The Virtues of Men : an exploration of virtue ethics and its application to masculinity
Koen, Johannes Petrus Theunis
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The modern era has been an era of progress and innovation. It has also been an era of rapid change where old ideas and traditions were substituted for new and modern trends. While the consequences of these changes have been mostly positive, in the rejection of old wisdom some of its foundational ideas, which are essential to human flourishing, have been lost. This loss is discernible mostly in the field of ethics. Its base assumptions of human nature and the existence of good as part of lived experience has been ruthlessly undermined, if not completely abandoned. The resultant nihilism has led to an ethic that is too impotent to distinguish between actions that ought to be permissible and those that ought to be prohibited. Masculinity has been similarly devastated. The old roles according to which men defined and measured themselves have been stolen from them and consequently they have no real place left to express their masculinity. This has been the result of historical events, specifically the phenomenon of women moving into the formerly male-dominated spheres of work and leadership. However, of greater concern is the contemporary move to describe any inherited traditional idea of masculinity as toxic and harmful. Moreover, the feminist movement’s attack on the concept of gender itself has obstructed any attempt to construct any kind of masculine identity. Consequently, there are three questions to be asked here: What is goodness, what is a man, and what is masculinity. To determine the correct construction of proper masculine identity, it is imperative that its constituent parts are correctly understood. To this end, virtue will be discussed through the lens of ethics. Since its conception, ethics have attempted to determine how life ought to be lived. In the tradition started by Aristotle, a thing’s goodness was determined by the actualisation of its final end or purpose. In humans, this purpose is eudaimonia or a life well-lived. Aquinas would later develop this further by associating the good life with a relationship with God, who is the source of all goodness. In both cases, virtue is indispensable. Aristotle taught that to live a good life, the character that facilitates that life needs to be developed. This can only be done through the inculcation of virtue. Even in Aquinas, the virtuous life is the best that can be achieved by humans. In men, an additional purpose flows from their potential for fatherhood (which is what distinguishes them from women). This purpose is the act of fatherhood, whether in the form of literal fatherhood or the spiritual sense of mentorship. In both cases, it deals with preparing others for the life ahead. While this obviously involves a man instructing those younger than him in the necessary knowledge, such as knowledge of virtue, it also involves encouraging his peers and learning from his predecessors. For the sake of practicality, an appropriate masculine model is necessary. Fortunately, such a model has been left behind by history. In the chivalric ideal, we find the ideal model of mentorship and the pursuit of virtue combined into a single package. By encouraging the pursuit of this ideal, a new kind of masculinity may be constructed, one that is not bound by the possibilities of the society that a man finds himself.
- Humanities