Manliness rated high on ancient lists of the virtues; indeed, for the Romans, virtus designated both the general concept of virtue and manliness in particular. Today, as author Jack Donovan remarks, if manliness gets mentioned at all, it is usually made a vehicle for selling us on something else: “real men love Jesus” or “a real man would never hit a woman.”
How might we arrive at an objective understanding of manliness? The Way of Men looks to Homo sapiens’ environment of evolutionary adaptation, viz. life in small hunter-gatherer bands struggling for survival both with nature and with other similar bands. Civilization has not lasted long enough yet for us to become fully adapted to it.
The state of nature is not a world of individuals, as the early philosophers of liberalism imagined, but of cooperation in small groups or bands. The first aim of such cooperation is to establish and maintain possession of a territory for your band. Then you must guard the perimeter and acquire the means of sustenance—either by killing animals in the wild or by successfully raiding other bands.
Manliness, in the first instance, consists of whatever traits make for success at these tasks. Donovan calls them “tactical virtues,” and lists them as strength, courage, mastery, and honor. Strength and courage are more or less self-explanatory; mastery refers to competence in whatever skills are useful to one’s band: building, setting traps, making blades or arrows, and so on.
Honor in its most basic sense means “the primitive desire to hit back when hit, to show that you will stand up for yourself.” In a lawless situation, a man’s life may depend on his ability to make others afraid to harm or even show contempt for him, i.e., on avoiding any appearance of weakness or submissiveness. This raw form of honor can still be observed in prisons or amid Sicily’s onorevole società—i.e., among men who respect only force. With civilization, young men learn to honor their elders in spite of being physically able to beat them up. Gradually honor may come to be associated with such intangibles as knowledge or moral authority, but it never entirely escapes its origin in violence.
(Alternative Right, May 4, 2012).