On the Nature of Spirit: Masculinity, Femininity, and Human Identity

The philosopher Gregory Bateson has written that the “false reification of the self is basic to the planetary ecological crisis in which we find ourselves.” The rise of Western civilization, whether intentionally or not, has fostered the development of a false identity. Many have come to experience themselves as an abstraction, a disembodied ego whose only contact with the outside world is mediated by frozen, lifeless ideas. This situation, we believe, is the result of a hypermasculinized psyche. In such a psychological climate, feminine proclivities toward relationship and regeneration (rebirth through death), embodiment and compassion are repressed and become atrophied. In their stead, a pathologically individualist, anthropocentric, and life-denying ethos has been adopted, bringing both civilization and the biosphere to the brink of collapse.

This modern crisis, though more painfully obvious to anyone currently living in late industrial society, has deeper roots. Our aim in this essay is not to solve the problem, but to shed light on the direction a solution might take.

The entire history of human religious, philosophical and scientific pursuits, from at least the time of Socrates up to and including most of the 20th century, could be summed up as a quest to know and elevate the rational, unaffected, and pure ideals of spirit above the fragile, erotic, and fleshly nature of life. Put more simply, history is the story of the increasing domination of the feminine by the masculine.

This story is not complete, though. It neglects indigenous and pre-historical humanity, whose aims were not to transcend and control terrestrial life, but to celebrate by participating in its endless seasons of regeneration. But in the West, with the influence of Greek and Hebraic thought, the discovery of the rational intellect/immortal soul has usurped any prior pact with the Great Mother, leading to the rejection of the capricious and frightening unconsciousness of nature in favor of the supposedly ordered and controllable consciousness of culture. This mutation in psychological orientation has today spread across almost the entire planet, evidence of it now radiating out even beyond the edge of the solar system.

This desire for knowledge and spiritual immortality need not be at the expense of life, but in historical fact it has indeed turned out to be. Why this imbalance exists is not clear, but it may stem from an even more primordial source than mentioned above. Perhaps it dates back many thousands of years before the Axial Age to the transition into the Neolithic.

As Erich Neumann reminds us, “[it is] impossible…to understand the early history of mankind from the patriarchal standpoint,” (p. 135). The nascent struggles of the ego toward separation from the uroboric womb arose while humanity was still a matriarchal, goddess worshiping people (Neumann, p. 46-47). The transition from absorption in nature to knowledge of self can be seen playing itself out in Genesis. Adam’s shocking confrontation with his sin represented by the fruit offered he by Eve transformed him from a child into a Man. Before he disobeyed YHWH, he had no conscience, no sense of conflicting with his naked presence in the maternal world. Adam invented history and became

“…the second creator of the world, who alone has given to the world its objective existence—without which, unheard, unseen, silently eating, giving birth, dying, heads nodding through hundreds of millions of years, it would have gone on in the profoundest night of non-being down to its unknown end,” (Jung, p. 49).

It might be hoped for Eve’s sake that history is already reaching its terminus. Only now that her story has been remembered is it possible to begin to heal the split between the World Parents. Unfortunately, thousands of years of Man’s dominion over nature have lead to the above-mentioned impending collapse of climate stability and ecological diversity, potentially forcibly retarding the growth of human civilization and all life on earth. Any attempt to make peace between the ego and unconscious will be partially overshadowed by this violent confrontation with a chaotic planet. There may still be an opportunity to avoid the worst of this violence, but as with most psychological mutations, full inner transformation cannot come to pass unaccompanied by a corresponding shift in the outer world.

Complete disaster may not be required to reverse the Fall severing the human species from the planet and the mind from nature. Peering into the depths of the uneasy relationship between civilization and Gaia helps to reveal the subtle archetypal tensions between masculinity and femininity lying beneath. Recognizing the conflict may allow the psyche to begin the process of arbitration necessary to avoid continued fragmentation and complete catastrophe. The modern self has been forged by a fear of the feminine, compelling it to seek total control over everything and to repress and ignore anything it cannot. Until this fear is overcome, ego and unconscious will remain fundamentally at odds.

It is important to fully appreciate the degree to which the spiritual and scientific tendencies introduced above (desire to transcend impurities of body, etc.) are not simply human. This obscures the fact that they are primarily the obsession of an elite class of scholarly men. Man’s pursuit of pure, disembodied knowledge seems to have changed his relationship with women and the natural world. The current ecological crisis appears to be the result of a repressed psychosexual conflict within and between men and women, and simultaneously a spiritual sickness, an unsteady confrontation of unnecessarily opposed evolutionary ideals.

Human beings are both wounded animals and fledgling angels. Without healing ourselves, it will not be possible for Gaia to nurse herself back to health, nor will it be possible for our species to gain its wings and fulfill its cosmic role. It is important, however, not to view health as a return to a prior state of comfort. The apparently conflicting aims of masculine and feminine energy are the catalysts urging the evolution of the human psyche, and by proxy the mind of Gaia, toward greater glories. As with all crises, this noogenesis is filled with both peril and potential. Retreat into some past state of harmony is impossible, having already gained a conscious knowledge of the future. What has happened cannot be undone—the only option is to move forward.

But before such an evolution is possible, the wound that has been inflicted must be healed through an understanding of its cause.

In her book, Cognition and Eros: A Critique of the Kantian Paradigm, Robin May Schott summarizes the provocative opening lines of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil:

“Supposing that truth is a woman, philosophers have been bumbling and inept in their courtship of truth. If they seek to court truth in a more convincing manner, the opposition they draw between pure truth and sensuous existence, between reason and desire, and between masculinity and femininity, must be transformed” (p. 41-42).

Nietzsche goes on to criticize the “most grievous, protracted, and dangerous” error of philosophy, which he believes is the “invention,” by Plato, of “pure spirit and transcendental goodness” (The Nietzsche Reader, p. 312). Nietzsche puts forth this criticism of Plato for his denial of perspectivity, which Nietzsche sees as “that fundamental condition of all life” (ibid.). Each of us is situated, not only in particular a body, but also in a particular time and place. The ideas we have about the world are very often “foreground evaluations, temporary perspectives, viewed from out of a corner perhaps, or up from underneath, a perspective from below…” (ibid., p. 313).

This lack of appreciation for perspectivity led Plato to assume that the relations between men and women holding sway in Athens during his lifetime were universal, going so far as to describe, in Timaeus, the creation of woman as a secondary accident arising because a few members of the original “superior race” of men, after having their souls implanted in their bodies, became cowardly and unrighteous. As a result, their impure bodies having gotten the best of them, they became female (Schott, p. 5).

This kind of blatant sexual prejudice comes out not only through the denigration of women, but in distaste for the body. Plato, in the Symposium, has Diotima tell Socrates that philosophical love is pure, “unsullied, unalloyed, and freed from the mortal taint that haunts the frailer…flesh and blood” (p. 211e).

Schott makes clearer the tie between women and the body in Greek thought:

“…women represented the pollution associated with the body and sexuality because of their role in giving birth to life, which brings with it the threat of death” (p. 43).

This connection between the body, women, and reproduction has played a crucial role in the psychological and spiritual motives underlying man’s denial of mortality and desire to transcend the natural context of his conscious existence. The conscious ego is in the precarious situation of knowing both the potential of immortality and the actuality of death, which becomes inevitable the moment it is born from the womb of a woman as a body. The body itself, for the un-integrated ego, is experienced more as a tomb than as a vessel of life.

We cannot simply demonize this desire to rebel against the natural way, however. As Jung reminds us: “It is just man’s turning away from instinct—his opposing himself to instinct—that creates consciousness,” (p. 72-73). There is a value to consciousness, and the culture that comes with it, which cannot be denied. Our task is more complex than simply washing away the emotional sedimentation acquired through thousands of years of patriarchal domination of the psyche. Questioning some of the philosophical assumptions we have inherited is of vital importance, but our goal is to make room for both culture and nature, not merely to return to an instinctual and unconscious absorption in the natural course of events. To do so would only reverse the imbalance of our current situation.

The problem is not whether to embrace a wholly feminine or masculine psychic make-up, but to marry the two such that each enlivens and stimulates the best in the other. Our species has thus far failed to balance the dynamic relationship between these archetypes: early pre-historical goddess worshipping societies practiced human sacrifice, thereby overemphasizing our debt to the earth (Radical Ecology, p. 127), while our modern scientific worldview, shaped at an archetypal level by the patriarchal assumptions of monotheistic religion and Greek philosophy, has lead to isolation from and objectification of the planet and even our own bodies. Scientific materialism gives us the impression that we are not of this universe, but are some kind of freak statistical anomaly, strangers in a strange land.

Where did this imbalance come from, and how did it ever become so extreme? Perhaps a short exploration of the origins of consciousness will help us gain our bearings.

The rise of the conscious ego can be traced back to the discovery (by men or by women, we cannot say) of the link between sex and birth. Prior to this realization, “it is not the man who is father to the child,” but rather, “the miracle of procreation springs from God,” who was seen as closely related to the numinous quality of the wind, or of ancestral spirits (Neumann, p. 134). Even earlier to this association between the numinous and pregnancy, the fertility of the Great Mother was seen as fully her own. Indeed, contrary to the later patriarchal creation myths, such as are found in the Timeaus and Genesis, from an archetypal perspective:

“The feminine has priority, while masculine creativity only appears afterwards as a secondary phenomenon… The prime datum is the earth, the basic maternal substance. Visible creation proceeds from her womb, and it is only then that the sexes are divided into two, only then does the masculine form come into being,” (Bachofen, p. 356).

The origination of the masculine out of the feminine is true not only on an archetypal level, but is evidenced even in biology, both phylogenically and ontogenically. Nearly 2 billion years prior to the morphological differentiation that arose with the invention of sexual reproduction in animals, prokaryotic bacteria freely exchanged genetic material between membranes, functioning as a single planetary organism enclosed in an oceanic womb (Margulis, p. 85-98). The uroboric quality of this situation is symbolic of the self-creativity that pre-patriarchal peoples associated with the feminine power of the Great Mother. Similarly, while developing in the womb, the mammalian zygote begins as female, and absent the genetic and hormonal agents associated with the Y chromosome, will not go through the metamorphosis required to become male (Fausto-Sterling, p. 80).

The primacy of the feminine, both in an archetypal and biological sense, is significant for any attempt to harmonize it with the masculine. There is a sense in which it is the feminine that possesses eternal life, while the masculine is temporally bound, fated to continually rise and fall. Here we see the ambiguous character of the archetypes, the two being shifting reflections of one another, rather than static and essentially opposed. The male philosopher’s desire to transcend the finitude of bodily life could be understood as a form of worship of the feminine quality of regeneration, or rebirth through death.

There are plenty of other examples of opposites coinciding. When the link between sex and birth was recognized, the still weak ego also realized that the orgasm associated with intercourse, though intensely pleasurable, was simultaneously a kind of death. This was not a bodily death, but merely the death of the conscious mind, which cannot maintain its independence in the midst of such primal sexual urges. As the ego gained more and more sway over the psychic processes of men, these urges, and the female body that was associated with them, came to be seen as somehow unclean and lacking full humanity. The development of patriarchal society and the hypermasculinized psyche we have inherited from it arose, we believe, as the conscious ego, in order to secure its autonomy from the unconscious desires of the body, began a process of differentiation—one which unfortunately went too far into complete disassociation, as transpersonal symbols were projected onto concrete persons through secondary personalization.

As has been said already, we must be careful not to flip this imbalanced situation into its equally imbalanced reversal, whereby we forgo consciousness and return to a complete identification with all things “natural.” Neumann reminds us “the supersession of the stage of the Great Mother…by a new mythological stage is not a fortuitous historical occurrence, but a necessary psychological one” (p. 82). The rising of consciousness out of the unconscious is not an accident, but an evolutionary moment of cosmic significance.

As Paula Gunn Allen has said,

“Our planet is in crisis…[but] for the most part, we do not recognize that the reason for her state is that she is entering upon a great initiation—she is becoming someone else…giving birth to her new consciousness of herself and her relationship to the other vast intelligences, other holy beings in her universe,” (Ecology, p. 328-329).

Human civilization, as a manifestation of Gaia, is the earth become conscious of itself. But this consciousness has gone too far, leading to its near total disassociation from nature and the unconscious. As was pointed out above, it has been a mainstay in the Western philosophical tradition for more than two millennia to conceive of the mind as independent of the body. Knowledge has been understood as objective, free of the vagueness of emotion and the situatedness of the body. These ideas arose along side the denigration of women, whose minds were seen as incapable of the nobler, intellectual pursuits of men. It seems that the energy associated with the masculine archetype seized the psyches of men, compelling them to reject all things mutable, sensual, and fleshly, and instead to strive for the eternal, abstract, and transcendental. This drive to understand and become divine by rising above the natural course of earthly events has produced modern science and technology, and liberated consciousness from the habits and reflexes of instinctual behavior, but so too has it laid waste to countless ecosystems and destroyed all other ways of knowing which stood in its path. The reason for this hubris, says Jung, is a “loss of roots.”

“[The] development [of consciousness thus far] has made it emancipated enough to forget its dependence on the unconscious psyche. It is not a little proud of this emancipation, but it overlooks the fact that although it has apparently got rid of the unconscious it has become the victim of its own verbal concepts…One can be—and is—just as dependent on words as on the unconscious. Man’s advance toward the Logos was a great achievement, but he must pay for it with a loss of instinct and loss of reality to the degree that he remains in primitive dependence on mere words…” (The Earth Has a Soul, p. 72).

Philosophy, broken down etymologically, reveals that its origins were love and worship of Sophia, the divine wisdom of the feminine. By the time of Plato, things had already begun to change, but we can still see the influence of the feminine in his choice of the female Diotima to teach Socrates the essence of Eros. Plato was conflicted about what the role of the feminine should be in his ideal society, but his rejection of poetry gives us a clue as to the deeper conflict at work. Walter Ong, in Orality and Literacy, points out that Plato’s work marks the transition from oral to literate culture, and all that this shift entails (p. 27).

Writing, originally a privilege only granted to highly education men, was the ladder upon which the conscious mind climbed out of the unconscious cave of dimly lit shadows and unrestrained instincts. But it soon changed, in a classic example of enantiodromia, from an empowering gift to a destructive vice. Before writing was mastered, speech held sway over experience, and so words were more like events than static images. Ong makes this clear with an example by pointing out “the Hebrew term dabar means ‘word’ and ‘event’” (p. 32). This means that words for oral cultures are not simply “a countersign of thought,” but “a mode of action” (ibid.). Such humans lacked the ability to abstract enough to engage truly private ideas, and so any notion of an invisible soul existing separate from the visible body would have seemed absurd. Further, the creative power of the spoken word was not just in human beings, but was the inspiration with whose help everything in nature moved and was made. But when man became more skilled in the art of writing, the dynamic dance of the vocal word became a frozen visual image, codified into conceptual abstractions, mere letters on a page cut off from their former living presence as the voice of nature herself. A few lines from Walt Whitman’s “A Song of the Rolling Earth” express this perfectly:

“A song of the rolling earth, and of words according,
Were you thinking that those were the words, those upright lines?
those curves, angles, dots?
No, those are not the words, the substantial words are in the
ground and sea,
They are in the air, they are in you…
Air, soil, water, fire—those are the words,
I myself a word with them—my qualities interpenetrate with
The earth does not withhold, it is generous enough,
The truths of the earth continually wait, they are not so conceal’d
They are calm, subtle, untransmissible by print,
They are imbued through all things conveying themselves willingly,
Conveying a sentiment and invitation, I utter and utter,
I speak not, yet if you hear me not of what avail am I to you?”

The literate mind deemed the unconscious whimpers of the earth to be entirely under the spell of the pleasure principle. The immanent gods and goddesses of Homeric Greece, whose presence was felt in the wind upon one’s cheek, the waves rocking one’s ship out at sea, and the clouds blocking the sun from one’s eyes, were trapped and bled to death upon the pages of Plato’s scrolls, only half reborn as eternal forms forever removed from the earthly world of embodied experience. Plato was compelled to inscribe and confine these natural powers to the private, mental world of his pages because their full sensual reality seemed to him diluted by base desires of carnal attraction wrapped up in the finite and illusory thrills of time. But as Neumann says, this depreciation of the truthfulness of unconscious feelings is merely “proof of a depreciating tendency and corresponds to a conscious defense mechanism,” (p. 285). Our impulses and instincts, says Neumann, are far more adapted to reality than the still young, fantasy-obsessed ego (ibid.). When the conscious mind becomes entirely severed from its instincts, the result, says Jung, is “exaggerated self-esteem or an inferiority complex,” (p. 73). This leads to an imbalanced situation ripe for psychic injury, and indeed, our modern civilization is proof of its disastrous results.

“For it is the body, the feelings, the instincts, which connect us with the soil,” says Jung (ibid.). Having lost this connection, we have become vagrants on the earth, aware of the potential for peace but not knowing where to turn to actualize it.

We might, taking Nietzsche’s advice, “become friends of the immediate things” once more (quoted in Jung, p. 86).

As Jung remarks,

“…the immediate things are this earth, this life. For quite long enough…we…have been taught that this life is not the real thing, that it is provisional, and that we only live for heaven. Our morality is based upon the negation of the flesh, and so our unconscious often tries to convince us of the importance of living here and now,” (ibid.).

The Sufi mystics have a concept that opens the door to a form of spirituality that, rather than deny the sensory world, finds the divine within our immediate experience of it. The term, in Arabic, is “ta’wil,” which David Ulansey has said is “based upon the idea that the physical world is a manifestation of the divine” (p. 1). Rather than abstract the eternal forms of objects from their actual, living embodiment, the Sufi’s recognize, with a special mode of perception, the subtle way in which eternity expresses itself within time.

We must come again to find spirit in nature, to love the body, and to cherish our planet: rising out of its depths at birth, sharing our Eros-inspired energy with the world, and then allowing our forms to pass away again to be reborn anew. Such is the way of Gaia. But how are we to respect this natural cycle even while retaining the intricacies of interior experience and public expression offered us by consciousness? How to return to the vibratory eroticism sustained by oral culture without first burning the volumes of paper insights cherished by even the greenest among us?

As we have repeated throughout, what we seek is a sacred marriage of the masculine and feminine, a reconciliation of the conscious and unconscious forces that need not pull in opposite directions. It seems that truth, if she is still open to being courted, will not respond solely to the written word and the pure essences they reveal to our disembodied minds. We must balance this objectivity with an appreciation for our natural instincts and the emotions they evoke. Without such balance, the beauty of the planet is wasted: its magical matter turned into mere bricks in the economic empires built in praise of a phantom, of salvation through total technological control of life and living. The only result of such relentless attempts to cleanse nature of the natural is disassociation and death. It must be admitted that without the aid of our pens, the importance of truth, of the Logos, would never have struck us. But we cannot allow our admiration for the light to blind us to the soil that feeds us and keeps us whole.

As William Irwin Thompson says,

“To effect reconciliation with her, man must not seek to rape the feminine and keep it down under him. If he seeks to continue his domination of nature through genetic engineering and the repression of the spiritual, he will ensure that the only release from his delusions can come from destruction,” (p. 251).

Instead, man and woman, conscious light and unconscious depth, cultural order and natural creativity can become dance partners, recognizing their sacred union as Shiva and Shakti swirling around the Axis Mundi toward ultimate enlightenment. Like all opposites, the psychic polarization of masculine and feminine is but a shifting appearance. Beneath the outward opposition is an inward coincidence.

As Whitman says (and we concur):

“I swear the earth shall surely be complete to him or her who shall
be complete,
The earth remains jagged and broken only to him or her who
remains jagged and broken.”

Works Cited

• Bachofen, Johann Jakob. Das Mutterrecht. Basel. 1948.
• Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. New York: Harper. 1988.
• Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Myths of Gender: Biological Theories About Men and Women. New York: Basic Books. 1985.
• Jung, C. G. Answer to Job. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1958.
• Jung, C. G. Ed. By Meredith Sabini. The Earth Has a Soul: The Nature Writing of C. G. Jung. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books. 2002.
• Margulis, Lynn. Sagan, Dorian. Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1986.
• Merchant, Carolyn (editor). Key Concepts in Critical Theory: Ecology. New York: Humanity Books. 1994.
• Merchant, Carolyn. Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World. New York: Routledge. 2005.
• Neumann, Erich. The Origins and History of Consciousness. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1954.
• Nietzsche, Friedrich. Edited by Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large. The Nietzsche Reader. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing. 2006.
• Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy. New York: Routledge. 1982.
• Schott, Robin May. Cognition and Eros: A Critique of the Kantian Paradigm. Boston: Beacon Press. 1988.
• Thompson, William Irwin. The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality, and the Origins of Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1981.
• Ulansey, David. The Theophanic Significance of Mary Magdalene. Senior Thesis, Religion Department, Princeton University.
• Whitman, Walt. Edited by Karen Karbiener. Leaves of Grass: First and “Death Bed” Editions. New York: Barnes and Noble. 2004.


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