This episode is dedicated to the memory of our dear friend Scott Dinsmore. You will be missed, brother.
No matter what society and the media are trying to tell you, masculinity is not an antiquated concept.
“We are lesser men, I think — in many cases — than our ancestors, and that’s kind of sad.” -Jack Donovan
The Cheat Sheet:
- What are the conflicts between masculinity and civilization? (04:10)
- What are the four survival values that define masculinity? (10:25)
- Knowing how to build alliances trumps brute strength. (19:08)
- You don’t have to be masculine to be a good leader. (21:01)
- There’s a difference between being a good man and being good at being a man — morality is a cultural variable that adapts as a social control. (23:11)
- And so much more…
In modern society, “masculinity” has almost become a dirty word — or, at best, a confusing one. Men grow up with mixed messages about how the very word is defined, and most — whether intentionally or not — find themselves conforming to cultural appropriations of masculinity rather than the ones that evolution dealt long before the rise of civilization..
On episode 443 of The Art of Charm, we talk with Jack Donovan — author of The Way of Men and A Sky Without Eagles — about what masculinity means, how it’s a constant that’s independent of society’s variable morality, and how it ties in to the survival values of strength, courage, mastery/competence, and honor.
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According to Jack Donovan, when humans were wandering the world in tribes — before cities, states, empires, and nations — masculinity was a much easier concept to define than it is today because it outlined the role of men and how it pertained to the survival of those tribes. It had hundreds of thousands of years to develop in the brains of men, picking up traits that worked and throwing out ones that didn’t along the way.
As soon as civilizations started to pop up just a relatively short time ago, the idea of masculinity began to change around the needs of these newer, larger groups. We began to trade freedom for safety. The evolutionary psychology behind masculinity, however, remained — and still remains — the same.
Does this mean that our society has outgrown its need for masculinity? Is it even still relevant? Should we just accept the changing nature of the civilized world and move on? Jack says that reprogramming something so intrinsic to what makes us human isn’t so easy.
“I always like to compare it to sex,” Jack says. “If you don’t want to have children, there’s absolutely no rational reason for you to have sex. But we do it anyway. Why? Because our evolutionary psychology wants us to do it. It informs all of our behavior. Whether it’s rational or whether it’s necessary or not, these things that have been around for a really, really long time still influence our psychology all the time, and so it’s important to understand it.”
Does this mean that we should abandon the trappings of society altogether and go back to our tribal ways if we ever want to be comfortable with the people we’ve evolved to be? “A lot of people accuse me of always wanting this kind of Mad Max world where everybody’s always in complete conflict,” Jack says. “And while I think that’s a good corrective place, that would never last. Because people would band together and create societies again, because that’s what people do. I think there’s a sweet spot between how much you trade away the job of being a man and how much you keep it.
“Frontiersmen who still had wives and families and communities and law still had to protect their own land; they were involved in a lot of physical activity; they still went down to the bar and had a fight every once in a while. I think those kind of things represent that kind of sweet spot — where you have society and you do have civilization and you do have some stability, but you still [give] men…the opportunity to do what they evolved to do: to play the role of defending the perimeter.”
In the modern world, this role is fulfilled by a relative minority of men who become cops and firefighters and sign up for military duty. But in a large, western nation like the United States, most of us sit around answering emails all day (guilty). In smaller societies, there’s more of an opportunity for a larger percentage of resident men to take on these guardian roles.
So how did Jack begin championing the cause of masculinity? “A lot of people make the mistake of thinking I’m repeating things that grandpa told me,” says Jack. “Actually, I was fairly liberal. I was raised kind of middle-of-the-road, but I was a young kid interested in art. I went to New York City and I was fairly liberal in my mindset. I always had an interest in gender and so forth, and as I reached my thirties, I kind of realized I had dismissed a lot of the positives about masculinity — because that’s kind of what we’re encouraged to do, especially if you go [in the direction of] the creative world. You’re kind of encouraged to abandon traditional masculinity as an outdated thing.”
As he went back and reread Jack London and other classic authors who dealt with this traditional masculinity, something clicked — something he’d missed when he’d read them at 14. “It really got me started in investigating masculinity,” says Jack.
A lot of men think they know what masculinity means by repeating random, received ideas from movies or role models — piecing together a collage that echoes a generalized notion of masculinity rather than a genuine reflection of what it means to be a man. And Jack confesses he made the same mistake when he began writing about it. “I didn’t really have a cohesive definition of masculinity,” says Jack. He made it his project over the next few years to come up with that cohesive definition and share it with others in a way that made sense.
“Masculinity comes from what men have needed from each other,” says Jack. “All throughout evolutionary history, we’ve been forced to defend and hunt in these small bands. Kind of like a sports team — who do you want on that team, and what qualities do you want them to have? And those qualities are pretty consistent across cultures.”
The Four Survival Virtues of Masculinity
Jack presents four survival virtues that he sees as crucial to defining masculinity.
“Strength is part of masculinity,” says Jack. “Always has been. It’s biologically part of masculinity. I think that’s an easy first virtue. There’s no culture anywhere that has said that it’s better for men to be weak. That’s just not a thing. It’s never happened — except for maybe ours!”
“The second (virtue) is courage. If you have people attacking you, if you need to take down an auroch or whatever we were hunting back then, you need a great deal of courage. [You need] people who are going to take the risk when you need them to take the risk for the group. And men have always judged themselves that way. James Bowman is the one I always quote — he wrote a book called Honor: A History — ‘If you want to insult a man, call him a coward.’ In any culture, anywhere. That’s always been true.”
“The third (virtue) was a catch-all for me. I called it mastery; I also call it competence sometimes. Because you can have a lot of strength and a lot of courage, but if you’re incompetent, it doesn’t actually get you very far. And men judge each other on competence all the time.”
“Honor (the final virtue) is a confusing topic in our society because a lot of it has been influenced by Christianity and some deep philosophical ideas that extend far beyond that kind of survival group. But I think of honor almost as loyalty. If we’re in a tribe together and you don’t care what I think about you, I can’t trust you. If I can’t say, ‘Hey, you’re screwing up! What are you doing? You’re making us look bad!’ I can’t trust you. I think that’s where the root of honor comes from.”
Jack also mentions something called reflexive honor. If an injustice is brought upon you by someone, and you don’t retaliate, it opens the door to greater injustices. “We have to present a strong image to the public so that people don’t just walk all over us,” says Jack.
Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm to learn how masculinity is as much about cooperation as it is about self-reliance, why men should make time to spend with other men, and the benefits of assembling your own “tribe” (whether the zombie apocalypse comes or not). We think this is a great episode, and we hope you do, too! Will it generate more hate mail from men than women? We shall see…
THANKS, JACK DONOVAN!
Resources from this episode:
Jack Donovan’s website
The Way of Men by Jack Donovan
A Sky Without Eagles by Jack Donovan
Other books by Jack Donovan
Greg Hamilton’s InSights Training Center
Honor: A History by James Bowman
The Art of Charm bootcamps
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