Almost half a century separates us from May 1968 revolution, which derided bourgeois values and made the classical virtue of courage seem dubious, if not obsolete. Intellectuals of a Marxist persuasion, such as Eric Fromm, described the traditional family as a puritanical cage imprisoning the inquisitive spirit of the youth. Leftist propaganda minimized the bravery of American soldier, especially during the Vietnam War, and ridiculed the notion of personal risk or individual heroism.
Over nearly half a century, secular academia, pop culture, and the managerial welfare State have undermined an important moral quality of the West: individual responsibility, rooted in inherent human dignity. This may be expressed, in part, as affectionate fatherhood and a martial readiness to act under the moral imperative of serving others. Undermining responsibility has had a critical impact on the religious and economic culture of the modern West.
While the Western military suffered surprising defeats on the Asian front, social critics at home made traditional Christianity responsible for the social immobility of women. The heirs of Freud taught the daughters of Eve they could do well without the progenies of Adam. The Beatles embraced pacifism, in the shadow of the Soviet invasion of Prague in the spring of 1968. The common perception in the liberal circles would equate manliness with brutishness. As Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield once put it, we found ourselves “in the process of making the English language gender-neutral,” with manliness being “the enemy” or “the evil” under attack.
“Losing my religion”
Historians of Western civilization, such as Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, have indicated the extent to which, for almost two millennia, there were important rites of passage punctuating the lives of ordinary people living in Europe and North America. By embracing infant baptism (or christening), marriage, and last rites/holy unction, the Western man (irrespective of his social class) expressed a specifically Christian understanding of birth, love, and death. This old metaphysics underpinning the most important aspect of private life has now disappeared. Gone with it is the ethical worldview it transmitted.
Pope Benedict XVI struck a sensitive chord when he stated that “the crisis of fatherhood we are living today is an element, perhaps the most important, threatening man in his humanity.” This is such a danger, because “human fatherhood can give us an inkling of what God is.” If the Judeo-Christian tradition projects the very essence of manliness onto the notion of fatherhood then to be a father means to learn how to love, how to care, and how to meet the needs of a fragile creature. In other words, authentic fatherhood challenges us to always act responsibly. By raising one’s offspring, we glimpse into and shape the near and distant future of ourselves and of the other – a stark contrast with the pubescent indulgence of instant gratification. By loving one’s child, the biological father is invited to discover the spiritual dimension of self-denial and the true purpose of God’s alliance with Israel and with the humanity itself revealed by Christ’s love.
Economic activity is one avenue of incarnating the Divine spark lit within every human being.
Contemporary academia has replaced this theological framing of the father-and-son relationship with Hegelian master-and-slave dialectics, which have been more recently recast in the neo-Marxist jargon of majority-versus-minority.
Pop culture diminution
Pop culture poured out lavish mockery over the father-figure, which got to be blamed for countless imperfections and innumerable faults. By the early 1970s, the movie industry in Hollywood started to treat the shortcomings of the bourgeois lifestyle as clear indicators of a moral hypocrisy endorsed by religious piety. Instead of exploring the tension between the ideal of moral perfection and the inescapable workings of sin, as any great piece of literature has done in the past, Western cinematography went down another route. Egalitarianism between men and women corroded courtesy and chivalry. Film directors lost their interest in the image of the robust father or of the charming lover, who displayed a good mixture of self-control and polite assertiveness (such as Rick in Casablanca). Actors such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or Sylvester Stallone would come across as the perfect contrast to the new line of characters depicted in films, TV series, and sitcoms.
Marianne Power described this new range of social attitudes as distinctive marks of the Peter Pan generation. It became acceptable for adults, and not just teenagers, to postpone life-changing decisions about one’s marriage, profession, and even preferred sexual identity. American Beauty, which was awarded five Oscars in 2000, portrays Lester Burnham as that unhappy father who goes through a mid-life crisis without any hope of redemption. Under numerous circumstances, he shows an impaired moral judgment. His life lacks clarity of purpose and has no personal achievements to be celebrated. Hollywood decided to tell us that we should stop searching for the “inner hero.”
This outlook eroded the traditional Western attributes of having the courage to take risks (necessary for every big or small entrepreneur) and the power to exercise self-control in the face of powerful temptation (as shown by Salvador Dali’s image of Anthony the Great facing his demons in the vast Egyptian desert). In the world of mammals studied by Darwin, all animals want to survive. True men “want to survive, but with honor.” (Harvey Mansfield, Manliness, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, p. 49.)
The all-pervasive Nanny-State
It is not just university professors and pop culture artists who have contributed to our loss of confidence in the redeeming virtues of fatherhood. In the past decades, Western governments have promoted policies that have aided the collapse of traditional family institution.
High taxation has diminished the value of family inheritance and the organic solidarity between generations. Economic intervention has created high unemployment among the younger population of Europe (which affects as many as 45 percent of Greek and Spanish men), leading to their postponing marriage and family formation. Deprived of the ability to generate a regular income the European man, like his America counterpart, has slipped into negative patterns of behavior (soft drugs, alcoholism, and multiple online addictions). By making legal divorce very easy, Western governments threatened the well-being of children. Left to raise their children by themselves, millions of mothers carry the burden of child-rearing in the absence of any family structure. This creates a vicious cycle of anger and resignation.
This situation is depressing but not necessarily irreversible. There are positive signs in the contemporary culture: appreciation of economic start-ups, of young leaders and of brilliant entrepreneurs. The global competition between the West and the rest has brought to light thousands of stories featuring individuals ready for hard work, adventure, and success. In their pursuit of economic freedom, the new capitalists came to discover the importance of those moral virtues praised by the classical tradition, such as Stoic perseverance and harshness towards oneself, and the Christian virtue of showing empathy to the needy. Alternative TV series such as the Band of Brothers (shown on HBO) or Homeland, emphasize the institutional value of risk-takers (and the threat posed by quitters). Such glimmers of hope make us plead for a spiritual and moral awaking of the West.
It will be critically important for countries belonging to the North Atlantic hemisphere to maintain their traditional embrace of a free society and an open market, in which different ideas, products, and forces compete. That process will allow the West to rediscover that economic activity is one avenue of incarnating the Divine spark lit within every human being.
(Photo credit: Negative Space. Public domain.)