Applying Jack Donovan’s tactical virtues to every day life

16 minute read | Adam Aleksandrowicz

Lately I’ve been seeking out different content around the modern definition of masculinity.  I do this to both challenge and appreciate differing perspectives on the topic and to add further ideas to my own journey.  I’m a firm believer that the longer you sit in your own biases then the more difficult it is to alter your perception on something.  This is unhealthy. 

Without this type of reflection I think it’s easy to get stuck in a paradigm that’s simply adopting the echo of the loudest voice in the room.  This isn’t healthy for your own growth or authenticity if we can’t read, reflect, and then act on what’s important and useful to us.

Almost every corner of the internet will tell you what it means to be a ‘real man’.  Both by women and men who’ve done little to claim why they should be anything resembling an authority. But how much of this actually serves you? How does it help you reconcile the path you need to forge?

When you’re young, the danger in saturating yourself with anything outside of your own learned experiences is that you can have that opinion made for you.  I see a lot of this in TRP space with men simply repeating the catch phrases of what guys have already said like it’s their personal mantra. 

So the irony of this post is that, while it’s a reflection on what I think are the key foundations of manhood and modern masculinity, it’s by no means a set of instructions on how to live your life.  I hope it provokes enough thinking to self-reflect on your own journey and decide where you might need to focus next. 

If you get one thing from this piece, understand that if you’re not growing, evolving and seeking out opportunities to be better and improve, then you’re going backwards.  Because definitions and framework aside, I believe the one universal truth which men need to accept, is that ‘men are made’. And you’re made only by your achievements and accomplishments, nothing else. 

There is no consolation prize for you just being a man. There isn’t a participation medal waiting for you with the congratulations for ‘just showing up’ or trying hard.  The reality is that unless you bring value to the world and are actually useful, then you’re a useless individual taking up space.   

Always invest in yourself first.  The greatest dividends come from deposits made to your personal life account.  The compounding effect of investing in yourself means you get to choose the quality of what goes in and what you make a withdrawal on to spend. 

This freedom of energy investment is of utmost importance as no one is coming to save you.  Not ever.

Modern Masculinity

Recently I’ve been re-reading Jack Donovan’s short book The Way of Men, which has gotten me interested in thinking of masculinity in terms of Aristotelian virtue ethics.  The word “virtue” comes from the latin  word virtus, which itself means something akin to manliness or masculinity. 

In his book, Donovan attempts to formulate a universal definition or framework for masculinity, presenting an articulate and nuanced case for thinking of masculinity or “manliness,” as he interchanges, as a set of virtues. 

He calls these “the tactical virtues”. 

Although the concepts didn’t immediately resonate on the first read, I like the philosophy behind his ideas. The tactical notion brings about a sense of “utility” to them. There’s nothing better for us men than having something useful we can wield to our advantage or keep in the toolbox for later use.  It’s like having that perfectly weighted hammer that always hits the mark.     

Even if you think Donovan’s tactical virtues conception of masculinity is objectionable or misguided, it raises interesting perspectives that are useful when building a descriptive account of what masculinity actually is or was in the past.

The tactical virtues might understandably make some feel uncomfortable, as they come across as rather raw, primal, and thuggish to contemporary sensibilities.  We’re so soft now that anything described as “amoral” tends to put people on guard.

This discomfort arises from the fact that, again, the tactical virtues may be employed for good or ill.  Cue the hashtag #toxicmaculinity  

These days we are much more likely to cheer and celebrate the higher virtues over the tactical variety.  But I think in truth these two sets of virtues cannot be separated as one makes possible the other.

Without men who are good at being men, there would not be the safety and peace that makes possible the unburdened pursuit of being a good man.

Donovan’s account though is largely anthropological and historical, which caused me to struggle on the first read as it was hard to place the contemporary relevance to my own life. But second time around, the descriptive part its playing is a useful way of thinking about how a central “conception of masculinity” could have evolved.

To begin with, Men have historically played the role of protector-hunter-warrior in human communities, largely due to the biological predisposition for men to be larger and stronger than women. 

Whereas women historically play an important role as intra-social protectors and nurturers, men play the role as inter-social protectors in anything from chimpanzee communities to hunter-gatherer societies to classical and medieval societies and industrial society. Cue the nods from evolutionary psychologists.

As technology progresses and the costs of childrearing and the biological advantages given to men are compensated for, the roles which have evolved for the feminine and masculine are changing.  This isn’t new. Women are now on their way to become far better educated and squaring the ledger when it comes to income disparity.

You don’t even need to consider the first and second waves of feminism and the push for equality across the genders in the last 50 years to know that now in 2020, these lines are more blurred than ever.

So how can the Guardian-Warrior statuses exemplified in Donavon’s four tactical virtues still remain relevant and how is this important to you?

To recap, Donovan’s tactical virtues include Strength, Honor, Courage, and Mastery.  Personally, I love the warrior-esque vibe to this. I love the fact that life is hard and a constant challenge. What better way to meet life head on than with a mindset of a bad ass warrior!

Each of these takes on its own meaning in specific cultures, but Donavon insists they have core, universal meanings. While different cultures will have slightly different conceptions of each, totally redefining each of these virtues is something that can only be done when totally removed from their historical contexts.

If masculinity exists as at least honor, courage, mastery, and strength, can it be said that it is the sum or composite of these four independent virtues?

In a different way, can these be said to be merely necessary conditions for masculinity, or are they necessary and sufficient conditions?

I am tempted to say there is a moderating component here which can be taken from the Aristotelian perspective. Exhibiting too little or too much of one of these virtues takes away from the sum total virtue of masculinity.  For instance imagine a man who is foolhardy keen to risk his life on a motorbike — can this be said to be a detriment to his masculinity?

Let’s break them down and see what’s relevant to us as men of today.

Strength

Strength, is the most essential biological and evolutionary quality that most defines masculinity. Donovan wants to reject the idea that one can be physically weak and still be strong in the sense that is important for masculinity.

I for one totally agree with this. There is no way to argue against it. The Force of Physicality is an inherently male quality.

Any non-physical strength can only be a secondary version, and any attempts to redefine strength primarily as non-physical is ahistorical.  I believe that the ability to cultivate non-physical strength usually rests on the use of physical strength.

So if we’re not fighting off lions on the tundra, then why is this important now?  Why with all of what technology has provided for us is this even relevant today?

“Men respond to and admire the qualities that would make men useful and dependable in an emergency. Men have always had a role apart, and they still judge one another according to the demands of that role as a guardian in a gang struggling for survival against encroaching doom. Everything that is specifically about being a man—not merely a person—has to do with that role.” –Jack Donovan, The Way of Men”

Quite simply, men respect other men who demonstrate physical strength. It demonstrates discipline, focus and persistence.

But above all of this it shows how you respect yourself. 

Next time you see a man overweight, check your assessment of him.  Do you immediately lose a level of respect because he’s weaker than you?

As homo sapiens, we are evolved to perceive strength and vitality. We notice speed, we notice muscle, we watch the environment and scan it for threats that might be bigger, stronger, larger, faster than us. Don’t kid yourself when you pause to judge and compare someone against yourself.

Not surprisingly then, physical strength and prowess are universally prized male qualities.  It’s only in this safe and civilized world of 2020 that a fat man can be applauded for his gluttony, or the high minded dork intellectual applauded for his mind, while being physically impotent.

This principle fact is why “strength training” is a powerful catalyzer for transformation in men.  Free weights, bodyweight, stones, it does not matter what. Men FEEL more like men when they are physically powerful.

Back to Donavon for a moment.  Strength is self-respect, it honours one’s nature. There is no scenario in which being a weaker man makes someone a better man.  If a man is to build his confidence, he must build his self-respect. For me I believe that this starts with his strength, with his body, with his toughness.

Strength then is that foundation. 
It is the access point for the rest of man’s nature. It’s now more important as our modern society lacks for strong men, in the physical and mental.  In fact our society celebrates the antithesis of it.

The EDGE of an uncompromising man is rarely seen, but found in his strength.

Honour

To be honest, I really struggled with finding a place for honour in our contemporary lives.  If honour centres on the belief that aggression is sometimes justifiable and necessary, such as in response to insult or threat, then how relevant is it today?

If we’re not duelling with ‘pistols at dawn’ somewhere in the 20th century then what does it mean?  Back then it was easy.  A man would challenge another to a duel when his honour was challenged or deprecated in public. Simple, fuss free let’s go and sort this out like men.  But this is 2020.

Honour is not an ability to follow social norms or mores on this account. This explication of honour removes it from a morally-charged analysis.

My take away is that honour is more or less rooted in one’s ability to gain the esteem of other men. To a large extent, honour is the ability to not only gain the esteem of other men, but also to evoke fear and utmost respect when necessary.

Like Donovan, I’ve tried to look at a more traditional element to this. So I think it’s fair to say it’s not the same as your personal integrity, yet that integrity is a foundation for how you engage with other men and how their esteem is garnered.

Donovan describes how honourable men care about being manly, knowing that each individual member’s prowess in the tactical virtues bolsters the strength and reputation of the gang as a whole and thus deters attack from rival gangs. 

We see these codes in sport, in friendship and in the competition of business.  Essentially you can only go so far as the lone wolf and at some point you will need the support of “the gang”. 

The key to upholding your honour, is pulling your own weight. To add more value than being a burden to others. It’s necessary then to gain the esteem and respect of other men, fear if necessary so that you can thrive.

Courage

The way Donavon describes courage is almost entirely transferable for any generation of men.  This is your spirit, your fire, the sheer will you have inside you to use your strength when you want to run away and hide. It’s what makes you get up in the morning and keep pushing harder towards your purpose.

There are “higher” forms of courage, but at its most fundamental, it represents how you demonstrate an indifference to risk, pain and physical danger.  I like this as a definition as it goes hand in hand with strength training and the suffering endured in endurance sports, as well as the risks in business.

An ideal of manhood and the language of the tactical virtues as we’ve seen can become more metaphorical, as in, the strength of the body expands to include strength of character, while moral and intellectual bravery are added as categories of courage.

Courage isn’t just going off to war.  It can be the difference in simply believing in your knowledge of a problem to step up and offer assistance when someone needs it. Or putting aside the fear of a damaged ego and asking for your own help. 

As men we’re no longer seeking to conquer enemy tribes, but seeking to “conquer” ourselves and remove our weaknesses and shortcomings. Instead of warring with human combatants, we fight other battles for family and our rights. But mostly, we’re fighting the fear from within, the fear of not trying when we know we must.

It takes courage to stay the course when your mind and body is telling you to stop, when the fear of failure and rejection starts to take over.  The confidence to trust in your competence is the best way to channel this courage.

Mastery

Think of mastery as your unique set of skills.  Your adeptness in using the techniques you’ve honed and learned to employ at your disposal in getting done what you need to do.  Simple, it’s your usefulness compartmentalized in the ‘value you bring’ to the world.

I believe mastery comes in many shapes and forms, but mastery over yourself is the key message. This isn’t hunting and fighting anymore, but as Donavon highlights, it might be an understanding of knowledge that saves lives and furthers the interests of your group.

The knowledge of one’s strength entails a real mastery over oneself.  It breeds energy and courage, helps you with the most difficult tasks of life, and procures contentment and the true enjoyment of living.  But paradoxically this is the problem with men today. We believe that simply by doing, we’re achieving.  But what are you actually a master of? 

The modern schizophrenia of wanting to constantly upgrade and redirect our focus towards something better ultimately leads us towards mediocrity. When you are spreading your energy in multiple directions you end up as a ‘master on nothing’. 

Mastery in one domain expands your powers of creativity and focus for everything else.  You can transcend your domain and combine with others, but this takes creativity. Mastery by default requires patience and dedication.

Choose that one thing, that ‘thing’ you’re already good at.  That thing you can do effortlessly without thought and in a state of flow. Become world class at it, and you’ll find an incomparable freedom in focus. 

Conclusions

Donovan essentially comes to the same conclusion that I have.  When you distil the essence of masculinity, i.e. “being good at being a man” down to its very core, what you find is man is a protector.  Literally, men are the guardians of boundaries.

Once you’ve mapped the tactical virtues to modern times, the traits that make for a good warrior become clear enough that they also make for excellence, in that most manly of the provider roles as well.

Donovan arrives at this conclusion by imagining the qualities that would have been most needed and respected in men in the harshest of environments.  I get this, and I also don’t think it’s a stretch to visualise modern times as a different type of ‘harsh’. We are our own protagonists now, not the marauding hordes of invaders.

Also important to note when reading this is that masculinity need not be purely violent, tribe-like on this account. But it’s certainly simulated in our competitiveness and “guardian” type roles, even seen vicariously through spectator sports and literature. Or intellectualized i.e. economic, political, metaphorical, ascetic and business.

For me the most important insight from Donovan’s analysis is pulling apart the questions of “what does it mean to be good at being a man?” and “what does it mean to be a good man?” 

It’s this question you really need to ask yourself and be accountable to.

The latter asks what it means to fulfil the role of a good man within a given societal context. The former asks what it means to fulfil the role of an ideal man within a given societal context. The two are vastly different questions, and Donovan succinctly summarizes their difference with the memorable line, “Darth Vader is not a pussy.”

A person can be a morally bad person and still be manly.  This is why you need to ask yourself and be accountable only to you.

Again, however, it is important not to split being good at being a man and being a good man into a strict dichotomy. It is only in our modern age that we tend to see brains and brawn, goodness and strength as mutually exclusive traits. But they’re not.

While one set of virtues are prioritized over another depending on circumstances, since the dawn of civilization there have been men who strive for and achieve excellence in both the tactical and higher virtues. And men who excel on either one end of the manliness spectrum or the other, often have a symbiotic relationship. Both are equally important and something to work towards on your journey towards improving as a man.

You mightn’t agree with all of Donovan’s normative virtuous conclusions from The Way of Men, but I believe it gives a great baseline foundation for thinking of what masculinity is and means.  By seeking to self-analyse the ‘tactical virtues’ and how you employ them in your life, I believe you can only but become a better man for it.

I asked myself when I re-read the book, can honour, courage, mastery, and strength be merely necessary conditions for masculinity, or are they necessary and sufficient conditions as virtues alone. I’ve since concluded that they are ESSENTIAL conditions, and whilst interpreted and applied differently for different men, they are universally the building blocks for masculinity.  

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