“What I owe to them all is incalculable,” C.S. Lewis once wrote. “Is there any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?”
In one of his earliest podcast episodes, Patrick Coffin interviewed Dr. Anthony Esolen about the resistance of post-modernity’s mind on the essence of good culture. In this interview Esolen points out numerous details about the foundations of a healthy culture, but he summarizes them in three different categories. These three fundamentals are based upon the cultural bonds of love: Man-Wife, Mother-Child, and Brother-Brother. In the context of the episode, Esolen focused in on the profound nature of the bond of brotherhood. Here he isn’t speaking specifically of blood relatives, but rather the actions which have been so automated into the psyche of men to create brotherhoods. We have seen this throughout the history of mankind.
However, it seems today that even the idea of men coming together to form a brotherhood is seen as: (1) dangerous, with visions of gang culture, (2) simple, with visions of The Little Rascals (which is probably one of the healthiest examples of brotherhood for young boys), or (3) sexist, with thoughts of the ole’ boys’ clubs sensationalized in Mad Men. Sadly, in the wake of such ideological underpinnings, men are left with a piece of themselves unfulfilled. And the culture suffers for it.
As Esolen points out: “The rebuilding of culture is not going to happen without the reconstitution of brotherhoods.”
This isn’t to downplay the importance of female companionship, but it is to say that historically, many if not most of the greatest cultural conceptions have been a result of the bond of brotherhood. Esolen points to the Renaissance Guild and Studio as a prime example. These guilds were the essence of what brotherhood can produce in both the practical sense and the creation of culture. Through the master-apprentice relationship in an all-male studio, we are the inheritors of such men as Da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and the like. And not just in the West but in Russia, China, and Egypt.
To cite a more recent example, we have the famous brotherhood of writers in the Inklings, which produced arguably several of the greatest literary works in the last century: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and many more. As an American, I might also present the founding fathers as yet another example of the power of brotherhoods.
Again, this is not downplaying or negating the necessary importance of female participation and leadership in the creation of culture. Rather, it is meant to point out that in much of the modern West, as well as many places in the East, this intensely natural requisite has not only been undermined; it has been squashed to a point where men don’t even know what it looks like anymore. In other words, shop class has been replaced with home economics, and our boys don’t even know what they don’t know.
Numerous studies have been produced which present real numbers in the loneliness of men. So bad are the statistics that many might even say that the biggest threat facing middle-aged men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness. In the wake individualist post-modernity, men have been culturally chastened for even thinking that they might need a few male friends to form bonds with. As Jordan Peterson has stated numerous times, the alienation of young men is an epidemic. Citing young men in tears thanking him for calling them to something higher than themselves, Peterson states: “So many of these men have not had an encouraging bloody word in their entire life.” No one to challenge them to greatness. No one to bond with in a healthy stream of wisdom.
In these brotherhoods, a natural form of hierarchy begins to take shape, yet within that hierarchy there is also an equality. A challenge from an authority figure is given due respect because the apprentice knows that the challenge is what’s best for him, and because of the dual respect and aura of equality, the young man embraces it. The men care for one another in goodwill and are able to express it in a masculine quality. Going back to Aristotle’s three types of friendship—utility, pleasure, and the good—we find the best of all three. Utility, in that the young men are trying to either learn a craft or sharpen their skills; pleasure, in that the goodwill is expressed through authentic friendships and experienced through mutual desires and enjoyed pastimes; and lastly, the good, which calls men to a shared desire of a life of virtue.
What Esolen points out in the interview is that we no longer hold up the icon of brotherhood, or if we do, it is often the paragon of the fallen state of brotherhood. For Christians, we have the perfect Icon of brotherhood in Christ’s calling of the apostles. In this small number of men we find the enrichment of one another as well as the culture around them. We see a healthy amount of manly debating, the consistent sharing of goodwill, and the common goal of living a life of virtue founded on the person of Jesus. There is no better icon of brotherhood and its ability to influence culture than this one.
The problem we face is multifaceted, but I’d like to point out one area in which we might be able to reconstitute this issue.
Part of the fall of brotherhood has been the rise of the fatherless home. How can a boy learn how to embrace his masculinity and join the rough and tumble world of brotherhoods without first testing his mettle against his own father? This issue has been raised by Christians and atheists alike, yet it seems that until the deeper issues of promiscuity, pornography, and generational gaps of men who’ve never experienced brotherhood are faced, how can we possibly steer fathers back into the home and challenge them to a place of higher virtue? Boys who’ve had an absent father typically go one of two ways: either to the extreme of gangs, or to the extreme of effeminacy, neither of which are workable in the icon of brotherhood. In this case, I want to challenge young fathers to do two things: (1) find your own brotherhood, and (2) live a life of selflessness for your children and master-apprentice for your son so that eventually your son is perfectly comfortable with the ideals of brotherhood. One place I’ve been blessed to do this is in martial arts. My sons and I go to the same boxing gym, and they’re surrounded by other men with a common goal who are willing to guide them. I also sit with them and discuss literature and culture. We pray together, worship together, and work around the house together. Yet I also have my personal brotherhood of myself and two men who both have families, are aiming for virtue, and are willing to test each other’s mettle in all matters. The brotherhood is there not to take away from my family time but rather to enrich my ability as a husband and father.
The lamentable feeling of loss that has occurred in the modern male is certainly not solely in regard to brotherhood. But it is a pillar by which much of their understanding of the world is built upon. The beauty of brotherhood, holding up the icon of the apostles, is that it spills right into the other two facets of healthy culture. If we want good husbands, we need good brotherhoods. If the mother-child dynamic is to be at its height, we need men willing to band together to protect it. Our culture is in dire need of a breath of fresh air. Little did we know that the air we seek was often found in pubs, craftsman shops, libraries, and sweat-riddled mats, where rough speech is perfectly normal and testosterone flows freely. Perhaps the best thing we could do for our culture is use the phrase “boys will be boys” with pride and expectations of the highest quality.