You will always find in me the same perseverance in labor, the same firmness of resolution, the same love for my people, the same passion for the prosperity of my state, and the same ardor for true glory.
So said Louis XIV, the most powerful and memorable man of his age.
For a long time now, I have been thinking about what it means to live a good, purposeful life. Despite its material wealth and military might, there’s no question that a sense of despair has fallen over the American people and many of their allies. Things seem so soulless. It feels like we’re living in a cultural dark age. Why is it, I keep asking myself, that we now have people from first world countries joining ISIS? Albeit this has only happened in small numbers, why would people from the West, often educated, even conceive of joining such a group?
I pondered this a bit further. The only conclusion I can draw is it is part of a desperate search, because life in the West has lost all meaning. There is no “It” factor – no drive or guiding cause that people are fervently devoted to and will risk everything to bring to fruition. There is no drive to greatness. There is no greater call to labor for something magnificent. There is little sense of community. There is only a race to be the biggest social media headline.
The West used to have “It.” The followers of George Washington at Valley Forge and Morristown who didn’t desert had “It.” Joan of Arc and her soldiers had “It.” As a friend of mine remarked, Martin Luther King and his followers had “It” too. Henry V’s speech in the Shakespeare play of the same name personifies “It:”
I return to Louis XIV. He had “It” as well, as did France throughout his reign. Although he was born lucky, he faced hardship in his youth with the Fronde rebellion and did not rest on his laurels as did his successor, Louis XV. He had a clear vision of what he wanted France to be, a clear vision of bringing glory to himself and his country, and worked long and hard to fulfill that vision. He was not just attractive as a king, he was attractive as a man. He was willing to embrace hardship to make France and himself great.
Embracing hardship and deferring gratification is a key concept in the quest for True Glory. The lack of this is why so many people these days feel a sense of malaise, despite material prosperity.
Seeking True Glory is something akin to spirituality. When doing so, through your Great Work, it almost feels like you are conversing with your higher self, the best part of your nature.
For most of history, religion served as a guidepost for people’s lives. It gave them direction, focus, and a cause to serve. Religion was the great task for people to devote themselves to accomplishing, a task that went beyond immediate self-gratification. It took effort and sacrifice to serve your god, and saving your soul, in certain traditions, was a lifetime commitment. Other traditions had other commitments, but they all had commitment in common. The tangible rewards might not have been apparent to most people, but they were certain that the otherworldly rewards for their spiritual labors would eventually come.
Let’s turn back to Louis XIV once again:
Two things were without doubt necessary: very hard work on my part, and a wise choice of persons capable of seconding it.
Louis was a man that would not be satisfied with anything less than the sensational, and the only way to achieve something of that nature is precisely through the method he outlined above – very hard work on your part and the right kind of help.
So…….what is True Glory? How, exactly, do we define it?
In my mind, True Glory is the achievement of something spectacular, something that people will remember you by forever. The story of Achilles is one that exemplifies this. He had two choices: stay in Greece and have a loving family, but be forgotten, or go to Troy and live a short life full of glory, where his feats, and hence his name, would be spoken of from the lips of the countless generations yet to be. Although the Troy movie didn’t quite do the story right, I think it more or less got that part down as well as it could:
Which fate would you choose?
Fortunately, in the real world we likely won’t have to choose an early death to achieve True Glory.
True Glory is a massive and glorious accomplishment (or accomplishments), worthy enough for people to remember you by long after you die. The ancient Greeks called this kleos (everlasting glory and renown – “what others hear about you.”).
Fortune is too fickle about who exactly gets remembered in the end. The work you do does not guarantee your glory even if you succeed. However, living a life worthy of remembrance and admiration is a goal you can strive for. All of the 20 Men on my list achieved (or have achieved) states of True Glory in their lifetimes, but in their own different ways.
However, that end is a privilege. Very few people wind up achieving states of True Glory.
This lifestyle is different from simply “finding your life’s purpose.” Quite often “finding your life’s purpose” means an excuse to descend into what Louis XIV called “inactivity and indolence,” where discipline breaks down, or where he uses immoral methods to achieve his aims.
A man can easily say his life’s purpose is to sleep with as many girls as possible, devolving into the worst foolery and self-destructive behavior along the way. While a good sex life is certainly a component of living a fulfilling life, and Giacomo Casanova (one of the above-mentioned 20 Men) did achieve a state of True Glory partially in this way (through the literary acumen he had to pass his exploits down), better things can likely be done, and Casanova was more than a seducer, but an interesting adventurer.
And we can go down the list to even less worthy endeavors. Some might say they can achieve True Glory in empty causes that make them feel good, or even worse, basking in social media attention. None of these are worthy of remembrance, and none bring True Glory, only mediocrity and spiritual dullness.
The difference between True Glory and “finding your life’s purpose” is the addition of this objective element – will your life’s work(s) be worthy of remembrance? What will others hear about you? While you must not live for others, this element of the Greek kleos requires a degree of contemplation beyond hedonistic drives. In essence, it ensures you are not an island unto yourself, which “finding your life’s purpose” can often be an excuse to mean.
Basically, what are you doing to make the world more beautiful? How can you attach your name to such art?
Attaining True Glory requires discipline and fortitude to deal with setbacks. You must fervently believe that the thing you’re doing is right. If you don’t, you will not have the vigor to achieve the glory. All of the men on the linked list, even though there was surely an undercurrent of opportunism among many of them, felt to their bones that they were doing the right thing for themselves, and often, their communities and nations. People that achieve states of True Glory are filled with unbridled enthusiasm, ready to go out into the world and kick some ass, even when at times, it’s their own asses that get kicked.
Modern Western culture does not have this, and it is not promoted. We are told instead to be isolationist automatons whose purpose in life is to be consumers. Technology has made this worse. It is perhaps not so surprising that we have seen destructive ideologies take root, as they offer adventure and meaning where there is little to be found in a sedentary, consumerist lifestyle.
In that same regard, it’s not so surprising that political polarization, driven by stupid political movements, is increasing. While the rise of the “woke Social Justice Warrior” (and after this post was originally written, Donald Trump and “MAGA,” a movement I once fell for) is a result of many factors, this is one of them. Our lives in the first world, long devoid of any real hardship or challenges, inspire a lack of drive, especially with the internet isolating us from each other and social and economic opportunities decreasing for a lot of people, especially men. Despair is another side of this equation.
There is a primal quality in philosophies that offer not comfort, but struggle. They call to our deepest needs. Part of the reason that war stories resonate with so many people, and why people are fascinated by war, is because it requires a courage, valor, self-sacrifice, and discipline that peacetime rarely does. This is why, in the absence of any other struggle, people seem to need to make up their own struggles, no matter how irrational or destructive, to find meaning.
The trick then, seems to be to call up that wartime zeal and enthusiasm and direct it toward doing something great – to achieving kleos – everlasting fame, by doing something worthy of having your name spoken of on the lips of countless generations. Perhaps you yourself have no need to be so remembered. However, your deeds should be worthy of remembrance, because such remembrance means that you accomplished something truly magnificent.
The important thing is that you put in the effort. The effort is what will ground you and make you a better person.
Try to wake up every day with enthusiasm. Try to know yourself and where you want to go, and have a vision for the direction of your work. You must make tireless day to day efforts to bring that vision to reality. You should want to achieve something great, something worthy of remembrance and praise – not for others, but to achieve your own immortality in your own way. Athena says it best in this 1997 adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey:
Odysseus: I see you’re no longer with me, Athena, and it’s alright. I can do everything myself.
Athena (appearing with a laugh): Is that any way to speak to your protector?
Athena: I think the wine swells your head, my Odysseus. Are you drinking because you fear your future?
Odysseus (drinking, laughing, smirking): Me? I’m afraid of nothing!
Athena: I’m teasing you. You’re angry with me.
Odysseus: Athena! You could have helped me persuade Agamemnon, on the day of my son’s birth no less!
Athena: I’m a goddess after all. I have other duties. And don’t forget, I can be seen by whom I choose. I did not want you to escape this journey, because I want you to go. I want you, my brave Odysseus, to defeat the Trojans.
Odysseus: I’ve fought long enough.
Athena: No. You’re destiny’s to do battle, to become immortal, to have your name on the lips of endless generations!
Odysseus: No! I have no need to be remembered by endless generations.
Athena: Odysseus! You cannot lie to me! I know your true character! I know your pride, your vanity!
(Some more dialogue.)
Athena: You see the good in them (your men) because they love you. You must use this good to defeat the Trojans. You must be brave, my Odysseus.
Odysseus: I have no fear, as long as you’re with me.
This conversation encapsulates the Homeric hero, and indeed it is Homer’s example which I wish to emulate on my own journey to this True Glory, as it is most in line with my natural talents. He became like his heroes, achieving a state of True Glory, of kleos, by writing about them. I hope to do the same.
“Hero” is actually an operative word here, because while we think of it as describing something grand and noble these days, something almost superhuman, its original meaning was simply “he who is worthy.” Those worthy of True Glory will attain True Glory, because they contribute the most to acquiring it.
True Glory is different from happiness and contentment. It’s important to be happy, and I do not need much to be happy and content. However, contentment is often excuses for stagnation – the very disease Western civilization is suffering from, while others are hungry for something more.
Contentment is often the number one enemy to true happiness, because it holds you back.
We must never rest on our laurels, lest we become complacent. The best part of being human is our ability to do feats of greatness, to leave a legacy for eternity in finding and experiencing this beauty and this True Glory, which are possible only in this time and place in the universe’s history – a universe whose future promises to be cold and dark, sinking the possibility of glory into the blackness along with it. We owe it to ourselves and to the universe that created us to burn as brightly as we can while time still allows, to be living (for life is a unique creation of the universe) expressions of the natural beauty of the cosmos.
Carl Sagan used to say that “we are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” In the same tradition, True Glory is a way for us to be agents for the universe to glorify itself through our deeds, the deeds of life.
Louis XIV wrote:
Praise is of a very delicate texture, and we should be very careful how we are caught by its dazzling appearance, as it requires much penetration to discern truly our flatterers from our real admirers.
But however obscure the intentions of our courtiers may be, there is nevertheless, a certain mode by which we may turn everything they say to our advantage; which is simply, to examine ourselves closely on the subject of praise which others have bestowed on us; for when we hear certain encomiums which we ourselves are unconscious of deserving, it will immediately lead us to reflect on them (according to the temper of those who bestowed them) either as a malignant reproach for some error, which we, in consequence, should immediately endeavor to correct, or as a secret exhortation to a virtue to which we have hitherto been insensible.
Supposing even that we conceive ourselves really deserving of that which is spoken in our favor, instead of simply contenting ourselves with the praises which we have received, they ought rather to serve us as a stronger stimulus to merit new encomiums; for this assuredly is one of those mediums whereby the elevated mind may be distinguished from those who never rise beyond mediocrity; to behold the latter charmed with the empty noise of applause which is incessantly flattering their ears, abandoning themselves to inactivity and indolence, eager to persuade themselves that they have done enough; while the former, continually burning with an equal ardor, seem never fully satisfied, as if everything which is lavished to allay that fire with which they seem to burn only to increase its violence.
It is only after this manner, my son, that glory becomes amiable; the thirst for which it inspires is not a weak passion which becomes cloyed with possession; it is never obtained but by strong efforts, and never becomes satiating; and he who can rest contended without seeking new favors is unworthy even of those which he has already received.
Although we may never achieve the state, it is the desire, the zeal, and the work that make life meaningful and which rescues us from indolence and nihilism. That is its greatest virtue – fulfilling this deep human need. The journey to True Glory is equally as great as the destination.
At the conclusion of this entry, I’m still somewhat unsatisfied. Is this the true way to live a good life? I think I’m heading in the right direction, and I believe my underpinnings are right, but is what I’ve said the correct path? I’m still not entirely sure what it all means. I’ll just have to keep looking, and adding to this thesis, with words and deeds, as time goes by.
For more about how figures in history achieved their own states of glory through unrelenting effort and hard setbacks, read me second book, Lives of the Luminaries.