Rediscovering Catholic Masculine Virtue

May 31, 2022

In our attempt to revitalize masculinity in contemporary, secular society, there is an enduring threat. In trying to rediscover a robust, Catholic understanding of manliness, we might oversimplify it or flatten it out. We tend to emphasize aspects of masculinity that appeal to us personally, and latch on to cultural trends that correspond with our preferences.

One of the ways I enjoy expressing my masculinity is by going to my East Texas powerlifting gym that has concrete floors, plays old Metallica songs, has a “Don’t Tread On Me Flag” hanging from a girder in the ceiling, and mural on the wall with Phillipians 4:13, (I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me), written next to a soaring bald eagle. Obviously, if I was to recommend my preference as somehow being universally indicative of manliness, that would be quite a vapid and limited depiction of masculinity indeed—just as it would be if someone were to suggest that cultivating facial hair, an Edwardian dress sense, and a proficiency for pipe smoking were somehow necessary to be a man.

To solve this conundrum, I would like to recommend the literature of J.R.R. Tolkien as an antidote (though an incomplete and imperfect one), to our often misguided attempts to rediscover Catholic, masculine virtue.

There are two central reasons why I think Tolkien’s writings are so well suited to this task. First, he marries the idea of true masculinity to a traditional understanding of virtue—which is much more robust than any shallow characterization. Second, he also depicts a vast panoply of different expressions of authentic manliness amongst his various characters.

Tolkien’s conception of virtue is one of the central themes of The Lord of the Rings. Virtue is portrayed as being essentially related to civilization, and they will decline together if they are not safeguarded. The central conflict of The Lord of the Rings is driven by the rise of evil which is preempted by the decline of the virtue of men. We see the same dynamic playing out in our own society. In fact, there is a general antipathy towards any suggestion that a virtue-based code of conduct should have any role in governing society at all.

Modern society is hostile to the very concept of virtue because it is antithetical to the hyper-individualism it is founded on. Virtue appeals to a set of principles that are greater than any individual and requires that those individuals conform to them. Moreover, in order for a person to be virtuous they need to conform to ALL of the virtues. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, a person is only as good as their weakest virtue. That may seem harsh, but experience shows this assessment to be true. A person who is well-organized, prosperous, intelligent, but lacks in generosity is a miser. Likewise, a person who is affable, and generous to others, but has a crippling addiction to alcohol is a drunk. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, likewise a person is only as virtuous as their weakest virtue.

That doesn’t mean people are characterized exclusively by their faults. In fact, once a person becomes generally virtuous then their central virtue becomes their defining characteristic. We can see this reality to be true in the examples of the saints: the poverty of St. Francis, the intellect of St. Thomas, etc.

Tolkien uses this same model, but in a very nuanced way, with his characters. He uses a virtue (or virtues) as a defining feature, sculpting a believable humanity around it by describing personal flaws and unique ways of reacting to various circumstances. Gandalf demonstrates the virtue of wisdom and power used correctly. He is a centrifugal force for good in the story, but never becomes a hollow vessel for virtue with his snappy temper, general grouchiness, and deep fondness for the people of the Shire. Frodo, on the other hand, is a great example of infused virtue. While Gandalf in many ways embodies goodness or virtue, Frodo demonstrates incredible (or even supernatural) hope in spite of his own personal weaknesses. Frodo’s willingness to do what seems impossible for the rest of the world demonstrates the supernatural love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7).

A natural foil to Frodo is Boromir. Boromir is an extremely capable individual with physical strength, prowess in combat, and natural leadership. But that does not stop him from being seduced by the power of the ring. With this major flaw, Boromir represents the downfall and corruption of man. However, he does demonstrate the virtue of repentance after trying to steal the ring from Frodo and gives his life to defend Merry and Pippen.

If Boromir represents the decline of man, Aragorn represents the hope of man’s redemption. Aragorn is arguably one of the most virtuous characters that Western literature has ever produced. In many ways he parallels Aeneas, the embodiment of Roman virtue, who is exiled from his homeland, journeys through hardship—even to Tartarus, the city of the dead—in order to establish a new civilization. Aragorn, meanwhile, embodies Western virtue, is exiled to the wilderness, and journeys through dark places—even through the Paths of the Dead—to reestablish an old civilization that has long been forgotten.

Aragorn, however, outstrips the virtue of Aeneas on various fronts. Aeneas is smitten by the charms of Dido and leaves her to her own destruction inspiring a perennial feud with Carthage. Aragorn, on the other hand, rebuffs the advances of Eowyn but reaffirms her dignity and her part to play in the defense of her people, which, in turn, aids the bond between the people of Rohan and Gondor. He embodies a modern, “Christian” (i.e. Western) set of virtues. But that doesn’t make him a static character. As Aragorn advances towards his mission, his noble and kingly qualities emerge. Tolkien conveys this transformation explicitly when Sam expresses his fear from passing beneath the shadows of the sentinels of the kings in Argonath:

‘Fear not!’ said a strange voice behind him. Frodo turned and saw Strider, and yet not Strider; for the weather-worn Ranger was no longer there. In the stern sat Aragorn son of Arathorn, proud and erect, guiding the boat with skillful strokes; his hood cast back, and his dark hair was blowing in the wind, a light was in his eyes: a king returning from exile to his own land. (II.9.511)

My favorite example of a similar transformation is in the character of Gimli. Gimli acts obstinately and in a petty way to the elves of Lorien when he is asked to be led into the forest blindfolded. But his prejudice is transformed by the grace of the Lady Galadriel when she defends Gimli before Celeborn and recalls the greatness of the legacy of the dwarves. This transformation is most evident when Galadriel asks what gift Gimli would like after giving gifts to the whole Fellowship. Gimli’s response demonstrates the true nobility of his character. I would like to quote that entire exchange here:

‘And what gift would a Dwarf ask of the Elves?’ said Galadriel turning to Gimli.

‘None, Lady,’ answered Gimli. ‘It is enough for me to have seen the Lady of the Galadhrim, and to have heard her gentle words.’

‘Hear all ye Elves!’ she cried to those about her. ‘Let none say again that Dwarves are grasping and ungracious! Yet surely, Gimli son of Glóin, you desire something that I could give? Name it, I bid you! You shall not be the only guest without a gift.’

‘There is nothing, Lady Galadriel,’ said Gimli, bowing low and stammering. ‘Nothing, unless it might be — unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine. I do not ask for such a gift. But you commanded me to name my desire.’

The elves stirred and murmured with astonishment, and Celeborn gazed at the Dwarf in wonder, but the Lady smiled. ‘It is said that the skill of the Dwarves is in their hands rather than in their tongues ‘ she said; ‘yet that is not true of Gimli. For none have ever made to me a request so bold and yet so courteous. And how shall I refuse, since I commanded him to speak? But tell me, what would you do with such a gift?’

‘Treasure it, Lady,’ he answered, ‘in memory of your words to me at our first meeting. And if ever I return to the smithies of my home, it shall be set in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of my house, and a pledge of good will between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days.’ (II.8.488-9)

Both Gimli and Aragorn demonstrate a profound nobility which modern men should strongly consider imitating. But Tolkien extends his understanding of masculinity to characters who lack the kind of nobility that Gimli and Aragorn demonstrate, but still have a manly virtue which is uniquely their own. The most notable character of this kind is Sam, whose faithfulness to Frodo is one of the most decisive elements in the victory against Mordor. From the beginning of the novel, Sam is depicted as one of the most simple and least eloquent of all of the characters, even compared to Merry and Pippin. He is also the most emotionally tender. He cries at various times during the story: in joy when Gandalf tells him that he is going to go with Frodo on his journey, in sorrow when he is forced to leave Bill the pony behind at the gates of Moria. But it is precisely Sam’s tenderness that sustains the strength of Frodo through the blackest hours in Mordor, something that not even the power of Gandalf nor the virtue of Aragorn could provide.

In addition to Sam’s tenderness he also demonstrates the virtue of true friendship and fidelity. Our modern society, which is so obsessed with romance and the individual, is unfamiliar with the kind of friendship that Sam and Frodo share. Most modern men would be uncomfortable with the level of intimacy that Sam and Frodo show, particularly in their most difficult times in Mordor. For example, Sam kisses Frodo’s hand at a point when his master is on the verge of despair. There is nothing homoerotic about Frodo and Sam’s intimacy; rather, their love is driven on by their shared mission. It is a very similar kind of intimacy that Our Lord shared with His apostles. Another example is the friendship between St. Basil and St. Gregory which is recorded in the Liturgy of the Hours:

When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper… We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit…
Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. If it is not too boastful to say, we found in each other a standard and rule for discerning right from wrong.

This same kind of love, spurred on by a mutual purpose, is what drove Sam and Frodo to carry the ring together to the top of Mount Doom. And that bond of love would never have been achieved if it wasn’t for Sam’s tenderness.

I was inspired to write this after visiting a friend that I hadn’t seen for six years. It deeply moved me to see his daughters who were toddlers the last time I had seen them and now had grown up into little ladies. Despite all their growth and advancement, they were still fundamentally and mysteriously the same little girls that I had played with all those years ago.

There is something so sacred and mysterious in the way that God has created each one of us. Each of us is our own little mystery made in His image and likeness. In the noble endeavor to restore masculine virtue we have to remember this fact: that we are called to live out our manliness in our own unique way. Likewise, I am called to a mission that God has intended for me and for no one else. Comparing myself to others is usually more harmful than helpful in living my mission out. And finally, with those caveats in mind, it is imperative that we do in fact strive for virtue. Because the only thing that will save us from these dark times is men who are willing to die to self, and strive to be a city on the hill and a light to the world.

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Jonathan Quist

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