The only goal you can reach is one that is well-defined. We must know what it is for which we are aiming. If our goal is to attain proper masculinity or reach a certain minimum threshold of manliness, we need to know what it means to be properly masculine or adequately manly. This is something we all have an inborn sense of, but which we rarely attempt to define in some concrete way.
I’ll treat this post as a beginning, a starting point. I haven’t sorted out the ideas, I certainly haven’t read enough on the topic, and I still lack the practical experience and discipline necessary to view whatever thoughts present themselves in this article as some kind of definitive or sufficient representation of masculinity. At worst, I’ll be wrong and, at best, my definition will be woefully incomplete. But it might be considered a guidepost or a foundation upon which we can conduct personal experiments for further refinement and elaboration.
In order to address masculinity, we must first talk about femininity because being female is in a certain sense the human default. This is true biologically. While our eventual sex is present from conception in our XX or XY chromosome configuration, for the first several weeks after conception, we, male and female, develop according to the same blueprint, which is essentially female. This is why men have nipples though they have no need for them. Only after a couple months of gestation does the Y chromosome induce the hormonal changes that lead to maleness. At 9 weeks, the testes have been formed and the male baby begins producing testosterone, which changes the genetic activity of cells in the brain and genitals.
At birth, a daughter and mother share a certain communion and unity that the son and mother do not and cannot. While both are dependent on the mother and affectionate toward the mother, after a while the son eventually realizes and must confront his separateness. This is the root of masculinity. What underlies the feminine is communion and unity. What underlies the masculine is separation and otherness.
The path to masculinity is one of initial separation—from the mother, from femininity, from society—followed by confrontation with darkness, danger, hell, the wicked self. When a man has overcome the darkness, he transcends and is then able to reintegrate with the feminine on masculine terms.
This is why men have a fondness for initiation rites and rites of passage. This is why they have a tendency to want to prove themselves. And this is why we see an enduring love for the story archetype known as The Hero’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey is present in the story of Jesus Christ, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Frodo Baggins.
In a Hero’s Journey tale, the protagonist (usually male) begins in a feminine stasis. He may or may not be restless and miserable, but he is always safe. He is comfortable and unthreatened, but he’s presented with a choice. It is a choice between a maternal, sheltered, feminine existence, and the masculine harrowing of hell that triggers his transcendence. Does he continue life as he always has, or does he confront chaos and death and acquire the fortitude, disagreeableness, and separation on which the safety and continuation of society is dependent? Harry Potter might continue living under the Dursley’s stairs, or he can transcend and save the world from evil. Luke might continue on his aunt and uncle’s farm, or he can transcend and save the galaxy from evil. Frodo might continue comfortably in the Shire, or he can transcend and save Middle Earth from evil. In every case, the protagonist will see and experience things that he cannot unsee and cannot unexperience. The feminine world, the one of society and safety which he leaves on this journey, can never be fully returned to. In becoming a defender and a protector of that world, he can never again be as he was or be as sheltered and comfortable as he once was. In order to save the Shire, Frodo had to forever destroy the Shire for himself.
The Hero’s Journey—and the masculine journey—is a protoevangelium, a faint glimmer of the story of human salvation. Jesus Christ, being fully man, might have denied his Father’s divine will and stayed a carpenter and caused no trouble. Or he could have transcended, suffered, sacrificed, descended into the literal depths of Hell, conquered literal death, and saved the world from evil. As he did.
The Hero’s Journey is an outline for attaining manhood, transcendence, masculine wholeness.
Masculinity and femininity are both human expressions, and therefore, though reaching it through different means, must ultimately reach the same conclusion. The goal is the same for both. And this goal is found in the Gospels.
“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”
God himself is love. The ordered loving of anything is therefore a divine expression. So the goal of humanity in following these two greatest commandments is most practically expressed in the words of Christ in John 15:13:
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
This is the conclusion for which we were all made: the sacrificing of self for the good of another. This happens to varying degrees, sometimes in literal death and sometimes not. Sometimes red martyrdom, sometimes white. But we are all, male and female, ultimately called to life-giving sacrifice.
For women, life-giving sacrifice is inherent in their biology. Before the contraceptive age, women were nearly guaranteed to experience childbirth. There’s little choice in the matter and most women are predisposed to giving themselves in such a way for the sake of their child. Their sacrifice is inbuilt and mostly guaranteed. This is why we don’t seriously tell young girls they should “woman up” or “be a woman”. A female is inherently a woman because her biology exists to “lay down her life for another.”
For men, such sacrifice is a choice, not a given. This is why young men are encouraged to “be a man” or to “man up” because being a man is not a given. Being male is given, but being a man is about assenting to the demands of self-sacrifice. Manhood is earned and made evident by action.
This is why we often think of masculinity as activity and femininity as passivity. To be feminine, women must simply be receptive to their biological reality and to the life-giving sacrifice of motherhood. They accept what is. Masculinity must be taken by force. It is not the acceptance of what is, but the acquisition of what is not. It is to choose what is difficult, what is unnatural. It is to choose danger and pain over comfortable stasis.
The female stasis is danger and pain inherently, the danger and pain of childbirth and the sacrifice of motherhood. The male stasis is to live under the safety and comfort of the female stasis without having the female’s dangerous biological imperative that necessitates sacrifice. He reaps the benefits of female sacrifice without sacrificing himself. All the shouts he might hear to “be a man” and “man up” are an acknowledgment that he is parasitic, selfish, undeserving. The feminine man is one who has refused life-giving sacrifice.
For men, the feminine is dangerous because it is a temptation to be weak, comfortable, lazy, and useless, to ignore his own nature. Yet his masculinity can only be made complete when reintegrated with the feminine. The path to masculinity begins with choosing to confront chaos and darkness, with choosing to hurt rather than to be comfortable. Confrontation naturally means aggression. To break free from his mother, from society, from feminine imperatives, a man must be aggressive. But aggression is not the end. Masculinity ends in controlled aggression. The gentleman. Or the gentleman barbarian. Masculinity ends with a principled man who can, but who doesn’t unless he knows it’s required.
Being masculine or being a man implies having the experience to discern the level of aggression due for a particular situation, not in being fully aggressive at all times. This is the reintegration with the feminine. A man leaves the feminine world as a taker in order to transcend himself and reenter that world as a giver and protector.
Feminists would have us believe that all masculinity is “toxic masculinity”, but this isn’t so. The only toxic masculinity is masculinity that never reintegrates with the feminine, that never returns to put itself into service for the safety and continuation of women, children, and society itself. To attain proper masculinity, a man must descend into darkness and chaos and confront it. A failure to reintegrate with the feminine is indicative of a man having lost that confrontation. He went to battle Hell and Hell either destroyed him or took him hostage. If a man never reintegrates with the feminine, it means he has stayed in darkness. Thus, the only “toxic masculinity” is the one that finds transcendence not in selfless life-giving sacrifice, but in nihilism. In the darkness itself. In nothingness.
Unfortunately, we live in a society that supports nihilism, the meaninglessness of everything. And so many young men, restless and miserable and told at every turn that their masculinity or potential masculinity is an abhorrent disorder but who nevertheless feel the natural pull toward transcendence of self, they descend into the darkness and the chaos without fathers, without brothers, without mentors, without the tools that guarantee they make it out. Nihilism is the religion of mass shooters, young men who descend into darkness with no way out and believe their transcendence will be found in asserting and executing that Hell, the cold nothingness of the universe, in the most drastic way they can.
And then these failed men are held up as beacons of masculinity by those who oppose masculinity, discouraging the pursuit of masculinity proper and guaranteeing more nihilists who descend into darkness never to return. The ideology of “toxic masculinity” is self-perpetuating and circular. It helps create failed men—nihilists—and then uses their heinous crimes to discourage masculinity and thus create more failed men who go on to perpetrate the same.
But the attainment of masculinity proper—the descent, the confrontation, and the return—is absolutely vital for every male if he does not want to be incomplete. The exact path may vary, the obstacles may be wildly different, and he may return to society as emperor, merchant, or slave according to his ability and ordained circumstances, but the pattern is the same for all and the choice is the same for all. And once he has returned, he will have the self-discipline and the sense of duty to expertly execute whatever role he’s been given, and he will be willing to live—and die—for the common good.