Do you know what it means to be a man? A masculine man? Today, most guys have no idea what it means. They’re looking for an answer to the question how to be a masculine man. But, there is no common notion about masculinity today. All the masculine role models seem to have died out. It’s a very confusing time to be a man. I found the answer in the past and I will share it here with you.
The Ancient Stoics knew how to be a masculine man
When I was a teenager I never thought about how to become a man. I thought it just happens. Later, in my early 20s I realized I still wasn’t a man. At least not a masculine man. By law I was an adult man. I was allowed to drink and go to war. I was responsible for my own actions; good or bad. I slept with a couple of girls. Yet, I behaved more like a child. I had no idea what it means to be a masculine man. I was lost.
I asked my peers. They had no idea either. They were lost too and confused as I was.
I started to look for a role model I could imitate and learn from. First, I looked in my close proximity. My father was my obvious first choice. But, the timing wasn’t right. At that time he was unemployed and fought with his own demons. Also, we never had that kind of relationship.
I rarely asked for help on anything and he rarely gave advice on his own. It was similar with the rest of my family.
I broadened the search. I found few guys in my proximity I could imitate. But, all had also some strong feminine features. It wasn’t ideal.
I also found some famous characters, athletes, and heroes I could learn from indirectly. Some are living on the other side of the world and others are already dead. Think about man like Achilles, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Michael Jordan, or Muhammad Ali. Their stories, and their myths, made it impossible to doubt their manliness. I began to read books about and from them. I watched documentaries about them. And if possible I watched interviews with them. All the time I took notes and looked for what made them masculine men. Some patterns emerged. I noticed that the further back the role model lived in time the easier it was to spot their masculine characteristics.
Years later I discovered Stoicism and it became my framework on how to live a good life. Naturally I combined the two ideas.
Often times ‘stoic’ is used to describe masculine behavior. Sometimes it is even used as a synonym.
During Stoicism’s golden age men had to be man. They had to be masculine. It was necessary for survival. And during that time masculinity was encouraged not suppressed.
I started to ask: What is Stoicism’s advice on masculinity? How to be a masculine man the Stoic way? What is Stoicism’s definition of manliness and masculinity?
There Is No Explicit Stoicism How To Be A Masculine Man Advice
The Stoics, during their golden age, had no need to give advice on masculinity. Every man had a clear idea what it meant to be a masculine man. It was a given by their society or earlier philosophers. Like all the other ancient schools they borrowed some concepts and installed them in Stoicism. Now, let’s first have a look at ancient Greek’s and the Roman sense of masculinity.
How To Be A Masculine Man The Ancient Greek Way
The ancient Greek word for manliness or masculinity was arete (Greek: ἀρετή). At least it was one meaning of arete. There is no equal word in English. Arete could mean bravery, courage, knowledge, goodness, virtues, manliness, effectiveness, or excellence. The meaning changed with what was described. The meaning depended on what you described and the context. Arete could be applied to anything.
A horse can have arete; a smartphone can have arete; a man can have arete.
The closest translation is probably excellence; in the sense of being the best version of yourself. To reach one’s full potential. Of course, the best version of a horse has an utterly different meaning than the best version of a human.
And it’s very individual. It depends on your genetics, environment, talents, parents, location, time, and many other factors.
Another important aspect of arete, probably the most important one, is effectiveness. Excellence, and all other aspects, were meaningless without results. All the other mentioned traits were worthless, if they didn’t yield results.
Take for example Achilles in Homers Illiyad. (Story about the Trojan war; Brad Pitt in the movie Troy.) Homer describes him as the born soldier or warrior; excellent at fighting and leading men into battle. But despite his excellence, nobody would care, if he didn’t go to war. Without the conquest of Troy nobody would remember Achilles.
“Achilles was like a rock star of his day so it made sense to have Brad Pitt playing him.” – Wolfgang Petersen
Results matter a lot. You can be the best programmer in the world, but if you only code on useless stuff or don’t code at all, your excellence is worthless. You can have the character of a great leader, but without somebody to lead it’s worthless.
It is also important to know that the word arete derives from Ares the Greek god of war. In that sense a fighting spirit is necessary to achieve arete. A man had to be competitive to be a man. Competitiveness was at the core of masculinity. That’s one of the reasons why the Greeks honored athletes and warriors so much.
Now that we know what arete means, we can ask has person X reached arete? It’s easier to answer that than the general manliness question. Let’s try it out. Is Zlatan Ibrahimovic the best version of himself? Is he living to his full potential. Has he reached arete?
Compare it with:
Is Zlatan a masculine man?
Arete narrows down the question. It gives us focus. It makes it easier to answer. And we can strive and work on our best selves.
“We Greeks are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in our tastes, and we cultivate the mind without loss of manliness.” – Thucydides
Plato’s Cardinal Virtues
To the Greeks arete went hand in hand with good morals. If an outstanding athlete was character wise and asshole, nobody thought he had arete.
Let’s look at a real world example. Most people consider Steve Jobs as a genius. I know it’s controversial. But, at least most people agree that he was a design or marketing genius. The old Greeks would disagree. They would deny him the genius status because of his morals. You can find many occasions Jobs acted immoral.
They cared about a person’s character. They honored good character.
After Socrates death the question what excellence means became a main topic of philosophy. Plato, one of Socrates students, summarized the qualities one need to have to lead a morally good life. They later became known as the four cardinal virtues.
Prudence (Greek: phronēsis; Latin: prudentia)
Prudence is also known as wisdom. It’s the ability to act using knowledge, experience, and common sense. It’s the understanding of what is the optimal course of action. It’s thinking rational without emotions and human biases.
Justice (Greek:dikaiosynē; Latin: iustitia)
Justice is also known as fairness. We humans are herd animals. We depend on each other. We need a family, a tribe, a bonding group, a society, or however you like to call it. Without we turn into animals. Thus, our values and virtues need to reflect that. Fairness means that we put the needs of others in front of our own. In means to subordinate one’s own needs, to the needs of the group. Injustice is to follow one’s own needs, goals, aspirations at the expense of society. The greatest injustice is to treat people like they don’t have needs, goals, and aspirations. It’s to treat them just as means to one’s own self interests.
Fortitude (Greek andreia; Latin: fortitudo)
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” – Winston Churchill
Fortitude is also known as courage. It’s the ability to do things despite fear, pain or uncertainty. Among the cardinal virtues courage ranks on the 3rd place. Without justice and wisdom courage turns into either into a vice or excess. The vice and opposite is cowardice. The excess is recklessness.
People are not courageous without a reason. Wisdom and justice motivate us to be courageous. They give us something worth overcoming fear, pain, or uncertainty.
Courage does not imply fearlessness or ignorance. It’s quite the opposite. Courage is acting despite fear and full knowledge of the involved risks.
The classic meaning of fortitude also includes perseverance and also patience. Sometimes it’s courages to endure or to do nothing.
I want also to emphasize that courage is not the same as confidence. I often see those words mixed up. That’s not right. Confidence is the felling you get when you get good at something. It’s the feeling you have when you reach a certain level of competence. You get confident when you train something over and over again. You feel comfortable doing (almost) anything for the xth time. Courage is what you need to start with something new. It’s what you need to overcome the beginner’s anxiety or the fear of failure. You can’t train courage through repetition.
Temperance (Greek sōphrosynē; Latin: temperantia)
Temperance is also known as the practice of self-control. A man with self-control will self-restrain from (fast) pleasures and desires to achieve more important goals. As you know we only have a finite amount of time and energy. We can’t have the cake and eat it. If we want to achieve something meaningful, we have to give up something in return. That’s easier said than done. The world is full of pleasures and distractions. We all have urges and desires. Self-control helps us to restrain from urges and desires. It helps us to reach our goals.
Like courage, self-control depends on wisdom and justice. They motivate self-control by giving us something more important than the pleasures. We need a good reason to self-restrain from pleasures.
Self-control isn’t only important to reach our goals. It is also important for all other virtues. Some virtues go against our desires and urges. Some virtues easily turn into excess or a vice. In that sense self-control is a cardinal virtue. All other virtues depend on it.
The excess of self-control is asceticism. Which isn’t that great!
The cardinal virtues on the how to be a masculine man question
Like arete, the 4 cardinal virtues narrow down the manliness question.
For example, we can ask: Is Zlatan Ibrahimovic courageous? Are his actions fair and based on wisdom? Is he in control of himself?
This is more accurate than asking is he masculine.
It’s also partly an answer to the how to be a masculine man question.
How To Be A Masculine Man The Roman Way
The Roman word for masculine is virtus; derived from Latin vir = man. It is the virtue of manliness. Actually our word virtue derives from virtus.
Like arete it has many meanings: manliness, excellence, courage, valor, worth, character, and many more.
The meaning changed over time. The earlier understanding emphasized martial courage and the brave warrior type. The later understanding emphasized being a good man, doing the right things, and the cardinal virtues.
At this point we can see a connection between arete and virtus. Both concepts are very similar.
But, virtus was only validated in the context of the republic. A Greek man could exercise arete by its own. A Roman man could only exercise virtus by serving the Empire.
It wasn’t manly to pursuit personal wealth, or ones own needs. Roman men were supposed to exercise virtus for the glory of the republic.
Cicero, the great Roman philosopher, argued that virtus is even more important than nobility. You are either born a noble or not. But, to obtain virtus you have to do something. Thus, there is more glory in virtus.
Stoicism is the perfect philosophy to be a masculine man
“The price of greatness is responsibility.” – Winston Churchill
I wrote earlier that there is no explicit Stoic advice on how to be a masculine man. And there was no need for it. Stoicism is based on the same ideas as arete and virtus.
Yet, Stoicism’s maxims, advice, and exercises are kinda a how to be a masculine man.
One of the core ideas of Stoicism is to live according to nature. For Stoics that meant to be rational and to serve society. Rational thinking is what distinguishes us from animals. That makes it a core human feature. We are also herd animals. We need society to survive as humans. Thus, it is an obligation to serve society. These ideas match perfectly with the Cardinal virtues wisdom and fairness. It is also another way to describe the idea of excellence. And like virtus it emphasizes the importance of serving society.
There is much written advice on anger, dying, exile, grief, fame and much more from the Stoics. It helps to act rational and make decisions based on wisdom and fairness. It also helps to maintain self-control and act courageous when necessary.
The same applies to the Stoic exercises. And I want to look at a specific one: the constant awareness of death. All the Stoics emphasized that life is short. Thus, we should always live like we have little time left. This mentality helps to appreciate life and to be more effective. Most people are not effective because they procrastinate.
By practicing Stoicism you learn how to be a masculine man. At least in the ancient sense of the world.
How To Be A Masculine Man
Now we have the same understanding and a clear picture what it means to be a masculine man. Now it is (almost) obvious how to be a masculine man.
Strive For Excellence And Effectiveness
You’re here reading a self-help blog. I assume you’re already working on being the best version of yourself. If not, start now! Work on becoming the best version of yourself. Strive for excellence in everything you do. Always look for ways to improve yourself and what you do.
Never forget that results matter. When you do something, think about the end results. Finish the things you started. And never forget that effectiveness is about what you do. Many people mix up efficient and effective. Efficient is to be good at one task. Effective is about doing the right tasks. Keep that in mind.
Nowadays often times loners are portrait as masculine man. Especially in movies. Just think about all the famous roles Clint Eastwood played. They’re almost always kinda anti-heroes that avoid society.
There are also hundreds of websites that promote this lifestyle. Sometimes they call themselves sigmas, or nomads and so on. They don’t see themselves as part of any society. Rather, they see themselves as travelers or rebels. Thus, they avoid contributing to society. They emphasize this egoistic lifestyle.
Yet, they never speak about the infrastructure surrounding them. They never speak about how they get their food. They never speak about how they travel. They never explain how they get their message on the Internet.
Don’t fall for their lies. We live in a connected world. We need society to survive. You’re always surrounded by it. You’re part of it, one way or another.
And that statement applies even to the old Clint Eastwood movies. Or did you think his characters made their clothes, guns, and whiskey by themselves. No! Society did.
Don’t fall for their lies. You’re an important member of society; so serve it.
Start by being self-reliant. Then help others.
Live By The 4 Cardinal Virtues
Most people assume that the 4 cardinal virtues are a given. We all are biased to think we’re something special; the one exception. We tend to believe that we’re more intelligent, fair, courageous, and self-disciplined than others. At least on a subconscious level. And, if we fail to live up to a virtue, we attribute that a one time mistake or we blame somebody else.
In my experience people overestimate themselves. I’m guilty of that as well. We all believe to be a man that stands up against injustice. We all believe to be a man that goes and talks to the hot girl on the other side of the bar. We all believe to be a man that has the better ideas all the time. We all want to be that kind of man. But, we fail more often than not.
The 4 cardinal virtues are not a given thing. You have to practice them actively. You have to practice them until they become habitual.
I will give some quick tips at this point. Later I will write and publish separate articles on wisdom, courage, justice, and self-discipline.
Wisdom: Read (more) books. Imitate great decision makers like Warren Buffet
Fairness: Start playing a group sport that emphasizes fair play like soccer.
Courage: Do something new every week. Do something that scares you.
Self-discipline: Write down your goals. Create incentives for success, and create consequences for failure.
Call To Action
By now you should have a clear idea what it means to be a masculine man the ancient way. You should also have an idea how to become a masculine man the ancient way. Which is also the Stoic way.
If you truly want to be a masculine man, try out Stoicism! It’s a wonderful philosophy that will help you on your journey to become a masculine man. It will also help you with all other obstacles life throws in your way. Overall it will make you a better person.
Try Stoicism; become a man!