For those who don't know (but you should, really) Brett and Kate McKay are a couple running The Art of Manliness, probably one of the most followed up blogs out there when it comes to general lifestyle, and targeted, mostly, to men. They also are the authors of 'Manvotional', the book I want to review here.
What is it about?
There's much to say about the appalling, or supposedly appalling, state of 'manhood' these days. It seems indeed that, if we have been leaving behind 'toxic masculinity' and the insecure machismo that too often came with it, we have been replacing it by a no less shallow, hedonistic culture, feeding the rise of the so-called 'man children', and where The New Man (behold!) is merely content with playing video games for hours on end, happy as he is with getting a six packs, the last fashion clothes and cosmetics, but with no substance whatsoever. Well...
Well, is it 'it'? Or is this a caricature?
Being a forever teenage Ken doll expert at 'Call of Duty' may be a nice aspiration to some, I have no doubt (and there are plenty of Barbies out there too) but, to others, 'call of duty' bears a very different meaning altogether. What happened to good old fashion character building? Ethos? High standards and principles? Dare... dare... dare.... dare I say it?... VIRTUES?!
There was a time indeed when 'being a man' meant something. Not all men want to be boys. Not all men, then, feel comfortable in our society, setting down for mediocrity. And in fact, here are how the authors define themselves:
'Brett McKay is a man. Kate McKay loves manly men.'
That says it all.
That says it all, but what are we talking about?
We're talking about, here, the so-called traditional 'manly virtues', narrowed down in this book to seven: manliness, courage, industry, resolution, self-reliance, discipline, honour. It's about, in other words, refusing to settle down for mediocrity, but, on the contrary, striving to get better - always. It's about condemning idleness and lack of purpose to have goals, worked up towards through time management and perseverance. It's about standing up for yourself. It's about self-discipline and integrity.
Now, obviously, there are three things to outline.
First, the happy-being-immature will yawn it out like the spoilt little boys that they are, and dismiss it as old ramblings of ultra-conservatives arching backwards to long gone traditional ideals. Too bad. It's their loss. The book is *not* an essay wobbling in patronising preaching. It's, on the contrary, a source of inspiration, a collage of texts, poems, quotes and fables to leave you thoughtful and motivate you. Marcus Aurelius, Jack London, Theodore Roosevelt, Benjamin Franklin, Euripides, Aristotle, Martin Luther King Jr, Ralph Waldo Emerson, General Douglas MacArthur, Seneca, Frederick Douglas etc. There are many men to admire in here, both for their greatness and for their flaws.
Then, the cynical will point at how pompous yet empty such words are. Somehow, it's true: 'manliness', 'honour', 'resolution'... Here are surely resounding terms, but hard to define, let alone agree upon to set as 'virtues' to live by! But... But: it's precisely because they are so fleeting and abstract that such concepts are powerful. They are meaningless, then, only insofar as you don't put meaning into them. And for some of us, looking for meaning is exactly what this is all about:
'The reward is not in the destination, but in the striving.'
Last but not least, the misguided will accuse it of being 'sexist', pointing to ideals in habits and behaviours that are seemingly associated with manhood only, whereas the virtues outlined here can perfectly be embodied by women too. Such criticism, of course, could be fair. After all, it draws inspirations from men living in days and ages when women were looked upon, while we now live in more equalitarian societies. It would be fair, then, but it would be seriously misguided.
Brett McKay, in fact, is everything but a sexist. His view of manhood is actually pretty straightforward:
'There are two ways to define manhood. One way is to say that manhood is the opposite of womanhood. The other is to say that manhood is the opposite of childhood... We advocate the latter philosophy; manhood is the opposite of childhood and concerns one's inner values. A child is self-centred, fearful, and dependent. A man is bold, courageous, respectful, independent and of service to others. Thus a boy becomes a man when he matures and leaves behind childish things. Likewise, a girl becomes a woman when she matures into real adulthood. Both genders are capable of and should strive for virtuous, human excellence. When a woman lives the virtues, that is womanliness; when a man lives the virtues, that is manliness.'
Coming from a dude running a blog about being a man with his wife, such ethos is obviously not surprising. In fact, even the chapter dedicated to 'manliness' as a virtue reminds the reader that there is nothing 'unmanly' in traits usually associated with women that is, kindness, gentleness, care, and nurturing. And indeed, for the historically clued-on among us, it's what being a gentleman had always been about. Such traits, then, should fully be part and package of true manhood. Or, put bluntly: sod off to the insecure machos, scared that anything supposedly 'feminine' is emasculating; this book is not for them either.
At this point, it may be very strange indeed to some, therefore, to have this presented as solely targeted to men, while it speaks, in fact, to us all -including women. It shouldn't. This, again, is because the authors react against what has been done to manhood these past few decades.
Women have been empowered, and it's great. Men, on the other hand, seem to have been pretty much alienated, or turned into boys, forever teenagers dabbling with childish things (withdrawal into video games), appearances over character (six pack and Hugo Boss), when not avoiding responsibilities altogether (starting families as late as possible). The reject of toxic masculinity was needed, but what about masculinity itself? In an era that seems to vilify it, the consequences have been dire for boys indeed. But, this is not the topic of the book... And I digress.
What this is, in the end, is not a self-help manual, and it's not an essay on 'what-the-heck-has-gone-wrong-with-manhood-these-days'. This is, at the core, a collection of inspiring and motivating texts and sayings, poems, and speeches, all about ideals refusing to die. For men in crisis fed up of the mediocrity surrounding us, it's good enough to read! And if you're one of those dude aspiring to be strong and tough but with class and substance, then you might like their blog (if you don't know it yet) old fashion perhaps, but interesting and quirky, and which can be found here.
Thank you for reading. Sapere aude! And if you're interested in gender-related issues, then please feel free to subscribe.