Today we welcome Josh Parks to the Anxious Bench. A recent graduate of Calvin College with majors in English literature and violin performance, Josh is an MA student in medieval studies at Western Michigan University.
“Because there is very little honor left in American life, there is a certain built-in tendency to destroy masculinity in American men.” – Norman Mailer
“A man’s got to have a code, a creed to live by, no matter his job.” – John Wayne
“Civilization comes at a cost of manliness. It comes at a cost of wildness, of risk, of strife.” – Jack Donovan
According to MasculineDevelopment.com, these number among the “35 Most Badass Masculine Quotes of All Time.” Also on the list—next to ads like “Accidental Discovery Reveals The Exact Body Type Women Want” and “Get Jon’s Secret Little Guidebook For Getting Girls”—lies a bit of a surprise: a quote by C.S. Lewis:
“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful” (The Abolition of Man, 704).
How does a posh Oxbridge don famous for fairy stories end up alongside John Wayne and Jack Donovan (who brands himself a “modern barbarian”)? It’s easy to dismiss lists like this as silly, clueless clickbait, but Lewis’s presence here is actually representative of a much larger trend of citing his 1943 book The Abolition of Man in favor of macho masculinity.
The Abolition of Man, which consists of three short philosophical lectures, is a polemic against moral relativism and a defense of what Lewis calls the “Tao”—the objective moral law common to many religious and cultural traditions. In the first lecture, “Men Without Chests,” Lewis attacks a certain secondary school English textbook for suggesting “that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant” (604). In other words, it’s wrong to say “That waterfall is sublime,” because what you really mean is “That waterfall gives me sublime feelings.”
Lewis thinks this dismissal of the emotions in favor of pure reason is dangerous because humans are not capable of virtuous action by reason alone. Instead, following Aristotelian virtue ethics, he believes the emotions need to be taken seriously and disciplined so that one actually loves what is good: “Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism” (703). In the Platonic metaphor of the tripartite soul, if the head is the seat of wisdom and the stomach the seat of the appetites, the chest (where the heart is) is the seat “of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments” (704).
Lewis thought his contemporary English society, and education system in general, was undervaluing these trained emotions. But he did not think they were exclusive to men, and he was bemoaning a hollowing out—a chestlessness—of human nature, not merely of manhood.
But as it turns out, this phrase “men without chests” has taken on a bit of a life of its own. Conservative Christian pastors, bloggers, and radio hosts love to cite the phrase before launching into laments about the current state of Christian manhood in America, despite the disconnect between this argument and Lewis’s own.
Jason K. Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote in 2016 that too many men are “engaged in effeminacy, fornication, perversion, passivity, and—to borrow a modern phrase—protracted adolescence.” Too many men are either acting like women or celebrating “gruffness” when they should be recovering “biblical manhood, Christian masculinity—what we might think of as sanctified testosterone.”
After citing Lewis’s “men without chests” quote, Allen continues, “In the spirit of Lewis, let’s not unwittingly hollow out biblical manhood in our churches by making light of God-ordained gender roles.” But again, “God-ordained gender roles” were not Lewis’s concern in The Abolition of Man. For Lewis, the hollowing was of well-trained emotions, which are a necessary part of human nature, not just masculine nature.
Greg Gibson makes a similar move in an article for the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, writing, “It is no secret that we find a high view of wimpy husbandry alive and well today, in culture and all-too-often in the church, as well. C.S. Lewis might call them ‘men without chests.’ I tend to agree.”Luke Hamilton warns in The Christian Post that “the world will soon belong to men without chests.” This chestlessness, for Hamilton, involves everything from living with one’s parents too long to wearing pink polo shirts, enjoying days at the spa, and wanting to “apologize for [one’s] male privilege.”
Rod Dreher, a popular conservative Christian writer and prolific Twitterer, has also gotten in on this action. In a brief blog post, he quotes a New York Times story about the difficulty of raising boys in this era of “misandry” and then remarks, “Dang, it’s enough to make you want to join the military where men can be old-fashioned men, or something.” Then, after pointing to a fighter jet painted pink for breast cancer awareness as a sign that even the military is losing its virility, he writes, “What’s going on here? C.S. Lewis was on to it ages ago: ‘We make men without chests,’” etc.
Admittedly, conservative Christians sometimes cite the phrase with a bit more knowledge of and interest in Lewis’s actual argument. Darrin Patrick, for example, acknowledges the philosophical meaning of “chest” and writes that this passage should encourage men “to tap into the full range of emotional responses—warmth, tenderness, affection, grief, and joy—to engage God and others in a spirited way.” But he still sees this as a solution to the problem that “men just don’t know what to do with their emotions most of the time.” Lewis’s “chest” is still a key to manhood rather than humanity.
And, as the “Badass Masculine Quotes” list shows, this phenomenon is not unique to Christian figures. A recent PragerU video called “Make Men Masculine Again” quotes from a few paragraphs earlier in The Abolition of Man: “‘By his intellect,’ Lewis explains, man ‘is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.’” But while Lewis’s point is that humans need the “middle element” of well-trained emotions in order to be truly human, PragerU argues instead that we need to embrace the masculine appetites for “aggression, violence, and unbridled ambition.”
And besides PragerU, references to “men without chests” in defense of essentialist, muscular masculinity abound in other secular right-wing outlets, from Breitbart to the Conservative Review (in, yes, an endorsement of Roy Moore).
C.S. Lewis’s views on gender are notoriously complicated. As Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen has shown, his intellectual thought evolved from an “Aristotelian notion of women’s inferior rational and moral capacity” early in his career to something more egalitarian by the end of his life (78). In his fiction, especially the Space Trilogy, he offers a kind of über-gender essentialism in which the eternal essences of masculinity and femininity underlie human sex differences. But truly grappling with Lewis as an authority on Christian gender roles means dealing not only with this essentialism but also with his realization in A Grief Observed that “this carnival of sexuality leads us out beyond our sexes.” An out-of-context soundbyte flattens this narrative, turning a person into a theological weapon.
I say “weapon” because I think there might be something more going on here than just misreading of or apathy toward the context for Lewis’s phrase. “Men without chests” seems to have calcified into a stock idea in the conservative consciousness. The closest analogue I can think of is that of biblical proof-texting: throwing a reference or verse into your argument in order to disarm your opponents. But instead of using Scripture, these writers are proof-texting with C.S. Lewis. If you can show that Jack is on your side, you get the high ground.
Van Leeuwen has also observed this phenomenon. She notes that Lewis has “been turned into a species of plaster saint whose every published pronouncement has been accorded almost canonical status.” But Lewis didn’t think even scripture itself should be read without paying attention to its literary context and human origin, and “it is unlikely that he would have wanted others to treat his own writings in a similar, decontextualized way” (257).
Citing C.S. Lewis has become a way for writers both religious and secular, conservative and liberal, to gain easy damage points in any particular argument. But as useful as it is to draw on the ideas, wisdom, and even pithy phrases of previous saints, the cloud of witnesses is not our arsenal.