We live in an unmanly age. That might sound strange given all the violence, both real and fictional, in America today, but that's because people mistake macho for manliness. Hollywood's stereotypes, for example, seem to run from wimp to grunting killer, with nothing in between.
Manliness has nothing to do with aggressive behavior, loud talk and muscle shirts. If we are going to stick with Hollywood for examples, then manliness is personified by Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chuck Norris in their private lives. All three are men of proven toughness (Li and Norris were competitive champions in the martial arts, and Chan was trained from childhood in a strict and cruel school), yet all three are quiet, unassuming gentlemen.
"Gentlemen" is the key word. In the traditional definition, a gentleman was a Christian knight — brave and bold, even fierce, in combat, but humble, generous, kind and, above all, honorable. The best example I know of is Robert E. Lee, the great Confederate general.
Lee comes about as close to perfection as a man can be, though he was humble in the extreme. When someone asked for an interview in order to write a biography, Lee replied, "I know of nothing good I could tell you about myself."
This from a man who graduated from West Point without a single demerit, who distinguished himself as a hero in the Mexican War, who was superintendent of West Point, who was Abraham Lincoln's first choice to be the commander of Union forces, and who, as leader of the Army of Northern Virginia, won worldwide fame for his military genius.
But Lee's was not a false modesty. He was a true Christian. There is no record from any of his own writings or from the many memoirs of people who knew him that he ever used a vulgarity, spoke ill of any man or expressed any hatred or bitterness. Such was his fame that after the war, he received many lucrative offers, including an English estate and a job that paid $50,000, a fortune in his day. He turned them all down and accepted the post of president of Washington College for $1,500 a year.
In turning down the $50,000 offer, Lee wrote: "I cannot leave my present position. I have a self-imposed task. I have led the young men of the South in battle. I must teach their sons to discharge their duty in life."
What a contrast to our own generals, who cannot wait to cash in on their measly little victories against virtually unarmed foes. Lee, like another Southern hero, Alvin York, would never have agreed to make a profit on the misery of war.
A wonderful introduction to this giant of American history is a little book, The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentleman, edited by Richard G. Williams Jr. The publisher is Xulon Press, 11350 Random Hills Road, Fairfax, VA 22030. It would be a fine gift for a teenage son. Lee's words are in such contrast to today's selfishness and immorality.
Lee was not, as some might expect, a gloomy-Gus type of guy. He wrote to his daughter: "The more you know, the more you find there is to know in this grand and beautiful world. It is only the ignorant who suppose themselves omniscient."
Lee admonished one of his sons to "Shake off those gloomy feelings. Drive them away. Fix your mind and pleasures upon what is before you. ... All is bright if you will think it so. All is happy if you make it so. ... Live in the world you inhabit. Look upon things as they are. Take them as you find them. Make the best of them. Turn them to your advantage."
We are not much exposed to greatness these days, and in such times as ours, it is often better to keep company with the dead than with the living. If this little book could inspire even a few hundred young men to resolve to emulate Lee, what a boon for the country that would be.
September 4, 2004
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years, reporting on everything from sports to politics. From 1969—71, he worked as a campaign staffer for gubernatorial, senatorial and congressional races in several states. He was an editor, assistant to the publisher, and columnist for the Orlando Sentinel from 1971 to 2001. He now writes a syndicated column which is carried on LewRockwell.com. Reese served two years active duty in the U.S. Army as a tank gunner. Write to Charley Reese at P.O. Box 2446, Orlando, FL 32802.
© 2004 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.