So I was poking around Facebook groups the last few days, and I started to get annoyed (go figure). One incident got my attention and incensed me like no other. It was some guy complaining about how some in the group hurt his feelings. Maybe it’s the dangerous amount of testosterone I hide in my beard, but I wanted to tear this guy a new rectum. Why? Because he was breaking what many would call “man code”, an institution so old, women first started the earth’s rotation with a collective eye-roll (and they just altered it reading that just now ;).
All joking aside, what is the man code and why does it matter? Every boy is brought up with models, scenarios, and rules, both spoken and unspoken, about what it means to be a man. This code can sometimes change, but some parts do not, being biological. Ares, as the god of manliness, exemplifies the qualities of manliness that the ancient Greeks ascribed to, as do many people today. Let’s explore some of those qualities, and how they reflect (or do not reflect) some of the same values we hold today.
Number one: A man is responsible for his words and actions.
This sort of thing should be obvious, and is rather understated in the myths of Ares. However, one myth does really call this virtue to the fore: that of the rape of Alkippe. Alkippe was Ares’ daughter, and she was raped (a dubious term for the ancients, so from the context of the myth, we’ll assume it means what it does today) by Poseidon’s son Halirrhothios. Ares caught him in the act, and like any dad could be expected to do, Ares killed him on the spot. Now, killing folks is what Ares does, and as a mortal, no one would have given a damn for Halirrhothios, except he was the son of another god. Well, once Poseidon found out, he demanded retribution. Now, Ares could have blown Poseidon off, but instead went to face the music in Athens (where the offence occurred). In a tribunal of the gods, Ares was acquitted on account of defense of another, and everyone went their merry way (except Poseidon). This is one reason given for the hill being named the Aeropagus, and the Athenians held their most serious trials there for centuries after.
This is not the only bit of wisdom we can draw on. In Plato’s etymologies of the names of the gods, he pondered that Ares is so named for his “hard and unbending nature”. Ares makes decisions that are often of a most permanent nature (death and all that), and thus must live with a decision he makes regardless of the outcome. Unfortunately, modern man has a very hard time with this concept. Politicians of all stripes are notorious flip-floppers. A major problem exists in urban populations, and despite the lamentations of Bill Cosby, it’s not just blacks that abandon their baby-mommas. Public apologies are all the rage today, and the media rarely reports consistency of character (unless it’s bad), and so many young men are given mixed messages in this department. Speaking of mixed messages, this brings us to number two on our list.
Number two: Men are fighters.
It’s pretty easy to see where Ares fits into this one. Almost all of Ares’ mythology is devoted to his war stories. From the Iliad to Aeschylus to modern myths by Sannion, Ares is a fighter. Much of a man’s inclination towards fighting is entirely involuntary, and comes to him though the wonderfully chaotic chemical testosterone.
Despite all the manly and awesome qualities testosterone provides (like aggression, sex drive in men and women, beards, etc.), average testosterone levels around the world are dropping. This is one reason many men these days just don’t seem so manly anymore. Between spending time indoors, dieting too much, becoming obese, and modern sleep patterns, testosterone doesn’t have the opportunity to be made, because all of those ingredients interfere with its production.
Fighting today is on odd thing to quantify today. Fewer and fewer boys have ever gotten in a fist fight. Unfortunately (in my opinion), this decrease in physical confrontation leads to a real lack of resolution in peer groups. You often hear of a “bullying epidemic” in the news today. Truth is, bullying has stayed pretty steady over the centuries. The strong pick on the weak until they are no longer weak. Now, however, the culture of non-confrontation (the use-your-words method) means the weak get picked on until a point they either commit suicide or homicide. Coping skills are at an all-time low, and you can see this today in politics, business, and domestic life.
Fighting should not be allowed to run willy-nilly, though. Much of the poets’ disdain for Ares stemmed from his “stab first, ask questions later” attitude. It is important then that Ares was coupled with a passionate yet gentler female influence; hence, Ares is paired with Aphrodite.
Number three: Most of a man’s emotions shouldn’t be public.
Now, it’s a truth that Ares was an extremely passionate character, and that said passion would get him in trouble. In addition, there are a few stories of Ares being quite the softy (saving a baby, yay!), especially when it came to his lovers and children. But there’s a difference you will see in Ares versus many other gods: most folks don’t get to see this. Unlike his own dad, Ares isn’t in the habit of making his affairs public. Other than his rage, Ares doesn’t go around putting his emotional baggage in others’ laps (and I’m sure that’s one reason he distracts himself with his wife).
Part of taking control, whether as a man or a woman, means putting aside emotion in order to do what needs done. People, as much as they might enjoy fighting, usually have a natural distaste for killing, however necessary. Sometimes, the only answer to a solution requires one to disregard that feeling. Man needs to eat, and despite raising the family pig for a year or two, he needs to kill the animal in order to prevent his family from starving. Do you hate your job? A lot of people do, but it needs done. Does this mean you can’t have those feelings, or can’t ever express them? No. What it means though is that you find the appropriate time and place (usually never public) to express that.
The best parable to emphasize this point also relates to Ares as a god of courage, which is seen by the ancients as a manly quality. Courage, as described by Aristotle, is not an absence of fear, but rather the acceptance and refusal to shrink back from fear. The courageous man is therefore afraid, but denies the power of fear despite his holding onto it.
Number four: A man is responsible for, and to, others.
This is a theme that has been running through the last three, especially in relation to Ares. Ares stands behind his children, his lovers, and his order, despite how others feel about him. Though Zeus calls him the most hated god on Olympos, Ares still supports his father (unless he’s supporting his mom). He and his sister Athene may fight, but when they need to, they fight together. He and his buddy Hermes work in tandem bringing criminals to bear. He may not be well-liked, but Ares gets his job done, and never stops even if he fails. His responsibility is to bring war to mankind, and thus mankind shall never find peace. Ares knows what is best for man, even if what’s best for him isn’t good for him or others.
We as a society can learn a lot from Ares. From him, we learn it’s okay to fight, but that there’s a time and place. We learn about responsibility in an irresponsible world. We can learn about tough choices, and about never backing down from the challenge. We can learn to deal with our own issues. Most of all, we can learn to make ourselves, and our sons, into good men. Hail Ares!