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Sen. Josh Hawley Wants You to Man Up
Sen. Josh Hawley has a new book out called Manhood: The Masculine Virtues America Needs. It’s a combination of a manhood book and a politics book. He frames it as a battle between a biblical view of manhood and an “Epicurean” one that he associates with leftism. In the balance of this battle is the future of the American Experiment. Thus Hawley presents a smaller battle - right vs. left - as an echo of a larger one - the Bible vs. Epicurus. By beating back leftism today, one is not just winning a contemporary political struggle, but striking a blow in a cosmic struggle.
Manhood is divided into two parts. The first is an overview of manhood drawn from an mythic interpretation of Genesis. I use the term mythic here in a positive sense as referring to primal truths, not in a negative one that the story isn’t true. The second is a series of chapters on archetypal roles men are supposed to play: Husband, Father, Warrior, Builder, Priest, and King. These echo the well known book King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. His use of a mythic and archetypal framing - for example, his description of creation as about chaos and order - is clearly influenced by Jordan Peterson.
Learning from Jordan Peterson
I have not listened to Jordan Peterson’s lectures on Genesis, but clearly the way he talks about the world resonates strongly with young men today. So it makes sense for Hawley draw on that kind of rhetorical pattern in framing his arguments. I actually found his takes on Genesis interesting. Some of it was standard stuff, other parts of it were described in ways I have not observed in church. For example, he says:
Look closely. In the Genesis story, Eden is the only place of order and flourishing the Bible describes. It is the only park, the only garden, the only outpost of peace. When we learn anything of the land beyond Eden’s borders, it appears untamed, wild. Dark forces lurk there. A sly and wicked serpent will enter the story a chapter later in Genesis, and from where? Beyond the garden’s edge. That place, the place beyond, looms as a site of potential development, yes—God has made it and brought it forth from the deep—but also of darkness and disorder. It is, as yet, unfinished. Adam’s job is to help finish it, to bring it into order. His job is to expand the garden temple…The earth beyond the garden may be unkept, there may be malevolence there in some form, but Genesis insists God created even this world and called it good. It is not desolate; it is merely unfinished. It will respond to man’s work. And Adam is to work it. His effort will bring forth the hidden purposes of the world.
My interest here is not a theological appraisal, but rather how Hawley frames creation and man’s role in it, as a sort of avatar of God assigned to “bring forth the hidden purposes of the world.” This strikes me as relating to a sort of heroic quest for secret knowledge. It involves, like the hero’s journey, a process of personal transformation. He writes, “The Bible offers a purpose that summons each man, a purpose that will transform him. A man cannot stay as he is, not if he is to take on the mission of manhood.”
My take is that the goal with this is to create a vision of manhood linked to some noble, transcendent purpose. I have noted before that Christian teachers and other often present manhood about little more than self-sacrifice. There’s plenty of that in Hawley’s book to be sure, but he’s trying to present the masculine quest as something ennobling as well.
Men Have Value
He also differs from many in treating men as ends and not just means. Like Peterson, he says that they matter.
Genesis encourages every man who struggles to see the point of his life, who feels that his work is a waste, or who wonders whether he will amount to anything to think again. Your work matters. Your life matters. Your character matters. You can help the world become what it was meant to be. And that is no small thing.
There is an element here of seeing men as a existing for something else (versus having value in the own right), but unlike, say, Mark Driscoll’s presentation of manhood as a life of joyless toil, this is presented as something more aspirational - putting the world in order - and more in the line of “we really need you on the team.” I see this as a significant improvement over the standard conservative line towards men.
Exercising Authority Is Good
Also very notable is his description of the King archetype, where he explicitly affirms the goodness of men exercising authority:
It is good for a man to exercise authority—good for him and for those around him, provided he does it well. It is good that a man show ambition, that he aim to do something useful with his life….To young men, we should send a clear message: Dominion is good, and you should exercise it. Aim to do something with your life. Aim to exercise some leadership. Aim to accept responsibility for yourself—and others. Aim to have the character of a king.
This is also refreshingly contrary to the standard conservative line.
And, interestingly, he rejects Richard Reeves proposal to encourage men to go into the caring professions and live in more stereotypical female ways. He says, “To the experts safely ensconced in their think tanks, I would just say this: Is it really too much to ask that our economy work for men as they are, rather than as the left wants them to be?” While it’s unlikely mass highly paid blue collar employment will reemerge in the way Hawley hopes, rejecting the idea reprogramming of men to be more like women is a positive.
A Failed Mix of Ancient Truths and Modern Ideologies
While Hawley’s book is an advance over the standard conservative a Christian fare in some areas, it still has some significant issues.
The first and biggest is that it is written with essentially gender egalitarian, that is to say feminist, assumptions. This isn’t explicitly stated, but is made clear in a number of ways. The first is his use of the two separate archetypes of Husband and Father, rather than the integrated Patriarch archetype. We also see it in his treatment of covenant. He says that, “A covenant in the ancient world was an agreement between a partner of high status and a servant.” He rejects this for the marriage covenant though, saying, “For a marriage, too, is a covenant—a promise made and a vow taken, only in this case, between equals.” This is one of many areas of the book that cried out for an explanation with none forthcoming. (My point here is not to make my own argument about the nature of covenant or marriage, but to point out the weird and unexplained exception for marriage Hawley carves out in his treatment of covenant).
But most notably, we see the egalitarian stance in the treatment of the Husband and King archetypes. The Husband is supposed to make vow, endure, protect and provide. But nowhere does he discuss any concept of the Husband having headship or exercising leadership, not even of the evangelical “servant leadership” variety. (Hawley is an evangelical presbyterian). And while he praises the use of authority by the King archetype, he never situates this in a familial context.
Hawley affirms gender complementarity and a gender binary, but this is similar to evangelical egalitarianism, which talks about “complementarity without hierarchy.” He does speak about “traditional gender roles” but his application of them is thin, limited to things like different occupational types (as above), but pointedly not to men as head of the home. It’s possible he personally adheres to a complementarian gender theology - I don’t know - but if so he does not put it into this book. Tellingly, a critical review in the Washington Post notes the egalitarian flourishes in the book.
This egalitarian stance is important because it fundamentally undermines the entire argument of his book. Hawley is trying to go back to Genesis to define manhood as something ancient, eternal, and designed by God into the fabric of the world. At the same time, he wants to adopt gender egalitarianism for husband-wife relationships, something that’s only around 50-70 years old and a view that, dare I saw it, is of the Epicurean variety.
Thus Hawley is similar to other conservatives in adopting the “two sets of books” approach. Men are supposed to live up to the old set of books in terms of what is expected to them. But women are allowed to live by a new set of books that frees them from their old obligations - and men are supposed to be ok with this. This is nothing but a recipe for being a chump. It’s like the Jim Geraghty video for PragerU in which he urges men to act more like Ward Cleaver, the dad from the 1950s TV sitcom “Leave It to Beaver.” But Geraghty would never dream of telling women to act like June Cleaver, the wife and mother from that TV show.
This is one of the basic challenges with society today. It demands that men continue to fulfill the traditional obligations of manhood such as self-sacrifice, provisioning for others, etc. while giving up all the power, privileges, honors, and prestige they previously enjoyed - and freeing women completely from their previous traditional obligations.
That is essentially what a book about masculine virtues written from a de facto gender egalitarian position amounts to.
You can say that men, women, and society should live by the old rules. You can say the men, women, and society should live by new rules. But it’s ridiculous to demand that men live by the old rules (when it comes to obligations at least), while women and the rest of society live by new ones.
Some of the negatives trends in American men that Hawley identifies are a result of bad actions and bad character on the part of men. But some of them are a result of men rationally refusing to play to this mug’s game. As Helen Smith one put it, some men are going on strike.
Hawley recognizes this effect in some domains like economics, hence his call to rebuild a viable blue collar economy. But he doesn’t recognize it in areas like marriage, where we’ve institutionalized the “Epicurean” position with things like no-fault divorce, with women being the ones filing for it 70% of the time. That doesn’t factor into his analysis of marriage rates or fatherlessness at all. It’s deeply unfair to the men who wanted to be present at home with their children, but aren’t because their wives divorced them without just cause and got custody of the kids.
Denying the Importance of Status
The book also oddly argues against the pursuit of status. Hawley writes:
There is not a man alive, not a human being drawing breath on this vast earth, who does not crave status. It is what the Bible calls the pride of life. Practically the whole of modern living is geared around it. Universities promise higher status; advertising sells consumer goods as status symbols; even entertainment has become a form of status. And you can spend your life seeking after it, thirsting and lusting for it—or you can live for something other than you. But you cannot do both. Either you live for status—which is living for you—or you sacrifice that life, that entire way of life, for something better.
Elsewhere he writes, “Sacrifice your pride. Give up the quest for status.” I say this is odd because the book is positive towards the exercise of power. He says the exercise of authority is good, ambition is good, dominion is good. Power and status aren’t the same things, but they overlap a lot. And in our society it’s frequently necessary to play status games to acquire authority. Status is also intimately linked to our ability to succeed at the basics of manhood that Hawley encourages, such as getting married. As Jordan Peterson points out, “Girls are attracted to boys that win status competitions with other boys.” A man devoid of status is unlikely to marry in our society. He will probably end up as an “incel” (involuntary celibate).
Hawley himself has obvious pursued status - and very successfully. He went to Stanford and then Yale Law School, arguably the country’s most prestigious. He won a highly competitive Supreme Court clerkship. Now he is a US Senator. And good for him that he did this. There’s nothing wrong with that. Had he not sought out status markers like a Supreme Court clerkship, he would never have found himself in the position to exercise authority that he has today. He also wouldn’t have met, much less married his wife, who is a high powered attorney in her own right.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of oddities and seeming contradictions of this variety in the book.
Failing to Learn from Jordan Peterson
Finally, I will note that the book is written in a style multiple grade levels below Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. I’m not sure why that is, as he’s obviously capable of very good writing and Peterson proves men will devour higher level material. (I would personally have liked to have read a book that was not political, and gave free range to Hawley’s intellect).
Also, unlike with Jordan Peterson, there’s little practical, actionable advice. Manhood has the grand vision of masculinity, but not the guide for how to get there. I didn’t come away from the book with anything I could change practically to become a better man.
The genius of Jordan Peterson was packaging folk wisdom in elevated rhetoric. He gave the grand vision of the cosmos and manhood, but he also gave men news they can use (e.g., to attract women, you need status), and very practical steps like “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” and “Clean your room, bucko.” What makes these so effective is that they work metaphorically, but also practically. If you don’t know how to put your life in order, you really can start by just physically cleaning your room. Even taken naïvely, they still work.
Because Hawley’s book lacks this, it can ultimate come across as just another call to “Man up!” The books flaws probably also explain why he has not developed an organic following as a men’s guru. (His speech at TPUSA, for example, was to an audience someone else convened).
But I think the positive takeaway from Manhood is the way that it tries to advance the masculinity discussion in a better direction from a conservative perspective. It tries to learn from Jordan Peterson in terms of trying to frame manhood in a transcendent way as something aspirational. It treats men as having real value in themelves. And it treats men exercising authority in an appropriate way as good and proper. All of these needs to be carried forward into future conservative works on the topic of manhood.
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Cover image credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0