Disclaimer: I received an advanced reader’s copy for the purposes of writing this review.
In Modern Masculinity for the Conscious Man, Michael Ronin lays out the pitfalls and tribulations of modernity with an aim at preparing men for a journey of self-discovery and establishing a positive form of masculinity.
While there is often more of a focus on questions than answers throughout the book, the value of questions is immeasurable. Questioning leads the seeker toward truth. The book seems to be tapped into the zeitgeist of our times.
At around 400 pages, Modern Masculinity avoids many of the pitfalls that might otherwise sabotage a book of that length. While there are some differences in quality between various sections (and I have a couple gripes I’ll discuss later in this review), there is no section that isn’t novel and thought-provoking.
The Plight of Modern Man
The central premise of much of the book is on the consequences of both modern and traditional roles for men.
As far as this forms the central pillar of the work, Ronin should be commended for providing a roadmap to the dangers that men are likely to encounter in the world and also suggesting courses of prudent action. While nothing is foolproof (and Ronin does not present the solutions as surefire), an understanding of the problem goes a long way toward looking for the solution.
Ronin is also not a woman-hater, which is good for those seeking advice to understand the road to forming a relationship. While I’d be skeptical of some of his more cynical points as they might pertain to the individual, he includes a warning to this effect that when he refers to social phenomena he is showing the hazards and reactions to them rather than a guarantee that these events will occur in everyone’s life.
Ronin rightly identifies the problem as a disconnect between modern men and the world and modern men and modern women, and provides solutions that seem likely to work when pursued honestly and with integrity.
The more aligned we are with “what is,” the less delusional or confused we become.Michael Ronin, Modern Masculinity for the Conscious Man
Advice for Seekers
The overall layout of the book involves several important questions and discourses surrounding them. Ronin has a perspective that is well-developed and seems to reflect multiple different schools of thought, which inures him to the common errors and one-sided accusations that can cause more cynical approaches to the idea of new masculinity to harm rather than help their audiences.
He also focuses on the idea of tradition and how it can be a poor mentor when passed on as an unconscious pursuit of a fictional ideal. It’s not fair to say that Ronin entirely removes tradition, but he seeks the motives underneath tradition and the way they inform us about human aspirations. By presenting those ideas more clearly, he creates a clear distinction between the traditions and their reasons for existence.
A critical question in recent years has been the role of hierarchy in shaping society, and Ronin’s analysis of the psychological and sociological underpinnings of human hierarchal structures is quite in-depth and approaches the problem from multiple angles. This is a highly researched section of the book and includes many different interpretations with an analysis of their validity, which provides an interesting stepping point for further thought.
But of greater value is how understanding these hierarchies can defuse tensions and promote a series of behavior that accomplishes goals without a reliance on zero-sum games and victor-takes-all struggles. While Ronin’s analysis doesn’t go as deep as Haidt’s use of game theory (I believe in The Righteous Mind, but I may be confusing it with one of his other books) or a domain-specific approach like Covey’s work in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, it’s more than enough for his purposes and can inspire further reflection and growth.
One place where Ronin builds a pathway to positive development is through the idea of internal work, which he bases on the ideas of Jung and others who have focused on helping people achieve their best selves.
This is a powerful and useful focus for people consumed by bitterness and resentment who need a lifeline and a path of action that will lead them to a more positive view of the world. It’s not sugar-coated, and it recognizes the cyclic nature of life problems and ways to overcome them.
Ronin’s use of the wounding theory of dysfunctional behavior is true in broad strokes, though it has some minor issues that I’ll discuss later in this review. It is sufficiently accurate to guide a proper form of action that can overcome the issues.
Tortured, driven men are not born—they are products of their past. And exhibiting maladaptive behaviors doesn’t make them an inherently toxic person—it makes them a product of their social environment…Michael Ronin, Modern Masculinity for the Conscious Man
The approach taken throughout the book steers away from disempowerment, however. Rather than functioning as a product of society, he espouses the ideal that people should seek to challenge and overcome their wounding, healing the underlying issues that lead them into antisocial and zero-sum behavior.
While he focuses primarily on relationships and the interplay between the masculine and the feminine, Ronin does examine the place of men in society at large. He offers several approaches to dealing with the issues that society creates for men, many of which involve blending tradition with newer forms of thought and some which are more novel.
The problems I have with this book stem entirely from three root causes, namely Ronin’s treatment of economics, history, and epistemology. While this doesn’t mean that Ronin is entirely incorrect when these subjects arise, they create confusion and error. In all three cases, the errors are sufficiently causal to make even the representation of the problems confused and erroneous. Further, sometimes grammar errors complicate what already seems like confused thinking.
I have begun with Ronin’s approach to economics because the consequences of one particular area of economic thought ripple through to almost every other element of the book that seems to me to be in overt error.
Ronin espouses the labor theory of value, stated in the traditional way that the employees in a factory produce output that is then essentially taxed by their employer. This is a simplified but substantially accurate simplification of both the labor theory of value as it is generally espoused and Ronin’s own portrayal of it.
The problem is that this overlooks the role of the entrepreneur and sets the stage for Malthusian fallacies and a conspiratorial attitude toward the function of free exchange.
Value is subjective, and free exchange serves as a conveyor of information. When this is understood, the logic behind the factory owner paying employees less than their output becomes clear; the employees are receiving their wages with the benefit of time-shifting. They do not need to wait for the sale, as the entrepreneur does.
This oversight carries over in nefarious ways, even to the understanding of relationships. While Ronin espouses healthy win-win relationships, to simplify his point, he begins with the presumption that win-win is the exception rather than the rule of the modern system. Correct as he is about the general dysfunction of society, the overly negative approach skews him to exaggerate the degree to which harms are deliberate or the function of trauma and not mere oversight and limited understanding. One example of this is his distrust for marriage, which has some understandable problems under the current legal system can also serve as a covenant of values.
Likewise, Ronin falls into a mode of historicist thought, namely that of linear progression and particularly that of linear decline. However, this is accomplished at a much broader scale than most historicists, more along Rosseau’s romantic ideal of an Edenic primordial state ruined by dysfunctional interactions between people.
The problem is that this comes from a poor selection of historical sources. For instance, there is a mention of modernity causing many social woes–something especially relevant in a book that decries tradition from the West while advocating tradition from the East (albeit with more nuance than the unabashed New Age approach).
Because the focus is on life in the past as bleak, bloody, and short, the focus is on the negative aspects of tradition, with the occasional concession made for the examples when they align with what Ronin (often rightly) believes to be personal preferences but no recognition that these preferences may have played a role in the formation of tradition.
This also feeds into the Malthusian thesis of resource depletion that forms the basis of his calls for radical social change.
As it stands, if the freedom to say and do what we want—to lie, to peddle false narratives, to inflict pain with words, to defame, to monopolize access to resources, etc—includes the freedom to self-destruct as a species, then we’re obviously not making the right choice.Michael Ronin, Modern Masculinity for the Conscious Man
One issue with these calls is that Ronin mentions the threats that an increasing illiberal society to the everyday person while also promoting the very illiberalism the elite can use as a weapon against those out of power.
Further, the call for egalitarianism, even if not total and absolute, would powerfully discourage the fundamental formations of ideas and solutions to humanity’s problems.
A good antidote to this would be something like an understanding of elite theorists (a summary of their work can be found in Burnham’s The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom), who can communicate the underlying dynamics of accrued power, and any decent basic economic work, like Mises’ On Human Action or Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State.
The other problem with Ronin’s approach to history is that because of his Rousseau-alike approach to the blank slate and his sometimes dubious sources, he comes away of parts of history that were much more difficult for human survival and presumes that because the atomization of modern society was absent they were characterized by unified wholeness, something that he even makes points against elsewhere by citing thinkers who pointed out the natural conflicts between pre-moderns.
One issue I find throughout the book, though it is most concentrated in the second half, is that there is a blend of levels of analysis. In some places Ronin will cite research and statistics from well-known and reputable sources, in other places he will choose more contentious (but not necessarily invalid) sources, and in others he’ll make claims that when traced back to their sources are discreditable. Sometimes he’ll say something interesting, but leave the claim without a source.
For instance, he pushes a modern theory about the life of Christ that doesn’t fit either the historical or Biblical narrative, but which was essentially a modern creation of the New Age movement.
I don’t always demand sources, but the mixture between a careful and scholarly approach and a haphazard approach is precisely something that Ronin calls out in the New Age movement before replicating in his own work. Some of this might be to focus on making his more controversial claims ironclad (for instance, he shows with government-provided statistics that women commit more of certain types of abuse than men, a claim that surprised me), but the irregularity strikes me as odd and suspicious.
Another issue is that Ronin will present claims that seem to hold internal contradictions. Sometimes this is deliberate to encourage consideration on behalf of the reader. Sometimes it seems uncentered, like Ronin’s tendency to default toward negative interpretations when two competing options exist will overwrite a positive point that he has made elsewhere in the book.
One root of the problem here is that Ronin’s sources in the fields outside the central focus of the book–masculinity–are almost all hyper-focused. He will make a broad sweeping claim from a particular scholar or work, while ignoring the context and responses to that work. The result is a situation where the overall quality of the book goes down.
On one hand, Masculinity for the Modern Man (affiliate link) is interesting and provides some food for thought and advice that I would suggest that people follow. The problem is that it also contains ideas that seem objectively incorrect to me, and as a result it’s hard to suggest.
It is essentially two books: one stressing the importance of the formation of a positive masculinity and one that is a diatribe against both modernity and tradition.
I would recommend the former in a heartbeat, the latter only to someone approaching it from a skeptical perspective and aware of the various flaws throughout the book. One saving grace is that the first five chapters are those that I’d recommend, while the last five fall victim to the pitfalls I’ve mentioned earlier.
With that said, despite my disagreements with many statements throughout the book (in fact, by the time I got far into the second half of the book I was arguing against Ronin much more than agreeing with him), I still found it a sufficiently engaging read to warrant finishing in its entirety.