On Anthony Esolen’s No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men
Matt Walsh’s recent film, reviewed here, documented Walsh’s worldwide quest to find an adequate answer to the age-old question, “What is a woman?” In fact, Walsh’s film aimed to expose the incoherency of the radical gender ideology sweeping the West, especially as it has impacted women and girls. In his 2022 book No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men, Anthony Esolen exposes how radical gender ideology and its evil twin, feminism, are short-sighted in their attempt to “destroy the patriarchy” by demonizing manhood as “toxic masculinity.” The book’s defense of manhood, Esolen explains, is especially for the young boys in our society. Men are strong enough to withstand attacks. Boys are being destroyed before they reach manhood.
Drawing on nature, history, literature, science, common experience, and Scripture, Esolen defends a traditionalist understanding of manhood, an understanding that recognizes the good and unique differences between men and women and the consequently different roles for men and women in the family, society, politics, and the church. Men’s unique roles in these spheres are not for self-aggrandizement, as feminists would have us believe, but for the common good—and for the good of women especially. Men performing their roles well is good for all, for “[w]e cannot corrupt one sex without corrupting the other. Male and female stand and fall together” (xi). Thus, throughout his book, as Esolen highlights men’s unique contributions to civilization that cannot be replaced by women, he does so not to demean women but to promote the good of all of society, both men and women.
Esolen repeatedly rejects the doctrinal claims of modern feminism in No Apologies. He begins in Chapter 1, “Strength,” by exposing one of the most obvious falsehoods proclaimed by modern feminism: the false claim that men and women are physically interchangeable. A woman can do anything a man can do, and sometimes better, proclaim the feminists. With colorful examples from history and his own life, Esolen demonstrates that men and women are physically unequal, and the greater strength of men enables them to perform physical tasks which women cannot. The team required to raise a barn or cut down an oak tree with an axe is necessarily male, for such tasks stretch adult men’s strength to the upper limit, thereby excluding women from direct participation. Esolen qualifies his claim–there will be some very strong women who may exceed some men in strength. Despite this, Esolen argues, men’s average strength far exceeds the average strength of women, and that is what counts when dividing labor.
Men’s unique strength is not merely external and physical but also internal and emotional. Men have a stronger ability than women to quiet their emotions when a task at hand must be accomplished. Contrary to those moderns who would encourage boys and men to express their emotions by opening the floodgate of tears, Esolen encourages boys to become men and learn when they must stiffen their upper lips and accomplish the work that must be done. To counter the claim that masculine emotional resiliency is a mere cultural relic, Esolen cites example after example from the literature of societies all over the world, past and present, Western and non-Western, which tells of men who must withstand the pull of emotion in order to accomplish their pious duty to their people and their gods. Aeneas must leave his lover Dido to fulfill his divine calling to found Rome. The Chinese master, Confucius describes the good man as he who “obeys the sacred custom, and . . . does not permit the grief to master him” (19). Native Americans told the tale of an adolescent boy who resists his grandmother’s tears in order to brave the hunt to provide for his people and courageously kill the evil murderer, Klarrheit. For Esolen, men must not allow their emotions to disable them, especially when the family and nation are depending on them to act.
In his chapter “Agency,” Esolen explores men’s drive toward action, and how that drive has historically been used for great projects that have benefited both cities and all mankind. Whereas some today object, arguing that boys’ restless energy is learned from their upbringing, Esolen correctly points out that such a claim “defies not only everything that we know about the physiology and the behavior of mammals, but also the testimony of human cultures in every climate, in every age, and at every stage of technological development” (30). Boys and men have an energy that seeks “to change the face of the earth” (30). One way or another, men will act: either to destroy or to build up. Esolen describes how men acted in coordination to build aqueducts to bring fresh water to ancient Rome. Men of modern society, given the tools of the ancient world, would have neither the mental aptitude nor the physical capability to accomplish such a task. But such tasks are what make civilization possible.
If men are those who accomplish the frankly brutal tasks that are necessary for a city or country to even exist, then men and masculinity are not dispensable. Rather, man’s inner drive prompting him to shape his world according to his will is a foundation of a flourishing society. Yet modern academics and modern politicians have promoted ideas and policies that do not encourage boys to grow into the sort of men who do great things for the sake of their people and land. Esolen tells of the work of lawyer and professor of law, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality”–an analytical tool that considers how overlapping identities can advantage or disadvantage individuals. Crenshaw’s intersectionality is for Esolen “the academic fad of our time” that has led Crenshaw to pursue policies directly detrimental to the needs of boys, such as the Equality Act (40). The Equality Act ostensibly promotes the interests of women and homosexuals, but in reality “is a dagger aimed at the heart of the healthy masculine camaraderie that builds aqueducts and lays pipelines” (40).
Modern society in America has been a disaster for boys and their potential development into men who would work to better their world. The government incentivizes family breakdown and the resulting fatherlessness. Modern education and college credentials are pushed as a cure-all, when in fact they discourage young men from pursuing the sort of work in which they would really thrive. Related to this, the trades and blue-collar work are improperly funded and discouraged as somehow less worthwhile than office work. Esolen suggests that we have structured society in this way in part because we believe the world runs on magic.
We no longer understand how things work or how things are built: like magic, special words or keystrokes are all that is necessary. Maintaining aqueducts, for example, is now done entirely through computers. What will happen when computers glitch or break? Men with know-how will have to work to repair and rebuild. Yet our society no longer produces such men. The focused, knowledgeable action of men built civilization: we have forgotten that fact to our detriment.
Men’s drive to shape the world is not merely physical. Citing psychologist Ellen Winner, Esolen explains how some men have a “‘rage to master,’ a consuming and obsessive interest in what fascinates them, often to the exclusion of more ordinary pursuits” (54). Such men like the musician Mozart, the chess prodigy Alexander Alekhine, and the linguist Jacob Grimm exhibited an internal drive to fully understand their field; they took pleasure in “mastering the domain” (56). One could dismiss such pursuits as examples of a Nietzschean “will to power.” Yet these men accomplished great things because of their masculine drive to master. These men, and numerous others that Esolen describes, did not seek to please the crowd, but found pleasure in great tasks. These men were unique geniuses, yet their drive to mastery is the same drive in all men that leads them to rebuild a house or rebuild society.
In his chapter “The Team,” Esolen defends the concept of “old boys’ clubs.” He argues that men’s strength and men’s drive to action combine best to accomplish great things when men work together, as men, to achieve a goal. Native American men had to work together to hunt bison: one man’s strength and drive was insufficient to kill enough bison to feed the tribe. A plan and division of labor were needed to form a successful hunting party. Boys or men playing football do not run around as individuals on the field but coordinate to execute the plays properly.
These teams of men or boys are fundamentally changed when women enter the equation. Esolen makes this point with a rhetorical question: “What if the sign on the tree house, No Girls Allowed, is not meant so much to keep girls away but to protect the male friendships from having to compete with eros . . . ultimately for the good of the women that those same girls will become?” (87). Teams of men or boys are unified in brotherhood and in a mutual willingness to oppose one another for the sake of building one another up. That unity is destroyed when they begin to compete with one another for female affection and not for mere pleasure or the mutual sharpening of their skills. Men fight each other, both for the fun of it, and to make each other better at fighting. This is not done in groups composed of men and women. In all-male groups, men are willing to step over the niceties of polite society to discuss important truths and plans of action in a dispassionate way. In all-male groups, men have a “willingness to wrestle, to beat the opponent bloody or to be beaten bloody [them]selves, and then to move on, rather than retire to a closet, weeping” (95). Such a bloody affair (verbal or otherwise) is almost impossible when female empathy and compassion dominate. But when the barbarians are at the gates–or already within the city–manly aggression must be channeled toward righteous ends through all-male teams.
Through competition and opposition, men establish their brotherhoods based on a natural hierarchy and thereby also on a division of labor ordered towards a common goal. The quarterback leads the team. The fullback blocks. The wide receiver catches the touchdown. Each boy has a role, and it is suited to him. This “fraternity and hierarchy” “enables men to multiply their strength most efficiently” (71). This structured brotherhood assigns each a different and unequal role most suited to the team’s accomplishing the goal. Esolen explains how the brotherhood exhibits both equality and hierarchy: there is a mutual respect among all within the team–each is equally a part of the team–yet there is also an honest recognition of the unequal abilities among them. Esolen argues that if men do not form brotherhoods founded on hierarchy, “you will not only fail at civilization, you will fail even to have a strong tribe of savages in the woods” (72).
In what is perhaps the most controversial section of the book (at least for 21st century egalitarian sensibilities), Esolen argues for the importance of masculine brotherhoods in politics. Both nature and history testify to this:
[I]t is also natural for men to form those games of government that control and direct the actions of those teams beneath them. No one ever thought otherwise. It no more occurred either to men or to women that women should be senators than that they should be warriors, merchants on the ocean, builders of great public works, or members of any other team aimed at accomplishing something requiring the coordinated strengths of many men, often at risk to life and limb.
Government helps to coordinate teams of men in accomplishing their tasks for the common good. That leadership role is men’s by nature.
But Esolen does not force the reader to rely on merely his own arguments to make this point. Esolen cites Mariana Griswold van Rensselaer, a female leader in the anti-women’s suffrage movement in America:
‘Man’s greater physical strength,’ she says, ‘is not merely a reason why he has hitherto done all the work of government. It is also a sign and proof that this is part of his natural work. By nature he is the protector of his family . . . whether it be attacked by wolves, by human individuals, by the fear of poverty, or by the dread of public calamities. And by nature a woman is a being to be protected. Her physical weakness is a sign of this’ (83-4).
Nature and history are univocal: the political sphere is the sphere of men. That role, however, is for the sake of the women. Mariana van Rensselaer, again: “‘It is simply and solely for the safeguarding of the home, and of women as the centre of the home, that government exists, that men labor and fight and strive and try to rule” (84). Men, left to their own devices, would not seek the structured, safe existence that good government provides. This is why single men of the past pursued lives of adventure on the high seas or in mercenary armies. Single men would stand a chance at survival in a state of nature; government is primarily for the vast majority of women and children who would not.
The transformation of the political sphere into a field occupied by both men and women is not only problematic from a natural or historical viewpoint but also represents a change in the fundamental unit of society. In a society in which the realm of politics is exclusive to men, men must represent their family or household’s interests in the political sphere. The man is the representative for himself, his wife, his children, and any others for whom he is responsible. When suffrage is expanded, however, the family is no longer the fundamental unit of society. Rather, each individual represents himself (or herself, in this case). Esolen considers that “[t]he last thing that Western men needed at the time [of the suffrage debates] was more encouragement to see life as the pursuit of individual gain—to thrust the household from its central place” (85). The 21st century has certainly not righted the ship of society with regard to the centrality of the family rather than the individual. Deracinated individuals, rather than tightly-knit family units, are the rule rather than the exception in our modern world.
Esolen’s chapter “The Family” attempts to place the rightly-ordered household back into its central place in society. In this chapter, Esolen defends what has become forbidden in polite discourse in the West today: patriarchy. Esolen rightly distinguishes the patriarchal family from sinful male domination. Adult males using their superior physical strength against women is not patriarchy. Patriarchy, rather, is government by fathers. The patriarchal family goes hand-in-hand with Esolen’s conception of male leadership in politics: city fathers ought to govern the political community towards the common good while familial fathers seek to create order and safety within the natural family for the good of all, but especially for the women and children.
Esolen considers the consequences of the absence of patriarchy in the modern West today:
When the patriarchs are missing, what you get from the boys is either aggressive disobedience or underachievement and waste. And then you get unhappy girls who despise the boys they have helped to form. The girls, too, go bad, because the sexes are made for each other, and you cannot corrupt one without corrupting both (102).
Boys and girls need fathers–masculine leadership in the home–not merely interchangeable, genderless “parents.” It is the patriarchal society that creates truly safe spaces within which women and children can flourish, because fathers defend and protect those who are in their care. Esolen considers Italy, where “a woman can travel . . . and be secure in her person” (103). Why is this? Italy is a place where “You do not touch that woman, because she has a father and brothers and uncles. You do not rape that woman, unless you want to wake up in a ditch the next morning bleeding from the crotch” (103). The father-led family protects those less able to protect themselves.
In his chapter “The Father in Heaven,” Esolen defends masculinity in the Church. Although he considers these matters from a Roman Catholic perspective, biblically-minded Protestants should recognize the truth of his primary points regarding the importance of male pastors and the use of “Father” to describe God. Esolen explains that when women lead churches, doctrinal matters are set aside, “because the faith has been reduced to kindness and following along with the latest socially approved attitudes. . . . The female priest is there to provide comfort and good feeling” (169). Women are rightly concerned with maintaining harmony and providing comfort, especially among those near and dear to them. Yet when these right concerns for harmonious living and comfort of the suffering become the only or primary issue, then questions of truth and manly suffering for the truth fade into the background.
Some progressive Christians have promoted the use of “mother” when referring to God. For Esolen, this is a product of not only a willful ignorance of the biblical text, but also a confounding of God with creation. God creates ex nihilo, but a “mother brings forth life from her own substance, from her body” (174). Thus, if God were mother, the implication would be “an identity of being between her and her offspring;” the mother and the material world would be of the same substance (174-5). Esolen draws the conclusion that “it is a short step from calling God ‘mother’ to raising the material universe to the level of the greatest god. That is, if you see God as ‘mother,’ soon will you see the material universe as a god” (175). Christians have long maintained the importance of distinguishing rightly between the Creator and the creation (Romans 1:25); worshiping the mother god blurs that distinction.
No Apologies pulls no punches: the transformation of society into a gynocracy has been a disaster. But the attack on manliness is not merely an attack against boyhood or manhood: “Ultimately the attack upon the home, and upon the marriage of man and woman, is an attack on the God who made man and woman” (183). If we call “very bad” (or even toxic) what God has called “very good,” we call God a liar. God has made men to lead and protect and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28). Christians ought to honor the high calling to which God has called men. This high calling, for the glory of God, is for the good of all.
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