The Code of Men: The Neglected Virtue of Manliness

August 25, 2020 Updated: August 26, 2020

Being a man is tough these days. Becoming a man is even tougher.

Several years ago, I wrote the book “Movies Make the Man: The Hollywood Guide to Life, Love, and Faith for Young Men.” I hoped to offer some movies as mentors for young men under 30, “to inspire you in your quest for a full life, and to encourage you to seek out and practice the virtues and time-honored ideals of true manhood.”

I wrote this book because some young men I knew seemed clueless about the meaning of manhood.

Our Present Confusion

Though many men in their 20s are already mature adults, taking responsibility for themselves and those they love, and making their way in the world, there are others who enter adulthood baffled as to what it means to be a man, to raise a family, and to take personal responsibility in the workplace and the home. Many of them grow up without positive male examples—fathers, teachers, coaches—in households headed up by divorced or single moms, and consequently lack the training and guidance such mentors might provide.

Factors other than absentee fathers also undermine their sense of masculinity. All too often, the welfare state takes the place of the man of the household. People these days who seek special treatment by virtue of their race or gender, who feel they are victims, go against the grain of the masculine ideal of taking charge of one’s life and actions. In addition, rock stars, actors, and athletes have replaced the exemplars who once inspired the young—men like George Washington, Robert E. Lee, Booker T. Washington, and other guides who fought and sacrificed in an arena larger and more consequential than a stage or a football field.

The young are also coming of age in a culture that denigrates traditional masculinity, where television shows frequently belittle manhood and schools neglect to teach virtue and to prepare their students for the punches delivered by life.

Worst of all, perhaps, these young men fail to learn that all men worthy of the name live by a code.

The Code

This code is a man’s set of principles shaped from his breeding, background, education, and experience. A man’s code is that set of rules he cannot break without compromising his very soul. He may be unable to articulate this code, but if he breaks it, if he fails to practice its tenets, a part of him dies. Too many of these little deaths, and this broken man becomes a zombie, a ghost of himself, joining the ranks of what T.S. Eliot called “the hollow men.”

In the movie “Secondhand Lions,” the old warrior Hub McCann delivers what he calls his speech for young men. When his adolescent nephew, Walter, tells Hub that his mother lies to him all the time, and he asks if Hub’s stories about North Africa are true or more lies, Hub gives him part of “the speech”:

“Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most: that people are basically good; that honor, courage, and virtue mean everything; that power and money, money and power mean nothing; that good always triumphs over evil. And I want you to remember this, that love … true love never dies. You remember that, boy. You remember that. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. You see, a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”

This code sits inside every good man as if carved in stone.

Living the Code

So what are these qualities that make for good men?

Let’s look at life, love, and faith.

The manly virtues as practiced by people like the Romans (stoicism, fortitude, pietas), by the knights of the Middle Ages (prowess, largesse, protecting the oppressed), and even by the Boy Scouts (the Scout Law with its principles such as friendship, courtesy, good cheer, and bravery), whatever some in our present age may think, remain a part of the code of good men.

In “What Is a Man? 3,000 Years of Wisdom on the Art of Manly Virtue,” professor Waller Newell writes: “There is an unbroken pedigree in the Western conception of what it means to be a man. Honor tempered by prudence, ambition tempered by compassion for the suffering and the oppressed, love restrained by delicacy and honor toward the beloved—from Plato through today, there is a common store of richly textured observations, maxims, illustrations and confirmations of this enduringly noble standard of conduct. … We don’t need to reinvent manliness. We need only to reclaim it.”

Newell devotes nearly 800 pages to this subject. If you wish a shorter version, read Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”

True Love

Note that Newell brings up “love restrained by delicacy and honor toward the beloved.”

In an interview with William Bennett in “The Book of Man,” David Gerlernter, who survived a Unabomber attack and became a staunch advocate of tradition and the family, says: “Women have an urge to nurture and cherish children; men don’t have that, but they can substitute an urge to nurture and cherish women. Men need to turn their sexual interest into something that goes deeper, emotionally and spiritually.”

In “Movies Make the Man,” I concurred with Gerlernter’s view: a woman “wants a man with manners and a sense of civility, a man who respects her, who puts her on a bit of a pedestal—not too grand a pedestal, but a pedestal nonetheless. … She wants, in short, a man who is both gentle and manly.”

Ashes and Temples

Death comes for every man. How we face death may depend on how we have lived and what we have believed.

In Thomas Babington Macaulay’s “Lays of Ancient Rome,” he writes of Horatius, the Roman who defends a bridge against the invading Etruscans, in verse applicable to us today:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
‘To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods…’

And whatever our religious faith, a prayer found in the pocket of a dead unknown Confederate soldier at the end of the Civil War tells us that enduring and overcoming adversity is the blacksmith’s forge for making men:

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn to humbly obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for, but everything I hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

Cutting to the Quick

To define manliness is difficult, but we can follow the advice of Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome and Stoic philosopher, whose “Meditations” remains in print today. Like Alexander the Great slashing the Gordian Knot, the philosopher-king cuts straight to the chase regarding the question of manhood:

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

Young men, it’s as simple and as complicated as that.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. Visit JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.