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The Masculine Virtues America Needs

by josh hawley
regnery, 256 pages, $29.99

In July 1944, when my paternal grandfather was a little younger than I am now, he witnessed the near-destruction by Allied bombers and artillery of the old city of Caen, in Normandy. At that point he had been a soldier for six years and had seen some brutal action during the initial landings in occupied France. He would serve in Europe until the end of the war. He met my father—born on the day after the liberation of Paris—when dad was almost a year old. After leaving the army, Ivor Gooch spent the next forty years living quietly in the suburbs of southeast London, commuting into the city every day until his retirement, and raising his family. He lived to see the birth of six of his seven grandchildren.

I suspect he devoted very little of his life to thinking about masculinity, despite having volunteered for, and successfully endured, an experience traditionally regarded as the ne plus ultra of male endeavor, namely active service in war. For a man of his vintage and background—he was born in 1906 in Herefordshire’s remote Golden Valley, perhaps best known for its Edenic portrayal in the C. S. Lewis biopic Shadowlands—such questions were unlikely to arise. The status of men as breadwinners, protectors, authority figures, and social leaders was widely accepted as part of the natural order.

For later generations, however, the subject is inescapable. In developed countries, the place of men in society and the relations between the sexes have been radically disrupted by technological, economic, and cultural changes: the decline of heavy industry, the advent of reliable birth control, second- and third-wave feminism, the fading of the Christian social order, and steep rises in real housing costs. Let the economists and the sociologists quibble over how exactly these factors interact with one another; the essential point is that we live on the far side of a cataclysm. Women are increasingly dominant in traditionally male domains. In the United Kingdom, both law and medicine are now majority-female professions. This is not yet the case in the United States, but on current trends the tipping point is not far away. Secondary-level teaching, long a male bastion on both sides of the Atlantic, is also now majority-female in both the UK and the U.S., and it is becoming more so. The armed forces have relaxed almost all their old rules prohibiting women from serving in combat units or at sea.

Even the very concept of the sexual binary is now contested. The internet’s disembodiment of economic and social life has led to a wider and more radical skepticism about the metaphysical and moral significance of the human body, and outright denialism concerning, for instance, the enormous differences in strength between men and women. Into this fluid landscape have come the gurus and theorists of masculinity, with their different emphases to suit personal taste. For self-respect and self-mastery through discipline and strength, Jordan Peterson is your man. For those who want to escape the supposed “longhouse”—shorthand for a risk-averse and overly sensitive society dominated by scolds and petty rules—there are the vitalists, found mostly on Twitter but breaking out into the mainstream media, posting esoteric content that looks to the unapologetically aristocratic classical world for inspiration. For men who simply want to assert a crude sexual dominance over women in the service of their egos, there is Andrew Tate and his ilk. 

Enter Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. Senator Hawley has made a name for himself as a shrewd advocate for the new populism and a happy warrior in political battles with the Trump-era left. Having made the case for more effective control of the internet giants in 2021’s The Tyranny of Big Tech—echoing the trust-busting rhetoric of his hero Teddy Roosevelt—in this new book he reflects on the modern male’s difficulties in carving out a role for himself in the contemporary world. Hawley notes the ways in which men are falling behind in social, economic, and educational terms. According to figures he cites, nearly a quarter of twentysomething men are absent from the labor force; in American universities, there are six women for every four men; real wage growth has slowed, such that less than half of thirty-year-old men are earning more in real terms than their fathers did at the same age (in 1970, 95 percent of thirty-year-old men were doing so). In this telling, boys are increasingly underperforming at school and young men are dissipating their energies in pornography, computer games, and drug abuse. It should be said that this data is presented more in sorrow than in anger. Hawley does not come to bury men, but to offer some inspiring counsel and encouragement for how to live a better, more worthy and purposeful existence. His obvious affection for men, and belief in their potential, means that the book resembles brisk but fatherly advice, rather than the de haut en bas finger-wagging at men and boys that is so prevalent in the English-speaking world.

An old joke about people who talk frequently of sex is that those who discuss it most are doing it least. It would be a cheap shot to assume the same of those who hold forth on the art of manliness. We might call this the Mrs. Thatcher objection, bearing in mind her immortal axiom that “being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” There is still plenty of real masculinity around, a complacent commentator might say, but we don’t hear from its practitioners because they’re too busy raising families, fixing their own roofs, and making a living to produce books or six-part YouTube lecture series on the decline of men. Such a glib response would miss the point. The crisis of masculinity—a widespread and deep confusion among men about what exactly they are for—is a genuine phenomenon, and it is right and proper that thoughtful, well-meaning people should reflect upon it.

Manhood is a good and useful contribution to the debate. It is unmistakably a politician’s book, for good and ill. There are many personal anecdotes from Hawley’s delightful-sounding and classically American Midwestern upbringing, his career, and his own family life. One need not be wildly cynical in order to entertain the thought that it is exactly the kind of material that a man who intends to run for the presidency in the next decade or so would be glad to have in the public domain.

The style tends toward the declarative and aphoristic. “There is darkness within us. This is a reality each man must face.” “All men want to matter.” “Having vowed, he must endure.” The enemies engaged are familiar and, it must be said, crudely sketched: godless liberals, anti-family feminists, and academic leftists. Rousseau gets a good kicking, as he so often does in polemics of this kind. Hawley frames his traditionalist argument for piety, endurance, honor, and self-sacrifice against an opposing worldview he calls Epicurean liberalism. This is the “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” outlook that is arguably a practical outworking of materialistic atheism. With no objective moral structure in the universe, and only eternal oblivion to come, self-actualization and personal fulfillment in this life become an urgent priority. To give Hawley his due, this temptation is a plausible candidate for being the chief enemy of men who desire lives of substance and significance. It is perhaps a pity that he presents it in a rather caricatured way, but he would no doubt respond that he is writing not a philosophical or political treatise, but a book intended to give men who have ears to hear a good sense of what they are fighting against.

It’s notable too that Hawley’s identification of threats to male flourishing is balanced by a presentation of different spheres of positive masculine achievement. Hawley suggests six such areas of aspiration, drawing on the archetypes of Husband, Father, Warrior, Builder, Priest, and King. Each receives its own chapter, and his treatment of these roles, and their importance to his argument, shows that his guns are not trained only on the left. In the “Husband” chapter, for example, he gives both barrels to Andrew Tate and others like him whose concept of male excellence is centered on conquest, domination, and the rejection of family life. Hawley criticizes the 1999 film Fight Club, particularly popular among secular anti-feminist men, for giving the message that “a man can truly be a man only by escaping society and his duties to other people.” Tate and his imitators are rightly written off as purveyors of “fake bravado,” their sexual boasts as “the words of a child pretending to be a man.”

This hostility to amoral or Promethean concepts of masculinity stems from Hawley’s Christian faith, which is a golden thread running through the book. Indeed, as a Briton I felt a pang of envy that in the United States it remains possible for a leading conservative politician with serious prospects to publish a book built on serious theological reflection on the Fall, the life of Abraham, the Exodus, and the complex character of David. When these men failed, says Hawley, it was because they were spurning the roles to which they had been called. In this interpretation, the first sin of Adam symbolizes above all the frequent male rejection of the responsibilities and burdens that the virtuous man must take on in order to cooperate fruitfully with God in the ordering of creation. The beauty of Christianity, then, is that through grace we have a pathway to restoring our authentic masculine vocation of service, work, and purpose. Hawley uses the metaphor of a transforming fire, with a reference to the Orthodox idea of theosis: that is to say, of men becoming like God, as referred to in 1 John 3:2 (“when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is”). This is stirring and inspiring, although in light of the strong Christian emphasis, there is conceivably more to be said about what manliness might mean for those men who, through no fault of their own, simply cannot “give more than they take.” Hawley suggests that the ability to do so is essential to proper masculinity, and yet within a Christian account of male purpose, there must be room for the disabled, the weak, and the troubled.

The book is short on policy solutions, despite the political knockabout and salvoes fired towards the left. There are some allusions to the role of economic liberalism in undermining blue-collar employment, as you would expect from someone associated with the New Right, but there is minimal consideration of the economic and material conditions that feed into male worklessness, prolonged adolescence, single-parent families, the opioid epidemic, and girls outperforming boys in the education system. This omission risks yielding an incomplete account of the problem, which is not simply one of individual boys and men making bad choices in a vacuum. The crisis of men is a classic example of a “Moloch problem,” a complex system of unsatisfactory but hard-to-change expectations and norms whereby even well-meaning people are constrained and limited by bad incentives.

On the other hand, Manhood is not a manifesto. It would be unfair to call it a self-help book, since it is in most respects anti-therapeutic and skeptical of feel-good evasions, but like the work of Jordan Peterson, it is a call to individual moral and personal development as an essential precondition and precursor to political and social revival. Hawley is surely right that not only the American system of government, but all democratic and free forms of government, cannot long survive if the men who live in them are not seriously striving for virtue and self-mastery. St. Augustine knew the score in the City of God: “The good man, though a slave, is free; the wicked, though he reigns, is a slave, and not the slave of a single man, but—what is worse—the slave of as many masters as he has vices.”

Niall Gooch writes from Kent, England.

Image by Anna Shvets, public domain. Image cropped. 

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