Body and soulless

July 07, 1998|By Ronald Dworkin

EVERY SOCIETY has faced the same problem -- how to repress the aggressive, often violent tendencies of young men while still preserving their ideal of manliness. It is a delicate balance. A country needs manly men to defend it during a national emergency. But if left uncurbed, the restless vanity and strong will of young men would soon spill over into anarchy.

In the past, the problem was handled by restricting the terrain on which the aggressive impulses of men were played out. In schools of discipline and brotherhoods, young men received an ideal of manly honor that was compatible with their tremendous pride but also limited the pool of combatants.

Feudal honor systems, for example, condemned the "easy kill." A young warrior had to conquer another of equal rank to make the victory sweet; to do otherwise was considered low and contemptible. Hence the warrior's pride was stroked and young men were made battle-ready while, at the same time, giving the weaker members of the community some protection.

Athletics served the same purpose. If war was not raging, there had to be a place where young men could tear away at each other in controlled fashion. This was the purpose of Greek athletics: to prepare men to fight. In the ancient Olympic games, for example, each athletic event simulated a military action. Yet the Games also gave young men an opportunity to compete fairly for fame.

Testing manliness

Until recently, America used athletics for a similar purpose. Football was refined by a West Point general to teach cadets tactics and military formations. Similarly, the stark, barren gyms of yesteryear were places where men could go to take turns oppressing each other. Tough youngsters would wrestle and box until one fell to the mat bloody, sore and tired.

Traditional notions of manliness could be played out in this arena without threatening the basic order of society.

But in our time, a new ideal of manliness is coming into being, one made necessary by the special circumstances of our age.

Past notions of manliness were built on competition. Manliness was a zero-sum game -- the feeling of supremacy came at the expense of another's shame and humiliation. The ideal of manliness that is now emerging dispenses with competitive rivalry. It focuses instead on self-esteem and the special needs of the individual, and it conforms to our intense desire to spare everyone's feelings. It successfully disconnects the obsession with vigor and strength from the urge to pummel others, $H dominate others and revel in the pleasure of their submission.

One can see this new ideal of manliness taking shape in American gyms, which are very different from the gyms of a generation ago. Now, as before, the men inside are solid and muscular, perhaps even more so, but their strength no longer has an outward purpose. The men are not training to meet other men in stiff competition. Rather, they are pumping up for themselves alone.

Many traditional sportsmen find this aspect of fitness training confusing (and suspect). They work out so that they can defeat their opponents at the next challenge. They take a practical approach to fitness -- it does not matter to them whether their waistlines are perfect or near-perfect, only that they take a punch. They do not understand why some men obsess about things like maximal heart rate and muscle-fat ratios. To them, such concerns have no athletic consequence.

They cannot help a man win.

Traditional sportsmen do not realize that in the new ideal of manliness, victories over others have been replaced with "personal bests." Defeated challengers have become "fitness milestones." The battle is no longer with others but with oneself.

Evidence of the new attitude abounds at the gym. A 30-year-old man finishes his exercise routine and checks his pulse. He wants it to be close to his maximal heart rate, which is 220 minus his age in years. It is 186.

A smile breaks out on his face. He is smug, even a little cocky. Like the warrior of old, this young man struggles to earn self-respect. But he does so by turning his aggressive energy inward. He achieves a personal goal instead of outdoing his fellows.

Fitness goals differ from man to man, but each man can enjoy the same feeling of triumph. The new ideal of manliness can be customized and "individualized" to meet everyone's special needs. All men can feel accomplished and self-satisfied, without anyone getting hurt.

A battle with the self

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