We’ve been wondering what masculinity is for some decades. Is it important? Is it toxic? Has Western society evolved beyond the point of needing it? What about male mentors and the education and initiation of young men? That sort of thing.
During the 1990s, there emerged kind of back-to-nature men’s movement arose, based loosely on the book Iron John: A Book About Men by Robert Bly. As you’ve probably noticed, today, in response to the above questions about — as well as criticisms of, masculinity, especially in the media — a range of groups, movements, and websites have appeared.
Leaving aside the “men’s rights” and MGTOW (“men going their own way” — i.e., without women) movements (of which I know next to nothing), it’s not difficult to find websites or podcasts that promise to teach men “how to be better men” or how to be “better at being men.” I’m not knocking these. From what I’ve seen, much of the advice on offer seems to be pretty solid (although, in most cases, probably less gender-specific than may be imagined), e.g., how to develop confidence, commitment, how to find your passion, etc.
Phalanx itself often looks at things considered masculine, most obviously martial arts, Freemasonry (though, yes, there are women martial artists, and even women Freemasons), Samurai and other types of warriors, and so on. That said, I think most of what we say would apply to women, and my advice to men and women isn’t much different: learn an art; learn a martial art or self-defense; take up meditation or a spiritual practice; read the classic religious, spiritual, and philosophical texts (as well as some modern works); and learn to cook and eat a healthy diet — i.e., train the mind, body, and spirit.
If men are asking how they can be a man, or a better man, we might want to ask when this became a question. When did men start pondering how they could act as a man?
The term “masculine” goes back to around the 12th, to the Latin masculinus “male, of masculine gender.” Although it seems occasionally to have been used to refer to qualities considered appropriate for men, the history of the term suggests that “masculinity” referred mostly, simply, to the male sex.
Before this, the Old English term man or mann referred to both men and women. Yet, the sexes were far more distinct and different in their rights, responsibilities, functions in society, and so on, a hundred, five hundred, or a thousand or two or three thousand years ago than they are today. (Hence we also hear of “weapon-men” (i.e., men) and “weaving-men” (i.e., women) in Old English.)
It is true, of course, that some aspects were similar (such as both men and women wearing cosmetics and wigs, or having long hair, or both having tattoos). And, the wearing of cosmetics, to our culture, may seem effeminate — though it wasn’t necessarily regarded as such by other, older cultures. Today, both men and women wear jeans, though no one thinks this makes men effeminate or women masculine.
Even where we find similarity of dress in the past, as noted, the functions of men and women tended to be very different — with women generally concerned more with child-rearing, weaving, making clothes, etc., and men more concerned with war, hunting, and so on. This division can be found in probably every culture in the world, East and West, necessitated by the fact that, prior to the invention of reliable, modern female contraception (AKA “the pill”) in the 20th century, women were often mothers in their teens). The earliest evidence of Homo Sapiens dates back to around 300,000 years ago, although Homo Habilis, our oldest ancestor, lived from about two million years on; so, there’s a long history of culture not looking like that of the average Starbucks-saturated Western city.
The exception to the division into male and female roles, in ancient, tribal culture, was the shaman — who was a kind of outsider with a function for the tribe, and who combined male and female aspects within himself as a way of embodying Nature. In more recent times, it was the artist that went beyond convention in a whole host of areas.
On the whole, I believe it is true to say, men were concerned, not with whether they were masculine or not, but whether their conduct was approved of by their comrades. Whether they were of a noble spirit or not. Whether they embodied the ideals of their class or position. E.g., were they acting as a Samurai was required? Or as a Viking? Or as a philosopher? Or, for that matter, as a farmer or a member of the working class in a particular region? (Notably, playwright, dandy, and flamboyant bisexual Oscar Wilde was embraced by tin miners in the US — when he went there on a speaking tour, lecturing on the culture of Florence and garden design. It was his capacity for drink and his willingness to go down into a mine that won over the miners.)
Masculinity has become an issue in the modern world because, as intimated earlier, gender roles have broken down. And, of course, it’s become an issue, also, because of an absence of male mentors, close male friends, initiation in the life of many men; and because of heated political debates over “toxic masculinity” and so on.
Manhood broke down, on a societal level, not when men were considered unmanly (as are many young men today) but when the function of men came into question. World War I both subordinated the role of man-as-defender to that of machines and discredited war even as an act of self-defense. Although almost entirely erased from our collective memory today (since it doesn’t fit the current political narrative about the world and doesn’t have a Hitler figure for us to boo and hiss at), nearly ten million soldiers were killed in WWI — over a million at the Battle of the Somme, alone. And entire regiments at a time were wiped out by mustard gas and other products of modern science. In many parts of the West, pacifism was the response to the “war to end all wars.”
Later in the century, the invention and availability of female contraception meant that young women no longer had to be mothers, and, as such, no longer had to stick with a single partner for life.
For some manhood-activists (if I can put it that way), the ideal society is that of the 1950s — you know, when men were men and women were women, and all that. There are a couple of obvious problems with this: (1) It’s a straight line from the 1950s, and its problems, to the present day and our problems (so, presumably, turning the clock back is something that society would need to do every 60 or 70 years), and (2) the manhood of that era — at least as it is generally characterized — was an inauthentic manhood.
The 1950s “manly man” wasn’t a Spartan or a Samurai. He wasn’t a philosopher. He wasn’t even a farmer. He was the macho man who was, nonetheless, an integral part of the economic system. The enduring symbol of the Fifties — the automobile — signaled the death of community, as traditionally understood. The driver gets away from his community to find others who are in some way like him, and the family no longer sits facing each other, but faces out onto the highway.
The overbearing “manly man” is not a whole man. I don’t mean that a man who is physically strong, and protective by nature, isn’t a man. Far from it. I mean there has to be some sensitivity — self-knowledge, an appreciation of Beauty, and an appreciation that there are things bigger than oneself. Listen to World Heavy Weight Boxing Champion Lennox Lewis or to Mike Tyson (the latter being seen as little more than a thug and a madman by most of America) and you discover that these are very thoughtful individuals. They are articulate and speak with a peaceful tone (although, as fighters, they could be very different to that).
Although it might be a controversial point, I believe it is true to say that manhood broke down when it could no longer contain what we might simplistically call the “feminine” element.
Take the Samurai. He was concerned with honor, battle, and death. But he was also concerned about beauty. He carried cosmetics and made up his face. If he had to commit ritual suicide, to preserve his honor, he would apply his cosmetics so that he would look his best after death.
This seems strange and almost laughable to us today, but the male psyche and roles have always contained a romantic element. Hunters didn’t just hunt; they performed rites before hunting to make sure the death was in accord with divine Will, that the animal was ok sacrificing his life, and that he might be reborn, etc.
Even in modern warfare, we hear tales of soldiers sacrificing their lives for their comrades. Why didn’t they save themselves? “Bravery” is the answer that we normally hear. But there is a romantic element — not a sexual element; a romantic one. The soldier sacrifices his life because of his love for his comrades, his team, his regiment; because the regiment has a history; because it was born before him and will live on long after him (and is, in some sense, immortal); because it has a code of honor, and defends his people or nation and way of life.
This marriage of the hard and soft, realistic and romantic, is what gave the warrior his transcendental vision, his commitment, to carry on even as he suffered great hardship.
The lion knows he is a lion. He knows where he is in the hierarchy of the pack. He knows that he has to mate — and the higher up the hierarchy the more and better-quality females he will get. He knows he has to kill to eat. But he probably doesn’t worry about how masculine he is.
What makes us a man?Is masculinity toxic? How can I be a better man? These questions — at least as questions that cut across society — are new.
The discussion and worry about gender — about whether we are being a man or a proper man — is partly a worry about roles in a world of a changing economy (changing into what, we are not sure), the economic rise of the non-West, changing demographics, massive student debt, and changing values.
We no longer have the assurance of having a place in society. We, each of us face the challenge of having to make our place, and that can only mean setting an example, and becoming a light — a beacon — for others. Freedom isn’t easy. In sharp contrast to contemporary political opinion, freedom means taking responsibility for one’s actions while not wasting time judging others — whether they are too masculine, or not masculine enough, what party they vote for, did they like Trump or Hillary? etc.
Modern society has given us so much freedom that, unlike more traditional societies, men and women have become interchangeable parts that can be slotted into the system. A man can look after his babies while his wife goes to work for a large corporation. A man can become a celebrated woman. A woman can become a man. This is what a consumer society needs. But, we don’t have to rebel against the system by slotting ourselves into a particular archetype. Instead, we should embrace our freedom to draw from the warrior and the artist, the shaman and the craftsman, etc. There is a range within the world of male archetypes — and within the world of female archetypes — and we can embrace that to develop ourselves as whole men and whole women, beyond cliches either modern or ancient, to create something new and of relevance to our time.