Contest 2: Charging. Toughness Training

I believe enduring something that threatens your life or what you care about is easier to do than charging into dangerous territory. This is why the first contest–the easiest–associated with learning toughness would withstanding. Will you withstand or will you cave in, give in?

Now we come to the second contest: charging. And the question is: how do you teach someone to charge, almost to the point of rashness or hot-heated boldness? What is puzzling about this particular “how you teach” question is that I’m a philosopher and philosophy, regardless of its background or commitments, takes place as one is stepping back and considering. A philosopher wanders, wonders, and considers, turning (as it were) the whole world over.

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A Defense of Boasting

We now have a very low estimation of boasters. They are loud-mouthed, arrogant, sometimes self-deceiving, and, while boasting especially, very inconsiderate of others. Such a level of self-importance disgusts us, the non-boasters.

We have the presumption that those who are properly confident have no need to speak of themselves, let alone to sing their own praises. I can’t help but feel that this is on the whole true: confidence in oneself often functions as the quiet background against which one can easily act and speak about all other things but oneself. Confidence reveals itself without speaking itself, without needing to speak of anything but everything else.

But now let me ask why we are revolted by boasters and why boasting ended up falling out of favor. The start of an explanation of our disgust and boasting’s illegitimacy would be to claim that honor societies have disappeared. Beowulf’s boasting in Beowulf and Achilles’s in The Iliad are the means by which they made their claims to glory and through which they roused their spirits to fight. For boasting puffs up the victor–this speaks to the claim about glory–and it also encourages us to overcome our fears of pain, disgrace, and death. The scene is battle, and the life is that of the warrior. Fear is the great enemy, and thus boasting often a fine friend. With the end of honor culture comes the end of the need for boasting–or so we have come to believe.

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William James on “The Moral Equivalent of War”

William James, a committed pacifist, lived through the Civil War and the Spanish-American War and died during the run-up to World War I. In an incredible essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” first delivered as a talk at Stanford and later published in 1910, the year of his death, James observes that though everyone would prefer to have the peace issuing forth after the Civil War almost no one would want to eradicate from the human record the bloodiest war to have taken place on American soil, a war pitting brother against brother. Reviewing the history of war in an impressionistic sort of way, James allows himself to be entangled in the knot: war is terrible, cruelty and bloodshed are unconscionable, but what virtues it celebrates are excellent, and life without war is, it seems, impoverished and denigrated. Indeed, the socialists, of whom James is one, do not see what could arise were war to be a thing of the past: softness and squeamishness, the desire for pleasures and comforts, universal inferiority, a lack of vitality. It is not as if war has since disappeared from the lives of many in the developed world, but the ennobling virtues of war surely have, and with such a loss has come the emergence of softness. We have become soft period. What was alluded to has become a reality: “A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure-economy,” James writes a hundred years ago, and yet it has.

James’s insightful approach is to take seriously the militaristic point of view, entering into it and seeing out of it. He writes approvingly, “Militarism is the great preserver of our ideals of hardihood, and human life with no use for hardihood would be contemptible.” War, he notes, makes men harder, tougher, and it makes a people more cohesive, the bonds uniting them stronger. What is more, so far in human history, the martial virtues and attitudes–courage, ambition, contempt of death, vitality, and intensity among them–have been manifested in war and nowhere else, and he writes that, for military apologists, “No ordeal is comparable to its winnowings.” War tests those involved, showing–and this is no cliche–what men are truly made of.

James’s philosophical problem can now be set forth:

1.) The martial virtues are worth affirming in their own right.

2.) Yet the arena in which the material virtues have historically been affirmed–that is, war–is ugly and horrible.

3.) Life without the martial virtues is “flat degeneration” or, as I would say, “softness.”

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The Predominance of Softness

I am trying to investigate the prevalence of softness and the rarity of toughness because I believe that we have learned to be soft when it is time to get, and be, tough.

Can we find another way into the predominance of softness? It has often been observed that ours is an Age of Anxiety or, more recently, a time of terror. Plainly, one sees this in the Seattle earthquake story from The New Yorker and in various tweets and replies to the possibility that an earthquake could, within the next 100 years, utterly decimate Seattle. Respondents stressed how scared, terrified, and nervous they were or remarked upon how scared, trepidatious, and anxious Seattle residents should be.

Fear is hinted at, spoken of, and often exacerbated when it comes to almost everything, including child-raising, city dwelling, terrorist attacks, flying, health, the precarity of work, academic pursuits, love, the death of others, doing most anything unconventional. People speak of “being safe,” of wanting to find “safe spaces,” of being “vulnerable,” of being “uncomfortable” or at the edge of discomfort, of always being “stressed out,” “overwhelmed,” or “freaking out.” Disgrace is terrifying, humiliation is terrifying, public speaking terrifying, any sensitive subject terrifying, offending someone terrifying, knowing the truth about yourself absolutely terrifying…

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Aristotle on Toughness

We have become soft and it’s time to get tough. Aristotle says that “it is softness to fly from what is troublesome” and so the coward does. But then most of us are flying from what is troublesome. Can we even recall what courage is?


The coward, the rash man, and the brave man, then, are concerned with the same objects but are differently disposed toward them; for the first two exceed and fall short, while the third holds the middle, which is the right, position; and rash men are precipitate, and wish for dangers beforehand but draw back when they are in them, while brave men are excited in the moment of action, but collected beforehand.

All three men are concerned with the fearful and the excellent (kalon), yet the rash man rushes headlong into something without having knowledge of what is to be feared whereas the coward is full of fear and reacts accordingly. What Aristotle observes is that both the coward and the rash man draw back, ultimately.

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