“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.