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The Hearth and the Wild Wood
On Tonic Masculinity, the Family and Society
There’s been quite the surge of interest in the concept of “tonic masculinity” of late. In part this is due to the description of effectively everything men do as “toxic masculinity” by the left, a counter argument to the denigration of half humanity. More importantly, perhaps, I see it as a move to reclaim lost knowledge. Humans in the developed world, and those parts who sent their leadership to school there, spent a lot of the last two centuries or so attempting to forget everything we have learned about how society and humans work. So here we are in the 21st century, where we can split the atom for near unlimited clean energy but won’t deign to do so, create machines that bloviate near indistinguishably from humans, and require semi-amateur writers on Substack to explain to the masses how men and women can cooperate to function together as a whole species.
Fortunately, , , , , , , and others have taken up the task, providing valuable insights into the different aspects of this matter. That no one view should cover the entire field is hardly surprising; thousands of years have been spent on the problem of right action, what it means to be virtuous, so it seems reasonable that a few part timers can’t nail it all in a weekend. What follows is my humble addition to corpus, and in future essays I hope to examine the broader role of virtue and its pursuit in our lives. I was once described as producing work “slowly, but of great quality.” I hope to prove the latter true; the former is obviously so.
From the Hearth to the Wild Wood: An Allegory
The world of infancy is warm, safe and sterile, a nest with no dangers. Children learn to control the basic functions of their bodies, to understand other’s basic communication, and to make others understand their own. Within this nest they first learn to push the boundaries of experience, and desire to gain new ones.
As quickly as they learn, they learn that nest is stifling. There are no dangers, but neither are there challenges to overcome. All obstacles are absolute, and intentionally so, quite unbeknownst to them. The experience of being alone in the nursery quickly sours as exploration and imagination play out, and all thoughts turn to the same object as every human has, and will.
The Nursery Door.
Mother stands at this door, this portal into the the wider world of the Home. The world is Hers, and it is She who guides the child through it. For guidance is essential. The Home is not safe, not like the Nursery. There are hard corners, even sharp objects. There is the Hearth, both inviting and dangerous.
Yet Mother is there, smoothing the way for the child. The hard corners are softened, the sharp objects tucked away. She ensures exploration cannot take the child to situations they cannot handle, and when they fail She dries their tears. Her law makes exceptions for their desires and will, for as much as She is the center of their world, they are Hers. She cares no less for the burns inflicted by disobedience than misfortune.
Within Mother’s Realm, the child’s exploration of both their abilities and the world continues, all lit by the warmth of the Hearth, now become safe by long experience. When the new world becomes too much to handle, they may still retreat to the absolute safety of the nursery, although as time passes this becomes less and less appealing. The child slowly becomes aware of a yet wider world, beyond the walls lit by Hearth’s light, at once fearful and fascinating. Mother guards this portal as well, ensuring the wilder parts stay out where they belong.
Father, of course, is allowed in. After all, who else can slay the monsters named “spider”, and He is great fun to play with, when He deigns. Indeed, it is entirely unclear why He, or Mother for that matter, ever leave the walls of Hearth and Home.
Yet it sounds wonderful… and one day the child ventures forth.
Mother accompanies the child, but it quickly becomes apparent this is no longer Her Realm, where nothing happens without Her Will and Knowledge, for fear of Her Displeasure. Indeed, many things seem to happen whether She likes it or not.
This is the Homestead, the domain of Father, and it is very different.
The Home is a Realm created to suit the child’s needs, whose very shape is predicated on Mother’s notions of good and bad, in which nothing exists for long of which She does not approve.
The Homestead has a life and purpose all it’s own, making it both fascinating and dangerous. Gone are smooth floors with warm rugs, replaced by wide swaths of soft grass hiding rough stones. Low chairs are replaced by tall trees, wonderful to climb up, but terrible to fall down. Butterflies exist, as well as wasps. The corners are harder, and the sharp objects larger, and more readily available. The experiences more exciting, the falls more painful.
And at the edge of this new world stands Father, at the gate to the Wild Wood, keeping the outside out, and the inside working and productive.
As the child passes from Mother’s Realm to Father’s Domain, so too does the child standing within the world change. No longer the center of the world, the child now faces new obstacles. Where Mother smoothed the way for learning and exploration, Father's primary responsibility is to show how to deal with the rough edges, the cracks in the road, the dangers of the Wood. Where Mother banished that which was hurtful to the child, Father merely warns to be more careful in the future.
“That’s how we learn. Now you know better.”
If this often seems less soothing and more callous, it is because the Wild Wood denizens do not see the child as Mother sees them, as Father sees them. The child is just another in their eyes, not the center of Their world. Children must learn to face reality on reality's terms, for it is not ordered for their benefit as was the Nursery, the Home or even the Homestead. Thus the Father must support the child, help them stand up when they fall, teach them when they must stand up, teach them their duty to themselves and others, all while letting them fall, indeed putting them in situations where they will fall, where they will fail, where they will be hurt.
The goal is not to hurt the child permanently. Though He may not show it, Father feels every bruise, every scraped knee, every cut as though inflicted on his own body. For indeed it has been, many years before, when He learned that pain and discomfort is part of achievement and can be, must be, overcome. Eventually the child must pass through the gate to the Wild Wood to make their own life, to build their own Home and Hearth, and defend it from the fouler denizens without while keeping within the productive and desirable.
To teach the next child to do the same.
All the things a Mother and Father must know, a child must learn, and the primary lesson is that there is but one world in which we live, and we face the world on its own terms.
If this were a video, here it would cut to a shot of me in a wood lined study, sitting in an armchair next to a fireplace, closing a suspiciously large leather bound book and smiling at the camera while saying something to the effect of “Wasn’t that a wonderful story?” Probably while wearing a red smoking jacket and carpet slippers, possibly with a snifter of brandy.
Thanks for reading everyone. I look forward to hearing what you think in the comments!