What it Actually Means to Be a Man: On Masculinity vs Manhood

Normally, I wouldn’t even dream of writing an article with such a seemingly pretentious title. Normally, I’d reference Marcus Aurelius and say “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one,” and leave it at that. The quote is excellent, but it does little to reveal explicitly what characteristics actually contribute to manhood. I recognize that some people don’t have the best male role models, and there are many cocky fools who think that because they are strong, competent fighters, well disciplined, or simply stoic that this somehow makes them better men. These fools are often looked up to by many boys who wish to become men for their superficial masculinity, but the overwhelmingly ostentatious display of masculinity does not make one a man. [Disclaimer: this article contains a bit of intellectual shit talking]

Just as I try to provide insight on the characteristics of spiritual qualities, or reveal what underlying motivations may give life and strength to the perpetuation of some personal attributes, I will, here, try to describe what I understand to be manhood. What this will not be is a definition of what a man ought to be, or a culturally embedded delineation of how to be a masculine man that entirely lacks any self-awareness. I will also spend time discussing masculinity only insofar as it relates to manhood, as I will also do with femininity because anyone who pretends that femininity is masculinity’s antithesis rather than its complement is a fraud and ironically more feminine than they may seem. I will attempt to address the audience of this article as anyone interested in learning what characterizes manhood and by extension real men.

Masculinity and Femininity

It would be inappropriate to attempt to address manhood without addressing masculinity, and it would be even more negligent to attempt to address masculinity without addressing femininity. Masculinity and Femininity are not two things opposed and counter-weighted like good and evil or right and wrong. They are more like the two halves of a greater whole which is only understood in the union of the two parts. The concepts of Yin and Yang are great markers for attributes of masculinity and femininity, but being analogous names for the two characteristics, they are not sufficient as definitions. Though it would be true to state that the principles of yang and masculinity are practically identical, this would be akin to saying water is identical to two hydrogen atoms bonded to an oxygen atom. It does not reveal the properties or characteristics, let alone provide anything other than a superficial means for conceptualization. Instead, perhaps the meaning and attributes of masculinity can be derived from an exploration of its relationship to femininity.

Masculinity is naturally attributed to manhood and males, but I would venture to say that the relationship of any one of these to the other two is like that of one corner of a triangle to the others. Masculinity is not well understood in terms of manhood and males, and men are not well understood in terms of masculinity and males. It might be insightful to describe what masculinity is not, but seeing as though what masculinity is not is femininity, what is not masculine is what is positively feminine, and positivistic description is just the pitfall I am trying to avoid. However, one could ironically say that positivism is characteristically masculine.

Another analogy for the relation of the masculine and feminine principles is the relation between Order and Chaos. Order is a constructed thing, abstracted from reality’s patterns and appearances. Order is a fundamental description of reality’s simplicity in fitting so much complexity and randomness of Chaos into a single metaphysical framework. There is but one reality with many dimensions that you inhabit. There is but one truth with many meanings to the world that exists. Further irony lies, however, in the realization that the natural order is Chaos. Chaos can be described as the phenomena of creation and destruction, with Order as a balancing principle that prevents one of the two from overcoming the other.

In creation and destruction, there is power, the raw ability to become real or unreal, made being or unmade. For instance, it’s foolish to think that humans are somehow creatures of order, detached and distant from nature, imposing the order of their minds and conceptual conventionalities on the formless void of matter. Humans are creatures of the natural world. The order we perceive in and project on reality is as much belonging to nature as are our physical bodies. Just because we have evolved to develop these capacities does not separate us or our abilities from the processes of nature. If anything, the order of the world was born from the chaotic processes between creation and destruction, giving way to the conceptualization of order as something distinct from, but not apart from chaos, just as masculinity is distinct from, but not inseparable from femininity. If power is attributed to chaos and chaos is more closely feminine than masculine, then the organizing of power through raw talent and technique is what would be comparatively masculine, just as chaos refers to the organization of creation and destruction into a single orderly principle. Paradoxically (or not), masculinity and femininity are both aspects of singular, natural processes.

What Makes a Man not a Boy

Now that there has been some allusion to the nature of masculinity, its relationship to manhood can be analyzed and characterized. First, however, I will posit a question: What is the difference between a male and a man?

The answer is not social construction. Yes, there is something to be said for the difference between sex and gender, but to assert that they are simply detached and only culturally, erroneously assumed to be the same is just as delusional as assuming that they are completely the same. Men are “disproportionately” male precisely because males are disproportionately masculine in body and character, and the greatly masculine men are far more masculine than even the most masculine women. Cultural conceptions aside, what makes a male become a man is not simply masculinity either. There are many ways to showcase masculinity in a caricatured sort of display without embodying masculine attributes, hence the significance behind the quote by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor known most notably by modern people for his Stoic philosophy.

The people most guilty of this are those who preach on the virtues and alleged superiority of masculinity with no regard for the virtues of femininity and women. To present oneself as an embodiment of masculinity and to assume that this makes one a greater man is little more than vanity, and it is an immature embodiment of what is actually a feminine characteristic. What makes a man a man and not a boy is a combination of two virtuous characteristics: Ethicality & Maturity.

Some cultures developed a sense of virtue or nobility around masculinity as a way of delineating between men worthy of honor and recognition and those to whom little value could be attributed. And this is not value in the sense of monetary value, but value to one’s people, community, or family. A “good man” is one who is responsible in his duties and restores value to the lives of others, not detracts from it. A good man need not elevate his pretentious sense of masculinity by using feminine characteristics to insult and attack those who do not behave in an overtly masculine manner. Social criticism of hyper-masculinity aside, what makes a man worthy of being called a good man is responsibility to himself and those who rely on him, and a maturity in understanding that the value of his life and the value he shares with others is not an individualistic antagonism of those who are not as “great” as he. Excessive love of oneself, what is essentially casual narcissism, contributes very little if anything at all to ethicality and likely acts as a detriment to maturity.

It’s like a cancer of one’s ego to conflate one’s sense of manhood with the overt display of masculinity and denial of any femininity. Considering the need for some kind of balancing between the two, this is like someone who only ever tries to perform actions with the right side of their body simply because it is their dominant side. It’s ridiculously delusional and paradoxical in its unconsciously feminine treatment of masculinity. It is not something to be worn, just as femininity is not an appearance to be worn and used. Masculinity and femininity are qualities to be embodied, and one must find a way to integrate the two because if one truly wishes to be masculine, you must learn to embody, which is a feminine characteristic. If masculinity does not come to you naturally, you must learn what masculinity is from men who embody it well, and you must develop the capacity to hold it within yourself as a regulating force until it engrains itself into you as second nature. Being a man has very little to do with being strong, delaying gratification, and denying one’s emotionality. Those are the superficial idealizations of a purist ideology of individualistic will. It is a deranged idea based on a caricature of an immature, overcompensatingly masculine boy who desperately wishes to be seen as a man because he does not feel the way that someone who would claim what is quoted at the beginning of this article would feel. This boy understand very little of sacrifice, very little of the limits of masculinity, and very little about what it means to actually be a man.

Consider the gratuitous violence and reactionary men of Nicolas Winding Refn’s films like Drive and Only God Forgives. Some of Refn’s main male characters, played often by god of the “sigma males”, Ryan Gosling, are stereotyped as hyper masculine depictions and characterizations in films that are respectably explorations of violence, sexuality, and the darkest expressions of masculinity and femininity. These are artistic depictions from a man who stated in an interview for the movie Neon Demon, “The more masculine you want to be, the more feminine you have to become”. If you were to ask a self-described alpha male or someone with a similar mentality and perspective of masculinity what they would make of these words, I doubt many of them would take the time to humbly end their charade and give a mature response to what is, to me, a description of the complementary balancing of feminine and masculine traits honed by people who’ve managed to work themselves past the annoyance of childish insecurity one might attribute to middle schoolers. But there is also a more serious notion embedded in this way of thinking. In order to truly understand the expressions, the natures of and more superficial displays of masculinity and femininity, especially in their exaggerated forms, one must explore the two as deeply and personally as you can. In a way, one can only be a man if one takes his femininity, as an addition to his masculinity, seriously.

Herein lies the ethical significance supporting personality maturity. Simply put, how wasteful is it to spend so much time and energy sacrificing yourself and your potential for satisfaction just to be able to say that you are nominally future-oriented, even with regard to the self-denial inherent in ignoring one’s constant present centeredness? How contemptuous is it to act as if radical individualism is the same as masculinity, and that anybody not acting in such a narcissistic manner is incidentally more feminine, and therefore lesser? How simplistic is it to assume that masculinity and manhood are nothing more than commercialized and superficialized characteristics that could be ascribed to anyone who has the guts and will to work, be responsible, and manage themselves so others don’t have to? No one can tell you how to be a man, and there’s no point in making a science of it either. It’s one of those things that some humans do intrinsically because they’d rather be competent and mature than the alternative. Learn from yourself and others. See what good men do and you will learn what a good man is, and, by contrast, what a bad man is as well.

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