Omnino non amplius, de eo, qualem, oporteat esse bonum virum; disserere, sed talem esse. [Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.]
Some years ago, when I was going though a bad patch, my energetic and feisty mother-in-law, an Italian aristocrat, eventually lost patience with me and snapped, “Be a man!” It was a mixture of anger and concern, but it woke me up. A part of me still brooded, however, on what it would take for an introvert Englishman like myself to Be A Man in the Italian sense.
Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations often display the same impatience, it seems to me. ‘Get real’ or ‘Get on with it.’ I’ve been reading them for thirty years now: ample time in which to study the Italian notion of a man, and I’ve come to the conclusion that what is expected most from him is honour.
Male Italian children are brought up as princes, but the deal is that when they grow up they behave like kings: powerful, determined, dependable, stoic under pressure but clever when necessary, committed to the family and its needs and, above all things, honourable.
They don’t generally do the washing up, it’s true, and they can be incredibly macho, but they recognisably fit a stereotype that is in no sense objectionable. The men in my Italian family are honourable and gracious under pressure and would be instantly recognised by Marcus Aurelius, and I love them all.
How do you learn to be a man? First, you have to win the respect of the woman closest to you. That can take years, but in that time, if you’re as fortunate as we have been, something particularly important happens in your life to help. The two of you get to be parents of a beautiful daughter who develops into a strong, intelligent and forthright woman, and there is no better person in the world to point out to you clearly and concisely and lovingly, and often, how to Be A Man. Grazie tesoro.