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Toxic masculinity fostered by misreadings of the classics

Scene from the movie, Troy, loosely based on Homer’s Iliad. (Troy)

Toxic masculinity fostered by misreadings of the classics

Homer’s Iliad has been used by some men to hail the virtues of traditional masculinity in the 21st century. Typically, the famous work of literature serves as a sort of manual of manliness.

Scholars are not immune to this tendency to privilege a certain vision of manhood. For example, in a now infamous YouTube clip from October 2017, Jordan Peterson, the controversial University of Toronto psychology professor and darling of the right’s “free speech” brigade, laments that men can’t “control crazy women” because, if dialogue fails between a man and woman, the man is “forbidden” to settle the dispute with physical violence.

This sentiment of control is representative of Peterson’s views of gender roles. More recently, he has blamed the rise of sexual misconduct allegations against prominent figures such as Louis CK on the breakdown of marriage since it’s the primary institution within which sex takes place.

It sounds as if Peterson is advocating for state-sanctioned sexual assault within marriage (given the true history of marriage and gender relations). Let’s be charitable and assume that what he has in mind is the kind of marital relationship on display in the classics: Heroic men and their wives, based on love, yes, but also depictions of the man as a selfless champion warding off threats from other males and providing for his family in the midst of daily dangers.

A quick glance at Peterson’s lavishly funded Patreon account makes it clear that reclaiming the traditional Western humanities, and their attendant moral lessons, is one of his chief aims. He aims to start by listing 100 “great books of the world,” concentrating on “the classics of the Western canon.” Whether he is qualified to do so is open to debate; a recent article in The Walrus accuses Peterson of quackery.

Co-opting the classics for white supremacy

As a classics professor, I am haunted by this co-optation of my discipline by the so-called “alt-right” and other self-styled “defenders of Western civilization.” My fellow classicist Donna Zuckerberg has eloquently argued that we scholars have a lot of responsibility when it comes to tackling the demons of our discipline that “for many …is the study of one elite white man after another.”

Aside from longing for the (grossly misunderstood) glory days of a triumphantly Christian Europe that traced its heritage to the Greeks and Romans, the new champions of the West obsess over an idealized version of the past that bears little resemblance to the real Greece and Rome.

Another colleague, Sarah Bond, has done a marvellous job of pointing out the racism and white supremacy inherent in continuing to highlight the white marble of ancient sculptures and denying their multi-hued reality.

Head of a Young Man. Centrale Montemartini, Rome, Italy. Colour and gilding is still visible uncovered in the area of Piazza Dante. CC BY

The classical world furnishes us with examples of manhood, masculinity and heroism that have inspired some men to react against the supposed feminizing of Western culture, especially in the university setting.

The Greeks and Romans must really have known what it meant to be a man, and they celebrated manliness unabashedly. When I challenge traditional notions of Western manhood or Western civilization, I regularly receive Twitter responses calling into question my own masculinity and fitness to teach the classical world.

Yet even the most classic and Western of all works, Homer’s Iliad, paints a far more nuanced picture of manhood than men like Peterson do. The Iliad, which also drew heavily on Eastern precursors, is a story that is largely at odds with today’s toxic masculinity.

The Iliad: An epic, complex tale

When as an undergraduate I first read the Iliad, an epic tale about the Trojan War, I found the final showdown between the opposing heroes Hector and Achilles an utter letdown. Hector, in fact, runs away rather than face his opponent.

Only after Achilles has chased Hector around the walls of Troy three full times does Hector turn to fight, and only then because the goddess Athena tricks Hector into thinking that a Trojan ally would be by his side. What a wimp, and so unlike the movie version with Eric Bana! At 21, I figured the ancients must not have been into the same things as modern moviegoers.

I have now read the Iliad many times since that first pass. Teaching the poem this term, in the original Greek to a class full of bright upper-level students, I am appreciating anew the depth of Hector’s portrayal at the hands of a poet who worked more than two-and-a-half millennia ago.

I don’t think readers of the Iliad are meant to feel uncritical sympathy for or defend the excessive masculinity of Achilles (though some would disagree), who responded to an insult by Agamemnon with murderous wrath.

By using different Greek words for manliness, Homer distinguished between Achilles’ toxic masculinity and appropriate expressions of manliness.

Readers do, however, tend to recognize in Hector, the greatest Trojan warrior, a far more sympathetic figure, embodying classical manhood by fighting bravely and selflessly for his city and family against impossible odds and an implacable enemy.

Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film Troy, loosely based on the Iliad, misses the complexity of masculinity portrayed in the original. In the movie, Hector is the real hero of the Trojan War story. For all the movie’s flaws and distortions of its source material, audiences cannot fail to root for the gallant Hector, especially as portrayed by Bana.

Eric Bana in Troy. (Troy)

When Hector duels with Achilles (Brad Pitt), we know he will lose, but we feel for him much more than for the violent and enraged Achilles, and we admire his principled stand in front of Troy’s walls.

Hector tries to come to an understanding with Achilles that the victor will allow the vanquished the proper burial rites, only to be coldly rebuffed by the Greek champion. Yet Hector fights anyway, as his honour dictates he must.

This, after all, is how men settle problems, isn’t it?

A complicated hero

Homer’s Hector, though, is far more complex than Peterson’s caricature, and is a poor model for the new champions of “traditional” masculinity.

Not only does Hector’s nerve fail him at Achilles’ final approach, the Greek blazing in his armour like a bright and deadly star, the Trojan prince waits outside the safety of the walls not because of any higher principle or courage.

Rather, he waits because he has made the mistake of not ushering his soldiers into the city much earlier, which would have spared countless men a grisly death at Achilles’ hands. Hector must therefore save face lest some lesser man chide him. Some principled stand.

Before fleeing, Hector also ponders whether he should lay down his arms and attempt to strike a deal. Instead of fighting to the death, Hector considers offering Achilles not only Helen and the treasures she brought to Troy, but every last ounce of treasure in every last household in the city, effectively selling out all the Trojans instead of facing death himself.

Only after deliberating over these two options does he turn to run, perhaps dashing the expectations of undergraduates everywhere.

It’s taken me a few years, but I now see in Hector a profound and relatable humanity. Don’t we all act out of self-interest more often than we care to admit? Aren’t we all guilty of taking a stand when it’s easy and when we’re among friends, yet balk at the chance to speak out when there might be real repercussions?

Last summer, yet another darling of the masculine free-speechers, James Damore, made headlines. He was fired from Google for circulating a 10-page memo in which he argued that women with their “higher levels of neuroticism” are less suited to tech fields than cold, calculating, rational men.

The science behind Damore’s screed has been debunked.

To add to this: The Iliad would be a poor choice to provide evidence in Damore’s favour. From the gut-wrenching fear and indecision in Hector’s breast, to the plaintive laments of his father, Priam, as he begs his son to come inside the city walls, and even to Achilles’ tearful and hyper-emotional response to Agamemnon’s insult, the heroes of Greek epic are terrible fodder to use to justify the toxic masculinity asserted by Peterson, Damore and their fans.

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