Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Review: The Way of Men

If you hold the slightest interest in masculinity, you should read Jack Donovan's The Way of Men. This is the only book review I've written thus far, and this has to be the best way to start.

First of all, have a taste of Jack's writing:

Many of the ideas in that article find their way into the book, with a full chapter describing the "bonobo masturbation society". It goes fast. A movie review for Wedding Crashers summed up the difference between the humor of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn as being one of delivery; Wilson slides his jokes in with a smile, the crafty bastard, while Vaughn just hits line drives right up the middle, right in your face.

Jack Donovan subscribes to the Vince Vaughn school. Calling his writing "efficient" does it no justice, as the combination of speed and clarity slam his thoughts into your mind with the subtlety of getting hit by a Mack truck. It's brutally blunt in the best possible way, no apologies, and it makes for fantastic reading. The style bears witness to an author who is very aware of the close relationship between power and economy.

This lack of subtlety is one of The Way of Men's greatest strengths. The mission here was to pen a book that reflects a singular idea of what masculinity is, a book that gives life and purpose to the traits that are so frequently reviled in male behavior, placing man in his proper context. And it works.

He focuses his definition of masculinity on four key virtues: strength, courage, mastery, and honor. These notions go back to ancient times and form a groundwork for establishing the value of a man in the situation he was built for, that of survival. Such ideals do not describe what it means to be a good man; they describe what it means to be good at being a man.

Having described each virtue, much of the remaining book is expository on what exactly is wrong with the world today, through the lens of one who still prizes these virtues. The answer, obviously, is damned near everything, with the irrelevance and hedonism of modern life coming in as a target. Donovan goes up against the sanitized modern world and its sad ethics and attacks it with extreme prejudice. Every point made rings true, and many arguments are the kind I would have made myself, just more effectively than I can.

Donovan recognizes the importance of hierarchy to men, and knows the structural essence of the male mind very well. Not perfectly, but well. Men have evolved to operate in small, hierarchical groups, and Donovan thinks they should have stayed there. His criticism of globalism, of unity as a vision of the future, is spot-on and holds a psychological relevance that folds perfectly into the Nietzschean view of the will to power that cannot possibly be denied by any man with blood running through his veins.

Obviously, I enjoyed it. I've read it repeatedly and loaned it out to others who also loved it. If you look at the world as needing more love and kindness and general "niceness", then stay away. If you look at the modern world and immediately get bored, then this book will be pure inspiration.


I'm throwing these out there while acknowledging my own subjectivity; consider this nit-picking, and looking for faults. Other reviewers have simply heaped the praise, and I don't work that way. When it comes to mission accomplishment, The Way of Men unarguably accomplishes what it wants to accomplish, but I have to throw a more "academic" understanding into it. I tend to compete intellectually, and I have a couple of points I want to call out.

This is not a book of philosophy. There are a couple of references to Nietzsche and William James, and several to Thomas Hobbes, which creates a great baseline upon which to write, but Donovan leaves too many avenues of approach open to those who wish to tear the book apart analytically. Because of all this, the end result is very clearly a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. If you share Donovan's intuitions - and I do - then you will see the value here. If not, then he leaves ample room to assault the ideas.

Implied in his writing is Donovan's own worldview, which is still a product of liberal America. The basis of this work is that men have evolved in a certain fashion and returning to this state of affairs holds the greatest promise for living in a satisfactory way; these perspectives align with naturalism and an existential authenticity that is extremely familiar to exactly the people Donovan is assaulting. Those would be liberal feminists and their sympathizers. That said, there's just too much irony in arguing for a change in the state of affairs based on the emotional needs of men. I too think that there's something uniquely right about the small group of under 200, but the concept of growth beyond the level of Dunbar's number is given no credit. Donovan's individualism takes the first steps into integrating man into society as a system, then purposefully cuts it off at that size for the sake of the individual, psychological welfare of men? Really? That's basically arguing for bloody tribal competition for the same reason we eat sugary foods; it's what we've developed a taste for, what we're adapted to seek out, and therefore, obviously what we need.

Please. The problem isn't that life isn't dangerous enough. We can make it dangerous any time we want. The problem is that we have no meaningful reason to take the risks. Donovan acknowledges this, but there is no solution in burning the system when we could easily reconstitute it if we decided that hardships wasn't for us. Bullshit aside, the problem is that there's nothing worth fighting for, no empowerment or salvation the world demands we seek anymore. We have no NEED for a protective gang, and creating a need for one is like moving away from the middle of town and selling your car to force yourself to run five miles for a gallon of milk. People take the convenience for the sake of having more time for something else that's more meaningful. But there is nothing more meaningful to be had. Nothing is valuable enough to be worth pain. The overriding ideal today - freedom - turns out to be the problem. Donovan acknowledges as much when he refers to freedom as impunity, which is more true than any other definition, but what about all the other garbage interpretations of that word?

Something is missing here. Something that goes beyond the necessary pain of adapting to a new situation. We need a purpose to that pain.

Evidence is marshaled to show the absurdity of manhood today, but the deeper flaws of liberal thought do not come in for the thorough beating they deserve. That's not the focus of the book, not its mission, it's been done elsewhere and this is not really so much a demerit against it as a wish for a more aggressively articulated case against the ideological competition. But beyond this, there is concern that not much here goes deeper than the consumerist utilitarianism that Donovan is trying to subvert. No ideas for changing the structure beyond simply breaking it are considered. Aristocracy is not considered. Religion is not considered. ANY form of legitimacy beyond the welfare of the individual is not considered.

It's deeper than saying that the problem is power itself. The rot stinks more strongly than just stating that we've been victims of our own success. The fundamental principle of hierarchy is that power flows up, not down. The ideological inversion of this, and the focus on comfort and using technology to those ends, needs proper destruction beyond a preference for naturalism. One reviewer on Amazon stated the most glaring problem with the thesis of the book: Donovan is willing to destroy all the benefits of modern society for the sake of men's well-being. And it is a tough sell. Technology is power; it should be useful in expanding the reach of man and creating new challenges of all sorts, space exploration being the obvious example. The struggles of the modern world are not less good than the struggles of old ones. They're newer, so we aren't comfortable with them, but they can certainly have meaning if the old military and economic struggles ever had meaning. The first thing Donovan should have assaulted was institutionalized empathy, but he hits this only obliquely. The unwillingness to cull the herd, the kabuki theater of politics and business, the lack of a values system besides self-interest and whatever is pretty, these ideas need more meat. Donovan circles and shoots, almost nailing the bulls-eye dead-center, but stops short.

Maybe he's saving more for another book. I hope so. I am a masculinist, and when Donovan's on target, all cylinders firing, it's pure music. I'll be staying tuned.


  1. I haven't read the book, but I seem to read every review written of it. This was very good, and gives quite a bit to think about. I too am sick of how the modern world works and is so empathetic about everything. To be blunt, I don't give two shits about most anyone beyond my immediate family and a few very close friends. But how to change it? I don't have the answer to that question.

  2. I enjoyed this review. Very informative. I have one question: If I don't yet agree with him, is there any point in reading the book since you said it wasn't philosophical and it's probably going to take a philosophical book to convince me to change my worldview?
    You said "Donovan leaves too many avenues of approach open to those who wish to tear the book apart analytically" which I imagine is exactly what I would try to do if I read the book. Can you recommend other books that make the same argument which could withstand analytic assault?

    1. Off the top of my head, there are great reviews for The Way of the Superior Man:
      But I haven't read it, and thus can't exactly recommend it or say that it would be more up your alley. If you want something that has a good chance of really giving your worldview a run, there is of course Nietzsche: Beyond Good and Evil, or the Genealogy of Morality work wonders on an open mind. No book I've come across makes the exact same argument Donovan makes in TWOM, thus its appeal.

      This review might not give full credit to Donovan, if it came across as being harsh on the book for not being philosophical. There are certainly elements of it that bring into question the value of the state modern society, which holds intrinsic philosophical value; the justification of modern society is anchored by increasing well-being, and Donovan's case calls into question the success of this society for a very large portion of those who are caught up in it: men. I would still recommend it, assuming you have any inclination towards looking at the "masculine" as being a collection of traits worthy of anything but derision.

      My concern with the philosophical angle is that Donovan's defense of masculinity on emotional and pseudo-utilitarian grounds simply doesn't go far enough. He's arguing for an audience that is used to viewing good versus bad through that lens. I think more can be made of it, because I believe that the fundamental philosophical basis of modern liberal culture is extremely weak, pretty on the surface but dishonest by nature. Donovan does not present an analytical case for this, but that's fine; that's not the book's mission. But some groundwork has been made with TWOM by viewing men as hierarchical in psychology and in the way they interact; this point is absolutely necessary to an understanding of not just men, but of all people. The world is still a power struggle, and masculine thinking is not obsolete.

      If you have the slightest inclination, I'd recommend spending the time on TWOM. Some of what Donovan describes in the expository section might still very well ring true to you.

  3. I have read The Way of Men by Jack Donovan and The Way of a Superior Man by David Deida. By my account both books are superbly written by men who have thought long and hard about masculinity and what the gifts are of a fully expressed man. I personally have found it refreshing that both authors explore the masculine draw towards brutality . Be it action movies, blood sports such as fighting , hunting or war or young men and their fascination with violent gaming, clearly the male compass pulls towards something that cannot be described as sweet or gentle but something far darker.

    If I had one question for Mr Donovan it would be If the way of men is the way of the gang and has been for millenia and probably evolved this way is it not capable of evolving into a form that better suits our modern world ? Not many of us kill our own meat or protect our own villages ,we have delegated those duties out . As the roll of the feminine has changed in response to a new and evolving world complete with birth control and mechanical slaves so has the world changed for men and what is demanded of us . The truth is the modern world demands less of our traditional gifts to function than it did 100 years ago and we as a group appear to be descending to meet these lower demands and as a consequence masculinity ,for perhaps the first time ever, is in a bit of a crisis. So what to do ? Do we dismantle and rebuild the modern world to better suit our ancient masculine ways or do we find a way to bring our gifts back into the game and make a manly contribution to the world as it is ?

    I am a coward and only ask questions. Mr Donovan and Mr Deida are not and both have made powerful contributions to the conversation of masculinity and are a must read in my estimation. Another book to consider that reads like a manual on how to be a man is Wayne Levine's "Hold on to Your Nuts ".

    There has never been a better time to be a man . The question is what kind of man do we want to become and who are the models ?

    Thanks for reading

    1. This is the kind of perception I came around from a while back. The "dark side" of men reflects the reality of what life is about: power. The old instincts and draws that masculine men are attracted to reflect a different time. The criticism of Donovan's ideal of the world working towards "the emotional needs of men" was meant to reflect the absurdity of the idea that masculinity has something other than useful power at its heart. We were strong because we needed to be strong in order for the group to survive, and on this, there should be no argument.

      The value of at least one of those traits has dropped significantly compared to what it used to be. People find strength less useful than ever before, given the easy mechanical substitutes. So once again, man must evolve into what he needs to be. But what does society need, that men must provide? Given the realities of power, I am not buying the idea that humanity has reached some point where other virtues related to working in a hierarchy and modifying the world into what we want it to be are outmoded. I generally dislike Ayn Rand; she lost sight of objectivity in her quest for finding something objective. But she had it right by making her heroes engineers and organizers. The new version of strength relies on different elements than the muscular, but it still relies on the power to remake the world. The other masculine virtues Donovan goes over - courage, mastery, and honor - are every bit as useful today as they ever were. They are useful if there is any group, any system, any value which needs to be defended.

      The ideas of liberal feminism are ideas which emphasize non-confrontational surrender to values different from one's own, and that sits at the right hand of self-negation. The exchange is one of comfort. Those ideas invite alienation, and with the discovery that you care about something, further invites pure frustration as your values are kept from changing the world. It is not a good time to be a man, given the dominance of this mode of thought. We can do anything we want, so long as it doesn't matter. The frustration of this state of existence is a living hell.

      The scale and technology have changed the potentials for the better, but our peculiar form of Western individualism has stifled that potential. And I lament the decline of family, which has been the primary source of value for men's actions until very recently, and a primary source of satisfaction, as legacies are passed on. We don't think about legacy nearly enough any more. There are new challenges, and the situation we're in now DOES need to change. Men always push the boundaries, work in honorable hierarchies to expand their power; it would mean the end of everything of quality in life were they to stop now.