Sturdy: How does a modern man lead a meaningful life? Credit: Power Sport Images/Getty

December 1, 2020   6 mins

Contemporary manhood is under threat. From man-caves up and down the land, the resentful grumble is increasingly audible. The right to be a man — a real man — is being assailed from all sides: by feminists, gender non-conformists, and as a new book puts it, “chaos, vulgarity and meaninglessness”.

In The Seven Ages of Man: How to Live a Meaningful Life, James Innes-Smith writes that “Today, masculinity itself has come under attack, relentlessly maligned in the media”. The book glances wistfully back to an era of sturdy men and sturdier moral certainties, a time when gender roles were more clearly defined.

The 20th century was characterised by a surfeit of meaning. Everyone from Bolsheviks to National Socialists to Cold War liberals had a clear and discernible idea of what a good and fruitful life entailed. All were willing to spill blood (usually other people’s) to bring that vision to life. Yet barely three decades after the official termination of the conflict between East and West, we are awash with angsty books admonishing us (and by us I mean men) to “quell our deeper yearnings”, as Innes-Smith puts it. Bursting from every self-help bookshelf one now finds the gruff, rugged-bearded traditionalist rallying men to eschew materialism and seek out what Innes-Smith calls “deeper truths”.

The book guides us didactically through what he describes as the “seven ages” of man. These are childhood, adolescence, relationships and parenthood, work and providing, middle age, old age, death and legacy. The taut compartmentalisation of life is a giveaway in terms of the author’s broader moral outlook: a man’s life should be defined by “fundamental truths”. The author believes his interpretation of the good life — marriage, discipline, deferred gratification, strict child rearing, age-appropriate dress codes — is a universal one, which when you think about it is quite a large claim for a journalist to make.

This is unusual for a British author too, for it tends to be American readers who seek out guidance in everyday matters (the self-improvement industry in the US was worth $10 billion in 2016). But Innes-Smith forges ahead in the guise of the sagacious older male, proffering advice on every topic under the sun. Deep fulfilment in his moral universe is derived from putting oneself at the service of others. And getting married. The author is extremely keen on men getting hitched; younger readers are encouraged to settle down as soon as possible (he even marshals the claim, which worked to frighten me at least, that middle age begins at 35!).

Like other moralists Innes-Smith is keen to let you know that “recreational copulation soon loses its appeal”. This recalls something once said about Malcolm Muggeridge: that he was against everything he had grown tired of doing himself. Innes-Smith similarly counsels young men to abstain from sex for 12 months during the quest for a spouse and in the process to avoid the “pouting sirens” who are “fighting for your attention on every street corner”.

We’ve heard some of this sort of thing before. It is 30 years since Robert Bly published Iron John, an earnest Jungian treatise encouraging men to go off into the woods with other men and get in touch with their wild nature. Bly interpreted the allegorical fairytale of Iron John as a call for men to locate within themselves the “deep male” — and with it to reassert patriarchal authority. “Zeus energy is male authority accepted for the sake of the community,” wrote Bly. Women’s role was to submit to this “energy”, with their reward coming later on in the bedroom.

Yet the earnestness of Bly’s endeavour set it up for mockery. Martin Amis (who might have been writing about Jordan Peterson) remarked on Bly’s “impregnable humourlessness”. His fellow poet Charles Upton described Iron John as “utterly devoid of irony”. Ploughing through Innes-Smith’s short book (it is just 198 pages long) I too found it hard not to snigger as earnest prescriptions on erectile disfunction, strict portion control, and how to wear flat-fronted trousers rolled off the authorial pen.

But he’s right that men are in a pickle. The #MeToo movement, the decline of marriage and traditional forms of masculine work, as well as “gender fluidity” — all have discombobulated the contemporary male. In one ear we hear feminist complaints about gender pay gaps, toxic masculinity and the predatory sexuality of the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. In the other, we pick up grumbles from female contemporaries about the lack of “real men” amid the conformity and sterility of the commute and the office nine to five.

Male discomfiture is increasingly audible today on YouTube, where Bly’s ideological descendants mix Spartan asceticism with entrepreneurial uplift. It is traditionalism with a softer edge, in which self-development, stoicism, pseudo-scientific “life hacks”, and tips for developing rippling musculature sit alongside a new-age willingness to talk about feelings and vulnerability.

Deeper down this rabbit hole are the “neo-patriarchs” of the manosphere. These self-proclaimed alpha males rage against society’s feminisation of “soys” and “betas”. Covid-19 denial is rampant in the manosphere, where face masks are viewed as synonymous with emasculation and enfeeblement. Academics who recently surveyed nearly 2,500 American adults found that many men considered them “shameful, not cool and a sign of weakness”. This attitude — part insecurity, part bombast — goes to the very top. When the Trump White House announced in October that the President had “defeated” Covid-19, it was difficult not to read into it the corollary — that those succumbing to the virus were somehow being cast as weak and inferior.

Innes-Smith’s book also offers a more benign set of prescriptions for masculinity in the 21st century, though he does enjoy summoning the odd penis-shrivelling vision of a world in which men are “pacified, submissive and emasculated”. Most of the book is given over to encouraging readers to improve themselves through rigorous exercise and the imbibing of higher knowledge derived from authors such as Dostoevsky. Though readers are sternly warned to avoid popular culture where “pornography and funny animal videos” are corrupting young minds and where “triviality is the order of the day” (presumably those “pouting sirens” again).

The author is right to flag the uncertainty that surrounds the role of the traditional male breadwinner in the 21st century, especially among the working class, where identity has historically been wedded to productivity. Moreover, women show markedly less interest in pairing off with men who occupy a lowly position on the status hierarchy, compounding the misery for working-class men. The result is a growing mass of resentful, low-status men who are forming angry online subcultures that come marinated in misogyny and bile. Suicide rates among males are at record highs.

Nor should it be taboo to say that boys require male as well as female role models. This needn’t be about demonising single mothers; however we should perhaps look more judgmentally — a deeply unfashionable word these days — upon those weak and selfish men who refuse to take responsibility for the lives they bring into the world.

Innes-Smith wants men to find deeper meaning in the universe. Yet like so much of the Calvinist-inspired self-improvement oeuvre, this unrelenting search for betterment — the author fixates on “discipline”, “meaningful tasks” and “true fulfilment” — conflates suffering with a higher morality. He urges readers to cycle to work in a downpour. He warns against giving children access to computer games that provide “instant fun” and are thus “addling young men’s minds”. But where is the virtue in contracting pneumonia? And while there is something to be said for moderation in all matters, computer games have been shown in numerous studies to be beneficial for cognition.

I ought to confess that I spent most of my own youth railing against this broad-shouldered, unyielding masculinity. Innes-Smith is the type (because he says so) who believes you can “tell a lot about a man by the way he behaves on a sports field”. Which is to say he would not have thought much of me: one of my school reports contains five solitary words appraising my desultory performance in the sporting arena: “Not seen on the pitch!” Sloping off behind the bike shed for a fag – rather than putting my scrawny frame through a brutal pasting on the rugby pitch — may have been a moral failing yet somehow I don’t quite believe it.

It’s not that I view physical prowess as an irredeemable expression of “toxic masculinity”, as some contemporary feminist authors appear to. It’s more a question of everybody being different. Indeed, I’m pleased to discover that my first conscious political belief — a bastardisation of the harm principle: you should leave a person well alone unless they’re hurting you in some way — remains the most enduring one a quarter of a century later.

But invariably this works both ways. If you believe — and the overwhelming evidence suggests this — that gender is a product of nature as well as nurture, then reframing every male pursuit as toxic will surely have a detrimental effect on young minds. Amid rising levels of involuntary celibacy, pretending that going to the gym and increasing one’s social standing will do nothing to improve a young man’s chances of finding a mate does him a horrible disservice. And I suspect there is something to be said for stoicism, courage and risk-taking over the narcissistic emoting that prevails among today’s ultra-woke.

However, I doubt younger readers will recognise Innes-Smith’s gloomy depiction of contemporary Britain as a “broken society [that] is crying out for a return to meaning and an appreciation of… deep, life affirming truths”. Not because alienation, frustration and malaise don’t exist. But the author’s impression is too bleak and his prescriptions too rigid.

There is an abundance of potential paths to the good life for men. Some involve ancient traditions, “new warrior training”, marriage by 35, flat-fronted trousers and restorative sex once a week in the missionary position. But other paths will — and really ought to — feature self-criticism, openness, adaptability and gender fluidity. Some may even have sparkly outfits and fluffy unicorns. Though we should expect this sort of thing to bring out a steely grimace in the deep male, who would prefer us to be rigging up a tent and marching off into the woods to do some yodelling.

James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain, which was longlisted for the Orwell Prize 2019.