About the Book
Fire in the Belly is a book written by Sam Keen, who is both a philosopher and professor. In the book Sam explores masculinity based on his own personal life experiences, and his experience leading a group of men over the decades. Sam cites historical, psychological and literary references for us to understand his concepts.
In this book, Sam talks about the masculine rites of passage that men have been socially conditioned to go through. These are the warrior, economic and sexual rites of passage.
Here are what they are about.
Warrior Rite of Passage
What is the warrior psyche?
The warrior psyche is born out of systemic conditioning of what Keen calls the warfare system. According to Sam, there is more systemic influence to explain the warrior psyche rather than biological influence from genetics. It is the psyche that is supposed to guide a man through his warrior rite of passage.
As men, we subconsciously measure ourselves based on how well we can fight. We wonder what it would be like to engage in a fight. Sometimes we may even be scared to admit that we’re not that good of a fighter. We doubt how much of a man we are, and fear other people judging us for our lack of warrior.
One example of systemic influence on the warrior psyche is the government recruitment of men into the army. Inside the system, men are honoured for their bravery and sacrifice of their body to the state. (Keen seems to speak specifically about the U.S. Government.). But this isn’t the main culprit behind our warrior psyche.
Culture is. As children we’ve been initiated by our culture to believe that if we can’t fight, we would be called a sissy and determined to not be manly. This is the modern day rhetoric we’ve heard in mainstream media and the feminist movement.
Sam Keen wrote this book way before “toxic masculinity” became used as a politically charged term. He writes about men in a way that is not apologetic, but in a way that explains how we’re psychologically and emotionally wounded.
How does the warfare system affect us?
Psychological Effect: War is a natural way for men
By inhabiting the warrior psyche, we assume that violence and conflict is the natural way that men operate. Our mind is designed to interact with the world in a conquer and destroy mode. As a result, war is not something we love, but something we accept to be natural.
Physical Effect: We Develop Character Armour
Wilhelm Reich suggests that there is a physical affect the warfare system has on men. If the culture creates the perception of an enemy that is always present, the male citizens of that culture will develop a “character armour”.
This character armor is a body posture that is appropriate for fighting. Our muscles are tense. Our balls our drawn up into our body. Shoulders brought back. Chest out and eyes are narrowed.
Psychological Effect: Aggression is prized above everything else.
Within the warfare system, aggression is prized as a virtue. If a man is taught that this is a virtue then his most readily expressed emotion will be anger.
Interestingly enough, anger is one of the emotions that is stigmatized in our culture nowadays. I’m starting to suspect this is just an effort by society to tame men and steer them away from toxic masculinity.
Physical Effect: Heart Attacks
Keen cites unnamed research that aggression mixed with hostility predisposes men to heart attacks. The problem here is that men have a hard time separating aggression from anger.
Even to me as a reader, this came as a surprise as I never really viewed aggression as something separate from anger. Perhaps it is my own conditioning that has led me to view these two things as naturally interlinked.
Psychological Effect: Black and White thinking
As mentioned earlier, our minds are conditioned to be in a conquering mode. This means that when we are engaged in conflicts that may or may not be physical, our mind is so geared towards defeating the enemy that we disregard anything else.
As these conflicts intensify, our minds could start oversimplifying the situation, and shape the scenario and enemy into a defeatable and “killable” entity. This kind of thinking may be found in today’s workplace culture, sports, or just your average man to man brawl. It brings perspective into how fast conflicts escalate, and how willing our mind can be to engage in a conflict as well.
Psychological and Physical Effect: We are Disposable
Perhaps the most obvious problem to me before reading this book is male disposability. Keen goes into great lengths(in proportion to other concepts) to explain how for thousands of years men have been a battlefield sacrifice.
As a form of self-preservation, men of history were expected to physically protect their women and children. This was the only way that men could defend those that they love. With this in mind, Keen implies that it was history that built the expectation of male disposability. This social conditioning continues to exist today as we do not question the recruitment of soldiers by governments.
What do we do with the warrior psyche and warfare system?
Keen’s sentiment seems to want men to unlearn the warrior psyche. However he knows that this is no easy task. Men aren’t capable of becoming super introspective and sensitive overnight. And even if they were able to, it would take hard work and a long time to unlearn a psyche that has been used for a lifetime.
The Economic Rite of Passage
Who is the economic man?
The economic man is one that learns how to work and has a plan what to do. As men, this is what society expects of us. We commit ourselves to our work, and what comes out of this work defines who we are. Work itself is our rite of passage.
The wealth we accumulate, and the assets we buy along the way are symbols of our progress. We start of by getting our first job. After that our first mortgage. After that maybe our first promotion. We do these things because other men do them. If we don’t we then feel left out, and don’t feel like we’re progressing like other men are.
Sam Keen writes from a time when corporate america still dominates professional life. Now with the rise of the sharing economy, digital entrepreneurship and startups, how have symbols for the economic man changed?
Is a man judged by how interesting and sexy his job is? Is a man measured based on how much impact his job has on society? Does a man have a soul if he’s not 100% passionate about his job? These are all questions worth asking.
How are we affected by this Rite of Passage?
As hinted at earlier in the previous section, our worth as men is based off of how fruitful our career is. We’re judged almost immediately based on the wealth we can generate from our jobs. There is certainly more respect for a man based on the wealth he generates.
But its not only the expectation of wealth from our jobs. Men now want something more from their work. Sam Keen recognised during his time that Americans wanted to achieve their life values through their work. They wanted meaningful work.
Keen wasn’t wrong. Tons of people today are searching for the right job that will bring satisfaction, and a company that aligns with their values. Sam described this need for doing meaningful work as a craving. Instead of finding meaning and satisfaction through leisurely activities, humans are addicted to finding meaning and satisfaction through work.
The more accomplished or proficient we are with our meaningful work, the better we feel about ourselves. And so the problem is how do we feel about ourselves without our work? Is there something else worthy about us other than our career achievements?
The answer for many men might be no. Besides work we don’t have anything else we find that is truly worthy about ourselves. Work itself has become something so integral to how we define our happiness, and the cultural norms at work could be dictating the way we perceive our own happiness.
(e.g. being happy about your promotion, being happy about closing a latest deal.).
Can the same be said about non-corporate culture and startup culture? Or the digital entrepreneurs of today?
As a person who has worked in the world of men’s tailoring, I once held myself up to an extremely high standard of enjoying my work. I ended up putting so much pressure into myself enjoying the process that I ended up hating the process and work itself. My vision and dream of how the job should be and how I should feel at the job ultimately killed whatever “passion” i thought I had for men’s tailoring.
This experience has now brought out a self-doubt I have about doing Apexology. Will I hold myself to certain expectations of happiness based off of my work on Apexology? Will I based my self-worth on how successful Apexology becomes? Only time can tell.
The Office Home
Corporate Utopia, as Sam Keen would call it, would heavily involve turning the office into a comfortable workplace.
The comfort and amenities we can find at offices at google and airbnb are now considered the gold standard of workplace design and culture.
Being able to immerse ourselves comfortably into our workplaces and treat our colleagues as our family is the Office Home. Our registered home address where we sleep is no longer considered a place worth investing in. It is no longer a place we plan on turning into comfort and joy.
What Sam did not forsee is the rise of people, (not only millenials) who choose the digital nomad life. There are so many of us that want to work remotely.
Sam Keen describes the economic man as a being that has been degendered. He says that corporate culture does not “turn women into men but that it destroys the fullness of both manhood and womanhood.”
I believe this sentiment is similar to David Deida’s teachings on masculine and feminine energy. What sam describes as being degendered is close to what Deida describes as neutral energy. Instead of exhibiting masculine or feminine energy at the workplace now, we are all being trained to exhibit behaviors of neutral energy. Read more about masculine energy here.
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What can we do about the Economic Rite of Passage?
The rules are still written. The symbols of progress still remain. Although society and our peers may continue to judge us based on the economic rite of passage, we shape our own perception of ourselves by questioning our relationship with work.
What part of my work defines my happiness?
Is work an addiction?
Am i dependant on my job to be happy?
Where else can we find happiness outside of work?
Perhaps this is the reason why we pick up hobbies. But do hobbies make us truly happy? Or are they just a distraction?
Find out what really it is that you love.
Why do you do what you do?
Do you love the thrill of closing a deal?
Are you in love with your corporate culture?
Do you love the simple act of creating?
If you’re fortunate enough to ask yourself these questions, then by all means do. Not all of us in this world have the opportunity to figure out and shape our relationship with our work. So if you have the opportunity, just go for it!
The Sexual Rite of Passage
What is the sexual rite of passage and how does it work?
From a young age we learn that our identities revolve around our penis. Does this mean we’re constantly obsessed with how our penis looks? No. Our society just teaches us that we are being measured based on our sexuality.
Society can teach us about our sexuality through the media, porn and magazines. We also learn about what sex should be like from how the other boys describe it. Sometimes we even learn a thing or two from women as well. This may seem like a huge benefit for us men, but the vast majority of what we’ve been taught is damaging towards us.
We learn that we have to be a sexual warrior.
We have to conquer as many women as possible because this proves our potency.
We learn that we have to be a sexual worker.
We have to focus and boost our performance as a lover, and it is our duty to become the best lover.
Keen brings up the fact here that our warrior and economic rites of passage directly affect our sexuality. He explains more in the book.
How does the sexual rite of passage affect us?
As mentioned earlier, our role of sexuality is defined by our roles as warriors and working men. As a result, we develop what Keen calls sexual wounds. Our sexuality is damaged as it leaves us incapable of the simple act of feeling.
This wound is probably a psychological wound that is related to our sexuality. Many men when having sex will be so focused on how many times they made a woman come, rather than finding out other ways that a woman found pleasure when having sex with him. This is what Keen describes as male feelinglessness.
This feelingless approach to sex is connected with our inability to enjoy the rich and small pleasure of daily life. In the world of the sexual warrior, we are more concerned with the number of women we have been with rather than how much pleasure was experienced with any of those women.
Some women seem to understand this feelinglessness about men as well. Keen cites a woman who says that the male penis is the most “feminine” part of a man. Only when a man uses his penis does he find a way to feel. This reality combined with men’s expectation of paradise regained is a path to resentment and pain.
When a man expects to lay their lifelong burdens down on a woman, this sets him up for disaster. He puts her on a pedestal. This man expects a woman to reward him for his lifelong struggles and suffering. Through a woman, a man wants to be made whole again and reconnect with his severed feelings. This is what Sam Keen means by paradise regained.
If a man expects a woman to be his paradise, he will give her all the power to decide whether he is worthy enough of paradise. He will begin to fulfill her conditions in order to win favors from her. This is the seed of resentment.
This resentment ties in very much with the resentment of guys with nice guy syndrome. Read about nice guy syndrome here.
What do we do with our sexuality?
Sam Keen doesn’t provide a direct answer or solution in this chapter of the book. But it is implied through his explanation of how warrior and worker roles affect our sexuality. We need to unlearn the effects that warrior and worker roles have on our sexuality.
Firstly, the pressure that we put on ourselves as sexual performers needs to stop. What can we do instead? We can learn to enjoy sex in a non-performing role. Perhaps each one of us can learn something about our own masculinity through non-performing roles.
Secondly, each woman shouldn’t be seen as a conquest. This doesn’t mean we have to be monogamous, but each interaction with a woman should be more than just a number. Can we enjoy sex with a woman without adding it to our track record?