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The Symbolic Order of Life and Manhood

This is a sketch of the Sym­bolic Order of Life and Man­hood. It is a schema for struc­tur­ing the under­stand­ing of real­ity that is applied, to vary­ing degrees, by many past and present people of any gender. I do not claim or believe that it is uni­ver­sal – I am not versed well enough in anthro­po­logy to make any such claim any­way – but I do believe that it is ubi­quit­ous in most of today’s soci­et­ies, par­tic­u­larly the ones that wield power on a global scale.


The circle of man­hood is at the cen­ter of the circle of life, which is bound by death. Life is sur­vival: the tak­ing, killing, and devour­ing of other things to pro­long one’s own exist­ence. Our instinct tells us this is good and neces­sary. Any doubts we might have about the right­ness of this pro­cess will weaken our resolve and must be con­trolled and repressed. A man’s life is about con­trol, and hence, power. The power to take what we need and what we want from the circle of life, and make it our own to do with as we please. This is what gives us pleas­ure. Every time we suc­ceed at tak­ing some­thing is a con­firm­a­tion of our pos­i­tion within the circle of man­hood. A man is defined by his abil­ity to con­trol and not be con­trolled. A man that allows him­self to be con­trolled or even influ­enced too much is at the out­skirts of the circle of man­hood at best, and bey­ond it at worst: at the level of women, babes, and anim­als.

When a man becomes a man, he is drawn into the circle of man­hood by other men. No more does he belong to the outer circle that is the realm of chil­dren, women, and other pos­ses­sions. He is now a man among men, who com­pete, cooper­ate, and together sus­tain the circle of man­hood by draw­ing in men, and cast­ing out non-men.

The self is what is alive, that which must sur­vive in order to live as a man lives. That which is other, that which is sep­ar­ate from the self, may be con­trolled, manip­u­lated, con­sumed, or cast away, provided one has the power to do so. Every act of con­trol, every asser­tion of power over oth­ers, puts a man closer to the sum­mit of the moun­tain of man­hood, fur­ther away from its cir­cum­fer­ence, and hence from the bound­ar­ies of the circle of life, bey­ond which lies death. Death is the anti­thesis of life: death is the ulti­mate uncon­trol­lable force, over which a man holds no power, for dir­ect power can only be wiel­ded in life. Not con­tent in the face of this insur­mount­able force, a man chases ways to stave off death as long as pos­sible, and vari­ous forms of immor­tal­ity.

Man is the taker and the maker. He manip­u­lates other things and beings to shape the world in his own image. He sows the seeds of the future. He imposes order upon chaos.

Women are the fer­tile ground that lies in wait for the man’s plow and seed, eager to bring forth new life. Girls are almost women. Bar­ren women do not exist; they are noth­ing.

But women are an enigma. Their wombs bring forth life where before there was none, and hence they are at the very bound­ary between life and death. In some mys­ter­i­ous way, then, they hold a power over life and death that men do not. This makes it imper­at­ive for men con­trol the pro­cess of life-bear­ing as closely as pos­sible. By con­trolling women, their pos­i­tion as bridges between life and death is, indir­ectly, also con­trolled. This is the best men can do at keep­ing death in its proper place, at the edges of life, away from the circle of man­hood.

For this reason, the sep­ar­a­tion between men and women is vital, and must be solid. While there is a soft bor­der between boy­hood and man­hood that must at some point be pen­et­rated, the bor­der between man­hood and woman­hood is hard as a stone wall. Men are born boys, on the men’s side of the bound­ary, and they grow up to be men. If a man is unmanly, he is cast over the wall, for he is not a man.

Any­one who chal­lenges the bound­ary between man­hood and woman­hood, who threatens to gnaw at the found­a­tions of the wall, must be con­trolled, or – if they can­not be con­trolled – erased. Chiefly, this con­cerns people who say they are neither women nor men, or those who climb over the wall or want to tear it down. When this hap­pens, the wall must be for­ti­fied, the assail­ants chained down or elim­in­ated.

Men chase immor­tal­ity mainly in one way, which is the per­petu­ation of the col­lec­tion of things they amassed dur­ing life, after they die. For this reason, men seek heirs, sons who will inherit the things their father gathered dur­ing his life, and add to that their own con­quests. In this way, the evid­ence of their deeds lives on bey­ond their time. Also for this reason, con­trol over women is vital, for they are the means of repro­duc­tion. They must be avail­able to bear sons, who are the key link in the chain: pos­ses­sions of their father, yet even­tu­ally pos­sessors them­selves. And of course, a man must be cer­tain that a woman bears his sons, and not another’s, or there is a risk that his chain will be broken.

In addi­tion to this, a man seeks a more abstract inher­it­ance: the memory of his deeds, which live on, not just among his chil­dren, but among his peers. Amass­ing mem­or­able glory and man­hood means being remembered bey­ond one’s life­time, so that one can be a man, even in death.

At the cen­ter of the sym­bolic order is the abhor­rence of death. It threatens to undo all that a man strives to achieve. The sym­bolic order is the armor and the shield a man deploys to keep death at bay, as well as and for as long as humanly pos­sible.


If this seems like a cari­ca­ture, bear in mind the fol­low­ing: this is a sketch, and cari­ca­tures are often sketches, too. No one per­son will live by the sym­bolic order sketched here to the let­ter, for it does not exist as such. I argue, how­ever, that many people’s world­views are informed by parts of what is sketched here.

Per­haps obvi­ously, there are many other pos­sible altern­at­ive world­views, bet­ter ones and worse ones. I do believe in the worth of uto­pian and dysto­pian thought exper­i­ments. But some­times one must try to look the present in the face, which I have tried to do here, in a cir­cum­spect way, by sketch­ing the Sym­bolic Order of Life and Man­hood.


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