Monday, July 28, 2008

Ken Wilber - Eros and Agency in Masculinity

The new issue of What Is Enlightenment? features the usual discussion between Ken Wilber (pandit) and Andrew Cohen (guru). This time, in keeping with the general topic of the issue, they are talking about masculinity.

In their own words:
What It Means to Be a Man

Andrew Cohen and Ken Wilber

In their twentieth dialogue, Cohen and Wilber strive to define the leading edge of masculinity today, exploring the cultural forces at play, examining the evolution of male-female relations, and explaining why spiritual enlightenment may hold the key to liberating men’s authenticity.

So, not too far into the "discussion," Wilber makes the following, and I believe highly useful, distinctions (I provided links for Wikimedia terms where possible, but these are only approximate):
In my view, men and women develop through the same gender-neutral basic structures (the same basic waves in the spectrum of consciousness), but they tend to do so with somewhat different values and styles. As we've discussed in the past, development happens in two modes: translation and transformation. We define transformation as a change between levels in the developmental scale and translation as a move within levels--translation as a horizontal movement and transformation as a vertical movement. Both of these are important. In both the translative and transformative domains, men and women have different tendencies. In the translative domain, there are two fundamental drives of agency and communion, which are drives of horizontal movement. And we find women tend to put an emphasis on communion, and men tend to put an emphasis on agency. In terms of transformation, there are two vertical drives: Eros and agape. Men tend to put an emphasis on Eros, and women tend to put an emphasis on agape. Eros means freedom, and agape means fullness. So women tend to have more of an emphasis on fullness in their relationships; men tend to value freedom more in their relationships.

There are healthy and unhealthy versions of each of these drives. The healthy versions of agency that we can see in men are, for example, self-responsibility and self-esteem. Unhealthy forms of agency are rigid, alienated, hyper-masculine, hyper-aggressive notions of self, fear of commitment, and so on. With Eros, the healthy version is freedom, whereas the unhealthy versions are not freedom but repression, fear, contraction--and those tend to be the types of dysfunctions that men get caught up in.

So men try to translate with an emphasis on agency and transform with an emphasis on Eros. Women tend to translate with an emphasis on communion and transform with an emphasis on agape. Those generalizations are just that--generalizations--but they do tend to be true across cultures. Eros and agape, agency and communion--those are the most universal, the most generalized drives, and there are positive and negative things about both of them, so you don't have to get into an argument over which sex is the most destructive. The main point is that you want all four of those drives to be healthy. (pg. 41)
Here are the AQAL defintions of the key words (see the actual AQAL Glossary):
One of the four main drives of an individual holon, along with Agape, agency, and
communion. The vertical drive of the lower to “reach up” towards the higher; selftranscendence. The urge to find higher, deeper, and wider wholeness. Its complementary opposite is Agape. Its pathological expression is Phobos.

One of the four main drives of an individual holon, along with communion, Eros, and
Agape. The horizontal drive for self-preservation, autonomy, and wholeness. The drive to be a whole and not a part. Its complementary opposite is communion. Its pathological expression is alienation, repression, rigid autonomy, and hyperagency.

One of the four main drives of an individual holon, along with Eros, agency, and
communion. The vertical drive of the higher to embrace, enfold, or “love” the lower; selfimmanence. Also refers to the involutionary force that pulls evolution from above. Its complementary opposite is Eros. Its pathological expression is Thanatos.

One of the four main drives of an individual holon, along with agency, Eros, and Agape. The horizontal drive for self-adaptation, partness, and joining with others. The drive to be part of a larger whole. Its complementary opposite is agency. Its pathological expression is fusion, herd mentality, and hypercommunion.
Wilber's claim is that agency and Eros are generally masculine traits, while communion and agape are generally female traits. In general, for the majority of American men, I think he may be correct.

However, I wonder why men shouldn't also develop communion and agape as central features of an integrated psyche. Wouldn't an "integral man" embrace all four features of a healthy holon and work to make them healthy?

Certainly men and women are born with specific preferences or inclinations, and biology shapes a large measure of who we are as human beings. But are not limited to our genetics -- we are growing, evolving human beings. To me, an integral man would want to be a complete and healthy holon embracing all four of the primary drives.


Anonymous said...

In the sentence below it mentions translation both as a horizontal and verticle scale. Should it not be transformation as the verticle scale? This is quite interesting stuff and It would be cool i you could urther define horizontal and verticle scales or movement.

We define transformation as a change between levels in the developmental scale and translation as a move within levels--translation as a horizontal movement and translation as a vertical movement

william harryman said...


That was a copying error on my part - sorry. Yes, transformation is the vertical element.

I will try to get a post up that takes a deeper look at these tow forms of growth.


Anonymous said...

What a load of horse shit.

william harryman said...

thank you, anonymous, for that piece of wisdom - care to explain yourself?


Anonymous said...

Love it. I've been writing in my blog about all things wilber because he's the only thing i found freedom in as a youth. I'm only 26 now but he really paved the way for me to live more freely in my relationship to God or Godhead.

Now I'm working on my work with relationships (agape) because I basically tried to seek escape from that for what has seemed to be my whole life.

Staying grounded is a real problem for me so I think I will start reading this blog. I love the title, the tender, strong heart of man. That's really beautiful.

I've experienced that both in Ken Wilber and the Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. When I met him I cried for about an hour straight.

A lot of karma for me to get through!

Thank you! if you're interested.

william harryman said...


Glad you enjoyed the post. If I can offer some "been there, done that" perspective, I would suggest spending more time with The Mipham, and perhaps with people like Pema Chodron or even Dan Siegel. I am a HUGE fan of Robert Augustus Masters, a truly integral thinker:

Wilber is brilliant, but his gender stuff is biased toward a more traditional view of gender roles.

Hope you enjoy what you read here.


Wob said...

The separation of male and female qualities is mostly valid for the lower stages of development. Wilber clearly says that they adopt each other's qualities in the higher stages.