I see a boy.
Luke is ten years old. He sports a cowlick across his forehead, and a bright smile.
Despite the birth of a child a thousand miles away with vestigial organs of the opposite sex, and despite genetic anomalies that blunt the edge of masculinity or femininity here or there, everyone is certain he is a boy. It took the doctor in the delivery room but a moment to declare, “It’s a boy!”
Luke is outdoors a lot, running after baseballs, footballs, and soccer balls. He has what Marilynne Robinson happily calls “skinny boy strength.” You can see it in the muscles of his chest. His voice is pitched high, but not really—as if a flute were played an octave low.
People who pretend not to know what a boy is will scoff, but he runs like a boy, he makes boyish jokes, he shoots toy guns like a boy, he horses around the yard with a boy’s abandon, and if he helps his mother bake cookies, he does that like a boy, too. It helps that he has a father, who was a boy once, and who still has a lot of the boy in him, as most fathers do.
Consider that boy, Luke.
Look at him through the eyes of his father: that is to say, with philosophical love.
He has the boy’s body that shadows forth the body of a man. He will have sturdy shoulders, and the swelling in his throat suggests the timbre of the man’s voice. He is going to be taller than the average woman.
Fallen creature that he is, Luke stretches to the limit of what his parents allow, but already he is taking into his heart the Rules his mother represents, Rules that make for decent life among other people from day to day, and the Law his father represents, moral truths that can no more change than can the polestar fall from the sky.
He is a boy: vir futurus, a going-to-be man. Meaning: He will join other men, brothers fighting to attain or defend the common good. Greater meaning: He is made for a self-giving that is categorically impossible among his male friends. He is made for a woman. It is the orientation of his body, in its sexual form. It is the orientation of his masculine being, developing in a natural and healthy way.
None of this should be controversial, no more than claiming that the noonday sky is blue. Should someone protest, “It isn’t so! I saw it green once, when a tornado was coming,” we’d look askance, and wonder whether he had lost the capacity for normal communication. A boy is not a girl. A boy grows up to be a man. A man marries a woman, for love and for a family: That goal is stamped upon his body. Even savages without a doctorate in philosophy can figure it out.
Consider Luke, the boy, through the eyes of his father. What does he see?
He sees the vir futurus. He also sees himself, and his own father, and his grandfathers. I’m not just talking about physical resemblance. They share the same sex: They share the same mode of relating to the future of their kind. They are not the bearers of children, but the begetters. They are not the field, but the sowers. They cannot know the body-from-body bond their wives know when they bear children. Theirs is an approach from outside; and they enjoy the strengths and suffer the shortcomings of the far-sightedness that that approach implies.
Every normal and healthy and responsible father wants this for his son. It’s not like wanting the boy to go to Princeton. Such things may happen or not, and are extrinsic to the boy’s nature. It’s rather like wanting that the boy should not suffer scurvy or rickets. The father wants Luke’s bones to grow straight. He wants his soul to grow straight, too.
So does his mother. She’s suspicious of women who like to keep their boys in diapers, as it were. So she nudges Luke toward her husband. She buys them the same kinds of clothes. She admires Luke’s skill in hitting a ball, or painting, or building a tepee—whatever he sets his heart upon.
She becomes to him the best of girls, even when he doesn’t know he likes girls yet. She never ceases to be his mother and to command his respect, but she will also claim his duty as her protector. If the groceries are heavy, she asks him to handle them, knowing that eventually he will overmatch her in strength. When that day comes she’ll boast about it to her friends.
Her love for him is necessarily a love for his nature as a boy. One cannot say, “I love my terrier Whitey, but I wish he wouldn’t wag his tail.” She wants him to grow up to be a man whom a good woman would marry. She cannot encourage that by personal example. She encourages it rather by showing the love of a woman for her husband, regardless of the sparks that attend every union of the sexes. And she encourages it by expectation. She calls him to manhood by letting him practice being the man: as a mother teaches her son to “lead” her in a formal dance.
Such instruction cannot be generalized for all kinds of friendship. Nothing in nature is really like married love. Only in this love does one give of oneself, forever, to someone who stands across a divide in being: the one who begets, the one who bears.
The sex of a human being is marked in the voice, the hair, the shape of the face, the thickness of the bones, the contours of the torso, the quality of the skin, everywhere. A friend of the same sex is an image of myself, an alter ego. He echoes my voice.
But the spouse is no alter ego. The spouse complements my voice. The man to the woman and the woman to the man are suggestions on earth of the totaliter aliter, the wholly other. Well does Scripture compare the union of God with the human soul to the courtship and marriage of bridegroom and bride.
The giving, in this case alone, spans generations past and to come, not in mere intention, but intrinsically. When husband and wife unite in the act of marriage, they bear to one another precious strands of life. They do what their parents and grandparents did, and those ancestors are present in the heritage of the flesh.
The couple may act to thwart the effect of this reality. Disease or debility may thwart it also. But the reality is unalterable. When they unite, they do the time-transcending, child-making thing. They are the cause, effectual or exemplary, of children in the world.
All this they understand in their hearts, whether or not they express it in words.
In a healthy time, they could take for granted the assistance of their neighbors and of teachers at school. It’s not a healthy time. So the father must think things through.
Sometimes Luke and his father go by themselves, or with another father-son pair, for a hike in the woods, or to fish in the lake, or for an afternoon at the speedway—the boys can determine the destination. They separate from the girls, but not out of scorn. Instead the father teaches the boy to honor girls. A wife is not a playmate. Attached to this honor is a natural reticence before the mystery of the other sex.
The pure soul, the reverent soul, senses that the other sex deserves his honor. Thus there are certain things that boys do with boys, or talk about with boys, and not with girls. The occasional separation of the boys from the girls strengthens the sense that each sex is completed in the other. Indiscriminate mingling breeds indifference; but after the company of one’s own sex, the sight of the other is like a paradise upon the horizon, new, fascinating, delightful, and dangerous.
With his own sex, however, there should be naturalness and ease. So the father, on their treks alone, undresses before the boy as carelessly as he would undress before the dog, teaching the boy to do the same. The meaning is clear: You and I are alike. That is why we can do this.
If it were a healthy time, if it were a good time to be a boy, he and Luke and their boyish friends might strip and jump in a lake after a sweaty hike. But it isn’t a healthy time, so the father declines. Yet when he takes Luke to the gym, he will usher him into that man’s world as a wholly normal thing. If he’s shy, he’ll overcome his shyness for the boy’s sake, and stand free and easy in the dressing room, talking to a couple of the guys as unselfconsciously as if they had run into one another on the street. We’re all the same, son. You’re one of us.
Does he talk to Luke about sex? All the time, with words and without: when he puts his arm around his wife as they sit on the sofa together; when he digs a flower garden for a Mother’s Day present, and asks Luke to help; when he tousles the boy’s head, when he pretends to be a monster chasing him about the room, when he rolls on the grass with him and the football as if he were ten years old and not an old guy with sore knees.
He uses words too. “When you’re a man,” he says, introducing duties sometimes, and sometimes glories. “A real man has integrity,” he says. “Good men stand by their words.” “A boy makes excuses, but a man admits his fault.” “A boy thinks it’s brave to be reckless. A man knows the difference.” Sophisticates may snort. Let them, till they see what kinds of men their sophisticated sons have made.
But does he talk to Luke about sex—the mechanics? In a healthy time, he wouldn’t have to, so soon. It’s not a healthy time. So he does, gently, when the boy seems curious. He must protect Luke against wicked and foolish people, even teachers. But he grounds those discussions in reality: husbands and wives and children. He does not vaporize about “when you’re ready” or “when you really love somebody.” Pablum seasoned with poison, that.
The plain truth is that the man’s body is for the woman and the woman’s is for the man, and the child-making thing, the thing that unites them, really does make children, and children need a mother and a father committed to one another forever. Luke understands this. He is innocent, and whatever he sees, he sees clearly. Adults are not innocent, and gaze upon phantasms.
What about aberrations? When Luke asks about them, because of things he’s heard at school, the father says that certain people are confused, and do bad and unnatural things with their bodies. They become prone to terrible diseases. But when he catches Luke in a tiff calling another boy a sissy, he reprimands him severely. Since he would not complicate Luke’s passage to manhood, he grants other men’s sons the same courtesy, especially when those boys are walking a more difficult path.
He and his wife keep destructive images out of their home. No pitching the tent beside a cesspool. Luke doesn’t have a computer or a television in his bedroom. Why should Luke be taught his morals by people who dwell in a world unparalleled for its combination of depravity, stupidity, luxury, and vanity? Better to play with his little sister and brother, and talk to his parents.
Of course, Luke will not be at home all the time. Lately he has been asking to join an old group called the Boy Scouts. Luke’s father has to think about this.
In a healthy time, not so long ago, he would not have had to think about it. He’d have taken for granted that his commonsense view, that a boy is a boy, a vir futurus, meant in the very structure of his body to be for a woman, for the begetting and raising of children, would have been shared by everyone else. In particular, it was shared by the Boy Scouts. For the Boy Scouts were, to quote the pastor whose homily appears in the first issue of Boys’ Life magazine, to “quit themselves like men.”
The boy in the title was, if anything, more important than the scout. If a certain boy in the ranks were caught trying to entice others in things unmanly, and here I am including also the unmanly things that boys attracted to girls do, he’d have been taken aside, or sent to the counseling he badly needed, or quietly dismissed from the corps.
Luke’s father now asks what should happen if one of the troubled boys makes his predilections public. He remembers the tumult of puberty all too well. He remembers the confusion of feelings, the longing to be one of the boys, the fear of embarrassment, and the strangeness of girls, many of them for a brief time taller than Luke will be.
He does not want any word, or suggestion, or tale, or touch, to make Luke’s passage through the straits any more troublesome than it must inevitably be. Most especially does he not want a young scoutmaster with an eye for young men to drop a casual hint about his life, as if it were as moral as eating.
Luke’s father has a right to expect that people will not obtrude themselves into his son’s normal growth to manhood. It is wrong to lay a snare in the boy’s path. It is downright wicked to do so, when the life held forth not only frustrates the natural aims of Luke’s parents and the natural fulfillment of the boy’s masculinity, but also leaves those who are snared prone to an array of terrible diseases, both physical and moral.
He notes with wry irritation that Luke’s teachers are apt to wag their fingers at perfectly innocent things, like cupcakes in a lunchbox, but will cheer when a boy publicizes his entry into the bizarre and self-destructive.
But it isn’t just the pitfalls that the father is thinking of. It occurs to him that the Boy Scouts and he have come to an impasse. There is no reconciling them. The Boy Scouts now proclaim that there is nothing to being a boy, and nothing to the boy’s becoming a man; they might as well be the Unisex Scouts, as they are in Canada, where the scouting movement has collapsed.
In other words, Luke’s father is being asked to enroll his son in a group specifically limited to boys, but one that does not recognize the nature of boyhood and its progress to manhood. Thus there is no real justification for the group; that its membership is male is accidental and not of the essence. He and they do not see the same being in Luke. He sees his boy, and the man-to-be; they see a neuter. He sees a father-in-training; they see an immature human thing, a bundle of appetites that are not in themselves subject to moral judgment.
What is the father supposed to do? He can recall that better time, that healthier time, and can name several boys he knew who, if they were boys today, would inevitably be enticed, by loneliness or a trick of the lewd or boredom or a desperate need to be noticed or a despair that they could ever become true men, into the life of the male forever seeking the male.
He knows that most of them weathered the storms, precisely because the assumption that a boy is a boy gave them protection, some breathing space, some time to sort out their feelings and to grow up. He wants for Luke some small survival of that better time.
Where can Luke’s father turn? To the only institution left standing that affirms the goodness of human nature, both masculine and feminine. Grace perfects nature, said Thomas Aquinas. In this time, grace is needed merely to recognize that there is a nature to begin with. In this time, it is impossible to raise any real man without trying to raise a godly man. This is not icing. It is of the essence of manhood and womanhood.
Luke will know, if but intuitively, that his calling as a Christian, to leave his selfishness behind, to enter what Saint Paul calls the glorious liberty of the children of God, implies the just use of his sexual powers: to give, if God calls him, his body and his heart forever to the woman he loves. That won’t teach him how to pitch a tent in the woods. It might teach him how to build a home in a wasteland.
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata and Dante's The Divine Comedy.