Some insomniacs do endless sequences  of sums in their heads, while more traditional conservatives rely on counting sheep—or sheep in elephants’ clothing.  An instinctive Machiavellian even as a child, and dimly conscious of the reality of power, I preferred to count rulers.  In elementary school I learned the American presidents, and in high school I worked on English kings—“I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical”—which I alternated with whole acts, taking all the parts, from Gilbert and Sullivan.  It goes without saying which is my favorite episode of The Simpsons.

Sometime in the 1970’s I switched to Roman emperors from Augustus to Augustulus.  Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Septimius Severus.  With nothing else to do at 3 a.m., I sometimes begin to see a pattern in the succession of tough soldiers, distinguished bureaucrats, and princes born to the purple.  The perennial problem of the Roman Empire was succession.  They never came up with a system that could reliably generate competent successors.  The most effective method was adoption: Nerva adopted Trajan, who adopted Hadrian, who adopted Antoninus Pius, who adopted Marcus Aurelius, who, unluckily, produced a son and heir, the terrible Commodus.  Some young princes—e.g., Titus, Gratian, Constantine, and Julian—did turn out to be competent emperors, but in every case I can recall, these princes were trained in their youth as warriors.  The more typical cases—a very long list that includes Nero and Caligula, Domitian, Commodus, Caracalla—were brought up with too much too soon.  Spoiled in childhood and encouraged to gratify every impulse the moment it arises, they no sooner were invested with power than they turned into monsters.  At best, the spoiled darlings were so feeble and indolent they handed over real power to tougher men, whether Germanic mercenary commanders or Eastern eunuchs.

When students used to ask me what sort of upbringing would produce Caligula or Nero or Domitian, I always gave the reason that these Roman heirs to the throne had been brought up like California suburbanites.  Old guys are forever complaining about the bad behavior of the young punks, but we boomers really started the trend.  Look at old high-school and college yearbooks and you will immediately observe that high-school seniors from the 1930’s look like grown men, and even in the 1950’s college upperclassmen seem remarkably mature.  When I started college a year early, in 1962, most of the sophomores were already men and ladies.  By the time I graduated in 1967 (I dropped out for a while, doing—as one of my professors sneered—a Holden Caulfield), no one in my class had reached manhood yet.  I haven’t seen any of them in years, but even in their 50’s none, by my reckoning, had made it.

In the 70’s and 80’s I got reacquainted with two of the sophomores of my freshmen year.  By then, they were married with two daughters.  I envied the obvious maturity and poise of people who on social occasions made me feel like a reckless kid who could not be trusted to be on his own at a cocktail party without a keeper.  Students of my class, in those years, were still smoking dope and listening to scratchy Hendrix recordings.  To me, our occasional reunions seemed all too much like outtakes from The Big Chill.  I was no more mature than they were, but, having knocked around a bit more—San Francisco in the late 1960’s—I was easily bored.  Besides, I never could stand Jimi Hendrix.

To go to the hazelnut of the problem, as the Italians say, how is it that our fathers were men before the age of 20 while few members of my generation had reached the age of reason by 50 or even 60?  One explanation I used to hear was the absence of fathers.  Many men were off fighting in World War II as the pre-boomers were growing up, but those people, in their 70’s now, while far from perfect, managed to reach maturity at a fairly early age.  Yes, we are told, but fathers in the 1950’s commuted to work and left their families in the suburbs.  That may be true of families in the great megalopoleis of the Northeast and California, but I saw too much of my father for my own comfort, and my friends’ fathers were as omnipresent in their households as Ozzie Nelson, Jim Anderson, and Chester A. Riley.

Over the years I have heard dozens of explanations for how and why America went wrong and boys turned girly.  It’s the communists; it’s the Jews; it’s Hollywood (see communists and Jews); it’s the New Deal, Jack Kennedy and/or the Kennedy assassination; it’s fluoride in the water, estrogen in the meat, heresy and homosexuals at Vatican II, and the removal of the Ten Commandments from the walls of courthouses and schools.

Not all these theories are completely off-base.  The country did shift noticeably leftward after November 22, 1963, and it cannot be good for a nation’s spiritual and moral health to have its cultural institutions under the firm control of people who do not share the values or religion of most ordinary people—I am referring, of course, to Marxists and neoconservatives.  But taken singly or collectively, all these explanations can be reduced to something like my own hula-hoop hypothesis, which comes in two forms.  In the dumb version, the takeoff of the hula hoop in 1958 prefigures the collapse of 50’s “normalcy,” while in the even dumber version, the precipitous decline of hula-hoop sales in the early 1960’s turned kids to smoking dope, protesting the war, and listening to Hendrix.

We Americans tend to be cockeyed optimists, and part of this affliction is always to assume that, since our troubles started only yesterday or a few years ago, we can easily fix them by putting the right man in the White House, packing the Supreme Court with fine Catholic Republicans like John Roberts and Anthony Kennedy, or asking ourselves, What would Jesus do to combat illegal immigration or child abuse?  But the effeminacy and irresponsibility of American males has been a long time in development.  It was not created by Saul Alinsky, and it won’t be cured by Mitt Romney.

The entire structure of government schooling, going back to before 1900, seems devoted to the destruction of manhood, and the churches have been led by soft-palmed nonjudgmental counselors since the middle of the 19th century.  Intelligent critics have been observing these developments for generations: Mencken in the period between the two wars, Paul Goodman and the Beats after World War II, George Gilder since the 1970’s.

Goodman and Gilder quite rightly stressed the role of schoolmarms and social workers in marginalizing manliness, while Mencken followed Nietzsche in interpreting the decline in Western virility as a result of Christianity and our effete rejection of the basic rules of natural selection:

Man might defy the law of natural selection as much as he pleased, but he could never hope to set it aside.  Soon or late, he would awaken to the fact that he remained a mere animal, like the rabbit and the worm, and that, if he permitted his body to degenerate into a thing entirely lacking in strength and virility, not all the intelligence conceivable could save him.

On the other hand, Mencken was well aware that a male who was only manly “lacks the wit necessary to give objective form to his soaring and secret dreams.”

Our society hates manliness as much as it fears intelligence, and when our males are not trying to be metrosexuals of the type portrayed by Jon Cryer on television, they are falling into the adolescent machismo of Charlie Sheen, whose old show should have been called Two Half-Men (and a Very Fat Kid who Never Grows Up).  As foolish as Charlie Sheen has been, he still has a touch of virile defiance that I cannot help liking.  If American males are prepared to accept Ashton Kutcher as a surrogate, they may as well all cash in their virility chips and marry each other.

The social critics who have lamented the disappearance of men are, for the most part, speaking of an historical development.  But human creatures, as much as they are slaves to fashion and historical trends, are made one by one.  Each Jon and Charlie has to be created by his parents—in Jon’s case, perhaps, it was a domineering mother who divorced her husband when Jon was four; in Charlie’s, an alcoholic father who was the perfect role model.

When Plato (at the beginning of the Laches) raised the question of why so many great men had failed to rear noble sons, it was in the context of courage and manhood.  Melesias (son of the conservative leader Thucydides) and Lysimachus (son of the great Aristides) are ashamed of their own inferiority to their fathers, whom they blamed “for letting us be spoiled in the days of our youth, while they were occupied with the concerns of others.”  They are resolved not to make the same mistake with their own children.  Since someone had told them that fighting in armor is a useful exercise for promoting courage, they are seeking the opinions of two famous commanders.  All of them seek advice from Socrates, who teaches them they do not have the slightest notion of what courage actually is.  “Thanks a lot,” I can hear the fathers saying.

If Aristides and Thucydides raised less than heroic sons, why expect Americans of this generation to do any better?  But the fact of the matter is that they can and sometimes do.  Despite all the trends and fashions, all the counselors and schools of education, serious mothers and fathers can teach their sons something about what manhood means, and not just in the abstract.  Real men pay their bills and do not, whatever they think of the government, cheat on their taxes.  Real men love women and take care of their wives and women friends, without confusing the two.  Real men may work construction or write software programs, but on Sunday they put on a jacket and tie to acknowledge there are some things more important than mere comfort.  Real men, unlike Jon, Ashton, and Charlie, know they are not the center even of their own universe.