What, if anything, is the value of virility in today’s society? The New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman examines these questions in his April 2016 article. Rothman provides an excellent historical overview of changing concepts and applications over time of the classical Latin philosophical concept of ‘virilitas’ (‘virility’ or ‘controlled strength’, borrowed from the Athenians’ ideas of ‘andreia’ – maleness – and ‘andreia politike’, which Rothman awkwardly translates as ‘political courage’). However, the article shifts inexplicably, awkwardly, and unnecessarily to become — rather bizarrely — an undisguised virtue-signaling paean to modern liberal culture.
Rothman neuters virility
Although Rothman concedes that “[o]ne comes across moments when, if we still used it, the word “virility” might be useful”, he immediately morphs into a predictable – though wincingly accurate – criticism of now-President Trump:
Watching Donald Trump intimidate his way through the Republican Presidential debates, I’ve often wondered about the meaning of his mine-is-bigger-than-yours masculinity. Is this what masculinity is? How can we distinguish between Trump’s pathological manliness and the healthier kind? This is hard to do when you have just one word, “masculinity,” to describe male identity…
There is a major, limiting problem in our cultural linguistic lexicon when we have only one term – masculinity – by which to take proper stock of the dignity or lack thereof in a man’s behavior and temperament. Rothman is also correct to describe President Trump’s temperament as more akin to Commodus than either the latter’s stoic philosopher-king father Marcus Aurelius or any of the early Julio-Claudian dynasty’s Caesars. Yet when Rothman contends that virility “is such a troubled word that one doesn’t want to use it”, he falls into a needless pit of his own making. While helpfully asking “Could virility cut itself loose from masculinity, leaving behind its misogynistic baggage to become a post-gender ethic of disciplined vigor, controlled engagement, deliberate strength, and circumspect courage?”, Rothman fails to realize that one can retain all these laudable elements, and a normative connection to maleness, without the lamentable misogyny.
Toward the end, this initially promising think piece also veers all of a sudden in a very unexpected direction: Rothman abruptly mentions the case of a “trans man” who admires masculinity, and then brings up a supposed need to somehow extend talk of virility beyond gender binaries. This is a strawman – while virility was, and remains, usually associated with maleness, many ancient and medieval precedents exist of women whose bravery, self-mastery, or self-restraint entitled them to be lauded as such. Virility is not, nor has it ever been, an exclusively male virtue.
“Ultimately, though,” Rothman closes, “I suspect that virility will have to be renamed. We await a new word to renovate virilitas.”
History favors robust virility
In a June 2011 opinion piece for The New York Times, “Those Manly Men of Yore”, Dr Sara Lipton lamented the decline of restraint and self-rule as hallmark masculine virtues in the wake of the ongoing sex scandals engulfing now former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner. Lipton, a medieval history professor at Stony Brook University, noted the conventional wisdom that holds that
…a certain kind of man, no matter how intelligent, doesn’t think at all; he just acts. Somehow a need for sexual conquest, female adulation and illicit and risky liaisons seems to go along with drive, ambition and confidence in the “alpha male.”
Yet Lipton notes only a few lines down, the notion of masculinity as somehow equating with unrestrained sexual indulgence is “relatively new”:
For most of Western history, the primary and most valued characteristic of manhood was self-mastery. Late antique and Roman writers, like Plutarch, lauded men for their ability to resist sexual temptation and control bodily desire through force of will and intellect. Too much sex was thought to weaken men. . .
Rampant sexuality was something men were supposed to grow out of: in medieval political theory, young male bodies were used as symbols of badly run kingdoms. A man who indulged in excessive eating, drinking, sleeping or sex — who failed to “rule himself” — was considered unfit to rule his household, much less a polity.
It is this crucial aspect of self-mastery or self-rule which merits further examination – a man or woman who gives into excesses of the senses, of certain bodily pleasures, is a person who has not mastered the self, and who, therefore, is incapable constitutionally of inspiring order and self-rule in others. While one can understand a desire to redefine a term with such overtly gendered connotations as “virility” — one of the most familiar Latin nouns, vir, specifically signifies “man” — Rothman’s criticism of the gendered nature of the concept masks the fact that, historically, the word was often applied to women who demonstrated the same self-mastery and self-rule which their contemporaries so valued in men.
Rothman evidently fails to understand that descriptive terms of praise have always simultaneously reflected cultured conceptualizations of gender norms and roles while conditionally making exceptions to these norms. This is why certain great men in history have been praised for their mercy or clemency (traditionally ‘womanly’ virtues) while certain great women have been praised for their courage or strength (traditionally ‘manly’ virtues).
Virility among the Female Saints
One example of how the concept of virility – while rightfully inextricable from the classically ‘male’ virtues – has been applied to extraordinary women is medieval Georgia’s most famous monarch, St Queen Tamar the Great (1160-1213). Tamar co-reigned from 1178-1184 alongside her father Giorgi III (r. 1156-1184), and reigned as sole queen regnant from 1184 to her death.
Tamar is lauded in Orthodox hymns to this day for her manly virtue and the magnificent armaments of her soul and character. She divorced her drunken and unscrupulous (some accounts say adulterous) first husband, a Russian prince, to marry a distant relative of her own choosing, the Alanian prince David Soslan. He became her king consort, chief general, and trusted counselor, but by all accounts Tamar retained her primary authority as monarch. Georgia’s first and most powerful queen regnant was, among so many other things, an exemplary ruler, studious scholar, pious philanthropist and protector of widows, orphans, and the poor, and a brilliant stateswoman and rhetorician who defeated several attempts by far larger Muslim armies to conquer her kingdom.
In the two hymns celebrating her feast days (April 22 and May 1), the Orthodox Church today —not only in Georgia, but throughout the world — commemorates in decidedly masculine terms this mighty ruler who led her nation as ‘Mepe’ (მეფე, a Georgian word denoting a male term roughly meaning ‘sovereign’, usually translated as ‘king’) and was crowned in the Persian style as ‘king of kings’ (shahanshah). Both these hymns are chanted on the Queen’s feast days. Note the decidedly authoritative masculine language: Tamar is a mighty “king” who reigns “in justice and truth” and serves as “the father of widows and the judge of widows”. In the same breath, she is also a warrior queen and commander who spent all her strength defending her kingdom.
The Kontakion of Queen Tamar of Georgia reads as follows (sung in the fourth tone):
O Thou whom thy people called a king in justice and truth,
The father of orphans and the judge of widows,
Thou sun which shone on the Georgian land,
Thou who spentest all thy strength defending thy kingdom,
Rise up, O Tamar, and defend us now also
And by thine intercessions before Christ, save us from sufferings.
In her feast’s other main hymn, the Apolytikion of Queen Tamar (sung in the third tone), the hymnographers laud Tamar as “the sword of truth” who presided over the conversion of many Muslims and animists to Orthodoxy:
Let the mountain-tops and values of Georgia sound with songs of praise
to laud Tamar as the vessel of wisdom,
the smiling sun, the sword of truth, the conversion of infidels,
the most harmonious reed-pipe of Jesus Christ,
and our fervent intercessor before the King of kings,
entreating Him to grant great mercy unto us.
While virilitas is most naturally found and praised in extraordinary men, it need not be removed from its historically male context —rather, we ought to explore how women today can cultivate an authentically female (and, by extension, organically feminine) form of virility and strength while men can do so in a way appropriate to the times in which we live.
Far from a need to reinvent the proverbial wheel, I would posit that authentic female examples of virilitas have always existed in the life of every society that in any way manifested and built on the earlier Classical Greek and Roman concept. Wherever polities have faced extraordinary challenges or periods of deep crisis, extraordinary women rise to the fore along with extraordinary men. Only those who have successfully mastered themselves are fit to govern and lead others – and this is a maxim as true and relevant today as it was in Queen Tamar’s twelfth century Georgia or Joan of Arc’s fifteenth century France. Rothman’s desire to refashion a timeless historical term — which has been used from time immemorial to laud women as well as men of extraordinary self-discipline, courage, moral restraint, and tenacity — to conform to the latest cultural zeitgeist seems an unnecessary and unhelpful impoverishment of the rich versatility of the original concept of virility.