Manliness is out, but it was once very much in. Ever since then, men have been trying to bring it back. Reading might not seem like a particularly masculine activity, but for centuries, writers have urged us to consider how manly the Classics are. John Milton claimed that the study of Greek should be supported so that students “…may despise and scorn all their childish, and ill-taught qualities, to delight in manly, and liberal exercises.” Dr. Johnson expatiated upon his course of reading thus:
“What he read during these two years he told me, was not works of mere amusement, ‘not voyages and travels, but all literature, Sir, all ancient writers, all manly: though but little Greek, only some of Anacreon and Hesiod; but in this irregular manner (added he) I had looked into a great many books, which were not commonly known at the Universities, where they seldom read any books but what are put into their hands by their tutors; so that when I came to Oxford, Dr. Adams, now master of Pembroke College, told me I was the best qualified for the University that he had ever known come there.’”
In a recent National Review commentary discussing Trump’s ban from Twitter, Victor Davis Hanson wrote that Democrats will take action to “emasculate their conservative opposition.” At this point, conservative pedants who know which of those four words will come in for censure might be reaching for their dictionaries to note that ‘emasculate’ can be used as a simple synonym for ‘weaken,’ with no reference to the more penile elements of life intended. These critics are invited to peruse a thesaurus as well, and note the preponderance of synonyms for ‘weaken,’ which are not, in origin, about depriving someone of his manliness.
Hanson, perhaps wishing that his name were Manson, is obsessed with manliness. Substantial portions of his old dumpster fire of a book, Who Killed Homer, read like an extended encomium to the most chiseled and hairy of the people whom we call men. Heath may have dropped out of the race, but Hanson has made a long career out of reclaiming the essential manliness of ancient literature against the onslaught of feminism and sensitivity training. In one of the book’s most patently absurd passages, Hanson and Heath imagined the Classics professor as the square-jawed protagonist of a Clint Eastwood western or a war fantasy:
It is too quiet an existence, mitigated not even by a battle-scarred centurion who – even if wrong – could at least have slapped you silly with “You are learning Greek to understand doomed courage from Socrates; the lot of man, courtesy of the words of Jesus. You study Greek to communicate to the uninitiated that there were always better, more mysterious things in the world than interest, depreciation, and Reeboks.” Red-faced and sore, surprised that someone wanted you to learn Greek, you could have then at least saluted at the failed effort and snapped back, “Thanks, Sarge, I needed that.”
If we are going to lose Greek, let us do so with burly, cigar-chomping professors, red-eyed from overload classes, wounds oozing from bureaucratic combat, chests bristling with local teaching medals and complimentary Rotary pens from free lecturing, barking orders and dragging dozens of bodies forward as they brave administrative gunfire, oblivious to the incoming rounds from ethnic studies and contemporary cinema.
It’s hard to tell whether triviality or testosterone predominate in this conception. I’m surprised that we weren’t given the Glenngary Glen Ross treatment, that they didn’t reach for the briefcase and say, “You know what it takes to teach Classics? It takes brass balls.”
There is a lot of verbal wrangling in Who Killed Homer, but the central message is that the Classics – and the humanities more generally – must be saved for men. “Ethnic studies and contemporary cinema” are cited as the enemies of Classics, but Hanson gave the game away here. Conservative critics of the academy regularly deride “area studies,” but that is exactly what Classics is. There is a tendency the reactionary to balk at labels like “Ancient Mediterranean Studies,” because their intended goal is for Classics to stand for all of human experience, in much the same way that they hope for “he” to continue serving as a universal pronoun.
Hanson has been operating in the field of cultural commentary for some time, and he has surely made more of a career as a member of the FOX commentariat than he has as a Classics professor. In the minds of men like Hanson, civilization is collapsing because the humanities have been so sensitized, so feminized, so emasculated. Hanson is an ardent fan of Donald Trump, and in addition to writing a book-length apologia for the orange man, he served in the ministry of propaganda which released the MAGA Manifesto on January 18th. I confess that it long puzzled me that a man who had tried to bill himself as an intellectual figure could perform such mental and rhetorical gymnastics to align himself with Trumpism. But one line of Trump’s last treasonous phone call to Mike Pence on the eve of January 6th, reveals the central strain of the Trumpian worldview: “You can either go down in history as a patriot, or you can go down in history as a pussy.”
No doubt, Hanson would feign mock astonishment and discomfiture at the vulgarism, but his career-long project of commentary upon academia amounts to this: the humanities are in danger of being “a subject for pussies,” as the rugged and manly readers of yore abandon their libraries for the woods and the insurrectionist stage. Hanson, and other men like him, have been engaged in a long project of masculine revanchism which seeks to make both academia and the world manly again.
The cult of the manly man is all around us. Why else does the figure of the macho lunkhead have such extensive social cache? Why does someone like Joe Rogan have an audience? Billed as an regular guy – a real man’s man – he is an ignoramus of staggering proportions, whose program consists of a mix of demotic everyman bafflement at the presentation of ordinary facts followed up by pontificating in the language of locker room cliché. But he provides a certain comfort to the fragile masculine core: it’s okay to be stupid, because Joe is too. He gets away with it because he has muscles. Jordan Peterson got away with it because he ate an all-beef diet. Donald Trump gets away with it because there is something reassuring for men in the sight of a president like him. When his supporters use the words “my president,” they feel an affinity for him because he allowed all of the rank and indolent stupidity of pure masculinity a free expression which it has not had for decades.
Even artistic depictions of Trump reflect the same anxious concern about idealized masculinity and musculature. We all know that Trump is colossally out of shape, but he is portrayed by his cultists as a Herculean figure. At least in the Classical past, people may not have seen the rulers and grandees who were sculpted with impossible muscles, but we are confronted with the image of Trump every day, and it is hard to spot the resemblance between the orange monster and the Hercules of Mar-A-Lago.
The project of these masculine irredentists is an old one. Before today’s heralds of revitalized masculinity arrived on the scene, there was Robert Bly. In his book Iron John, Bly formulated the concept of Zeus energy, which he described thus:
“Zeus energy, which encompasses intelligence, robust health, compassionate decisiveness, good will, generous leadership. Zeus energy is male authority accepted for the sake of the community.”
He had little idea in 1990 that Zeus energy would be paralleled by a number of similar masculine formulations: big dick energy, dragon energy (which Kanye West applied to Donald Trump), etc. The appeal of Zeus energy may help to explain the attraction of Trump. Bly is of course wrong to apply the qualities of intelligence, compassion, good will, and generosity to that celestial tyrant. Those who are up on their myth will remember Zeus as a petulant rapist who bristled at every challenge to his authority. As Ovid described Jupiter in the Metamorphoses, he “mixed prayers with threats in regal fashion.” What could be more Trumpian than the joint appeal of flattery and threats? Who better understood the Trumpian logic of sexual assault than Zeus? Perhaps what Hanson and others see in allowing Trump to abase us all is the “male authority accepted for the sake of the community.” And what was that male authority to provide us? Safety or stability? No – just a return to manly business as usual.
Trump is no Hercules, but his affinity for crude and unregulated violence is characteristically masculine. (It is worth noting that Joe Rogan earned his fame as a commentator on blood sport.) What the Hansonian school counsels is deference to the masculine writ-large. Consider this piece from Who Killed Homer, in which they praise the straightforward qualities of Homeric speech:
“I wish only that my spirit and fury would drive me to hack your meat away and eat it raw for the things that you have done to me.” Not much worry about “universal inclusivity” here either. No blush that it might be taken as uncivil, cruel, or unfair, much less depressing or harsh; no concern other than that it is believed to be true and so should be said, to sink or rise on its own merits.
You see, the problem with kids these days is that they waste too much time in circumlocution before they fuck you up. In Hanson’s fantasy world, you might well murder a person with impunity, but the zealous eye of the PC Police will be watching to ensure that you don’t say anything uncivil beforehand.
As I suggested earlier, this is not a new phenomenon. Masculine grievance goes back a long time, but the particular strand of mythopoetic masculine revanchism is best embodied by Robert Bly. While Trump may be lacking in certain masculine traits, he is in many ways the perfect embodiment of Zeus energy, a presidential permission slip for men to let it all hang out again. Trump wanted to defund the PC Police. “Fuck your feelings” is Zeus energy distilled.
This masculine revival is clothed in Classical imagery. One can see why the ancient world offers such a rich treasury of fantasy for the modern man in revolt against the feminine. It’s easy enough to conjure up an ancient Greece where men could really be men, a real boys’ club of gymnastic, oiled-down, hairy masculinity, and the whole corpus of Greek literature skews a bit penisy.
Trump’s small hands may no longer be on the levers of power, and some of his acolytes may even be in jail. But his influence lives on like the blood of Nessus: a poison which threatens us even in the absence of the man himself. There are many strains to the particularly virulent reactionary conservatism which fueled his rise, and while we may glean some insight about the inarticulate and movie-fueled madness of some of his supporters by endlessly rewatching the Capitol assault, we ought even more to reflect on the motives of his intellectual apologists. In the case of Victor Davis Hanson in particular, it is hard not to see his support of Trump as predicated entirely on his fondness for masculine grievance.
As Joel has written on this site countless times, the Homeric epics can teach us meaningful lessons about grief and trauma. But in Who Killed Homer, Hanson looked back upon manly, merciless brutality as a salutary antidote to the effeminate cultural sensitivity of our times. The impulse to treat Homeric scenes as paradigms for modern behavior is the same as the impulse to bring back ritual stoning and beheading – a fetishization of barbarism under the guise of the restoration of masculinity.
Masculine irredentism is necessarily mythopoetic, and relies on vaguely mythical structures because they provide the ideal material for clouding the mind while suggesting something primal, something long-forgotten and long-lost in human society. Even in antiquity, authors like Caesar casually drew parallels between culture/civilization and effeminacy. Today, this primitivism is nearly universal in lifestyle fads. Several gyms near my house have the word ‘Primal’ in them; life-advice is offered by the un-ironically named ‘Art of Manliness’; and figures like Jordan Peterson are selling millions of books, picking up where Robert Bly left off. The future may be feminine, but the past was undoubtedly masculine, and it is to that zenith of penile power that both Hanson and Trump would like to return. Classics provides pretty solid ground on which to erect a monument to wounded masculinity, so perhaps we should not be surprised that the raving insurrectionist and the square-jawed professor have so much in common.