The Tripartite Symbolism of Man

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This essay was originally written by Paul Lloyd Robson for and posted on the Symbolic World blog

One hundred men stand solemnly in a perfect circle around the fire. All eyes are focused on the single man. He is about 40, a tall and athletic viking of a man. He is called forward, and is blessed and anointed by the elder. In this ritual, he is to share a commitment of purpose from his soul with the circle of men. He steps towards the blazing fire and falls to his knees…

Just a few hours ago, I was engaged in an academic discussion with this man about how online “woke” culture on social media seems to be replicating ancient pagan scapegoating mob rituals, as described by French philosopher Rene Girard. Now I can see a mob raging inside of him.

He looks up to the fire in front of him, and he takes a breath to speak….

“I am going to…….. NO! I F**KING HATE THIS RITUAL SH*T!! THIS IS TOTAL BULLSH*T”, the man screams, spittle frothing from his mouth and flailing with his arms.

The man rants. As he rants, it seems he relaxes. And he starts sharing from his heart. Some tears are shed. Then he finishes with a “Thank you” and steps back to the ring around the fire. Somehow he is able to fit in his place even better now and the entire circle feels more integrated at the same time.

The next man, shorter with grey hair and dark skin, steps forward….

This scene as well as many of the pictures in this essay are from the European Men’s Gathering 2020, which I experienced in the Danish countryside last summer. I have described it here as a taster to set the scene for the topic of this essay, a common theme on the Symbolic World blog: that of the confusion of masculine and feminine in our culture1. In this essay, I will attempt to consider: How can symbolism provide a unifying perspective which can serve to unite conflicting perspectives and ideas of the contemporary men’s movement?

In the following, I identify three different and conflicting approaches in the men’s movement: the Pro-feminists, the Mythopoetics and Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs). I present a symbolic perspective on the tripartite nature of man in his role as mediator and microcosm as described by 7th century monk and philosopher, St. Maximus the Confessor. I follow St. Maximus in his use of Plato’s chariot allegory, with its charioteer representing reason, a dark horse representing desire and a light horse representing anger. I then propose a mapping of these three elements projected onto the three main branches of the men’s movement mentioned above. Specifically I illustrate this by using a case study of a leading feminist, Michael Kimmel and his experience at a mythopoetic men’s workshop.

My hope is that this article will be interesting not only to those who, like myself, are involved in working with men (check out my organization, Maniphesto), but also to people interested by male/female symbolism more generally.

Unity and Diversity

Male and female are basic categories which are central to human identity and meaning making. As described by Pageau2, creating unification and harmony in a system requires a higher, overarching principle which can integrate diversity, while preserving the integrity of all the parts. A prerequisite to dealing with the current chaos and fracturing of the discussion on gender is thus to restore these fundamental categories on firm ground in a changing reality.

The differentiation between masculine and feminine is vital to our ability to discern, process and integrate opposing perspectives and sets of values. It is also related to the idea of hierarchy itself. Readers of this blog will likely be familiar with masculine/feminine symbolism and the correct integration of them, which Jonathan has spoken about regularly. In some cases masculine and feminine refers to opposing pairs at the same level of a hierarchy. In other cases, it refers to vertical relationships in a given hierarchy. In the following table, we have collected some pairs of words which are related to masculine and feminine categories:

These pairs operate at multiple levels of existence and are dependent on each other for their existence. It often makes no sense to talk about the one side of the pair, without the context of the other side. For example, a head cannot survive without a body, a father and mother only become possible in their union, and a provider makes no sense if there is no receiver.

In addition to existential dependency, we can also say that there is a functional dependency. In order to function correctly, they need to be in balance with each other. Indeed, many reasonable conflicts and oppositions can be understood when seen as an example of a masculine/feminine opposition. For example, at the intra-personal level I can be torn between a soft and empathetic response or firmness and setting boundaries. At an interpersonal level, husbands can think their children need more discipline while wives focus on care. At a societal level, politicians on the left prioritise equality for all, while right wingers focus on growth.

For symbolic thinkers, seeing a pattern replicated in fractals across multiple levels of existence comes as no surprise. Building the ability to recognise patterns at one level helps to create more integration at all other levels. Understanding the cosmic nature of these patterns connects reality at the highest and lowest levels and thus creates a pathway to achieving the goal of unity in diversity. Seen this way, confusion and division are natural consequences of a materialist approach, which regards repeating patterns as mere coincidence.

What is the higher principle which can mediate between the opposing perspectives of masculine and feminine? In the following, I will introduce St. Maximus’ idea of man as a “microcosm and mediator” and its relation to the male and female horses of Plato’s chariot allegory.

Microcosm and Mediator

The idea of Man as Microcosm is foreign to our modern scientific mindset, but fundamental to the symbolic perspective. Man as microcosm is the “little world”3 which reflects the macrocosm, or universe. The entire universe is mirrored and reflected in the individual man, and the man is reflected in the universe. The idea is ancient and may be found in many philosophical systems, such as in ancient Mesopotamia, Iran, or ancient Chinese philosophy. For us in the West, it has been present in Greek antiquity from pre-Socratic times4 and was brought into the Christian West by thinkers such as Philo and St. Maximus5.

According to St. Maximus, man as microcosm places him in a “middle position” on earth, or rather between heaven and earth, and gives him a specific task: that of mediation. By mediating between and connecting oppositions in himself as microcosm, the same thing is achieved in the macrocosm.

More specifically, St. Maximus defines the task of man as mediating between five fundamental oppositions of existence. And central to the purpose of this essay, the first of these five oppositions is between: male and female6. Through the use of his divine insight, man brings oppositions together in unity, without destroying diversity and integrity7.

St. Maximus takes the goal of this mediation as that defined by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians: In Christ there is no male or female. For St. Maximus, this is not an abstract claim that in heaven there will be no males or females8. Rather, the task of mediation takes place on earth. The goal of men and women is to achieve a state of unity without destroying the differences between masculine and feminine, thus manifesting in the macrocosm what is attained in the microcosm.

In order to better understand and achieve this mediation between male and female, St. Maximus draws on Plato’s allegory of the Chariot. It is to this model, which is thoroughly embedded in Western philosophy and psychology9, to which we now turn.

The Tripartite Soul of Man

If you are unfamiliar with Plato’s chariot allegory, then I recommend reading a highly accessible article on the subject What Is a Man? The Allegory of the Chariots. Here I will provide only a brief overview.

In the Phaedrus Dialogue10, Plato describes the human soul as a chariot, pulled by two horses, one dark and one light. The dark horse represents the “concupiscible” element — the earthly appetites and the desire for material gain and pleasure. It is also seen as female and best represented as the desiring faculty. It is associated with earth, creation and cyclical renewal11.

The light horse on the other hand is the “irascible” element. This is the spirit which strives towards glory and honour, loves victory and seeks achievement and recognition. It is seen as male and represented as the faculty of anger, orientated towards the heavenly and progression12.

In the driver’s seat of the chariot is the charioteer. He represents reason and has the task of reigning in the two horses in order to guide the chariot heavenwards. If he neglects the horses, is unable to get them to work together, or mistreats them, then they all crash downwards to earth. If he is able to get the horses to pull together, unity is achieved through the contributions of the constituent parts, and thus the chariot ascends to the greatest heights.

Importantly, all of the constituent elements are necessary. The dark horse element of desire and the light horse element of anger cannot be denied. You can’t just cut off or ignore the horses. Doing so will leave a chariot with no method of propulsion. Nor can you just tell them what to do by your own logic and expect them to listen. Horses need to be understood, have their needs met, tamed, bridled and taught to work together under the direction of the charioteer.

According to St. Maximus, the unified progression of the chariot towards heaven is the expression of the natural will of man. A common hindrance can be the charioteer forgetting his heavenly destination and being distracted by lower goals. The two horses becoming docile is the cutting off of the necessary energies of desire and spirit. And the horses receiving too much free reign is seen as the distraction of the passions13. Neither desire nor anger are inherently “good” or “bad”. Rather they are simply constituent elements of a human.

It is relevant to recall here the parallel between the microcosm and the macrocosm. St. Maximus is saying that by mediating between and unifying the masculine and feminine forces inside himself, man is doing the same in the macrocosm. Symbolic thinkers will be familiar with the association of male with heaven and female with the earth from the work of Matthieu Pageau14. From one perspective, the male principle of reason (charioteer) integrates the two different branches or horses. From another perspective, the male white horse creates the structure and direction for the energy of the dark horse together with the charioteer.

Having now described this ancient framework for understanding man as microcosm, we are now ready to raise the level of analysis to a societal level, which we will do by looking specifically at the contemporary men’s movement.

The Tripartite Men’s Movement

While most people have heard of the women’s movement, the contemporary men’s movement is less well known. It refers collectively to groupings of men who have wrestled with the questions on the role of men, especially since the 1970’s and increasingly today. In his lecture on The History of the Men’s Movement, Orthodox Priest and men’s movement veteran Fr. Michael Butler gives a good overview.

One can identify three main strands in the men’s movement: the Mythopoetic movement, the Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) movement, and the Pro-feminist movement. These three strands stand in contrast to and often conflict with each other, not only disagreeing on methods of moving forward, but also fundamental definitions for manhood and even the nature of reality.

To generalise, the academic pro-feminist movement is a secular response taking its lead from the women’s movement. While suffering from a lack of popularity amongst “normal men”, it is very popular amongst academic elites, media and politicians. The basic thesis here is that classical masculinity is toxic, and in order to move forward, men should become less masculine15.

The Mythopoetic movement has its roots in Joseph Campbell and Robert Bly’s Iron John. Its goals include re-enchantment and myth making16 with a strong focus on the “Wild Man” archetype and reconnecting men to their primal nature. Storytelling, tribal archetypes and enactment of tribal rituals are used to create an experience of connecting to deeper meaning. Basically, mythopoetics see men as trapped by societal conditioning, and needing to embrace their primal roots.

Lastly, the MRAs are a secular, political response to what is seen as discrimination towards men and even the destruction of the role of men, in direct opposition to the Pro-feminist movement. MRAs see men as victims of injustice and mistreatment. They often focus on child custody issues and other government policies where gender equality policies result in pro-female legislation and budgets.

If these constitute three separate entities which should work together, they are currently failing at that task. One could say that the collective will of the men’s movement is fragmented, confused and corrupted. The chariot is not really going anywhere and in many cases, crashing down to hell.

An academic view on the men’s movement

In order to illustrate the pattern, I will start by relating one academic pro-feminist’s experience of the other two movements, before providing a proposal for a mapping of the various elements.

Michael Kimmel is perhaps the most well-known leader of the academic pro-feminist men’s movement. In his book, “The Politics of Manhood: Profeminist Men Respond to the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement (And the Mythopoetic Leaders Answer)”17, he describes his experience in attending his first mythopoetic men’s workshop. While the workshop leader guides the men through getting in touch with their inner wildman through a series of exercises, Kimmel makes no attempt to hide that the experience is deeply unsettling for him. Scenes are painted of men romping around on all fours, playing at being animals, smelling, bumping into each other. Kimmel continuously returns to commenting on the texture of the carpet or the style of the decorations in the room. He obviously despises the animal-like “billy goat” style of masculinity.

As a Pro-feminist, Kimmel is very honest about his feelings of rejection by normal men. He expresses his frustration at how good, normal, middle class, hard-working men, are all flocking to the mythopoetics and rejecting him, despite his best efforts. Kimmel refuses or even is unable to enter into the earthy and animalistic world of the mythopoetic men. He has dedicated much time and effort to understanding them, but is astonished when they begin to express compassion and connection at the workshop. He goes into an academic discourse about their situation and the philosophical underpinnings of their work but ends up posing an ultimatum to the mythopoetics:

“The men of the mythopoetic men’s movement also face a choice… connecting themselves to the women’s movement, the gay and lesbian movement….Or they can retreat, in defensive anger.”18

Assuming a meta position, Kimmel is stating: There is no middle ground, there is no other perspective than mine, and there is no value in your way of seeing the world. Either you must agree with me, or you are my enemy.

If Kimmel sees the mythopoetics as a difficult phenomenon to understand, then he has no such difficulty in his analysis of the MRAs. In his book “Angry White Men”19, he gives his analysis of what he sees as the last cramps of a dying breed of white supremacists and fascists – to be replaced by what he imagines as the new Pro-feminist man. For Kimmel, MRAs are fundamentally evil and need to be cut off.

A mapping of the men’s movement

Hopefully the story above has provided the first outline of the placement of the three movements, which we will now map more formally according to the chariot allegory.

When we consider the charioteer as the “Reasoning” faculty of man, then our society’s reasoning faculty has been designated to academia. It is the role of academia to study, understand, and ultimately harness the world. Academia today has fully embraced the Pro-feminist perspective, and we can therefore describe the charioteer as “possessed” by Pro-feminism.

When it comes to the “dark horse” faculty of earthy desire and sexuality, it seems to clearly correspond to the experiential approach of the mythopoetic movement. Reconnecting men to their inner wildman, providing inspiration and creative energy for engaging more fully with the sacredness of primal life in tribal rituals and sacred spaces, the mythopoetics have broad “sex appeal” but lack a vision for society, a political project and a broader mission, other than looking after the immediate interests of their own tribe.

Lastly, we come to the light horse of the “irascible faculty”. This fits in very well with the political MRAs. These men have plenty of “thumos”20, as in spirit, determination, and honour. They see the relationship with the pro-feminists as a battle which needs to be fought. Thus, because they have a vision for society, they compete with the charioteer for control. With anger as the primary motivation of the light horse, they are susceptible to being labeled as “angry white men” by the Pro-feminists, as we have seen. Thus they are ultimately unable to gain broader societal support for their cause, generally losing the public relations battle for “hearts and minds”.

The table below lays out the three faculties of the allegory, the various aspects identified, and the corresponding elements of the men’s movement.

Certainly in the story above, we have a clear image of a fragmented and disintegrating men’s movement, each strand with its own agenda and will, and no clear coordination. All three elements proclaim to have the same goal, but lacking a shared framework and understanding of their specific role, they end up with only a part of the story, with each party either fighting for control or ignoring the other and its perspective.

Conclusion and Perspective

The scope of this essay was to lay out a symbolic framework for a better understanding of the contemporary men’s movement. I started by presenting the idea of male and female as basic categories which appear as potential oppositions, and thus require balance mediated by a higher principle which unites while preserving each category’s individual identity and integrity. The concept of man as microcosm and mediator provides the context for the manner in which the symbolic patterns of masculine and feminine are connected across different levels. The allegory of the chariot provided us with a model for understanding how masculine and feminine energy must be understood, accepted and harnessed by reason in order to “bring together heaven and earth”. And finally a case study of the contemporary men’s movement illustrated how the same dynamic plays out at a personal and societal level.

How should we use all of this? One strength of St. Maximus’ idea of man as microcosm and mediator and of the symbolic framework in general is that it is clear where responsibility for the uniting of oppositions and the resolution of conflict lies — with ourselves. As in the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, this tried and tested solution recognises that, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart”21.

Particularly at a time when it seems that the ground is shifting under our feet and the very fabric of reality is changing its texture, it is reassuring to know that the best contribution that one can make is “to be the change you wish to see in the world”. In this case, this means orientating one’s own faculty of reason towards the highest possible good. It means accepting, understanding and channeling the energy of the dark and light horses of desire and spirit. And it means achieving harmony with all of the elements and oppositions, without denying the uniqueness and integrity of each of the parts.

These are timeless truths. I will close off the essay with some words of wisdom engraved on a tomb in the crypts of Westminster Abbey of an Anglo-Saxon Bishop from 1100 C.E:

“When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world.

As I grew older and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country.

But it too seemed immovable.

As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it.

And now as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realize: If I had only changed myself first, then by example I would have changed my family.

From their inspiration and encouragement, I would have then been able to better my country and, who knows, I may have even changed the world.”

  1. There are many examples of this on the Symbolic World website. See for example, https://thesymbolicworld.com/videos/the-inversion-of-masculine-and-feminine-in-popular-culture-furman-college-talk/https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iy6cQaGuJHM[]
  2. Pageau, Matthieu. Language of Creation. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. May 2018[]
  3. Mikros kosmos means “little world” in Greek.[]
  4. Thunberg, Lars. Microcosm and Mediator. p. 133. Open Court Publishing Company, November 1995.[]
  5. Ibid. p. 184[]
  6. The five oppositions which St. Maximus defines are: male and female, paradise and universe, heaven and earth, intelligible and sensible, the created and uncreated. See: Saint Maximus the Confessor.  Ambiguum 41, also in Quaest. ad. Thal. 48, 63.[]
  7. Thunberg. Microcosm and Mediator. p. 139[]
  8. While this idea was first formulated in Christianity, it has become embedded in most cultures as a “universal truth” as a goal or end state for spiritual enlightenment. It can also be found in contemporary “woke” culture and some forms of feminism in a bastardised form.[]
  9. Examples of the use of the allegory of the chariot and its three constituent elements can be found throughout Western thought, all the way up to and including Freud’s concepts of id, ego and superego.[]
  10. Plato. The Phaedrus Dialogue.[]
  11. It should be noted that the distinction between the two horses as male and female was not a part of Plato’s original allegory but was an innovation by Philo of Alexandria, and also used by St Maximus. See more on page 168 of Platonic and Stoic Passions in Philo of Alexandria[]
  12. Pageau. Language of Creation. Pp. 234 – 238.[]
  13. Thunberg. Microcosm and Mediator. p. 210[]
  14. Pageau. Language of Creation. Pp. 60 – 62, 234 – 238.[]
  15. This view is perhaps best illustrated by the APA Guidelines for Treatment of Men and Boys, which espouses the view that “traditional masculinity is psychologically harmful”. A response from Jordan Peterson calls it an “an all-out assault on masculinity… and men”.[]
  16. Tolkien fans will recognise the concept of mythopoeia as modern myth making: Wikipedia. Mythopoeia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mythopoeia.[]
  17. Kimmel, Michael. The Politics of Manhood: Profeminist Men Respond to the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement (And the Mythopoetic Leaders Answer). Temple University Press. January 2009[]
  18. Kimmel. The Politics of Manhood. p. 10[]
  19. Kimmel, Michael. Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. Bold Type Books. April 2017[]
  20. Again on the Art of Manliness, see an excellent article for this aspect of the chariot allegory: McKay, Brett & Kate. Got Thumos? Art of Manliness. https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/got-thumos/[]
  21. Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago. Vintage Uk. December 2002[]

 

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