Be a Man

"Be a Man," review of From Chivalry to Terrorism, by Leo Braudy, Wall Street Journal, 29 October 2003.


In “From Chivalry to Terrorism” (Knopf, 613 pages, $30), Leo Braudy, a literary historian, aims to challenge those who rely on biology to assert that masculinity is something fixed in human nature. Presenting the “social construction” view, Mr. Braudy argues for 550 pages of fascinating detail that masculinity (or manhood, manliness) is more complicated than biologically determined aggression. There are “versions” or “forms” of it, and these change over time.

Among the “versions” that Mr. Braudy discovers, over the past millennium, are the barbarian, the knight, the Christian, the military professional, Don Quixote, the pirate, the noble, the samurai, the monarch, the gallant, Frankenstein’s monster, the revolutionary, Napoleon, the sports hero, the Boy Scout, the adventurer, Teddy Roosevelt, the common man, the cowboy, the detective, the patriot, the heterosexual and the terrorist. To display these types he searches high and low, from poetry to pornography, and all around, especially in military history. “From Chivalry to Terrorism” is a big book that will reward anyone with an interest in masculinity, which is everyone.

But it’s not a coherent book, and the reward for reading it — apart from the many pertinent examples — comes from rethinking its premise. Is it true that masculinity has nothing fixed in it? Despite his politically correct dislike of masculinity, Mr. Braudy gives evidence that it is indeed something innate. The versions he discusses are versions of one thing, namely chivalry.

Chivalry is to seek honor by protecting the weak and the innocent; and it is opposed to mere aggression. Mr. Braudy remarks acutely that male violence is never gratuitous because it always has a meaning. The meaning, I would suggest, is to justify the honor of some particular men and to protect those they want to protect — even if we are talking about the honor of pirates or terrorists. It is never so general as to justify aimless aggression or, as sociobiologists declare, simply to further the reproduction of the species. Hence chivalry, though it is one thing, takes different forms in different communities