Saturday, October 31, 2015

Yes, strength is a virtue. And this is especially true for men.

Someone commented on an old post about strength being a virtue and asked if I still thought so and if I had any further thoughts on the subject. The answer is yes on both counts.

One of the perennial questions about virtues is whether you can have them in isolation. Now, that may sound dry and academic and it certainly can be dry and academic but it needed be. Think about the police. Are you glad we have a police force? You shouldn't have to think about that. The only correct answer to that question is yes. But you also worry about abuse of police power. And you worry even though you know it's pretty rare.

Strength is like the police. It's unquestionably a good thing and yet you know that strength can be misused. Strength is scary. When I first started squatting I was shocked at how quickly I got up to weights that really scared me. The potential for damage was huge. To have strength is good but you need to figure out how to use it and you need to figure out how to develop it in a balanced way. Getting stronger is part of being better in every way but it isn't a guarantee of anything.

Learning how to use it

First, a massive qualification: My experience is that weak, snivelling little shits do a lot more damage in this world than strong men do. You will probably be a better man in every way if you get stronger. Probably. I say that because having  physical strength is going to force you to think about moral issues that you've been ducking until now.

When I started lifting many years ago, two huge moral/psychological changes followed. The first was that I started standing up to people. When I saw some jerk pick on someone, I started speaking up. I'm six foot one and I'm big. And, without really thinking about it, I started using that size and the strength I'd gained. If someone crowded me on the bus, I'd stand up tall. It seems like a little thing but I realized that for years I'd been backing away or contorting myself to accommodate pushy people and, now that I was strong, I stopped doing it.

I did the same socially. And some people got really upset. I had one woman I'd known for years start yelling at me and threatening me simply because I no longer put up with her verbal bullying. She soon made it clear that either I was going to revert to my former ways or lose her friendship. I chose to let it go. And that hurt her. It hurt her a lot. And I had to think that through. It wasn't my fault that she was unreasonable but she was pretty stuck in her ways and it was unlikely that she would change. I felt that I was just finally standing up for what was reasonable all these years but I quickly figured out that doing so was going to be devastating for her. In the end, I decided that my standing up for myself was more important than her feelings and did so even though I knew she'd go through some psychological suffering.

Strength forces you to think seriously about hurting people. You still hurt people when you don't have strength but it's easier to dodge responsibility. Once your strong, you know you can do it. You may think, that doesn't apply to me because I'm never going to be strong like an MMA expert. And that's true, but MMA fighters are in the top two percent in terms of their ability to inflict pain. Only an idiot would challenge a guy like that. But most men aren't like that. Most men are weak and pathetic and four months in the gym will make you stronger than most men. And if you do that, you have to start thinking seriously about violence and what you might do with it.

The second moral challenge was sex. Your testosterone goes way up and so does your sex drive. And so do your opportunities for sex. Women become more interested in you. In fact, any man in his twenties or early thirties who takes the trouble to be strong, get a good job and learn to be be socially adept will soon find the number of potential sexual partners available to him to be a little staggering. And then you suddenly find yourself faced with moral challenges about sex in a way that you never were before.


If you start getting stronger, one of the brutal truths you will soon be forced to face is that some other men are lot stronger than you are. That may seem obvious but our narcissism plays tricks on us. Before we try, we know that we aren't strong but part of us believes that we could be as good as anyone else if we tried and that isn't even close to true. Yeah, somebody has to be the strongest guy in the gym and it might be you but it almost certainly won't be. More likely, you'll be working out someday and some relatively ordinary looking guy who weighs 60 pounds less than you is going to come in and lift a hundred and fifty pounds more than you. And, no, you're never going to catch up to him.

Getting stronger should teach you lessons about yourself and you should use those lessons to become a better person. Not the best man there is but the best man you can be. One of the most important lessons is about reasonable limits. If  you've never worked out, you'll make huge gains at first. And then that will taper off and then the question becomes how do I manage myself now. For me, physical training was the first time I had to ask that question.

Now that I'm getting older—some stores now give me a seniors' discount—I've had to start facing getting weaker. No matter how much I train, I get a little weaker every year. That's true of people who don't train but they can hide it with self denial. You can't do that with weights: you can either move them or you can't.

Now, it doesn't follow that being forced to face this stuff will lead to wisdom. I meet people in the gym who do really stupid shit fairly regularly. Virtues don't exist in isolation. But the thing about virtues is that you don't get any of them if you don't work at them. You may still fail at becoming a man if you get strong but you will almost certainly fail if you don't.