Discover more from Aaron Renn
Newsletter #79: The Teachings of Neo-Pagan Masculinity
Welcome back to my monthly longform newsletter. This is always free, but you can get access to additional exclusive content, podcast and interview transcripts, and commenting privileges by becoming a paid subscriber today.
One of my big themes has been the disconnect between men turning away from traditional authorities and institutions (churches, politicians, teachers, etc) and towards online men’s influencers like Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, and Andrew Tate.
I’ve spent a lot of time exploring what the online influencers are doing and what they are saying so that we can understand them and their appeal better, and perhaps in some cases elevate our own game in response and attract more of their young male audience to the church. Today I want to continue that by looking at the vision of neo-pagan masculinity put forth in books by two men’s influencers, Jack Donovan and Ryan Landry.
Jack Donovan and The Way of Men
The Way of Men is a short book by Jack Donovan published in 2012. It is a semi-famous book and has certainly sold a huge number of copies as it has 5,300 ratings on Amazon (only slightly fewer than Tim Keller’s The Reason for God). It appears to still be moving copies.
Donovan is an interesting figure to say the least. He’s gay, but rejects the label because he thinks the word has become coded to refer to a set of effeminate behaviors he rejects. He prefers the term “androphile,” and wrote an entire book on that subject that’s since been unpublished. (A significant number of online men’s influencers are gay). He’s also explicitly neo-pagan, worshipping Thor or some such. He was previously an ordained priest in the Church of Satan, and involved with various organizations in the alt-right (though has since disavowed the movement).
If anyone deserves the term pagan masculinist, it’s Donovan.
Interestingly, despite Donovan’s bizarre personal history, The Way of Men is essentially a mainstream book. For example, he interviewed Brett McKay of the Art of Manliness when writing it, and has been featured on that site several times. Although it has some themes I reject, this book is basically safe to read. I’m sure it has been bought many times by ordinary people with no idea about Donovan’s background.
Donovan’s take on manhood is essentially rooted in the basic evolutionary psychology framework that’s common to most online men’s influencers. In his view, our instinctual masculinity developed in primitive times, when humans faced mortal dangers. The traits men had to develop to survive in this environment are what come down to us as masculinity.
The most important concept in Donovan’s book is his claim that “the way of men is the way of the gang.” That is, the natural milieu of men is with a small group of other men - the hunting party, the warband, the street gang, a sports team, etc. Donovan writes:
A man is not merely a man but a man among men, in a world of men. Being good at being a man has more to do with a man’s ability to succeed with men and within groups of men than it does with a man’s relationship to any woman or any group of women.
While recognizing than men do often form gangs, I’m not sure I buy Donovan’s view of the gang as the fundamental unit of masculinity. However, there are valid points here:
There’s a communal element to masculinity. Virtually all discussion today about how to be a better man focuses on essentially individual actions: eat better, work out, embrace the grind, impose your will on the world, get married and have kids, etc. I’m as guilty as anyone of this. But human beings are social and political animals, not lone wolves. Manhood is pursued and developed in a community of men. Iron sharpens iron after all.
Manhood is defined by a man’s relationship with other men. Scholars like anthropologist David D. Gilmore have noted that manhood is an earned status. It’s not just about hitting a particular age. To be accepted as a man requires that a man perform in the activities and traits of men. There’s a standard that must be met. And the people who primarily determine whether that standard is met is other men - not women. Women merely reflect what other men have already determined. As Jordan Peterson put it, “Girls are attracted to boys who win status competitions with other boys.”
In other words, Donovan’s book is about the way of men, not the way of a man.
It’s interesting that evangelicals have essentially rejected these points. They do this by defining manhood almost entirely as a singular man’s relationship to women and children. For example, in the complementarian ur-text Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper writes:
Here we take the definition of masculinity, a phrase at a time and unfold its meaning and implications.
AT THE HEART OF MATURE MASCULINITY IS A SENSE OF BENEVOLENT RESPONSIBILITY TO LEAD, PROVIDE FOR AND PROTECT WOMEN IN WAYS APPROPRIATE TO A MAN’S DIFFERING RELATIONSHIPS.
“AT THE HEART OF….”
This phrase signals that the definitions are not exhaustive. There is more to masculinity and femininity, but there is not less. We believe this is at the heart of what true manhood means, even if there is a mystery to our complementary existence that we will never exhaust. [caps in original]
While acknowledging there’s more to manhood, this defines masculinity exclusively in terms of an individual man’s relationships to women. Right or wrong, this is what they teach. I don’t believe this is how anyone would have understood or defined masculinity until very recently.
It’s also interesting that mainstream society is very hostile to men being part of all-male groups. Obviously they don’t like literal gangs. But any all male space or organization will be targeted to force it to include women. The vast majority have already done. The most famous recent case here is probably the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters. The New York Times wrote dozens, maybe even over a hundred article attacking the club for not having female members. (The club eventually capitulated). The few remaining all male organizations like college fraternities have a target on their back. Interestingly, churches are one of the few places were all male groups still seem to be accepted.
The lack of male groups, institutions, and spaces is almost certainly a factor in the various struggles men are experiencing today, as documented by people like researcher Richard Reeves in his book Of Boys and Men.
One way to attempt to ameliorate the problems boys and young men are experiencing would be to legitimize and encourage more all male spaces. But other than a few people who argue for more single sex education, this does not appear to be on the radar.
Possibly inspired by Donovan, one of the core ideas of the dissident right is the männerbund, which they define as a brotherhood of men united in common purpose. Their particular purpose, of course, being right wing politics. However, their attempts at männerbund creation have seen many failures. Their members don’t actually seem to have much actual loyalty to each other, as a large number of the various doxxes of anonymous far right accounts originated with people inside the group ratting out their peers to the press. (I have read that Donovan has his own “gang” of men. It may be an exception. I don’t know anything about it).
In terms of the content of what masculinity entails, Donovan focuses on four of what he calls the “tactical virtues”: Strength, Courage, Mastery, and Honor.
Here is where the typical feminist objection would arise. Can’t women be strong? Can’t women be courageous? This seems to be something evangelicals struggle to respond to, and I believe accounts for part of why Piper defines masculinity the way he does. There are several extended Bible passages that discuss the relationship of men and women in different ways, such as by saying the husband is the head of the home and the wife is to submit. But when it comes to characteristics like courage, the pickings are much slimmer. Given the general “biblicist” approach of evangelicalism, if they can’t proof-text something from the Bible, then they struggle to advocate it. And some feminist writer can simply respond with an example of a “gynocentric interruption” like Deborah in Judges.
Donovan has a different response to this objection. He doesn’t deny that women can be strong, courageous, etc. Strength is a masculine virtue not because only men are strong - though Donovan affirms that men are generally physically stronger than women - but because men and only men are judged on their strength. He writes:
Women can demonstrate strength, but strength is a quality that defines masculinity. Greater strength differentiates men from women. Weak men are regarded as less manly, but no one really cares or notices if a woman is physically weaker than her peers.
A man who is weak fails the test of manhood. Whereas almost no one judges a women negatively for being weak.
It’s similar for courage. A man who displays cowardice when he should display courage earns the contempt of his fellow men. A woman who is courageous may be praised by others. But if she isn’t courageous, if she runs way, she’s not going to be judged as deficient in femininity. Donovan writes, “Both men and women can be game, but status for human females has rarely depended on a woman’s willingness to fight. Demure, polite, passive women are attractive to men and are generally well-liked by other women.”
I was surprised that he didn’t talk more about loyalty, which I would have considered a preeminent virtue of the primitive male gang. He does mention it. The word appears eight times in the book. But he doesn’t list it as a separate tactical virtue. I wrote about loyalty in newsletter #58.
Donovan also echoes the common take that there’s an amoral quality to masculinity as he describes it. The classic expression would that there’s a difference between being a good man and being good at being a man. A mob boss might demonstrate all the tactical virtues, while being morally evil. There can also be good men who don’t measure up in terms of masculinity. But being neo-pagan in orientation, Donovan is less concerned with good vs. evil than he is friend vs. enemy. For example, he writes about 9/11 hijackers:
What about suicide bombers? I’d say that hijacking a plane with a box knife and flying it into a building takes balls of steel. I don’t have to like it, but if I’m being honest with myself, I can’t call those guys unmanly. Enemies of my tribe, yes. Unmanly, no.
I reject the idea that there’s no link between being a good man and being good at being a man. God created men, so the moral dimension is always present. At the same time, that morality can’t be divorced from the other qualities men were created to exhibit. Nevertheless, the idea of “good at being a man” vs “good man” is useful in helping us draw an important distinction.
After this discourse on masculinity, Donovan proceeds to provide a standard manosphere type indictment of modern culture as undermining men and masculinity. He mentions ideologies like feminism, but also structural factors like technology and industrialization that removed men from their primal environment of the fight for survival. Absent from their origins in the struggle for survival, the values he describes and admires will necessarily atrophy. Men today find them at most in substitutes like spectator sports or video games. Donovan is one of civilization’s discontents:
Civilization comes at a cost of manliness. It comes at a cost of wildness, of risk, of strife. It comes at a cost of strength, of courage, of mastery. It comes at a cost of honor. Increased civilization exacts a toll of virility, forcing manliness into further redoubts of vicariousness and abstraction. Civilization requires men to abandon their tribal gangs and submit to the will of one big institutionalized gang. Globalist civilization requires the abandonment of the gang narrative, of us against them. It requires the abandonment of human scale identity groups for “one world tribe.” The same kind of men who once saw their own worth in the eyes of the peers who they depended on for survival will have to be satisfied with a “social security number” and the cheerfully manipulative assurances of their fellow drones.
He desires societal collapse so that the primal masculine traits he values can reemerge:
I’ve been a non-believer all of my life, but I’d drop to my knees and sing the praises of any righteous god who collapsed this Tower of Babel and scattered men across the Earth in a million virile, competing cultures, tribes, and gangs. Honor as I understand the definition requires that kind of “diversity.”
This is where, in my view, he goes off the rails. It’s one thing to look back into the full span of the past to discover the truths of human nature, as David Gilmore did in his anthropological survey of manhood. It’s another to so idolize a mythic past that you want to return to a Hobbesian world.
Donovan would probably be disappointed in me because I’m way to attached too electricity and indoor plumbing. At the same time, we shouldn’t let our distaste for parts of what Donovan says, or even his personal background keep us from seeing what he might have gotten directionally accurate and drawn men to his book, which has become something of a modern classic. The idea of manhood in community, masculinity as primarily (or at least heavily) about a man’s relationship with other men, and the tactical virtues are all good ones that we could apply personally and in a public engagement context. I personally think we should be looking to recreate male only groups, spaces, and organizations, for example.
Ryan Landry’s Masculinity Amidst the Madness
Ryan Landry is a former dissident right writer whose Masculinity Amidst Madness is another book whose core content is actually almost mainstream, albeit packaged with an amateurish cover.
I classify this book as neo-pagan for two reasons. First, it includes an introduction from Bronze Age Pervert, a choice I consider questionable because it unnecessarily taints what could have been a semi-mainstream book like Donovan’s with BAP’s toxic brand. Without the BAP intro, Landry would potentially have gotten more pickup in the broader market.
A second reason for labeling it neo-pagan that Landry’s book is entirely oriented around the individual and his immanent circumstances and will. It does reference God in senses that could be Christian. But at the same time, it calls for men to embrace the faith of their own ancestors - whatever that might be:
Your family, your line, has a religion. It was made by men to honor the gods that they thanked to put you there. If you reject it, you must light a candle and explain to those who came before why you reject what they built. If you follow it, you must sort yourself within the religion. You must engage in the rituals they set forth for the flock.
Religion here is a familial artifact - the important part of religion being to honor one’s own people’s gods. This is classically pagan. In Landry’s telling, religion seems to be primarily a utilitarian device to create personal particularity that enables a man to resist the corroding forces of today’s secular liberal society. The fact that this society is, in fact, a “clown world,” as some might put it today, is more assumed than argued in the book.
Beyond these points, the book’s recommendations amount mostly to a semi-mainstream list of self-improvement ideas. There are so many that, at the end, Landry warns against treating the book as simply a lengthy to do list.
It is tempting to read this and see a checklist. This book is not a checklist, but a guide. The worst thing to do is to consider this guide as a to-do list.
One of the interesting positive themes of the book is its repeated exhortations for a man to be a source of uplift to others. For example, Landry writes:
If you see an obese man in the gym struggling on a treadmill or with a weight, do not mock him. Encourage him. At some moment, we all have been the new gym attendee. We all have been the out-of-shape man. We have all been the man placing light weights on bars to lift. We all have been the tired, weak man struggling not to look horrible at the new gym. Help your fellow brother return in February [after signing up for the gym in January for his New Year’s resolution ] and feel that he is a member of the club.
In many ways Landry is not wrong to speak of madness. Our world exhibits tremendous dysfunctions. The most objectively quantifiable of these is the declining average life expectancy in America. We have a massive amount of problems among those outside of the top 20% professional-managerial class in America. Rampant drug problems are one. A 40% out of wedlock birth rate is another. The growth of the “involuntarily celibate” - those who cannot find someone to date or marry - is real, among both men and women.
In this environment, traditional negative reinforcement is challenging to implement. For example, in working class communities, to stigmatize people who have violated the bourgeois family norm of marriage without divorce, with children born in wedlock, is to attempt to stigmatize almost everyone. Whether it’s right or wrong to do that, in this environment negative reinforcement is simply ineffective. Punishing those who violate community norms doesn’t work when a majority of the community is guilty of the same crime.
Landry smartly doesn’t fall into the trap of saying that we should simply tell people to “Man up!” Instead, he delivers something of a man up message to his readers, but in a way that suggests that those readers are among the handful of people who have the character and potential to rise above these problems, and then in turn help others do the same. So his lengthy to do list sounds more like instructions or training for an elite special forces unit than the typical evangelical beatdown of men. By suggesting that his readers are potentially among the elite, this gives him standing to challenge them to do better.
At the same time, he does give what it is a basically Christian charge, to be a light to others. The reason to get in better shape is to be able to able to help and encourage others to do the same. And the way to do that is through positive reinforcement. Find the guy at the gym who is trying to get in better shape and fine a way to help him get there, even if it is just helping him feel like he belongs among those who are already in shape. This “blessed to be a blessing” approach definitely distinguishes Ryan from pagan sensibility. In one of those moments where in speaks of God in a Christian like way, he writes, “Service to another, especially a loved one, is part of the grand vision of God’s love. People find meaning and love in this service. It is an act of love and care.” A Christian might critique this for implying that people should find identity in works rather than in Christ. But this idea of serving others is not what you probably expected from someone who is part of the dissident right.
The book overall is structured as a set of thematic chapters exhorting men to pursue excellence across a variety of domains. In each, the fundamental call is to exercise one’s one will to accomplish that. It’s a sort of “will to virtue.” For example:
You will need to study and train. You will need to govern and harness your emotions. And you will need to be judicious with your speech and in the selection of your friends. Do not deny the need to see the problems at hand, the problems at large, and the problems of the future. Develop your mind and body, find other good men, and have the courage to lead when you can. Develop your will, drive, and the ability to follow through. Do not complain like a child or a peasant, but act like the men who came before you, who struck out to conquer and build.
As with religion above, he wants people to know their family history:
Learn your people’s myths. Do you know even your own family’s story? Our contemporary culture shuts the door on the past and discourages this examination. Study your family lines. Your name has a meaning: discover it. Go through your line and find the ancestor to emulate. Travel to their land, see the world as they saw it.
Learn other languages and cultures:
The leading men of history knew several languages to speak with contemporary peers and to read the classics in the original texts. If you do not know a language of another culture and seek to learn about it, all texts will be filtered by the mind of the translator. Seek knowledge not just for practical application, but for development of the mind and soul.
Art must be a part of one’s life. Ignore the filthy works trumpeted as art by our cultural mandarins. That is art that reflects our chaos and decay. It is art for a junk society. It is not for you. You seek truth and beauty. Are you an artist? Do you have talent? Even if long since practiced, bring back your talents. Practice again. Even an amateur can produce works that bring light to friends and family.
Teach yourself handyman skills:
As a first step to reclaiming this part of your birthright, tackle small tasks and learn basic skills that were once considered second nature. Once a trade is learned or a new skill is developed and refined, it can never be taken from a man. Possessions, money, and even friends come and go, but what a man can do with his mind and hands he will always have. Start small with basic tools and household fixes, and build to greater jobs. Begin with the hand tools: a saw, a hammer, a chisel, sandpaper. You might have had an uncle or a grandfather that showed you his trade or the craft that he was passionate about. He showed you for a reason.
Become a worthy leader:
Aim to become a leader, a man worthy of emulation. This will happen by degrees as you study, train, and do. You want to lead by example, and through charisma, the state of grace that comes to those in command of themselves.
Look at the nominal adults who proclaim to be blind with rage, trembling with anger, shaking with fear, or triggered by mere words or simple images. They are children. They have no control over themselves. Worse, they are liars. They affect outrage, not realizing it reflects a childish relationship with their emotions. The man who masters his emotions understands his real needs. He will not be persuaded and lied to by mass marketing tested in laboratories. His interests are the eternal. His orientation is focused on cultivating himself and his immediate circle.
Have family dinners:
There is much moaning about the death of family dinnertime. Why? Why, in a nation that watches six hours of television a night, is there not an hour for meal preparation and dining? It is not a priority. A meal allows for discussion of the day. Think of the things you can learn about your children’s lives and they learn about you in that setting.
There’s much more, including a dissident right style reference to creating a männerbund as above (although I should note that this book is really directed at man as individual), and an affirmation of natural hierarchy. Another pagan flourish is his call to have sex with lots of women, but to do it the “right” way:
The media laughs at masculine pursuits except one: sex with women. They want you chasing women to feel like a man. It is the only approved venue in which men can compete against one another, one in which women are the arbiters…They know that is how you have chosen to define your worth. Deny them this. You seek the approval of greater figures, the men of the ages. Sexual prowess is to be esteemed, but to be led by your genitals is to be a teenager. The men from your line would be impressed by your bedding dozens of women. They would expect conquered villages and monuments left to your glory. But unless your notch count is the side-effect of such a life, they would be puzzled or even disgusted. Deny unworthy women your essence and you will think clearer around the worthy.
Presumably the idea is to be somewhat like Genghis Kahn. Conquer in life such that women want you, then select only the best. But the idea that a man would think of a notch count of any variety to be a worthy aspiration or even side effect is clearly pagan.
Nevertheless, the majority of what this book encourages men to do is worthwhile. It is a call to excellence, and in many cases virtue as we’d understand it today. Much of this could be repositioned into a Christian context. Had Landry dropped the BAP intro, modified a few selected passages, and gotten a better cover, his book might have seen more crossover success. Even as is, it’s worth reading as an example of how to challenge men to be better without sounding like you are delivering a Mark Driscoll style beat down.
Aaron Renn is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
In the future that globalists and feminists have imagined, for most of us there will only be more clerkdom and masturbation. There will only be more apologizing, more submission, more asking for permission to be men. There will only be more examinations, more certifications, mandatory prerequisites, screening processes, background checks, personality tests, and politicized diagnoses. There will only be more medication. There will be more presenting the secretary with a cup of your own warm urine. There will be mandatory morning stretches and video safety presentations and sign-off sheets for your file. There will be more helmets and goggles and harnesses and bright orange vests with reflective tape. There can only be more counseling and sensitivity training. There will be more administrative hoops to jump through to start your own business and keep it running. There will be more mandatory insurance policies. There will definitely be more taxes. There will probably be more Byzantine sexual harassment laws and corporate policies and more ways for women and protected identity groups to accuse you of misconduct. There will be more micro-managed living, pettier regulations, heavier fines, and harsher penalties. There will be more ways to run afoul of the law and more ways for society to maintain its pleasant illusions by sweeping you under the rug. In 2009 there were almost five times more men either on parole or serving prison terms in the United States than were actively serving in all of the armed forces.
- Jack Donovan, The Way of Men