Men of Iron and Steel: The Wisdom of Robert Speer

In a small book of lectures titled The Stuff of Manhood, author Robert Speer outlines his philosophy of excellence to a 1917 American audience. His work pertains to the nature of virtue and how the ethics of a nation should exist within the individual, specifically the aspects related to a militaristic ideal of discipline. Speer suggests that the strict ideals of proper military should reflect personal beliefs, morals, attitudes, and actions. In the book’s first lecture titled “Discipline and Austerity,” Speer recommends—whether we agree on our nation’s values or not—that the individual inherit the principles of a military’s foundation of self-discipline, obedience to our higher nature and enjoying hardships.

[… W]hatever our views may be on this familiar question, whether we regard military service as ethically helpful in its influence or as morally injurious, we cannot differ as to the need in our national character of those qualities of self-control, of quick and unquestioning obedience to duty, of joyful contempt of hardship, and of zest in difficult and arduous undertakings which, rightly or wrongly, we consider soldierly…To put these primary and elemental needs as sharply as possible, let us call them discipline and austerity. Our American character needs more of both.

Speer is not wrong about what man ought to bring himself to, and neither does man fall short permanently. Life is cyclical in nature and people are always returning back to themselves in an act of defiance and hope that they can be better, live better and act in harmony with their spirit. The genius in Speer’s words is never going to be cliche because someone is always coming up out of the grind of life, having fallen and gotten lost. Another person will always be succeeding in life, ready to take on new challenges as they get back on track from an otherwise stale perspective. Both situations require continual effort. On the one hand, the fallen spirit must yearn to rise, and on the other, the triumphant must continually remind themselves of their roles and goals in life, service to others finally becoming the main goal.

Discipline in military training is the example in Speer’s lecture due to it being a solid reference point that anyone can understand. When we are confused about where to go, we can always refer back to a soldier’s perspective and being part of a group with common beliefs. The tribe mentality syncs well with redefining a person’s lot in life because humans are inherently attracted to the qualities and character of solid, concrete and personal perfecting systems. Man will naturally hold the seed of mastery within, but whether it grows and blooms into a fully formed structure of dynamic effectiveness is the cause for reflection.

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The Easy Way or the Hard Way

The whole point of discipline and austerity is to become unshakable. Why do we want to become unshakable? Because life, while sometimes seeming to grant us our every wish, is not that easy when we start to reach beyond what we are normally capable of. Once we endeavor to pass the comfort of our surroundings and enter into unexplored land we inevitably run into competition, jealousy, backbiting, ladder-climbing, cut-throat politics, and consumerism. Life never holds simplicity so long as we are constantly seeking that which is going to make us different and offer change.

Speer’s book of lectures doesn’t beg us to tie our shoes and tuck in our shirts in hopes that we understand what he’s talking about, it says that one day we won’t actually have a choice. Boy and girl either becomes man and woman, or becomes lost, discontent, unhappy and dissatisfied with the world.

For a man to love himself so much that he never thinks of his neighbors, to blind his eyes so completely to consequences that he can live for the passing moment,—this is a very easy philosophy, and the man or the woman who is able to practice it will seem, for a while, to live in the sunshine, a fine butterfly, smooth-going life. All this is easier than to say, not, What is my impulse? but, What ought I? not, What do I like? but, What is best for all the world? not, What is the easy way? but, What is the hard way over which the feet go that carry the burdens of mankind, that bear the load of the world? But, though it is the easy way for a while, there comes a time when it is no longer the easy way.

Your mind is going to seek the easier way like water seeks the path of least resistance. The mind’s job is to keep you safe and sound but inadvertently weakens your willpower. While the mind is allowed to take over and cloak its master in a special blanket of safety, the real spirit on the inside loses its identity.

“Everything is alright, we are all safe and no one is struggling or getting tired,” the mind will say. As soon as a challenge comes along we will crumble. It could be at work when your boss asks you to push on a new front and expand the department, or in traffic when someone tails you and all you want to do is slam on the breaks and force them into a collision—as if that helps. From small to large, mundane to extreme, life tests our capacity for stress and finds a way to see how much pressure we can hold before cracking. Those who wish to have smooth sailing instead of a bumpy road can have their mediocrity. But, as Speer suggests, real joy lay deep within the caverns of self-mastery.

There comes a time when, having always indulged ourselves, we can’t break the habit; when, never having taken our lives in our hands and reined them to the great ministries of mankind, we discover that we cannot. We find that we obey our caprices; follow any impulse; cannot stick to any task; do not know a principle when we see it; have no iron or steel anywhere in our character; are the riffraff of the world that the worthy men and women have to bear along as they go.

If you have ever had the opportunity to understand vice, then you know exactly why we seek virtue—contentment. To abide in your own greatness is something to behold. Man truly is an island of self-sufficiency and worth, once he reaches the shores of his own virtues. We can find these people in society or in stories of great heroes or those who acted bravely when called upon. That great soul is defined by Speer,

The men and women who will not run away from any task, who stand steadfast in truth, upon whose every word we can rest our whole soul, grew out of a certain discipline and education. And it is this that gives freedom. There is no freedom outside of character. Liberty, as Montesquieu says, is not freedom to do just as we please. Liberty is the ability to do as we ought. And the freedom that we need is not the freedom of caprice and whim and listening to our impulses. It is the freedom that enables our eyes clearly to see what right is, and then empowers us to do it.

Much of the trouble that we face today can be found in social media. Social media, or any form of instant communication, can be a type of drug. Instagram might not look like your typical narcotic, but when you dissect what happens in the brain when unending scrolling take place, your brain lights up with dopamine and you get excited, one scroll after another. The labyrinth of notifications, instant change and novelty are conveniently right in your hand but acts as a double-edged sword. Learn to strategize and make plans to balance social media with real face-to-face contact with people and the reading of actual books.

The light of a starry night sky is better and more healing than anything a digital picture can offer. How can you even have a conversation on Reddit without constant refreshing of the page, god that is depressing isn’t it? If you never train yourself to charge up on nature and silence then all of your energy will be pulled out as you seek another form of excitement. The Internet alone is truly a grand phenomenon that when taken to excess is a sure cause for illness. When used with discipline, though, these things can be a game-changer in regards to work and social systems. But if you don’t have any inner capacity for strength or restriction these things will drag you along in its endless variety.

And we must learn in this school (of life) the things we value and desire most—purity and delicacy and refinement of character, for they cannot be acquired elsewhere. So much social standing nowadays is uttered in terms of self-assertion and indulgence and the ability to have any whim or caprice gratified. This sort of self-assertion, this caprice, is regarded by many of us as the highest mark of social authority, whereas we know it is precisely the opposite, that it is self-restraint and self-control and self-surrender that mark the finest lives.

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The Need to Fight

Some of us have grown up in angry homes and angry communities. Either kids are fighting at school, parents fighting in the home or we see high emotions and anger in politics and world events. People can be base, crass, rude, and ineloquent creatures who think it is ok to lose one’s cool and fight fire with fire. They are wrong and they look ridiculous.

Children retaliate. Little boys and girls name-call and use silly one-liners to attack a schoolmate. Adults are supposed to grow out of these habits and make their mind into a respectable place where discussion and conversation can happen in a healthy way. Getting back to maturity means we have to get a little more intellectually astute and a little less brute. Men are socialized to be more aggressive, more protective, more demanding, and the male sex is certainly physically stronger and prone to defending that reputation. There’s nothing wrong with learning how to defend oneself, but we have to know when and where to throw punches and be pugilistic.

Getting angry, or even getting overly emotional, shows that you are prone to let your defenses down and let immediate gratification take over. We only resort to that because we do not yet know what it feels like to outwit someone or be “the bigger man” by letting something go. The bigger man wins in the long run, the angry fool remains the same. If you are to exude leadership, then you have to be the kind of soul who knows right from wrong and does not answer to any immoral decision. This goes into our private life as well: If you are willing to reach towards pleasure over wisdom when alone, you are sure to show weakness in public.

Whose judgment is of any value? What does passion bid me do? What is my whim or caprice for tonight? No men will ever come to you and me if we have not been trained in the school of moral discrimination, if we have not looked on ethical principle and duty in deciding the question whether each thing is really right for us and for the whole world. If we are to be men and women to whom people will come for comfort and strength and guidance, to whom our own children can come with assurance that they will get the truth, we must be men and women who now place ourselves beneath the firm discipline of God (our higher nature.)

The idea of taking on a burden for the purpose of getting stronger is so profound that it can’t be left out:

No strong man was ever made against no resistance. We develop no physical power by putting forth no physical effort. All the strength of life we have we get by pushing against opposition. We acquire power as we draw it out of deep experience and effort. Those of us who were not born with a cross must find one, those whose lives have been smooth are deliberately to find ways of roughening them, so that we may know a life of power and fellowship and can go out to real work, and be prepared for that greater life and greater service which await us elsewhere than here.

By living too easily, we actually stunt our growth and delay its progress. Speer, a Christian, will ask us to “carry your own cross,” but followers of any faith can just replace the word cross for burden and you have a foundation on which to live. If you don’t have a burden—or cross or any trouble—start to take on service for others and selflessly help and mentor. Take on their cross or their karma or their trouble; make their burden your own. Make your life harder.

Have you read the original anthology that was the catalyst for The Good Men Project? Buy here: The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood

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