Recently, some have suggested that an appropriate definition for manliness in the 21st century can be taken from the classical tradition of virtue ethics. They equate manliness, properly understood, as equivalent to the ancient idea of eudaimonia, which means “human flourishing” or even “excellence.” But is this definition appropriate for Christian men?
The basic argument is that Christians should adopt an ethical framework based on neo-Aristotelian concepts of virtue. Virtue theory proposes that a man can develop from man-as-he-is and man-as-he-should-be, developing virtuous habits, skills, interests, and inclinations. It is action in accordance with virtue that moves a man from the former to the latter.
Specific actions, habits, etc. are promoted or discouraged on the basis of whether or not they help people develop a virtuous nature. Virtues are states of character that allow or contribute to the realization of the ultimate human good, eudaimonia, which include both the intellectual/rational and desiring/emotional self. The virtues are not just instrumental, but must be intrinsic goods, ends in themselves.
Development towards the telos is analogous to mastering a trade or craft, in which an artisan has spent much time and effort to achieve the specific objective of the craft, not only as an individual by himself, but under the tutelage of a teacher and/or within a community of teachers and students. Similarly, a theological virtue ethics encourages or discourages particular practices to the extent that direct a person toward or away from the true nature, as learned from a guru or within a community of disciples.
Virtue ethics is also known as character ethics, and is also described as “the embodiment of discipleship.” This idea points to the Incarnation of Jesus, who taught and embodied the kingdom of God as the ethical model and teacher who calls the church to also enter the fullest scope and practice of discipleship.
The true nature and telos of the human person is Jesus, especially as seen in the practices of his life. His whole life story reveals the meaning and purpose of humanity. Furthermore, it is not only that people follow the example of Jesus as individuals. Human beings as such are inherently relational, created “male and female” (Genesis 1:27), and throughout the biblical story of redemption people always arrange themselves in community (eg, Israel, the Twelve, churches). The individual does not exist in a vacuum, and self-realization requires the presence of others. The individual can not develop their full potential in isolation.
In addition to the community, the ethical role is characterized by a commitment to a narrative that informs the community of virtue and lets you set the criteria for acceptable behavior and character development. The human person, with his/her experiences, lives, and loyalties, are part of a larger drama that is the history of the community. Knowing yourself as a participant in a larger drama is crucial to character development.
This perspective of virtue or character ethics appears to have much to offer for a definition of Christian manliness. In particular, the focus on narrative and embodiment are important. Men will seek to live the virtues precisely as men, with the experiences and social expectations generally common to men, which is why it is important to distinguish between manliness and womanliness. With that said, however, there is no reason womanliness could not also be defined as eudaimonia, as the end goal of the pursuit of virtue! The concepts of virtue ethics may provide a meaningful framework for Christian manliness.