What makes men men? (Part One)

Potentiality for fatherhood is the key to manhood

By J. Budziszewski | Apr 29 2019

The following is the first part of a talk, “What Makes Men Men?” delivered by Professor J Budziszewski at the Touchstone Conference on Patriarchy:  Fatherhood and the Restoration of Culture, held in October 2018. The text of the talk was first published by Touchstone Magazine and is published here with the permission of Touchstone and the author. Video/audio of the talk on men is here. Part 2 to follow.

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I am a little amused, because it may at first seem that one of the other speakers and I disagree about everything.  He argues that manhood is not natural; I argue that it is.  However, this is not a real disagreement, because the term “natural” is used in several different senses.  Psychologists and sociologists generally use it to refer to what is spontaneous for creatures of our nature, and that comes easy.

Ethical philosophers and theologians generally use it to refer to what reflects the flourishing or proper development of creatures of our nature, and that may come hard.  I certainly don’t think males become men easily or spontaneously.  But for their own good, I do think they need to become men.  So manhood is natural in my sense, even though not in my colleague’s – and he and I agree about this.

So let us get on with our subject.

What is it to be a man?

And how can we know?

Some people say the best way to understand the nature of the human male is to consider the selection pressures which operated during his presumed rise from the apes.  There are two problems with this strategy.

The first is that on this hypothesis, the only genes that are consistently passed on are the ones for traits which have adaptive value.  But obviously this isn’t so.  Tell me the adaptive value in seeking to know the meaning of life, or in the ability to be awed, humbled, and transported by the music of J.S. Bach.  One eminent sociobiologist claims that we have genes for believing in God, which are adaptive because belief in God unites the social group.  Apparently no one told him that believing different things about God can tear the group apart.  Besides — why not just have genes for social unity?

The second problem is that even if we did develop entirely by natural selection, we don’t know what selection pressures were operating.  Neo-Darwinian theory cannot say how human males had to come out.  All it can do is observe how they did come out, and then spin tales of how it might have happened.  After all, the primates all came out different ways.  The chimpanzee is highly aggressive and dominated by males, the bonobo is less aggressive and dominated by females, and we are neither chimpanzees nor bonobos.

Other people say that the best way to understand the nature of the human male is simply to observe him.  That’s better, but there are problems with this approach too.  The first problem is simple variation, because men and women are not all the same.  For every generalization about either sex, there are exceptions.  From this, a naïve observer may conclude that there is no such thing as male and female nature.  But this is a mistake.

Women and the inclination to nurture

For the fact that most women are more nurturing than most men is much more than an accident.  It arises from a genuine difference in the underlying reality, the difference between womanhood and manhood as such.  This difference is so powerful that men and women are influenced by it even when they defy it.  For example, we say women are more nurturing.  Yet some young women conceal their pregnancies, give birth in secret, then do away with the babies.  Nothing more opposed to nurturance could be imagined.

But wait:  Consider the ways in which these young women do away with their babies.  How often they place them in trash cans and dumpsters, still alive!  Why don’t they just kill them?  That is what a man usually does if he wants to do away with a child.  Perhaps a young woman imagines her baby resting in the dumpster, quietly and painlessly slipping into a death that is something like sleep.  Or perhaps she imagines a fairy tale ending in which some other woman finds her baby in the dumpster and brings him up as her own.

No, the act is not nurturing, but even so, the inclination to nurture hasn’t precisely been destroyed; under the influence of other strong motives, it has been perverted.  I daresay that such data are not captured by our psychological instruments.  It is not enough to count things with a survey.  One must see with the eyes of the heart.

The nature of a thing: not how it is, but how it is meant to be

The second problem with the “just observe” strategy is that it cannot tell the difference between how we are meant to be and how we are.  For example, some observers say that by nature human males are pretty nearly but not quite monogamous.  Most men like the idea of having a mate, but many men wander.

Now it may be true in a statistical sense that large numbers of men lapse from monogamy.  It is also true in a statistical sense that most people are sick some of the time.  Do we say then that by nature human beings are almost but not quite healthy?  No.  What we say is that nature intended them to be healthy, but sometimes they lapse from nature’s intention.  Why then don’t we say that nature intended men to be monogamous, but that sometimes they lapse from this intention too?  It is as though a physician who saw only broken arms assumed that if arms have no fractures there must be something wrong with them.

How could we correct such a misguided physician?  By calling his attention to the purpose or function of the arms, to their proper work.  Broken arms cannot do their work as well as intact ones; therefore, brokenness is not their natural state.  The nature of a thing is not determined by how something happens to be, but by what it is for — by what it is designed to do and to become, if everything goes well.

Very well, then:  What are men and women for?  In one respect they are for the same thing:  Being rational, they are for the knowledge of the truth, especially the truth about God.  But there is a difference.  A man is a rational being of that sex whose members are potentially fathers, and a woman is a rational being of that sex whose members are potentiality mothers.

Potentiality for fatherhood and motherhood is at the bottom of manhood and womanhood

The idea of potentiality needs explanation, because potentiality is not the same thing as physical possibility.  Consider a man who is infertile because of some disease.  Although it is not physically possible for him to be a father, we should not say that he lacks the potentiality for fatherhood; as a man, he has the potentiality, but the disease has blocked its realization.  It is just because he is a man, just because he is endowed with the potentiality for fatherhood, that the block to its physical realization is such an occasion for sorrow.

Another reason why the expression “potentiality for fatherhood” requires explanation is that although siring children is the most characteristic expression of fatherhood, it is far from its only expression.  A man might sire a child yet fail in the greater perspective of fatherhood, because he fails to protect the mother, or because he fails to protect the child, or because he fails to give the child that father’s love which only he can give because it is different than a mother’s love.

We can carry this line of reasoning still further.  A potentiality is something like a calling.  It wants, so to speak, to develop; it demands, so to speak, a response.  It is like an arrow, notched in the string and aimed at the target, even if it never takes flight.  It intimates an inbuilt meaning and expresses an inbuilt purpose, which cannot help but influence the mind and will of every person imbued with them.

Alice von Hildebrand has remarked that although not every woman is called to marry and bear physical children, “every woman, whether married or unmarried, is called upon to be a biological, psychological or spiritual mother.”  I am saying that for men, the reality is parallel.  Not every man is called to marry and bear physical children, but every man, whether married or unmarried, is called upon to be a biological, psychological or spiritual father.

Obviously I cannot speak from inside experience of womanhood, because I am a man.  Yet even a man can see that it is a very different thing to be a woman than to be a man.  A man may deeply love his child, but he does not have a womb with which to carry the child in his body for nine months, or milk with which to nourish the child from his breasts.  These experiences connect the mother with her child in an intimate, physical bond which we men can easily recognize, but which we cannot experience.  In subtle ways they condition her emotional responses not only toward the child, but also toward herself and even toward everyone else.

They also make sense of certain other differences between men and women, differences for which each sex is sometimes wrongly criticized.  For example, are women in general more protective of their bodies than men, and men less careful about their bodily safety than women?  Of course they are.  Women, who carry children, need to be more protective of their bodies.  Men, to protect them, need to be less careful about their safety.  It isn’t that men, by being men, are more virtuous, or that women, by being women, are more virtuous.  However, their most typical temptations are somewhat different than those of the other sex, and although they can have all the same virtues, their virtues have different inflections.  A man’s and a woman’s courage are not the same, but they are both courage.

The other sexual differences make sense in this light too.  As Edith Stein reminds us, men are more prone to abstraction, and women more prone to focus on the concrete.  Men don’t mind what is impersonal, but women are more attuned to the nuances of relationships.  A man tends to be a specialist and single-tasker; he develops certain qualities to an unusually high pitch, using them to do things in the world.  A woman tends to be a generalist and multitasker; she inclines to a more rounded development of her abilities, using them to nurture the life around her.

The woman’s potentiality for motherhood ties all her qualities together and makes sense of her contrast with men.  Consider just that multitasking capacity.  In view of what it takes to run a home, doesn’t it make sense for her to have it?  A woman must be a center of peace for her family, even though a hundred things are happening at once.  But a man is designed more for the protection of the hearth and the people who surround it than for their nurture.

In speaking of the hearth it may sound as though I am saying that women should never leave the kitchen.  No.  Although men gravitate to careers and women to motherhood, not all women will pursue an exclusively domestic life.  Even so, the potentiality for motherhood explains why women who do pursue a career, and who have free choice of career, tend to choose careers that allow them to give first place to caring for their children.  It also explains why they tend to choose careers that give greater scope to maternal qualities.

In fact, even when a well-balanced woman chooses a traditionally masculine career, she also tends to perform it in ways that give scope to maternal qualities.  A male lawyer tends to focus on the properties of the task itself.  This is worthy, but it is all too easy for him to lose sight of the humanity of his clients.  Can he learn to remember their humanity?  Of course he can, but he is more likely to need the reminder in the first place.  A female lawyer may find the abstract quality of the law somewhat alienating, even though it is necessary.  On the other hand, she is much less likely to forget that she is dealing with human beings.

J. Budziszewski is a Professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin. This article has also been published on his blog, The Underground Thomist, and is republished here with permission.  Part Two: ‘Fatherhood and motherhood: kings and queens’. For further reading on this subject see his book, On the Meaning of Sex.