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“Over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people. Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.”
— Theodore Roosevelt — Rough Rider; President of the United States
We all know we’ve lost something.
Our culture has lost its spark, the element of vigor and vitality is flickering and guttering like a candle that has burned down to a nub. A majority of Americans are fat and young men are — literally — losing their grip.
Children and young adults are conditioned to seek out psychological “safe spaces” whenever confronted with ideas or speech that is even marginally disagreeable. Young men are encouraged to believe that the very hormone that makes them male — testosterone — is socially “toxic” and, in fact, the source of everything that is wrong with the world. Young women are inundated with messages that encourage them to fear and loath men as “patriarchal” oppressors and incipient rapists.
“Over-sentimentality, over-softness… washiness and mushiness… the great dangers of this age and of this people” have, indeed, overtaken us.
There is great irony in the recognition that these trends will precipitate a societal crash — and that those who have foisted them upon us or acquiesced to their spread will not survive that crash.
And that’s a hopeful thing.
Not everyone has succumbed. Far from it. There are plenty of folks — women and men — who are, whether they define their actions this way or not, practicing the Barbarian Virtues. Some are doing so consciously and with potent intent and effect.
This is not mere reenactment or nostalgia — this is an exaltation of the Timeless Things, and an adaptation of those Timeless Things to the contemporary world. Every man or woman who has pushed their individual physical limits — especially in concert with like-minded folk — who has completed an obstacle or mud race; who has gutted out a savage Crossfit workout; who has hiked deep into the back country and felt their soul uplifted by the magnificence of the mountains; who has created a feast for friends and family and shared story and song with them, is touching the Barbarian Virtues, and pushing back against the way of the weak, the timid and the cowardly.
These are the people who will thrive despite or because of the crash; those who will re-set our culture and start the cycle afresh.
When Roosevelt spoke of the Barbarian Virtues, he wasn’t talking about wearing wolfskins and tribal tattoos or practicing neo-pagan rituals in the forest. Neither are we.
Roosevelt — in many respects an enthusiastic modernizer — was simply extolling the personal and communal qualities that may be found in any young, vigorous culture that lives close to the natural world — and close to the bone. And through his own experience as a rancher and as the deputy commander of the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, he knew these qualities were found in the frontier culture of the American West and persisted in the outback of Australia and New Zealand, on the veld of South Africa and in other hinterlands of the world.
The American frontiersman Frederick Russell Burnham, a contemporary and friend of Theodore Roosevelt, explored, prospected and fought across Arizona, Mexico, Alaska and southern Africa around the turn of the 20th century.
His biographer, Steve Kemper, noted that:
Burnham believed deeply in certain values that he found among frontiersmen, soldiers, and certain native tribes — courage, sacrifice, self-discipline, self-reliance, physical and mental toughness. For him these weren’t clichés or abstractions but daily practices that could determine the fate of individuals and nations. He lamented what he saw as their decay in the twentieth century.
Courage is the virtue without which no other virtues matter. It is the well-spring from which all the others flow. You cannot build strength without the courage to experience pain; you cannot show fidelity to your outfit if you lack the courage to stand with them when things get tough and scary.
All men have fear and feel it. Courage, as has been said before and by many, is not the absence of fear but behaving well in spite of it. In fact, bravery comes only in fear.
There are different forms of courage — moral, social and physical. Social courage is what we are most often called upon to display — the willingness to risk embarrassment or social exclusion to tell the truth or walk a true path. The stakes are potentially unpleasant, but they are small.
Moral courage is the willingness to stand upon your moral principles despite the potential for serious adverse consequences, the insistence upon adhering to your ethics regardless of pressures to bend them for expedience or profit.
While moral ambiguity makes for good drama, in life most moral choices are pretty clear. The difficulty lies in acting upon what we know. We know what the right thing is — but when there is a lot on the line it can be very difficult indeed to do the hard right thing.
U.S. Army Captain Stuart Herrington did the hard right thing during the final chaotic days of the Vietnam War.
Capt. Herrington and many of his fellow officers urged U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin to authorize a plan to evacuate their Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) colleagues in the event that the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon might fall.
The ARVN officers and their families faced imprisonment at best and likely execution if they fell into the hands of the North Vietnamese communists.
Martin would not hear of it. Such an evacuation would violate South Vietnamese law, and Martin regarded contingency planning for the collapse of South Vietnam as defeatism.
“People like myself and others took the bull by the horns and organized an evacuation,” Capt. Herrington recalled. “In my case, that meant friends of mine who were senior officers in the South Vietnamese military. As the North Vietnamese came closer and closer to Saigon, these people were dead men walking.
“I had arranged a signal with my intelligence community friends that if I said, ‘I’m having a barbecue,’ that meant come to a certain pre-designated place and bring your families and only bring one suitcase because we’re going to have a party. But it was understood the party meant I was going to get them out.
“Black Ops were essentially violating the rules. In this case, meaning, ‘You’re not allowed to bring out Vietnamese military people who were under obligation to stand and fight.’ We were fully expecting if we got caught doing this that we would be run out of country, end of career, do not pass go. But sometimes there’s an issue not of legal and illegal, but right or wrong.”
It’s as simple — and as difficult — as that. Capt. Herrington and his fellow American officers were willing to sacrifice their careers to stand by their friends. Nothing could be more honorable.
Moral courage may one day put us in the position where the consequences we face may go beyond the threatened loss of a job or the unwarranted scorn of others to actual physical pain or annihilation. Sometimes doing the hard right thing requires backing up your convictions with physical courage.
Author James Carlos Blake puts it bluntly:
“If you’re afraid to defend your convictions because you might get your ass kicked for it, you’re not really fit to advocate for them.”
The men who affixed their signatures to the Declaration of Independence pledged “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” to the cause. The pledge was not mere political rhetoric. They were burning their bridges and their boats — they had made themselves traitors to the British Crown and there was no going back. And many of the signors paid a high price for their willingness to stand.
The 18- and 19-year-olds who plunged off of landing craft into the surf on the beaches of Normandy knew they were wading into a storm of lead and steel. They were sick with dread — yet they did what had to be done, and they beat back with their courage the darkest cloud that has ever descended upon the world.
The non-violent movement for civil rights in the 1960s required a profound level of personal courage. Black, white, man, woman — every one of the Freedom Riders that stepped into the fray starting in 1961 knew they were risking a beating or worse. And they knew that the success of their cause depended upon taking it and not breaking.
We tend to think of courage as an innate quality – but like any characteristic or skill, it can be developed. The more you practice doing the hard right thing, the easier it becomes. Not that the exercise of true courage is ever easy or safe — for then it would not be courage. Risking your job to stand on an ethical principle is a scary proposition — especially if you have a family depending upon your income. But risk it you must; otherwise you sacrifice your dignity, your integrity, your sacred honor. A job can be replaced; those things cannot.
The Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata — who fell in 1919 under a fusillade of bullets for his people and his principles — encapsulated everything that needs to be said about living a life of courage:
“It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”
Strength — pure physical strength — is a paramount virtue. You need it to enforce your courage. In fact, courage is a hell of a lot easier to come by when you feel physically capable of handling whatever comes your way.
An NPR story reports that:
In a study of Americans ages 20–34, occupational therapists found that men younger than 30 have significantly weaker hand grips than their counterparts in 1985 did. The same was true of women ages 20–24, according to the study published online by the Journal of Hand Therapy.
That is a sorry state of affairs. A man or a woman who has literally lost their grip is no damn use to anyone. Strength is necessary in order to serve your family and your outfit, required to fully engage your sense of adventure – and building it is a noble and pleasurable endeavor for its own sake.
The physical and mental toughness that Burnham so greatly prized ultimately is more important than pure strength.
The old scout would have surely concurred with British SAS operator and desert explorer Michael Asher:
“I’m happy that I served in the Paras and the SAS because it completely changed my perspective about myself… Without that behind me I doubt very much if I’d have been able to go and live with a traditional Bedouin tribe in the desert as one of them, for several years, without any of the comforts of modern life. Their way of life was the hardest thing I’ve ever seen – right on the edge of survival. Without SAS experience, I’d never have been able to endure it.
“Again, people always tend to think it’s a physical thing, but it isn’t — the nomads’ way of life, like the SAS ‘way of life’, is much more to do with mental toughness than big biceps. That’s easily proved: my wife Mariantonietta is five foot nothing, and has never been in the SAS, and yet she crossed 4,500 miles of desert on foot and with camels, becoming the first woman ever to cross the Sahara from west to east. Toughness is all in the mind.”
Fortitude is related to toughness, but it is also something more: Inner strength and resilience. Life will hurt you. We must build our spiritual and emotional resources to keep going when life just plain sucks. Like the other virtues, fortitude can be built and practiced. Some build fortitude through prayer, some through self-talk. The example of others who have weathered storms before us can provide profound inspiration. And seeking the counsel and solace of family, friends and comrades is not weakness or dependence — it is an exercise in fortitude.
We gain the ability to lean on our friends in a moment of need through fidelity. Faithfulness to your people — your kin, your friends, the outfit you build and serve — is how you earn the security of knowing that you are never alone in any travail. Your outfit will pick you up and put you on your feet when you’ve been bucked off or knocked down — and you will do the same for them. Always.
The concept of “riding for the brand” grew out of the ranching culture of the American West. When you signed on with an outfit, took their pay and ate at their table or chuckwagon, you made a commitment: You were in for all of the work, with no slacking, and in for all the hardship and travail your outfit might meet in a day’s work.
Be someone your outfit can count on. Do what needs to be done with them and for them every day. Be there. You’re never too busy. Show up and stand up for the everyday small stuff and you’ll be there when the chips are down.
Life is lived at its best and most fully with a sense of adventure. We all have to make a living. So did the “barbarians,” from the Vikings who sought trade, loot and fertile lands in their seaborne roving to the Mountain Men who headed into the Rocky Mountain chasing fortune in the form of beaver pelts. Frederick Russell Burnham wasn’t a professional scout — he was a prospector, forever seeking his fortune in the deserts of Arizona, in the Klondike and in Africa.
But was it really the prospect of wealth that drove the men who opened up the world through their explorations? Or was it ultimately the siren call of adventure? Maybe we need adventure as much as we need food and shelter.
And to a large degree, it’s available simply by shifting the way you look at life. For my money, small adventures every day are far better than a Big Adventure saved up for once a year or less. Hone your sense of wonder and your curiosity, and the world becomes re-enchanted and even the dullest suburb can become a field of adventure. Push yourself. Learn new things, do new things. Get your friends together and go for a hike or hit the road. Chase the buffalo. A life without adventure is not worth living.
And, of course, adventure is best found outdoors, the wilder the better. The need to preserve places for such adventuring was a major impetus in Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation efforts. He knew that, without wilderness, a vital part of us will die.
Our ancestors would not recognize or understand the way we live today, so “connected” technologically, but so disconnected from the natural world — from where we get our food, from the sources of our water, from the bones of the earth.
No matter where we live, we must find our way back, find again our connection with nature. Eating naturally, stepping away from the noise and discontents of “civilization” into the music of forest, field and stream — these things we know can save us.
Closely allied to a sense of adventure and a connection with the natural world is a sense of poetry. It is our true nature to sing our story. We modern folk spend way too much of our time being passively “entertained.” How much better it is to share with one another in the old way — to gather for a feast and a fire and to regale one another with song and story.
First we must venture out and make our story — then we spin our tale to give it scope and meaning.
“Things separate from their stories have no meaning. They are only shapes. Of a certain size and color. A certain weight. When their meaning has become lost to us they no longer have even a name. The story on the other hand can never be lost from its place in the world for it is that place.”
― Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
A reinvigoration of the Barbarian Virtues does not require abandoning hot showers and antibiotics, or the kind of just and ordered society our ancestors fought for centuries to build. Retention of the Barbarian Virtues is not about wrestling back the hands of time — a futile and spurious exercise.
Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t arguing against the acquisition of civilized virtues to moderate and enhance the older, rougher ones. TR simply understood better than most men — and through his own life experience — that nothing can replace the virility and vigor that comes from those ancient and timeless qualities. They are, in fact, the bedrock of any civilization that seeks to endure. And they will be the bedrock of the civilization that will eventually reconstitute itself after the crash.
John Cornelius says
Thanks for articulating so succinctly, the philosophies of retaining those virtues that enabled civilization to get to where we are today. It is unfortunate that so many lack the hindsight and reflection to recognize the necessity of those “barbarian” traits, and the utmost importance of their retention. Self absorbed has too often replaced self aware in our society, and the loss has allowed a softness that I find kind of repugnant to infiltrate said society.
As with Craig’s piece, a great start to RIR. I take a modicum of pride in my part in “bending the twig”, and large satisfaction in how stout and well the twig has grown. I would say to “keep up the great work”, but I know that will happen, regardless.
Proud to be your brother.
Jim Cornelius says
Thanks hermano. This what can happen when you give your kid brother books. Especially with Frazetta covers!
Barry McKnight says
“Most civilization is based on cowardice. It’s so easy to civilize by teaching cowardice. You water down the standards which would lead to bravery. You restrain the will. You regulate the appetites. You fence in the horizons. You make a law for every movement. You deny the existence of chaos. You teach even the children to breathe slowly. You tame.” — Frank Herbert
Jim Cornelius says
On the money.
Brian H. says
“deny the existence of Chaos”. love that…
Keith West says
Another fantastic post.
“Maybe we need adventure as much as we need food and shelter.”
This. No doubt about it. For five summers, three in high school and the first two of college, I worked as a flagger for a crop duster spraying mesquite trees. The work was seasonal and usually ended by July, when the temperatures got too high. These days they use GPS, but back then several of us would line up on a fence and walk across a pasture holding long poles with flags on them. If we did our job, the plane would spray the pasture evenly. The purpose was to keep the mesquite from using water needed for grass. (We would move out of the way before the crop duster got to us so we wouldn’t be sprayed.)
We would have to be in place before sunrise, which meant getting up around 4:00 AM, sometimes earlier if the place we were spraying was far away. Most days we were done by lunch or early afternoon. If the temperatures stayed low and the wind was light, though, we could be out until dark. One week we quit at 10:00 AM on Friday morning because we’d already put in over 60 hours since we started on Monday and everyone was about to drop from exhuastion.
Could I have gotten a job inside, under the air conditioner rather than in the Texas heat, and possibly made more money? Yes, but then I wouldn’t have had the adventure. (I walked up on two rattlesnakes the first three days I worked.) As Jim said, “A life without adventure is not worth living.”
Jim Cornelius says
There’s just no substitute for getting out in it.
100% agree — although this is not a “maybe” in my opinion. Raising four boys and working with Alpha Dog men and women for a quarter century, I could not agree more. Without the trials, excitement, perspective and learning your place in the world through adventure, whats the use? I endeavored to challenge my four male children to think through society’s outline of need vs. want. Both have importance. In terms of our current disposition, I learned not to run my mouth in grade school in the late 70’s after someone bloodied my lip for doing so. The principal made me apologize to the other student, while holding ice on my lip and my mother was on the same page. The next day — I didn’t run my mouth. Never considered bringing a gun to school and murdering my classmates.
Jim Cornelius says
We’ve seen a sea-change in parenting over the past 40 years or so. When I was a kid, if you got out of line other kids’ parents, teachers, other authority figures would rein you in — and my parents were always aligned with them if I was in the wrong. Now parents tend to act as though any attempt to rein in their kid is: A. Commentary on THEIR worth as humans. B. Abuse. C. Grounds for a lawsuit.
A small example — our across the street neighbor saw me knocking apricots off our next-door-neighbor’s tree and hitting home runs with a bat. He called me over and dressed me down, to which I took offense. When I told my mom, she told me that Fred was right and to leave the neighbor’s apricot tree alone. Can’t see a parent reacting that way now. Then again, how many kids spend their afternoon out in the neighborhood with a ball bat and bad intent when there are video games to be played…
Keith West says
These essays are going to collected in book form at some point, right?
Jim Cornelius says
That could very well happen.
Interesting article; I can confirm that being close to nature can be good. I spent a month in the Utah deserts and honestly felt more alive than I had in years. Being forced to work and pull my weight was also a good thing.
At the same time going to far into “barbarian virtues” can be dangerous. Assholes like Harvey Weinstein and Larry Nasser were preying on women in part because of their “I can do whatever I want because I’m a male” attitude. In some ways things for women have gotten better because of civilization.
It’s a conundrum but I honestly believe Teddy would have been disgusted at the Alt Right and MRA douchebags who preach about how tough they are
Jim Cornelius says
We are talking about VIRTUES here.
Both TR and Burnham considered themselves on the side of “civilization” and a “progressive” civilization at that. I certainly am not arguing that barbarian virtues as described should trump other “softer” virtues” — that’s a kind of binary either/or thinking that RIR is trying to move past. I would assert that the “barbarian virtues” as I’ve laid them out are vital to giving a space in which the softer virtues can flourish. As TR said, the civilized virtues are of no avail if we cannot retain the sterner virtues.
Harvey Weinstein actually is a perfect example: Men like him flourish where no one has the spine to step up and say “NO!” — and back it with an ass-kicking if required.
Lane Batot says
PERZACKLY, Jim–although what you say, Ryan, is true in some circumstances and to some degree–it is ALSO true that modern abusers of ALL kinds would not BEGIN to get away with the amount atrocities they do, except for the fact that everyone else is trying to be civilized and law abiding! And the woman’s rights thing–despite cultural mythologizing by history writers of domineering regimes, women in MANY so-called “primitive” cultures had FAR more respect and consideration than in many modern “advanced” societies. A great myth crusher to read in this regard is Linderman’s classic “Pretty Shield; Medicine Woman Of The Crows”, about Plains Indian society and life from a FEMALE viewpoint, a rare and eye-opening, valuable account that smashes most of those “abused squaw” myths the palefaces like to hypocritically harangue about!
Craig Rullman says
In many cases the lack of reasonable response to solvable issues–and even localized atrocity–has been legislated by state, local, and federal governments–putting well-meaning citizens in a terrific bind. It is part of the enforced-dependency ritual that has pervaded our culture. I attempt to address aspects of that very issue in this coming Monday’s offering.
“…he wasn’t talking about wearing wolfskins…or practicing neo-pagan rituals in the forest. Neither are we.”
hey hey hey now…don’t be coming after my pagan rituals!
In all seriousness, fantastic piece. Can’t wait for more, and it’s got me thinking about how TR, Zapata, and many of the trailblazers for this way of life were also men of the people. Something to that, I think.
Craig Rullman says
There is indeed something to it, and we hope to explore it at considerable length as we go along. Jim is presently scouting a few trails in Wyoming, so I’m back in the bunkhouse, rifling through his war bag and reading his mail. 🙂
Excellent on all counts. I’m sure there’s more than just mail in that bag!
Saddle Tramp says
As always well written and thoughtfully presented.
Great opening piece.
I just finished up reading THRILLING EVENTS: LIFE OF HENRY STARR (1914).
A few relevant things I gleaned from it that I believe fit into the RIR Corral. Henry has become my favorite Honest Outlaw. I enjoyed this read as much as WE POINTED ‘EM NORTH by Teddy Blue.
A few excerpts:
“The word brave should only be applied to those who risk their lives in an honorable calling such as fighting for their country. Give a man moral courage, and he’s got the other fellow whipped; that is, if he believes sincerely in his own cause and holds a clear conscience. A lot of cynical people will smile at the thought of an outlaw having a conscience, but the very thing has given me a brand of courage that has made me entirely free from fear of anything, here or hereafter.”
“My reputation as a sure shot and perfectly abstemious man caused a lot of bad men to want to join me, and as the excitement of the game had completely enthralled me by this time, I conceived the idea of recruiting a band of men so desperate that everybody would stand in fear of us. By the last of April I was the recognized leader of a band of outlaws that ever infested the Indian Territory, and that is saying a great deal, as the Indian Territory had harbored some bad men.”
“I have nothing but respect for a sworn officer of the law, that does his duty, but for the faker, I haven’t even respectable contempt; and if through mistake they ever got too near me, I made ‘em break the underbrush getting out of my range.”
On Judge Parker (The Hanging Judge):
“But he had fought evil-doers so long that it was claimed by even his most intimate friends that his mind was warped on that particular subject, and those closest to him admitted that he was a monomaniac on the subject of crime.”
“A lot of people will be curious to know about certain things. What is your politics? Haven’t any! Your religion? Same!
Do you think you have led a correct life? No, but it’s as good as some others that are holding office. Don’t you think that society is going to the dogs? No, I don’t; it never was away from them. Don’t you feel it’s a great crime to take people’s money? Yes, I know it’s wrong, but I am only a small thief, the lawyers take it all away from me, and still I go to the penitentiary. The big thieves never go to the pen and besides keep what they steal. For that reason I feel abused.”
The book was published in 1914. According to reputable sources only one original copy remains. I bought the limited edition (leather with embossed revolver) which is No. 39 of 1,000.
Henry Starr died from gunshot wounds in 1921 while robbing a Harrison, Arkansas bank.
Henry Starr was of Scott’s‑Irish-Indian ancestry. He stood 6 foot 7 inches and rode tall in the saddle. This is a very good read and I highly recommend it. Henry authentically speaks on both justice and injustice knowing them both so well. What leads a man to a life of crime? Henry makes an honest attempt to explain it within this small jewel of a book.
Jim Cornelius says
That is 101-proof ST. And, as both an outlaw and an Indian, Henry Starr is a perfect lead-in Craig’s upcoming essay. I will say no more…
Ranking a memoir up there with We Pointed Them North is high praise indeed.
Lane Batot says
Wow. I definetely gotta get a copy of THAT account! However, I would immediately beg-to-differ(for the continued survival of all us barbarians) with the notion that those that are SURE they are in the moral right already have their opponents whipped! That is DANGEROUSLY inaccurate philosophy! There are plenty of dead heroes to verify THAT! Like my favorite grave epitaph from a tombstone in Ireland: “Here lies the grave of Mike O’Daye; He died defending his right-of-way: His right was clear, his will was strong; But he’s just as dead as if he were wrong!”
Craig Rullman says
Merely being sure of your moral position is never enough, on its own, to guarantee a victory. But, as Napolean noted, you also can’t win without the advantages such moral confidence endows to esprit. “The final word regarding victory and defeat rests not on arms and equipment, nor the way in which they are used, nor even on the principles of strategy and tactics, but on the morale of the troops.”
J.F. Bell says
Lots of good stuff in this one. I suspect I have something to add in the next couple of days. Until then, this reminded me of another essay on a site I used to frequent (since expired, sadly) that runs somewhat parallel.
Should anyone be so interested, look up Captain Roger Crossland’s 2004 treatise on the absence of heroes in our culture. The focus is predominately the War on Terror and the associated media coverage. He makes a few points that translate decently well, albeit coming at this from a different angle.