This is the third and final part of a discussion (I, IIa, IIb) discussion of the notion that there is a ‘universal warrior’ – a transcendent sameness about either the experience of war or ‘warrior values’ which might provide some sort of useful blueprint for life generally or some sort of fundamental truth about the experience of war.
Over the last three weeks, we’ve looked at the historical evidence to see if there was any hint of some universal war experience or set of warrior values. What we’ve found instead is that almost everything about how humans engage in war, aside from the fact that they do so, varies tremendously from one culture to the next, from one place to the next, from one period to the next. Cultural expectations, social values, technological conditions, entire systems of warfare and simple circumstance also condition the experience of war and the values that combatants have in extreme ways which render the search for a ‘universal’ set of warrior values a clearly doomed enterprise.
But, as laid out in the beginning, the ‘universal warrior’ wasn’t merely a (deeply flawed) argument about the structure and experiences of the past, but the foundation stone in an ideological blueprint for living one’s modern life. And so it is time now that we turn from the (quite bad) historical roots of this idea to the (worse, it turns out) ideological implications of the idea.
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(I couldn’t decide quite how I wanted to illustrate this essay and it didn’t seem like quite the right content for historical cat photos, so I’ve opted to leave it without images. I may go back and add pictures at a later date, but for now, it can stand purely as an essay.)
Once More, With Feeling
In a sense, while the previous three posts have been fun, they were really just a very long preamble to the argument I am making here, so I want to both lay out why I opened with a three-week long preamble before getting to the point (‘how else would you know it was me?’) and also pull together the conclusions from all of that before we move forward.
So why the preamble? Because I wanted to make sure before we started discussing the underlying ideology that lurks behind claims of the universality of some ‘warrior ethos’ we had defused the retort that, whatever the unpleasant implications, the ‘universal warrior’ was historically true. This had to be done first because I am of the opinion that truth is an absolute defense in such matters; the universe contains a great many facts which are frustratingly inconvenient, yet as historians we have to deal with the world as it is rather than as we wish it to be (or wish it to have been). Consequently, before I could complain about the ideology, it was necessary to determine if the historical theory was true, or even remotely plausible.
So we have spent three weeks hunting for the ‘universal warrior’ – either in the form of a universal war experience or a universal set of values. What we have found is:
- Far from there being one set way that combatants relate to their society, soldiers, warriors and civilians represent distinct categories defined by how people in war relate to their society. Even within those categories, variety is considerable, leaving no one clear model of how combatants relate to their societies.
- Moreover, war itself is changeable, moving through at least three (and probably four) distinct systems of land warfare alone, each with substantial differences in tactics, values, and experiences.
- Moreover, different cultures understand and imagine the ideal qualities of combatants differently, often so dramatically differently that one culture’s definition of courage is not merely different from an other’s, but diametrically opposed.
- Moreover, the actual experience of battle – we discussed this mostly through the experience of fear – isn’t universal either. The fear of facing a cavalry charge is not the same sort of fear as the fear of enduring a week long artillery barrage, while ‘war is scary’ in a general sense is hardly enough to set off the warrior or the soldier from any number of other scary and potentially hazardous jobs.
- Moreover, the bonds of comradeship that support modern cohesion (often cited as a unique and universal experience) are, in fact, also historically contingent, both in that there are many systems for generating cohesion, not all of which involve tight bonds formed during military service and that some military systems don’t seek to develop cohesion in this sense at all.
- Moreover, attitudes towards the hardships of war also vary wildly, as do the actual hardships in question.
- Moreover, not only do different societies express different attitudes and values towards the wounded, but the nature of the wounds themselves has changed over time as military technology has become progressively more lethal; both states that apply not only to physical, but also mental wounding.
In short, while there is enough commonality in war to suggest a definition that encompasses the idea (again, I rather prefer W. Lee’s definition of war as “organized group activity, conducted with lethal effects, that diminishes one [unconsenting] group for the benefit of another”), within that definition, there is far too much variety to suggest there is any one ‘universal’ experience of war or any one set of universal warrior values.
And I should note this is something we could demonstrate in more than a half-dozen different ways deploying just a fraction of the available scholarship on how the experience and values of war change from place to place. Indeed, that is essentially what we have done. Any one of the above points is enough to be fatal to the notion that there is some sort of ‘universal’ set of warriors values and experiences such that, as Pressfield openly states, a Spartiate could be simply dropped into a modern U.S. Marine regiment and fit in without skipping a beat (or his equally anachronistic notion that the decadent Athenian could be dropped into American civil society and also integrate seamlessly).
But of course Pressfield isn’t offering a history (and indeed, he has not written one), he is offering an ideology and (intentionally or not) reshaping the historical facts to fit that ideology, shaving the corners off of the square peg so it will fit into the round hole of his moral assumptions. His ideology requires a universal set of warrior values to serve as the foundation for his life philosophy and so, facts be damned, he will assert the existence of such a universal set of values. The ideology, not the history, is the foundation, which is why Pressfield offers both anecdotes from Plutarch (a historical source) and his own books (modern historical fiction) as having equal truth value, even though the latter has no value as historical evidence; they both express the ideology.
So what is the ideology here? Well, for that it is time to meet our old friend…
The Cult of the Badass
Pulling out the core ideology from Pressfield’s videos is a formidable task; there are fifty of them and so much of the core argument is submerged beneath endless anecdotes (some historical, some Pressfield openly invented for his historical fiction; all delivered with insufficient historical context). But Pressfield’s videos are useful for this argument because he makes explicit a set of arguments which are usually only made implicitly through a set of emotional appeals which often are carried through the subtext of images and references rather than the text of what is being said.
(Marching through Pressfield’s videos was also frankly difficult because there are just so many errors in them, I had to stop live-tweeting my way through them because if I kept doing it I’d never finish. As a reminder, this is a fellow whose fiction is on reading lists at various U.S. military officer training programs, much to my continued sorrow.)
We may, I think, summarize Pressfield’s core argument as follows: the ‘warrior archetype’ (he is using here the long-abandoned psychology of Carl Jung) represents a true human universal best understood by certain ‘warrior societies’ (especially the Spartans, but also Alexander III, but somehow not the Macedonians or Philip II) who supposedly demonstrated martial excellence and who therefore are “representative of the purest expression of the warrior archetype” (his words). Moreover, Pressfield argues that this understanding of the ‘inner warrior’ provides the best blueprint on which a person might fashion their lives, understanding their weaknesses as an ‘inner enemy’ that must be opposed by ‘warrior values’ and ‘mental toughness.’ And while Pressfield will admit that the ‘warrior archetype’ can go astray (he says this of Alexander, though I’d argue that Alexander didn’t so much ‘go astray’ as he ‘kept doing what he had done literally for his entire life, but began doing it to people who thought Alexander would only hurt people they didn’t like‘), he nevertheless presents this ‘warrior archetype’ as an expression of the highest possible human ideal. In Pressfield’s ideological framework, it is the great warriors – the Spartans, Alexander, Arjuna – who stand atop the summit of human physical and moral achievement. Non-warriors (mostly women) are valued in as much as they uphold elements of this warrior ideal so that warriors (mostly men) can give those ideals physical expression in action. Even internal struggles must be reframed as a form of war, to be fought and defeated with the same values that best produce effective real-world violence.
In short, Pressfield presents a moral framework in which the capacity to produce violence – either literal, physical violence or the symbolic violence of the ‘inner struggle’ explicitly metaphorically equated with the former – is the highest human virtue. Of course this often isn’t quite how the question is framed – there is a lot of talk of protection and service in there too, but somehow the only protection or service on offer is the provision of violence (this becomes quite obvious with Pressfield’s choice of examples; Alexander, especially, never served anyone but himself). Selfless work that does not involve heroic violence or violent self-sacrifice are not highlighted.
That thesis – that the capacity to produce violence is the highest human virtue – is what I’ve come to call (borrowing the term from this video) the ‘Cult of the Badass.’ Bob Case – the author of that video – expresses its central tenet through what he calls (Robert A.) ‘Heinlein’s Premise,’ namely that “Violence is the supreme authority from which all other authority is derived,” to which I think needs to be added, in order that our definition is complete, what we may call ‘Pressfield’s corollary,’ that ‘the capacity to produce violence is therefore the highest human virtue‘ though of course the latter is not a direct quote (thus the single inverted-commas rather than doubles) but rather an extrapolation from the system of values presented. That said, Pressfield’s Corollary is a fairly accurate summation of what we see of Spartiate values and Pressfield does idolize Sparta, so I don’t think I am being excessively unfair here. In essence, Pressfield’s Corollary looks at Heinlein’s Premise and concludes that it is both accurate and also – more troublingly – good.
(I should note, I don’t want to get into an argument about the degree to which ‘Heinlein’s Premise’ is an accurate statement about R.A. Heinlein’s work. My own limited reading of Heinlein suggests more complexity to his views (which are themselves, I think, not without a few troubles), but a full literary analysis of Heinlein’s attitudes towards authority and violence would be a book in and of itself (more than a few pieces on this point have been written) and is beyond the scope of this essay. What I think is more important is that it is clear that there are people who, explicitly or tacitly hold Heinlein’s Premise and believe themselves to be clear-eyed and sophisticated observers of society to have realized that everything else is merely the window-dressing for the hard stuff of violence. We have, I suspect, all known folks like this, who have confused cynicism with wisdom.)
Now we have met the ‘Cult of the Badass’ before. Or, more correctly, we have met various flawed theories of history meant to provide support and justification for the Cult of the Badass. This is, after all, the main ideological purpose of the Myth of Spartan Military Excellence in the modern context (for more on this, note also L.S. Fotheringham, “The Positive Portrayal of Sparta in Late-Twentieth-Century Fiction” in Sparta in Modern Thought: Politics, History and Culture, eds. S. Hodkinson and I.M. Morris (2012)); it aims to reformulate the spartiates in the mold of modern dealers in violence, using the cultural cache of the Spartans to justify the Cult of the Badass while at the same time using the values of the Cult of the Badass to support the classification of the spartiates not merely as ultimate warriors but as some ultimate expression of ‘western civilization.’ 300, which in both its comic and film form continues to dominate the popular imagination of Sparta, trades in this ideology quite nakedly.
Supporting the Cult of the Badass is, of course, also the main modern ideological purpose of the Fremen Mirage, especially when it is presented disconnected from its 19th-century roots in ‘scientific’ racism (that is to say, presented as unconnected to a particular myth of national origin, but rather as a general statement about masculinity, as in the original Hard Times/Strong Men meme). After all, what makes ‘Fremen’ societies superior in the Fremen Mirage ideology is their superior willingness to engage in violence and consequent superior capacity for violence, both of which are transformed by the magic of the Cult of the Badass into virtues, rather than cultural vices. And of course, bringing this around full circle, naturally the Dothraki society of A Song of Ice and Fire which we have critiqued here differs from actual nomadic societies in that it embraces the Cult of the Badass completely and utterly because – as Bob Case notes in the video linked above – Westeros (especially its show incarnation; for the books, we’ll have to wait to find out) is a world where Heinlein’s premise is effectively true (in ways that, by the by, make it quite different from the historical European Middle Ages).
The ‘universal warrior’ – the notion that warrior values (and seemingly only warrior values, for as we keep noting there is no universal coal miner, no universal lumberjack, no universal underpaid academic adjunct, only a universal warrior) are unchanging, transcendent and importantly the most important of all possible value systems fits into this as well. The universal warrior is just one more manifestation of this core ideology, the Cult of the Badass.
And so we have been, for going on two years now, repeatedly encountering in popular culture instances where the historical record has been quite mauled or misinterpreted in order to conform to this particular ideology. Each, when pressured even a little with actual historical investigation, is revealed to be at best a boy’s view of military or social history, unfit for use by serious adults. Given that, I think it is well past time that we engage the ideology itself. I think we can do this from two directions, first by asking if this ideology is true as a description of human societies (in essence, ‘is Heinlein’s Premise accurate?’) and then second by asking if this ideology is good (in particular, does this sort of thought have known tendencies and if so to what outcomes does it tend – which is in essence putting the value statement of Pressfield’s Corollary to the test?).
Points of Authority
We can dispense with the first question fairly quickly: is violence the supreme authority from which all other authority derives in actual societies? After all, we keep encountering historical models predicated on that premise and they keep being pretty bad, inaccurate history. But even shifting from those specific examples to a more general appraisal, the answer is pretty clearly no. Reading almost any social history of actual historical societies reveal complex webs of authority, some of which rely on violence and most of which don’t. Trying to reduce all forms of authority in a society to violence or the threat of violence is an ‘boy’s sociology,’ unfit for serious adults.
This is true even in historical societies that glorified war! Taking, for instance, medieval mounted warrior-aristocrats (read: knights), we find a far more complex set of values and social bonds. Military excellence was a key value among the medieval knightly aristocracy, but so was Christian religious belief and observance, so were expectations about courtly conduct, and so were bonds between family and oath-bound aristocrats. In short there were many forms of authority beyond violence even among military aristocrats. Consequently individuals could be – and often were! – lionized for exceptional success in these other domains, often even when their military performance was at best lackluster.
Roman political speech, meanwhile, is full of words to express authority without violence. Most obviously is the word auctoritas, from which we get authority. J.E. Lendon (in Empire of Honor: The Art of Government in the Roman World (1997)), expresses the complex interaction whereby the past performance of virtus (‘strength, worth, bravery, excellence, skill, capacity,’ which might be military, but it might also by virtus demonstrated in civilian fields like speaking, writing, court-room excellence, etc) produced honor which in turn invested an individual with dignitas (‘worth, merit’), a legitimate claim to certain forms of deferential behavior from others (including peers; two individuals both with dignitas might owe mutual deference to each other). Such an individual, when acting or especially speaking was said to have gravitas (‘weight’), an effort by the Romans to describe the feeling of emotional pressure that the dignitas of such a person demanded; a person speaking who had dignitas must be listened to seriously and respected, even if disagreed with in the end. An individual with tremendous honor might be described as having a super-charged dignitas such that not merely was some polite but serious deference, but active compliance, such was the force of their considerable honor; this was called auctoritas. As documented by Carlin Barton (in Roman Honor: Fire in the Bones (2001)), the Romans felt these weights keenly and have a robust language describing the emotional impact such feelings had.
Note that there is no necessary violence here. These things cannot be enforced through violence, they are emotional responses that the Romans report having (because their culture has conditioned them to have them) in the presence of individuals with dignitas. And such dignitas might also not be connected to violence. Cicero clearly at points in his career commanded such deference and he was at best an indifferent soldier. Instead, it was his excellence in speaking and his clear service to the Republic that commanded such respect. Other individuals might command particular auctoritas because of their role as priests, their reputation for piety or wisdom, or their history of service to the community. And of course beyond that were bonds of family, religion, social group, and so on.
And these are, to be clear, two societies run by military aristocrats as described by those same military aristocrats. If anyone was likely to represent these societies as being entirely about the commission of violence, it would be these fellows. And they simply don’t.
If I may indulge in one more rather American example of such authority, in March of 1783, with the American Revolutionary War winding down, a number of officers within the victorious Continental Army suggested that the army ought to take some broader action against the Continental Congress; essentially a coup. There was quite clearly considerable support for it among the officers. George Washington, then commander of the army responded by calling a meeting of the officers. He had some fiery words for the conspiracy, but what broke the matter was when he went to read out a letter from the Congress and – drawing a pair of reading glasses confessed, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” The balance of violence was not in Washington’s favor – had his officers chosen to act, he could not have stopped them. What he instead mobilized was what any Roman would have recognized as auctoritas, the authority Washington had earned by his self-sacrifice.
So while it is true that the state derives its power from violence (as in Mao’s famous quip that “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”), the state is not the only center of authority within a society. And indeed, even the state cannot run entirely on violence; this is the point that Hannah Arendt makes in the famous dichotomy of violence and power. In many cases, what Heinlein’s premise does is mistake violence for power, assuming that the ability to violently compel action is the same as the power to coordinate or encourage action without violence. But in fact, successful organizations (including, but not limited to, states) are possessed not of lots of violence but of lots of power, with much of that power rooted in norms, social assumptions, unstated social contracts and personal relationships that exist entirely outside of the realm of violence.
And so in both theory and practice, Heinlein’s premise fails to actually describe human societies of any complexity. There are no doubt gangs and robber-bands that have functioned entirely according to Heinlein’s premise (and presumably some very committed anarchists who might want such a society), but the very march of complex social institutions suggests that such organizations were quite routinely out-competed by societies with complex centers of authority that existed beyond violence, which enabled specialization (notably something Heinlein disapproves of generally, ‘specialization is for insects’) and thus superior performance both in war and in peace. Kings and empires that try to rule purely with force, without any attention paid to legitimacy or other forms of power (instead of violence) fail, and typically fail rapidly. As with almost any simple statement about complex societies, Heinlein’s premise is not merely simple but simplistic and so fails.
Echoes of Eco
And if this were just a quite bad, ineffective model for historical (and current) societies, that would be enough reason to pull it apart here and examine its flaws for a bit of fun. But the ideology, as constructed, has some tendencies to it which are more harmful and demand attention as well.
The Cult of the Badass, as expressed here, lives in what we might call the “cult of tradition,” “dreaming of a revelation received at the dawn of human history” about a certain set of warrior values which were both expressed by famous historical warriors and which now provide a blueprint for life. This point of explicit in Pressfield’s set of videos, and implicit in the Fremen Mirage’s strong men/hard times model of history. This “cult of tradition” is quite selective, of course; Pressfield makes functionally no effort to engage with actual ancient value systems in a sustained way, limiting himself mostly to ‘badass’ aphorisms from Plutarch (himself hardly the most intellectually sophisticated or morally challenging author in the classical canon). It is tradition as imagined dimly in the present, not tradition as uncovered by careful historical research.
Consequently, the cult of the badass must engage in “the rejection of modernism;” this is no accident because the cult of the badass is an “appeal to a frustrated […] class” – this too is explicit in that Pressfield frames his ideology was a way for individuals who are held back or stagnated to unleash their true potential and overcome their limits, through the explicit rejection of modern values and the embrace of what are at least presented as traditional, even timeless values. That sort of appeal is also explicit in a lot of the fitness marketing that trades on the cult of the badass (and it seems notable that Pressfield himself lists “anybody that is heavily into fitness” first among his people living out the ‘warrior archetype.’), calling on people to work out like the Spartans. Consequently, it is a “cult of action for action’s sake” often focused on doing rather than asking what should be done (it is striking that Pressfield, despite nearly all of his video examples coming from the Greek and Roman world, engages not at all with the extensive Greek and Roman philosophies of justice).
Instead, this ideology, because it positions the capacity for violence as the highest human value, presents the thesis that “life is lived for struggle.” Pressfield reframes all of life’s struggles, including struggles of motivation and self-discipline, in terms of violence, in terms of a war against the ‘inner enemy,’ and consequently “life is permanent warfare.” And I think this goes a long way to explaining the obsession of this philosophy on warrior elites, because there is an inherent element of “popular elitism” in the cult of the badass, an insistence that at least it should be the case that “everybody is educated to become a hero” and thus not only develop the capacity for violence but also orient themselves towards “heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life.” Thus the outsized influence of Thermopylae, a ‘heroic’ Greek defeat over other battles; Pressfield, again, is explicit on this point that it is at Thermopylae in particular that the Spartan warrior ethic is best and most perfectly displayed. If these are held to be the highest ideals, then anyone who falls short of them or refuses to engage with them must be weak, perhaps even “so weak as to need and deserve a ruler” (a point that often emerges in the sheep/wolves/sheepdog metaphor used by many ‘warrior cops,’ an ideology Pressfield explicitly appeals to, lumping in law enforcement as exemplars of ‘warrior’ ideology).
And of course, as is I think obvious in these readings, there is an undercurrent of anxiety about masculinity here. It is, after all, strong men in the strong men/hard times trope (and that is no accident as the trope is deeply connected to concerns about masculinity throughout its history). The original 300 comic has functionally no female characters being entirely focused on the world of spartiate men (the film adds a subplot for Gorgo in which she interacts entirely with men and boys). While Pressfield insists in some of his videos that his life philosophy is equally applicable to men or women, it is hard not to notice that his historical examples of warriors are all men (no Molly Pitcher, no Deborah, no Hua Mulan, etc. Not even Empress “Imperial Purple is the best burial shroud” Theodora; he does discuss the legend of the Amazons with rather less historical rigor than I might like). Where actual historical women fit in to his narrative, it is mostly as the mothers and nurturers of warrior men. While Pressfield does his best to paper over this (and to be fair, I think he is sincere in trying to present his ideology as non-gender-specific, unaware of the ways in which the broader framework of that ideology is aggressively unwelcoming to women), I think it is fair to say this is an ideology created largely by and for men, which values a hypermasculine ideal – we might even say “machismo.”
And by now readers are beginning to wonder where all of these little quotations are coming from (apart from the bit from Theodora). But first I want to note that we have a name for an ideology that fits these main points – where “life is permanent warfare,” “lived for struggle”, such that “everyone is educated to become a hero” to participate in a “cult of action for action’s sake” in a “cult of tradition” seated in a “rejection of modernism.”
And it’s fascism.
Because all of those little quotes are from Umberto Eco’s famous essay “Ur-Fascism” (1995) which presented one of the most compelling classifications of the foundational DNA that all of the various, disparate forms of fascism share in common. I’d encourage everyone to find a copy of the essay (alas, it is not in the public domain), but in it Eco presents a 14-point definition of ‘Ur-Fascism’ the root substance of fascist ideology:
- The Cult of Tradition
- A Rejection of Modernism (and thus Enlightenment rationalism)
- The Cult of Action for Action’s Sake
- A Rejection of Disagreement
- A Fear of Difference (or rejection of diversity)
- An Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class
- Conspiratorial Thinking
- Life as Permanent Warfare
- Contempt for the Weak
- The Cult of Death / Everybody of Educated to become a hero
- Hyper-masculinity / Machismo
- Selective Populism
- Newspeak (the ‘Big Lie’ is perhaps a more common phrasing these days)
I have bolded the elements of Ur-Fascism that I think quite clearly see expression in the Cult of the Badass. I think one could quite strongly make a claim for (4) and (5) in some expressions as well – certainly the Frank Miller version of the Cult of the Badass has such intense contempt for the weak as to amount to a rejection of disagreement and thus a fear (or hatred) of difference.
Now I think it is important to back up here and be fair to Steven Pressfield. I don’t think Steven Pressfield is a fascist; he seems quite committed to democracy and he does suggest in his series that the ‘will to win’ while a virtue, can go excessively wrong (although he seems to think Alexander crosses this line only at the Hydaspes and apparently not in Alexander’s long, bloody trek over the Persian Empire – a conquest, I will note, that was not justified by some Persian aggression; the Persians had not been at war with Macedon ever, the Macedonians having become a vassal state rather than fight them in 512. Quite honestly, if aggressive war is bad, well then Alexander did almost nothing else in his adult life and we ought to judge him accordingly). So I want to repeat that, so we’re clear: I am not calling Steven Pressfield a fascist. As Fotheringham (op. cit.) notes, Pressfield’s efforts to paper over and white-wash some of the uglier elements of Spartan society suggests a lack of comfort with them (a discomfort that Frank Miller, the other great Spartan evangelist of our age, quite clearly lacks), though it seems worth noting that white-washing a proto-fascist state to render it more comfortable for modern readers (especially modern soldiers) to see themselves in the brutally oppressive proto-fascist warrior elite while encouraging those same readers to imbibe and replicate those proto-fascist values is also not great.
What I do think is that the ideology that Pressfield is advancing has fascist tendencies (that he is, I suspect, unaware of, having not interrogated the nature of Spartan society as carefully as he might have). The ideology he is advancing shares most of the DNA of Ur-Fascism and it is not hard to see how the remaining handful of elements might easily be bolted on to this framework. It is also, in a way that Pressfield never really addresses (and I suspect has never really realized), an ideology which is fundamentally at odds with the democratic values he also holds. If only some people are ‘warriors’ and developing that warrior capacity towards violence it the primary or principle virtue, it follows – and literally any Spartan could have and would have told Pressfield this – that everyone else is merely fit to be ruled. Sparta’s brutal oppression was not incidental to its ideology or social structure (as we’ve discussed!) but essential to it. As Eco points out (in his 10th point), it does no good to suggest that everyone ought to be equally a warrior; this is after all a cult of violence for its own sake and in violence there must be winners and losers. No complex society is composed only of warriors; for there to be kings and knights, there must be serfs too.
Indeed, as Eco points out (and again, go read the essay) it is not merely that the Cult of the Badass could turn into fascism should it happen to combine with the last few elements, but rather the elements of Ur-Fascism that are missing from the Cult of the Badass are in many cases effectively necessary conclusions from the opening premises. The rejection of disagreement, as Eco notes, is a direct and unavoidable consequence of the rejection of modernism combined with the cult of action (because, as he notes, the Ur-fascist ideology cannot tolerate analytical criticism and so must reject critical disagreement in principle. Put more bluntly, the ideology of the Cult of the Badass is so easily falsifiable that the act of disagreement itself, rather than the content of arguments, must be rejected). The rejection of disagreement in turn demands the fear of difference because the ideology requires consensus and an absence of criticism. And once the ideology fails – and it will, because it is disconnected from the real world – conspiratorialism is the natural response for true believers unwilling to reject the ideology. If you ideology tells you that you are superior, and yet you do not produce superior results, what recourse is there but to conspiracy? As Eco memorably quips, “Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy” which is also, by the by, why so many authoritarian armies, theoretically filled with supposedly highly motivated, ultra-badass super-soldiers, tend nevertheless to lose more than they win. We saw this with Sparta; the very ideology of the place made them bad strategists, in precisely the ways that Eco suggests it would.
In short, the ideology of the Cult of the Badass – which is easy to see in any number of modern films, books and TV (and occasionally read into films that explicitly reject it by their viewers; I suspect everyone of at least a certain age has known that guy who watched Fight Club and then wanted, entirely unironically, to start his own fight club) – is a gateway to authoritarian thinking which, contrary to the name, is based in violence rather than authority. The supremacy of action, of violence, of the warrior and his ‘ancient’ (but actually quite modern) values are the foundation stones on which fascist ideologies (and I’d argue, other non-fascist authoritarianisms, but that’s a debate for another day) are constructed.
And, as Eco notes, “The Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.”
This is not a good ideology. As I noted in the first post in this series, a free society has no need for warriors. Not among its soldiers, not among its police, not among its civilians. At times, a free people may need to become soldiers, or police officers, but always to return to being civilians again, either at the end of the day or at the end of the war.
If I am honest, what I find most pernicious about the Cult of the Badass, though, is how its many forms – and I doubt the Myth of Spartan Military Excellence, the Fremen Mirage and the Myth of the Universal Warrior are the last time we will encounter the Cult of the Badass – falsely offer themselves as an opportunity to glean something of value for life in the past. Modern societies are changing rapidly and have been for decades now. For the most part, I’d say changing in very positive ways, but the pace of change can be dizzying and it isn’t surprising that some people – especially, but not exclusively, people who society used to treat as ‘special,’ or who at least think society used to treat them as special – feel unmoored and confused by it all. And it is not surprising that they reach for the past to try to grapple on to things that are fundamentally true as a way to orient themselves in a strange world.
And there is truth to be found in the study of the past and there is value to be found in ancient modes of thinking. Myself, I’ve found the Roman concept of honor proceeding out of a capacity and a drive (that is, virtus) which is bound, restrained by prudence, a sense of justice, discipline and a sense of propriety deeply appealing. I’ve found comfort in Stoic thought (particularly the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a work that is due for a ‘Trip Through…’ essay sometime), profundity in St. Augustine, been challenged by Plato and Lucretius and so on. And to be clear, it is not only the Greek and Latin traditions that have this power (I give a number of examples of works outside of the Greek and Latin canon that have influenced me in my post on the humanities). There are many rich literary traditions in the world; wisdom, being rare, must be fished for with a wide net.
But the Cult of the Badass offers none of this. Instead, it presents not merely a modern ideology, but perhaps the least successful modern ideology, dresses it in a Greek chiton and a soldier’s chlamys and pretends it is ancient. And yet this baby wearing a fake beard fools people. It fools them precisely because it is a fake. Actually engaging with the past is a challenging, troubling exercise. Ancient authors challenge you; they also fail themselves. Ancient societies, like any real society with real flaws, intrigue and repel at the same time. And the words of wisdom are often unpleasant to hear, because they often bid you to do the hard thing and be better (a call their authors do not need).
But the Cult of the Badass doesn’t do that. Instead, it merely repackages that siren song that tells disaffected young people (mostly men) that they can be special and heroic through violence. No need to do the hard work of moral improvement, of difficult questioning, of – to quote Tolkien, “valour without renown.” Instead, it tells such men that they are already special, an elect within society, the ‘sheepdogs’ among sheep and encourages them to hold the sheep in contempt. It tells them that the things they already believe are not merely true, but the truest things.
It is a modern lie, masquerading as timeless wisdom.