In his fascinating book Manliness, Harvey Mansfield identifies Achilles as a paragon of virility. He is right to do so, for the rash and rebellious, boasting and body-dragging Homeric hero is not only an unforgettable Western archetype but the quintessential he-man, the larger-than-life warrior that is sung in virtually all cultures and climes.
We Christians should not forget Achilles, for he inversely reminds us of a paradox that comes to light only when we compare such a man to the central figure of the New Testament: sometimes, the one thing greater than the he-man’s heroism is the decision to reject it. Our Lord could have easily humiliated His foes the way Achilles did Hector, but He chose instead to be humiliated by them, a move that took real courage. When Christians call Christ the New Man (or Adam), they mean it in more ways than one.
Christ’s manliness transformed man’s understanding of manhood, and it is this transformation that, through the development and mediation of the Catholic Church, became a new Western ideal. This is obvious when we consider two areas typically associated with manly life: chivalry and sports.
Chivalry began as an attempt by the Church to curb the anarchy and bloodshed of feudal conflict in the Middle Ages, but it ended as something much more. The so-called Truce of God limited violence by prohibiting, on pain of excommunication, armed engagement every Thursday through Sunday and during the holy seasons of Advent and Lent. This pious restraint was sharpened by the Crusades, which upheld a new code of knighthood aimed not at personal glory (Achilles again) but the protection of the weak and oppressed. When a knight was consecrated or “dubbed,” the bishop prayed that he would become a defender of “churches, widows, orphans, and all those serving God.” This was obviously the instantiation of an important biblical virtue (Judas Maccabeus, the Old Testament prototype of the medieval knight, is described in II Maccabees 2:38 as providing for the widow and orphan), as was the care extended to another group: women.
When St. Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church (Eph. 5:25), he is essentially telling them to put the welfare of their spouses high above their own, even to the point of death.
Though the chivalrous regard for the welfare of women would later become subject to all sorts of romantic distortions (hence the parodies of love-stricken knights in Chaucer and Cervantes), even here there lies the kernel of a uniquely Christian insight. When St. Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church (Eph. 5:25), he is essentially telling them to put the welfare of their spouses high above their own, even to the point of death.
Today the concept of “ladies first” is more often than not condemned as quaint or chauvinist, but when it is properly understood and practiced it reflects this Christ-like conversion of male power and aggression to the selfless service of others. It presupposes that if a Christian man is designed to rule, he is to exercise that rule paradoxically by serving, just as Christ exercised his lordship paradoxically by humbly washing the feet of his apostles (John 13:4-16). This insight is well-reflected in the famous medieval legend of the Holy Grail as told by Chrétien de Troyes. When Perceval the knight is about to part from his mother, her last words to him are: “Should you encounter, near or far, a lady in need of aid, or a maiden in distress, make yourself ready to assist them if they ask for your help, for it is the most honourable thing to do. He who fails to honour ladies finds his own honour dead inside him.”
Over time, several customs developed from this transfiguration of male honor. Simple gestures such as opening doors or pulling out a chair for a lady bespeak a gentleman’s humble respect for women and a recognition of his responsibilities. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is the practice of tipping one’s hat to a lady. Given that a man’s hat is a traditional symbol of his rank and authority, the gesture is essentially a ritual acknowledgment of the fact that his position is in some crucial respects ordered to the service and regard of women.
It is generally not the function of a religion to create new forms of competition, yet the Judeo-Christian proclamation of the sanctity of human life led to far-reaching changes in the way that Westerners played games. After the Roman Empire embraced Christianity, a successful war was waged against the old athletic festivals and gladiator games, all of which were inherently tied to death cults, animal sacrifice, and even human sacrifice. But the Church never opposed athletic competition per se, and so the field was cleared for new and more wholesome forms of sport to emerge. Of course, this is not to say that the games were more effete. The proto-Christian Duke in “The Knight’s Tale” by Chaucer turns a battle into a tournament in order to prevent the loss of life, but this does not stop bones from being “bashed” and “bursts of blood in streams of sternest red” (l. 1752).
Jesus Christ the New Man gave us a counterintuitive yet ultimately greater model of manhood, one that has the chutzpah to beat down one’s own vainglory for the greater glory of God and for the sake of defending His most helpless creatures.
In some countries, Catholic life played a discernible role in shaping specific athletic tastes. My favorite example is Switzerland’s popular schützenfeste. These shooting competitions began as training exercises for marksmen who were to protect the procession of the Blessed Sacrament on the Feast of Corpus Christi from violent Protestants! In the same feisty vein is the humble sport of bowling, believed by some to have begun as a religious ceremony held in the cloister of a church. As far back as the third or fourth century, peasants may have placed their clubs (which, like the Irish shillelagh, they carried with them at all times) at the end of a lane. The club was called a kegel in German and was said to represent the heathen, to be toppled, we conjecture, by the rolling stone of the Gospels. Over time the clubs developed into pins, but the association lingered: to this day, a bowler is sometimes referred to as a kegler.
Finally, mention should be made of the motto of the modern Olympic games. Citius, Altius, Fortius (“Faster, Higher, Stronger”) was coined by Dominican friar Henri Didon, prior of Albert-le-Grand College in Arceuil, France. A well-known educator with a penchant for sports (he himself had won many a prize in his youth), Didon encouraged athletic competition at his school as a way of building character. It was at a sports meeting in 1891 that he ended a speech to his pupils with the stirring admonition: Citius, fortius, altius. The motto was eventually adopted by the father of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, with one exception. While Fr. Didon had placed the word fortius, or “stronger,” in the middle of the phrase to stress the moral significance of athletics, Coubertin ominously changed the word order to stress the “freedom of excess,” which he praised over and against “the unnatural utopia of moderation.”
Coubertin’s misappropriation of Fr. Didon’s motto is also fairly emblematic of the plight of Christian manhood in the modern age, which is one of the reasons why we even need to speak of the Catholic contribution to manliness as if it were something forgotten. Nevertheless, the testimony of Our Lord shall not be effaced. Jesus Christ the New Man gave us a counterintuitive yet ultimately greater model of manhood, one that has the chutzpah to beat down one’s own vainglory for the greater glory of God and for the sake of defending His most helpless creatures. The result is a blend of solicitude, gentleness, and toughness that makes Achilles’ egotistical bravado look puerile. And for that we can be profoundly grateful.
Michael P. Foley. “The Catholic Origins of Manliness.” Catholic Men’s Quarterly 3:4 (Winter/Spring 2007), pp. 16-17.
Reprinted with permission of Michael P. Foley.
Michael P. Foley is associate professor of patristics in the Great Texts Program at Baylor University. He is the author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?: The Catholic Origins of Just About Everything and Wedding Rites: The Complete Guide to Traditional Weddings and Drinking With the Saints: A Sinner’s Guide to a Holy Happy Hour. He is the editor of the new edition of St. Augustine’s Confessions.
Copyright © 2007 Michael P. Foley