The Male Drive for Status: Its Cultural Evolution

One of the most important drives in life is status. It acts as a motivator for people to act and strive towards achievement, allowing them to feel greater self-worth. Drives are powerful things that can motivate or even inhibit our actions depending on how they are utilized. The male drive for status has developed over time, starting out with an emphasis on wealth then moving into power before developing into being driven by physical appearance today..

The “art of manliness status” is a book that discusses the cultural evolution of the male drive for status. The author, Jack Donovan, argues that the drive has evolved into something more than being about wealth or material possessions.

We’re back with another installment of our male status series. This series attempts to help men understand how status influences our behavior and even physiology, so we may minimize the negative impacts, maximize the favorable ones, and overall figure out how to effectively manage its impact on our life.

We’ve looked at the biological, neurological, and evolutionary roots and impacts of the male status drive in prior blogs in this series. Not just humans, but also animals, have shown that the status desire is firmly established in their physiology.

However, the human desire for status differs significantly from that of the rest of the animal kingdom: individuals may earn and demonstrate status not just via physical characteristics, but also through material possessions, as well as intellectual and artistic endeavors. Our biology, as well as our culture, are used to determine and express our human status. And as our understanding of the nature of status, the weight we’ve given its various manifestations, and the mechanisms by which it can be earned has evolved over the centuries, so has our understanding of the nature of status, the weight we’ve given its various manifestations, and the mechanisms by which it can be earned.

So, today, we’ll take a broad look at the key causes that have shaped the dynamics of human status quest from the hunter-gatherer era to the nineteenth century. Let’s begin our journey through human history, which spans thousands of years.

Human Status’s Keystone Cultural Innovation: Social Signals

Vintage male indians elaborate costume display ceremony in a mega event.

Status has a crucial role in the survival and reproductive success of practically all animals, especially males, as we saw in our last essay. The status drive explains why male lions have manes, male peacocks have plumage, and bucks have antlers; these characteristics advertise genetic fitness to females.

Humans have a signaling system that is comparable to that of primates. In the first installment of this series, we discussed embodied status, or the status one has as a result of one’s genes and physical characteristics. We, like other animals, have a natural tendency to hold someone with particular characteristics in higher esteem. Taller, fitter, and more attractive men are considered more desirable by women, and numerous studies have shown that these genetic lottery winners receive more esteem from both male and female peers, achieve greater professional success, and earn more money than those who are less physically fortunate.

While humans, like animals, utilize embodied signals to determine status (typically unintentionally), we may also indicate and obtain status in a number of different ways due to our enhanced intellect and complicated social lives. Painting a picture or writing a successful song, for example, may help an artist earn and indicate status. By creating a medication that helps the rest of mankind, a scientist may acquire and signal prominence. Of course, a successful businessman may use his riches to earn and indicate prestige. The clothing we wear, the people we know, the stuff we put on our walls, the commodities we purchase, and even our interests and ideas may all help us achieve and express our status.

 

These non-embodied status indicators are referred to as social signals by sociologists. Anthropologists believe that our capacity to express our worth to others via these creative, intellectual, and material markers was the primary cultural breakthrough that distinguished us from our ape predecessors and provided the foundation for complex human communities. The importance of this cultural evolution stems from the fact that social signals may now be sent in less personal and harmful ways than before.

Embodied status signals need close proximity amongst animals (including humans). To identify and evaluate the delicate status signals given off by physical bodies, you must interact face-to-face and maybe engage in potentially lethal tussles. As a result, although embodied status signals are powerful, they’re sometimes ineffective, and they may lead to violence and damage.

Social signals, on the other hand, are much more tranquil and cost-effective. A prehistoric caveman might tell he was speaking to one of the tribe’s alphas by looking at the necklace or ceremonial scar of a fellow caveman. There’s no need to thrash your chest. Markers such as tattoos, jewelry, and clothing could instantly identify a person as a member of a particular tribe, cave wall paintings could demonstrate creativity, and knowledge of healing herbs could earn one the title of medicine man. Status could be sent across long distances and even when the originator was not present (as in the case of the wall painting).

Social signals are significantly more flexible and accessible to subtlety than physical status signals, in addition to being more efficient. The capacity of humans to put meaning into various things and activities has resulted in an unlimited variety of statuses and methods to transmit them. Status was therefore pushed from the primitive to the higher creative, economic, and intellectual realms via social signals. The agricultural revolution and the rising urbanization of human cultures would serve as a springboard for this leap.

Listen to our podcast with Leo Braudy about the history of celebrity: 

 

The Rise of the City and the Agricultural Revolution

Humans lived in tiny, generally egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups for tens of thousands of years. Although status existed, the mechanics of it were far more primitive. Our forefathers and mothers devised social advances that would pave the way for more intricate status signaling in the form of jewelry, tattoos, and art. However, the right to wear such apparel and accessories was usually gained via acts of physical courage. Because significant amounts of physical wealth could not be acquired or handed down through the generations, embodied cues such as size and dominance played the most crucial role in defining rank, especially among men.

As a result, the dynamics of primitive status continued until a turning moment 10,000 years ago, which would alter the path of history and substantially raise the status ante:

Agriculture was discovered by humans.

The potential to collect tangible riches in the form of crops and tamed cattle came with farming. The capacity to accumulate and protect massive quantities of riches was now more important than embodied qualities in determining status. Furthermore, these assets might be handed down from one generation to the next. Men may leave a farm or a herd of cattle to their sons, providing their descendants an advantage in the status game. Male relatives typically pooled their resources to establish strong cabals that supported their family’s financial and reproductive success, further compounding wealth concentration.

 

Agriculture sparked greater cultural and economic advancements, resulting in communities that became more stratified and hierarchical. Humans created writing to keep track of their riches, legal laws to safeguard property, and strict social institutions to guarantee that powerful and affluent families/dynasties remained wealthy and powerful. God-kings like Gilgamesh or the pharaohs of ancient Egypt were at the top of the totem pole, making all the laws and amassing immense riches; at the bottom, destitute and uneducated commoners had little to no power or hope of ascending up the hierarchy.

Agriculture not only helped to stratify and institutionalize human status, but it also gave birth to the city. Humans started to live in bigger and larger towns, rather than in small, close groups of roughly 150, as was characteristic of hunter-gatherer clans. The nameless urban mass was only getting started. Increased social complexity and the desire to convey status to outsiders outside of your own family and friends arose with city living. As a result, people began to depend less on embodied status signals that needed close proximity and more on conveying their worth through signals that could be read from afar.

Roman dress outfits togas different classes illustration.

Clothing, personal decoration, and consumer items started to play a larger role in indicating social standing. Kings and noblemen wore one sort of clothes, while lower-class people wore a different type. Different hairstyles were worn by people in different occupations. In extreme circumstances, whole groups of people might alter their bodies to signify their membership in a certain group. The necessity that Hebrew males be circumcised was, for example, a social statement to fellow Hebrews and non-Hebrews alike that they worshiped Yahweh as well as a symbol to God of their covenant. Humans in big cities might use these external social cues to swiftly express their status to others.

One of the issues with social signals such as dress, hairstyles, and the like is that someone who doesn’t necessarily have the necessary social standing to wear that item of clothing or jewelry may nevertheless do so and pass himself off as a member of a higher social rank. Another issue is that lower-status persons may seek to construct alternative status systems by elevating the value of things or actions that are contrary to those in power’s established standards (see “Christianity” below). To protect the status quo, sumptuary laws were enacted in the form of official regulations or informal religious norms that specified who could and could not wear particular garments, possess certain things, or participate in certain religious ceremonies.

Embroidered robes were solely worn by prostitutes in Ancient Greece. The toga was strictly controlled in Rome, and differing colors and the width and number of stripes along the garment’s border indicated a Roman’s social standing and age. Only monarchs and noblemen were allowed to wear beards throughout the Middle Ages, and if a commoner desired to grow one, he had to pay a fee. Whatever shape they took, all of these rules and customs had one thing in common: they all sought to restrict who had and did not have status.

 

Bridling the Male Status Drive with Monogamy

Polygyny ruler enjoying belly dance of a woman in tent.

Polygyny (men having several women) was the norm for much of human history in tribes all throughout the world. Because polygyny generates a “winner-take-all” reproductive market, it enhances status rivalry among males. Males at the top of the social ladder had greater access to women, whereas men at the bottom may not be able to procreate at all; as we mentioned last time, anthropologists estimate that only 33% of our progenitors were male due to polygyny.

As communities became bigger and more hierarchical, polygyny became increasingly prevalent. In big cultures, kings and rulers would have hundreds of wives, as well as a large harem, instead of just a handful. King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines, according to the Bible. Genghis Khan had so many wives and concubines that it is estimated that 16 million individuals alive today are his direct descendants.

Taking on as many wives and concubines as possible served two reasons for the “Big Men” in ancient communities. For starters, it acted as a rich status symbol. You must have the means to assist such a large number of individuals. Second, having a large number of wives and concubines indicated sexual prowess. A man’s capacity to procreate has been a key aspect in defining his standing as a man throughout history and throughout cultures. Ancient kings and rulers used polygyny and concubinage to build massive lineages and a realm where many of the people were derived from his own seed. Extreme polgyny and concubinage, in a manner, permitted a man to become a deity, populating his own small realm.

While polygyny and monogamy coexisted, monogamy was the only marriage option open to males who didn’t have the status or financial capacity to maintain more than one wife. Because the availability of natural and material resources influenced whether a man was monogamous or polygynous, this kind of monogamy is commonly referred to as environmentally enforced monogamy.

Priest making an agreement between a woman and a nun.

However, beginning with the ancient Greeks, monogamy became socially mandated; laws were enacted allowing all males — high and poor rank alike — to have just one wife. But why would men in positions of authority, guys who set the rules and could have as many wives as they wanted, consent to something like this? On the subject, sociologists and evolutionary psychologists have a few hypotheses. Richard Alexander, an evolutionary scientist, proposed the most commonly accepted theory. He claims that as civilizations became bigger, more males were required to wage conflicts between rival peoples. Large-scale combat need male-to-male cooperation. Polygyny, on the other hand, promotes intragroup conflict. As a result, communities started forbidding polygyny, giving all men equal access to women in order to lessen male-male conflict inside a community so that emphasis could be spent upon fighting those without it. Essentially, intergroup rivalry may have been so intense that high-status males were ready to exchange intragroup conflict and the chance to have a large number of wives for the sake of social cooperation and society survival.

 

And it was successful. In reality, everything went quite well.

Murder, rape, and other violent crimes are much lower in communities that enforce socially mandated monogamy than in societies that tolerate polygyny. Monogamy gives males the time and security to compete and seek status more indirectly via things like creative work, business acumen, and craftsmanship, rather than urgently battling one other for access to women. Monogamous communities are, as a result, much more inventive and economically productive than polygynous civilizations.

Monogamy enforced by society also motivates males to devote more time to their families. Rather of attempting to have as many children as possible, men devote their time and effort to ensuring that the children they do have thrive.

Finally, in polygynous civilizations, familial connections are often used to establish collective trust. The more closely a person is linked to you, the more trust you have in him. Monogamy enforced by society downplays the importance of blood connections in developing trust and encourages males to have relationships outside of their own family. Democracy and representative governments were made feasible by this increase in trust and sociality.

Many critics have said that monogamy effectively created the modern society for these reasons.

To be clear, although socially mandated monogamy began in ancient Greece, it took the development of Christianity and the Church’s growing influence throughout the medieval century to further establish and expand this marriage structure across the globe. Of all, just because monogamy has been the norm across the world doesn’t mean men haven’t had mistresses outside of their legally married wives since ancient Greece. The crucial thing to remember is that socially mandated monogamy — whether actively pursued or just in appearance — is the cultural invention that has had the greatest influence on male status. It drastically diminished the winner-take-all reproductive market of polygyny by allowing all males theoretically equal access to women. As a result, the male status drive was stifled, redirecting it away from direct, sometimes violent competition based on strength and into realms of creativity, ingenuity, and intelligence.

The Leveling of the Status Hierarchy and Christianity

The effect of Christianity in leveling the status playing field was not confined to its encouragement of monogamy; other precepts of the church would have a considerable impact on Westerners’ conceptions of the nature of status, how it should be acquired, and what part it should play in people’s lives.

Because of the agricultural revolution and its impact on economic concentration, the variables defining status changed away from those that are embodied and toward those that are “ascribed.” A person’s ascribed status is based on their birth circumstances or a position they take on later in life. If you were born to a nobleman, you would have high social position for the rest of your life; if you were born to a middle-class artisan, you would very certainly be a middle-class craftsman yourself; and if you were born to a slave, you would almost certainly always remain a slave. This strict order was accepted as a part of existence, dictated by destiny and the gods. “It is apparent that some persons are by nature free, while others are by nature slaves, and that slavery is both expedient and appropriate for these latter,” Aristotle wrote in Politics.

 

This isn’t to argue that status rivalries didn’t exist in the past. They were successful. Those contests for rank, however, took place inside a society’s many classes. Slaves competed with other slaves for status; artisans competed with other craftsmen for status; and monarchs and noblemen competed with other royals. Each social class had its own ranking system and criteria for determining a man’s position; for example, a house slave may have more status than a field slave, and certain trades were more recognized than others among artisans.

Until a single individual was born who would permanently transform the status game, these inflexible hierarchies could be seen in civilizations all across the planet.

During Caesar Augustus’ reign in Judea, a lowly carpenter’s son from the backwater village of Nazareth began teaching people some radical ideas about their personal worth — ideas that would completely disrupt the rigid and highly stratified social hierarchies that had been in place for thousands of years.

Three Christian concepts would have a significant influence on how mankind perceived status, especially in the West: 1) heavenly status is more essential than worldly position, 2) status is intrinsic, comprehensive, and universal, and 3) status is personal and unchangeable. Let’s take a look at each one in turn:

The importance of heavenly status outweighs that of worldly status. What mattered most to the ancient Greeks and Romans was the rank and reputation achieved during mortal life on earth. They did believe in a hereafter, but it was a bleak, empty, non-existent existence. You had to accomplish something during your earthly existence that would compel people to speak about you for millennia if you wanted to achieve beautiful immortality.

Of course, Christ taught something very different. The importance of heavenly glory overshadowed that of worldly splendor. Not only that, but one’s high worldly rank — and the wealth and pride that came with it — may actually be an impediment to winning a crown in heaven, rather than a benefit. The mighty and wealthy would be humbled, and the poor and meek would inherit the land. It was a total 180-degree turn from the Greek and Roman conceptions of rank.

Early christians gathered together reading drawing inportant information illustration.

Status is innate, universal, and inclusive. High status was reserved for males in ancient Greece; you might increase your rank by excelling in philosophy, oration, art, and martial prowess, but you had to be a male citizen to participate in the public arena. Women, foreigners, and slaves were not allowed. Christ and his followers preached a radically different message: that everyone was born with intrinsic worth and dignity. Beyond this inherent dignity, the only status that counted was being a disciple of Christ, and this was a position that anybody might attain. “There is no Jew nor Greek, there is neither bound nor free, there is neither male nor female,” Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, summarizing this principle of extreme inclusivity and universality.

 

The status of a person is private and constant. For much of human history, your social standing was determined by your public reputation. What you accomplished in front of others established your value in the eyes of your peers as well as the gods. If you wanted to be in the good graces of the gods, you had to win wars, sacrifice animals (and occasionally people), or create enormous statues to them, according to the Greeks and Romans. Christianity, on the other hand, inverted this concept by teaching that what the world thinks of you isn’t as important as what God thinks of you; God loves and cares about you, regardless of how ugly or impoverished you are, and nothing you can do will change that love.

The Renaissance and the Self-Creation Process

With the emergence of Christianity, we started to witness the beginnings of social status democratization. Individuals who were not born into a noble family may find solace in the thought that they, too, would be showered with splendor beyond this life. This isn’t to imply that the old, hierarchical status structures vanished overnight. In reality, when Christianity grew and became the national religion of kingdoms and empires, rulers used “divine prerogative” to justify their position. Yes, kings and peasants will share equal glory in the hereafter, these rulers said, but during this life, God had assigned each individual to a specific job and rank for reasons only he knew about. As a result, status hierarchies remained stable and inflexible throughout the Middle Ages.

Michelangelo god the father painting renaissance.

However, Christianity placed a seed in people’s hearts and thoughts that social walls were not as rigid and restrictive as they had long been considered to be. Philosophers started to ponder and expand on this concept, arguing that if all men may achieve glory in the hereafter, then surely all men can achieve glory in this life as well.

Starting in the 14th century in Italy, civilization had an era of tremendous advancement in art, science, and philosophy. Along with these cultural shifts, there was a shift in the Western mind that would ultimately erode monarchs’ and noblemen’s status monopolies and make the quest of worldly rank available to everyone.

Artists were at the forefront of this. Prior to the Renaissance, monarchs and emperors had commissioned these artists to create works that exalted themselves. The individual who commissioned the painting or the construction of a monument was well-known, but the painter or architect who completed the work remained unknown. During the Renaissance, this began to alter. Artists started signing their works, while writers began inscribing their names on the title pages of their books. It was no longer necessary to be born into aristocracy to achieve worldly rank; one might establish a reputation for oneself via artistic endeavors.

In addition to these advances in art and literature, the Renaissance witnessed upheavals in theological thought that would have far-reaching implications for how we see status. The Protestant Reformation served to build the notion of the individual while also further democratizing spiritual rank among Christians. Priests mediated a person’s connection to God in the Catholic Church, and religious service was largely social. Many medieval philosophers, like Thomas Aquinas, regarded all life and matter as linked in a hierarchical framework — a “great chain of being” — that began with God and worked its way down. Individuals weren’t thought to have the same unique identity — a feeling of separate self — that we have now.

 

Protestant reformers, on the other hand, rejected this social connection with God, claiming that each individual might have direct access to him. The Bible was translated into the common speech rather than depending on a priest fluent in Latin to read and interpret scripture. Individuals might study and interpret the Bible on their own, as well as pray, to discover God’s plan for their life. Faith began to take on a more personal dimension.

As a result of the Protestant Reformation, Westerners developed a greater sense of individuality. Most early Protestants believed in contentment with one’s position in life, but the contemporary idea in a separate self — one that was not reliant on membership in any group or organization — was gradually forming. This, in turn, led to a rising perception that status hierarchies weren’t so set in stone after all, and that any person might become the master of their own fate and success.

The Birth of Modern Anxiety over one’s social standing: Democracy, Meritocracy, and the Enlightenment

The political, economic, and social transformations that started during the Renaissance were sustained and magnified throughout the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. “The erosion of monarchical power, the rise of Parliament in England, the growth of individualism fostered by Protestant theology, the expansion of economic markets across Europe, and the rise in literacy rates around the world, encouraged a myriad of new ways for individuals to engage in activities and achieve status that had previously been barred to them or not even existed,” writes Leo Braudy in his book The Frenzy of Renown.

Democracy and meritocracy, in particular, would have a significant impact on how contemporary Westerners see status.

Liberal Democracies on the Rise

Founding fathers america creating constitution by gathering imortant personal painting.

Enlightenment intellectuals started to promote the concept that everyone was born with certain inherent rights that could not be taken away. The government’s job was to safeguard these unalienable rights. They effectively brought the concept of heavenly Christian equality to earth. There was no such thing as a monopoly on power for kings and nobles. They, too, were bound to natural laws and rights, and they could only reign with the agreement of the people they ruled.

After the American and French Revolutions, democratic governments were established, which not only moved political power from the few to the many, but also produced a psychological change among the residents of these countries. High status was no longer restricted to a select few with the appropriate ancestors; anybody with the will might reach it. However, under this status democracy, you’d have to work for it.

The Rise of Meritocracy in the United States of America

Despite being a member of the landed elite, Thomas Jefferson aspired to create a republic in which a man’s birth circumstances had little to do with his potential to be a respected and active citizen. He aspired to turn America into an aristocracy of talent and virtue, bestowing status on anyone willing to work for the republic’s good. In brief, he aspired for the budding nation to be a meritocracy, where people earned their position rather than being handed it.

 

However, for a meritocracy to take root, fundamental transformations in how people saw work and themselves were required. First, employment had to be seen as a holy vocation that benefitted both the person and society, rather than a punishment owing to Original Sin. The concept of the “Protestant work ethic” is introduced. While Protestants understood that toiling our days away was the consequence of Adam’s sin, they believed it was something to be thankful for rather than mourned. Work was transformed into a “fortunate curse” that enabled man to spiritually purify himself and keep him away from temptations while also furthering God’s kingdom on earth.

Second, labor has to be linked to moral value. While Christian teaching had severed the link between worldly riches and moral worth, some Protestant preachers and philosophers in the 17th and 18th centuries tried to re-connect the two. A good Christian was to be hardworking rather than slothful, economical rather than extravagant, and cautious rather than rash. In the open marketplaces that sprung up in England and the American colonies, these Protestant qualities also led to tangible riches. If you were poor, the reasoning ran, it was probably because you were a slacker and a boozehound. During the 19th century, priests issued pamphlets and publications like 1863’s The Book of Riches: In Which It Is Proved from the Bible That It Is the Duty of Every Man to Become Rich, emphasizing the link between wealth and morality.

Third, people have to think that their efforts would lead to a change in status. Individuals felt they had little or no influence over their life over the majority of human history. Birth, Fate, luck, or God all had a role in determining one’s status, and it was the responsibility of people to play the hand they were dealt firmly. The mighty king-warriors of The Iliad are subjected to the whims of the gods and reluctantly accept it. During the Middle Ages, rulers pondered the concept of the rota fortuna, or wheel of fortune. All of the men sat on this massive philosophical wheel, which was spun by the goddess Fortuna, who was blindfolded. A guy may be at the top of the wheel, enjoying the rewards of his good fortune, but he could also be on his way down to the bottom in the blink of an eye. He realized that he had no control over the wheel’s spins and that his destiny was not totally in his hands.

Sink or swim, by hoartio alger book cover.

People came to assume they could control their own fates as the economy grew prosperous in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Industrialization offered up new areas of labor and career possibilities for men; they were no longer confined to working on the family farm and could pursue other endeavors. With more possibilities, success became seen as a question of making the correct decisions and working hard; a new ideal of the self-made man evolved, in which one might take control of the wheel from Lady Luck, drive his own life, and rise from rags to riches by pluck and determination. Our language started to reflect this change in mentality. “Fortune” meant destiny before the 17th century; by the 18th century, it also denoted economic riches. A guy no longer sat idly by, waiting for chance to bestow prestige on him; instead, he “made his fortune” — that is, he created his own money by creating his own luck.

 

While this new sense of self-control allowed me to advance in life, it came at a high psychological cost. What did it mean to fail if you, and you alone, defined your own success in life?

It was, after all, your own darn fault.

In his book Status Anxiety, philosopher Alain De Botton puts it thus way:

With the rise of the economic meritocracy, the poor were renamed ‘failures,’ and seen as fair targets for the contempt of strong, self-made individuals who were unable to feel ashamed of their mansions or shed crocodile tears for those whose company they had escaped…

The humiliation of shame is added to the hurt of poverty.

Democratic sensibilities, combined with a growing feeling of self-destiny engendered by the burgeoning meritocracy, resulted in a startling new idea of status that was both inspiring and existentially terrifying. Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian and political theorist, saw the double-edged mental sword that came with the opening of opportunity to everyone during his tour of the United States in the early nineteenth century. He writes in Democracy in America:

In America, I witnessed the world’s most free and educated persons put in the world’s happiest circumstances; it looked to me as if a cloud hovered over their heads all the time, and I considered them somber and almost melancholy, even in their joys…

When all birth and wealth advantages are eliminated, when all professions are open to everybody, and a man’s own efforts may position him at the top of any of them, an easy and unlimited career is available to his desire, and he can easily convince himself that he is born to no ordinary fate. However, this is a false belief that is disproved by everyday experience. The same equality that permits every citizen to imagine these high ambitions also makes all citizens less capable of realizing them; it limits their capacities on all sides while allowing their wants to run wild… They’ve swept away some of their fellow beings’ privileges that stood in their way, but they’ve also opened the door to global competition; the barrier has changed form rather than location… When inequity of circumstances is the general rule of society, the most glaring discrepancies go unnoticed; when everything is practically on the same level, the smallest differences are significant enough to injure…

To these factors must be ascribed the peculiar sadness that frequently accompanies democratic country residents in the middle of their affluence, as well as the hatred for life that may strike them even in the midst of calm and pleasant circumstances… Suicide is uncommon in America, although insanity is considered to be more prevalent there than everywhere else.

However, it must be admitted that man’s hopes and desires are oftener blasted, the soul is more stricken and perturbed, and care itself is more keen in democratic times than in aristocratic times, and the number of those who partake in them is vastly greater: on the other hand, it must be admitted that man’s hopes and desires are oftener blasted, the soul is more stricken and perturbed, and care itself is more keen.

 

Tocqueville was arguing that, although democracy and meritocracy abolished the inflexible aristocracy and enabled individuals to rise in status by their own efforts, they also made status contests considerably more severe and psychically vivid. All males, even low-status men, had high aspirations and expectations as a result of democracy. However, as more people believed they were capable of doing everything they set their minds to and aspired to rise up in the world, competition for status intensified, making it both easier and harder to achieve. When you combine that with a culture that places sole responsibility for one’s own success or failure on the individual, you’ve got a recipe for high psychological stress.

Botton refers to this unease as “status anxiety” in the contemporary Western psyche. People in an aristocratic society with set social positions had less freedom but greater psychological stability — they didn’t spend much time thinking about where they ranked since they couldn’t change it. On the other hand, we moderns live in a society where our options appear limitless and our position is continually questioned. We persuade ourselves, “Sure, I’m OK.” “However, I believe I could do better.” Maybe there’s something more I’m missing out on.” It’s difficult to be satisfied with our achievements, which generates a pervasive and never-ending feeling of restlessness.

Conclusion and Summary

While our biological urge for status is engrained, the methods in which it has been seen, managed, expressed, and coveted has changed dramatically throughout time. The meaning and character of rank are influenced by the forces of human civilization in every epoch.

Status was inherent in nature for egalitarian hunter-gatherers, and it was demonstrated and expressed primarily via physical features and sometimes violent contests. As agriculture and societies became more sophisticated, the desire to transmit status in more efficient and less harmful methods emerged. As a result, humans evolved “social signals” that could be read from afar and comprehended by strangers. At the same time, as a few families gathered several wives, immense influence, and fortune, hierarchies grew increasingly rigid and stratified. Status was based on assigned traits and was earned by being born into the correct social class.

By propagating the premise that all persons have equal and intrinsic value in God’s sight, Christianity started to weaken the hardened walls of status. By promoting the practice of monogamy, which provided all men theoretically equal access to women and the prestige that came with marriage, the religion leveled the status playing field. Males may focus on advancing ahead in the world by engaging in creative and intellectual activities, as well as acquiring money via business, rather than competing in physical competitions with other men for access to women.

While Christianity exhorted its followers to turn their minds and energies away from worldly success, it also planted the seeds for the birth of individualism — seeds that would later lead to an increasingly frantic drive for status, once amplified and fertilized during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The Renaissance promoted the idea of man possessing divine potential that might be developed in this earthly life and expressed through art, bringing honor and rank to its creators. The Enlightenment advocated for democratic regimes that would transform countries into meritocracies, where all individuals who worked hard had an equal opportunity of progressing in life.

 

This last leveling of the status playing field increased human angst while expanding human freedom and options. Whereas status used to be at least somewhat determined by birth and chance, and could only be changed in a few ways, it has now become something that is totally within an individual’s control. Choosing the appropriate option from an unlimited menu and grabbing chances via tenacity and hard effort became the primary determinant of whether you succeeded or failed.

So, where do we stand now as a result of this? In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the nature of status and the means in which it might be obtained and expressed changed. It has taken on a new meaning in current times, in that it has become high status to openly deny one’s desire for any kind of status at all, and to act as if we are above it all. At the same time, social media has drastically increased the number of perceived status rivals. This has produced a dynamic in which contemporary men are becoming more restless and nervous, but have no idea why, since their need for status has been buried.

We’ll analyze these two currents and their implications for masculinity and contemporary society in the following two articles.

Complete the Series

Introduction to Men and Status How Testosterone Fuels the Desire for Status in Your Brain The Evolution of Status on a Biological Level The Evolution of Status on a Cultural Level Rebel Cool’s Ascension and Fall Millennials and the Changing Meaning of Cool – A Cause Without Rebels Our Modern Status System’s Pitfalls Why Should You Be Concerned About Your Status? A Handbook for Managing Status in the Twenty-First Century

Introduction to Men and Status How Testosterone Fuels the Desire for Status in Your Brain The Evolution of Status on a Biological Level The Evolution of Status on a Cultural Level Rebel Cool’s Ascension and Fall Millennials and the Changing Meaning of Cool – A Cause Without Rebels Our Modern Status System’s Pitfalls Why Should You Be Concerned About Your Status? A Handbook for Managing Status in the Twenty-First Century

Further Reading & Resources:

Fame and Its History: A Frenzy of Renown

Status Anxiety

The Evolution of Human Sex Differences Male, Female

A Darwinian Look at Human Behavior: Why Does Sex Matter?

 

 

The “i don t care about status” is a phrase that is widely used in the United States. The male drive for status has been around since the beginning of time, but it’s cultural evolution is what makes this topic interesting.

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