The Measure of Man

There are a lot of things out there in the world today that are in a state of crisis.  That word gets thrown around a lot.  We usually declare a crisis based upon a series of events or symptoms where instability or volatility is pretty observable, but it usually involves something definitive in terms of a possible outcome.  What often gets lost in declarations of crisis is that you have to sort of know what you are transitioning from and what you are barreling towards.  It’s usually taken for granted that those two end points need to exist, since it is intuitive that something preceded a series of events and something predictable will happen if there is change.  How can you know if a current situation is a crisis without knowing what it was like before or where it might lead?  Maybe it’s just the normal state of affairs?

So, with that in mind, we have the existential crisis of manhood.  There are many that acknowledge it as a current problem.  For instance, this article in the Telegraph, oddly enough written by a woman, points to things such as suicide statistics to provide evidence for men feeling lost and incredibly unhappy.  On a more religious side, you have Catholic groups who also feel this crisis is a major problem, so groups like the New Emangilization Project have been taking root to address it.  The NEP contains many interviews and articles about the ongoing man-crisis.

Although they are two very different sources, there is a common thread to both of them: neither address what a man truly was, is, nor where men are heading.  All they discuss are observable symptoms of a problem, but again, you can never understand a crisis without knowing where you started or where you are going.


The true question that needs to be addressed is this:  what exactly is a man, and what does it even mean to be one?

The article in the Telegraph has many common themes in terms of how men are viewed in society today.   What you’ll notice is that, contrary to the popular self-esteem boosting phrase “you are not your job,” men are described as, well, their job.  The entire discussion centers on man’s loss of worth when they are removed from their work or their relationships.  There is an implied dependence upon external things, therefore the implied solutions revolve around coping with changes to those external things.  So, the name of the game is acceptance of change, and the crisis is occurring because of a stubborn refusal/laziness when it comes to that.  What’s lacking in that, of course, is that we still don’t know what a man was and, if change is necessary, what they should be.  All we see are symptoms of unhappiness and attempts at diagnosis.

Unfortunately, the New Emangilization Project falls into the same morass.   They have a list of core questions in terms of their project, and they all mostly revolve around diagnosis and man’s relation to external activities:

What is state/health of the faith life in men in the Catholic Church?  If there is a “man crisis” in the Church, what are the root causes?  How are men different (if at all) to women in terms of engaging in Catholic/religious life?  Does the evangelization of men require a different approach than women?  Are targeted efforts necessary?  What is the status of the evangelization efforts of Catholic men in the Church?  What kinds of specific evangelization techniques are effective in drawing men to Jesus Christ?  What role do the Sacraments play in the conversion of men?  Stepping back from the details, what are some guiding principles for the New Emangelization?

This is largely a list of actions to be performed on men or by men.  Although there is an effort to try and find root causes and a general state of affairs, the answer really lies in the seemingly simple question they are not asking: what is manhood?

In total, these give two very different spins on the man-crisis depending on your view.  Either a.) what we perceived as “manhood” was, in fact, wrong, and it needs to change to what it really is, or b.) we are trying to change manhood into something that it is not, and we need to return it to what it was.


What I do want to do is refocus the discussion on that core topic: defining manhood.  Maybe we’ll stumble upon an answer along the way.

A good philosophical basis for defining anything can revolve around the Aristotelian/Thomasian concepts of accidents and substance, mostly because someone hasn’t come up with a better model in the time between then and now.

Nor are they big enough to pick up entire buildings.

Nor are they big enough to pick up entire buildings.

Essentially, what something truly is, what defines it, is its substance or essence.  An accident, on the other hand, is a property that has no necessary connection to the essence of a thing.  So, for instance, having four legs doesn’t make a chair a chair, since a chair can have any number of legs (or none at all).  Therefore, having four legs is an accidental property of a particular chair and not really a part of its substance or “chair-ness.”  It’s a mere adjective, but not a part of its true definition.

What’s truly interesting, from that Aristotelian approach, is that you begin to realize how difficult, if not impossible, it is to truly define the substance of any object in its fullest capacity, whether it be because of the limits of language or our inability to drill that far down conceptually.  A lot of it boils down to you just kind of “know one when you see one.”  This is partly because of a combination of counterintuitive truths, in my opinion, that come together when trying to define something: 1.) we base our understanding of substance on our senses, 2.) we cannot fully understand what something is without also understanding what it is not, and 3.) we can’t understand what something is not without something to compare it to.  So, without a full knowledge of everything in the universe, we quite possibly can never fully understand or fathom the substance of any given object or concept (although we can get close enough) because we can’t fully define what it is and is not.

For example, imagine nothing exists.  Zilch, nothing, nada.  Kind of impossible to do, but get as close as you can.  Now, imagine that, all of a sudden, a circle bursts into existence out of the nothingness and becomes the only thing that ever existed.  How would you describe it?  Some easy things come to mind, like saying it’s round.  But, can you conceptualize round when the only thing in existence is round?  Does round have meaning when there is no such thing as something that isn’t round?

"What if you drew a giant circle?  What if it went around all there is?  Then would there still be such a thing as an outside, and does that question even make any sense?" -They Might Be giants

“What if you drew a giant circle? What if it went around all there is? Then would there still be such a thing as an outside? And does that question even make any sense?” -They Might Be giants

To gain meaning to any possible description you could give that circle, you need something else to compare and contrast.  Let’s visualize a square next to the circle.  Now, round has a whole different meaning, because we now know what “not round” looks like and it looks kind of pointy.  That meaning is still limited further, though, if we consider everything in existence, because we all know there are a whole host of objects that exist that are either round or not round.  So, quite literally, your concept of round changes with each new thing that you discover that either shares, or does not share, that trait.  Imagine how bad your head would hurt if you thought everyone had brown hair and met your first blonde person.  Your concept of what defines people would completely change.

With each new concept we add, the image comes more into focus.  When we started with one lone object in existence, accidents and substance kind of blend together and are one in the same because every trait is unique to that lone object.  Much like peeling off layers of an onion, we slowly start taking away things that we think are substantive, but we later figure out are accidental, because we find something that shares that characteristic.  Essentially, we’re striving to get to the core where no more layers exist, because that is the substance of the object.

What this path leads us to is that the substance of any thing or concept has to be unique and exclusive to it, because two things of the same exact substance would necessarily have to be the same thing.  It has to be a property that is necessary; something of which if you took it away or changed it, would make it no longer be the same.


This core philosophy about substance is present all throughout theology.  It’s present in the concept of transubstantiation in Catholicism, where there is a belief that the substance of the bread and wine change although the accidents do not.  It is part of the reason why there were recent translational changes in the language of the Nicene Creed used at the Mass, where consubstantial holds more meaning in regards to something being the same thing as something else (in this case, Christ and God) than the phrase “one in being with” because it conveys that they are the same substance.

We should be able to apply these same concepts to man.  What does man possess that is unique and exclusive to him?  Where is the core?

Regardless of one’s belief, the Bible paints a beautiful picture that flows well with this line of thinking.  When we read the creation accounts in Genesis, we are given two slightly different pictures as to the creation of man.  In Genesis 1:27, the event is not very detailed for this purpose:

“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”

Mankind is what is created as the core concept, and we are further delineated as male and female.  Male and female, in this case, share in the substance of mankind.  Neither has exclusive ownership over humanity, and both can claim to be created in God’s image.

In Genesis 2:18-23, we are given a more detailed account:

18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. 20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. 21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. 22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.

23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”

In this passage, we get a glimpse of the shared substance of man and woman in terms of being members of mankind like in the earlier chapter through a different lens.  There is a quite literal transfer of substance through the rib of the man.  However, in this account, we are first given a notion of difference between man and woman in terms of the “suitable helper” description, a descriptor used for one but not both.

What’s telling, here, is that the writer shows that there was a period of time where mankind, much like the circle in my above example, only had one feature in existence: man.  However, man had no distinction or true definition apart from the concept of mankind, for he was the only part of mankind and there existed no other.  So, arguably, the concept of “man” did not exist yet.

When God declared that it was not good for man to be alone, there is an inherent recognition there that something else was needed to give mankind greater meaning.  And so, woman was created.  It’s easy to look at this and think that woman was created second and man first, but that is not the case.  Truly, just like Genesis 1:27, mankind was created first, and then man and woman.  Man did not come into existence until woman did, which then gave something for man to compare himself to and contrast.  Man’s “helper” in fact was the thing needed to give man his substance.


If we look at woman through the same lens as man, can we determine her substance?  Will that help us arrive at a conclusion?

Woman holds a unique advantage over man in this discussion because woman has a very physical, tangible exclusivity that man cannot share: pregnancy and childbirth.  Only women can experience new life growing inside of them, become intimately connected physically through an organ that grows for the sole purpose of supporting new life, and, until the recent advent of formula, only woman could nourish the young child until it was old enough to eat food on his/her own after birth.  Much of the physical body completely revolves around this process as a woman constantly goes through cycles of preparing to receive new life if it should arrive.

This isn’t to say that having children is the woman’s sole purpose in life.  That is hardly the case.  Rather, it is simply a core trait that is completely exclusive to them within the realm of mankind that man cannot ever touch.  Much of current cultural debate actually centers on this very fact.  The battle for reproductive rights, as it were, is at its core about issues of maintaining autonomy over woman’s very substance, whether they choose to partake in it or not.  Likewise, it is emotionally and physically challenging whenever a woman finds out that they cannot have children when they desperately wish to bring new life into the world because it cuts to their very core.  However, this substance is physical and tangible, and the progression into discussion of motherhood, including childless motherhood, can certainly be made.  It can assuredly provide a foundation to further the discussion.

Can man say the same thing?  Physically, yes, men are different, but is that man’s core?  In terms of reproduction, other than mode of delivery as it were, do women not share the same substance in new life by supplying half the genetic code?  Isn’t reproduction, the forming of new life, something that is shared by man and woman as members of mankind?  There does not seem to be much that man can claim in the realm of the physical that women don’t also share in terms of substance as a member of mankind, whereas the opposite cannot be said because of the very intimate connection women have with new life upon its creation and afterwards.

This leaves us in a conundrum.  Any description you can use for man, you need to ask yourself: can women do it too?  Are women also the same in that regard?  We define the world around us with our senses, yet it’s difficult to find something substantive about the physical when it comes to man.  Everything man can do, woman seemingly can as well.  If we cannot observe substance there, that leaves us with a lot of things that are merely accidents in terms of the observable.

Anything you can do I can do better.  Including tangible substance.

Anything you can do I can do better. Including tangible substance.

Interestingly enough, turning to the Catholic Encyclopedia, we find the same dilemma.  If you look up “man” there is an article about mankind in general, but no article specifically as it relates to man himself.  The opposite is true of woman, which has an entire article dedicated to the philosophy and role of womanhood (although slightly antiquated, there are still a lot of great philosophical points).  It is only in the article about woman do we find a discussion about the role of man.

In there, we see familiar themes: duties, none of which are tangible.  Leadership.  Support.  Protection.  Can a woman lead?  Can a woman support the family?  Can a woman protect?  Besides that, these again are all duties, but they all carry the same core concept in the fact that they are entirely external to man.  How can one lead without anyone to lead?  How can one protect without something to protect?  How can one support with nothing to support?

In its own odd sort of way, not being able to find a discussion of man except in the article about woman is a microcosm of the entire problem.  Whereas woman appears to have a strong, physical, tangible foundation that is exclusive to woman, man does not.  It’s a thread that is carried the whole way through, from Genesis onto this point, and that thread is this: man’s entire core is dependent upon things outside of himself.  Man is entirely reliant upon the differentiation that was created when next to woman.  Man is reliant on externalities, while woman can rely on internalities.


Perhaps then, in a strange way, man’s very substance is not in exclusivity to any role or duty.  Man’s entire substance lies within the fact that he is dependent upon woman to give him meaning.  In other words, man can’t claim to hold exclusivity over those duties, but rather man’s exclusivity lies in the fact that those duties are all that man can do.  Therefore, it would seem that man’s core substance is one of complete sacrifice and complete reliance upon helping others, and that is the essence of manhood.  Woman can sacrifice just as well as man, but only man is completely defined by it.

It comes full circle in light of Ephesians 5:25, in the stunningly short, yet beautiful verse:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”

Isn’t that the core of what Christ did?  Did he not love the church in a completely self-sacrificial way, giving his entire being to his duty?  It is the highest of standards, but even if you are not a Christian, it is arguably the very substance of man.  Man’s very substance is dependence, because sacrifice is meaningless without something or someone to make a sacrifice for.  And, arguably, we would never fully understand or comprehend the sacrifice of Christ without that substance.

The article in the Telegraph and efforts like the New Emangilization Project, then, are kind of on the right track.  Man is, to an extent, his duties.  Perhaps the true crisis lies not in admitting that we are our jobs , but rather that we have forgotten why we are our jobs and how we should conduct them.  Then, perhaps those middle aged men could find happiness again, because even after all of these years, Aristotle was right.  Happiness is obtaining virtue and using it, and that’s the substance of man in the end.


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