When Men Wanted to Be Virile (2016)
Phenomenology and Existentialism
For the past few weeks, I’ve had a book on my desk called “A History of Virility.” It’s a seven-hundred-page scholarly anthology, published by Columbia University Press and translated from the French by Keith Cohen, chronicling how Western masculinity has been transformed, successively, by Ancient Greece and Rome, encounters with barbarians, the medieval court, the Enlightenment, colonialism, the Industrial Revolution, the invention of childhood, mechanized warfare, Fascism, the labor movement, feminism, gay liberation, and so on. The book is the size of a telephone directory; its cover features a glowering, Brando-like Adonis in a tank top. It is, in short, a source of amusement to all who pass by, many of whom point to the word “virility” and say, “Ew.”
There’s no denying that “virility” is, nowadays, a strange and icky word, redolent of romance novels, nineteenth-century boarding schools, militarism, and misogyny. For most of history, though—as the book’s editors, Alain Corbin, Jean-Jacques Courtine, and George Vigarello, point out—it was normal to praise exemplary men as “virile.” In fact, only in the past century has the word “virility” been displaced by the more anodyne “masculinity” and “manliness.” This has left us with a tautology, since we must now describe male identity as “masculine.” It’s also created a mystery and a question. The mystery: What did “virility” mean in the first place? The question: Is there anything about it worth salvaging?
“A History of Virility” begins in the Greco-Roman world. It was the Ancient Greeks, the scholar Maurice Sartre writes, who developed the concept of andreia, or “maleness.” Andreia usually expressed itself through manly brawn or audacity on the battlefield, but it had other applications. Audacious women could possess andreia—Herodotus, for example, attributed it to Artemisa, the Amazon warrior-queen—and it could have a civic aspect, in the form of andreia politiké, or political courage. The Spartans didn’t just train their young men to fight; they taught them andreia politiké by quizzing them about current events. If a young Spartan couldn’t give a concise and spirited answer to a question like “Who is an excellent citizen and why?,” he’d face corporal punishment.
In Ancient Rome, virilitas, a more ambitious version of andreia politiké, migrated to the center of male identity. Manly sexuality was fundamental to Roman virility: the classicist Jean-Paul Thuillier notes that the word virilitas could refer quite simply to the “male organs.” (In Latin, vir can also mean just “man” or “husband.”) And yet virilitas wasn’t just about size. To possess Roman virility, the editors write, was to radiate not just sexual power but “virtue, accomplishment.” The virile man wasn’t just sexually “assertive,” “powerfully built,” and “procreative,” but also intellectually and emotionally “levelheaded, vigorous yet deliberate, courageous yet restrained”:
The virile is not simply what is manly; it is more: an ideal of power and virtue, self-assurance and maturity, certitude and domination . . . . courage and “greatness” accompanied by strength and vigor.
The Romans made virility more complex and demanding. The main challenge for Greek men who aspired to andreia had been insufficient brawniness: Maurice Sartre quotes a cutting description of an almost virile young man named Theagenes, who impressed with his “broad chest and shoulders,” but was ridiculed for, among other things, the “blond fuzz” on his cheeks. But Roman virilitas was even harder to achieve. A man with virilitas had to be tall, muscled, handsome, tanned, and well-endowed. (Roman men spent a lot of time naked at the baths.) He also had to be clever, energetic, confident, and politically engaged. But the defining quality of virilitas was self-control. Virilitas was an ethic of moderation, in which strong or “vigorous” powers were kept deliberately reined in, in the manner of a standing army. If a man became too aggressive, too emotional, or too brawny—too manly—his virilitas could be lost. For this reason, being a ladies’ man could compromise one’s virility. (“For the ancient Romans,” Thuillier writes, “giving in too often to the charms of women is in itself slightly effeminate.”) To be sexually powerful, you had to be in control of your desires.
From our modern point of view, the strangest aspect of virilitas was that it was contrasted with manliness. Manliness and virility were separate, and even opposed, ways of being. Compared to virilitas, mere or “basic” manliness was a little contemptible. It was undisciplined and, worse, unearned, since, while men are born masculine, they must achieve virility through competition and struggle. Though this distinction now goes unspoken, it can still feel natural to us: watching the film “Gladiator,” for example, we readily recognize that Russell Crowe’s quiet, temperate, and deadly Maximus represents the virile ideal, whereas Joaquin Phoenix’s Emperor Commodus is too undisciplined to have true virilitas. Commodus is strong, sexy, intelligent, and undeniably masculine—and yet his passions control him and lead him in idiosyncratic and undesirable directions. He’s a familiar figure: a man who represents the dangers of manliness without virility.
Virility, in short, unfolded within a tortured moral universe. There’s a sense in which, in the ancient world, manliness was the virile man’s original sin. A man might be taught to be virile; he might establish his virility through “accumulated proofs” (sexual power, career success, a tempered disposition, a honed intellect); and yet virility, the editors write, remained “an especially harsh tradition” in which “perfections tend[ed] always to be threatened.” There was something perverse about the cult of virility. Even as virile men were exalted, it was assumed that each had a fatal flaw—a sexual, physical, or temperamental weakness—which observers knew would be uncovered. Virility wasn’t just a quality or a character trait. It was a drama.
Today, even though we don’t use the word “virility” quite so often, we remain fascinated by its fragility. With regularity, we are captivated by stories in which apparently virile men are undone by their irrepressible manliness. Often, sex is seen as compromising virile men (as with the fictional Peter Florrick, on “The Good Wife,” or Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, and the other real-life politicians on whom he’s based). In other cases, it’s emotion—often an unchecked, manly rage—that reduces the virile hero to a regular man. In a typical confrontation between James Bond and a villain, for example, the bad guy will try to provoke Bond’s irrational anger; Bond, however, is possessed of a stoic virilitas, and in the end the villain is himself undone by one of his perverse and manly appetites (a semi-erotic desire to see his enemy eaten by sharks, say). This kind of weakness isn’t extrinsic to virility. It’s part of the script. It’s a bit unsettling to realize how much our ideas about manliness owe to an ancient theory holding that all men, no matter how noble, will eventually reveal their perversities. And yet virility, oddly, contains an element of misandry.
The concept’s misogyny, of course, is more pronounced. Virility is a misogynistic ideal in an obvious way—historically and etymologically, it’s tied to the idea of male superiority. But Maurice Sartre, in his essay on Ancient Greek virility, argues that there’s a special connection between misogyny and the elusiveness of virility. Because virility was so slippery—because every virile quality, if taken too far, could compromise it—a “denigrating attitude toward women turn[ed] out to be easier to hold and to develop than the construction of a model of virility based on positive masculine values.” Virility, in other words, often got dumbed down, becoming a highfalutin form of misogyny. In its worst forms, it gave up critiquing manliness altogether, instead simply dressing up misogyny in the garments of aristocratic virtue.
Virility’s élitism is another mark against it. Because it’s a matter of such fine distinctions, virility has turned out to be most easily learned in environments of total surveillance—in a barracks, for example, where boys and men might observe one another at all times. Today, this is still how many men learn to be virile. They enter environments—summer camps, sports teams, fraternities, or military-training programs—in which their bodies and minds can be put under the constant scrutiny of other men. In such a place, a man can develop his virility while learning not to overdo it. He might learn, for example, to care about his body without being vain; to fight without getting angry; to make himself heard without shouting. A man who hasn’t had access to such institutional virilitas will seem, by contrast, to lack discipline, circumspection, and modesty. He’ll be annoying and dangerous, a jock who exalts in manliness without the discipline of virility. Today, something of this ancient, class-based contempt persists. It’s present, for instance, in the way the word “bro” has come to describe an enthusiastic, strong, but still merely manly man who belongs only to an informal, self-satisfied, and pleasure-seeking society of dudes. If we still used the word “virility,” we might say that such men lack the discipline and perspective required for true virilitas.
Virility only gets more contradictory and complicated with time and, reading through “A History of Virility,” one looks with mounting dread toward each new historical epoch. In the early modern period, for example, an aspect of délicatesse, or refinement, was introduced; now virility needed to be expressed through a controlled and gymnastic bodily grace, by means of activities like dancing or Casanova-like lovemaking. (In “Game of Thrones” terms, Ned Stark had to compete with Oberyn Martell.) The political subtext of virility also grew more complicated. During the colonial period, for instance, some men sought to ally virility with so-called “savage” naturalness; others sought to exclude “natives” from the élite club of virilitas, arguing that sex in non-European societies was mere lust and, therefore, manly rather than virile. (“They are very libidinous,” Amerigo Vespucci wrote, of the Native Americans, who, he said, “live according to nature, and are more inclined to be Epicurean than Stoic.”) Essentially, virility got tangled up in Europe’s mounting ambivalence about the desirability of progress and rationality. Today, following in that tradition, men often equate technological fluency with manly vigor, even as they yearn to assert their authentic and natural virilitas. Setting up a kick-ass home-theatre system can make a man feel virile; so can growing a lumberjack beard. This eddy of masculine irrationality turns out to have its roots in the Age of Reason.
As the anthology’s editors see it, Europe reached peak virility in the nineteenth century. By then, the ideal of the virile man had become almost impossibly confusing. Men who could afford to spent as much time as possible in barracks-like spaces—“college, boarding school, seminary, the singing club cellar, the brothel, the guardroom, gun room, smoking room, various workshops, and cabarets and waiting rooms”—in an effort to maximize virility. At the same time, however, virility was felt as “a network of anxiety-producing injunctions, often contradictory, to which one must, in one way or another, give in.” In an essay on “the code of virility,” Alain Corbin provides a dispiritingly long list of the types of un-virile men:
He who hesitates to get into the assault on the day of the battle; he who chooses to get a replacement because he has drawn a bad number in the draft lottery; he who was unable to save his comrade from life-threatening danger; he who does not have what it takes to be a hero; he who shows no ambition; he who remains indifferent to excelling or to the prestige of a medal of honor; he who ignores emulation because he does not seek superiority; he who has trouble keeping his emotions under control; he whose speech and writing style lack confidence; he who refuses women’s advances; he who performs coitus without ardor; he who refuses group debauchery—all these men lack virility even though their masculinity would not be challenged.
This Kafkaesque proliferation of crimes against virility is one reason why men stopped talking about it. And the authors in “A History of Virility” are not shy, either, about blaming the cult of virility for the disastrous conflicts of the twentieth century. Virility, the editors write, has long been “linked to death”; a prime way to prove one’s virility is through “heroic death on the battlefield.” After the First and Second World Wars, however, virility seemed not just undesirable but implausible. Death and shell shock among soldiers “undermine[d] the military-virile myth,” they write, and “place[d] masculine vulnerability at the heart of a caring culture.” At the same time, urban life styles and, above all, insurgent female power punctured the mythos of virilitas. In particular, advances in equality between the sexes intruded upon the male-only “scenes of collective virility” that had nurtured it. The sexist, élitist, and militaristic qualities of virility became increasingly unwelcome. By the mid-twentieth century, most people spoke about “masculinity” instead of “virility”—a sign, Corbin, Courtine, and Vigarello write, that something had “changed in the empire of the male.”
What’s striking, reading this plangent eulogy for virilitas, is how much virility nevertheless remains at the center of male culture. Spend some time with a stack of men’s magazines and you’ll find that male identity is still a negotiation between discipline and vigor. Men still have special respect for a man who dominates others by dominating himself. Earlier this year, Under Armour released a new television ad featuring the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. The ad alternates between moments of admirable discipline (Phelps lifts weights at the gym, shivers in an ice bath, and falls asleep after a hard day’s workout) and moments of unbridled athleticism (he powers inexorably down the lane). The commercial ends with the company’s slogan, “Rule yourself.” Phelps, with his sculpted muscles and mountain-man beard, embodies virility as Corbin describes it. He has “an amazing control over those organs that, while certainly vigorous, are truly subject to the virile man’s will.”
Today’s unnamed virility, though, has a different, gentler tone and intensity. The sweet spot for contemporary manliness often seems to be a less troubled kind of virilitas—one that’s more democratic and less misogynistic. A man now deadlifts “like a beast,” alongside women, in the martial environment of the CrossFit gym; he runs a gruelling yet jubilant Tough Mudder; he idolizes the self-discipline of the sushi chef. Many men are trying to express virility in harmless ways. The ones who peruse lists like Esquire’s “The 75 Movies Every Man Must See”—or who stand ready to debate the merits of “The Godfather: Part II” while explaining why Woodford Reserve bourbon is overrated—are preparing for cultural combat with other men. They hope to practice, in bars and on Internet forums, a subdued and modern form of the virile ideal.
One comes across moments when, if we still used it, the word “virility” might be useful. Watching Donald Trump intimidate his way through the Republican Presidential debates, I’ve often wondered about the meaning of his mine-is-bigger-than-yours masculinity. Is this what masculinity is? How can we distinguish between Trump’s pathological manliness and the healthier kind? This is hard to do when you have just one word, “masculinity,” to describe male identity. Now, theoretically, I could tell myself that, while Trump is undeniably masculine, he lacks virilitas. He is the Emperor Commodus of the 2016 election.
And yet “virility” is such a troubled word that one doesn’t want to use it. The question of the word’s future hovers over “A History of Virility.” The editors point out that there are aspects of virility that are appealing and gender-neutral. (In the nineteenth century, Joan of Arc was acclaimed, retrospectively, as a “virile” national hero.) Could virility cut itself loose from masculinity, leaving behind its misogynistic baggage to become a post-gender ethic of disciplined vigor, controlled engagement, deliberate strength, and circumspect courage?
Occasionally, you can catch a glimpse of this possible future. The December, 2015, issue of Men’s Fitness, for example, centered on a feature about the workouts of Michael B. Jordan (the star of “Creed”), but also included an article, “The Ultimate Transformation,” on “trans men who are redefining their lives through fitness.” Reading it, you got the sense that virility could be opening up and becoming more welcoming to the full range of people who want to express it. Earlier this year, in a beautiful and moving essay in Quartz, the writer Thomas Page McBee, a trans man, wrote about his experience training at a boxing gym and, eventually, fighting in a charity bout in Madison Square Garden. McBee doesn’t use the words “virile” or “virility,” but he does write about masculinity in terms familiar from that tradition: he describes it as an identity based on restrained power and contrasting impulses. “I love the beauty I find in masculinity,” he writes,
the way it can hold a bloody nose and a hug, a sharp razor on the jaw under the tender watch of a barber, the muscle that must be nursed carefully to its potential, the body that can make a puppy or a child feel sheltered, cocooned.
Perhaps this is what virility without misogyny could sound like. Ultimately, though, I suspect that virility will have to be renamed. We await a new word to renovate virilitas.