Get a FREE membership video! Subscribe to our Newsletter.

View art in video

The following is a transcript of this video.

A man can’t go out the way he came in…a man has got to add up to something!

Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

In our previous series on Carl Jung and the Man-Child, we looked at why the phenomenon of the “man-child” is so prevalent in our times. We argued that due to the demise of the traditional family and an absence of rites of initiation, many boys lack male role models to show them the way to manhood, and so they are emerging into adulthood stuck in what the authors Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette called “boy psychology”.

In this series, we are going to provide a guide for how to outgrow boy psychology and attain manhood. To do this, we are going to look away from contemporary Western culture, which is overwhelmed by ideas which view masculinity as toxic, and approach the topic of manhood from an anthropological point of view. Drawing from David Gilmore’s classic book Manhood in the Making, we will examine what differing cultures across the world have thought regarding the question “what does it mean to be a man?”. The purpose of this examination will be to isolate the traits, virtues and attitudes essential to manhood, thereby creating a “map of manhood” we can use to outgrow our boy psychology and achieve the benefits which, cross-culturally, are the prerogative of the potent man.

“In the present crisis of masculinity we do not need, as some feminists are saying, less masculine power. We need more. But we need more of the mature masculine. We need more Man psychology. We need to develop a sense of calmness about masculine power so we don’t have to act out dominating, disempowering behavior toward others.”

Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover

To begin we must differentiate between biological maleness and manhood. Practically all cultures across the world acknowledge that a man is a biological male by virtue of being born with male reproductive organs. Manhood, on the other hand, is not defined by the presence of physical characteristics alone; it must be achieved. The aboriginal Fox tribe of Iowa call the attainment of manhood “the Big Impossible”, which only the masterful few can attain. Unlike biological sex, manhood is not a given but a prize to be won. As the 20th century American author Norman Mailer wrote:

Nobody was born a man; you earned manhood provided you were good enough, bold enough.

Norman Mailer

Or as David Gilmore explains:

“…there is a constantly recurring notion that real manhood is different from anatomical maleness, that it is not a natural condition that comes about spontaneously through biological maturation but rather is a precarious or artificial state that boys must win against powerful odds. This recurrent notion that manhood is problematic, is found among the simplest hunters and fishermen, among peasants and sophisticated urban people; it is found in all continents and environments.”

David Gilmore, Manhood in the Making

To understand why it is almost universally accepted that real men are made, not born, we must investigate what cross-culturally is considered the greatest threat to manhood: psychological regression. 

In contrast to other animals who emerge into this world with a certain degree of autonomy, the first year of a human’s life is spent in a prolonged state of dependence on the mother. Just as a fetus is contained physically in the mother prior to birth, in the first year of life the infant can be said to be contained psychologically “in” the mother. From the perspective of the infant, the mother appears symbolically as the Great Mother – she is the child’s world and the provider of love, security, warmth, protection, and the all-nourishing breast.

After the first year of life the child enters the stage which Margaret Mahler called “separation-individuation”. The infant’s growing awareness of itself as separate from the mother coupled with an increase in physical mobility marks the stage at which the child is expected to develop its autonomy and self-identity. While both girls and boys experience the growing pains associated with this stage of development, it is a stage which can prove especially difficult for boys.  For while the girl’s prior psychological immersion in the mother serves to promote her feminine identity, the boy, to achieve a masculine identity, must rescind his identification with the mother and the feminine world in order to enter the world of men. 

“The special problem the boy faces at this point is in overcoming the previous sense of unity with the mother in order to achieve an independent identity defined by his culture as masculine…The girl does not experience this problem as acutely, according to this theory, because her femininity is reinforced by her original symbiotic unity with her mother, by the identification with her that precedes self-identity and that culminates with her own motherhood. In most societies, the little boy’s sense of self as independent must include a sense of self as different from his mother, as separate from her both in ego-identity and in social role. Thus for the boy the task of separation and individuation carries an added burden and peril.”

David Gilmore, Manhood in the Making

Throughout history rites of initiation have assisted boys in the process of separation-individuation. Through trials and tests overseen by male elders the boy “dies” and is “reborn” a man. 

“Femininity unfolds naturally, whereas masculinity must be achieved; and here is where the male ritual cult steps in.”

Gilbert Herdt, Rituals of Manhood

But in the modern West adequate male role models capable of initiating a boy into manhood are few and far between. Many men are emerging into adulthood without having left the psychological womb of the mother. As a result of not being taught how to embrace struggle, become self-reliant and engage in the ceaseless enterprise which cross-culturally is expected of the potent man, many men are consumed by lethargy, the desire to evade reality and escape danger by seeking solace at the mother’s side. They are succumbing to what Thomas Gregor in his study of the Mehinaku tribe of Brazil referred to as the desire to

“…take the path back to fusion with the mother and the pleasures of infancy.”

Thomas Gregor, The Mehinaku: The Drama of Daily Life in a Brazilian Indian Village

Or in other words, they are consumed by what Carl Jung called

“…the spirit of regression, who threatens us with bondage to the mother and with dissolution and extinction in the unconscious.”

Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation

In succumbing to the spirit of regression we adopt lifestyles antithetical to manhood. One such lifestyle which Jung repeatedly warned of is what in mythological terms is referred to as the incestuous marriage to the mother, whereby one remains in the psychological womb of the mother well into old age. 

“If this situation is dramatized…then there appears before you on the psychological stage a man living regressively, seeking his childhood and his mother, fleeing from a cold cruel world which denies him understanding. Often a mother appears beside him who apparently shows not the slightest concern that her little son should become a man, but who, with tireless and self-immolating effort, neglects nothing that might hinder him from growing up and marrying. You behold the secret conspiracy between mother and son, and how each helps the other to betray life.”

Carl Jung, Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self

Others consumed by the spirit of regression may break free from the psychological womb of the mother only to adopt the lifestyle of Peer Gynt, which the psychologist Rollo May called “the myth of males in the 20th century.”

“Peer Gynt is the myth, that is, the life pattern, of a man characterized by two desires…One desire is to be admired by women, and the other desire is to be taken care of by the same women. The first desire leads to machismo behavior: a braggart, he swaggers and is grandiose. But all of this apparent power is in the service of pleasing the woman, the figurative Queen, in order that the second desire be satisfied…these two desires are contradictory. The woman is the one who holds the final judgment and, correspondingly, the power over him. No matter how much he appears to be the swaggering master with his various women, he is in reality a slave serving the Queen. His self-esteem and his self-image depend upon her smile, her approval.”

Rollo May, The Cry for Myth

The spirit of regression can also lead to the adoption of harmful lifestyles not centered around psychological dependence on a woman. As Erich Neumann argues in his book The Fear of the Feminine, world-weariness, neurotic sickness, or the placid acceptance of the commonplace in the attempt to avoid struggle, can all signify that the spirit of regression is active in our mind. 

“Regressions of this sort…give rise not only to typical anxiety neuroses and phobias but also, and especially, to addictions and, if the ego is extensively destroyed, to psychoses.”

Erich Neumann, The Fear of the Feminine

To break free from the spirit of regression and move towards manhood we need to cultivate a heroic attitude. This attitude has been expressed in countless myths, one of the most notable being the Germanic tale of Tannhauser and Venus. In this myth the knight Tannhauser is approached by the beautiful Goddess Venus who asks him to join her on the mountain Venusberg where she promises his every desire will be satisfied by her and her attendants, the Naiads and Sirens. Tannhauser accepts her offer and remains in this paradisal feminine world for a year, but soon he grows weary and is overcome by an intense moral conflict. Should he remain on Venusberg where his every wish and desire for pleasure is fulfilled? Or should he renounce this passive and dependent life and once again embrace meaningful struggle in the world? After agonizing deliberation, Tannhauser decides to leave Venusberg.

“I must return to the world of men. I stand prepared for battle, even for death and nothingness.”

Tannhauser

Commenting on this myth, David Gilmore writes:

“The knight has mastered the most primitive of the demands of the pleasure principle – the temptation to drown in the arms of an omnipotent woman, to withdraw into a puerile cocoon of pleasure and safety.”

David Gilmore, Manhood in the Making

In the next video in this series we are going to examine in more detail what the heroic attitude entails and how we can cultivate it to escape psychological regression. By exploring how cultures across the world conceive manhood, we will construct a “map of heroic manhood” we can use in our quest to mature beyond the limiting confines of boy psychology. As we do, we will also learn why the claim that masculinity is toxic is not only misguided, but dangerous. Manhood is not a tool of oppression. It is a cultural construct intended to promote the psychological development of boys into men capable of supporting the security and prosperity of a society. When the ideals of manhood are lost or distorted, a society becomes prone to dissolution at the hands of internal and external threats. As the often quoted saying by Michael Hopf puts it: “Weak men create hard times.” Or as David Gilmore summarizes:

 “”Real” men are expected to tame nature in order to recreate and bolster the basic kinship units of their society; that is, to reinvent and perpetuate the social order by will, to create something of value from nothing. Manhood is a kind of male procreation; its heroic quality lies in its self-direction and discipline, its absolute self-reliance-in a word, its agential autonomy.”  

David Gilmore, Manhood in the Making

Academy of Ideas Membership

Become a member and gain access to exclusive member videos.

Become a Member

Further Readings

Art Used in this Video

Santiago Rusiñol - After the War. The Sad Home - Google Art Project
Adolphe, of The Sad Young Man, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1894, crayon lithograph on wove paper, only state, Wittrock 55 - Montreal Museum of Fine Arts - Montreal, Canada - DSC08846
Pronk, Cornelis - Portrait of a Man - Google Art Project
'Buffalo Hunt on the Southwestern Prairies', oil on canvas painting by John Mix Stanley, 1845, Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington D. C.)
Pier Francesco Mola - Oriental Warrior - WGA16087
Henri Fantin-Latour - By the Table - Google Art Project
Edgar Samuel Paxson - Buffalo Hunt
George Catlin - Comanche Warrior Lancing an Osage, at Full Speed - 1985.66.471 - Smithsonian American Art Museum
John Mix Stanley - Indian Telegraph
František Dvořák - Mother with a Child
Gossaert, Madonna with the Child
Akseli Gallen-Kallela - Boy with a Crow - Google Art Project
Ludwig Knaus - Sandkuchen backen (1873)
Claude Monet 011
Young Chief by John Mix Stanley, 1868, oil on canvas
Franz von Lenbach - Hirtenknabe (1860)
Sønnen Ole kigger ud af vinduet
Laurits Andersen Ring - The sick man - Google Art Project
Henry Wallis - Der Tod des Chatterton
Kate Bruce dancing with her son Richard Barthelmess, lobby card for Way Down East (1920)
Egon Schiele - Dead Mother I - Google Art Project
Gustave Courbet - Lovers in the Country, Sentiments of the Young Age - WGA05484
Edvard Munch - Workers on their Way Home - Google Art Project
Charles André van Loo - Perseus and Andromeda - WGA13431
John Collier - Venusberg Scene from Tannhäuser
Max Tannhäuser
Victor Vasnetsov - Knight at the Crossroads - Google Art Project
Eugène Delacroix - Collision of Moorish Horsemen - Walters 376
Charlemont - The Moorish Chief
Winslow Homer, American - A Huntsman and Dogs - Google Art Project
Emanuel Leutze - Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way - Smithsonian
African game trails (Plate 32) (7060471921)
Tannhäuser (NGV)
Sidonie Springer - Knabe unter dem Schutzmantel, 1923
Wagrez Tannhauser in the Venusberg