Collections: The Universal Warrior, Part III: The Cult of the Badass

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 fitnessfirst 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:

  1. The Cult of Tradition
  2. A Rejection of Modernism (and thus Enlightenment rationalism)
  3. The Cult of Action for Action’s Sake
  4. A Rejection of Disagreement
  5. A Fear of Difference (or rejection of diversity)
  6. An Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class
  7. Nationalism
  8. Conspiratorial Thinking
  9. Life as Permanent Warfare
  10. Contempt for the Weak
  11. The Cult of Death / Everybody of Educated to become a hero
  12. Hyper-masculinity / Machismo
  13. Selective Populism
  14. 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.

Conclusions

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.

404 thoughts on “Collections: The Universal Warrior, Part III: The Cult of the Badass

  1. > 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)

    I am now EXTREMELY interested in “List of frustratingly inconvenient facts”. Or even “some frustratingly inconvenient facts”. I would even visit Twitter if it would be posted there.

    1. Sadly, they tend to be the sort that you don’t want to advertise, especially not pre-tenure. Finding them inconvenient is easy and popular, while finding them factual often requires deep engagement with the source material. Twitter rage mobs are good at the first, and bad at the second.

      (And this is true whatever your beliefs are. Any ideology can name people they like who’ve been rage-bombed online by idiots.)

      1. Uh, I think that you’re warping Dr Devereaux’ meaning here ? If the Cult of the Badass is popular it’s because it’s easy and convenient, not the other way around ?

        Unless you’re referring to the filter bubbles where a fact inconvenient for one group is actually very convenient for another ?

        1. I think you’re misunderstanding what Alsaduis is talking about here, or perhaps responding to the wrong comment. He is responding to the quote by Brad in the previous comment, and the desire by the poster to hear some of these. Alsaduis is pointing out that speaking inconvenient truths is not a good idea for someone in a tricky political situation (which trying for tenue absolutely is), this is precisely why they are “inconvenient”.hem.

          1. I’m not : In that quote Dr Devereaux is talking about how “the Cult of the Badass” is ignoring the inconvenient truth that it’s not historically supported by facts.

            Dr Devereaux doesn’t seem to be tenured (?), yet his blog is pretty much specialized in pointing out various inconvenient / surprising facts ?

            But maybe he indeed shouldn’t be pushing his luck too much ?

          2. Dr Devereaux doesn’t seem to be tenured (?), yet his blog is pretty much specialized in pointing out various inconvenient / surprising facts ?

            Inconvenience is a matter of perspective, though. “The qualities needed to make a good fighter vary depending on which system of war you’re using” might be an inconvenient truth for cult-of-badass believers, but there aren’t many such people in academia. Conversely, I don’t think many in the cult of badass would find the notion that “Intelligence is at least partially innate” particularly inconvenient, but many academics would.

          3. “…I don’t think many in the cult of badass would find the notion that “Intelligence is at least partially innate” particularly inconvenient, but many academics would.”

            This is utter cant. Very few, if any, academics would argue that there’s no innate component to intelligence (the presence of cases of intellectual disability in the population clearly contradict that notion); it’s merely that this is taken far beyond that and used as justification for social repression of various sorts to which “the libs” object.

            Your habit of arguing with unfounded assertions rather than logic, and time and time again taking grossly simplistic views of complex things while either deliberately ignoring or being ignorant of obvious counterarguments that need to be addressed reduces your arguments to mere trolling.

            On Thu, Feb 25, 2021 at 3:41 AM A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry wrote:

            > theoriginalmrx commented: “Dr Devereaux doesn’t seem to be tenured (?), > yet his blog is pretty much specialized in pointing out various > inconvenient / surprising facts ? Inconvenience is a matter of perspective, > though. “The qualities needed to make a good fighter vary depending” >

          4. This is utter cant. Very few, if any, academics would argue that there’s no innate component to intelligence (the presence of cases of intellectual disability in the population clearly contradict that notion);

            I didn’t say that they would deny an innate component to intelligence if asked explicitly; I said they found the idea uncomfortable.

            it’s merely that this is taken far beyond that and used as justification for social repression of various sorts to which “the libs” object.

            Case in point: you concede that there is an innate component, but then immediately go on to impute nefarious motives to people who talk about the subject.

            If somebody wrote a comment saying, “Sure, maybe there’s technically no such thing as a ‘universal warrior’, but people who try to refute the idea are mostly just a bunch of effete liberals who feel insecure around manly men,” would you say that they were “comfortable” with Bret’s conclusions? I certainly wouldn’t.

          5. I didn’t say that they would deny an innate component to intelligence if asked explicitly; I said they found the idea uncomfortable.

            No, you did not say they find it “uncomfortable,” you said they find it “inconvenient.” Go back and read your own post.

            …you concede that there is an innate component, but then immediately go on to impute nefarious motives to people who talk about the subject.

            And many do have what I would call “nefarious” motives: to deny the significant effects of social privilege. Which is, indeed, an idea those people find uncomfortable.

          6. No, you did not say they find it “uncomfortable,” you said they find it “inconvenient.” Go back and read your own post.

            I do not see any meaningful difference between the two terms in this context. Do you have an actual point here, or are you just being belligerent for the sake of it?

            And many do have what I would call “nefarious” motives: to deny the significant effects of social privilege. Which is, indeed, an idea those people find uncomfortable.

            Some people do have those motives, and some don’t. Equally, some people believe that intelligence isn’t innate because they’d rather believe that their high-flying career entirely is the result of personal determination and hard graft and nothing to do with their having been dealt a good genetic hand at conception. But this is neither here nor there. The point is that, if you’re drawn towards an egalitarian, blank-slatist worldview, the notion that some people are innately more intelligent than others is likely to be inconvenient, and therefore to make you feel uncomfortable. In such circumstances, attacking the motives of anybody who suggests that there might be innate variations in intelligence can act as a way of avoiding the issue and suppressing your cognitive dissonance over the matter.

    2. I’ll be fool enough to bite:
      – People have equal worth. (“There are no just deserts” if you know what that means.)
      – We treat intelligence as synonymous with moral worth. To say of someone “he is not very athletic” isn’t a big deal. To say of someone “he is not very intelligent” is a major insult.
      – People do vary in intelligence.

      It would be very convenient if we could change the third, but despite decades of research, we don’t yet know a way to do that. It doesn’t look like we’ll find a way soon, either.
      Thus the conclusion: people are wrong to treat smarts as synonymous with worth.
      If you already saw many cases like this, this is only frustrating and inconvenient. If this is your first, you might be shocked, frightened, and suddenly feel very alone, because everybody you know gets it wrong; they are all making a moral mistake. That isn’t actually unusual. A lot of things everyone takes for granted actually turn out to be parts of culture, and so wrong as to be downright silly.

      1. – People do vary in intelligence.

        The problem I have with this claim is twofold:
        1. While intuitive, it is poorly-defined. What does “intelligence” mean? How do we know it’s varied? How does the wide variety of traits we lump under “intelligence” factor into that assessment?
        2. Nearly every attempt to prove/quantify this statement has an anti-progressive motive. They don’t just want to show that some people are smarter than others, whatever that means; they want to show that specific,/i> groups of people (generally rich white dudes) are smarter than other groups of people.

        A YouTuber called Shaun has a great video on this subject titled “The Bell Curve”. Probably not one you want to watch in one sitting, though.

        1. While I’m sure there are differences it’s very easy to overstate them. I’m sure every teacher has seen kids who do no remember anything they’re told ever but can rattle off a thousand facts about a topic they actually care about and can analyze that subject just fine. Or the kid who cannot learn phonics rules to save her life so instead just memorized the spellings of a thousand different words.

          1. Lol, there are people that are actually able to not only learn the phonics rules, but to apply them unconsciously ?

      2. Finding the third one to be factual would require being able to measure intelligence, a feat we have yet to achieve.

        1. And yet somehow, people who win the Nobel Prize for Physics always seem to do well on IQ tests.

          Indeed, I am told that IQ tests have more predictive power than just about anything in psychology.

          1. IQ tests are infamous for how poorly they correspond with any ability beyond “being white upper class”. Your thesis is already fatally flawed.

          2. IQ tests are infamous for how poorly they correspond with any ability beyond “being white upper class”. Your thesis is already fatally flawed.

            Actually, at least in the US, Asian-Americans score higher on average than whites.

          3. Asian-Americans score higher than whites, and they have higher incomes. Also higher levels of educational attainment, lower levels of incarceration, etc. IQ scores are pretty good predictors of those three phenomena.

          4. I am not an expert on the subject, but what I have read indicates that psychological research has generally supported the validity of IQ tests. According to Ian Deary’s review article “Intelligence“, published in the Annual Review of Psychology in 2012:

            The cognitive abilities measured by various IQ tests are highly correlated:
            g [the factor of general intelligence that IQ tests are supposed to measure] often accounts for nearly half the variance when a broad battery of cognitive tests is applied to arepresentative sample of the adult population.Relatively little of the variance lies at the domain level. Researchers do not always agree onthe nature of the domains—they can vary in number, name and content between samples depending on the battery applied—and there have long been worries about whether the nature of g might vary between cognitive batteries.

            The latter worry was addressed directly using over 400 subjects from the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart ( Johnson et al. 2004).The subjects had taken three large cognitive test batteries, originating from different theoretical orientations: the Hakstian and Cattell Comprehensive Ability Battery [which includes tests of memory, abstract reasoning, mathematical and spatial reasoning, and verbal ability among other things] (14 tests); the Hawaii Battery, with Raven’s Matrices added [which tests identification of shapes and of patterns of shapes, arithmetic, reasoning about the characteristics and uses of objects, memory, and vocabulary] (17 tests); and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale [which tests verbal and spatial reasoning, working memory, and speed of mental processing] (11 tests). Each battery had a strong g factor, and the correlations among the three g factors—from a hierarchical confirmatory factor analysis—were 0.99, 0.99, and 1.00. That is, the individual differences in g were identical from the three different batteries…

            Most of Gardner’s multiple intelligences in fact correlate with g:
            … most of the Gardner mental skills were correlated substantially with psychometric intelligence; formed a substantial g factor; and musical and body-kinesthetic intelligence were more separate and intrapersonal intelligence harder to measure.

            Several other cognitive characteristics also correlate with g:
            Therefore, the current situation is that apparently lower-level mental tasks—such as sensory discrimination, visual processing and reaction time—have fairly well-established significant and far-from-trivial correlations with intelligence.Less is known about why these correlations occur, and that is largely because of lack of understanding of the causes of individual differences in these so-called elementary cognitive tasks.

            g is somewhat correlated with brain size (though this is also related to other factors such as overall body size):
            Only in the past decade has there been enough evidence to conclude with confidence something that had been mooted, debated, and, at times, ridiculed for over a century: People with larger brains do tend to have higher intelligence test scores. In a meta-analysis of 37 samples examining whole-brain volume in healthy subjects (total N=1,530), the raw correlation was 0.29 (0.33 after correction for range restriction; McDaniel 2005). A more recent review reckoned thecorrelation between whole-brain size and gen-eral intelligence is about 0.4 and that the cor-relation between external head size and intelli-gence (based on 59 samples with a total N=63,405) is 0.20 (Rushton & Ankney 2009).

            Studies done so far indicate that g correlates to some extent with education, socioeconomic status, and upward social mobility in modern society:
            Intelligence had average correlations (95% confidence intervals,total number of studies, total number of sub-jects) as follows: education=0.46 (0.36 to 0.75, 59, 84,828); occupation=0.37 (0.28 to 0.57, 45, 72,290); and income=0.21 (−0.01to 0.40, 31, 58,758) (Strenze 2007). With onlythe objectively defined better studies included,with sample-size weighting, and with correc-tion for unreliability and dichotomization, the effect sizes were estimated as, respectively, 0.56, 0.45, and 0.23. In this meta-analysis, education was assessed using educational level. If objec-tive results are used from national examina-tions, the correlation between intelligence and education is considerably higher. For example, the prospective correlation between the gen-eral intelligence latent trait from the Cogni-tive Abilities Test at age 11 years and a general educational latent trait (based on English na-tional General Certificate of Secondary Educa-tion scores at age 16 years; N=13,248) was 0.81 (Deary et al. 2007a). By way of balance—albeit in a study with two orders of magnitude fewer subjects—it is noted that self-discipline (as rated by the person or by others) can have stronger associations with educational outcomes than intelligence has (Duckworth & Seligman2005).There is also evidence for some people’s being more motivated than others in certain intelligence testing situations, which could inflate intelligence–life outcomes correlations (Duckworth et al. 2011). In another investigation of real-life outcomes of intelligence, a large study of trainee truckers showed that intelligence was associated with “preferences and choices in ways that favor economic success” (Burks et al. 2009). Those with higher intelligence were more patient, were better attaking calculated risks, were better at predict-ing how other people would act and how they should act as a result, and persevered longer in a job when there was a financial penalty for leaving.

            Much remains to be discovered about social mobility. The United Kingdom, becauseit has various prospective cohorts that have been studied from youth and are now at various stages of adulthood and old age, has been es-pecially informative, but of course these results do not necessarily generalize to other countries or cultures. However, even using the same co-hort’s data, different researchers have come to different conclusions. For example, consider some analyses from the past decade on theU.K.’s National Child Development Study (the 1958 British Birth Cohort), which gatheredprospective data on all children born in GreatBritain in one week in March 1958. Some re-searchers emphasized that, with respect to so-cial class destinations at age 33, there were still substantial effects of parental social class afteradjusting for intelligence and academic effort(Breen & Goldthorpe 2002). With the samedata, others emphasized that whereas parental social class accounted for about 25% of people’s own social class at age 33, intelligence, motiva-tion, and qualifications accounted for over 60% (Saunders 2002). Others have shown that so-cial mobility from all the social classes is driven about equally by intelligence from childhood (Nettle 2003). General findings—using structural equation modeling—from analyses of var-ious British cohorts (born in 1921, 1936, the 1950s, and 1970) are that education tends to mediate the influence of childhood intelligence on adult socioeconomic status; the effect of intelligence on education is stronger (insofar as they can be compared numerically) than that of parental social class; and that childhood behavioral disturbance is correlated significantly with intelligence and contributes, at most, only smal lamounts of additional (beyond intelligence and parental social class) variance to education or adult social class (Deary et al. 2005a; Johnson et al. 2010; von Stumm et al. 2009, 2010). Mostof these latter analyses were completed in men because of the difficulty in assessing socioeconomic status among women at historical times when women either tended not to be in employment to the extent that they are now or tended to be less likely to attain employment in accordance with their abilities.

      3. Obviously there are quite a few people here who have bought into Basil Marte’s first two beliefs too deeply to be able to accept the third. It will be easier, perhaps, if one omits the word “intelligence” and says: “People differ in the mental ability to do the things that produce good grades in academic high school subjects and high SAT scores. People who are weak in the ability just described will typically have trouble at Harvard and probably shouldn’t go there: indeed the Harvard admissions office generally doesn’t admit such people.”

      4. People berate other people only in relation to their setting. We laugh of the performance of a poor athlete in a major league game but applaud him in a small city game. It is related to the “victim”s sense of self worth.

      5. IMO this is a problem with the difference between an abstract absolute definition of “worth” and a relative one – “worth TO ME (or to my community)”. On one hand, saying that everyone has the same worth is a matter of not giving anyone moral primacy and the right to outright rule over others. On the other, though, for any community the member who can contribute more – intelligence is a part of that, more prominent maybe in our modern world, but not the only one – will be more attractive and admired than one who can contribute less. That’s simply a more self-interested view. For a more general example – you can think everyone should be equal in front of the law, but would you consider everyone equally pleasant as a friend or romantic partner? That’s a pretty extreme example but I think it cuts to the core of the issue.

        Of course you also have the problem of people who nominally are equal to everyone else, but in particular, due to whatever dominant values a society has, end up shunned by each individual community, so their equality is just on paper. That is a problem, yes, but not one that can be easily sorted out – you can force people to do many things, but not to *like* someone, not even by moral imperatives. That either comes natural or doesn’t.

      6. The first two are not so much facts as values.

        And you should be careful with using truth as the only value you have, as alone truth has no power (see also the whole of the above article), and this way leads to nihilism :
        https://samzdat.com/2017/01/18/alex-jones-deleuze-and-dawkins-are-the-exact-same-person-not-really-about-hypernormalisation/

        Together with the third, factual claim, this seems to be about the recent discussions about the factuality of the genetic (rather than environmental, though on a long enough timeframe, one becomes the other) components of intelligence, and what to do about them ?

        I guess that this question is ages old, the modern answer to it being :
        “All (free)men are created equal [under God (and under law)]”.
        Over the modern times, the republican values embedded in that phrase have shifted to democratic values, and so the status of a “freeman” has expanded from a “natural aristocracy of men of talent and virtue” (pretty sure that their “talent” is pretty close to our “intelligence” ?) to most freemen of age, then to most men (with the abolition of slavery), then to women too. (And the God part slowly melted away.)

        Of course, others have tried to push radically different values, and they’ve failed (at least so far – there will be a history for as long as men write about it).

      7. – People do vary in intelligence.

        Given that people vary in every other known trait, it really would be quite astonishingly convenient if the sole exception were the trait which modern Western society has the most invested in being equal for everyone.

  2. > 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),

    *coughs*

    In reality, in the technical sense of the word, anarchists are near-pacifists who reject the existence of the state precisely because its authority derives from its monopoly over violence. The usual criticism of anarchist philosophy is the opposite – that its commitment to the destruction of hierarchies and the disassembly of the state and its associated apparatus renders anarchist societies entirely vulnerable to more violent ones, and inevitably be subsumed back into the dominance of a state.

    Given your dismay with how media often misrepresents a variety of periods and concepts in the popular consciousness, I thought you might want to know that you’re doing much the same here. Anarchism tends to be staunchly against violence, and believes that violence largely finds its root cause in inequality and oppression. Where media like “300” glorifies fascism, anarchism is glorified by works like the “Matrix”.

    1. At the risk of amplifying the slander, I think there’s a certain set of anarcho-capitalists or anarcho-libertarians who seek the destruction of the state’s monopoly on violence so that they may use violence themselves. It’s also prevalent in prepper circles though they merely predict the end of the state rather than seeing it as a political goal

      1. “Anarcho-capitalists” are not considered anarchists by anyone other than themselves, because anarchism rejects hierarchy in general and ancaps seek to simply recreate the hierarchy with them at the top. Their actual ideology is about as anarchist as the NSDAP was socialist or north korea is democratic, they aren’t. They just call themselves that.

        1. No, an-caps are not considered anarchists by some other self-described anarchists, who feel they own the term. Many people who are not any kind of anarchist are happy to view an-caps as a subset of ‘anarchist’. And, speaking as a former an-cap, “recreate the hierarchy with them at the top” is as inaccurate as considering anarchists to be bomb-throwing lunatics.

    2. Eh, mainstream (insofar as anarchism is ever mainstream…) anarchism has been pretty resolutely revolutionary, and usually violently so. There are (IMHO pretty decent arguments) that they are responding to violence from the state, but that is pretty far from pacifism.

      1. There’s a difference between:

        1) The belief that it is justified to use violence to overthrow the state, and
        2) The belief that the ideal society is one in which all human interactions are mediated through violence and power comes only from personal capacity for violence.

        It is not unusual to meet an anarchist who believes the former; it is unusual to meet an anarchist who believes the latter.

    3. I once encountered a protest march (in Paris) in which anarchists were clamoring for reform of the funding structure for public housing. Apparently anarchists have lots of disjoint beliefs. The ideology is poorly organized.

      1. An anarchist will, as a rule, believe that people would be better off without state enforcement of the hierarchies that shape our society.

        That doesn’t mean they don’t have opinions on other questions.

        If a megalomaniacal tyrant asks you “so, should I use my legions to brutalize the populace, or to build roads,” then on one level your honest response may well be “you are a megalomaniacal tyrant, you shouldn’t be in charge, and shouldn’t have legions to begin with.”

        But on another level your response may well be “buuuut since I can’t kick you out today, I’m going to say “build roads.”

        You probably wouldn’t see a contradiction there. Neither will many anarchists.

      2. The [anarchist] ideology is poorly organized.

        I think it’s your understanding of ideologies that is poorly organized.

        “Anarchy” is generally (among self-designated anarchists) considered to be a society not ruled by hierarchies of power. This is obviously pretty broad, and if it isn’t clear that there are a lot of different forms of societal organization under this general principle (and even more means of attempting to achieve such organizations), even a quick glance at the table of contents for the Anarchist schools of thought Wikipedia page should remove any doubt.

        This is no different from other broad ideological terms. The “democracy ideology” is equally “poorly organized,” covering a huge range from “everybody living here gets an equal vote” to, “Of course you can’t vote if you don’t own land. What’s next, allowing our slaves to vote? My God, you’re so crazy you’ll next be saying that women should be given the vote!”

  3. a point that often emerges in the sheep/wolves/sheepdog metaphor used by many ‘warrior cops,’

    Aside from not understanding history, these people also don’t understand sheep herding. The dogs that protect sheep from wolves live with sheep and often look like sheep. The dogs that herd sheep aren’t much like wolves either. And no shepherd, ever, would keep a dog who ever killed a sheep, or injured a sheep, or otherwise showed it might possibly be a danger to a sheep.

    “Warrior cops” are lucky. They don’t get put down when they screw up.

        1. I don’t get it, who is supposed to answer ? “The ancient lands” ? What *should* Europe answer ?

    1. My wife grew up for a while on the extended family farm in rural WA. She has a fair number of stories about the working boarder collies the farm had. You did not pet or cuddle them they were doing a job. Watching the cows or moving them at the right time (and the pasture chickens). Also when the kids played they set up a watch them too. Killing rattlesnakes for example that they (kids) were going to blunder into. But even when sent to round up the cows for milking they never actually hurt anything they perceived as under their guard. I have to agree a dog who hurt the livestock would likely have been put down (or possibly re homed but it tough when they are not raised as pets) They were supposed to guardian dogs not warrior dogs.

  4. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve cited Eco’s essay over the last few years, and it makes me sad.

  5. I was dumbfounded by the idea that a Spartiate might fit in with an American Marine unit, or that an Athenian would feel comfortable in American civilian life. We’re so used to technological development that it’s easy for us to forget how much cultural development there has been in the last 2500 years.
    I mean, most of us (myself included) find the idea of “honor killings” to be nearly incomprehensible, and that’s from a culture which still exists today, whose members are on average more literate than the Spartiates, and with whom we generally have more in common than we do with any society from 2500 years ago. A big part of the popularity of “Mad Men” was how alien its society seemed to us, and that’s from our own country within living memory.
    Even if we ignore the language barrier and the question of modern technology, the gap in mores between any ancient Greek society and ours is so large that an Athenian dropped into 21st century America would be completely unable to function without a native guide.

    1. I expect the Athenian would find it easier to get to grips with the technology (after a period of adjustment) than the cultural differences

        1. Only likely the upper class conservative types on that one. They would appreciate the amount of lawyers though.

    2. Even just the social changes in the last century are huge. In my family, the post 1990 generation has been keeping quiet about living with boy/girlfriends before marriage in front of my 90 year old grandma, and she never 100% accepted some of her children’s divorces. And even 1930s/40s American women were downright liberated compared to women from Classical Athens.

  6. > 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

    I want to note that Chuck Palahniuk has explicitly said in an interview that he views the initial idea of a Fight Club as a positive – limited, consensual mutual violence as a vehicle of expression of yourself and your masculinity. It only becomes problematic when Fight Club is subverted into Project Mayhem.

    1. Personally, I can’t see any organization that promotes violence as a means of personal expression leading people down a good path. It embraces the worst aspects of our culture’s idea of manliness as treasures to be protected. Project Mayhem isn’t just a bad thing the Fight Club people got into later—it’s an extension of what Fight Club stood for.

      1. That’s a bit like saying that MMA or boxing inevitably are a slippery slope to violent uprising and chaos. Granted, the Fight Clubs were a bit more extreme and less safe than that, but I think you can admit that we do have certain aggressive instincts, and a need to express them somehow, without this necessarily leading to the need to straight up becoming obsessed with them and making them into the only thing that dominates our lives. It’s a matter of where the line should be drawn and how much self control and awareness one has.

        1. The exact quotes from the interview are:

          Q: What does the message of Fight Club mean to you today, in our current political climate?

          Palahniuk: “The central message of Fight Club was always about the empowerment of the individual through small, escalating challenges.”

          Q: Would you say Fight Club is more of a critique of violent masculinity, a celebration of it, or both?

          Palahniuk: Boy. I wouldn’t say it’s a critique. I think that because it’s consensual, it’s OK. It’s a mutually agreed-upon thing which people can discover their ability to sustain violence or survive violence as well as their ability to inflict it. So, in a way, it’s kind of a mutually agreed-upon therapy. I don’t see it as condoning violence ― because in the story it is consensual ― or as ridiculing it, because in this case it does have a use.

          Q: Like the argument that sports are a safe outlet for violence.

          Palahniuk: And also about Michel Foucault’s obsession with S&M. The really structured, ritualistic, consensual world of S&M is a way of discovering your ability to endure pain or to inflict pain.

          Q: But then of course in the original book Tyler Durden’s violence goes beyond the confines of the club. The difference between the book’s intention and how fans perceive him is interesting. Would you say that fans who celebrate him or celebrate anarchy are misinterpreting the intention of the story?

          Palahniuk: No, not really. Because they are kind of recognizing the phase where they discover their personal power through acting out against the world.

          1. Yeah, I think there’s a dialectic there. And in the end, I think people who accuse anyone of “misinterpreting” the story are missing the point. In some people, the frustrations that Tyler Durden denounces at the beginning – which are very real feelings! – are so awful, they make even something like Project Mayhem preferable. That may be a problem for our society, and it’s certainly scary, but it’s not solved by saying “you guys are wrong, actually what we have is preferable”. Coexistence of people with different values and senses of what’s worth is THE problem that every society needs to solve.

        2. That’s a bit like saying that MMA or boxing inevitably are a slippery slope to violent uprising and chaos.

          No, it really isn’t. The problem isn’t that Fight Club is a club for fighting, but the specific reasons given for why its members should fight, the problems it claims it’ll solve for the fighters. It’s not that violence is involved, or even that a use for violence is promoted, but the nature of the specific promoted use.

          1. Are you saying that there is never any desire to affirm one’s masculinity or to express one’s violent impulses in MMA or boxing?

          2. No, I’m saying that Fight Club promotes a specific form of violent masculinity. If you insist on comparing Fight Club to real-world sports (and hockey/football work as well as MMA for this), Fight Club is all the toxic machismo of the most macho sports without any of the restraint.

            Beyond that, there’s how Fight Club the organization ties into the themes of Fight Club the movie, how it’s specifically set up to counter a perceived feminization of society, how it claims to reject society while replicating many of society’s most harmful norms. (The Folding Ideas idea on Fight Club is a good explanation of this stuff.) Operation Mayhem isn’t just a violent operation that gets tacked onto Fight Club, it is a natural extension of the values Fight Club represents, and that’s intentional.

            Which is part of why this whole comparison is so frustrating. You’re trying to separate “Fight Club is a club where people fight” from the context in which the movie portrays the Fight Club, the way it acts, what the movie says. But Fight Club the movie is as integral to Fight Club the organization as vice versa. I don’t know if this makes any sense, but I’m judging the fictional organization on what it’s portrayed as valuing and promoting as much as how it promotes those values.

          3. I have to disagree, the restraint of fight club is derived from the community, the crowd surrounding the fight. If you overstep the bounds as they see them they will intercede. You cannot appeal to an outside authority, there is no “It’s not against the rules”, those there will decide the rules. When Norton oversteps them by pummeling the pretty boy, it is presented as something shocking, a transgression that only he can get away with because of his standing. Also remember attending fight club is a choice. Even when they are in public trying to goad strangers into fighting them, they are not permitted to throw the first punch. Project Mayhem is a break from fight club because there is no voluntary association. The public they are acting on is outside their group and has no say, there is no community voice, no “crowd” to police their actions. In my opinion the story is more about how people who are not engaged by society can be be easily warped to the purposes of anyone who dangles the possibility of self-worth in front of them. It think that is especially apropos considering the “cult of badass” under consideration.

      2. Kind of depends on what you define ‘violence’ as – can violence be consensual? Can it be safe? Can it be mutually beneficial?

        Exercise is, for many people, fun and healthy. Group activities are often fun. Friendly competition is often fun. Mixing some mild injury or risk in with your adrenaline is also sometimes fun, and if you’re all cautious and aware of risks + safety concerns it’s not actually *dangerous.* A “Fight Club” ideally provides people a place to gather, with people who understand safety concerns, have risks explained to them, have witnesses who have medical training or can call medical services, and then engage in some fairly low risk competitive exercise.

        (I’ve also done sports since I was pretty young. My worst injuries were in dance. My second worst were in soft ball. My third worst were in track + field. I thiiiiink I might’ve once gotten a lasting bruise from all the martial arts I was doing – I usually would do martial arts + one rotating sport. Didn’t even strain things in MMA, which was impressive because I’m hypermobile and can throw my back out of alignment if I slouch for fifteen seconds.)

        The problem is if you think being good at fighting makes you morally better than people who are less good at fighting. If you think you can leverage this to force others to do your bidding. If you define your entire personality as “that dude who is good at punching things.” And you can do that with things other than violence, too – the short cut from “I am morally superior” to oppressing the morally inferior is just more *obvious* with violence.

        1. The problem with this response is that I never said “groups that do violent things are always bad”. I said “groups that do violent things for these reasons are bad”.

          1. And I was arguing that groups that promote violence as a means of personal expression are just fine + actively beneficial to many people, as long as everything’s kept consensual and risk aware. That’s what I was saying. There were no reason qualifications given other than “for personal expression,” which was what I was addressing. The organization depicted in the movie has problems *beyond* “is a group to express yourself using violent actions as a medium.”

      3. You should spend a little more time visiting martial arts gyms, then. It’s certainly been my experience that through mutual interest in violence we develop closer brotherhood, better understanding of ourselves, and (in many cases, although not universally) a more peaceful outlook on the world in general.

        Whether it’s innate or not, my friends and I certainly find something to be missing in our lives when we are not taking part in that kind of physical struggle. Other sports are ok, but there’s nothing as direct and visceral as single combat. And in many ways the “realness” of it enforces other norms — we all want to keep training tomorrow, so “respecting the tap” is one of the core rules of the culture. It causes a real change in your mindset in some cases, knowing that someone has had the *capacity* to injure you and is *choosing* not to.

        The lack of a universal warrior does not mean that our current culture does need guardians, nor that our men and women do not need a safe expression of conflict.

    2. Given that boxing gyms and martial arts classes exist, it’s hard to disagree that limited, consensual violence is acceptable and even healthy… and yet, people talk about starting fight clubs rather than taking tae kwon do lessons or whatever. The difference is the masculinity part of your definition, and that’s precisely the problem. The impulse to start a fight club reveals a belief that masculinity can only find expression in violence.

  7. I haven’t read much Pressfield but I’m surprised that any educated man could present arguments around the centrality of violence, the exaltation of the warrior and the glory of struggle, and not immediately realise that he was neck-deep in Fascist thinking (specifically 1920s Italian Fascist, but Hitler was all over this stuff as well). Hint to folks into this stuff – Mein Kampf means ‘My Struggle or My Fight’.

    And 1945 and all it’s horrors are the logical endpoint of this thinking. If the finest warrior is the finest man, if the capacity for violence is the highest good, then those things must be *tested*. And the only test is to go to war. Often. At scale. And then once you are at war, well, war is the supreme test, and therefore all efforts are required to win. And then you are in 1945 again. Perhaps Mussolini, in the moments before he died, realised that what was happening was the inevitable result of everything he’d advocated for 22 years earlier.

    1. But Fascism is all about submission to a central authority, you can Idolise struggle (especially the struggle to improve oneself) and not believe in authoritarianism.
      I rather feel we are beginning to approach Godwins law here.

      1. Yes, but the specific forms of military struggle do end up making authoritarianism appealing. Armies are authoritarian, you can’t make war easily by committee. By making armies, soldiers and warriors the reference point on which to model every aspect of society, it follows almost naturally that society itself must become authoritarian. Just the concept of “struggle” isn’t enough; the saint struggles against the temptation to sin, the scientist struggles against Nature’s secrets, the tradesman struggles to better grasp his customers’ needs and outwit his competitors. Each of these is a struggle, but they all require vastly different skillsets and core values.

      2. Self-struggle can of course be separate. But as soon as you elevate struggle and equate it with actual *violence* (and if your ideal is a *warrior* rather than a monk or an ascetic then you are far down that road) then you are definitely on a path that leads you in fascist directions.

        If the standard is violence then the two logical endpoints are individual violence (some sort of violent anarchy, as Bret notes) or collective violence. As carefully explained in the original post, fascism is *the* pre-eminent ideology of collective violence. The formal doctrine of Italian Fascism stated that the world is made of different peoples, different peoples struggle violently with each other, and thus we must organise ourselves like an army (i.e. dictatorially) so that our capacity for warfare and violence is maximised and we can win in this eternal struggle. The point of the regimentation and the central authority is to more effective in the collective act of violence. I don’t see where else you land if you believe that violence is the most important form of human expression (well, OK, there’s the violent anarchy thing, but larger societies have never worked like that for more than a few months at a time because in practice it’s absolutely unbearable – people will literally put up with any form of government, no matter how insane, to escape from it)

        1. Self-struggle can of course be separate. But as soon as you elevate struggle and equate it with actual *violence* (and if your ideal is a *warrior* rather than a monk or an ascetic then you are far down that road) then you are definitely on a path that leads you in fascist directions.

          I don’t know, the early Christians liked to conceptualise their religion in military terms (there’s even the theory that the use of the term “pagan” to describe non-Christians comes from Roman military slang — paganus = civilian or non-combatant, as opposed to the “soldiers of Christ” in the Church) without becoming a bunch of fascists. Indeed, they were noted at the time for doing more to help the weak than mainstream, non-Christian society, which isn’t the sort of behaviour usually associated with fascism or proto-fascism.

          1. The terminology is ‘miles’ which as you say is *soldier*, not warrior. The whole point of that metaphor is to lean on the collective, self-sacrificing, obedient, disciplined nature of soldiering, not the badass warrior stuff at all. Christianity in that early period was very non-violent (again, it’s the exaltation of physical violence, rather than mental struggle, that leads to fascism).

      3. Godwin’s Law doesn’t apply when the accused is, in fact, a Nazi.
        (Or when the ideology accused of having fascist elements does have those elements, but that’s not as snappy.)

      1. Or Inventing it to disparage their political rivals.

        Such as people who claim the second ammendmant is fascistic in nature.

        1. Or sometimes just used as a way of venting. On another forum I’m on, I once waded into a thread about the effects of Lend-Lease in WW2’s Eastern Front. I at the very least did not consciously try to grind any axes, just presented the facts as I understood them and my conclusions that it was important to the war effort but not a single-bodied war winning effort; that it’s biggest consequences were helping the sweeping Soviet counteroffensives of 1943 and onward.

          I only bring it up because very amusingly, I was simultaneously accused of being a tankie blinded by ideological love of Stalinism to see reality, and a fascist blinded by ideological love for Nazism to see reality by different people in that community.

        2. I have literally never heard anyone say that until today, and I hang out on leftist Twitter pretty regularly. So I have to suspect that that’s a bogeyman with basically no backing in meaningful numbers of people saying that; if nothing else, I’d have seen moderate leftists mocking the nutjobs.

          I’m talking more about the blatant palingenetic ultranationalism present in the mainstream of modern conservatism in many countries, including the USA. Which is a problem.

          1. Which is quite weird, considering how much fascism is an anti-conservative ideology ! (But our host already covered that.)

          2. You’re not wrong, but fascism (and to a lesser extent modern conservatism) is more focused on what actions, policies, and rhetoric can bring about the desired ends (broadly speaking, the consolidation of power among the “right” people) than ideological consistency.
            That’s why TERFs and MRAs join forces to sh*t on trans people, why Christian fundies and the metaphorical temple money-changes stick together, why don’t-step-on-me Libertarians defend wannabe authoritarians.

            At least, that’s a viewpoint that helps me make sense of modern conservatism. I don’t know if it’s a capital-T True Fact, but it seems like a lowercase-a accurate approximation. Hopefully it helps others too.

          3. …fascism (and to a lesser extent modern conservatism) is more focused on what actions, policies, and rhetoric can bring about the desired ends (broadly speaking, the consolidation of power among the “right” people) than ideological consistency.
            That’s why TERFs and MRAs join forces to sh*t on trans people, why Christian fundies and the metaphorical temple money-changes stick together, why don’t-step-on-me Libertarians defend wannabe authoritarians.

            I think this isn’t a feature of conservatism in particular: in a stable two-party system like that of the US, political interest groups have to join one of the two parties, which inevitably leads to them sometimes having to cooperate with other groups that they have significant disagreements with. This is true of American Democrats (e.g. poor people cooperating with the educated upper middle class, or somewhat socially conservative religious black people cooperating with social justice activists interested in LGBT rights) in addition to Republicans.

          4. You have to remember that conservatives completely leaving the Democrat party is a fairly recent development (since Obama ?)

          5. think this isn’t a feature of conservatism in particular: in a stable two-party system like that of the US, political interest groups have to join one of the two parties, which inevitably leads to them sometimes having to cooperate with other groups that they have significant disagreements with.

            Even making this a feature of two-party systems is too narrow — multi-party systems usually end up with coalition governments made up of several parties, which of course disagree with each other on various matters. Heck, even in one-party states, the party usually has various internal factions whose members co-operate or oppose each other as their interest require.

            Basically, if “TERFs and MRAs join forces to sh*t on trans people, Christian fundies and the metaphorical temple money-changes stick together, don’t-step-on-me Libertarians defend wannabe authoritarians” is an example of fascism, there has never been a non-fascist society in human history.

    2. Fascism is not about creating violence. All fascist movements appeared after a period of violence which they were forced or attracted to participate ( WW1, the violent periods preceding Spanish civil war). The fascist message is that they can bring back the good old peacefull ways but this cam be done only by 1. completely defeating the internal enemy and 2. forcing all the parts of the society to work back together. The fascist project their violent image for phase 1 as a real need and for phase 2 as a threat. The violence is just a tool and has to be carefully aplied. The black shirts and the SS were not running around doing pushups and fighting everyone.
      The violent image is also not restricted to fascist. Liberal democracies promoted it also( all super heroes, athletes), there were muscular Jews and sportive women. The difference was that they were not caught in highly dangerous civil disturbances and didn’t think about saving some cherished institutions.

      1. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century at least some people came to believe that modern society was soft and needed to recapture virtue in war. You can find an early statement at the end of Tennyson’s Maud (although the speaker in Maud is deranged). By the time the First World War came along it was widespread, especially in Italy (it was not a coincidence that Italy had been humiliated in its attempt to conquer Ethiopia). D’Annunzio believed that peace made people weak and soft; so did the Futurists. After the First World War, D’Annunzio led an amateur military expedition to conquer Trieste, which he did for about a year. D’Annunzio was one of Mussolini’s role models. The most important Nazi political philosopher, Carl Schmitt, also believed that in order to have any genuine political community there must be collective and potentially violent opposition to some enemy (any enemy will do). The belief that peace is bad and violent struggle is the preferable state of humanity is often taken as the feature that distinguishes actual fascist movements like Mussolini’s Fascists and the Nazis from other right-wing authoritarian movements.
        But the good old days that the Italian Fascists harked back to were the Roman Empire conquering the world, and the days the Nazis harked back to where the military successes of Bismarck’s Prussia and the conquests of Charlemagne and his successors. In both cases, what was good was successful conquest.

      2. There may be a difference between what attracted active fascists to fascism, and what attracted the general public to letting the fascists take power. The bringing of peace and order seems more to have been a pitch to the general public.

        1. Yeah, weren’t the late years of the Weimar Republic basically “everyone fighting everyone” ?

          Social-democratic paramilitaries first fighting Nazi paramilitaries and proto-Antifa paramilitaries (Nazis and proto-Antifas even allying on a few occasions, as for the Soviets ‘fascist’ was a synonym to capitalist, and social-democrats were for a long time considered to be ‘the real fascists’, while Nazis were classified more as ‘comrades’).

          Then the Nazi threat recognized by the Soviets and the formation of Antifa proper, and then everyone fighting everyone else (including other minority groups ?).

          Then the middle class got sick of all the collateral damage, and asked the Nazis to put a stop to it, just as they were democratically elected (their popularity kept slowly going up over the years).

          1. I think you’ve hit on something I find annoying, the reductive definition of “fascist” in popular culture to mean anyone who violently advocates for authoritarianism. It’s not a really good shorthand now, and it gets even worse as you go into history, as if you apply this consistently you would end up calling the communists fascists too. I wish there was another term, but that’s not the way language works unfortunately.

          2. I think Eco’s essay is useful in this regard because he does note the ways in which Ur-fascism as a non-ideological base fits some authoritarian expressions (read: fascism) but not others (read: totalitarian communism).

            I’d argue that all totalitarianisms try to – and to some degree succeed at – speaking to the feeling of deracination people experience in modern, industrial societies and channel those feelings in truly horrible directions.

          3. “Yeah, weren’t the late years of the Weimar Republic basically “everyone fighting everyone” ?”

            No, those were the *early* years, which saw multiple armed insurrections, including but not limited to, the Spartacus Uprising, the Kapp Putsch, and the Beer Hall Putsch, which, interestingly enough, was more of a coda to five years of low-grade civil war, and the least likely of these three to succeed.
            Once the ban on the NSDAP was lifted, the Nazis immediately reformed the SA (the SS, as a rule, didn’t engage in streetfighting during this time, being a tiny sub-unit of the SA), and proceeded to violently interfere with political rallies by everyone else. Which drew violent responses from both the Social Democrats and the Communists. As a rule, it was the SA who started the violence. Arrest and trial statistics from that time don’t quite reflect this, since police and judiciary tended to sympathise with Nazis more than with Socialists or Communists.
            Despite this, the NSDAP didn’t have significant successes at the polls until after the Great Depression hit; in 1928, they received all of 2.63 percent of all votes cast. This ballooned to 18.25 percent in 1930 and 37.27 percent in July 1932. They never won an outright majority, and did in fact lose votes between July 1932 and November 1932.

          4. Thing is, nobody could put together a majority in Weimar Germany, not even basic sanity. The 1932 election that saw the NSDAP get 37.27% of the vote saw the SPD get 21.58%, the KPD get 14.32%, the Center get 11.81%, the DNVP 5.91%, and the BVP 3.23%. (Yes, folks, the parties that weren’t running on a platform of ‘authoritarianism is awesome’ got less than 49% of the vote.)

          5. “Arrest and trial statistics from that time don’t quite reflect this, since police and judiciary tended to sympathise with Nazis more than with *Socialists* or Communists.”
            Uh, are you saying that police and *judiciary* (!) were sympathizing more with radicals than with the *ruling Socialists* ?!?

      3. To sustain this view, you would have to explain why all the fascist movements exalted war, and embarked on aggressive war at the first opportunity (Italy in Ethiopia, Nazi re-armament from 1934, the Spanish Blue Legion…). As Eco remarks, they were very bad at war (if sometimes good at fighting), but was was central to their programs.

        1. To sustain this view, you would have to explain why all the fascist movements exalted war, and embarked on aggressive war at the first opportunity (Italy in Ethiopia, Nazi re-armament from 1934, the Spanish Blue Legion…).

          The Blue Division really doesn’t fit into this pattern: it was a limited support operation, started a couple of years into WW2, and was withdrawn in 1943 when things started going south for the Germans. If Franco was actually obsessed with war a la Hitler, he’d have joined the Axis officially in 1939 and kept on fighting till Spain was occupied by the Allies.

          1. At that point you then get into the question of whether Franco actually was a fascist or just a garden-variety reactionary military dictator who said fascist-y things in order to get Hitler and Mussolini to back him, and that’s a rabbit hole right there. As a side note, There are some people who think that he used the Blue Division as a way to get the people who thought he wasn’t going far enough out of the country and possibly killed.

          2. Franco would probably best be described as “Fascist Adjacent”, like the Integralists of Brazil. Though, while the Franco regime didn’t involve itself in external conflict, it was obsessed with internal conflict and purification. While rarely discussed, the Franco regime was responsible for the persecution and killing of many leftists and other undesirables. And just like most fascist adjacent movements it eventually collapsed because the Franco regime was unable to accept or conform to reality. Italian Fascism and German Nazism are quite possibly the only fully realized fascist regimes in human history (Though I think it could be argue that Sparta would fit the mold too).

        2. German Rearmament started far before 1934. It was a project of the Weimar republic as well. The Nazis were more open about it, but they weren’t pioneers in this.

          1. Re-armament yes, in the sense that the semi-autonomous Reichswehr sought to evade the Versailles prohibitions. But the Nazis diverted resources to war preparations pretty much from the get go. The consumer standard of living in Germany in 1939 was lower than in 1928, as investment in housing and consumer goods was deliberately repressed to fund defence (which included huge investments in basic industries like steel and chemicals essential to war-making). See eg Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction.

            One does not have to delve far into fascist and Nazi ideology to come across the cult of violence, seen as a good thing in its own right (the ‘healthy warrior spirit was one constant refrain).

  8. I do want to point out – since you mentioned Arjuna and you tweet about Pressfield mentioning the Gita – that the point of the Gita existing within the Mahabharata is that Arjuna does not want to fight because he looks across the battlefield and sees his cousins and teachers and uncles and mentors in the “enemy” army. The Gita is framed as Arjuna’s friend (and brother-in-law) Krishna telling him that he has to kill his blood relations and teachers anyway because they are propping up an evil and corrupt regime – even if they have their own reasons for doing so. (E.g. Two teachers, an uncle, and a surprise half-brother are all bound by honour and obligation to the antagonists; at least one of the antagonist cousins will simply not kill his own brothers in war even if he was very vocal against them in peacetime; etc). It’s also worth noting that this war ends in a pyrrhic victory. Arjuna and his brothers and their wives survive, but literally all their children are killed in battle, as is another brother-in-law (they’re left with Arjuna’s pregnant daughter-in-law who almost loses the baby; they have no other heirs whatsoever); they have to kill all the opposing warriors including beloved uncles and teachers (and the half-brother); Krishna, a literal god, is explicitly cursed to die ingloriously and alone, watching his own kingdom and family tear itself apart, because he single-mindedly pursued an ideology of “the ends justify the means” during the war. It’s really not the glorious victory (or even the glorious battlefield martyrdom) that this ideal seems to represent.

    1. Of course, this is one of the advantages gained from quoting the Gita to an audience that is, implicitly, *for* a certain kind of people, very few of whom are Hindu, and very few of whom would seriously consider making a study of Hindu traditions and beliefs.

      They’re not going to spot the implications, because they know *of* the story, but they don’t know the story. They may have read the Iliad; they probably haven’t read the Gita, and if they have they assuredly haven’t given themselves over to any deep thinking about its messages.

      You noticed this easily- but when Pressfield envisioned his target audience, I’m pretty sure he didn’t have you in mind.

        1. I should probably mention I also came across this blog through the Sufficent Velocity Forum. Mostly so it’s known *where* so to speak, I’m coming from, even if I’m probably…A bit of an anomoly in terms of how I think versus the general SV crowd (And probably different from the folks regularly commenting on this blog that are not from SV!)

        2. Do be advised… there *is* more than one person who uses variations on the screenname “Simon Jester” on the Internet. 😉

    2. I don’t remember the evilness and corruption of the opposing regime playing any great part in Krishna’s rhetoric. Krishna talks about “duty” (in my translation; I don’t know what term this translates), but I think the duty in question is to fulfil one’s proper role in society/the universe. But the Gita is a text that is open to a lot of interpretation.

      1. Yes, you’re right, the Gita by itself is very focused on duty and what it means to fulfil your obligations to society in general, and it is often read standalone (it’s also something like 2000+ years old with a lot of sections that seem like later additions to fit the needs of changing societies). Since this essay mentions Arjuna as a warrior, however, I was referring to the context of the Gita within the Mahabharata, given that its context within the epic (Arjuna throws down his weapons, Krishna tells him it is his duty to fight) can and does affect interpretations of the Gita especially if one takes Arjuna as an ideal warrior. Arjuna’s duty to society/the world is to fight this war, and win, whatever it costs him.

  9. Apologies for being off topic, but, I’ve really enjoyed reading this series, and I want to read some of ACOUP’s backlog. I just have no idea where to start. The world builder’s list doesn’t seem appropriate, and by date seems unlikely to be optimal.

    Any suggestions?

    1. You could start with this series, then read back through all the other series mentioned and linked therein. I find that the different multi-part posts are clustered around a similar theme, so challenging the cult of the badass includes the Fremen, Sparta, and Dothraki posts while logistics covers the Helm’s Deep, Gondor, and the other Game of Thrones posts.

      For everything else, chronological seems fine to me.

    2. Well if you enjoyed this series, then the obvious next step would be to read the Sparta series, assuming you haven’t already.

      Personally, though, I enjoyed the “how they did it” series on iron and wheat (with a special guest appearance by rice) the most.

    3. i did it by date. just started with his oldest stuff and binged my way through it. took me a month or tow to catch up. now i’m sad because i have to wait a week every time just like everyone else, haha

    4. I came here via searching google for Game of Thrones information, found those posts interesting, noticed that the author had also written about LotR and read those, and have worked through other series that seemed interesting. The blog is especially interesting to me as a former classicist who studied with some of the giants of ancient history (Donald Kagan, Ramsey MacMullen, and Victor Bers (who may not be a giant but had studied with G.E.M. de Ste. Croix)). But your interests may not coincide with mine.

  10. About “Heinlein’s Premise”, I always took it as a statement of fact about a much simpler reality: that any social system, no matter how sophisticated, will at some point give way if violence is applied with sufficient insistence, and then only violence in response becomes the last line of defence. Things like honour, authority, political capital, piety, all rely on mutually shared and accepted values. As long as all of society has those in common, they can be leveraged in fruitful debate and political clash. But the moment in which someone decides that they don’t care about ANY of that, and they simply can kill their opponents, killing them back is all you can do. The one who lowers the bar to violence gets to set the rules of the game for everyone. To make a computer analogy, you have all this social software, and clever hackers run circles around each other by exploiting their properties, but none of that helps much if someone just starts wrecking the computer itself with a crowbar.

    In the end I think the real divide is always between people who think this is good or bad. I think it good, of course: the layer of social life wasn’t even an innovation that civilization put on top of our brutish nature. If anything, it was an innovation that evolution put on top of the brutish nature of some of our ancestors who were probably, like, lizards or something. It’s ancient stuff, itself hardwired into our brains, though maybe not their deepest, oldest areas. And since, curiously, in my embracing of modernism, I actually end up circling around and accepting some of the most self-evident, trivial truths, I tend to think that the fact no one likes to die means that less people dying is a good thing. Funnily enough, there is one thing in common between modernism and the cult of the badass – the idea that things can’t be as simple as just going with your gut, and virtue is to be found in resisting one’s baser instincts. For modernism, the instincts to be resisted are those that lead us to suspicion, aggression, discrimination. For the cult of the badass, it’s survival. The “coward” is shamed because by running they do exactly what a random animal would, whereas a human is able to dominate their fear and stand in the face of deadly danger. That actually seems something that would have really drilled itself into our mindset during the second system of war. It’s the kind of mentality you need as a hoplite or member of any other kind of phalanx-like formation, after all.

    1. But the moment in which someone decides that they don’t care about ANY of that, and they simply can kill their opponents, killing them back is all you can do. The one who lowers the bar to violence gets to set the rules of the game for everyone.

      I don’t know how valuable an insight this is, really. Complete noncompliance of this sort is reserved for the most volatile of sociopaths (your Jack the Rippers and your impulse killers, not your Alcibiadeses or any of the various politicians, lawyers, corporate executives, salespeople, etc, who are sociopathic), and they don’t seem to succeed literally anywhere, except maybe very rarely when they are literally born to that position. Though, as the examples of Elizabeth Bathory and Crown Prince Sado suggest, there is in fact a point where even rank cannot protect you.

      It’s a bit like saying if an ant just decides to start killing all the other ants, all the other ants can do is kill it. Well, I suppose so. Doesn’t exactly tell us much about how ant society is actually organized, though.

      1. You’re looking at it too extremely, like if someone ought to ditch ALL rules at once to be dangerous. That wasn’t what I had in mind.

        For a more concrete example: a state is founded on the principle that everyone is equal and deserves the same rights. A movement within it forms of people who believe strongly that some people are superior to others (be it on the basis of race, census, family, intelligence, anything) and deserve to rule. The usual mechanisms to negotiate with them stop working, because if you’re one of the “inferiors”, in their eyes, your opinion or pleas aren’t worth anything. Hence, in the end, if the movement keeps growing, the resolution will inevitably be violent, because there is no longer enough common ground for the two groups to talk to each other otherwise.

        1. so basically the paradox of tolerance: for a tolerant society to survive it must be intolerant to intolerance?

          1. I don’t necessarily mean that, mostly because that has to with how to manage dissent before it reaches that critical size – and IMO repression often isn’t very good at that, especially in a democratic state that can’t afford to get TOO extreme in its repression without losing its identity. My point is more that, if for whatever reason that value divergence reaches a critical mass, then yes, you get violent conflict. But “tolerance” and “intolerance” are way too vaguely defined categories to define that, it’s well possible that both sides would consider themselves the tolerant ones, and the others intolerant.

          2. “it’s well possible that both sides would consider themselves the tolerant ones, and the others intolerant.”

            See: Current American politics.

    2. But the moment in which someone decides that they don’t care about ANY of that, and they simply can kill their opponents, killing them back is all you can do. The one who lowers the bar to violence gets to set the rules of the game for everyone.

      I don’t think this insight is really valuable, looking at history. These sorts of people are basically only and exclusively the most volatile, impulsive, and ineffectual sorts of criminals – your Jack the Rippers, not your Alcibiades – and they do not succeed at very much unless they are born in a high position. Even the ones born in high positions are of poor efficacy: it certainly didn’t end well for Elizabeth Bathory or Crown Prince Sado, after all.

      To whatever extent it is true, it seems rather like noticing that this one ant that started killing the other ants was then promptly killed by said other ants. Well, that’s rather interesting, but it doesn’t really tell you very much about how ant society is actually organized, since that’s not how ants generally behave.

      1. I would say any large scale shift in values leads to this. It’s what’s behind pretty much any revolution or civil war ever: to some degree, the social pact breaks down, and some shared values and assumptions on which peace was built crumble. It doesn’t take TOTAL divorce from traditional values for that to happen.

      2. I think you’re construing the point too narrowly by imagining the resort to violence as being purely individual. The argument also extends to factions. All the rules and customs in place within a society, or in interactions between societies, are potentially vulnerable to being thrown out the window by a group that uses force. The social rules do have ways to push back, but ultimately those methods of pushing back depend on the people who would do the pushing NOT DYING.

        I may have tremendous gravitas, tremendous moral force that demands deference, through whatever means… But if anyone ever actually works past that sense of deference and knocks my head in with a rock, my gravitas loses most of its meaning and I certainly lose any personal power to shape future events.

        Go back to ancient Rome for examples. When you ask people “so, how did the Roman Republic begin to fall apart and turn into an empire, what set the process in motion,” many of the most common things pointed to are moments at which the use of political violence escalated. The moment that a tribune was killed by violence. The moment this or that man brought an army close to Rome. And so on. These moments were significant precisely because they were instances of violence being used to “veto” social institutions. To say “these rules do not apply when the tribune is one of the Gracchi because we don’t want them to” and enforce that with a club, or “these rules do not apply when {the consul is Marius/the dictator is Sulla} because he doesn’t want them to” and enforce that with a sword.

        That is the sense in which violence can be used to abruptly reset the rules of the game. And the proper conclusion is not “violence is more fundamental and therefore in some sense more profound as a means of human interaction.” It is simply “remember that your rules only matter so long as your society can continue to enforce them on a rulebreaker.” If you want to keep those rules because you like the way they enable you to live, then make sure to enforce the rules.

        [Also, and correct me if I’m wrong here, I think Alcibiades was more complicated than just “a guy who started killing.” Jack the Ripper had no lasting historical impact because he was merely a serial killer; Alcibiades was an active participant in the politics and international affairs of his time]

        1. “I may have tremendous gravitas, tremendous moral force that demands deference, through whatever means… But if anyone ever actually works past that sense of deference and knocks my head in with a rock, my gravitas loses most of its meaning and I certainly lose any personal power to shape future events.”

          Would martyrs be an exception? If someone with all that gravitas and reputation dies for their cause, or at least dies before finishing what they were doing, that just adds so much more meaning to that cause.

          And technically your power to shape future events can persist after your death (in a certain sense) via advance directives, carefully appointing someone to make substitute decisions in a certain way etc. For example, if a legislator passes law X, that can shape events long after their death, and perhaps even after the law itself is repealed (via cultural memory etc.)

          1. That still requires some baseline empathy and understanding for their cause. You must at some level appreciate that what they’re dying for is right. The line between “martyr” and “idiot who had it coming” is very thin.

          2. That still requires some baseline empathy and understanding for their cause. You must at some level appreciate that what they’re dying for is right.

            Not quite. You must appreciate that a willingness to face death is admirable, but you don’t necessarily have to agree with the cause for which they’re facing death. The Christian martyrs of the various Roman persecution generally earned a grudging measure of respect even from staunch pagans, and people at the time certainly thought that this was helpful for winning over new converts (“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” and all that).

          3. @Vankus Eon Frostification

            Would martyrs be an exception? If someone with all that gravitas and reputation dies for their cause, or at least dies before finishing what they were doing, that just adds so much more meaning to that cause.

            And technically your power to shape future events can persist after your death (in a certain sense) via advance directives, carefully appointing someone to make substitute decisions in a certain way etc…

            To directly address your comments here, please note that there’s a very good reason I used the bolded words when I said:

            But if anyone ever actually works past that sense of deference and knocks my head in with a rock, my gravitas loses most of its meaning and I certainly lose any personal power to shape future events.

            ————–

            The power I lose upon death is my personal power. My legacy may (or may not) persist and may (or may not) have lasting consequences, but I do not have control over those consequences. What happens next, happens without me, happens without my further input. It may be influenced by followers of my ideas. It may be influenced by the gang of rough men who knocked me over the head and manage to discredit my ideas through a combination of threats and persuasion. It may be influenced by a third party that cares little for whatever squabble made an end of me. But it won’t be influenced by me, as a person with agency.

            The word “most,” I admit was ill-chosen, because I’m trying to convey the idea of something that happens in statistical terms. SOME people become if anything more influential in death than they were in life, it seems. But many more do not. The Obi-Wan gambit doesn’t work reliably, and there are a great many thinkers, politicians, cultural figures, and influencers of other sorts who did not become more powerful than the ones who struck them down can possibly imagine.

            Martyrdom sticks in our heads when it happens, but that leads to a sort of survivorship bias. We remember ideas that survived having their proponents martyred, and movements that persisted after many of their initial supporters died. Almost by definition, we do not remember all the many, many counterexamples.

            For every religion that was fueled to new heights by the credibility it gained from martyrs dying for the faith, there are many sects and cults and heresies that were suppressed violently until their last active advocates died or went into hiding and gradually forgot that they had ever held such beliefs. And almost every nation and cause that has ever failed had heroes who died for it. We just usually don’t remember them as such, because we don’t have much to remember them by.

            There is nuance here, and it would be incredibly pointless to model this as some kind of strict either/or contest between “violence always overcomes ideas” and “ideas always overcome violence.” Sometimes ideas persist in the face of shocking amounts of violence. Sometimes shocking amounts of violence annihilate entire civilizations, let alone individual ideas within those civilizations.

            The point I’m trying to make is that there is a valid observation of the form:

            “Violence can, CAN, I say again CAN in fact permanently put an end to a dispute between two parties. Such disputes CAN end in one party being physically destroyed. Or simply forced to abandon the dispute for fear of same. Thus, make sure that you do not neglect the ability to ensure your physical survival in the face of violence, because if you cannot sustain your own survival, you will be very fortunate if you manage to accomplish much else.”

          4. “Violence can, CAN, I say again CAN in fact permanently put an end to a dispute between two parties. Such disputes CAN end in one party being physically destroyed. Or simply forced to abandon the dispute for fear of same. Thus, make sure that you do not neglect the ability to ensure your physical survival in the face of violence, because if you cannot sustain your own survival, you will be very fortunate if you manage to accomplish much else.”
            ———————————————————————————————————————————————
            @Simon_Jester
            Yeah, phrased this way it does make sense. I guess part of the debate here (as evidenced by the other comments) is how to make the pithy statement of Heinlein’s Premise precise. The way you’ve stated it above is persuasive.

          5. I don’t know of any actual physical violence engaged in by Hitler. To my knowledge, 100% of his influence on events, once he had left military service in WWI, was by persuading other people to do what he wanted them to, or not to do what he didn’t want. Yet, his word was the ultimate authority in Germany for years. Similarly, Stalin.

            So if the ultimate authority *even* in Nazi Germany and in Stalin’s USSR was not violence, but persuasion, it seems unlikely that the idea of violence as the ultimate authority can ever really, honestly stick anywhere.

        2. I think you’re construing the point too narrowly by imagining the resort to violence as being purely individual. The argument also extends to factions. All the rules and customs in place within a society, or in interactions between societies, are potentially vulnerable to being thrown out the window by a group that uses force. The social rules do have ways to push back, but ultimately those methods of pushing back depend on the people who would do the pushing NOT DYING.

          Sure, but I would point out that factional violence relies on all the positive, non-violent kinds of power. You cannot have an October Revolution without communism or “Land, Bread, and Peace,” in the sense that you cannot get people to actually go in on this kind of thing without actually offering them something beyond force. I’m not so well-versed on the Roman era, but I suspect you can’t pull off killing Gracchus without appealing to tradition and self-interest and various things that are not force.

          [Also, and correct me if I’m wrong here, I think Alcibiades was more complicated than just “a guy who started killing.” Jack the Ripper had no lasting historical impact because he was merely a serial killer; Alcibiades was an active participant in the politics and international affairs of his time]

          I was saying *not* your Alcibiades. He was treacherous and ultimately was such a piece of shit his behavior played a substantial role in getting Socrates executed; but, even if he ultimately met a bitter end, he managed a hell of a lot better than people who rely exclusively on violent force, since he also relied on charm, social camouflage, and proving himself valuable to others.

          1. The point though remains that revolutions happen when *some* key value that until then was deemed untouchable crumbles. It doesn’t mean suddenly every social value disappears, children turn on parents and husbands turn on wives. But something gives way, and suddenly there is nothing any more to prevent a large scale violent clash that was formerly kept at bay by it. The King has a divine mandate, until he doesn’t. Political debate should be civil, until it shouldn’t. And so on. It goes to show that those sort of values are superstructure, but they only hold as long as they’re shared. The fundamental difference of violence is that it relies on laws that belong to nature more than to society, and belie all others. If I hit you hard enough in the head with a stick, you die, and there’s really no change in my or your beliefs that can avoid that simple fact of physics and biology.

          2. @higgsbosoff

            The fundamental difference of violence is that it relies on laws that belong to nature more than to society, and belie all others.

            I don’t think violence is the only source of authority that relies on such natural laws. Cooperation for a common goal and reciprocity (through social bonds, gifts, or trade) seem just as important as violence and at least among humans just as universal.

            Honor, oaths, dignitas, ideology etc are different ways in which societies can create and organize cooperation and reciprocity. They can change or become unsuitable. But the ways to engage in violence are also different between societies, and they can also change or become unsuitable.

            A good case can probably be made that (the capacity for) violence is one necessary source of authority, but it is not the only one. An animal capable of violence but not cooperation would be able to claim and defend a territory in which it lives solitarily, but I wouldn’t call that authority.

          3. @Marvin

            Reciprocity still requires trust. I must believe that you will not simply backstab me and steal my stuff. And yes, in theory cooperation is almost always better for both of us, but again, I must trust that you understand that too! What usually builds that trust? A shared culture, shared roots, a religion, a sense of honour, something in common between us. In other words, those sorts of superstructures. That’s exactly the point. Violence needs no prerequisites to work, though it’s terribly counterproductive in the long run. Cooperation is way more farsighted, but it requires the building of trust, which usually comes from our “social software”, so to speak. Obviously as human societies we build those because they’re amazingly useful. But sometimes they break down, and that’s when we regress to violence, which ends up being the least bad solution simply because all others have stopped working.

        3. The point here is that factional conflicts rely on well, factions, and these factions are held together by things other than brute force.

          1. Strictly true, but at some point this becomes a rather pointless dance.

            The point of the matter is much more straightforward.

            The actual argument advanced by Robert Heinlein, aided by his pithy little quote, is quite simply NOT of the form “violence can destroy all things and is therefore of a superior order to all things.” Which seems to be the straw version of the argument some here are trying to refute.

            The argument Heinlein advanced was, in essence:
            (1) Violence is not ineffectual; violence can have permanent, destructive consequences.
            (2) Therefore, there is no way to organize a society that will reliably survive without a capacity to defend against violence.
            (3) Therefore, for authority (a form of social organization) to exist, a capacity for violence must also exist.

            This capacity for violence is, Heinlein would argue, the metaphorical foundation. You can build what you like on top of it. And indeed the things you build on top of the foundation should be the entire point of the exercise. A bare slab of foundation in the middle of nowhere is no good to anybody! But… you need the foundation or the superstructure cannot exist, or will not endure.

            Ultimately this is no different from Weber’s observation that one of the key characteristics of the state is that the state exercises a monopoly on force. That doesn’t mean ‘force’ is all the state does, or the most important thing it does… but it has to BE something the state does.

            This is why Dr. Devereaux then identifies a separate argument, extending off of and calls it “Pressfield’s Corollary.” Because while Heinlein (and others) may say “violence is foundational to organized society and authority,” it takes Pressfield (and those like him) to add the additional notion that this morally elevates the act of violence over the acts of thinking, speaking, building, and so on.

            That was NOT the original Heinlein claim.

            That is all.

        4. With respect to Ancient Rome, for another example, Professor Devereaux points to Cicero as an example of someone who didn’t command authority through his martial abilities, but Catiline’s conspiracy was ultimately finished through the Roman state using violence against him, rather than from Cicero’s non-martial authority.

          1. Well, Cicero was the consul at that point, and the conspiracy was defeated in Rome by the executions that he commanded, using his auctoritas. The later battle where Catilina fell was only a final seal: by that time, the conspirators’ army had dwindled from ten to three thousand men. The actual battle had taken place in Rome, using political powers (understood in the widest sense).

        5. I’ve been meaning to ask you for some time, is Simon Jester a ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ reference?

          1. Yes, though one might deduce too much from my choice of nickname- and some have.

        6. “All the rules and customs in place within a society, or in interactions between societies, are potentially vulnerable to being thrown out the window by a group that uses force. The social rules do have ways to push back, but ultimately those methods of pushing back depend on the people who would do the pushing NOT DYING.”

          What I think your point glosses over is the fact that most revolutions fail. Also, most violent reactions by society (even in response to actual injustice) end up failing, and often that violence is used by those in power to justify a violent response. You don’t even have to look to ancient history as the 2010s have tons of examples of this. The Arab Spring, the Iraqi protests in the past few years, the *mostly peaceful* BLM protests, even the right wing violent actions in the US (like storming the Capital) have all failed to accomplish their goals. Granted, these can all be considered symptoms of a societies that are not doing well, but there are actions like this happening fairly regularly around the world and they pretty much all end up being footnotes to history.

          You can argue that this just shows that the Nation-State is just better at violence, but I think it’s also a simple truth that blind reactionary violence (i.e. a riot) is not a good tool for social change. So “Heinlein’s Premise” is more of an oversimplification of what a Nation-State (or even a City-State) actually does for people, which is also why people will try and defend the State for a very long time. If you want a successful revolution, or even a major change in a society, you don’t get it through mere violence, you get it by building a competing system that other people buy into and then using that to dismantle the existing system. This can be violent, or non-violent means, or a combination of both direct action and other means, but it is never (as far as I can think of) done solely through violence.

          1. Weber’s dictum about the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force is over-drawn – as any student of medieval or ancient history will tell you. First, there the issue of ‘legitimate to who?’, Second, the state often ignores or even promotes a certain amount of non-official use of force, provided that it is directed at the right targets (think of Jim Crow); thirdly, historically, the state has often relied not on direct control of force, but on enlisting private forces; fourthly, much use of force falls outside of state sanction, but is nevertheless accepted and socially endorsed (at least in some circles).

            So there’s this broad range of ways force and other forms of power intertwine in history, and diverse ways of regulating violence. Pretty much all societies agree that wanton violence is bad, and must be regulated. What constitutes an unacceptable use of force, and how to regulate it, have a wide range of answers.

      3. These sorts of people are basically only and exclusively the most volatile, impulsive, and ineffectual sorts of criminals – your Jack the Rippers, not your Alcibiades – and they do not succeed at very much unless they are born in a high position.

        Because such people tend to get dealt with, violently, to stop them causing trouble.

        Maybe you think this is a banal, uninteresting point, and maybe you’d be right. But the existence of pacifists or abolish-the-police movements suggests that some people still need reminding of it.

        1. I am a pacifist, but I do not reject that violence is sometimes a necessary evil. What I do emphasize is that violence is always a failure state, something has gone wrong when notions go to war; and I reject the notion that escalating things is a valuable tool.

          But nonetheless, I know the old adage well. Si vis pacem, pare bellum. If you want peace, prepare for war.

          I’m not a member of any abolish the police movements, though from the ones I’ve spoken to, they do not object to the theoretical existence of law enforcement that is authorized to use violence, they just don’t believe law enforcement as it currently exists can be reformed into something which is not a tool of white supremacy without tearing it down and starting fresh.

        2. Police abolitionist here. We know that violence exists and sometimes needs to be countered with violence. The trouble is that American police:

          (A) spend very little of their time and resources doing this, compared to what they spend on issuing citations, investigating vice/quality of life crimes, and other non-urgent non-violent problems that they are not well suited to.
          (B) Don’t do an especially good job preventing/responding to violence. (Survivors of sexual assault, for instance, generally don’t even bother reporting.)
          (C) Often escalate non-violent situations into violent ones, sometimes with lethal results.

          “Somebody needs to maintain order” does not imply “the people currently in charge of maintaining order are benevolent and trustworthy and should not be replaced.”

          1. My problem is that the “abolish the police” people I know don’t talk about what to replace the core function of police with, or even deny that it needs replacing. Can social workers do some of what we use US police to do? Definitely! Could we use fewer criminal laws? Yes! Should we reboot the police along Peelian lines? Probably!

            But some people are violent assholes, and I haven’t seen a response from the abolish crowd other than handwaving shrugs. “If we had a nicer society then we wouldn’t have criminals.”

          2. “But some people are violent assholes, and I haven’t seen a response from the abolish crowd other than handwaving shrugs.”

            1. Some of those violent assholes- really a lot of those violent assholes, based on events of the past year- are cops. If you consider violent assholes a serious problem, maybe start by dealing with the organized, heavily armed ones who are not currently experiencing consequences for their violent behavior. And then tear down the structures that enabled a gang of hundreds of thousands of armed, violent assholes to seize power over the country. Once that’s done, dealing with the odd serial killer will be peanuts by comparison.

            2. “Nicer society” sounds like a platitude, but hardly anybody commits crimes just because they enjoy it. Nearly all criminal activity has a social or economic contributing factor. Police don’t just fail to help with these factors- they *cause* these contributing factors by reinforcing the pre-exisiting hierarchies of race, class, and gender. They create social disruptions that make it harder for people to live without breaking the law. No matter what someone’s done- even if it’s a crime you consider quite serious- you can’t get them to stop by taking their assets, locking them in a cage for a bit, and then making them re-build their life from scratch with a black mark against their name. And this effect ripples out, across families and communities- everyone’s life made harder, their options narrowed, their circumstances made more desperate each time a member is removed.

            Compared to the rest of the developed world, America has a massive, expensive, heavily armed police force with vast legal powers. Compared to the rest of the developed world, America also has a lot of violent crime. Both of these things have been true for decades. If police are the solution to crime, when can we expect them to start working?

          3. Forgot to add: I think most abolitionists agree that the core function of policing *does* need to be done by somebody, but that core is *tiny* compared to what police currently do, and would get even tinier once we started spending resources on non-police solutions. In any case, it needs to be done by different people and in a fundamentally different way, and deployed only as an absolute last resort.

          4. It’s a good job no one abolished the Capitol Police.

            And if you are happy with the Canadian Police, or the British Police, then maybe you should be wanting to change the American Police, rather than abolish them.

          5. Some of those violent assholes- really a lot of those violent assholes, based on events of the past year- are cops. If you consider violent assholes a serious problem, maybe start by dealing with the organized, heavily armed ones who are not currently experiencing consequences for their violent behavior. And then tear down the structures that enabled a gang of hundreds of thousands of armed, violent assholes to seize power over the country. Once that’s done, dealing with the odd serial killer will be peanuts by comparison.

            In 2019, the number of people shot in the US was a bit over 14,000. That same year, just over 1,000 people were shot by the police. Even assuming that every police shooting was unjustifiable (which would of course be a foolish assumption, but even so), the police would still be outnumbered 13-to-1 by other shooters.

          6. “It’s a good job no one abolished the Capitol Police.”

            The Capitol Police have a budget of $460 million. They are generally regarded as an elite force. They recently failed catastrophically at their only job, on one of the few days when it is especially important for them not to fail, and had to be rescued by the National Guard. I’m not sure how this is an argument for the efficacy of police.

            “And if you are happy with the Canadian Police, or the British Police, then maybe you should be wanting to change the American Police, rather than abolish them.”

            I’m not, though. The best thing you can say about the British police is that they rarely shoot people, but they still do all the other harmful stuff I discussed above. Some notorious police tactics, like kettling, were developed in Britain and then adopted by American law enforcement. I’d argue that the British example proves why reforming the police to be less shooty isn’t a solution- a force armed primarily with batons can still maintain status quo hierarchies through violence.

            “In 2019, the number of people shot in the US was a bit over 14,000. That same year, just over 1,000 people were shot by the police.”

            Police make up roughly 1/500 of the population, and, per your numbers, commit 1/14 of all shootings. If a different demographic were responsible for such a wildly disproportionate fraction of all the gun violence in America, it would be universally regarded as a national crisis.

            P.S. I’m concerned that, in an effort to keep my comments brief, I’m coming across as curt or disrespectful here, which is not my intention at all. I think their are good arguments on both sides of this issue, and my goal is to persuade, not to score points in an internet fight. Unfortunately, it’s hard to give this subject the nuance it deserves in blog comment format. Maybe this discussion would fit better in a different forum?

          7. As a disclaimer, I should note that I am not, strictly, a police abolitionist. Though there are people who would look at my idea of a good list of police reforms and say “you bastard, you’ve abolished the police!” We could argue the semantics and word choice for an eternity…

            But that aside.

            A simple comparison of police shooting rates versus all shooting rates everywhere is not a good metric for judging whether the police, or the overall police/judicial/carceral system as a whole, are doing a good job.

            For example, many of the non-police shootings that take place in America are crimes of passion. The police as we know them may not be doing much to prevent such crimes. They cannot reliably interfere before the shooting takes place. And any deterrent value the state gets out of the police that might hypothetically reduce crimes of passion, could probably also be had by a far smaller, far less militarized body of law enforcement agents with a much narrower writ of authority and much more accountability.

            Many more of the non-police shootings in America are committed by gangs, who tend to fight with rival gangs and also to semi-randomly kill bystanders. We might say “ah, and having the police shoot some of the gang members reduces the number of other people the gangs kill.” But this is debatable, and becomes all the more debatable when we view the police as part of a larger infrastructure and an attitude towards ‘policing’ the areas the gangs live in. Does sending in heavily armed agents of the state to aggressively patrol these areas like an occupying army, arresting anyone they deem ‘suspicious’ and throwing them in jail really act to reduce crime, minimize gang activity, and keep the citizenry safe?

            In other words, is it worth it?

            The question a police abolitionist is asking- and this is quite a subversive question but not one that can be answered casually- boils down to:

            “Is the number of innocent deaths at police hands justified by the number of innocent deaths actually prevented by policing as we know it? Is the amount of beating, humiliation, property damage, and degradation inflicted by the police upon the community justified by the prevention of some worse evil? Is the nearly invincible, unaccountable power of the police in modern American cities justified by some actual disaster that would befall if they were punished for their sins?”

            Asking “but what if we abolished the police” or saying “I don’t think abolishing the police would be that bad” is a very provocative way to frame this discussion. The choice of words seems to get a lot of people very riled up.

            But the question “is it all worth it” remains very important.

            No civilization can persist if it allows itself to become encrusted with institutions that have ceased to serve a function that justifies the cost of their maintenance.

          8. We are drifting into political argument, but if you are going to have cigarette taxes, someone needs to stop people from selling untaxed cigarettes. It’s unfortunate that Eric Garner died, but he didn’t have a bank account for the Department of Finance to seize, it seems unlikely that a social worker would have convinced him that selling untaxed cigarettes was socially harmful and he should give it up, etc. So who other than the police is going to enforce the multitude of benevolent laws that democratic (and in this case Democratic) societies establish?

          9. Does sending in heavily armed agents of the state to aggressively patrol these areas like an occupying army, arresting anyone they deem ‘suspicious’ and throwing them in jail really act to reduce crime, minimize gang activity, and keep the citizenry safe?

            Compared to a comparatively demilitarised police force, like those in most other first-world countries? Probably not.

            Compared to no police at all? Absolutely. As our host points out in another comment, when the government is unable/unwilling to enforce order, violence almost always increases, rather than decreases.

          10. My understanding is that for the most part ‘abolish the police’ and ‘defund the police’ are incredibly poorly phrased ways of saying, demilitarise the police, refocus on a police by consent philosophy according to which the police are members and representatives of the community they police (there’s an echo here of the soldier / warrior distinction), and spend money saved on proper social workers and other community support so that armed police aren’t the only available response for situations for which they are not properly trained or equipped.
            But if you have to explain that a slogan doesn’t mean what it apparently means, or if you have to explain that the slogan is a provocative overstatement, then it is an awful slogan.

          11. I’m sure BLM would like to replace the police themselves, we all saw where that led to with CHAZ. There seems to be a proportion of ‘abolish the police’ or ANTIFA who are just as violent as the police they want to get rid of.

            The real issue is reform, investing in training and making sure the police aren’t just thugs. It probably has to do with incompetence on both the state and federal levels.

            For example: Mayors in several cities who told police to stand down and stripped them of their non-lethal anti crowd weapons. Leaving small local businesses to be burnt down and random murder to run rampant.

    3. Others have discussed your point on Heinlein principle. I would like to engage tge second part of your argument: “Not running away makes us human.” First of all, I would like to note that animals don’t necessarily run away when threatened. They may make a stand for their young, or to defend their kill. And even when running away, they show great altruism. The first bird that alerts the others when it sees the predator takes a huge risk. A grouse that fakes being hurt and lures the predator away from her young takes even a larger risk. Monkeys and apes fight as collectives. Bravery is not any more human than running away. What is human is the subordination of instinct to the rational mind, but that is not an especially military thing, but part of all higher endeavours. In fact, considering that a large part of Western military training is about conditioning reflexive behaviour, you might make a good argument that a well-trained soldier functioning according to their training under fire is not much above a well-trained dog.

      Secondly, running away is not cowardice as such. It is that only, when your style of fighting requires you to stay under fire. I, for one, have received some training for irregular warfare: fighting against an overwhelming enemy with ambushes, road-side explosives and other sneaky ways. In such warfare, you don’t stay. The ideal firefight is one that doesn’t involve shooting at all, just explosives killing enemies. The second best is one where you are away after the first 10 seconds. The bravery is somewhere else than bravely receiving enemy fire. And in fact, the training on these topics actually embraces a completely different ideal: the squad or platoon leader should be a cunning amoral trickster, always a step ahead of the enemy. A man who “drinks the dew and subsists on spider webs.” Not Thor but Br’er Rabbit.

      1. This is all very interesting except for the part where I never said not running away makes us human. I meant that’s the “cult of the badass” view. In general I think it’s fair to say that as humans we have an ability to override our instinctual, hardwired responses with more appropriate, if less intuitive, ones, but that’s not necessarily “stay vs. run away”.

        Also, irregular warfare effectively falls into what Brett called the “first system” of war. The one closest to our state of nature, in a sense (and so, probably to what we’re best hardwired to do!). I cited the second system explicitly because I think this mindset was forged throughout it, and it’s not a coincidence that it harkens so much back to Sparta specifically.

      2. “The first bird that alerts the others when it sees the predator takes a huge risk. A grouse that fakes being hurt and lures the predator away from her young takes even a larger risk.”

        The grouse is protecting her children, her genetic legacy; I question calling it altruism. And she can fly; it’s not that huge a risk.

        And the bird issuing an alarm signal may not be taking a risk at all; it’s an active research field. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alarm_signal#Selective_advantage

    4. This sounds right. It’s not that violence is the only source of authority, it’s that ultimately, you have to have access to violence as a backstop, or someone will take it all away using naked force no matter how much non-violent authority you can bring to bear.

      1. Agreed. The only valuable insight from stuff like the Dictum is that any society that wishes to survive for length of time needs to be answer the question ‘how will you resist and overcome collective violence directed at this society?’. But elevating the answer to that question to the supreme worth is an error. A very old error – as Bertrand Russell pointed out, Plato in his ‘Republic’ develops a ‘perfect state’ (modelled quite heavily on dream-Sparta) the main meaningful output of which is the ability to resist internal and external aggression. No enrichment of citizens, creation of art, advancement of science, just stability and military strength. That doubtless made sense to a citizen of Athens looking back at years of civil strife and external war, but a modern Westerner should be able to see a bigger picture.

        1. Sure, it’s just a bare minimum for survival. Like arranging for a diet of bread and water may keep you alive but it’s not enough to make for a fulfilling life.

        2. A very old error – as Bertrand Russell pointed out, Plato in his ‘Republic’ develops a ‘perfect state’ (modelled quite heavily on dream-Sparta) the main meaningful output of which is the ability to resist internal and external aggression. No enrichment of citizens, creation of art, advancement of science, just stability and military strength.

          There would have been plenty of philosophy, mathematics, and music.

      2. Nah, the criticism is that the naked force itself will be fairly negliglible unless backed up by other things. (the inds of cohesive bonds that makes you able to engage in collective, rather than individual, violence)

      3. “It’s not that violence is the only source of authority, it’s that ultimately, you have to have access to violence as a backstop, or someone will take it all away using naked force no matter how much non-violent authority you can bring to bear.”

        I don’t think that’s completely accurate though. Violent individuals are simply not a real threat to the State even if they have a Manifesto(TM) and a few people they’ve duped into following them. The real threat to a State is another Nation-State, or a competitive proto-State with either fewer principles (like the Mafia) or with more legitimacy (like the American Revolution). And even then the size of the budget for both the Police and the Military is way bigger than needed to combat these potential threats.

        If you want a stable society, your best bet is to take care of the people in it, be a good neighbor to other countries, and work hard to help people in the rest of the world achieve a decent standard of living so that violent extremists can’t gain a foothold. Judging by the size of the U.S. military and police budgets, there’s something more going on than just using violence as a backstop.

    5. It’s possible to view all forms of power within a society as ultimately being rooted in violence. It’s equally possible to view all human actions as ultimately being rooted in individual self-interest. I don’t think either of these are a particularly accurate or helpful way of looking at the world, especially given how you have to contort certain people’s actions when they don’t obviously fit the selfish algorithm you assume all humans must follow.

      Yes, you can say everyone who follows tradition does so because they’re afraid of retribution. Yes, you can say everyone who helps others does so because they expect renown. So what? What does this tell us about humanity or the world? What conclusions can we draw? What beliefs are supported or suppressed by framing civilization this way? What’s the point?
      Because there must be a point. “All power is rooted in violence” isn’t a mere statement of fact; it’s a statement of how facts should be described.

      1. I think the consequence is just, don’t assume that any amount of social customs and values are, on their own, protection against abuse. It’s great when they work and when they’re widely accepted. But if you start seeing them abandoned – if, say, 50% or 60% of your society genuinely stops believing or caring about them – then don’t expect that shouting about those now meaningless words will have a magical protective effect. Social constructs are real only as long as they’re believed real. They won’t protect you from angry mobs.

        The takeaway from all of this isn’t “violence is the only power worth pursuing”. Just, it’s easy to forget in a civilised society that violence is even a thing, and relegate it to a corner of your mind. But it’s always a risk, and the bottom line of any conflict that isn’t solved before by other means. I suppose my point isn’t “violence underlies all other forms of power, so kill your enemies”, but “violence underlies all other forms of power, so be more appreciative of how useful it is to be able to negotiate and reach compromises based on soft power instead! Because you’re not untouchable, and if you are arrogant or oblivious for long enough your risk finding yourself with your head on the chopping block”.

        1. [D]on’t assume that any amount of social customs and values are, on their own, protection against abuse. It’s great when they work and when they’re widely accepted. But if you start seeing them abandoned – if, say, 50% or 60% of your society genuinely stops believing or caring about them – then don’t expect that shouting about those now meaningless words will have a magical protective effect. Social constructs are real only as long as they’re believed real. They won’t protect you from angry mobs.

          That doesn’t sound like “All power is based in violence.” That sounds like “All power is based in belief,” which is a thesis I think is more accurate.

          1. It’s more like, all soft power is based on beliefs, but even when beliefs win the battle against other beliefs, they can be overwhelmed by violence. Even a relative minority in a society can impose their own values if they simply wield enough military power.

          2. That’s still not “All power is rooted in violence”. You might as well say that all fire is rooted in water, because enough water can overwhelm any fire.

        2. “But if you start seeing them abandoned – if, say, 50% or 60% of your society genuinely stops believing or caring about them – then don’t expect that shouting about those now meaningless words will have a magical protective effect. Social constructs are real only as long as they’re believed real. They won’t protect you from angry mobs.”

          This is pretty cynical, but also it doesn’t seem to reflect reality. We can look at societies with very small to non-existent state power, and they don’t have high levels of mindless violence. What they do tend to have is a network of kinship and tribal alliances that work together to sort out disputes and keep violent feuds from escalating. And this isn’t about “meaningless words”, but about the reality that people who live in the same space know each other’s business and use their own forms of social capital to try and keep the peace. The words matter, but they are always backed up by the need to “save face” or to be seen as a “decent person” by others in your community.

          If you have a case where even 20-30% of the people are engaging in violence (let alone the 50-60% you listed), then there’s something more deeply wrong that’s causing this and is not being addressed. It could be a major resource problem (i.e. famine, drought, etc.) coupled with an inability to migrate. It could be some kind of ethnic or religious violence that has gotten out of hand, it could be years of state sanctioned repression that has finally provoked a response. But even in the worst cases we can think of (like the French Revolution or more recently Syria), it’s not because the State failed to maintain a monopoly on violence, it’s because the State is unable or unwilling to deal with the underlying problems to the point where the people being affected feel that violence is the only response they have left.

          1. I didn’t mention state power, and I’m not saying the monopoly of violence is all you can do to counter it. What I mean is that social structures within which conflicts can be solved peacefully are built on a certain set of shared values. If those shared values change for whatever reason, then the social structures risk crumbling, and we fall onto the mere physical layer of conflict, namely, violence.

            That’s the sense in which violence underlies power. Not that all power is maintained through the (more or less thinly veiled) threat of violence, but that if groups with nothing in common and clashing needs and wants meet, violence is the only language they can speak to each other. Sometimes one group splits in two through some progressive value divergence process, and that is when civil strife occurs.

            Basically, for example, you can invoke “human rights” only if you’re talking with people who share your commitment or belief in human rights. If you were negotiating, say, with a magically resurrected army of Spartans, invoking human rights would have no effect, because they just wouldn’t care.

      2. “you can say everyone who follows tradition does so because they’re afraid of retribution.”

        That would be outright false.

        Nonetheless it’s true that a viable society needs a way of coping with violence, which in the world we live in means a way of mustering violence in its defense.

        1. That would be outright false.

          It’s technically unfalsifiable. But yes, it’s wrong and that’s my point.

          Nonetheless it’s true that a viable society needs a way of coping with violence, which in the world we live in means a way of mustering violence in its defense.

          1. “Some institutions need to use violence to keep society as a whole safe” isn’t related to “All power is based in violence”.
          2. [citation needed] To pick an obvious example, violent policing is utterly ineffective at reducing or preventing violent crime, while improving economic conditions of would-be criminals actually has a result.

    6. I’d say the problem with Heinleins Premise (perhaps it should be called Rasczak Premise, as he is the character who actually says it), is that it confuses power and authority. Someone who can hurt you for not doing as they wish has power over you. But they only have authority over you if you ought to obey them, whether they have power or not.

      Power and authority are not the same thing at all, as many a dissident or martyr could tell you. Or anyone who has been mugged.

      1. Sure, if you interpret “authority” as this sort of mystical, abstract concept of rightful command. I guess I tend to see everything on a more material plane and for me it’s all either choices or compulsion. Deciding that someone who’s not threatening me is authoritative enough for me to do what they say anyway I consider also a free personal choice.

        1. Beliefs matter, because they affect behavior. If people think that obeying the king is the right thing to do, that’s a big deal, no matter how airy-fairy his authority might look to an outsider.

          1. But that’s exactly the point – beliefs matter but they can change. And when they do, violence is still there. So as long as the people think obeying the king is right everything is fine, but as soon as enough people just stop believing that – and the process can snowball – then the king is dragged out and beheaded. The king can’t just choose to stop believing in beheading and save his life, though. THAT is what makes violence the bottom line.

          2. When authority fails, you get an era of violence. But then someone will build new authority. I wouldn’t call any particular element of the cycle the “bottom line”.

          3. I call it “the bottom line” in the sense that it’s the one thing that is a constant that doesn’t depend on the details specific historical circumstances. What a human being thinks is a function of culture. That a human stops thinking altogether if bashed or stabbed or exploded is a fact of human biology. I’m saying violence is more fundamental in the sense that it’s a return to a level lower than the one at which humans usually play their dominance games. The same way in which it takes a lot of effort and different studies to thoroughly refute the information contained in a book, while it’s a lot easier to just burn it.

        2. Concerning how we should interpret authority, I’d note that the situation is somewhat murky;

          https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/authority/#LegAutDeFacAutPolPow

          There seems to be a lot of technical debate about this ( Though it’s possible that the philosophical debates about this are irrelevant, perhaps because we should be using this term in a completely different way).

          But the view you’ve outlined seems very problematic; where does rightful/legitimate authority fit in? Clearly, legitimate authority exists.

          To take a slightly navel-gazing example, a historian has legitimate epistemic authority on matters of historical fact; the fact that a historian told you that premodern warfare had a relatively low casualty rate gives you an epistemically valid reason to believe that premodern warfare had a relatively low casualty rate.

          Similarly, there are conceptions of what legitimate authority on practical matters consists of outlined in that article, and while there are cynical views about it sketched there, it hardly seems to be the consensus.

          1. “Clearly, legitimate authority exists.”

            That is not clear in the slightest to me. What exists is the convenience in cooperation, and therefore the fact that it may be more advantageous to set aside some of one’s own personal goals for the sake of delegating authority to someone else who will coordinate a large amount of people in a concerted effort.

            I’m thinking here about political authority. When it comes to anything involving the investigation of realities that exist independently of our selves, there is a reference (e.g the laws of nature, or what actually happened), but again I’d be very wary of saying that it’s so easy to attribute to someone “epistemic authority”. I believe in a historian’s epistemic authority because of a complex combination of facts about the way our society is organised that leads me to believe that someone who regularly says completely unbelievable bullshit about the past would not generally be acknowledged as a historian. This depends on the specific details of my society, though. If I lived in Nazi Germany and a professor of history at a prestigious university said that his studies show the superiority of the Aryan race throughout the ages, I would doubt that, and I’d be right. The credibility of an expert is only as good as the system that selects and checks that expert.

            Again, stating this view doesn’t mean that I think it’s smarter to just ignore every authority and live on your own. Of course it’s not. I’m just saying I don’t think any authority is intrinsically more or less legitimate. It’s just that some authority works because for one reason or another a majority agrees it should.

          2. This is a reply to higgsbosoff’s comment, which I quote here;

            “Clearly, legitimate authority exists.”

            That is not clear in the slightest to me. What exists is the convenience in cooperation, and therefore the fact that it may be more advantageous to set aside some of one’s own personal goals for the sake of delegating authority to someone else who will coordinate a large amount of people in a concerted effort.

            I’m thinking here about political authority. When it comes to anything involving the investigation of realities that exist independently of our selves, there is a reference (e.g the laws of nature, or what actually happened), but again I’d be very wary of saying that it’s so easy to attribute to someone “epistemic authority”. I believe in a historian’s epistemic authority because of a complex combination of facts about the way our society is organised that leads me to believe that someone who regularly says completely unbelievable bullshit about the past would not generally be acknowledged as a historian. This depends on the specific details of my society, though. If I lived in Nazi Germany and a professor of history at a prestigious university said that his studies show the superiority of the Aryan race throughout the ages, I would doubt that, and I’d be right. The credibility of an expert is only as good as the system that selects and checks that expert.

            Again, stating this view doesn’t mean that I think it’s smarter to just ignore every authority and live on your own. Of course it’s not. I’m just saying I don’t think any authority is intrinsically more or less legitimate. It’s just that some authority works because for one reason or another a majority agrees it should.
            ———————————————————————————————————————————————
            “That is not clear in the slightest to me. What exists is the convenience in cooperation, and therefore the fact that it may be more advantageous to set aside some of one’s own personal goals for the sake of delegating authority to someone else who will coordinate a large amount of people in a concerted effort.”

            This is something of an extreme view. Notice that in the article I linked, and the related articles, there isn’t generally a debate about whether there CAN be legitimate authority, or that there is such a thing as legitimacy; the closest we get is anarchism in the context of political legitimacy, and there virtually all other views are set up as responses to the anarchist challenge.

            ” I’m thinking here about political authority. When it comes to anything involving the investigation of realities that exist independently of our selves, there is a reference (e.g the laws of nature, or what actually happened), but again I’d be very wary of saying that it’s so easy to attribute to someone “epistemic authority”. ”

            But that’s just it, the consensus view suggests that moral propositions (and thus presumably normative moral-political claims) are objective.
            https://old.reddit.com/r/AskPhilosophyFAQ/comments/4i2vec/are_there_good_arguments_for_objective_morality/

            “I believe in a historian’s epistemic authority because of a complex combination of facts about the way our society is organised that leads me to believe that someone who regularly says completely unbelievable bullshit about the past would not generally be acknowledged as a historian. This depends on the specific details of my society, though. If I lived in Nazi Germany and a professor of history at a prestigious university said that his studies show the superiority of the Aryan race throughout the ages, I would doubt that, and I’d be right. The credibility of an expert is only as good as the system that selects and checks that expert.”

            I see no reason why this argument cannot be deployed in the case of political philosophers. And regarding your example of Nazi Germany; you’d be completely right to doubt those claims, and those claims would indeed be false, but it’s not clear that you’d have a reliable justification available to you in that situation (among other reasons, because you’d be in a very very poor epistemic environment). To be clear, you be right if you thought those claims were bunk, but you just might not have evidence for that, because that kind of evidence would be actively suppressed.

            “Again, stating this view doesn’t mean that I think it’s smarter to just ignore every authority and live on your own. Of course it’s not. I’m just saying I don’t think any authority is intrinsically more or less legitimate. It’s just that some authority works because for one reason or another a majority agrees it should.”

            Saying every authority is equally legitimate is sort of self defeating. To be an authority on x suggests, in part, that your judgements/commands about x take precedence over a non-authority’s judgements on x, all else being equal. Put another way, when everyone’s an authority, no one is. And a majority agreeing that an authority works really isn’t relevant. Perhaps it’s a reason to believe that someone is a legitimate authority on a given topic, but you can easily have some forms of authority that are independent of the majority’s opinions.

            Even if you mean political authority, there are sensible and well-justified views on which legitimate authority need not have any relation to majority opinion.

            https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/authority/#InsAboLegPolAut

        3. Not that mystical. If most people think you should obey the King, (or whoever) most people think you should obey the King, and that should be an empirically demonstrable fact you really should pay attention to. Especially if you are plotting a coup.

      2. I’d say the problem with Heinleins Premise (perhaps it should be called Rasczak Premise, as he is the character who actually says it), is that it confuses power and authority.

        Quibble: Lt. Col. Jean V. Dubois (Ret.) in the novel, a high school teacher. You are thinking of the movie character, I believe.

        (For those not familiar with it, the movie is not a very faithful adaptation of the book at all. I’ll say no more, given OGH’s desire to not get into that area.)

        1. I preferred the movie to the book, which probably explains my mistake. It still seems strange to assume that Heinlein must have believed something he once had one character say.

    7. I think where most people go wrong is they think of highest as also best. Most of the time it is – if I have you a list of the top 10 cars of all time you would expect me to justify my number 1 with reasons it is the best (and an argument from someone who has a different value in cars). However that isn’t always the case. The highest source of energy for your body is alcohol – not because it is good by any definition, but because it is a poison that your body can turn into energy, thus using it as energy is a priority despite not being an ideal source of energy. (If someone who claims to know more about biology than me says I’m wrong – they probably do know more than me: I hope you will accept my point anyway)

      Violence isn’t highest because when it comes into play everything else becomes servant to it. That doesn’t mean we should attempt to use it more often. Only that we need to understand that when it comes into play it trumps everything else.

      Fortunately violence never is in play for a significant number of people at once (even at the high of the largest battles most people were not fighting – they were things like back home growing food, or even neutrals elsewhere who didn’t even know of the battle. This leaves plenty of opportunity for other forms leadership.

      1. Yeah, I’d even say “highest” is a very poor choice of words. “Basic”, “foundational”, even “ultimate” would be better. But not “highest” or “best” or “supreme”. I think the question and answer of how to deal with physical violence underlies all the higher works of civilization, to the point where it’s usually not even visible, and all we can see are the things like honor and respect and culture and dignity. But problems arise when societies get to the point where they start taking the lack of violence for granted, and forget to do things like, say, put sufficient police guards around large political rallies at their capitol. And I think that’s what Heinlein was getting at.

        I suspect very few people visit the cathedral at Chartres to look at the foundation. Some of us look at the crypts, sure, and maybe there are some architects and engineers who can actually appreciate the parts that lie buried beneath the surface. But most of us just look at what got built on top.

  11. In the context of historical woman warriors I’m impressed to see Deborah mentioned, but wouldn’t Jael (who *actually* pegs [pun not intended] Sisera) be a better example than Deborah (who doesn’t participate in battle)?

  12. A question. You cite religious authority as a form of authority without violence and oaths as well, but isn’t the moral reason predicated on god punishing you? Christian morality is based with the greatest monopoly on violence being god, with all other rules existing to curtail mortal violence.

    Also I thought that Heinline thought that since violence was reprisal in any way with physical violence only being the most basic i.e. someone who broke a social more such as interrupting someone with authoritas would face Ostracism and ridicule.

    So I think there’s a bit more to Heinlein’s view of society than boiling it down to just brute violence since he seems to consider soft power as you described simply a more sophisticated form than brute strength.

    1. The Christian counter to your point about God being all-powerful, and therefore the greatest user of violence would be to note that the Christian God is also the epitome of good and love. He allows us to live in accordance with laws of nature that make our life predictable and allow us to have (or, depending on theologist, feel) free will. And his love is actually demonstrated in the fact that Christ became man and suffered for us: God allowed Himself to become an innocent victim of violence instead of making us comply by force. This love is, then, reprocicated by the Christian: you do good works out of your love of God and neighbour, not out of fear.

      1. “Yes, in principle if you live a sinful life you are then condemned to an eternity of suffering, but really, don’t feel pressured by that! You must do good out of love!”

        I don’t think anyone buys that. Also because, let’s face it, in practice Hell was always bandied about when it came to getting people to understand why sin bad. High minded theologians might repeat that sort of thing over and over, but if you look at it from a more grounded perspective, it awfully sounds like they were engaging in doublethink, justifying on one hand supernaturally backed scare tactics to get the peasantry to buy in their value system, while at the same time rationalising why the value system didn’t ACTUALLY demand such strict adherence from them and their peers. Not saying this was a conscious or deliberate process, but that’s the outcome you get.

        1. In practice, the prospect of going to prison is always bandied about when it comes to getting people to obey the law, but it doesn’t follow that the state gets its authority from its ability to send people to prison, nor that anyone who appeals to any other considerations in justifying state authority is engaged in doublethink.

          1. Exactly. At this point I think we’ve sort of started cycling back to the point the article makes about Arendt’s distinction between violence and power. (Though I think there might be some issues about about the degree to which the persuasion needed for power is strictly rational.)

            https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/arendt/#ActPowSpaApp

            ” This capacity to act in concert for a public-political purpose is what Arendt calls power. Power needs to be distinguished from strength, force, and violence (CR, 143–55). Unlike strength, it is not the property of an individual, but of a plurality of actors joining together for some common political purpose. Unlike force, it is not a natural phenomenon but a human creation, the outcome of collective engagement. And unlike violence, it is based not on coercion but on consent and rational persuasion.

            For Arendt, power is a sui generis phenomenon, since it is a product of action and rests entirely on persuasion. It is a product of action because it arises out of the concerted activities of a plurality of agents, and it rests on persuasion because it consists in the ability to secure the consent of others through unconstrained discussion and debate. “

        2. A complex ideology that has transmitted itself across a lot of social settings, like Christianity, has a lot of moving parts and each part can be more or less prominent in different social settings. Hell cycles in and out of prominence in different social settings and even in different theologians. (There is really not a lot about it in the New Testament, and what there is is either explicitly fictional or heavily symbolic. There are books written on this and it is too messy to summarise.)
          Compare: you shouldn’t commit murder because killing people is inherently wrong, and you shouldn’t commit murder because the state will use force to punish you. Both of those are true, but the former doesn’t boil down to the latter. So, even in theologies that have a role for Hell, doesn’t mean that all justifications for moral action boil down to don’t go to Hell.

          1. I’m not saying that all justifications for it boil down to Hell (or prison). But that’s still the bottom line. You can either agree, and not do evil because you know it to be evil; or not agree, and STILL not do it because otherwise you’ll get punished. And in the end that’s the difference between you and the one who actually has the power. That to me seems exactly the essence of “Heinlein’s premise”: in the end, the foundation of power, even rightful power, is its ability to exert violence. “Justice without force is powerless; force without justice is tyrannical”.

        3. Well there are plenty of forms of Christianity that either don’t have hell (including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) or interpret it as “the state of being separated from God” which bad because God is awesome, not because of fire and getting stabbed by demons and whatnot.

    2. A question. You cite religious authority as a form of authority without violence and oaths as well, but isn’t the moral reason predicated on god punishing you? Christian morality is based with the greatest monopoly on violence being god, with all other rules existing to curtail mortal violence.

      Only if you accept a particularly crude and unsophisticated form of divine command theory, which I think even most actual divine command theorists would reject. And of course, many (probably most, but I haven’t counted) Christian thinkers were natural law theorists rather than divine command theorists.

      1. As I understand it, the first Christian divine command theorist is William of Ockham, in the late medieval or early Renaissance period. But for reasons of population growth and missionary and colonial expansion, there are a lot more Christian thinkers after the late middle ages than before.

        1. Though even after Ockham popularised the concept, not every Christian thinker was a divine command theorist, and even most divine command theorists would deny that morality is “based on the greatest monopoly of violence being God”.

    3. Also I thought that Heinline thought that since violence was reprisal in any way with physical violence only being the most basic i.e. someone who broke a social more such as interrupting someone with authoritas would face Ostracism and ridicule.

      So I think there’s a bit more to Heinlein’s view of society than boiling it down to just brute violence since he seems to consider soft power as you described simply a more sophisticated form than brute strength.

      As Dr. Devereaux points out, “Heinlein’s Premise” is not actually an accurate summary of the full beliefs of Robert Heinlein. It is simply a pithy saying Heinlein happens to have written.

      It’s a component of Heinlein’s worldview, but far from the only one. The idea behind the quote is something like:

      “Be aware that violence can destroy things irreversibly, including you. In order to achieve anything, you must be able to survive, which may require you to make use of violence, or for others to act violently on your behalf.”

      It’s best viewed as a refutation of what Heinlein saw (believed he saw?) in 1950s intellectuals and the prototypical ‘hippies’ of the late ’50s and early ’60s. He saw antiwar protestors and antinuclear protestors and this was his reaction against them.

      What Heinlein actually believed as a whole was far more complicated than this. As Dr. Deveraux says, you could literally write a book on it; you could probably write a whole shelf full of books on it. He certainly wasn’t a simpleminded fan of “might makes right.”

      1. But to me the formulation “violence is the supreme authority from which all other authority is derived” does not read as “might makes right”. It reads more exactly as encapsulating the statement you made above: you can have all the “right” that you want, if you don’t have the “might” to back it up, someone will eventually replace you. A gun doesn’t confer moral superiority to anyone, but pointing that out won’t make you bulletproof.

        1. Ditto.

          Heinlein said so many other things that are at odds with, or that complicate, the idea expressed in that particular dictum.

    4. “isn’t the moral reason predicated on god punishing you”

      No.

      Or rather, sometimes yes, but thinkers from several different religions (and philosophies) have come up with the Golden Rule, stated as a self-evident truth, unlinked to divine enforcement. Simple exhortation and appeal to alleged common moral sense is also a thing.

    5. “You cite religious authority as a form of authority without violence and oaths as well, but isn’t the moral reason predicated on god punishing you?”

      I think this is a fundamental misreading of the role of religion in society (especially in societies with a weak State). People may not believe in God, or at least they may not believe that God cares enough about their particular community to bother smiting them, but they still have to listen to religious leaders because those leaders have the ability to shape the way the community sees them. What this reading of Heinlein seems to be missing is the fact that humans of social creatures, and social stigma is as important, if not more important than physical violence.

      A religious leader may not be able to beat or kill someone, but they could make others see them as immoral or illegitimate, they could refuse to perform religious ceremonies on their behalf (and therefore lower their standing in the community) they could even excommunicate them completely from the religious community which would make them worse than a “godless heathen”. Granted, if they took things too far, the ruler may do like Henry VIII did, but it is still a pretty powerful (and non-violent) position.

      1. Is the ability to ostracise someone from society classified as violence? It can certainly have some incredibly negative effects on quality of life, survival, and ability to reproduce. Potentially worse effects than moderate violence (depending on the society, ostracisation can be more deadly than a whole host of physical wounds).

        This isn’t a refutation of your point, more a follow-on thought.

  13. “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.”

    I think a coherent argument could be made that the art of trade is far more universal, and far more human. Trade involves empathy, which happens to be one of the few features that distinguish homo sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom. Trade quite often involves considerable courage in opening contacts with potential (treacherous) enemies, and also involves quite fine motivation analysis in so doing. Trade involves taking risks in crossing territories between one’s home and one’s trading partners. Trade involves making commitments many moons in advance to supply goods.

    And all of this is as true of Gulf of Papua traders in the 18th C., as it is of Swedish vikings trading into what is now Russia and down into the Byzantine empire, of Australian Aboriginals trading from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Uluru, of Phoenicians trading for tin in the Cornwall-Devon region, of Chinese traders in the Dutch East Indies, of Marco Polo and his friends joining a Silk Road trade caravan …

    The “universal warrior” is required to lose part of his essential humanity, his empathy, so the idea that the “universal warrior” is somehow superior to all other humans, is self-contradictory ergo absurd. If anything, the “universal warrior” is an emotional cripple without the psychological capacity to communicate, and is thus to be pitied rather than emulated.

    1. As a corollary to that, there was that thought I was about to say before you got here first, I wonder if we can make a claim there is such a thing as an “universal scientist”. Mostly in the sense of a willingness to gather your date by empirical observations and draw your conclusion from it, then preferably offer it up for testing. As opposed to both pure mental speculation and thought experiments on one side, and appeal to authority and tradition on the other. This makes for a pattern that should be recognizable among certain Greek thinkers, medieval monks, Islamic scholars, and presumably a bunch of other folks like Chinese courtiers and others that I do not know enough of to come up with any broad examples.

      1. The pursuit of knowledge is more universal than warcraft, but there are plenty of differences among those who have pursued it over the millennia—not the least of which being what “knowledge” even is. If we were to find a meaningfully universal scientist, we’d need to do so by defining away anyone who didn’t fit our mold of a scientist.

        1. Like, I excluded the likes of folks who would rather speculate from first principles what the natural law says on this or just quote Aristotle at you instead of going outside and checking what happens when you drop a ball from a high tower. Or for that matter, quote Confucius at you, although the only example I can think of involves economics instead of physics (example being that guy who said a moneylending reform won’t ever work because the Master said nothing on it).

          1. Yes, but that’s rather the point. There are many people throughout history who would identify themselves as scholars, as people of learning, as seekers after truth, and so on. As you narrow your definition of a ‘scientist’ to exclude more and more of these people, you lose universality.

            At some point, the “universal scientist” you’re looking for becomes a rather specialized, narrow product of the specific cultures and circumstances that produce “scientists” who think and act the way you’re looking for.

      2. I think people who do history of science tend to be skeptical that there is a universal scientific method. As I understand it, there are two big quesitons in the history of science: namely, did natural philosophers in Latin Europe in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries start doing something differently – as they themselves believed at the time – that we can now call a scientific revolution? and if so, why did they start doing it differently? (A third question, which is, to what extent can the success of Latin European natural philosophy be put down to it more accurately reflecting reality? is also asked but is outside the methodology of history strictly speaking.)

        The word ‘science’ does not become specialised to its current meaning in English until the nineteenth century when Bishop Whewell coined the word ‘scientist’. In particular, the idea that gathering data by systematic empirical observation was an important part of the process seems to be culturally contingent. Kekule claimed he thought of the structure of benzene after he had a dream of a snake eating its tail; but nobody would say that dreaming about snakes was an attribute of the universal scientist. Likewise, Archimedes may have come to his insight about displacement of fluids by solid bodies by empirical observation, but when Archimedes writes it up he presents it as pure mental speculation and thought experiment: he didn’t think empirical observation was a necessary part of the formal process of gathering the kind of (mathematical) knowledge he was trying to gather.

        1. Not very historical, but I like to think that the revolution in thought came when the natural philosophers realized Aristotle didn’t know about potatoes. How can one be an authority when something so awesome is undreamt of in his philosophy?

    2. Trade involves empathy, which happens to be one of the few features that distinguish homo sapiens from the rest of the animal kingdom.

      I’d be interested in what definition of “empathy” you used to make this assertion. Many special of social animals act in ways we would call empathetic if humans did them; to pick a pretty straightforward example, vampire bats who fed well on a given night will often share the blood they drank with members of the flock who didn’t. Sure, you can ascribe selfish motivations to it—something about expecting reciprocation in the future, probably—but the same is true of most empathetic actions humans take. There are literally people who make that kind of argument!
      The only way I can see this argument holding up to a more detailed observation of the natural world is if we define “empathy” in terms of motivation—the reasons why we share food, distinguishing empathy from mere instinct. But at that point the hypothesis is unfalsifiable.

      Anyways, if I had to pick a trait that distinguishes humanity from the animals…I wouldn’t, because we’re only different from other animals by degree rather than kind. If I actually had to, I’d pick culture—the ability to discover incredibly complicated things and pass those discoveries on to other humans. Some of the more intelligent social animals have a vague sort of culture, but out of all the things humans do better than other animals, humans are the most better at culture.

    3. I am told that among the primates and social carnivores there is a behaviour pattern in which a group of individuals from Pack A will infiltrate the territory of Pack B, find a luckless individual or smaller group, and kill them. Do that often enough, and the territory of Pack A will expand at the expense of that of Pack B.

      Human hunter-gatherers are primates AND social carnivores, so you might expect them to behave in the same way. And they do: this is what an earlier essay called Type 1 war.

      In short, war is literally older than humanity. By implication, warriors are older than humanity. And back in the day, every man was one. Trade requires you to work out how to cooperate with a stranger; war only requires you to cooperate with a friend. Trade must have been invented later, simply because it is so much harder.

      Taking the long view, war must be more universal than trade, because the time before trade ended more recently than the time before war.

    4. Exchange and theft are not opposites but a continuum – exchange usually happens within a framework of social ties (those Australians who went down each year from the interior to the coast to trade flints for sting-ray barbs also collaborated in marriages, gifting and ceremony), can slide from equal exchange to exploitation to tribute-taking to robbery. The Swedes traded slaves to Byzantium and Baghdad – the merchandise did not volunteer for a new life.

  14. “a conquest, I will note, that was not justified by some Persian aggression; the Persians had not been at war with Macedon ever, having become a vassal state rather than fight them in 512.”

    I think a couple of words might be missing here; I read this as saying the Persians became a vassal to the Macedonians, and I assume you mean the other way around.

  15. “Cachet”, not “cache”.

    You might want to read Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Deutsches Requiem”, about how this is all about abolishing Jude’s-Christian morality.

    1. I remember reading once a theory which claimed to be rooted in analysis of Adolf Hitler’s own personal writings that his real objective was indeed this one – not even necessarily the glory or victory of Germany, but the institution of a state of ‘perpetual warfare’, such that whoever was strongest may prevail and be further tempered by the experience. In this mindset he supposedly considered the Jews as the origin of that Judeo-Christian mindset that exalts weakness, wretchedness and pity for the victim over strength and celebration of the victor, and for that reason he wanted them eliminated. Not sure how much of this reflects the historical Hitler, but it does sound plausible.

      1. Hitler left a vast corpus of rambling and ‘Table Talk’ but yes, this whole theme was a big part of his thinking. The eternal struggle/perpetual warfare thing was something he believed in from his time in WW1; before the war he was a drifter, and in the war he found purpose and was much happier – I guess he instinctively thought this method would work for everyone… (it’s worth noting in the context of the warrior discussion that Hitler was a ‘runner’, a messenger, which in trench warfare was one of the bravest, challenging, most responsible tasks, but didn’t actually involve fighting anyone for the most part).

        He hated the Jews for lots of reasons, but part of this was absolutely the notion you cite that they ‘cheated’ in this eternal violent struggle by either getting others to do their fighting for them, or to spread various anti-war ideologies – primarily Marxism, but I also seem to remember he started including Christianity in this list near the end of his life. Can’t find the reference though!

      2. I don’t know that one can attribute any consistent intellectual or ideological position to Hitler. He was the sort of person who claimed to know Clausewitz by heart without any evidence that he ever read any books. (I leave parallels to modern populist political leaders to speak for themselves.)

        1. Well, I mean, of course they would. Suppose you were a fan of a super obscure indie rock band only playing gigs in pubs, then some bland pop shit covers one or two of their songs and suddenly skyrockets to the top of every chart, and then people refer to both groups as the same. That’d piss you off.

        2. Christianity of course is a Jewish heresy. But I don’t know if a common origin is equivalent to commonality.

        3. OTOH, if I were a Jewish Frenchman, and heard the leader of the National Rally talking about Judeo-Christian values, that would not make me more worried than if they had been talking about specifically Christian values.

        4. “Judeo-Christian-Islamic”, really. If not “Judeo-Manichaeo-Christo-Islamic”.

          Or maybe just “self-contradictory”.

  16. “the act of disagreement itself, rather than the content of arguments, must be rejected”
    My understanding is it’s much worse than that.

    For a moment, imagine as if “all the world’s a stage, all the men and women merely players” were literal truth; that society was just a giant improv theater (or RPG, LARP, etc.). The limit on what people (‘s characters) can get away with is what other people let them get away with. If there is a DM or other decider, they have that position by the other people giving it to them (or letting them take it). People can leave or be thrown out, but that makes the scene less fun (the big tribe is the fun tribe).

    In this case, “truth” and “consensus” would mean the same thing. Public disagreement (especially if stubborn), in turn, would be one or more of these:
    – wrong by definition (unless the group went with the new proposal, in which case it would be true);
    – “disloyalty” to the group, probably resulting in the disagree-er leaving or being told to leave;
    – an attempted power grab, to influence the co-created narrative to a greater degree than the other people think is fair; if the precedent is granted, that person is more or less allowed to become DM (while continuing to play a PC).

    To people viewing social life through this frame at the time, referring to things outside the scene (what most people would describe as “immersion-breaking”) is somewhere between cheating and incomprehensible.

    (This is partly why fascist regimes misjudge their adversaries so badly. Giving an attempted-accurate report of military strengths is exactly like giving a statistical analysis in place of a “go team!” cheer. The traditional pre-battle speech sits on a very tricky fence in this sense; it’s not the least bit surprising that contemporary authors leave out the part that sounds to their ears like “cheering for the other team”.)

    To move further from ur-fascism, I think that unfortunately a lot of people see the world more or less this way. This would explain, for instance, the popularity of “alternative medicine” (which popularity is otherwise baffling/surprising/difficult-to-explain). If expertise were a matter of popular assent and of knowing the literary genre of speech which is acknowledged as embodying that expertise — the way “being an astrologer” and “successfully pretending to be an astrologer” are precisely the same thing — then indeed it wouldn’t matter which sort of healer one turned to, just as in polytheisms syncretism was entirely normal. Similarly, the oft-heard advice of “fake it ’til you make it” makes most sense in this context; if someone shows their confidence that they are playing the role of an expert correctly, that tends to “carry with them” the audience. In this frame of mind, the word “true” is understood as an endorsement, as praise, just as when an art critic says “bold” or “sublime”, that doesn’t mean anything beside “I approve of this”.

    (Complete digression: artists progress if critics praise their works, and critics progress if they can show they are better at critiquing than other critics, i.e. that they can praise as beautiful things that other critics cannot praise, and dismiss as unappealing things that other critics cannot dismiss.)

    I think this single epistemological mistake explains points 1-8. of Eco’s list. Items that might need justification:
    3.: “actions speak louder than words”, since actions that signal allegiance are more costly and more exclusive, thus it’s more difficult to falsely signal loyalty to multiple groups with actions than with speech;
    6.: circles back to 1. and 2., the people who tend to see the world this way would genuinely fit better with a premodern polytheistic culture;
    7.: not strictly necessary, and I suspect that a smaller community (ten thousand or less) would be even more satisfying, but nations are what modernity has, thus nations are what they love (or political movements);
    8.: since the denotational content of speech is largely ignored, the question that arises about disagreements isn’t “maybe they have a point?” but “what is their agenda?”

    We may further ask: where does this mistake come from? One possible answer is: what sort of example people treat as central and build their view around. Many people take (with some exaggeration) experiments as central. “What will I perceive when [I do X]?” This is packed into “what will any person perceive”, and then “what will happen”, successively abstracting away from the peculiarities of each person’s perceptive faculties (such as colorblindness) and getting what is often called “a view from nowhere” (or at least, making an honest effort). Note that human affairs are almost beside the point, they are just a special case. This results in having a concept called “reality” which is separate from people’s opinions about it. One usual metaphor is the terrain and the many and varied maps of that terrain; people draw maps for some purpose (because it’s faster to plan a journey on a map than finding one’s way without a map) and neglect most details of the terrain they deem irrelevant for that purpose. It is possible for all maps to be mistaken in the same way (see “paper town” copyright traps), and it is possible for everyone to be in consensus and yet be mistaken. (This allegory starts to ravel at the fringes when the topic becomes people thinking about what other people think. That would be one map… scratch that, one notebook holding a description of what is written in another notebook.)

    By contrast, some people build around “who is popular” as the central example. This results in what I described above; it is simply inconcievable for everyone to be mistaken about popularity in the same way. (“Bob is popular” *means* that everyone thinks that Bob is popular.)

    1. We may further ask: where does this mistake come from?

      I would say, scepticism regarding our ability to know about the external world. If we can’t really know what the world outside our heads is like, then concepts of truth or falsity become irrelevant, and all we have left is competing narratives which may or may not be useful to our current purposes.

      1. That’s too big a leap. Take rainbows as an example (yes, really).

        Rainbows aren’t objects, people see them in a position (direction) relative to their own position.
        But rainbows aren’t just opinions, either. There is a very easily describable set of circumstances (white light plus droplets of water) under which all sighted people will see rainbows in a particular direction. People can’t just decide to see (or unsee) rainbows by an act of will.
        They are somewhere in between: they are “projected” by people’s sense processing onto the external world.

        And, admittedly, nearly everything is like this to some extent or another. What we see isn’t the external world itself, but the way our senses process the stimuli they receive from the external world. A very evocative metaphor is the Cartesian theater.

        Thus total scepticism (“nothing is knowable”) is wrong (and isn’t practically useful either — how do you act on it?). It’s much more useful to try to find some patterns in which your senses deceive you, and to try to correct for those distortions to get a better idea of what the external world is actually like.

        1. I don’t think it’s correct to say total scepticism is wrong, the key is its uselessness. If my senses are either entirely unreliable or constantly deceived by some demon smarter than myself, I have no way of figuring it out and I’m screwed either way. End of the line, that was a very short epistemology trip. So might as well assume they work somewhat! ‘cos if they didn’t, there’s nothing we could do. The key is that there still are phenomena that can cause our senses to fail, but those phenomena are mostly *dumb* – extremely straightforward physical processes that don’t bend over backwards to keep cheating me in a consistent way so that I can’t figure out the deception. As long as at least that much is guaranteed, then I can make some progress.

        2. I’m not sure what you’re trying to argue against? I never said that total scepticism was correct, nor that we can have perfect knowledge about the outside world.

          But, there is actually a use for scepticism — if you can dismiss niggling concerns about concepts such as “truth”, “falsehood”, “objectivity”, and so on, you can, with a clear conscience, adopt whatever view or standard happens to benefit you, even if it’s completely different to the view you held yesterday. For a relatively common example, consider a politician who tells people whatever it is he thinks they want to hear, even outright contradicting himself when different groups want different things. An attitude of “Well, no-one *really* knows what might work best, so who cares? I might as well support whatever’s most convenient at the moment” would certainly be helpful for such an individual.

          1. I’m arguing against dismissing concerns about truth.
            “If we can’t really know what the world outside our heads is like, then concepts of truth or falsity become irrelevant”
            In one sentence: just because total perfection is impossible, there are still better and worse possibilities, and concepts of goodness stay relevant. We can have a decent idea of what the world is like, and we can make an effort to improve our picture further.

            While the news may be full of them, politicians aren’t that common. As above: be careful with what you choose as “typical”, because they leads you down different paths. Taking explicit, conscious dishonesty as the prototype for epistemology is probably the most doomed approach I’ve seen.

          2. We can have a decent idea of what the world is like, and we can make an effort to improve our picture further.

            My point is that there are people who disagree with this, and that it leads to behaviour like that described in your original post.

            While the news may be full of them, politicians aren’t that common. As above: be careful with what you choose as “typical”, because they leads you down different paths. Taking explicit, conscious dishonesty as the prototype for epistemology is probably the most doomed approach I’ve seen.

            Firstly, I never said that politicians are common; I used that example because the disingenuous politician is a widely-recognised, cross-partisan character type.

            Secondly, I never said that scepticism and relativism are typical, simply that people who might find it advantageous to adopt different sets of views depending on their situation would find it easier to do so if they could cultivate a sceptical attitude towards any truth claims, and therefore that “total scepticism… isn’t practically useful” is false, at least in some circumstances.

            Thirdly, the whole point is that such people *aren’t* engaged in “explicit, conscious dishonesty”. They’re not thinking “Socialism is true, but the electorate is full of capitalists, so I’m going to pretend to be in favour of capitalism.” They’re thinking, “Nobody really knows whether socialism or capitalism is true, but the electorate is full of capitalists, so I might as well be in favour of capitalism.” And maybe, a little later, “It’s still the case that nobody really knows whether socialism or capitalism is true, but support for socialism sure seems to be on the up, so I might as well hop on the socialist bandwagon.”

    2. Reply to higgsbosoff (broken due to excessive nesting):
      Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. I put the emphasis onto the senses and the processing they do exactly because they are NOT simple. Yes, there are straightforward stimuli that “cause our senses to fail” (mirage in the desert), but most people who read this already know about those. I’m talking about the social perceptions that evolution happened to give us, and things like teleology and Platonic idealism.

      Let’s go back to popularity. You probably know that Google basically became a thing because they found a way to calculate popularity, and it involves a lot of math not that many people even know, let alone could perform with pen and paper. However, (almost) every single high school student performs some very similar calculation completely instinctively, without at all realizing they do it, when they tall about which classmates are how popular.

      Comparable levels of computation go into object classification, and once that happens, all traits associated with that class are projected onto the object. Does X fall into a category that is taboo? Then X is taboo. Offer an American a meal of pigeon, horse meat, frog legs, fried insects, etc. and watch. Culturally learned purity/disgust reactions (in this case learned-by-absence, i.e. children don’t see anybody eat these things) are very useful for hunter-gatherers in avoiding poisonous foods, but they aren’t simple.

      Continuing to harp on classes, people have a tendency to get stuck arguing whether X is an instance of class Y or Z. What makes a disease? Tuberculosis is a disease, because it’s rare, unpleasant, discrete, and treated with “sciencey” cures. Most people won’t call aging a disease because it’s too common. They won’t call […] a disease because it’s not necessarily unpleasant. They argue whether ADHD is a “real” disease because it’s the end of a normal distribution (like height). They argue whether being overweight is a disease because many think (ignore for the moment whether they are correct in thinking so) that it could be changed with conscious exertion of willpower.
      This can be a mere waste of time, or it can have other implications. If someone has a disease, they are to be sympathized with; if they have a vice, they are to be judged negatively. Disease patients get pills; if people with character flaws try to solve their problem in the same way, they “are taking a shortcut”.

      1. I don’t think that goes against what I said though? Granted, there are all sorts of biases than some basic optical illusion. But they’re still systematic, is my point. They can be tricky, but they are relatively predictable – or at least manageable enough that we can find ways to counter them.

        The alternative is: there is an intelligent, malignant being that purposefully cheats your senses and reason in exactly the right way to make you believe falsehoods. In which case, there would be no escape! Luckily, it seems like the closest thing to such a being each of us has is… themselves. We can try very hard to deceive ourselves, but we’re also in the best position to know deeply our own motives and triggers if we introspect, so we have at least some insight in what otherwise would be the smartest, most cunning deceiver of our senses we’ll ever find on our road.

        About your discussion on categories later, sure, but that’s a different issue. It’s the problem that comes with expecting the territory to conform too much to the map instead of just accepting that the map is useful but limited. It’s the same problem with e.g. biological sex. There is ‘something’ that is well approximated as male and female sexes, and in a lot of situation that is well defined and sufficiently useful. However there also are cases that don’t well fit that binary. That doesn’t mean to me either that we have to stuff those cases into one of the two boxes by force, nor that we have to throw away the boxes. Just give them only a relative importance, knowing they’re not the real world, simply a representation of it. I mean, even distinctions like ‘me’ vs ‘you’ would get iffy if we looked at the world in terms of atoms or quantum fields. But that doesn’t mean we should ditch them.

    3. I think you might be a lot closer to the truth about how society functions with your ‘consensus=truth’ idea. Practically, this seems to be the way that people assess truth. When confronted with the dizzying array of things to know in the world (large and small), the only practicable approach is to outsource your knowledge gathering (or crowd-source it, I suppose), on the basis that if so many people have been doing it that way then statistically speaking it’s unlikely to be catastrophically detrimental (an assumption that I’m sure has caused quite a few catastrophically detrimental things to happen).

      Even among the scientific community, truth is decided upon by consensus at least in part (backed up by evidence). The gateway for an idea to become part of the scientific ‘canon’ is primarily through peer-review in a scientific journal. The decision of a peer review panel will not change the fundamental truth, but the truth as practically applied is down to their concensus (and the consensus of people reading it). The earth rotates around the sun whether or not Copernicus has worked it out, but what society believes is true depends on how they feel about Copernicus, his idea, and the opinions of others around them.

      Truth as practically applied is based on consensus, I suppose.

  17. I found the comment on anarchists to be incorrect as no (if any) anarchists I know of advocate or want a society ruled by violence. In fact most desire the very opposite of that. And I find it unfair for anarchism to be placed with ‘gangs’ and ‘robber bands’. Such an idea seems to stem from the perception of anarchism as being about ‘chaos’ which is magnificently incorrect. So much of anarchism is concerned with mutual aid and community that I find it insulting frankly to be placed next to ‘robber bands’. I do not presume malice on your part of course, merely a misunderstanding of what anarchism is. And I’d be happy to field questions concerning it.

    Oh and additionally on the matter of specialization, anarchism does not reject whole sale at all (though certain philopshey’s argue that one must guard against rampant specialization to stave of the creation of a beurcratic managerial class or other such group) and one of the biggest strains of anarchist thought is syndicalism which specifically deals with matters of industry.

    1. I feel like anarchism badly needs a rebrand. The term is firmly associated with the image of a bomb-throwing maniac who hates peace and stability. Unfortunately, it seems like the only things all anarchists agree on are that hierarchies are bad and that anarcho-capitalists don’t count.

      1. I don’t think a “rebranding” is as necessary as fighting the historical propaganda that has created that “brand;” much as proto-fascist ideals have been smuggled into the mainstream through warrior discourse, pro-authoritarian ideals still persist from the days when robber barons and tyrannical kings were the major powers of the US and Europe, and their maligning of anarchism should be picked apart and fought rather than ceded to, in my view.

      2. While true its kinda inevitable that whatever you rename yourself too will just be demonized all the same, so might as well work with what we have and not allow propaganda to dictate how we talk about things. Also lol, yes leftist in-fighting is the age old meme, and no anarchy-capitilists don’t count because their a nasty little sect who co-opted the name (as well as the word libertarian which use to refer to pretty much just anarchists) and push messed up (and entirely wrong) ideas. (like… bruh… capitalism requires the state to survive…)

        1. like… bruh… capitalism requires the state to survive…

          This isn’t necessarily true: capitalism requires some mechanism for enforcement of property rights (with functions analogous to police, courts, and perhaps a military), and many anarcho-capitalists believe that these functions could be carried out by private corporations on the basis of contracts. In practice, though, I agree that such an arrangement of a large complex society would be less stable and more likely to fail disastrously than a legitimate state that carries out all of these functions.

      3. They’re trying. I had an anarchist on reddit tell me that anarchists only believe in abolishing “unjust” hierarchies, which basically means everyone is an anarchist.

        1. Ech, that’s a poor take (dammit bookchin *shakes fist at sky*), and just allows you to say whatever you think is justified is good and should stick around. A better phrasing is Anarchists are against coercive hierarchies. For example, a doctor will always know more than me on a medical issue right, but a coercive hierarchy is one in which the doctor could have me institutionalized without my consent. (I should add here that anarchy generally holds (keep in mind there’s many different sects) that Anrchism is not an ends or a means ti an ends but rather the ends are means. So by practicing mutual aid and demolishing coercive heriachies so people can choose how they want to live and organize you are doing anarchism that is anarchism. Its something you practice.)

        2. Not really? That’s like saying everyone in the world is pro-democracy just because they don’t want to do what the fewest people want. Anarchism isn’t just tautologically agreeing that bad things are bad, but (at minimum) identifying unjust hierarchies and wanting to dismantle them. Even if you think just acknowledging that bad things are bad qualifies, reform-oriented leftists wouldn’t qualify, because they don’t want to dismantle anything.

      4. [Anarchism] is firmly associated with the image of a bomb-throwing maniac who hates peace and stability.

        Which is all the more ironic given that the circle around the “A” in the anarchist logo is generally taken to stand for “order,” pointing back to Proudhon himself, “a firm friend of order [and] (in the full force of the term) an anarchist.”

    2. I think a lot of the anarchist replies here miss that there is a clear and present alternative strain of hyperviolent anarchism in the form of the Boogaloo Movement. Yes, there are a lot of peaceable anarchists, and they tend to be represented much better in the commentariat of this blog; even if a Boogaloo found their way here, they’re liable to get banned rather quickly. When Dr. Deveraux is referring to ‘anarchists’, he’s not referring to the peaceable opponents of coercive hierarchy, nor to some early modern stereotype, but to the actual movement doing actual violence with the express intent of creating a state of violent chaos.

      I find the anarchist denial of this akin to the denial of neo-Nazism in some right-wing circles. Yes, both peaceable anarchists and liberal (in the Enlightenment sense) right-wingers exist and are too often tarred with thuggish labels, but that does not mean that neo-Nazism and Boogaloo-ism do not exist. By defending them, by claiming that every usage of such labels must be inaccurate or exaggerated, both right-wingers and anarchists have inadvertently defended their most destructive fringes.

      1. Im sorry…. what? The boogaloo boys are not anarchists in the slightest. Seriously what the heck. Their fascistic in their makeup. And Im certainly not a fucking peaceable anarchist. Boogaloo boys are literally right-wingers primarily in their make up…. where on earth are you getting the idea they are anarchists?????? Anarcho-capitilists maybe (which are not real anarchists and I don’t mean that in ‘true scotsman fallacy way’) they co-opted the term anarchist in the past but they are a solidly right-wing philopshey with next to no ties to actual anarchist philosophy…

        1. They want to dissolve the state. In my book, that makes them anarchists. Also, advertising that you are not peaceable does not seem a good way to support your point.

          1. This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of anarchy. Dissolving “the state” (in certain forms) is a natural consequence of anarchy valuing voluntary association and non-hierarchical power structures, not the goal itself.

            The Boogaloo Bois are clearly not anarchist in that they are devoted to forcing their personal goals on others; that they use violence for this need not even come in to this.

          2. Their only goal I’ve seen has been getting rid of or severely limiting the federal government and abolishing the police, which seem pretty anarchic to me. They believe in limited private property, but they’re far more anticorporate/anticonsumerist than AnCaps.

      2. Wasn’t the Boogaloo a response to the Virginian governor trying to ban all guns, causing local sheriffs to deputise tons of people and basically the rest of the state placing pressure to step back from the law.

        1. Boogaloo was a bunch of antigovernment folks from a lot of different directions coming together. Prior to George Floyd’s death, it was mostly militia and gun enthusiasts, but it since attracted a decent number of BLM and far-left accelerationists. I don’t think it has an ideological core outside of “fuck the government, fuck the police”.

  18. Out of curiosity, do you have recommendations for good historical fiction (good in the sense of the historiography it presents)? Military or otherwise? I’ve felt for a long time that historical fiction is an important part of historiography as consumed by the public. Even the driest historical facts have real human interactions and experiences underlying them, and I’ve always found historical fiction (when written with an eye toward authenticity) to be one of the starkest reminders of that.

    Also, when you say ‘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)’ Do you mean ‘do not heed’? Or ‘do not need because they are already gone’? Or something else?

    1. The fiction of Mika Waltari is rather good in this sense. The novels are researched very well, and though the books are from 1940’s and -50’s, they tend to be rather modern in their outlook. I would recommend especially The Egyptian. He is well in print in German, in Swedish and in Finnish, but English versions of his books seem to be out of print. Ironically, Waltari’s last book, “The Roman” is in print in English and available on Amazon, but only as a word-for-word plagiate by one Colin Slater, under name Lindum Colonia.

      1. Personally I wasn’t impressed by The Egyptian as Egyptology had moved on considerably since it was written.

    2. The first piece of fiction directly relevant to this collection is of course “Gates of Fire” by Steven Pressfield, his retelling of Thermopolyae and the life of the Spartans leading up to it. Shouldn’t take as long as the series of YouTube talks.

      The other book I’d recommend, source of Heinlein’s Premise, is “Starship Troopers” which I believe has also appeared on the recommended reading lists of various military institutions. However this is science fiction, not historical.

      Starship Troopers also seems to be different in that author Robert Heinlein does not necessarily hold or endorse the views expressed by his characters, while from the description of the YouTube talks Steven Pressfield possibly does. I’ve had discussions online with people who assume Heinlein was an enthusiast for military rule / fascism based on Starship Troopers, but the same author also wrote (before and after) the novella Coventry and the novels Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, all of which are radically different societies to Starship Troopers and each other, and whose protagonists would hate living in the other books.

      1. Personally I’ve always read Starship Troopers as a meditation on balancing privilege and responsibility in a political system. We don’t have to accept the characters’ opinions just think about them.

        1. Yeah, that’s the one thing I do find it interesting about its system. Its problem is being geared so much towards war (and you know what they say happens to problems when all you have is a hammer…), but the concept of people participating in politics only after they have demonstrated some degree of investment in it is interesting and not necessarily fascistic – if anything, it sounds like an extreme commitment to the original spirit of direct democracy.

          1. It’s worth noting that, for example, in ancient Athens the common people based their right to participate in the government on the grounds that they were the ones who rowed the triremes.

          2. Hmmm, is that much different in principle to how modern democracies function? Your demonstration of investment is in your being a citizen of the country (countries don’t tend to let non-citizens vote). Although that may well just be drawing a really, really broad brush over what constitutes ‘investment into politics’.

          3. Being a citizen is hardly a proof of investment. In fact, it’s outright unfair because if you’re born into the country you get it automatically, but if you move into it (and still work and contribute to its life just as everyone else) you’re asked to prove your loyalty with asinine tests that most born citizens couldn’t pass and often hefty fees before you can get it. The Starship Troopers setting says: everyone can be a citizen, but you got to show that you mean it. Again, building all of this around military service is problematic because it makes for a society with a warrior elite. But it doesn’t HAVE to be that. Anything at all would filter out those disaffected enough to think that “they’re all the same anyway!” that won’t even bother thinking about politics but might go occasionally to the urns to put a cross on a name because they like the cut of someone’s jib. Which isn’t necessarily such a bad thing… of course, someone could scream that would easily be tweaked for the purposes of voter suppression, but then again, what, are our current rules not exploited towards that too? Every country has its own rules and problems already. I doubt that something like this would necessarily mean the end of democracy; it would be a different kind of democracy, with its own new flaws but also its advantages.

      2. Heinlein discussed Starship Troopers in Expanded Universe, a collection of essays and short stories, and his statement was that he didn’t endorse the social structure of the novel, it was a thought experiment on a society that required civil service for the franchise.

        He also said that he’d failed to make it more clear that joining the federal service did not necessarily mean enlisting in the military, but in the vast majority of cases it resulted in non-military service. I expect he thought he was making that point in the scene with the recruiter who says that Carmen might make a good pilot and she might end up people potatoes on in a hydroponics dome somewhere.

        The point of civil service was explicitly that you gained the franchise by offering yourself to the needs of society and only got to express a preference on where you would end up in the service. Ultimately, though, the service would send you where needed to do what was needed, and the end result of that might well be ending up in the military or some other posting that could have a potentially serious reduction of your of your life expectancy.

    3. Anything by Mary Renault is generally a good bet, albeit in some cases the scholarship has moved on since she was writing (e.g., the account of bronze-age Greek religion in The King Must Die seems to me to have been based mostly on Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, whereas I don’t think Graves’ theories are taken seriously nowadays).

  19. I think it’s worth pointing out that a society which believes, narrowly speaking, that “the capacity to produce violence is therefore the highest human virtue” is quite likely to fail even a test of violent struggle, in addition to failing to produce other things of value.

    If you think of the conflict between the US and Japan in WWII, for example, it’s doubtful you can blame Japan’s loss on the individual violent capacities of its combatants, who were famous for all kinds of breathtakingly badass acts. Rather Japan’s loss was a combination of its relative lack of resources, industrial capacity, allies, strategic thinking, and so forth. Obviously there was no shortage of heroics on the part of American combatants, but I think virtually all historians would agree that the full explanation of US victory in WWII is a story of farmers, factory workers, engineers, scientists, business people, diplomats, civil leaders as much as it is a story about soldiers. It’s a story about feminism and immigration and unions and democracy too!

    This is sort of the point that Bret makes at much more length in his Fremen essays — a society that values raw violence over all the things that truly make society go… isn’t really a strong society. And it’s probably not a society you want to live in, either.

    1. Well, to quote Patton on that (unless the quote is spurious)… “no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country”. That sounds about the right philosophy. Grand commitments about sacrifice and glorious death alone don’t win wars.

      1. True – but an enemy inspired by belief to resist to the end, or go on against seemingly hopeless odds – is tough to beat, and often enough have won wars. To be clear, such people need not be warriors – often they are ordinary people with a cause. The defenders of Bastogne, or the men of the 13th Guards Rifle Division could not be shifted by fear of death.

        1. Absolutely, but I guess the point is that there’s a difference between “I’m willing to risk death” and “I think death on the battlefield in itself is desirable”. Warrior culture risks going from the first one to the second. Of course you have better chances if you’re willing to risk more, but your objective still has to be survival, insofar as it also means victory. I think many of those ordinary people actually would fit the bill perfectly, because their goal would be to protect something to which they hope eventually to come back to, not battlefield glory in itself. The battle is a means to an end.

          1. True – but one human attribute is the ability to identify with a collective token (the regiment, the flag, the cause et al) that one’s personal survival is of little importance. What matters is not that you personally will come back to the regiment, but that the regiment will go on. The soldier fights to preserve and protect the community; the warrior fights for glory – and you are right in so far as the very best glory is posthumous – a so warriors seek a glorious death.

          2. Yes, but the point stands. If no one comes back to the regiment, there is no regiment any more! The rule is ‘guarantee the survival of the maximum amount of individuals’, roughly speaking; it may mean that yours is not among them, but you still want to promote life in general. Conversely, suppose a warrior culture in which those who die in battle are honoured, their families showered with praise and wealth, their names revered forever, and their souls are said to go to a happy afterlife that is precluded to everyone else. You create a perverse incentive in which paradoxically someone might want to seek death on the battlefield for its own sake. The most extreme and ludicrous manifestation of this would be an army of people *who all go to battle just to die* and thus end up losing despite having the upper hand. Obviously that’s comically extreme, but it shows my point about how this sort of dedication can turn around and from an asset become a liability.

          3. “Conversely, suppose a warrior culture in which those who die in battle are honoured, their families showered with praise and wealth, their names revered forever, and their souls are said to go to a happy afterlife that is precluded to everyone else. ”

            OUR culture honours those who die in battle (or even do anything especially courageous in battle), gives pensions to their dependents and builds war memorials to revere their names forever. What’s the difference?

          4. The most extreme and ludicrous manifestation of this would be an army of people *who all go to battle just to die* and thus end up losing despite having the upper hand. Obviously that’s comically extreme, but it shows my point about how this sort of dedication can turn around and from an asset become a liability.

            That sort of reasoning can be applied against your position, though — an army of people whose main objective is survival would presumably refuse to fight at all, and hence would be pretty useless as an army.

          5. My point wasn’t that their ONLY objective has to be survival, but that they should value survival insofar as it advances the cause. Even if they forfeit the value of their lives to themselves, they still must acknowledge their value to the effort they’re a part of.

        2. an enemy inspired by belief to resist to the end, or go on against seemingly hopeless odds – is tough to beat, and often enough have won wars.

          I think you seriously overstate your case; I can think of no combatant fitting that description that ever won a war over ones that favoured strategic planning, good logistics, planned manoeuvres and good tactics over raw individual courage.

          The two examples you give are of combatants winning a battle; but in the end it was not their individual steadfastness that gave their parent organisations victory in war, it was the other factors I mentioned.

          I’m not trying to put you down. I would really like to see an example of an army or a government winning a war by raw, steadfast courage. I can’t think of any, but my knowledge of Military History is constricted to the Late Roman Republic/Early Empire, Medieval Europe and WWI and WWII.

          1. I think you seriously overstate your case; I can think of no combatant fitting that description that ever won a war over ones that favoured strategic planning, good logistics, planned manoeuvres and good tactics over raw individual courage.

            This isn’t an either/or thing. Nobody’s saying (at least not on this site) “If your soldiers are sufficiently motivated, you can forget about planning and logistics and rely on raw courage to carry you through.” But whilst planning and logistics may get you to the battle, you still need to actually fight, and that requires courage. There are plenty of historical examples of armies which looked good on paper but underperformed in actual battle, because the men weren’t invested enough in the cause or each other to stay and fight when things started getting bloody.

            I’m not trying to put you down. I would really like to see an example of an army or a government winning a war by raw, steadfast courage.

            Not sure if it counts as a “government”, but Cortes’ conquest of the Aztec Empire. Granted the Conquistadors had other things going for them (guns, germs, and steel, as the fellow said), but still, Cortes set out to conquer an entire empire with just over five hundred men. Even with all the advantages early modern military technology could bring, that required an absolutely enormous amount of courage.

          2. (WordPress threading is wonky, I hope this comes out in the right order)

            Nobody’s saying (at least not on this site) “If your soldiers are sufficiently motivated, you can forget about planning and logistics and rely on raw courage to carry you through.”

            Peter, the original poster, said exactly that. I even quoted the relevant assertion in my reply.

            And I refuse to accept Cortés as a counterexample. He had modern weapons, and a lot of his conquest of Mexico relied not on the courage of his men but on his ability to play local politics and subvert the Aztec’s local allies. So he in fact stands more in favour of my point: it’s smart organisation that wins wars, not raw courage.

          3. Peter, the original poster, said exactly that. I even quoted the relevant assertion in my reply.

            No he didn’t. Not only does “an enemy inspired by belief to resist to the end, or go on against seemingly hopeless odds – is tough to beat” not at all entail “…and therefore logistics and strategy are unimportant”, but such an interpretation is ruled out by the example of “The defenders of Bastogne, or the men of the 13th Guards Rifle Division”, both of whom were part of armies which did pay a lot of attention to the administrative side of warfare.

            And I refuse to accept Cortés as a counterexample. He had modern weapons, and a lot of his conquest of Mexico relied not on the courage of his men but on his ability to play local politics and subvert the Aztec’s local allies. So he in fact stands more in favour of my point: it’s smart organisation that wins wars, not raw courage.

            Without raw courage, he and his men would have said, “Five hundred men against an entire empire? You gotta be sh***ing me,” and gone home before the conquest started. Which is kind of the point — yes, smart organisation is necessary to get troops to the battlefield, but there’s not much point doing so if your troops aren’t actually willing to fight once they get there.

          4. Sometimes victory in battle wins wars. Not always – as Edward I and Henry V found out with respect to Scotland and France respectively. But Alexander won the Persian Empire in three battles and a siege. Khalid ibn Walid won Syria and Egypt in a few battles. William I won England in one battle – which was a fairly close-run thing. Machiavelli made the point that some states are vulnerable to capture through tactical prowess (citing Alexander) and some not (citing France as easier to defeat, harder to conquer).

            Courage is perhaps the wrong word here, since it tends to be seen as an individual quality. More what I had in mind is a faith in one’s comrades and one’s cause which inspires extreme cohesion and elan. At the tactical level, one could cite instances like the Spanish tercio that waded 15 miles overnight through waters up to chest deep to relieve the critical fortress of Goes (1572) – waters controlled by the enemy, tidal and over 10′ deep in places at high tide.

            Two instances of this sort of commitment that won wars:

            In the 1540s the kingdom of Ethiopia was nearly extinguished by forces led by the emir of Harar. Both sides were matched technologically (Harar was aided by a contingent of Ottoman janissaries) but after repeated losses the Ethiopians were badly outnumbered and demoralised. They did have a small (120) number of Portuguese matchlock men, the survivors of a an original 200, who had lost their captain in the last battle. In the battle that won the war they went ahead of their Ethiopian allies and cut their way through to the emir. His army dissolved on his death and Ethiopia was re-established. What is striking is their resolve in the face of several defeats, high losses and great hardship.

            More recently, when in 2014 ISIS had taken Mosul and Tikrit and was on the outskirts of Baghdad, thousands of Shi’a volunteers left home to defend their faith and their shrines. They were a collection of different parties and militias, hastily armed, choosing their own leaders. The older ones had military experience from the Iran-Iraq War. The one thing they had the Iraqi army did not was determination. They pushed ISIS back to Mosul in a long bloody effort, learning as they went. I think it’s fair to say the Hashd won the Iraqi war against ISIS. I think it’s also fair to say that in a number of cases this sort of commitment was the key to not losing the war.

    2. In fact it’s hard to see how such a society that literally works like that even functions. To take a deliberately exaggerated example, the Reavers in the ‘Firefly’ universe are all literally insane and their only desire is to torture, mutilate and kill. It is not remotely clear how they get food, repair their spaceships and in general do the 99 non-psychotic things you need to do to mount psychotic attacks on the ‘normal’ world. The Klingons are a famous example where fans have to do add a lot of features not really discussed in canon to create a remotely workable (fictional) society. Back to the core point of the essay, it’s simply not possible to spend more than a small proportion of a productive society’s time inflicting violence, and time spent that way is inherently destructive; therefore capacity for violence is an absolutely terrible thing to use as core measuring stick of societal worth.