I read a detective novel by Jeffery Archer, I think. It was one of the books in the Lincoln Rhyme series. The hero, and quadriplegic detective, Lincoln Rhyme succeeded in making out the villain, a world class assassin. Then a curious thing happens. Lincoln Rhyme asks for an interview with the criminal. In the interview Lincoln admires how competent the villain is. It is this class of admiration that I want to discuss. I will also talk about some men who live now who exude this character.
Admiration for evil has always fascinated me. We see this in the popular appeal for particular movies. Why do we enjoy movies in which the heroes are clearly criminals? From Fast and Furious to Oceans. Jack Donovan in his book The Way of Men answered this question. Jack explains that there is a difference between being a good man and being good at being a man. He mentions some qualities that makes one good at being a man. If I remember correctly they include courage, strength, knowledge and competence. These qualities have nothing to do with morality. The Nazis were very efficient at exterminating Jews, but this doesn’t excuse their crimes. I, however, think that it is not enough to be a good man, as in morally upright. It is equally to be good at being a man. Perhaps it is a moral necessity if one cares about the weak. Tim Kennedy, a marine who considers himself the hardest man to kill, makes this point regularly. He says that if the defenders of freedom don’t train themselves to be hard, they will be at the mercy of men who don’t give a fuck about freedom.
Our admiration for hard men might be an evolutionary adaptation. Perhaps in prehistoric times the survival of the group depended on such men. We can even see their usefulness in our modern world. We can’t have freedom without them. We can’t have freedom if there aren’t men to fight the enemies of freedom. Our admiration of such men could have evolved with us that we admire them even when they do things that are criminal.
There is this idea among evolutionary biologists that we should turn the tables against our genes. The idea isn’t a bad one, although incomplete. We need to be wary of what our genes want us to do because they can make us do all kinds of stupid things. Maybe not stupid from the genes perspective, but evil in our interactions with others. They can make us lie, rape, maim, kill, we’ll stop here for now. The idea can be found in books like the Evolution of God and Why Buddhism is true, both by Robert Wright, and the Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. In a podcast episode on his Dark Horse Podcast, Bret Weinstein, also an evolutionary biologist, interviewed Jordan Peterson, and repeated the idea of turning the table on our genes. Jordan was of another view which I subscribe to. He thought that we needed to accommodate our violent nature with our good selves. What Carl Jung called the integration of the shadow. Jordan believed that we had in ourselves the tools to get this self-work done.
I think the idea of turning our back on genes is somehow naive. Genes are units of heredity. If a species is to survive it has to keep passing its genes on. How do you live without looking to survive? If our genes lead us to actions that are optimal for survival, why and how do you fight against them? How do you fight against them without reducing your likelihood for survival? I am not saying we are good as we are. I actually believe that we human beings are capable of great evil. This is why I think those who believe we are all good and that our culture corrupts us are naive. Following sentiments that comes to you naturally can lead to disastrous consequences. However, I don’t think the opposite is also true- that you should get rid of all natural impulses to be able to lead a good life. Even evil impulses are to some extent corrected by our conscience. This goes back to the idea that we have the mechanism in built in us to put the natural man in shape. So what seems right to me is to give the genes a seat at the table, rather than fight against them.
You might be wondering what genes have to do with manly qualities. It’s the ruthlessness of genes that lead to the outward expression of such virtues. Like our selfish genes, manly virtues like strength can lead to rape and pillaging. But that isn’t all there is to it. Strength also gives you the capacity to protect your property. This is why we need to give the genes a seat at the table. You won’t be selfish? At least selfish enough? Would you allow someone to rob you, molest your wife and children, and go scot free? If you would, you are morally reprehensible. It’s not just about you. It’s about the wellbeing of others too. This is why some people talk themselves out of suicidal ideation. There is virtue in some kinds of selfishness. If the genes are just using us to transmit themselves, will you now convince yourself not to love your own children than those of others? How enlightened you are!
There also seems something dishonourable about this polemic against the genes. Not that I don’t get the sentiment of their advocates. But how do you argue against survival itself, if genes make us survive. It also doesn’t seem obvious to me how we can come up with a value system that has no survival utility. Our death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us. The destruction of our tribe, nation, and all humanity is worse. The collective is more important than the individual. I kept wondering in the past why people don’t commit mass suicides in apocalyptic movies. They wait for the bad things which are sure to happen to happen, without putting bullets in their heads. This might explain the popularity of the Road by Cormac McCarthy. There seems to be something divine about continuing the species- passing on the fire.
This isn’t to say that all our genes tell us to do instinctually to survive is right. But we have the ammunition to overcome this problem. That’s why we have a conscience. And this is why most of us feel that there’s something wrong with maiming people and taking what is theirs in order to boost our chances for survival. The conscience may be an adaptation to reciprocal actions we have been undertaking for eons. It seems to me that moral systems that work are based on tit for tat, but accompanied by strategic forgiveness. We all make mistakes, and it seems wise for us to make a budget for faults in our relationships.
It seems to me that we are more formidable with the manly virtues- which makes us good at being men, and the moral virtues- which makes us good men. Those we hold in highest esteem have these qualities.
I originally wanted to talk about some tough men who have become internet celebrities in this essay. I wanted to theorise about their path to prominence, and how the internet has worked in their favour. Most of these men do not seem to be among the very top brass in their institutions. They are often not career soldiers. They are no Marshall or Eisenhower to have been known by the public. I have already mentioned Tim Kennedy. Another would be Jocko Willink. He wrote this book titled Extreme Ownership. The summary is this- don’t be a pussy. If there’s work to be done, do it. Don’t avoid responsibility. In fact, take responsibility when you are leading others even when mistakes aren’t your fault. Own your shit. I don’t want to go into Jocko’s military exploits. Suffice to say he was one hard guy.
The next human specimen is David Goggins. This guy is so intense it makes me uncomfortable. He is always doing weird things like running 200 mile marathons or breaking Guinness World Record on some exercise routine. He like Jocko was a Navy Seal. One of the few African American Navy Seals. The story he tells in his book Can’t Hurt Me is touching. He talks about how he had to lose more than 100 pounds in order to make it into the preliminary selection stage of joining the seals, and how he experienced Hell Week twice. The guy looks like a beast. Just muscles over bones.
Perhaps the greatest combination of the manly virtues and the moral virtues I have come across is of the story told about Witold Pilecki. I heard about it from a secondary source- Everything is Fucked by Mark Manson. So this Polish soldier had the guts to get himself into Auschwitz, send radio communications out, including the massacre of the Jews for which he wasn’t taken seriously, and free himself, all with no external help. After the war, he is imprisoned by the Soviets but won’t confess the Soviet hard-line. He is tortured to death. I was so surprised I had never heard about this man. He is courage personified. It surprises me that someone can be so brave for a good cause, since I can’t imagine being that brave myself.
There is another issue I want to discuss. How we can fool ourselves in order to personify the manly virtues- like strength- and end up being touchy, getting into unnecessary fights. There’s another phenomenon which is darker. The first is having it in our minds that we are great, and going on to believe that we could emulate the ‘greats’ of the past. Those ‘greats’ we look at maybe warriors who sacrificed other human beings in order to accomplish a lofty goal. We may think ourselves a Genghis Khan, Napoleon, an Alexander the Great or some horrible person. This isn’t to say that these men are totally reprehensible. Even empires have their advantages, and these men had their strengths. I have great respect for Genghis after reading Genghis and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford. It’s just that I find too much self-confidence unwise. Pride comes before the fall. This is the idea that led Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to commit murder. Because great men can kill for the common good and feel nothing. Doing such a thing becomes a burden on your conscience. The manly virtues shouldn’t lead us into becoming assholes. Its greatest potential is in preserving our ambition. A great ambition is a search for excellence, not a walk on others’ corpses.
Thank you for reading.