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The Masculine Preconditions of Individualism, Part 3

[1]3,355 words

Part 3 of 4

Bio-Masculine Foundations of Individualism

In The Uniqueness of Western Civilization [2] I traced this aristocratic individualism back the pre-historic Indo-Europeans (IEs). The IEs created a new type of aristocratic society in the sense that “some men,” not just the king, were free to deliberate over major issues affecting the group, as well as free to strive for personal recognition. The material origins of this aristocratic individualist ethos are to be found in the unique pastoral lifestyle of the IEs, their original domestication and riding of horses, their invention of wheeled vehicles in the fourth millennium BC, together with the efficient exploitation of the “secondary products” of domestic animals (dairy products, textiles, harnessing), all of which gave IEs a more robust physical anthropology and the most dynamic way of life in their time. This horse-riding lifestyle included fierce competition for grazing rights, constant alertness in the defence of one’s portable wealth, and an expansionist disposition in a world where competing herdsmen were motivated to seek new pastures as well as tempted to take the movable wealth of their neighbours [3].

This lifestyle engendered “a greater aptitude for war”, a hyper-patriarchal, aristocratic, and masculine world-view religiously expressed in the veneration of the powers of Heaven, not just the Earth  — the Sky, the Storm, the Sun, Thunder and Lighting. Although in Uniqueness and Faustian Man I brought attention to the masculine character of IE society and the agonistic ethos of aristocrats, I did not connect in a substantial way the purely male component of this agonistic drive and how this male inclination for contest was heightened in IE aristocratic society, providing the preconditions thereby for the discovery of the self and the emergence of consciousness itself. With all the talk about “neo-masculinity” I have been thinking that the greater male disposition for aggression and contest, to demonstrate one’s worthiness as a man through fighting against male adversaries, facing the dangers around one’s environment in struggle against the fear of death, the fear that one is not man enough, should be seen in light of the peculiar aristocratic ethos of IEs. After doing a search on books about the meaning of masculinity, I came up with Walter J. Ong’s book, Fighting for Life. Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness, published in 1981. What makes this book singularly valuable and directly relevant to my arguments is that Ong believes that it was the male struggle for recognition, as a male among other males, that fostered the mental introspection and interiority that  is required for a concept of the self to become a possibility in a world in which all living beings are otherwise fixated and consumed by the world outside themselves and by their own bodily appetites.

The starting point of Ong’s argument can be found in this passage:

Need for the adversative is common to all human beings, male and female. But by and large through the entire animal kingdom, among infrahuman, as well as the human species, conspicuous or expressed in adversativeness is a larger element in the lives of males than of females, for reasons relating both to the development of individual males and to the evolution of species…When human consciousness appears, both sexes contribute to its growth, but the male contribution is effected largely through a kind of ritual contest. Females can also be highly competitive. But their competitiveness seldom if ever shows in the conspicuous, all-out, one-to-one ritual or ceremonial contest found among conspecific males, such as the intensive, protracted battles of stags or rams or of male Siamese fighting fish. Paradoxically, intraspecific male fighting becomes more ritual or ceremonial at the same that it becomes more strenuous (p. 51).

Ong spends much of the book showing how men and women are crucially different in their agonistic behavior and how males developed an identity apart from their surroundings, a consciousness of themselves as beings with their own goals and identity, because of their absolute need to set themselves against their early boyhood identification with the feminine in order to become real men in the biological sense. This is the first time I will quote so many passages in one sequence because I believe that what Ong says is possibly the most insightful assessment of the role of masculinity in the development of consciousness. It should be said right away that Ong is a Westerner and that his entire analysis of this intense need of males to prove their manhood, as I will show later, is inevitably permeated by the unique historical experience of males in the West.

From the beginning of an individual’s mammalian male’s life, his masculinity involves living in a state of adversity, in an environment which, despite its supportiveness and his utter dependence on it, is nevertheless to a degree permanently hostile…[T]he male embryo must at a very early stage in its development begin to manufacture and testosterone from its own gonads ‘to produce masculinity and to offset the possible effect of circulating maternal hormones’ (p. 64).

The male mammalian organism must from the start react against its environment. Thus masculinity has a certain resistance to being nurtured: for a male, being nurtured has special dangers. At its biological and historical source, the male’s vocation is not acceptance but change. Again, masculinity means differentiation (p. 65).

The young male is very feminine in significant ways, and necessarily so, because of his earliest maternal environment. After initial identification with the feminine, the boy must grow away from ‘the feminine identification that resulted from his first encounter with his mother’s female body [sex] and feminine qualities’ (p. 65).

If stress or insecurity means an uneasy relationship with one’s environment, males are insecure because they are  in more constant and complex conflict with their environments than are females — clinical data show this to be true from the age of two, at least, and most likely true from birth, as, in the way just explained, it is even before birth. Boys refuse more often to obey, precipitate more fights, refuse more frequently and steadfastly to learn in school…(p. 68).

The human male is beset with the psychological as well as physical problems of proving his masculinity, which means in effect proving he is not female […] Though they may resist acknowledging the fact openly, human males find themselves in stress situations not only because of their biological insecurity but also because psychologically they must set themselves off from a backdrop of femininity that has not had to establish itself but is simply there, a given. As a boy, the young human male most ‘prove himself a man,’ differentiate himself from this given ambiance in which he finds himself. He must prove he is not a ‘sissy’ (sister, girl). Anatomical differences do not suffice, since the fact is that all boys started out in the feminine world. How are they to be psychologically sure, consciously or unconsciously, that they have ever left that world, that they have really achieved the differentiation that it is every male’s business to achieve? They must cut girls out of their lives, scorn feminine sources of comfort and safety, do things that they hope their mothers and sisters cannot do. They have ‘to fight it’ — ‘it’ being anything that seems easy. They must discover or invent risks. Accusations of ‘effeminacy’ normally strike the male heart with terror: you have not had the strength to become yourself (70).

Two kinds of behavior connected with human male insecurity can be noted here. The first is the need felt by males, particularly young boys, to fight each other. The second is the tendency of males to be ‘loners’ more than females are, and the somewhat paradoxically related tendency of males to form all-male groups, the male ‘bonding pattern’…Human males tend to feel an environment, including other individuals of the species, as a kind of againstness, something to be fought with an altered. Environment is feminine, and women typically find they can rely on it as it is or comes to them (76-7).

But why the predilection of males for fighting other males in particular? In the case of human beings, what sort of psychological satisfaction is achieved by a young boy who succeeds in standing up against another boy? For the only adversary who can enable one to establish male identity is another male…[H]e must face the threat of masculinity within himself by facing it in others like himself. To be a man, the male must be able to face insecurity, for that is what maleness implies — existence in an environment that is both needed and hostile (78).

Masculine identity among higher animals often entails intensive distancing of one individual from another, and, in the case of reflective human beings, of personal self from personal self […] What is important for the male is that the contest be formally competitive (and thus at one level, abstractly analytical) and of high intensity. Males viewers of television sports like the instant replays, which enable them to analyze the formal structure of the intense agonistic activity (79-80).

The bonding pattern in male groups is well known: it consists of closeness and distancing  simultaneously. It includes banter, ‘ribbing,’ constant psychological pushing, shoving, swatting (among young males, the pushing, showing , swatting are physical as well. Thus each assures himself that everybody is a friend though at the same time everybody is on his own and keeping everbody else at arm’s length — an admiring arm’s length (81).

Male boding groups are associations of loners. The male values a companion whom he can stand up against and who can stand up against him: each receives assurance from the other’s decently adversative stance, for it reminds him of his own needs and resources. The masculine intense friendly aggression is foreign to most women’s experience (81).

The war party, where this sort of bonding functions in anticipation of action as well as in retrospect, is a typically male phenomenon (81).

All environment is enveloping, womblike. The male craves freedom, and for many males the symbolic independence of all environment which one establishes by setting up as a loner, with occasional participation in a bonded gang of loners, is the ultimate accomplishment and happiness (82).

The predisposition to individual psychological distancing evinced by males even when closely bound in groups is paralleled by a male predisposition to leave the group entirely and to become a ‘loner’ (82).

Masculinity in this sense means becoming something different, separation from origins, a certain kind of getting away, abstraction, transcendence. Hence, as has been seen, the haunting male insecurity: born of women, how can I be sure that I am not what I came from, that I am not a woman, too? I have to do something difficult, something that only a man can do, to prove that I am not. Born to be different from my source of life, I must live with stress and must invent stress to assure myself that I can perform (112-113).

Masculinity is thus a testimony both to human insufficiency and to human potential, to a certain ability to move beyond insufficiency (114).

Masculinity is differentiation here, too, differentiation from one’s own unconscious, which is antecedent to one’s consciousness. Consciousness arises out of the unconscious by differentiation and thus has a masculine quality…For threat, danger, can be alluring to the male: it provides the stress he seeks, the occasion to prove his masculinity again, his ability to cope with insecurity (115).

What makes Ong’s study all the more interesting is that almost all the examples he draws on to demonstrate how the “adversativeness” of males found deep expression in the literature, religion, sports, science and logic produced by humans are Western. This is so apparent that Ong himself admits from the beginning of his book that the obsession with “polemic, hostility, confrontation tactics, clashes of personalities, competition, games” and “other adversative manifestations” is indeed to be found mostly among Europeans from ancient Greek times.

But the Greeks seem to have made more careful use of adversativeness than did other cultures, both as an analytical tool and as an operational intellectual procedure […] By contrast, Chinese culture minimized dispute, thought of rhetoric as serving propriety and harmony, downplayed individual difference in favor of conformity. (21, 22).

The experts he relies on singularly identify Western culture for its adversativeness, a point I also made in Uniqueness. This fact strains Ong’s thesis that adversativeness in human cultures generally can be understood in terms of the biological obsession of males to prove their masculinity through contest. I agree with Ong’s bio-masculine foundations of cultural disputation. I also agree with him that a purely sociobiological approach which reduces human behavior to mere survival cannot say anything about how this adversativeness fostered in human behavior a disposition to value honor over material inclinations, a disposition that requires for its understanding psychological (and, I would say, philosophical) analysis, for it “transcends the biological,” although it is “tie in with it” (20).  But Ong leaves hanging the crucial question about why European culture, in its literature, art, logic, rhetoric, has exhibited this polemical, agonistic impulse to a far higher degree. He knows, too, that in Western culture one detects a “greater and greater interiorization of consciousness through history noted by Hegel,” the development of the concept of the person and the “I”. But he never asks: why in the West, and singularly in the West?

The Indo-European Aristocratic Origins of Individualism

Fighting by aristocratic egos is the key to understanding the origins of individualism and the first “Western” society in history. The aristocratic life style of Indo-Europeans fostered a type of man who developed a consciousness of his pursuit of an immaterial end, an awareness of his obsession to be recognized by another conscious male of his ability to be a man in overcoming the biological fear of death for the sake of pure prestige. What Hegel called a “struggle to the death for pure prestige” over and against the most powerful biological drives humans have for self-preservation and comfort, can only make historical sense in relation to the only society in history in which some men lived a lifestyle where such a struggle was seen as the most valued form of male affirmation. The only society in which this struggle for pure prestige was possible was the society of prehistoric Indo-Europeans, because this was the first, and the only, culture ruled by free aristocrats in which men had the opportunity to prove themselves worthy as aristocratic men, in distinction to non-European societies [4] where only one man, the despot, was free, and where members of the upper class were subservient both to the despot and to their gods. To be an aristocrat one had to demonstrate one’s capacity for freedom, one’s ability to differentiate oneself from the others as a particular hero. The master is the male who masters his fear of death and the slave is the male who gives in to this fear for the sake of preservation. It is in the risking of one’s life for the sake of recognition by another consciousness that males first exhibit some awareness of themselves as beings who can self-determine their actions and become aware of their subjectivity in distinction to the world around them.   The European “I” — most famously associated with Descartes’s announcement  “I think, therefore I am” — makes its first appearance in the persona of the aristocratic IE warrior.

I identify the pre-historic society of aristocratic IEs beginning around 2500 BC, through to the Feudal Middle Ages, as the one society in which this battle for a pure immaterial end, recognition by one’s aristocratic peers, could take place.  The IliadBeowulfSong of Roland, the Early Irish Myths and Sagas [5], are the earliest expressions of the first appearance of individuals becoming conscious of having an inner self apart from the outer world of natural determinations. The pursuit of individual glory produced men with particular personalities, in contradistinction to the faceless collectivities of the non-European world, where there are no heroes except a despot fearful of open competition and always demanding subservience. It is in these heroic tales that we encounter for the first time in history identifiable personalities with names, family ties, and differentiated psychological dispositions.

As Henry Osborn Taylor notes about the Icelandic Saga of Egil, the personal life and character of the hero, Egil, is identified in detail: “As a child he was moody, intractable, and dangerous…there was no great love between him and his father…” The characters in these tales are not stereo-typified heroes, ideal replicas without unique personalities, attributes and flaws.

While the Saga-folk include no cowards or men of petty manners, there is still great diversity of character among them. Some are lazy and some industrious, some quarrelsome and some good-natured, some dangerous, some forbearing, gloomy or cheerful, open-minded or biased, shrewd or stupid, generous or avaricious [8].

There is no question that this aristocratic lifestyle left an imprint on the genetics of IEs, selecting personality traits such as greater willingness to take risks and capable of distinguishing what was “inside” and what was “outside”. Of course, at this point in history when consciousness only makes its appearance in the decision of the aristocrat to fight for recognition, the subjective side of man manifested itself only in the form of self-assertiveness, through the pride and the haughtiness of free warriors. It would take some time  — in the work of Plato — before Europeans would distinctly recognize the faculty of the mind (nous) as a generator of thoughts in distinction to the appetites of the body and the “spirited” part of the soul comprising pride, indignation, and the need for recognition.

While males have a natural inclination for contesting their environment and other males in pursuit of an identity that differentiates them as men, this inclination is not enough to bring about a male who is conscious of his consciousness. To this day all non-Western peoples lack self-awareness of themselves as personalities capable of differentiating themselves from their surrounding world. They are still deeply enmeshed within collectivist values and kinship-based relations, even as Western modernization has loosened their kinship ties and taught them that scientific objectivity actually requires a subject capable of differentiating his inner self from the outer world. While we don’t have genetic studies showing that IEs were selected for individualistic behaviours, there is a massive literature showing that Europeans created institutions and relationships that allowed for individual expression and achievement.

Kevin MacDonald, drawing on Uniqueness and his own research in evolutionary psychology, shows that, from the earliest Indo-European societies to the European Middle Ages, the “basic social/cultural features of IE-derived societies remained remarkably the same [6]“. The main cultural feature was the institution of the Männerbund, a voluntary war band held together by oaths of loyalty, camaraderie and a common self-interest in raiding and conquest of lands, in which social status, reputation and prestige, were openly determined by one’s heroic deeds and by the number of followers or clients one could afford.  Relations within war bands were “based on reciprocity, not despotism or kinship ties.” “Oath-bound contracts of reciprocal relationships were characteristic of IEs…These contracts formed the basis of patron-client relationships based on reputation — leaders could expect equitable loyal service from their followers and followers could expect equitable rewards for their service to the leader.” These relationships were “based on talent and accomplishment” rather than on kinship relations among close relatives.

This does not mean that European groups were merely the sum total of individuated aristocratic wills lacking any ethnic coherence and common culture. This is the politically correct argument that is found in such books as Patrick Geary’s The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe, “which is explicitly motivated,” as MacDonald writes, “to rationalize current displacement-level immigration to Europe.” While IE societies were more open to outsiders with individual merit, making social mobility more likely for talented members outside the clan and for lower ranked individuals, the outsiders who were incorporated into the expanding tribal confederacies of Iron Age Europe, into the Roman Empire, and within the feudal kingdoms of the Middle Ages, were invariably “closely related to the original founding stock.” They were European.


[8] Henry Osborne Taylor, The Medieval Mind: A History of the Development of Thought and Emotion in the Middle Ages, Vol. 1 (1919), pp. 138-168.

Source: https://www.eurocanadian.ca/2018/05/masculine-preconditions-of-individualism-indo-europeans-hegelian-concept-collective-freedom.html [7]