Of arms and men

The Roman poet Virgil opens his national epic, The Aeneid, with the statement, arma virumque cano—I sing of arms and the man.  Aeneas, a warrior of Troy, obeys the command of his mother, Venus, and escapes the fall of his city to journey westward to become the progenitor of Rome.

The association of arms with men has been with us for millennia.  Here in America, the image of a man for much of the twentieth century was John Wayne, Winchester rifle in hand, Colt revolver on his hip, and a steely gaze that promised to tolerate no foolishness.

But the radical change that began with the invention of the printing press has brought us to a world in which muscle power and physical action are no longer at the heart of getting things done.  And so we’re having to figure out how to define masculinity in an age of machines and megabytes.

On the simplest level, being a man means having XY genes—though even that is under debate at present.  In matters of behavior and personality, though, DNA does not impose a rigid determinism.  We have to expect wide variation in how billions of males express who they are.  That’s especially the case if we value an individual’s right to determine the course of his life for himself.

There are days when a commitment to freedom is challenging.  Take as an example of this an essay that appeared recently in The New York Times titled, “27 Ways to Be a Modern Man,” by Brian Lombardi.  If you don’t wish to struggle through the list, just imagine Jim Backus’s character from Rebel Without a Cause working in an Apple Store, and you’ll get the picture.  Lombardi gives us a sitcom male, in touch with his feelings and ready to serve perfectly rounded balls of melons, but probably hopeless when it comes to anything involving duct tape or saws.  As reported by Chris Eger here, Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs and other shows about people who don’t do their work on computers has his own list of what makes a man’s man.  His list is what I expected from someone like him—the observations of a man who doesn’t make his decisions based on what can be read in the style section of a New York newspaper.

Of interest to readers of this site, though, we’re told in item number twenty-five of Lombardi’s list that “the modern man has no use for a gun. He doesn’t own one, and he never will.”  But does owning or not owning a firearm define a man?

That’s a question that really has no answer, since we live in an age when each one of us has extraordinary choice about the shape our lives will take.  We aren’t limited to a small set of stereotyped male roles, anymore.  Yes, the uncertainty about how masculinity is defined causes some people distress, but that needn’t be the case.  In fact, what makes more sense is to say that outside of the field of biology, we don’t really need a normative definition for “masculinity.”  If Lombardi believes that owning a gun isn’t something he should or would ever do, that’s his choice, and I’ll leave him to it.  If he insists that a “modern man” has no use for a gun, that’s his opinion, and while I won’t adopt that into my own beliefs, he’s entitled to retain it in his.  This is the essence of freedom, the freedom that we each get to decide for ourselves who we will be.

The only problem arises if Lombardi or those who agree with him attempt to enforce their vision on the rest of us.  But that’s not much of a problem, since anyone who finds himself described by the twenty-seven ways of fitting into modern manhood isn’t likely ever to be a serious threat to me.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.