Unless you have been living under a rock—which might in fact be quite an enviable place to live, these days—I should not need to point out that masculinity has been a controversial topic over the past decade. I could argue here against the various claims that have been made against something like a “traditional” concept of masculinity, but I would rather not stick my toes into the cesspool of such thoughts. I could also take up the various claims for a “traditional” concept of masculinity—claims, of course, not very traditional at all, but which instead laud the abuses of pre-modern relations between men and women as though they were the norm. Rather, I want simply to talk about what masculinity is, without any qualifying adjectives.
Meaning of “Masculine”
To do this, let us ask: what do we typically mean in using the word “masculine”? Derived from the Latin masculus, it is usually used as an adjective meaning “male”. We also often transform this concrete descriptor into an abstract noun; that is, we use “masculine” to describe individuals, but we talk about “masculinity” as an object in its own right. Clearly, such an abstractly signified object is not a thing in itself: you cannot go out and poke masculinity in the ribs, or slap it in the face (no matter how much some people would seemingly love to), because it is not something which exists apart from the individuals in which it exists, and yet, at the same time, it does not reduce to any or even all of those individuals.
In other words, what we signify by the word “masculinity” is a pattern of possibilities which is only ever partially realized in actuality, in individuals. There are infinite degrees of possible masculinity, though not infinite ways in which one can be masculine, for there is an essential configuration of this pattern, and without that essential configuration—no matter how many other realizations of the pattern one manifests—one cannot be masculine.
Naturally, we need therefore to identify the essential configuration of the pattern of masculinity. Because of recent postgender ideology, many defenders of masculinity have focused on the biological aspect. The distinctive male physiology is, of course, very important. But there is a trap in thinking exclusively or primarily about masculinity from the biological perspective: namely, that it often leads to reductionism. That is, if we look for the cause of the distinction of masculine from feminine solely in terms of genes and hormones, we are missing the bigger picture, and often implicitly accept ourselves a reductionistic and materialistic causal framework which is ultimately self-defeating. Yes, to be sure, testosterone is important to masculinity. So is the SRY protein. So is the Y-chromosome. But no quantity of testosterone makes a male human being “masculine” in the humanly-meaningful sense. While someone cannot truly be masculine without these biological components—that is, we can describe a woman as being rather “masculine” in the sense that she possesses many incidental traits of masculinity, but she is not and cannot be essentially masculine—the requisite biology alone does not make someone masculine.
Nor, for that matter, can the masculine (or the feminine) be truly explained by evolutionary psychology. One finds so-called “hypermasculine” types (the kind who would describe themselves as “alphas”—those who pursue sex, money, power, etc., as the ends of life itself) commonly subscribing to this theory. Such evolutionary reductionism, however, seeks primarily to excuse immoral behavior by claiming that it stems from an impulse to reproduce, to further one’s genetic line, to have dominion—to “be the alpha”. But this explanation does nothing to say what it is to be a man. Rather, it tries to circumvent that question by bald assertion; it avoids the properly human function of questioning and subsequently thinking-through what is questioned by rooting all action in “pre-rational” motives of the given. It tries to reduce moral action to biological imperatives—and thereby excuse immoral stupidity.
To put the true exposition, by contrast, in Aristotelian-Thomistic causal terms: the form of masculinity, which is a property of the substantial form of being human, requires in any individual that it possess a certain kind of matter, just as the form of humanity requires in any individual that there be bones and flesh and so on (to use Aquinas’ example). Any masculine individual must have the Y-chromosome and testosterone, from which there will be further consequences enabling the actions befitting a masculine individual, such as greater muscle growth (relative to women), male genitalia, a neurochemical tendency towards responding to situations with aggressiveness, and so on. But the form of humanity is irreducible to having flesh and bones and organs in the correct disposition and proportion, and so too is the form of masculinity irreducible to having testosterone and muscles and man-parts in the correct disposition and proportion. That is: the form of humanity consists principally in certain operations, most especially those concerned with virtuous exercise of the faculties which are distinctive to being human: those faculties of the intellect and will, which redound to and thereby elevate the faculties we share in common with other animals.
The form of masculinity, as differentiated from femininity, does not produce specifically-distinct faculties in the human being and so does not produce distinct operations. It does, however, modulate the faculties and therefore modifies the right or fitting way for a man to perform certain operations as opposed to the right way for a woman to perform certain operations. In other words, depending upon one’s biological sex—as the material disposition required by the form of either masculinity or femininity—there are different fitting patterns of operation; and these fitting patterns are what we call gender. There is something incomplete, I would posit, about someone with masculine biology who does not conduct himself within the fitting patterns of masculine gender, and likewise someone having feminine biology who does not conduct herself within the fitting patterns of feminine gender.
Foregoing any discussion of the feminine, how do we determine whether or not the pattern of one’s operations, however, befits his masculine form? If our only criterion is whether the operations seem enabled by the biological, we will again miss the point. We need to look beyond the formal and the material, in other words. Specifically, here, we need to look also at three further kinds of causes.
First is the objective or specifying cause. This is a kind of causality unfamiliar to most people—it is not found in the traditional Aristotelian taxonomy but is a development of later scholasticism which has remained buried to most thinkers for centuries. I have gone into greater detail in other publications. But to give a succinct presentation, the objective or specifying cause is an extrinsic formal cause, one which determines our cognitive and cathectic faculties by presenting to us objects in specific ways. This cause differs for men and women insofar as their faculties, as aforementioned, are modulated by their respective masculine and feminine forms. Put otherwise, nothing differs on the part of the object as it is independently of the person who receives it, but something is indeed different on the part of the recipient. That such a difference occurs has been demonstrated by a number of studies showing, for instance, different toy preferences in very young children. Male and female are not differently determined by all objects, or in all ways, but in many and perhaps most objects they likely are—even if only very slightly—but especially if they have grown up and maintained for years a kind of bifurcated environment fitting to their respective forms. A girl brought up in the company of boys will likely develop more tomboyish attributes and be more alike to boys in the way she is determined by objects, whereas a boy brought up in the company of girls will likely develop more-typically feminine interests and responses. These are not all wrong in all ways, but if excessive do result almost invariably in some one or another unfitting habituation for each sex with respect to gender, and, following that, with respect also often to sexual orientation. Moreover, the media to which a mind is regularly attuned will have similar consequences. The excess of fantasy-universe media attention, for instance, tends to distort our conceptualization insofar as it distorts our habituated patterns of image-creation.
Regardless, the point I am attempting to convey here is that the objects to which we direct our minds (and by which our minds are directed) are both influenced by and influential over the patterning of our gender: either in ways which are fitting to our forms or ways which are unfitting. A girl may enjoy watching sports without losing her femininity, and a boy may feel great empathy for animals or children without losing his masculinity; but a girl who wishes to be very muscular and strong does lose something of her femininity and a boy who wishes to wear dresses and look pretty loses something quite important to his masculinity.
This brings us to the second kind of cause we cannot afford to here overlook: the internal final cause. Every living individual has, by virtue of the essential form making it to be the kind of thing that it is, an end or a goal through which that living organism attains its perfection. Often, this internal final cause results in a series of concatenated relative final causes. For instance, someone seeking happiness seeks a spouse, and seeking a spouse seeks to make himself attractive, and seeking to make himself attractive, dresses nicely and works out, and so on and so forth. Getting fit is an end, as is dressing nicely, as is appearing attractive, as is finding a spouse. Since happiness—in the Aristotelian, eudaimonic sense—is the final cause of all human beings, our question is: how is this pursuit modulated by the form of masculinity?
This is a question every man must contemplate for himself, I believe. For it is an ethical question, and ethical questions—while they may be understood from and interpreted through some universal laws—always require particular resolutions. That is, the masculine modulation of virtue will be slightly different for every individual human male, but there are certain commonalities. The virtue of courage, for instance, as specifically male, skews far closer to recklessness than caution than it does for women, for the most part. But I think a specific modulation by sex and gender which has often been overlooked regards the virtue of prudence. The virtue of prudence is the virtue of right reasoning concerning things to be done, i.e., actions to be taken. Now you might say, “How can right reasoning be distinctively male or female? Isn’t reasoning common to both men and women? Are you saying men are more reasonable than women!?” To answer these questions in reverse: no, men are not more reasonable than women; yes, reasoning is common to both, but it is distinctively male or female insofar as being formally differentiated we very typically, with rare exception, grow up being habituated to reason in different ways: not that we see different intellectual truths, but we do form different phantasms, insofar as we are differently specified by the objects, as mentioned above.
That is: men’s reasoning concerning things to be done is often focused on attaining results: on implementing plans, on who can do what, how, when, and where; while women’s reasoning concerning things to be done more often focuses upon the persons involved; on how they might or will be effected, are treated well, and so on. That’s not to say women cannot be good planners or that men cannot be empathetic. We are looking, rather, at typical and malleable patterns. But there is good reason that these patterns tend to follow the way that they do: the biological foundations of each tends to conduce to them and each conduces to the other as complementary attributes; each completes the other.
This complementarity leads us into the last of our causes to consider, the external final cause. We are each of us parts of a whole greater than any one of us. While there is a unique dignity to the human individual which makes each—as a comprehendor of the universe, in some sense—greater than all the material whole, we are nonetheless still subordinate to a common good. This unique dignity ties into so many things—many more than I could reasonably talk about here—being a good husband, a good father, a good leader in the community when called upon to do so, a good follower of other leaders when it is their talents that are called upon, and so on.
I suppose in sum, masculinity primarily consists in understanding yourself and how you are related to the things around you. This self-understanding seems hard for many to grasp today; we live in an age of illusions, where media deeply infects our minds with habits of fantasy found hard to shake, and where the promise of technological mastery suggests that we may realize these fantasies. Perhaps we may; and in gaining the whole of our desire, lose our souls.
 Understood, that is, in the sense of that which is precisely as in relation to a cognitive subject (or at least semiosic agent). Cf. Deely 2009: Purely Objective Reality, 8-15.
 See, for instance, 2022: Introduction to Philosophical Principles.