Kate Arenchild is an undergraduate student (class of 2019) studying economics and philosophy at Saint Mary’s College of California. Her academic interests focus on the forces that cause societies to thrive or atrophy. Arenchild has written on issues concerning the alt-right, Catholicism, and modern higher education.
The alt-right has a blatant disregard for America’s cultural taboos surrounding men and women. Think of the messages we hear everywhere, from Netflix shows to Kaiser billboards: Men and women are exactly the same; all differences are socially conditioned. The monotony of what counts as socially acceptable discourse can help us understand the alt-right. Parents, despite efforts to treat their children the same, watch their young sons aggressively wrestle with one another. Feminists concede that women are still attracted to “money and muscle.” The allure of romance remains in the intricate dance between male and female difference. Even non-heterosexual couples reflect this desire (think of lesbian butch/femme roles). A disconnect exists. The socially acceptable theories do not align with our lived experience. The alt-right is attractive because it identifies that differences exist. But how they treat this difference is as repetitive and mistaken as the theories they claim to refute.
The alt-right claims to return to a traditional understanding of men and women but misunderstands the ancient notions of virtue and excellence. Instead, they uphold a modern ideology that champions the shadow side of our current culture. When speaking of the tripartite Ancient Greek conception of the soul, C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man wrote of his fear of men without thumos (men without chests). He writes: “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. 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.” As these chests have collapsed, the basest part of man’s soul has come to rule him. The #MeToo movement seems a striking confirmation of this: men have an incredible ability to be controlled by their passions at the expense of all else. This is truly toxic masculinity, a perversion of the soul.
The alt-right identifies the atrophied organ, but offers a fake substitute. In traditional understanding of thumos, from Ancient Egyptian and Babylonian codes of ethics to old Norse myths, strength is tempered by rationality, courage is mediated by self-sacrifice, honor is subordinate to the good of one’s community. To the Greeks, the thumotic desire for excellence was expressed physically but also in the intellectual and poetic realms. A man protected the weak and uplifted the burdened. The ultimate mark of courage was laying one’s life down in self-sacrifice. Pure physical strength and unadulterated power are mock substitutes – a fake chest. True masculine virtue is pluralistic, allowing room for some to be excellent soldiers while others are excellent artists. The alt-right, thinking they are radically challenging the monotone understanding of gender, creates a monotone masculinity, flattening it into an obsession with power and winning. To an era tired of contrived notions of sex and unfamiliar with virtue, this counterfeit is confused with the true function.
Various ancient codes of ethics correctly understood virtue, yet the reinstatement of any of these in the American context is impractical, if not impossible. Christianity is America’s most potent means of providing an antidote to men seduced by the alt-right. Jesus Christ is the ultimate virtuous man, one who spoke with authority, treated women with unprecedented respect, loved children, faithfully taught and led his disciples, drove the money changers out of the temple with a whip, and laid down his life in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. The alt-right could never exalt a man like this; Jesus laid down his power, eschewing any earthly glory. To men seeking courage and honor, Jesus and hundreds of saintly lives provide a myriad of diverse masculine lives of excellence. A flattened conception of masculinity as winning at all costs is embarrassingly bland in comparison.
If Christianity is the solution, why does the alt-right continue to flourish? Quite simply, they offer a more compelling metanarrative to men than the contemporary American church. In a time when white men are attending churches in low numbers, the alt-right offers roots, providing a concept of tradition, meaning, and identity that the American church does not. If Christianity will appeal to those seduced by the alt-right’s distortion of thumos, it must faithfully resurrect the chests of men showing that Jesus satisfies men’s deepest desires. If not, the alt-right will continue to recruit men from her disenchanted pews.