and with no loose
(of his brother Severus) “...when people incurred his disapproval, they always knew it. And that his
friends never had to speculate about his attitude to anything: it was always clear.”
In my perceptions of my own role models, usually it’s inner qualities that I’ve admired (or detested). I had a mix of
male role models, some good and some bad. Appearances, mannerisms, and interests did not really vary too much
across all my role models*. These were arguably typical, but I wouldn’t regard them as stereotypical either. (Are
sports, fitness, reading, and video games really stereotypically male?)
I can see how all these things were impressed upon my personality and how they are changing in many ways as I enter
midlife. Basically I think I have learned to develop positive aspects and compensate for negative aspects; this is where
holistic growth comes into the picture, since nobody can choose an ideal society and family environment in which
only positive qualities are modeled; instead everyone gets a mix, and each has to sort it out for himself by finding the
missing pieces or developing compensatory qualities (patience, forbearance, restraint, etc.) that balance everything
out. (Are these “feminine” qualities? Not everyone sees masculinity and femininity as opposites.) Probably the most
important “restraint” developments in myself have been the quieting of anger, and the flowering of spirituality. The
more constructive developments have been positive assertiveness (not letting people push me around) and improved
self-mastery with regard to habits (quitting smoking, getting more exercise).
Aside from inner qualities, I will say that physical strength and athletic prowess were things I admired across the
board. But seeing as these take perserverance, inner strength, and hard work to develop, I suppose one could say that
these are outer manifestations of inner qualities. As to the question whether “hard work” is inherently masculine or
feminine, I leave this to the self-appointed experts.
I also admired men’s camaraderie, but I did not understand it or find it until later in life, and somewhat fleetingly at
* Appearances, mannerisms, and interests, while important, are often too narrowly focused upon in
masculinity discussion, especially in theories claiming masculinity is an arbitrary “performance”. What
happens inside and what decisions you make when you are alone with your thoughts and troubles does not
necessarily show up to other people as a performance, hence inner qualities (i.e. character, spirituality) tend to
shrink from view in such analyses. This is to say nothing of what happens between oneself and God, and
many of the most important things I’ve learned have come from spiritual men.
Also, the idea that qualities of masculinity can have negative outcomes when not properly developed and
balanced, is not a new idea at all, and thus I find the “toxic masculinity” discussion to be not only pretentious
but also rather simplistic. Nobody thinks a raging ball of nerves who destructively bottles up all feeling is the
ideal man anymore. Some categories of men’s literature were onto this track from the 1980s onward (postJungians, etc.) but were largely ignored by the dominant culture.
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