Masculinity Is Tragic

Masculinity is tragic because it presents a double bind: The competitive pursuit of excellence is always attended by the enervating threat of defeat. Femininity may contain double binds of its own, yet only men seem to derive motivation and purpose from the knowledge that failing to “make good” is a terrible fate. Men are imperiled by the weight of expectations to outcompete other men at something society values; but without strong pressure to compete, especially from other men, they are completely adrift.

…All this having been said, the tragic streak in masculinity, while reflective of a present reality, does not represent final reality. Masculinity in its present form is fallen, its competitive energies tainted by the libido dominandi. These energies must be continually reoriented toward God. Masculinity and femininity are not themselves products of the Fall, but when properly ordered reflect the image of God. We know this from Genesis 1:28: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” There will still be men and women in the new heaven and earth with masculine and feminine natures, but those natures will be sanctified, transcending even their prelapsarian perfection.

Twenty-first-century Nietzscheans who long for a return to a pre-Christian world are right to see something poignant in Achilles’s single-minded pursuit of victory, his acceptance of death, and his contempt for Lycaon’s begging. And yet, the world of warrior virtue inhabited by Homer has not had the last word. Just a few hundred years after Homer in the fifth century b.c., philosophers like Plato were beginning to reason away from the idea that “might makes right” to the principle that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. As Susannah Black Roberts has argued, in the centuries leading up to Christ’s birth many Greco-Roman writers seemed to acknowledge the inability of paganism to answer the question of mortality. This is present even in Homer: Achilles, once in Hades, laments that he’d “rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground than king of kings among the dead.”

Christ, as the archetype of perfected humanity, presents the fullest model of masculinity. And he showed that it is more ennobling to die to self in loving service to God and neighbor than to sack Troy. The heights of human potential are realized not by the most physically powerful or the most cunning, but by the most loving. Achilles could not conquer death because his soul never knew the power of love necessary to overcome mortality. Jesus was more manful than Achilles because Jesus knew that masculinity is only perfected through participating in love’s dominion. The highest excellence, the most expansive, generative action, is kenosis.

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