A group of my friends intends to discuss The Way of Men by Jack Donovan in a few days. This article will describe his salient points and offer my opinion on his ideas. While reading Donovan’s book, I felt really enthusiastic about his ideas, but my critical mind has weighed in since then. He starts with the understanding that modern men feel frustrated because the society around them devalues manliness and has not taught men to be men. If one tries to arrive at an answer for what manliness is, competing ideologies are apt to confuse the issue. (He himself gives examples of what might be termed aristocratic, spiritual, and commercial versions of masculinity, which are at odds with one another.) Donovan attempts to cut through the problem of competing ideologies by looking at man in a state of nature in order to understand what manliness really is. Yes, he owes Thomas Hobbes for his method of argument and quotes him several times.
What do we find in a state of nature? The most pressing goals are survival and protecting one’s community. In a primitive state of nature, there exist no weapons that completely make up for a lack of strength. So, strength and physical courage are the prime determinants for who will be in charge of defending the group. This job has paramount importance and naturally falls to men, with the strongest and most courageous receiving the greatest honor and respect. To use Adam Ferguson’s An Essay on the History of Civil Society, we are looking at a barbarian society, where manly virtues have the most scope. This state is unlike modern commercial society, where the intellectual virtues governing buying and selling hold primacy of place and fewer people are responsible for defending society.
From a state of nature, Donovan derives his tactical virtues, which he terms amoral (an obvious flaw in his argument, since there is no such thing as an amoral virtue): strength, courage, mastery, and honor. I agree with his placement of courage (which is also a cardinal virtue) and mastery among his list of manly virtues, but strength and honor do not fulfill the definition of virtue. Virtues always relate to morality and are intrinsic qualities of a person. Strength is an intrinsic quality but has no moral dimension. Honor is neither an intrinsic quality (Honor is bestowed or taken away by one’s fellows) nor a part of morality. Strength is a help to courage and mastery, but courage and mastery are the virtues, not strength.
For honor, Donovan would have done better to substitute loyalty: “Part of the reason that honor is a virtue rather than merely a state of affairs is that showing concern for the respect of your peers is a show of loyalty and indication of belonging–of being us rather than them” (57). The quote shows that the desire for the respect of one’s peers is an act of loyalty. But, loyalty seems at least as important for women as it is for men. As much as a knight would hate to be named recreant, a woman fears to be named a slut or an adulteress. A woman’s sphere has ever been the home or family and her way of expressing loyalty to her family was by maintaining her virginity until marriage and then guarding the honor of her husband by faithfulness. So, men value loyalty, but it’s not as exclusive as courage or mastery, which is why Donovan perhaps eschewed listing loyalty as one of the particular virtues of men.
But, Donovan follows the right course in highlighting courage and mastery as masculine virtues. Cicero also avers that it is fortitude makes men men. On the side of mastery, men have always admired someone with competence and skilled in a particular craft. We would all like to be in the position of John Browning, whom the Parisians referred to as “the master” for his genius in producing innovative and reliable firearms. Modern society, as Donovan rightly notes, neither promotes courageous men (except in selling movies and books) nor masters. Machines and computers reduce the need for skilled labor in modern society. Most men are relegated to the realm of clerkdom and little hobbies: “What the modern world offers average men is a thousand and one ways to safely spank our monkey brains into oblivion” (122) and “…the rest of us shuffle off to boring, risk-free jobs to do idiot work and stare at the clock…” (123). It takes a ton of creativity and perseverance to break this cycle.
But, certain sociologists think that allowing men to suffer the frustration of living self-indulgent and non-important lives benefits society. Men want challenges and risky adventures, which these socilogists label “male demonism.” Male drives cause conflict in the world and disrupt commerce. The solution is to tame men to accept dwelling in a “Bonobo Masturbation Society.”
“But, Medieval,” you say, “why are you picking on the gays for the shape society is taking?” I pick on them because the chief pursuit of the bonobos is sex, both heterosexual and homosexual. One cannot escape the fact that modern society is highly sexualized: we are bombarded by advertisements with fashionable and attractive actors and models, the pornographic industry is huge, and children are no longer seen as central reason for marriage by a huge swath of society. In addition to the pleasure of sex, modern men often dissipate the hours after work with drugs, alcohol, and mindless entertainment–things not designed to build up an honor societies or masculine identity. Is it worth emasculating men for the sake of reducing violence? And, does the pursuit of drugs, alcohol, sex, and amusement really reduce violence in society? I have my doubts. By the way, if you want to see a dark picture of the Bonobo Masturbation Society, I recommend a short anime titled From the New World, aka Shin Sekai Yori, as being very accurate to what it looks like despite elements of fantasy.
In opposition to this unmanly society, Donovan suggests a return to gang culture or honor societies. Actually, he goes even further than that: “I’ve been an unbeliever all my life, but I’d drop to my knees and sing the praises of any righteous god who collapsed this Tower of Babel and scattered men across the Earth in a million virile, competing cultures, tribes, and gangs” (141). Manliness cannot be manifested in isolation. Men need the respect of other men and challenging goals in order to realize manliness. But, is our only hope a return to the Dark Ages, as Donovan suggests?
I can’t but agree with the problems Donovan highlights. Men feel adrift in the modern world. Even though wholesome ideologies exist, post-modern ideologies strive to suppress the wholesome ways of the past where men knew how to be men. As we speak, the City of Memphis is disinterring the body of General Nathan Bedford Forrest and his wife for the crime of, as I see it, not being 21st century, Yankee, urban, liberal democrats. How many other brave men are vilified these days, while the unmanly, politically correct, and pleasure-loving receive the plaudits of the ruling class and their lackeys? Such actions dissuade men from loving virtuous men, and how can any man have a chance of being a virtuous man without loving what he ought to become?
But, here I must pick on Donovan again. His concept of manliness suffers from a fatal flaw: he looks at men from a societal and physical perspective while ignoring the soul. (He did say that he was an atheist.) In some way, masculinity must be related to that most masculine of Beings: God the Father. All men and women are created in the image and likeness of God, but men must have a particular way of imitating God according to masculinity. The two virtues we most associate with God are justice and charity or mercy. Perhaps the true man is one who cleaves to justice with courage and uses his mastery in order to benefit others? After all, we would not think that a man having courage and mastery but lacking justice and charity was a man: we should consider him a villain or a monster! But, that’s a discussion for another time. I encourage all my interested readers to pick up Jack Donovan’s book and come to their own conclusions.