A Man's Life:
When Men Are Free to be Good
The most passionate working
men, the most devoted fathers and husbands, the men most willing to serve
without material reward, have been those who, as schoolboys, were most
inclined to press safe boundaries.
by Richard Hawley
One of the features of a genuinely good deed is that it
is deliberated on and freely chosen, not compelled. Carrying out such
a deed in the face of risk and discomfort has long been considered admirable,
At this historical moment we stand in some danger of forgetting
this feature of goodness, especially as it bears on male goodness and
Understandably, if not always wisely, cries have arisen
over the past half century to save the future of the planet from the continued
ravages of what has come to be called the Patriarchy. World wars unprecedented
in their destructive sweep, genocidal holocaust, environmental despoliation-this
is not a cultural record easy to defend. Freely arrived at or not, there
have been too many terrible choices. Nor can it be denied that they have
been men's choices, reflecting a world in which men composed and directed
the world's political-military-industrial complex. Indeed all the past
century's fascists and totalitarians were men, as were the forces that
The understandable error is to see male strength and passionate
resolve as the heart of the problem and thus to try to eliminate those
qualities. The error, of course, lies in equating strength and resolve
with their misapplication. To commit this error blinds one to the fact
that male strength and resolve also directed the past century's victories
over fascism and totalitarianism.
So we must be more discerning. We must understand that
the aim of culture should not be to weaken men to the point of harmlessness;
the aim should be-and historically has always been-to educate their strength
and resolve to great and humane purposes.
The future of civilization may depend on seeing this distinction.
Again, the goodness, the value, in the resolve to serve humane purposes
lies in deliberately and freely choosing to do so. Yet to recognize the
value of deliberate choice requires the recognition of a still more anterior
value. This value is as elusive to define as it is crucial to a man's
full realization. It might well be called radical freedom, if that
is helpful in defining a condition in which one is fully aware of being
outside the constraints of any learned or traditional expectation. It
is an interior territory expressed metaphorically as deep wilderness or
open sea. It is the territory in which, at least for the moment, one has
the range to do anything, to indulge the cruelest perversion-or to save
the polis. It is an Archimedean point outside of action from which meaningful
action is conceived.
It is from out of this wild state that the moral agent steps forward to
make socially valued gestures. It is from such territory that the atomic
bomb researcher Louis Slottin stepped after making a deadly laboratory
mistake at Los Alamos; within seconds of his error he manipulated the
radioactive material before him with his bare hands so that only he, and
none of his fellow researchers, would perish.
Louis Slottin is a genuine historical figure. He made this beautiful and
fatal gesture in 1946. But the condition out of which he movedthat
radical freedomis utterly out of time. God alone knows what was
ringing in Slottin's ears as he resolved to act selflessly in crisis,
but the ring is familiar. It is likely to visit each of us at least once.
It is the wildness stirring young David's heart as he declines King Saul's
armor and heads off with his sling and handful of stones in the direction
of the Philistine champion, Goliath. It is the wildness ringing in Odysseus's
ears as he decides not to avoid the sirens and their fatal song, but lash
himself to the mast and hear it through.
A college friend of mine played center on the football team. A little
small for the position, he was badly beaten up on most game days. The
prospect literally nauseated him as each fall weekend approached. He also
confessed to me that he knew he would be battered less if he simply snapped
the ball and, in effect, lay down. It was when he carried out his assignment-snapped
the ball and reared up to block-that he took hit after bone-crushing hit.
He knew, in his deep freedom, exactly how to avoid the pain, and each
week he reared up to receive it.
The interior wild from which we make our most consequential choices, precisely
because it is wild, is dangerous; it is by no means reliable.
There are, of course, heart-warming stories emanating from that wild:
Huck Finn deciding finally he will endure what he believes could be eternal
hellfire in exchange for the continued liberty of his Negro raft-mate
Jim. But the interior wild is not a safe, heartwarming place; truth be
told, we are apt to slip and perish in our wild freedom.
We are especially prone to do so when we are young. This would explain
the enduring power of the mythological figures of Icarus and Daedalus.
In the interior wild, impulses are fully felt; they can talk back to caution
and restraint. Icarus chose his fatal flight just as surely as Lindbergh
chose his successful one. The moral point of the Icarus myth is not to
keep impulsive youth on a short leash, although the myth does raise the
practical issue of what is likely to happen if youth is allowed access
to deep freedom.
As a school teacher and then headmaster in the same school for thirty-three
years, I have seen hundreds of Icaruses burning to try it, fly it, smoke
it, pinch it, jump down from the skylights into the diving well of the
school. Their ears have been ringing. Sometimes they are ringing with
the lure of pleasure, infamy, fast gain, short cuts, an easy way out.
They could do it, they could really do it, and it would be utterly, perhaps
thrillingly wrongyet sometimes they declined, did better, did right.
These are the boys, not the merely well behaved, that I have learned to
If there is no genuine moral action without wild freedom,
and if wild freedom promises no safe outcomes, there will be abiding worry
and doubt. Worry and doubt may mount to the point that some will want
to deny access to the wild state-or even deny its existence. It is not
hard to see this tendency at work, especially as it attempts to correct,
re-engineer, medicate, and otherwise rein in men from excursions into
their deep natures.
Again, de-naturing or softening the male is not a promising remedy for
problematic male behavior. Not only does such weakening prevent men from
realizing themselves as moral beings, it also does not, by any observable
measure, appear to work. Elementary school classrooms "sanitized"
of martial or otherwise heroic male images, symbols, and stories have
no more produced a generation of kinder, gentler boys than have highly
elaborate sexual harassment policies and "speech codes" created
a golden age of civility in colleges and universities.
Indeed, when the dust settles on the cultural record of the past half
century, it will, I believe, be noted with interest that the combined
forces of so-called "political correctness" were accompanied
not by a reduction, but by a sickening eruption of male aggression, incivility,
and misogyny. While historical causation is not always easy to establish,
it is past time that consideration be given to the kinds of desperate
expression that arise when one's deepest nature is denied.
When the established culture denies what is deep and elemental within,
the ensuing gestures of complaint are not pretty. There arises something
like a mighty, vulgar, "Oh, yeah?" And we are apt to get comics
like Andrew Dice Clay, poets like Dr. Dre, citizen-soldiers like Timothy
McVeigh. The ugliest "male" behavior may be due less to uncontained
wildness, than to the denial of the wildness from which visions of great
beauty and saving civility have always sprung.
From my perspective, the most passionate and convinced working men, the
most devoted fathers and husbands, the men most willing to serve without
material reward have been those who, as schoolboys, were most inclined
to press safe boundaries.
If we are to be fully human, or ever good, we must acknowledge at least
the internal reality of wild freedom. Moreover, we must be on the alert
for those who would deny access to it. Those who would deny access include
all who would prevent the telling of true stories. A boy's sense of deep
freedom cannot be affirmed by Huck Finn's if schools ban the book.
For indeed, Huckleberry Finn has been banned in some schools, ostensibly
because the racism realistically depicted (and which Huck heroically transcends)
is too abrasive for some contemporary sensibilities. More often than it
is banned, Huckleberry Finn is simply excluded from the syllabus.
The same cast of mind that is nervous about cutting Huck loose on the
Mississippi is also worried about Harry Potter's unfettered wizardry-to
the extent that, at least in South Carolina, he is forbidden in the schools.
Historically, males have tacitly-and only rarely explicitly-reminded themselves
of their deep nature in voluntary associations, whether schools, clubs,
fraternities, or scouting groups. The era that has rushed to break up
such associations has been motivated by more than perceived economic or
social inequities. There has been a deeply rooted but unacknowledged assumption
of male toxicity. If they are allowed to band together, they will get
But even more than his ability to associate freely, the male's inclination
to restorative solitude has been held in suspicious regard. The age of
Togetherness with its presumptive social and psychological benefits has
not looked kindly on anybody's wandering off from the herd to reflect.
British psychiatrist Anthony Storr makes a telling point about the value
of solitaries and solitude. In his book, Solitude, he set out to
demonstrate the positive, even essential, value of solitude in life. He
illustrated his theme by drawing on the lives of famous solitaries, such
as Gibbon, Locke, Newton, and Pascal. And while he did not set out to
investigate male behavior, he inadvertently did so, as nearly all the
world's notable solitaries have been men.
Moreover, male solitude, like male pleasure in association, is not a defensive
drawing apart, not a retreat, not a failure or fault. It is rather, a
re-immersion in that realm prior to culture and company that I have called
Entering that realm has always been a reunion, not an escape. Storr cites
Admiral Richard Byrd's own account of his 1934 expedition to Antarctica:
Took my daily walk at 4 p.m. today in 89 of frost...I paused to listen
to the silence...The day was dying, the night was being born-but with
great peace. Here were imponderable processes and forces of the cosmos,
harmonious and soundless. Harmony, that was it!
...It was enough to catch the rhythm, momentarily to be myself a part
of it. In that instant I could feel no doubt of man's oneness with the
universe. The conviction came that rhythm was too orderly, too harmonious,
too perfect to be a product of blind chance...It was a feeling that transcended
reason; that went to the heart of man's despair and found it groundless.
This is the voice of a man alone, alone in the wild. He is not in retreat;
he is rather in the fullest communion with his world and with his kind.
More important, he is a man we can count on.
Let's, please, make room for him.
Return to the table