There is much confusion about gender roles and what defines masculinity today. Common cultural narratives in the West dictate that masculinity is socialization and it should be socialized away because it is dangerous. In some of these narratives, men are accused of stopping the advance of women in the workforce, their aggression is feared and their romantic advances mistrusted.
Consciously or unconsciously, men today are trying to define masculinity by asking questions like:
What does it mean to be a man when women can provide for themselves just as easily as a man can?
What does it mean for a man to be a protector when there is no compulsory military service for young men to defend their borders, as has been the norm throughout history?
What does it mean for a man to be impressed by his physicality when technology is rapidly removing the need for physically demanding jobs?
What does it mean for a man to put himself under hardship when technology affords us comfort that we have never seen before in the history of the world?
One answer is that, actually there is no need for men. But this answer is devastating for men. Because men need to feel needed. Cheesy as it may sound, they need to puff up their chest when those that they protect and provide for admire them.
Now you may say, who gives a shit about how men feel? Their feelings can be swept under the rug if it is good for society. But here is the thing. Gender and art history theorist Camilla Paglia, noted that when the masculine ideal receded in Roman and Greek civilizations, it was a sign of a culture in decline because it represented a culture that didn’t believe in itself. Aesthetics reveal a culture’s values, and its values ultimately influence a civilization’s trajectory. She documented the change in perceptions of the masculine ideal in the way statues and art depicting men changed over the course of these civilizations. In particular when the statues of men went from traditionally heroic, athletic and muscular to noodly and androgynous, it coincided with the end of those civilizations especially because the barbarians at the edges of those civilization (in the Roman case the Huns and the Vandals) believed in the power of heroic masculinity and overthrew those empires. Now there are always going to be men who decide not to identify with masculinity at all, and culture should make space for these individuals. And physicality is not the only form of masculinity (as we will discuss later in this essay). But when collectively a society devalues traditional masculine ideals, those societies implode.
Evolutionary Biology and Masculinity
Even before the advent of settler civilizations like the Greek and Roman Empire, the mating habits of Homo Sapien men and women during the hunter gatherer and agricultural age give us clues about the evolutionary biology roots of masculinity. Compared to other chimpanzee species, Homo Sapien women have selective mating preferences. Female chimpanzees will mate with whoever is closeby. Of course a desirous male chimp will fight away other suitors. But should another male chimpanzee get close enough to a female chimpanzee, she will not reject him. By contrast, historically women exerted tremendous selection pressure on men. At one point in our hunter gatherer societies, only 1 out 17 men were able to find a mate and leave children. The introduction of monogamy reduced this ratio over time. The Catholic Church for example not only advocated for monogamy but also banned serial monogamy by outlawing divorce. Social norms also enforced fidelity. But still, it was brutal for most men throughout history.
In modern day Western societies the norm of monogamy, intermediated by patriarchs and matriarchs, has given way to a culture of dating, hookups and a host of relationships outside of a monogamous marriage within the ambit of the law. The rise of online dating apps provides men and women infinite choice and the option to size up each other through algorithms efficiently. If the sexual marketplace was regulated by the norms of monogamy where men traded commitment in marriage for sex, in a sense what we have today is a free and unregulated sexual marketplace. Helpfully, these apps provide us with data on how men and women rate each other.
[Now online dating profiles only present a limited view of someone’s attractiveness: but they can help reveal some general trends]
Let’s say the world is only made up of 100 men and 100 women who are trying to partner with each other. The men and women go ahead and rank each other based on attractiveness.
What you would expect is for the women to classify 50 of the 100 men as above average attractiveness.
But actually women only classify 20 of the 100 as above average attractiveness.
If you ask the men the same question, again you would expect them to rate 50 of the 100 women as above average attractiveness.
But in fact men classify 80 of the 100 as above average.
This causes the sexual marketplace to bifurcate into two markets:
The top 20% of men select from among the top 80% of women.
The bottom 80% of men compete for the bottom 20% of women.
One reason we have a “battle between the sexes” is because of the dynamics created by the bifurcation of this marketplace. On one hand unless you are in the top 20% of men, as a guy you are constantly getting rejected and your experience of dating is extremely competitive. On the flip side almost all the women might get short term interest from the top 20% of men they are attracted to, but not commitment. The sorting and matching is amoral in aggregate, but on the individual level it leads men and women with broken hearts and feelings of loneliness, and resentment about the opposite sex.
One evolutionary view is that masculinity can be thought of as the patterns among successful men that enable them to rise to the top 20% of the mating hierarchy. Conversely, femininity can be thought of as the patterns among successful women that enable them to be selected by the top 20% of men. If you are a man struggling in your romantic relationships with women, you need to develop your masculinity.
Over time societies have extracted out these patterns of what makes men successful and encoded these patterns into stories. The overcoming man in these stories was called "hero". These stories of heroes got passed over generations and consolidated with heroes of neighboring tribes. And these stories eventually became the basis of the mythological and religious archetypes found across different cultures.
These mythological archetypes are explored by Jungian analysts Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette in their book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. While there are numerous masculine archetypes, they argue that they can be summarized in these four categories. In this book, they examine the masculine psyche and create a map for how boys can become men. They argue that proper integration of these archetypes is key for a healthy masculinity.
Unlocking these archetypes in men is important not just for their dating and reproductive success but also for men to develop mature and healthy personalities. Even though technology and culture give men the option to not develop their masculinity, they must proactively seek to do so, in order to succeed against the challenges of life and to become the best versions of themselves.
When men can develop a healthy masculinity they can then direct their masculinity towards solving the problems in their communities. Without unlocking them, men also fall prey to the darker and unhealthier sides of these archetypes which also spill over into their relationships with others and their communities. The dark aspects of these archetypes are partly what drive cultural narratives around masculinity being dangerous or toxic. Paradoxically, the more a society tries to repress the development and expression of masculinity the more likely it is to only reinforce and encourage the negative aspects of those archetypes.
What’s caused the crisis of healthy masculinity today?
Moore and Gillette attribute it to to three things:
1) The rise of the Industrial Age:
As the poet and writer Robert Bly points out, before the Industrial Age, young boys would watch their fathers working and would work with them growing up. This is because work involved tending to the fields or craftsmanship. Fathers would bond with their sons by working together and teaching them. This is in contrast to mothers who bond by nurturing. The Industrial revolution changed everything. Men got sent to factories and to offices to work separating them from their children. This was especially devastating to sons who couldn’t learn masculinity by watching their fathers work.
2) Overwhelm by the feminine and the feminist critiques of masculinity
There are growing calls for men to become more sensitive and to become more feminine or to connect with their inner feminine. In working through psychotherapy with countless men they found that these men were in fact overwhelmed by the feminine. They longed for connection to their masculine instincts. “The feminist critique when it is not wise enough actually furthers the wounds on an already besieged authentic masculinity.” While this book was written in the 1990s this question is asked by even louder voices today.
3) The loss of initiation ceremonies for men:
Anthropologists like Mircea Eliade have pointed out that in pre-modern societies rites of initiation would help transition boys to men. A good description of this process is conveyed in the movie Emerald Green where a white boy Tomme has been captured and raised by Brazilian Indians. "One day, he’s playing in the river with a beautiful girl. The chief has noticed this interest in the girl for some time. This awakening of sexual interest in the boy is a signal to the wise chief. He appears on the river bank with his wife and some tribal elders and surprises Tomme at play with the girl. The chief booms out, 'Tomme, your time has come to die!' Everyone seems profoundly shaken. The chief’s wife, playing the part of all women, of all mothers asks, 'Must he die?' The chief threateningly replies, 'yes!' Then we see a firelit nighttime scene in which Tomme is seemingly tortured by the older men of the tribe: he is forced into forest vines, he is being eaten alive by jungle ants. He writhes in agony, his body mutilated in the jaws of hungry ants. We fear the worst."
To modern people this might seem like a cruel thing to inflict upon a child. But writers like James Hollis have pointed out that wounding is a necessary part of male development. It is needed to make a break from the material world (the word mater – mother being the root of the word material) because a boy cannot develop into a man without a break from the influence of his mother. Male wounding will occur regardless because much will be asked of men: they will be providers working long hours in dangerous or miserable jobs to sustain their family, they will feel the cruel indifference of the universe that only rewards men for their performance, they will be sent to war, and rejected by the women they love. In these ceremonies the suffering boy feels in his flesh at once that there is no going back to his mother’s embrace in the warmth of home, as well as the terror of independence. A ritual allows adolescent boys to feel the pain of this truth, and in this pain the boy understands his lineage and camaraderie with a long line of men who have gone through the same. It also allows him to trust his God, and at once also awakens him to his internal resources to transcend this pain.
Returning to our story from the movie Emerald Green: "Finally, the sun comes up, and Tomme, still breathing, is taken down to the river by the men and bathed, the clinging ants washed from his body. The chief then raises his voice and says, 'The boy is dead and the man is born!” And with that, he is given his first spiritual experience, induced by a drug blown through a long pipe into his nose. Tomme hallucinates and discovers his animal soul (an eagle) and soars above the world in new and expanded consciousness, seeing, as if from a God’s eye view, the totality of his jungle world. Then he is allowed to marry. Tomme is a man. And, as he takes on a man’s responsibilities and identity, he is moved first into the position of brave in the tribe and then into the position of chief.”
The message is clear. For a man’s mature potentials to take root his boyhood has to die.
How to be Masculine in the 21st Century
Men still need to be masculine, yet most of them lead lives that do not give them an opportunity to be so. The average man works a 9-5 cubicle job. He cannot just take a weekend off and go to the woods for an initiation ceremony. He has no access to a tribal chieftain to guide him or a shaman to initiate him. There are no new frontiers to explore, and no dangerous expeditions to volunteer. The drudgery and sterility of many office jobs are a far cry from the Call to Adventure.
Instead of waiting for society to catchup, modern men must must initiate themselves into masculine adulthood, by crafting a path that suits their preferences and personalities. Moore and Gillette assert that the initiation process can be replicated psychologically to access archetypes within you.
As natural selection selects for certain behaviors those behaviors seem to ‘fuse’ into the gene pool. While culture can reinforce those attributes of success, they can be accessed even if there is no cultural modeling for it. This provides the biological basis for archetypes. Moore and Gillette give the example of a baby duck that will attach itself to whomever or whatever is walking by at the time of its birth. In fact in labs, it will start following its human caretaker as if it was its mother duck. The newly hatched duckling is wired for “mother” or “caretaker” archetype. It doesn’t have to learn from its peers or society what a “mother” model is or how it should act in its presence. The archetype of “mother” and “child” comes online shortly after the duck comes into the world.
Just like there are mother and child archetypes preprogrammed in the duckling, humans also have similar models. Only, in humans they can get more complex. The best of these models for men can be consolidated into the four masculine archetypes: King, Warrior, Magician, Lover. Each of these archetypes in their un-developed forms can be unhealthy. Recognizing their immature manifestations and accessing their mature potentials is the transition from boy psychology to man psychology.
Here is an overview of the four types of archetypes described by Moore and Gillete:
The King is the energy that organizes your psyche according to your highest ideals. A king sits on a throne at the center of his Kingdom. Ancient kings had the responsibility to order their kingdom. The King was the representative of the Creator God. He would receive laws from the Creator God and create order through his Kingdom. The King Hammurabi listens to the Sun God Shamash who gives him the Code of Hammurabi. The place where the King established his throne becomes the center of the world. In ancient maps the world was depicted as a circle divided by a cross into four quadrants, and the King would sit in the center of those quadrants. The King was not just a warrior who had ascended the throne, but his Kingship organized the world around him. This might sound like a foreign concept today because our maps reveal the whole world, but this was not the case even up to a few hundred years ago. The areas under a king were the light spaces on a map. There was order, rules and administration, safety and civilization. Art and commerce were possible. Outside the bounds of the kingdom were dark spaces of the map filled with monsters and barbarians. The King was also generative: this was true in the metaphoric sense: agriculture and later industry could only thrive if you have a protected and ordered space. But the role of the King was also to marry his primary Queen and have lots of children.
As the world turns to Republican democracy the external King may not be around to inspire us. But accessing the internal King in our psyche orders it. It allows us to commit to an ideal. And its actions are generative. We do things not from a scarcity mentality but with abundance: we act so others can do more because of us. The King in our psyche allows us to lead ourselves and our communities.
The Warrior in service of a King will defend the Kingdom or march into foreign lands. The warrior is one of the most dangerous parts of the masculine psyche and the one that is most feared and controlled by modern society, especially in Western culture. Present in all surviving cultures from the Samurai tradition in Japan to the stories of General Patton in the United States, the warrior will fight for a cause or person he loves, laying down his life for it. In the inner world, the warrior is in charge of defending your boundaries and assertively pursuing the goals that you have set for yourself, through the help of your inner King. The warrior is the archetype that allows us to be detached from our emotions, fears and biases and to look at a situation objectively.
The Magician deals with hidden or hard to find knowledge. The magician archetype is accessed by those mastering a field requiring many years of study, say a PhD. In a sense the knowledge of the field is “hidden” and requires many years to master. One famous Western mythological account is the story of King Arthur, Merlin plays the Wizard who advises King Arthur. In the ancient Egyptian stories, Im Hotep, the advisor to the Egyptian Pharaoh, was able to forecast trouble in the future and help the coming of rains, and is credited with the early pyramid designs. In modern times domains driven by psychology or technology are usually the domain of magicians. Jung and Freud, two giants of psychology were modern day magicians. The current trend of innovators in Silicon Valley is all driven by the Magician archetype. The Wizard also has the ability to cast spells and speak magic words. Effective and inspirational communicators use the magician archetype to to change people’s reality and make them do extraordinary things.
The magician in your inner world also guides you through your ‘journey to the underworld’. This is the space people fall into when they encounter a personal crisis and realize their current personality is incapable of answering life’s challenges being thrown at them. The magician helps them dig deep into their psyche to reorganize their personality to make it capable of new challenges.
The Lover is the archetype that builds relations with other people and that loves life. A man accessing his libido is in touch with his lover. The man in touch with his lover energy experiences the full richness of life in all its sensations: touch, smell, taste, sight and sound. The lover can be found in the artist and the psychic. The artist lives close to the unconsciousness and is able to generate art by tapping into lover energy. Painters, musicians, artists and composers are all tapping into lover energy. The psychic is the man who taps into this energy to read people like a book. He is attuned to every shift in body language, smell or tone which can give it a clue for what is really going on with people. The businessman that relies on hunches is using Lover energy. The lover is also part of the masculine that procreates. In Hindu mythology it is depicted as Shiva the god of fertility whose phallus stretches down and weds with the earth. In the Elephnata caves in Thailand worshippers throng to the temple of Shiva to feel the energy of this symbol. Connected to this, the lover helps men experience the sensuousness of the human body without shame.
Since these archetypes dwell in the unconscious (often coming to the surface during daytime fantasies or while being represented by certain characters in movies) they need to be brought to conscious awareness so that their inspiration can guide our actions.
Jungian techniques like Active Imagination and Dream Analysis can help men more easily access those archetypes and integrate them concretely into their lives. By engaging with these archetypes men can bring their perspectives to seemingly intractable real world problems, strengthen their personalities, enrich their relationships, find purposeful careers and succeed in their goals. As an example, Moore and Gillette narrate the dreams of a young man which tells of an awakening of the King archetype, not to be actualized till a few years later:
“I am a soldier of fortune in ancient China. I’ve been creating a lot of trouble hurting a lot of people, disturbing the order of the empire for my own profit and benefit. I’m a kind of outlaw, a kind of mercenary.
I’m being chased through the countryside through a forest, by soldiers of the Chinese army, the Chinese Emperor’s men. We’re all dressed in some kind of scale armour, with bows, and arrows, and probably swords. I’m running through the woods, and I see a hole in the ground, the entrance to a cave, so I rush into it to hide. Once inside, I see that it is a long tunnel. I run along the tunnel. The Chinese army sees me go into the cave, and they run after me down the tunnel.
At the end of the tunnel, I see in the far distance a pale blue light streaming down from above, from what is probably an opening in the rock. As I get closer, I see that the light is falling into a chamber, an underground chamber, and in that chamber is a very green garden. And standing in the middle of the garden is the Chinese emperor himself in his elaborate red and gold roves. There is nowhere for me to go. The army is closing in me from behind. I am forced into the presence of the emperor himself.
There is nothing to do but to kneel before him, to submit to him. I feel great humility, as though a phase of my life is over. He looks down at me with a fatherly compassion. He’s not angry with me at all. I feel from him that he has seen it all, that he has lived it all, all the adventures of life – poverty, wealth, women, wars, palace intrigues, betrayals and being betrayed, suffering and joy, everything in human life. It is out of this seasoned, very ancient, very experienced wisdom that he now treats me with compassion.
He says very gently, “You have to die. You will be executed in three hours.” I know he is right. There is a bond between us. It’s as though he’s been in exactly my position before; he knows about these things. With a great feeling of peace, and even happiness, I submit to my fate.”
While the young man, bound by the limitations of modern life, does not have access to an initiation ceremony, his psyche is replicating that process in his dreams. The young man – represented by a shallow mercenary is being executed, so he can become a man. In the external world perhaps this mercenary attitude is reflected in work and relationships by opportunism and thinking only for himself. Perhaps this young man acts to get ahead at the expense of those around him.
The presence of the Emperor in his dream, a representation of his highest self, signals a transition to think beyond himself and serve a higher purpose.The Emperor gives him the blessing to accept this transition. Should he continue working on the contents of the dream he will start identifying opportunities in his waking life to live up to his “kingly ideal”. Perhaps instead of just thinking about what's good for him, the young man starts to consider how his actions can benefit his co-workers and his family. By engaging with archetypal imagery in such a manner and embodying its lessons in their waking life, men can begin their own journey to discover their masculinity.