137 years ago, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about “the last man,” an anti-idealistic vision of what man might become: unambitious, cautious, uncurious yet arrogant; seeking to live long and comfortably. To Nietzsche, this view was contemptible, yet seemed to him the aim of many of the men around him.
Today, the signs of this last man, of the end of men, surround us. Our culture seems directed towards the End of History, and with it, the Last Man.
But in opposition to this aim, a movement has arisen pushing back against this ideal — if not towards some superman, then at least towards the reclamation of man and manliness. On the front line of that movement is Jack Donovan.
Jack Donovan is the author of The Way of Men. He has emerged as a powerful advocate for men and traditional masculinity (or, as he likes to call it, “masculinity”) in the face of modern effeminacy and mediocrity. Followed by authors, biker gangs, soldiers and fathers, his work is a must-read for all men today.
C&P: Most people never write anything. What got you into writing? Was it something you’d always wanted to do, or was there something in particular that convinced you to pick up a pen?
DONOVAN: I took one fiction writing class in college. I’ve always been good with words, but I never thought I would become a writer. I started writing some essays for a group I was in, and one of the guys asked me if I thought I could turn my essays into a book. I took a shot at it, and I guess the rest is history.
C&P: What got you into the subject of masculinity?
DONOVAN: I’ve always been interested in the subject of masculinity. I was reading Camille Paglia in high school, and I’d actually say her perspectives have influenced a lot of my work. It was in her book Sexual Personae that I was first introduced to the Nietzschean contrast between the Apollonian and Dionysian, but there’s also this fantastic essay she wrote titled “No Law In The Arena” in Vamps and Tramps that I used as an inspiration for my first book. She’s incredibly intelligent and a master stylist.
I was skeptical of what some would call “traditional” masculinity — which is really just masculinity — when I was younger, and I was influenced by writers who believed that it was confining and limiting. I’ve heard all of those arguments and at one point in my life, I believed them. It was only in my early thirties that I went back and looked at some of the aspects of masculinity that I thought were “outdated” and saw something there that I had missed. It was specifically while reading Jack London’s Sea Wolf, which led to other books and directions in thought. I started to realize that something beautiful and powerful was being dismissed and reduced and destroyed, and that no one was replacing it with anything that was actually better for men or for the world. I had surrounded myself with men who had abandoned masculine ideals, or merely objectified them, and through life experience I came to the realization that despite all of their slogans and insisting otherwise, they were’t stronger or happier or “more evolved.” They were just lost and damaged and really quite insecure — even desperate. It’s a comedy of hashtags that the people who say that “masculinity is so fragile” are in fact extremely fragile themselves, and they despise masculinity because they don’t feel sufficiently affirmed by it. They all have “daddy issues.” It’s all driven by ressentiment.
C&P: Between academic literature, more sedentary lifestyles, and generally lower levels of testosterone, there seems to be a crisis in masculinity today. Have there been crises of masculinity like this before? Or is this something new and unique to the 21st century?
DONOVAN: When I first wrote The Way of Men, I was able to get author Sam Sheridan to review it and give me a blurb. One of his comments was that throughout history, men have always complained that men had become soft, or that the next generation seemed comparatively weak. And that’s true. Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s Hagakure, recorded between 1709 and 1716, was basically a diatribe about how samurai just weren’t what they used to be. The Greeks and Romans were always writing about how men used to be greater or nobler. But that doesn’t mean that there are no actual low points or times of dissolution.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote that, “The opposite of manliness isn’t cowardice; it’s technology.” I don’t necessarily agree with that. Men have been the primary drivers of technological invention for the majority of history, and in many cases they invent new technologies to compete with each other. But we are at a point in history where men have created so much technology that they’ve rendered themselves all but obsolete, and we’ve reached a level of civilized specialization where we outsource a lot of the work that requires the tactical virtues of strength, courage, mastery and honor to a small minority of men.
So, many men feel purposeless and lost and untested. Instead of being tested by the world, they have to seek out those kinds of tests so that they can exercise that aspect of their nature. Feminists and others have argued that masculinity is no longer necessary, but as I’ve often pointed out, so is non-reproductive sex. Asking men to stop wanting to be men is a lot like asking everyone to stop wanting to get laid. And people who never get laid can get awfully bitchy. The primal drives still exist, because they are part of what we are as a species. We can either seek productive ways to channel those drives, or we can pretend they don’t exist and watch them manifest in destructive ways.
A man also invented the birth control pill. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but that one piece of technology made modern feminism possible and completely changed human sexual dynamics forever. This is also a situation that has never existed before. It made female careerism possible, and we can probably also thank him for Tinder and the mass proliferation of pornography.
C&P: Since The Way of Men, you’ve been delving more into religion and spirituality. Many pastors complain that women often have to drag their husbands to church, and PEW research seems to support the idea that women are generally more devout than men. Do you think this is something specific to Christianity, or to modernity, or do you think it says something about men and women more generally?
DONOVAN: The Old Testament god is undeniably a patriarchal sky god of order, very much in line with the Proto-Indo-European concept of Dyeus Pəter that we find in many mythologies. Christianity is a somewhat different animal, and I agree with a lot of Nietzsche’s criticisms of it. It’s characterized by ressentiment, and while a lot of men work to tease a warlike masculinity out of it, it requires a lot of stretching. It’s just not there in the material like it is in the Germanic, Greek or Roman myths — or even Islam. (Someone, somewhere desperately wants to comment about that time Jesus threatened the moneylenders…because that’s basically what they’ve got to work with.) There were a lot of movements to create a more “muscular” Christianity, but it’s a hard sell. I think Christianity was a civilizing influence in a more warlike and dangerous world, but in the current society where men already feel forced into submission by Byzantine laws and corporate policies and entitled women, the last thing a lot of men want to do is go to church and apologize to god for being a sinner every Sunday. They’ve already been apologizing to customers and to human resources and to their wives all week, and I think a lot of them would just rather watch football and not apologize for a few hours.
That said, I have a lot of men in my life who I really respect and admire who are devoutly Christian, and they make it work for them, so I try not to go hard in that direction. It’s divisive and it separates me from men who I otherwise have a lot in common with. I don’t like to argue about it, because ultimately the debate doesn’t interest me. I don’t have to make them see it my way. And I appreciate it that they (usually) don’t feel like they have to make me see it their way.
Religions change over time to address people’s changing needs. I’m trying to develop a spiritual system that addresses the needs that men have today. The funny thing is that following this path has put me in a situation where I feel like I’m doing the work of the same god. Christians just have a different book. I chuckled to myself last weekend when I was performing my first ritual in the context of this form I’ve been integrating. I anointed a friend with red ochre and gold, and while I was doing it, I said, “In the name of the Father.” It was the right thing to say and it made perfect sense. It just struck me as funny, because I was raised Catholic…and I’ve heard those words before.
C&P: Of the four tactical virtues you wrote about in The Way of Men, strength, courage, and mastery seem fairly straightforward. Honor, however, is a little bit harder to define and to actualize in one’s own life. What IS honor, and how might a man go about becoming more honorable? (In action, what does caring about what others think of you usually entail?)
DONOVAN: Honor is complicated. The simple definition, and the one I gave in the book, is essentially your reputation as a man among men in your honor group. We didn’t always get to choose our honor groups, but right now, we do. Ideally, you want to surround yourself with men whose respect you truly value. That makes seeking that respect easy. Hopefully you are doing things to gain the honor of men who you want to be more like, or who do some things that you value better than you do them yourself. Though when honor is invoked, it usually means doing something hard — something you don’t want to do, but are going to force yourself to do because you want those men to respect you or continue to respect you.
Honor also gets tricky, because an honor culture can become a control system that benefits a few at the expense of many. You can have a chieftain or a king who is double dealing and who would throw your life or reputation away at the drop of a hat, but who demands a pledge of honor, and expects everyone to treat that honor as a sacred thing. In the modern world, where we choose our tribes, that honor has to be reciprocated, or you just end up an exploited sucker.
Honor also evolved and became individualized with the spread of Christianity, so we ended up with two competing concepts of honor, because men felt they owed honor to God first. In a secular sense, this comes down to personal morality. Under the first and oldest honor ideal, if your group wants to do something you think is wrong, you do it because the group is doing it. In the more personal sense of honor, you may choose not to do it because you believe it is morally wrong, no matter what the group thinks — risking dishonor in the first sense to preserve your honor in the second sense. It creates thorny situations for men to struggle with. For instance, an honor group couldn’t talk me into abusing a helpless child or a dog. I’m just not going to do that, and if it means being dishonored in that group, I guess I would have to go find a new group, and the honor of that group would become worthless to me anyway.
C&P: You’ve recently been exploring and writing about “solar” spirituality, which you’ve described as illuminating and generative — procreative, rather than reactive. Is this quality something inherently masculine? If so, how does it relate to the other four tactical virtues and the survival state which gave rise to them?
DONOVAN: I think it is in the nature of men to create order from chaos. That’s essentially what our ancestors did — and what men always do — when they take control of a new space and secure a new perimeter.We impose our own order on nature, give names to things, and tell our own stories about the world to give order to the chaos in our minds. It is our task to battle chaos and struggle to maintain order, knowing that everything eventually ends, and returns to the darkness.
C&P: One final question: rumor has it you have another book in the works. Is there a date we can mark on our calendars for the arrival of your upcoming book?
DONOVAN: I wish. I’d like to have it done by fall. But it has to be right.