"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Self-Confidence, Women, and a Roman Education

John Walters understood women.  He knew that above all they wanted a man with self-confidence; a man who was always sexually sure of himself, ready at all times to take them and love them; a man who had had many other women; and a man who got it – who understood that their sexual passions were just as strong as men’s but was often hidden under feminine shyness and reserve.

John never dithered about asking a woman out on a date, was never at a loss for words; and never hesitated to ask her to bed.  At the same time he was respectful, modest, and intelligent.  Everything he did burnished his sexual allure. In his long life he was a top athlete, war hero, and champion skier; but he rarely spoke of his exploits.  He listened, especially to women. He loved their empathy, their chatter, their coquettishness, and their feminine insights.  Of all his charms and sexual graces, listening was the one with the most power over women.  It opened the way to trust and trust led the way to bed.

John loved women, but was never calculating or manipulative.  He knew what women wanted and understood that he had the qualities they prized, but he was never a predator, a Don Juan, or Lothario.  Women came to him without effort, games, or deception.

Where did he get this supreme self-confidence?  First of all he was born with it.  He was gifted with beauty and physical ability – the two qualities desired and admired by both men and women.  He was a star quarterback and quarter-miler and well before there were groupies, he always had a coterie of women around him wherever he went.  The women who loved him and the men who envied him told him he was special, a man apart.

More importantly, he was taught by his father, a military officer who had been decorated in WWII and who had risen to the rank of Colonel before he was forty. Bill Walters had supreme self-confidence which came from native intelligence and sharp intellect.  He commanded the loyalty of his troops because he understood human nature and knew how to spot its individual variations.  He knew how to exploit men’s strengths and to weed out weakness. He was a stern disciplinarian, but a canny observer of ambition, fear, confidence, and insecurity.

His military valor was more due to this highly-honed intelligence than any raw courage.  Bill Walters was not one to charge up the hill in the face of withering fire.  He calculated risk and defined strategy within it. He won battle after battle, and although he was revered by his men who thought him a god and with whom they would be safe, he was only a brilliant tactician and manager who knew how to get the most out of his men.

Bill Walters never told war stories, never bragged about his successes, for he knew that they were simply expressions of who he was.  They did not define him.  His intelligence, will, and supreme self-confidence did; and those qualities did not need explanation.

Walters knew that his son was gifted; but knew how often those natural endowments became liabilities.  Talented men often became arrogant, dismissive, and insensitive.  They feel they can do no wrong, and if they do, they will be forgiven.  These men betray their gifts.  Bill Walters’ son never would.

Walters read Seneca, Epictetus, Plutarch, and Cato the Elder – Roman moralists who provided the intellectual and philosophical foundations for the education of the future leaders of the Empire.  All of them stressed respect, honor, discipline, empathy, intellect, and reason.  The young Roman aristocrats may have been born with wealth, breeding, and culture; but without the foundation of a moral education, they would weaken and both they and the empire would suffer. The self-confidence needed to be a Roman leader, these philosophers knew, came from a certainty about moral principles.  Right action would be rewarded and respected.

One day the elder Walters said to his son who was beginning to take an interest in girls, “Johnny, remember one thing.  Girls want you as much as you want them.”  Never hesitate, he went on.  Never wonder, wait for the right moment, or delay.  Never act, play, or deceive. Confidence in war, diplomacy, politics, or sexual relations is all just confidence.

A lot has been made recently of women’s lack of self-confidence.  David Brooks, writing in the New York Times (5.13.14) comments:

The current issue of The Atlantic carries a fascinating summary of “The Confidence Code” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. The essay runs through the evidence suggesting that women tend to have too little self-confidence. When asked how well they did on tests, women tend to estimate that they got fewer answers correct than they actually did. In one British study, a business school professor asked students how much they would deserve to earn five years after graduation. The women’s estimates were 20 percent lower than the men’s.

These data should not be surprising.  It has only been a few decades since women’s rights became an issue, historically far too little time for a generation of women to expunge the last traces of the patriarchy, male preference, and gender inequality that lasted for thousands of years. Women, however, are going through yet another round of angst, self-doubt, and analysis to figure out why, after all their considerable gains, they are still a bit shaky at the core.

The answer is as simple as that given to Bill Walters’ young son. Self-confidence is a function of natural talent and ability, a strict moral upbringing, and an honoring of personal potential.  Self-confidence comes with rewards and responsibility.

As he got older, Walters lost patience with America.  Gone was the national self-confidence exhibited in the war against Japan and Germany when we were implacable and determined in the face of the enemy, patriotic and fearless.  Today we are unsure of ourselves as a nation, unable to muster strength and resolve when called for, but unwilling to demur with intelligence.  Calls for renewed military might are arrogant covers for our national insecurity and self-doubt. This insecurity, Walters felt, began far before the councils of war ever convened in the Pentagon.

Walters was a student of classical history, philosophy, and education. He often quoted the Roman educator Quintilian:  “A child exists to become an adult”.  Roman courses of study to achieve that goal were unquestioned because each of them were foundations for leadership. There was a distinct connection between education and power and at every stage in the pedagogical process young Romans were being taught to naturalize and savor their power.  This was the main goal of Roman education.

Self-confidence, Walters learned from the Romans, came from this singularity of purpose and absolute commitment to moral achievement.  He was fond of the diptychs of Cato the Elder used to guide education:

Practice your art. .As diligence fosters talent, so work aids experience

If you can, even remember to help people you don't know.
More precious than a kingdom it is to gain friends by kindness

Do not disdain the powers of a small body;
He may be strong in counsel (though) nature denies him strength.

If you live rightly, do not worry about the words of bad people,
It is not our call as to what each person says.

American educators speak of self-esteem and self-confidence; but without a moral foundation, a clear purpose, and a realistic assessment of ability, children will grow up thinking they are far more talented than they really are.

Unfortunately there are few John Walters today.  As David Brooks points out there are far too many men and women in the world who confuse arrogance and brutal ignorance for self-confidence.  They have been brought up in an era of self-esteem and self-deception, fueled by an ethos of individualism and economic value.   The problem is not a lack of self-confidence,but an overabundance of its distorted and deformed modern expression.

Brooks is wrong in his conclusion, however, for he misunderstands the inherent nature of self-confidence.  Brooks feels that a focus on tasks and practical accomplishment will divert the attention of the arrogant and over self-confident, and force them to match their real abilities with performance. While this is laudable in intent, it is only a quick fix, a band-aid when a systemic overhaul is required. 

Bill Walters and Seneca both understood that self-confidence and enlightened leadership was a result of breeding, upbringing, and example; but perhaps most importantly from an education which combined discipline with empathy and moral rectitude.

Women still have to go through paroxysms of self-doubt – am I a mother first, a compassionate caregiver? A fulfilled, high-performing executive? Both? Do I need to reject men, negotiate with them, or hate them? Whose fault is the glass ceiling?

The next generation of women will have figured this all out and have carved out a female if not feminine version of Epictetus’ classical vision. Men have been favored for centuries but the foundations of their self-confidence are becoming a bit shaky.  Both need a good dose of Bill Walters.

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