What is Tonic Masculinity?
On shaping one's destiny in line with the higher order
There has been a big trend on Substack lately to discuss the concept of “Tonic Masculinity” as opposed to the “toxic masculinity” of culture war fame. See the posts by Jay Rollins, John Carter, or Harrison Koehli. Let’s join the fray.
Our biology has a massive influence on our behavior and the way we think, and it severely limits our self-expression. Hormones affect our mood, anxiety designed to protect the body runs our mind, and occasionally, bloodlust emerges from a perception of danger, real or imagined. Although we usually don’t like to see it that way, this condition is almost akin to a multiple personality disorder: a little poking, or just a little thought, and we switch from one state to the next, destroying all ambition for consistency and overarching virtues.1 The early 20th century mystic G.I. Gurdjieff went so far as to call man a “machine”2—not in the neo-materialist sense of a computer analogy, but in the sense that we are often little more than reactive things: stimulus in→reaction out.
Part of that picture are sex drive, mating strategies, the urge to protect our kin, and so on. And yes, such things express themselves differently in men and women, for obvious reasons.
This has been common-sense forever. You need neither Gurdjieff nor Freud nor evolutionary biology to figure out that men react to hot girls, as well as potential good wives and mothers, or that they can pour their sexual energy into other pursuits either as a form of sublimation or as a proxy to gain status among women. Yet somehow, such ideas are sold to us as revolutionary, as indeed they must appear in a world that is at war with common-sense and basic reality.
The success of the manosphere or red pill movement surely is directly proportional to this assault we have been subjected to for a while now. I mean, do we really need to be told that women are attracted to sexy strong dudes as well as to stable potential fathers able to provide for them? Apparently so.3
But these basic facts shouldn’t distract us from a more nuanced take on biology: namely, that our biological programming is only part of the picture. Even Gurdjieff, who perhaps had the most pessimistic take on man-the-machine of all mystics, knew that there was a way out. This was what his teaching was all about.
No, biology is not all. This, too, has been uncontroversial forever, although this basic fact has been somewhat clouded in the wake of Darwinist thinking. I’d wager that this can be partly seen as a reaction to the assault on the distinction between men and women: you deny basic biological facts? Let’s double down on biology! Let’s proclaim we are entirely controlled by tiny molecules!
However, just a little reflection should suffice to give us pause. Think about classical virtues such as bravery, honesty, prudence, self-control, temperance. Today, our thinking is conditioned by the reductionist mindset, and so we automatically try to explain such virtues in biological terms, telling stories about how they might have provided an evolutionary advantage, and so on.
But oftentimes, it is more useful to think about virtues in the classical sense: as something we instinctively know to be good and right if we give it a little thought, but something that is damn hard to put into practice. Something that taps into a higher order, something we can achieve if we learn how to resist temptation. Something that propels our growth: not towards some new “evolutionary equilibrium” we have already figured out, but towards something fundamentally unknown but worthwhile.
This makes virtue the starting point for our thought, not the end product of an attempted explanation.
And it leads to the common sense (and therefore revolutionary) idea that while we need to acknowledge biological reality, we shouldn’t do so to revel in it and allow it to run the show, but to understand it, work with it, and yes, overcome certain aspects of it where appropriate.4
That is to say, there is an additional layer of depth, beyond the biological, in human experience. In traditional language: it’s where the soul expresses itself and shines its own, unique light on all we do, including how men manifest their masculinity and their relationship with women.
Now, this timeless observation has led some people down the primrose path towards ever greater absurdities: from the starting point that biology is not all, and that it can and should be viewed in light of transcendence, they concluded that we have to completely overcome it. But not only that: since completely overcoming biology (if it were possible) would require massive amounts of hard self-work and, indeed, an extremist spiritual path of total asceticism and dedication to an all-out war on the usual biological reactions, something they are not willing to commit themselves to, these people simply have declared that biology doesn’t exist, that there is nothing mechanical about human beings. They essentially deny the very premise that makes moral growth and virtue possible in the first place. The result is massive confusion, fragmentation, and an intensifying of the multiple-personality-disorder-style nature of the human condition.
But if biology is real, while at the same time it can and should be transcended, then where are the limits—and what does this mean for healthy, “tonic” masculinity?
Maleness vs. Masculinity
A useful image for understanding the relationship between biology and moral growth, and therefore between biological maleness and masculine virtues, might be this: our biological bodies are not merely “programmed” with biological drives and appetites, they are also an access point to the higher realms.
Analogous to the metaphor Iain McGilchrist used to describe the relationship between brain and consciousness,5 picture our male body as a rock in a river, creating complex turbulences. These turbulences are the reality we manifest. We need a certain biological structure, the rock, and this structure comes with certain features and limits: these limits constrain the flow of reality and make self-expression, in the form of turbulences, possible. But at the end of the day, it is the river that is the source of the phenomenon.
Now, we are not rocks: we have the ability to take decisions, to move. We can therefore modulate reality (the turbulence) and decide what aspects of the higher reality (the river) we want to manifest. And yet, we are not entirely free: the biological form of our body (the rock) will only allow for the expression of certain aspects, and exclude others.
That is to say, we can look at the male (or female) biological body as a gateway to the higher spheres: each has access to certain aspects of it, and not others.
Keep in mind, however, that the higher realm is multidimensional, in the sense that there is no fixed, linear, universal mapping of its features unto our world. Rather, these features can manifest in different ways, depending on time, circumstance, specific biology, and so on. There is no 1:1 translation of “masculine aspects of the higher realm” to a strict definition of masculinity in our realm.
Now, let’s apply this theory and look at some examples.
There is, of course, truth in the archetype, often invoked by feminists, of the tyrannical husband who blocks his wife’s own pursuits and interests, perhaps her very destiny, because he likes to have his lunch served on time—only to exchange her for a younger version once midlife crisis hits. Yes, you could call that typical male behavior. But this is a shallow guy who allows his lower urges to run the show, and who is, therefore, weak. Here is a man whose mind is chaotic, who has little prudence and self-control, and who hasn’t managed to use his maleness to plug into the higher order as it is accessible to men. He is, in Gurdjieff’s words, a reaction machine.
There is also the female equivalent to that guy—an archetype we all used to be familiar with, but which is not talked about much these days: the conformist, status-seeking wife who blocks her husband’s destiny because the only thing she cares about is a big house and throwing fancy dinner parties that allow her to revel in the jealousy of her female “friends.” You know, the kind of woman who will sabotage and fight her man tooth and nails if he dares having any ideas of quitting his job to go on a worthy quest that allows him to use his talents in more meaningful ways—or even just of courageously speaking out about something that might put his reputation at risk.
These dynamics (there are many variations) can only lead to fights and misery—not the kinds of arguments and skirmishes that are a necessary, even healthy feature of any relationship, but a profound resentment rooted in fundamental differences.
That is to say, in both examples, one partner hasn’t achieved the connection to the higher, archetypical reality which being male or female in principle allows, but has settled for a simple expression of his or her biological urges.
What this means is that while there is a fundamental difference between men and women, giving them access to different parts of reality, there is also a fundamental difference between someone who can access this higher reality and someone who can’t or doesn’t want to—whether man or woman.
A good relationship, therefore, is one in which both partners work towards aligning themselves with the higher, using their biological bodies as a gateway, a springboard, to access Reality in their own, male or female, styles.
As a consequence, they will work together as a team towards a common goal, each in their own way, and support each other reaching a higher level.
Some red-pillers might object that this sounds kinda unmanly. But look at it this way: supporting your woman in her soul development doesn’t mean meekly going along with everything. It requires serious demon slaying. For when you are weak and fragmented, that is, slave to your inner demons and cut off from the higher realm, you will push back against her for pathetic emotional reasons, and you will not push back out of weakness when the situation requires it. You’ll be the helpless reaction machine. You’ll get everything wrong, and you won’t be the man she needs: who can protect and inspire her. Clear away those monsters with your shining sword, and you’ll be on the right track towards actualizing the higher masculine principle.
Otherwise, you will delude yourself that you are “free,” when in reality you are simply allowing yourself to be controlled by random aspects of your biology, staying at the level of a lost teenager at best.
Doing Manly Things
To repeat: a real, virtuous man isn’t merely defined by his biology, but his ability to use his biology to access the higher realm and manifest higher principles. But what are these? It’s not as straight-forward as it may seem, although there is substance to it.
For example, much has been made of the need of boys for initiation, and for men to band together in men-only spaces, and rightfully so. It is something that has been lost in a culture increasingly immersed in what can only be called toxic feminism. Men banding together is entirely natural, not in the sense of biological determinism, but in the sense that such experiences are necessary for male growth and learning, and therefore part of the higher fabric of reality.
However, the very word “men-only spaces” indicates that we are dealing with a reaction here by men to a cultural assault, which may bring its own problems.
Consider this: someone on Twitter recently told of his experience in East European gyms: apparently, unlike in Western gyms, you see fewer “let’s get ripped” bros there. Most gym goers there are fitness chicks and older men fighting off heart attacks. Perhaps it’s no wonder that men in these much more traditional societies don’t feel the urge to band together with their bros and work on getting huge as much, when they have plenty of other opportunities to hang and work with other guys towards common goals in casual and natural ways, as a simple fact of life they don’t even need to think about.
Now, exercise is obviously a good thing, but I found this to be an interesting observation.
Think, for example, of all those male celebrities and actors, including conservative influencers, who all look the same: ripped, not a gram of fat, non-smoker, obsessed with diet, bleached teeth, fashion-conscious. To stay politically correct: not long ago, we wouldn’t exactly have considered these traits the height of masculinity.
Contrast this with our male stars and role models back in the 1950s and 60s: gentlemen who would have looked ridiculous had they been ripped. And let’s not forget semi-chubby William Shatner as Captain Kirk. (Look for yourself: photos of male actors from the past.)
It seems to me that in our desperation, we have created almost childish stereotypes for masculinity, and poor substitutes for male bonding.
What this shows is not that ripped gym bros are unmanly, or that masculinity is just a social construct that can change on a cultural whim. It does mean, however, that there are many ways of being a man that are in line with the structure of the higher realm. In fact, desperately trying to define a list of supposedly masculine features and calling everything else gay, slavishly forcing such a concept unto one’s own destiny, strikes me as being the opposite of manly. No: as men, we need to chart our own course within the constraints of a subtle order that isn’t easy to discern, as well as within the constraints of our own destiny, which is for us to uncover. All this within the limits of our biology, which provides a specific type of access to the higher world.
We need inner strength to pull it off, to follow this way against all odds. We can’t copy someone else’s destiny. And we can’t work against the structure of the higher realms without descending into madness and fragmentation.
First and foremost, we need to get in touch with our souls—as men, as individuals, and hopefully as manifestations of the higher order that will bring something unique, in line with reality, that is, something uniquely good, to this world.
As Harrison pointed out, the word “tonic” comes from the Greek tonos, meaning tension. Using that tension between the higher and the lower, the ideal and the actual, the biological and its multi-dimensional destination, the rock and the river, the two ends of the bow, to shoot that arrow and develop that masculine force precisely as needed, is what Tonic Masculinity is all about.
Let’s go slay some demons.
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This might be literally true: see Martha Stout’s book, The Myth of Sanity: Divided Consciousness and the Promise of Awareness
See P.D. Ouspensky’s In Search of The Miraculous for an introduction to Gurdjieff’s ideas.
I don’t know the red pill movement in-depth, but I have it on good authority that some of their books contain some genuinely helpful relationship advice if you filter out some of the shrillness. So there’s that.
Even if you take the reductionist approach and argue that all our behavior is rooted in biology, it is still a fact that these biological drivers can be conflicting and contradictory. Which means we still have to consciously choose which ones to align with in any given situation.
See his magnum opus, The Matter With Things