This is what the Romans had in mind when they spoke of gravitas: They noticed that some men have weight—and they naturally make others feel it. To the Roman way of thinking gravitas is a virtue. And it’s a virtue because it is useful for certain things. For one thing, it can help you maintain a productive order, and for another it can serve justice.
Until you can tell Junior, “I’m not your friend, I’m your father,” you’ll always be a lightweight. Now, some guys like to keep it that way; they like to keep it light. It keeps them from having to shoulder certain heavy responsibilities.
I’m not saying these guys are completely irresponsible. Some of them are even willing to engage in what could be called, “generic-parenting.” What I mean by that is they’re nurturing.
I’m not down on nurturing. It is a beautiful thing; we wouldn’t be here without it. Nurturing draws you in, it tends to narrow distances; it almost reabsorbs you, like a return to the womb. If you’ve been traumatized, really hurt in someway, it is exactly what you need. But it isn’t the only thing that’s needed when it comes to running a household. And frankly, most men can’t match the average woman in this regard. Listen buddy, it is hard to take you seriously when you’re trying your darnedest to do something you’re just not very well equipped for. If that’s you, give up. You’ll always be second place, second best—and likely, even though your wife will appreciate the help when it comes to diaper changing, she probably wants a monopoly on mommy-hood.
But guys who just want to keep things light don’t have to be nurturing; usually they just want to be liked. While mommy second-class is a nurturer, buddy-dad wants to be a friend. To pull that off he has to level things out a bit. That’s because a buddy is a companion, an equal. Aristotle—that straight-talking philosopher—said that equality is a must between friends. When buddy-dad befriends his kids he’s actually abdicating fatherhood, at least temporarily. It is usually an unconscious decision, and sometimes he comes to regret it, usually when leadership or discipline is called for. Often, that’s when buddy-dad realizes too late that no one takes him seriously.
Why you need to put on weight and keep it on
Like any other institution we rely upon, nurture and friendship are just not enough to keep things going. Even in the best of circumstances sooner or later you’ll need justice. But when it comes to that, nurture and friendship can actually get in the way. A judge has to separate himself from people and rise above them. Paradoxically, to do that you need weight, you need gravitas.
I think you know what I mean. We’ve all known people that just can’t be taken lightly. When one of these people enters a room you feel his presence, your eyes lower and so does your voice.
In the high school I attended we had a vice principal charged with school discipline. Talk about gravitas—he weighed a ton. His name was Shue—Mr. Shue to you and me. No one knew his first name; he probably didn’t have one. Or maybe his mother named him, “Mister.” All I know is that at that school he was universally feared. Even teachers feared him.
Now you may be the sort to say, “Oh, how awful—no one should be feared.” Really? Here is a little anecdote to show you just how wonderful it can be to fear someone. I recall an incident on a school bus at the end of the day. The bus was full and we were waiting to leave behind a long line of buses. Some of the rowdier guys in the back—tough kids, drug-users, you know the sort—they were teasing and bullying kids near them. Our fat bus-driver was a lightweight. He squeaked from the front something that might be interpreted to mean, “Please, stop that.” The bullies just laughed and they told the driver to shut up. The other kids, the nerds and such, slid down their seats and prayed for a quick ride home. They had seen this movie before and everyone knew how it ended. Then a voice from the back said, “Cool it! It’s Mr. Shue!”
Mr. Shue was walking toward the bus, no hurry, just a man in a dark suit looking in our direction. You could feel the atmosphere in the bus change—the burden of dread that had been oppressing the weak shifted and began to weigh down the strong. When Mr. Shue stepped onto the bus and ascended the short set of stairs he was greeted with silence. He looked over us, scanning faces. He didn’t speak, he just stood there, projecting authority effortlessly, like a fireman shooting water from a hose. Then he pointed at two boys in the back and beckoned them to follow him. Then he stepped out of the bus and walked away. The boys silently got up and went. We all watched them follow Mr. Shue into the building. If I recall correctly, Mr. Shue never looked back to see if they were coming.
That’s gravitas, man. You want it.
What is gravitas?
Antonyms can be as useful for defining things as synonyms—maybe more so. Levity is the opposite of gravitas. Levity is humor; it lightens things up: it makes things levitate or float. When someone says, “lighten up” he’s encouraging this. Sometimes things do get too heavy and you really do need to lighten up. Medieval courts had jesters and you can do with a little comic relief in a heavy drama. Aristotle identified wittiness as a virtue for good reasons.
But we live in a time heavy with irony. Irony is de rigueur, seriously. Everyone wants to remain aloof, to float away from entangling commitments. We don’t want to be caught up in things that stir our emotions too much, or bind us with unsought obligations that could cause us pain. The grim irony of course is ironical people can’t be taken seriously.
As you can see in my little anecdote about Mr. Shue, gravitas is for serious people. They take things seriously and they expect you to too.
In case you haven’t picked up on it by now, gravitas is Latin for heavy. It should get you thinking of a related word—gravity. When we think of gravity we think of things falling to the ground, things like Newton’s apple. When you feel the weight of some responsibility you might find yourself saying you feel the gravity of the situation. You may even feel like falling to the ground and crying out for mercy. You may have noticed in my anecdote that gravitas was not so much something Mr. Shue possessed as much as it was a psychological state he produced in people, something like dread or wariness.
This is what the Romans had in mind when they spoke of gravitas. They noticed that some men have weight—and they naturally make others feel it. To the Roman way of thinking gravitas is a virtue. And it’s a virtue because it is useful for certain things. For one thing, it can help you maintain a productive order, and for another it can serve justice; they thought justice was unimaginable without it. I agree.
I’m afraid this is where egalitarians find themselves in a bit of a bind. Equality actually undermines the very thing that is required to promote it. In our day egalitarians pull a little trick that is reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz. But whereas the Wizard was actually an utterly unintimidating little fellow hiding behind an image of great power—today the people who administer the egalitarian state are powerful people hiding behind a curtain of egalitarian ideology. The projected image is not a frightening one of immense power and flame—instead they do their darnedest to look just like regular people. But don’t be fooled. Pull back the curtain and you will feel the full weight of the state’s coercive force. But this shouldn’t surprise or offend us. Hierarchies are as natural and inevitable as a pecking order in a flock of chickens or an alpha male in a pack of wolves. Sure, hierarchies can go bad—we all know that. But the solution shouldn’t be an elaborate self-deception. For all their shortcomings, one thing we can say for the Romans is they were honest about that.
Here is another politically incorrect thing to think about. Gravitas is usually easier for men to acquire than it is for women. Physical strength is a big reason, but not the only one—or even the most important one. Physical stature is also important—height really helps—and having a lower voice helps too. (Ever notice how women in positions of authority lower their voices?) Of course, no one is permitted to notice such things. While it is true that a woman can acquire a measure of gravitas, usually it comes at a cost many women are unwilling to pay. The cost is nurture.
You can think of it as a continuum with nurture at one end and gravitas at the other. The more you go toward the one the further you get from the other. Gravitas weighs on us because we know a man with gravitas is not only willing to cut us off, he has the power to do it. That’s what made Mr. Shue so intimidating. Not only did he have a face of stone and a heart to match, he really could cut you off. He could cut you off from freedom, from friends, even from school. No matter how much kids feigned the “too cool for school” routine, they knew deep down that no one was too cool for Mr. Shue.
This doesn’t mean that an authority figure needs to be completely unfeeling. It just means gravitas is not the only virtue you need if you want to be more than a heavy. The line separating a good ruler from a tyrant is thinner than most people suppose. Both have gravitas. Gravitas is somewhat like nuclear fission in this regard. Fission can light a city, or it can wipe it out. When you have it you need to control it. That calls for goodness and wisdom. Put it this way—gravitas is somewhat amoral. In the hands of a bad man it is death; but in the hands of a good man it is life.
More on masculinity and gravitas
Today sociobiologists are uncovering connections between human genetics and human society. While sociobiology leaves a lot to be desired, to a degree it is vindicating traditional patterns of social life with a vocabulary many modern people understand and appreciate.
When it comes to making a living in this world it is easy to see that individuals living alone don’t fare as well people living in groups. But when it comes to individuals though, one class of persons is better equipped to go it alone than any of the others. That person is the able-bodied adult male in the prime of life. You even see it in modern urban environments; when it comes to people living on the street—“the homeless”—by my guesstimate men out-number women 10 to 1. Now I’m not talking about people who are merely labeled “homeless”. I’m speaking about people who actually sleep in the open air. Women, children, old folks—they all get inside when they can. You may attribute that to more shelters for those people, but that only underscores my point. We all know that able-bodied men are better equipped to take care of themselves than other people. We put up more shelters for the rest because they’re more vulnerable.
A healthy man is simply better fit to go it alone. Generally he’s stronger, his skin is thicker, his heart is larger—which keeps him warmer—usually his eye-to-hand coordination is better, even his brain is better equipped for the task. Turns out a man’s brain is structured differently. Thinking spatially and mechanically usually comes more readily for a man. He can build better and faster, plant and harvest more productively; and kill more efficiently and with less remorse than most women. This places him in a very advantageous position with other people. Simply put: they need him more than he needs them.
Anyone who has done any haggling knows it is the party that can walk away that has the leverage in a haggle. This is why young men challenge authority more often than other people. They can walk away. This is also the reason entrepreneurs are more likely to be young men.
Paradoxically, this is one big reason why men find themselves in positions of authority over time. They’re the ones who start the businesses, and when they’re successful they don’t simply hand things over to others because that would be “fair.” Whenever academics puzzle over the incongruity of academic achievement for women failing to translate into achievement elsewhere in society—especially when it comes to business—it demonstrates a thick-headedness unique to academics. There is only a modest relationship between a good grade-point average and economic success. Students who make their teachers happy get good grades—that means neatness, promptness, correctness, and properly citing your sources. So long as you stay in school, this works great. But entrepreneurs really don’t care about those things. An entrepreneur likes them in his employees—but that’s why they’re working for him and not the other way around. Generally an administrative assistant with a PhD remains an administrative assistant with a PhD.
What does this have to do with gravitas? Boiled down gravitas starts with, “Who needs you?” People with gravitas simply don’t need other people as much as other people need them.
That’s where gravitas can get a start, but without something extra you’ll just end up living alone in the woods. Here are three things you’ll need if you want to convert rugged individualism into something socially useful.
Tips for gaining weight
Perhaps the thing that distinguishes a just man from a tyrant more than anything else is self-mastery. Tyrants master others without having first mastered themselves. When that happens the people a ruler should serve with justice become his servants. This master/servant arrangement is somewhat misleading though. The tyrant is also a servant. He serves his appetites. And since he is never free of them, he is never free to truly serve his people. At least his servants can find relief by his absence. But where can the tyrant run from himself?
When you are the head of a house, your inner-constitution is reflected in the constitution of your house. I’m using the constitution in a very old-fashioned way here. Americans tend to confuse documents with constitutions. A constitution is an order, whether it is documented or not. In the same way that scientists attempt to document the natural order, a written constitution is an attempt to document a civic order. But no one thinks that nature was unordered before scientists showed up. Likewise, a civic order exists before it is documented. In the United States the founders of our country wanted to preserve certain aspects of their civic order because they believed those things were true in a way that transcended time. Whether that is true or not is something you can find discussed in other books. (I happen to believe they did have many things right.) My concern here is to help you see something you may not have considered. A constitution is an order—and like any order, it can be just or tyrannical.
Few things are more terrifying than a strong man who controls everything beside himself—think Caligula. On the contrary, few things are more admirable than a man who controls himself, even when it seems like things around him are out of control—think Jesus or even Socrates. If the constitution of a household reflects the constitution of its head then for the household to be just, the head must be too.
Tyrants seldom think of themselves as tyrants though. Usually tyranny gets dressed-up to make it presentable even to the tyrant. Sometimes the result is so monstrous that it would be laughable if it were not so hideous. This is why self-mastery is the starting point if you want to keep weight on; hypocrisy has a way of hollowing you out. When people can take you lightly they will. Children have a way of growing up, and sons in particular will be in a position to challenge you sooner than you may realize. If you have been a tyrant, you may find out the hard way that you are a hollow man.
If you want the members of your house to be just, the best way to help that along is by being just yourself. There is no guarantee of that happening, but it makes it more likely. So how do you manage that? Some of the best minds in the history of the world have given themselves to answering that question. It was one of the primary goals of classical philosophy.
While the methods they proposed vary a bit, everyone agreed that a just man masters his passions. If you failed in that, then justice is a lost cause. But where do you start? According to the Oracle at Delphi you should, “Know Thyself”. Without self-knowledge you’ll never master your passions because you will never be able to separate yourself from them, or discover the power within yourself to subdue them.
Francis Bacon once said, “Knowledge is power.” It’s hard to argue with that. And when it comes to knowledge you want to be a guru. In Sanskrit a guru is a man so heavy with knowledge he can dispel shadows. That’s what guru means—heavy. (That makes two languages; it looks like we may be onto something!)
With gurus, weight is directly tied to knowledge. The Delphic oracle counsels us to begin with ourselves. So far, so good; but how do we go about it? Can we learn anything from our armchairs? Yes, a good deal actually—but only if armchair thinking is broken up by time on your feet doing things. You can only learn whether you’re honest or not by trying to tell the truth. Likewise, you’ll only know whether you are courageous or not by attempting daring-do. Self-knowledge isn’t so much a matter of timing as much as it is a matter of making it a priority. If you sit around doing nothing until you’ve learned enough about yourself to attempt something you won’t learn much and you won’t get much done. But if you’re just a mindless doobie, you won’t learn much. You’ve got to stop and think about what you’re doing, and an armchair is a good place for that.
Moving on from yourself, you should become a people watcher. There are things we all share in common, but there are also things that distinguish each of us. The more you are the master yourself, the more you may feel tempted to look down on other people. I assure you, this would be a mistake. It could ruin you. It also demonstrates that you don’t know yourself as well as you should. Self-mastery is good for you and the people around you; pride is not. Pride is actually a species of ignorance. There is no quicker way to shed moral weight than by contempt.
You’ll need a good imagination to put yourself in the shoes of people very different from yourself. If you are a 300 pound wrestler the world looks very different than it does to someone in a wheelchair. But you’re not just trying to imagine what it feels like to be someone else, what you really want to understand what different sorts of people can contribute to the commonwealth of your household. Why? Because that’s what you’re in charge of, that’s why.
You’re not trying to manipulate anyone, quite the reverse—you’re trying to serve people by giving them useful things to do that they can enjoy and take a wholesome pride in. And you’re trying to build up the household. The best way to do that is by using the strengths of the members in such a way that weaknesses of the members are covered—sheltered that is. Strength should reinforce strength—if that happens the house will be strong.
Finally, basic skills—you really must master some. We’ve all seen those television commercials where a girl gets out of the car to check the engine or fix a flat tire, leaving the guy who is along for the ride to watch. Our feelings are likely to be mixed. We know this hardly ever happens in the real world and that’s just what the advertisers are playing on. We may even feel some admiration for the woman in the scene. No one ever looks down on someone for knowing how to do something—at least no healthy person does. But even the most politically correct person will feel some contempt for the little fellow in the car.
If you want to have some weight, you don’t want to be that guy. Now you can’t do everything, but it is possible to become very good at a few useful things, and passably competent at several things. So, what should you focus on? Running willy-nilly from this to that just makes you a collector of trivia. Use this as your divining rod: master the skills that help you hold and develop productive property.
Since I both own investment real estate and write books, the properties I hold call for two very different sets of skill. When it comes to the care of my real estate there are some things I’m good at—having worked as a contractor I’m a good carpenter, both rough and finish; I’m also pretty good at a variety of finish work: sheet rock, painting, and the like. I’ve got enough rudimentary knowledge to wire a house or plumb a bathroom. And over the years I’ve had over 40 tenants and have been involved in close to 100 real estate deals—so I’m a fair negotiator and a pretty good judge of property value. Communication is one skill that carries over from writing to real estate—I’m pretty good at putting my thoughts into words. I can get my message across to tenants, subcontractors, agents (both realtors and literary agents), and lawyers. Another thing that is useful with both is decisiveness. I don’t know if that is a skill per se, but it is indispensable. I have had to hire people and had to fire people, I’ve signed hundreds of contracts, and I have evicted tenants. And many of these skills are transferable to other things besides publishing and real estate. Naturally, when it comes to any of these things in my household, I am the guru—my weight dispels the shadows.
Now I come to something that the cultural relativists among my readers—trusting that they’re still with me—will write off as another coincidence. In the Bible, glory is heavy.
The Hebrew word for glory is chabod. The word actually is translated as “heavy” in certain contexts. (Notice anything? First Latin, then Sanskrit, and now Hebrew—the third time is a charm, as they say.) Speaking of context, you may have run across chabod somewhere elsewhere. Put the letter “I” in front and you get ichabod, which means, ”the glory has departed”. You also get the first name of the silly protagonist in Washington Irving’s short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow—Ichabod Crane. It makes sense, Crane is a contemptible and comic figure.
Paradoxically, in the Bible, God’s glory is evidenced by a cloud—a luminous, billowing cloud of crushing weight. And when it comes items used in worship, gold is often material they’re made with. Its luster and its heft say, glory.
Lord of Glory is definitely not someone to take lightly. The weight of his glory presses people to their knees it is terrible—terrible being a good thing, as in inducing reverent trembling.
Not that there is much purchase for that sort of thing these days. Glory in this sense is rarely seen. And very few people are clamoring for a come back. As a minister I see it all the time. I face a lot of rejection, not because I’ve said or done anything. I’m a fairly nice guy. The reason is I represent someone many people would rather not meet. The things people do to avoid me can be quite amusing. Since I’m not a sadist I tend to let it go. If I took it personally I might need a therapist. (But since I don’t, I don’t—at least not for that.) By the way, this is why so many of my colleagues try to keep things light; those Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops are intended to put people at ease—to make the Lord more likable. This is also why it is had to take those guys seriously.
What’s this mean for a head of a house? Simple, glory lends you weight—no, more than that—it is your weight. It has something to do with your reputation, but there is far more to it than that. At the core it is about power, but not the raw power of a bully. It is power that is also just and pure. And this makes it precious. When you see it, there is no arguing with it. In the Bible when people see the glory of God they’re dumbfounded. But you can see it outside the Bible. Here is an example from one of the most popular works of literature in the world—The Lord of the Rings.
If you have read the story you may recall that a hobbit named, Bilbo Baggins has a beautiful magic ring in his possession. During the course of the story it is revealed that the ring is evil and over time it corrupts whoever uses it. Bilbo’s old friend Gandalf the wizard is trying to persuade the hobbit to give it up. Bilbo then accuses the wizard of trying to steal it and this leads to the following confrontation.
“Well, if you want the ring yourself, say so!” cried Bilbo. “But you won’t get it. I won’t give my precious away, I tell you.” His hand strayed to the hilt of his small sword.
Gandalf’s eyes flashed. “It will be my turn to get angry soon,” he said. “If you say that again, I shall. Then you will see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked.” He took a step towards the hobbit, and he seemed to grow tall and menacing; his shadow filled the little room.
Bilbo backed away to the wall, breathing hard, his hand clutching at his pocket. They stood for a while facing one another, and the air of the room tingled. Gandalf’s eyes remained bent on the hobbit. Slowly his hands relaxed, and he began to tremble.
“I don’t know what has come over you, Gandalf,” he said. “You have never been like this before. What is it all about? It is mine, isn’t it? I found it, and Gollum would have killed me, if I hadn’t kept it. I’m not a thief, whatever he said.”
“I have never called you one,” Gandalf answered. “And I am not one either. I am not trying to rob you, but to help you. I wish you would trust me, as you used.” He turned away, the shadow had passed. He seemed to dwindle again to an old grey man, bent and troubled.”
“…Gandalf the Grey uncloaked.” What a curious thing to say. What did that mean? The shadow tells us—Bilbo would have seen his power in all its justice and purity crashing down upon him.
That’s the weight of glory—and if you want respect, you’ll need it. But where does it come from? Is it something we can understand with little more than a layman’s knowledge of psychology or sociobiology? No, when we do that we see its potency drain away in the same way awe drains away when we learn the technique behind a magic trick. If that’s all glory is, it is nothing more than intimidation nipped and tucked and made presentable. But deep down I think we all feel there is more to it than that. Getting at that something more is the subject of the next chapter—pietas.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from the book, Man of the House: How to Build a Shelter that Will Last in a World that is Falling Apart.
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