Unless you regularly read this blog, you may never have heard someone use the word manliness in writing or conversation. Ditto for manly, unless it was said a bit in jest and with the requisite eye roll. And you almost assuredly have never complimented another dude on his manful effort.
These days man is generally only used to designate a person’s gender. There was a time, however, where man – and its many grammatical derivatives – represented a distinct trait and quality, and was employed as a descriptive adjective and adverb.
In our research on manliness over the years, it has been interesting to see the different words that were used to call out a true man and the behaviors befitting a man, and how those words have changed and in some cases disappeared over time. Today we’ll take a look at some of those words and what they used to mean.
The Title of Man in the Ancient World
Mention the word manliness these days and you’ll probably be greeted with snorts and giggles; people have told me that the first time they visited this site, they thought it was a joke. Many people today associate manliness with cartoonish images of men sitting in their man caves, drinking beer and watching the big game. Or, just as likely, they don’t think much about manliness at all, chalking it up to the mere possession of a certain set of genitalia. Whatever image they have in mind when you mention manliness, it isn’t usually positive, and it probably has nothing to do with virtue.
Yet for over two thousand years, many of the world’s great thinkers explored and celebrated the subject of manliness, imagining it not as something silly or biologically inherent, but as the culmination of certain virtues as expressed in the life of a man.
The ancient Greek word for courage – andreia – literally meant manliness. Courage was considered the sin qua non of being a man; the two qualities were inextricably linked. The Greeks primarily thought of andreia in terms of valor and excellence on the battlefield. A man with courage was strong and bold, with a white hot thumos. They believed that to attain full arête– or excellence – a man should join courage with other cardinal virtues like wisdom, justice, and temperance. But, they also acknowledged that men who were unjust and unwise could still be fiercely courageous – and manly. At the same time, many philosophers argued that courage was really a form of self-control and was just as essential for success in peacetime as it was in war. Aristotle for example broadly described courage as a man’s ability to “hold fast to the orders of reason about what he ought or ought not to fear in spite of pleasure and pain.”
The Roman word for man – vir – was very similar in definition to the Greek andreia. Vir was strongly associated with courage, particularly of the martial variety. In the latter part of the Roman era, as excellence became just as necessary in governance as on the battlefield, the traits associated with being a man worthy of the title vir expanded to include not just courage, but other qualities such as fortitude, industry, and dutifulness. Thus it is from the Latin vir that we get the English word virtue.
The next great era of man-centric language was the 19th century. Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, English and American thinkers of that time believed manliness was not an automatic trait of biology but something that had to be earned. Writers and speakers of this period continued the Roman tradition of defining manliness as the possession of a certain set of virtues, adding to the requisite list other qualities befitting a Victorian gentleman:
“Manliness means perfect manhood, as womanliness implies perfect womanhood. Manliness is the character of a man as he ought to be, as he was meant to be. It expresses the qualities which go to make a perfect man, — truth, courage, conscience, freedom, energy, self-possession, self-control. But it does not exclude gentleness, tenderness, compassion, modesty. A man is not less manly, but more so, because he is gentle.”
“For anything worthy of the name of Manliness there must be first…the development of all that is in man—the physical, the mental, the moral, and the spiritual…virtue is the highest quality in a man; and so that manliness is most fully realized where the virtues are most fully developed—the virtues, shall we say, of Bravery, Honesty, Activity, and Piety.”
Men of the 19th and early 20th centuries also saw manliness not simply as a collection of different virtues, but as a virtue in and of itself – a distinct quality. They encouraged men to embrace manliness as the crown of character – as a kind of ineffable bonus power that was produced when all the other virtues were combined (the Captain Planet of the virtues, if you will). Manliness was often noted as a separate, preeminent trait in men worthy of admiration:
“He is going to be known as a boys’ hero. He is going to be known preeminently for his manliness. There is going to be a Roosevelt legend.”
“I have grieved most deeply at the death of your noble son. I have watched his conduct from the commencement of the war, and have pointed with pride to the patriotism, self-denial, and manliness of character he has exhibited.”
Manliness was often used in a way that seemed to imply that while the quality encompassed all the other virtues, it also acted as a balance to them — ensuring that the softer, gentlemanly virtues didn’t sap a man of a virile toughness:
“After all, the greatest of Washington’s qualities was a rugged manliness which gave him the respect and confidence even of his enemies.”
“We have met to commemorate a mighty pioneer feat, a feat of the old days, when men needed to call upon every ounce of courage and hardihood and manliness they possessed in order to make good our claim to this continent. Let us in our turn with equal courage, equal hardihood and manliness, carry on the task that our forefathers have entrusted to our hands.”
As it was in antiquity, the measure of manliness amongst its citizenry was often linked to the health of the republic:
“Government, as recognized by Democracy, pre-supposes manliness, knowledge, wisdom.”
“We are a vigorous, masterful people, and the man who is to do good work in our country must not only be a good man, but also emphatically a man. We must have the qualities of courage, of hardihood, of power to hold one’s own in the hurly-burly of actual life. We must have the manhood that shows on fought fields and that shows in the work of the business world and in the struggles of civic life. We must have manliness, courage, strength, resolution, joined to decency and morality, or we shall make but poor work of it.”