Two weeks ago I talked a little about Charlotte Allen's excellent piece on "The New Dating Game," the "seduction community," etc. On further reflection, something else stands out at me from the piece: Bloggers such as Roissy spend a lot of time talking about the difference between "alpha" and "beta" men, but I think they misunderstand these types and that this misunderstanding is part of a general inability of modern culture to come to grips with what I'll call, for lack of a better term, manliness. This could be a long digression, so feel free to check out now if the topic bores you.
The one great insight which Roissy et al have is this: Chicks dig guys who don't particularly care about them. This isn't a universal truth, of course, but it's predominant enough to be reasonably treated as universal. The greatest swordsman I ever knew was a guy in high school named Tod. Tod plowed his way through dozens of girls in high school alone. Probably upwards of 30, maybe as many as 50. He was such a stud that he even bagged hot seniors when he was an underclassman, an unheard of achievement in our milieu.
Tod was a good athlete, though not exceptional; he was from a good family, though not particularly wealthy by the standards of our school. Tod's three relevant characteristics were: (1) He was very good looking; (2) He was genuinely friendly to everybody around him, from teachers and nerds to the other cool kids; (3) He absolutely *did not care* whether or not a girl was into him. This wasn't an act. He really didn't give a shit. As a result, girls threw themselves at him, day and night.
(A brief aside about Tod: All of this was impressive enough, but what elevated Tod as a grandmaster was that none of the girls he plucked ever had anything bad to say about him afterwards. They all still loved him and liked being around him. My buddies would joke that watching Tod work was like being in the presence of Michelangelo. Last I heard, Tod had become a born-again Christian, gotten his doctorate in molecular biology, had kids, and was teaching college.)
Anyway, Tod was exceptional, but what made him so was his very real indifference regarding any particular girl. And that indifference is why so many guys with all-consuming interests--think skaters and surfers and pot-heads--also get a lot of girls. They're not necessarily "alphas"--they just exhibit the core of what Roissy et al think "alpha" means.
And here's where the question is a little more broadly interesting. What is an alpha male? We can start with what alpha-ness isn't: It isn't simply money or power. Those are effects, not causes. Ted Turner and Dan Snyder, for instance, are both very rich dudes. Turner, if you've ever seen him up-close, is probably an alpha. Snyder probably is not. American presidents are the most powerful men in the world. Ronald Reagan was probably an alpha. Jimmy Carter probably was not.
Likewise the ability to bag a lot of girls. Some of the Roissy et al group might actually be alphas, but the ability to score isn't the definition of alpha-ness. The key mistake Roissy et al make, I think, is believing that alpha status has anything to do with women. Just the opposite: What makes alphas different is their ability to relate to other men. And if we had to come up with a one-sentence descriptor of what makes an alpha male, I'd argue that this is as good as anything:
An alpha male is a man with the ability to convince other men to follow him into battle.
Presence, command, authority--the alpha qualities are charismatic. That makes them hard to define. But in general, you know one when you see one. I doubt very much that you'll find all that many alphas in an Adams Morgan club on a Saturday night. You can find them by the dozen down on the Marine base at Quantico, though.
Alphas aren't exclusive to the martial life. Pope John Paul was almost certainly an alpha (if that's not heretical to say). Laird Hamilton is a an alpha, as are lots of other high-level athletes (particularly in team sports--think Tom Brady). Some businessmen are (the aforementioned Turner and Steve Jobs both come to mind). Everybody has probably met a man here or there, even from ordinary walks of life, who exudes competence and inspires trust. That's what makes an alpha. And alphas are the archetypes of manliness.
There has been a general diminution of manliness in the last 40 years or so. Some of it lamentable, some of it not. (To pick just two writings on the topic, here and here.) A large part of this cultural shift is the byproduct of the feminization of America. (I use this term descriptively, not pejoratively; again, some of the feminization has been lamentable, some has not). But when even devil-may-car men who revel in their indifference to polite society (such as Roissy et al) begin to mistake effect for cause and to misunderstand what the real markers of manliness are. Well, that suggests that manliness hasn't just been diminished, but has been somewhat perverted, too.
Update: Galley Friend C.L. says he would define alpha male thusly, "an alpha is one to whom other men naturally defer, or against whom, in a head-to-head contest, other men will usually back down."
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