It has been 136 years since Friedrich Nietzsche, in his book Die fröhliche Wissenschaft, famously proclaimed that “Gott ist tot” or “God is dead.” Nietzsche’s words have been regularly misunderstood as being in exaltation; a triumphalist statement in light of the falling of a celestial dictator by the Enlightenment. The intent behind this statement, however, could not be further from what has just been described. Instead, Nietzsche viewed the death of God as being the first step on a catastrophic road to universal nihilism. That we have embarked on a path that will eventually lead to the complete rejection of objective moral law and values.
Despite this, the death of God is clearly viewed by some as overwhelmingly positive; as an opportunity to break free from the toxicity and the constraints on free-thought that religions actively promote. Rather than keep this to themselves, Nietzsche’s false disciples frequently spread his gospel – rather like the evangelicals they scorn – and become tightly encased within a unique form of saviour complex.
In their minds, they are not here to spread bigotry or dogma, but reason and logic; they are humanity’s cerebral liberators. Like all liberation by anyone other than the oppressed themselves, the emancipator is often blissfully unaware of the harm they do those they claim to help. Rather than strip them of bigotry, they instead strip them of their character. Replacing all that held meaning, all that defined their identity, with a vacuum devoid of moral law and of personal identity. It creates a breeding ground where the stench of despair lingers on one’s clothes and the deep scars of psychological harm penetrate through one’s eyes.
Men today face another false prophet. It comes in the form of those who, far from caring about men and the masculine elements embedded in their identity, are intent on its destruction, not its renovation.
This movement is often justified by elements of so-called toxic masculinity within male behaviour. Toxic masculinity is not only extremely damaging to women but also to men themselves. But the crusade against masculinity overstates the toxic elements, and risks plunging many men into an identity crisis if the entire male gender were to be swept aside.
Nevertheless, masculinity is far from perfect. It places a significant amount of pressure on men of all ages. A form of peer pressure is present among groups of men where we feel pressured to conform to certain behaviours. For some, it is too much of a burden to deal with. A report by the Samaritans showed that there were 6,639 suicides in the UK and the Republic of Ireland (ROI) in 2015. Of this figure, 75 per cent of all the suicides were committed by men. What makes this even more concerning is that suicide remains the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK.
Now, I am hardly the archetype of what masculinity is made out to be. In fact, I am almost the antithesis of the macho male stereotype. I’ve been described by some as having an effeminate face, even being told that this occasionally applies to my body posture. I was lousy at what are considered typically masculine activities. I was too small, slow and clumsy to ever be any good at rugby; my short stature immediately ruled me out of the “tall, dark and handsome” category; and I’ve tended to cringe at conversations that revolve around elements of female sexuality.
Yet, bizarrely, I still view myself as inherently masculine. This is largely down to my differing view of what consists of masculinity and, therefore, how men should act.
The idea of “being a man” permeates into the life of every male, whether its presence is dominant or passive. The most stressed and damaging feature of this is with respect to the notion of strength. We are expected to be someone’s shoulder to cry on; a nation’s warrior when under threat; and an immovable emotional force that borders on the coldhearted, yet remains mildly conscientious. Signs of meekness are to be scorned. It is the idea that issues concerning the heart are for women, while physical challenges and being emotionally robust is the role of the man.
The challenge that men now face is that “true” masculinity has been stripped away, leaving only the desire for physical confrontation. In short, the greatest asset of masculinity has been lost: chivalry.
As CS Lewis raises in his essay On the Necessity of Chivalry, the word chivalry has meant at different times a good many different things. Our reflections on the notion of chivalry tend to currently appear broadly negative. It is unfortunately conflated with modern sexism – that it is the responsibility of a man to give up his seat on a train or hold open a door for a woman. Rather than being chivalric in its most pure sense, this is merely a conflation of past-attitudes towards women with the nature of masculinity. There is no better way to explore chivalry than through the medieval characters where chivalric qualities are best demonstrated.
In Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Lancelot, the most famous knight, is described by Sir Ector as being “the meekest man that ever ate in hall among ladies; and thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.” As Lewis highlights, chivalry makes a double demand on human nature.
The knight, for example, is “… a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.”
When Lancelot was then pronounced the greatest knight, “he wept as he had been a child that had been beaten”.
Chivalry, in this sense, epitomises the core of what masculinity is and to what it must return. It contains a place for heroism and strength, but balances it with responsibility and an emotional awareness that means no true man would ever hide his emotions; especially from those he loves.
Masculinity, more than anything else, stands in defiance of fear. On one level this means embracing the notion of sacrifice: to willingly put yourself in danger before those you have sworn to love and protect. And on another more profound level, it means rejecting the fear of yourself and who you are. It means embracing the tears that you may struggle to fight back and a refusal to bury your emotions deep below the surface of your character.
A true man is he who strives to protect those he loves; both by exerting force when necessary and by being at ease with his innermost emotions.