in: Character, Manly Lessons

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos — Conclusion

Jack London sitting portrait credo text ashes dust.

This article concludes a series that studied the life of Jack London, and especially his display of the Ancient Greek concept of thumos.

We hope you enjoyed our ten-part series on the life and thumos of Jack London. I know we enjoyed researching and writing it. I’ve never found another man’s story so fascinating and compelling. I’ve learned a lot about Jack and still want to learn more! I’d love to someday make a pilgrimage out to London’s former home in Glen Ellen, California (which is now a state park). That a man’s thumos can continue to burn and touch people well beyond the grave is truly a testament to the power of this force of soul.

Pondering the life of Jack London brings up many deep and interesting questions. Is a man with such high-pitched thumos almost destined to burn out (it’s hard to imagine Jack as a 70-year-old man, isn’t it)? Is it better to burn out than fade out? Is burning out selfish (Jack after all left behind a widow and two daughters)? If you’re going to burn out, would it better to do so in a more glorious way than poisoning your body (an unofficial motto of the Navy SEALs is to “live fast, die hard, and leave a good-looking corpse”)? Is ignorance really bliss or is it possible to attain vast knowledge and still retain your ideals? Would you rather experience all London did and die at 40, or double your lifespan but live a much more staid and mediocre life?

Every man will have different answers to these questions. I can only tell you of several of the takeaways I’ve personally gotten from tracing the ups and downs of Jack London’s life and the arc of his thumos.

Do more and be more. When reading London’s biographies and books, something deep within me, a hunger for something more, is greatly stirred – I just want to get out and explore! Jack described this stirring in himself as a voice at the back of his consciousness –“a curiosity, desire to know, an unrest and a seeking for things wonderful that I seemed somehow to have glimpsed or guessed.” By harkening to this call, Jack had some pretty amazing adventures and was able to commit with superhuman discipline to self-education and honing his craft as a writer. But even he himself said the voice came in a whisper to him, and I think oftentimes we have a hard time hearing it – and answering it — in our own lives. I know I do. Responsibilities pile up, fear gets in the way, we rationalize away our dreams and desires as silly or impossible to fulfill, and content ourselves with the ordinary.

“Such has been for me the best education in the world, and I look for it more and more. Man must have better men to measure himself against, else his advance will be nil, or if at all, one-sided and whimsical.” – Jack London

I know I’ll never be one-tenth as cool as Jack London – he was a one-of-a-kind character even in his own time – and his life honestly makes me feel pretty boring and inadequate! But in the best possible way. Measuring yourself against someone great doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily ever reach their level, but it can inspire you do better in your own place in the world – to make the most of whatever situation you are in. Jack London inspires me to read more, to work harder, and to figure out how I – a dad with plenty of obligations — can add more adventure to my own life.

Keep challenging yourself. London found that reaching the heights of success felt empty; his real joy came in the midst of his adventures and the godlike act of creating. His life really demonstrated to me how the journey and struggle is far more satisfying than the destination. Yeah, sounds like a bumper sticker, I know, but it’s truth. The recognition, fame, and money you get from reaching a high achievement does not bring lasting fulfillment. The reward is really in the striving – in the satisfaction that comes with stretching your mental and physical abilities to their limit, in having experiences that expand your soul, and in sensing yourself transform into a better man. Once you finish one challenge, you have to find a new one – even if it’s of a much different variety than the last.

Keep pushing. Like many success stories, London’s hardly moved in a straight line. He’d be stuck working in a factory, and then have a seemingly life-changing adventure, and then be back working at a factory, and then off on another adventure, only to return to the assembly-line once again. He received tons of rejections before magazines and publishers accepted his writing. But he always saw these setbacks as temporary. Instead of being discouraged, he kept looking for new opportunities and constantly worked to improve himself until he finally took off once and for all.

Take time to recharge. Another thing I gleaned from Jack is a greater understanding of the fact that while the white horse of thumos can certainly lead to greatness and success, if driven too hard and for too long, you risk weakening it and letting the dark horse of your appetites take control. I’m a huge proponent of working like hell to reach your goals and find success, and I’m happy when I’m hustling. But I have a really hard time knocking off and taking time to recharge – there’s no clear quitting time or hours at this kind of job and I could keep at it 24/7 if I wanted. Boy, did Jack and Charmian’s last conversation hit too close to home for me. Jack showed me that such a full-speed-ahead approach may work in the short-term, but you’ve got to pace yourself if you want to stick with something for the long haul. It’s all about the 20-Mile March!  

Hold onto your ideals. As Jack got older, he lost faith in the ideals that had fired his youth and animated his spirit. He felt that he knew too much, and by the end of his life he had become hollow and jaded. I do think that the more educated you become, the harder it gets not to fall victim to a deeply cynical outlook about people and life. Cynicism is like a cancer that starts small and then spreads to devour every bit of awe and sparkle and magic threaded throughout our existence. But I do think it’s possible to hold onto your ideals without burying your head in the sand. And not simply possible, but necessary. Every man needs a purpose – a set of beliefs rooted in his very core that he can full-throatily, wholeheartedly endorse – without apology, or wink, wink irony, or an endless list of caveats.

Heeding the seasons of thumos. One of the most interesting things to come out of studying Jack London’s life was reflecting on the way the “lifecycle” of thumos really mirrors that of the development of the brain.

A few months ago we did a two-part series on the importance of not wasting your twenties. We first talked about the unique powers and opportunities of the twentysomething brain, which include a propensity for deep passion, a keen curiosity about others and the world, and fearlessness in the face of risk (remind you of anything?). We explored the way these propensities mellow as your brain finishes developing and “setting up” in your mid-twenties, but explained that while your intensity dims, you become better able to plan, make decisions, process probability, set goals, and handle uncertainty. As you move into your thirties, the passionate part of your brain mellows while its executive functions strengthen.

That series has come to mind frequently as I’ve studied thumos and Jack London’s life, and it seems to me that the development of the brain and the nature of thumos are connected. The latter may not solely be a philosophical, metaphysical concept, but a neurological one as well. Just as your brain has seasons, your thumos does too, and it’s important to understand and take advantage of those seasons in their proper time. What we said about the brain is that it develops in such a way that the twenties are the ideal time for launching your passions, while the subsequent decades are best for then building what you launched. Or another way of looking at it is to say that the elements of drive, fight, and emotion of thumos are pitched highest in your youth, while its elements of decision-making, judgment, and steadfastness emerge more strongly as you age. The different elements of thumos come to the forefront at different times in your life, and they emerge precisely when you need them most.

The ancient Greeks recognized these different seasons of  a man’s thumos. They associated thumos most strongly with youth, but felt it operated throughout a man’s life. A perfect example of the different seasons of thumos can be seen in comparing Achilles in the Iliad and Odysseus in the Odyssey. Achilles was a young man, probably no older than 18 or 19, and was filled with fierce thumic anger and drive. He sought glory and honor above all else. And he got it. He just had to die in the prime of his life to obtain it.

Odysseus, on the other hand, was older. He had a family and kingdom back at home waiting for him. He didn’t care as much about glory as he did about getting back to his beloved Ithaca alive. Odysseus still had thumos; it just didn’t burn as white-hot as Achilles’, and he used it in a different way. It was with his thumic cunning and wiles that he was able to make wise decisions, outwit his foes, and return home to live a long and peaceful life.

If you were to ask me whom I identified with more 10 years ago, I would have told you Achilles. I was fiercely driven to reach my goals and become a success. But now that I’m 30, and have a family and a mortgage, I find myself relating to the man of many wiles more and more. My passion and drive for success have dimmed, while my desire to be a wise steward over what I have already gained has grown.

First a man becomes a warrior; then, if he survives the battle, he becomes a king. First thumos drives one to conquer, then it aids him in managing and growing what he has attained. Thumos is needed in each season, but in different ways.

I don’t think Jack London understood this. Or if he did understand it, he didn’t accept it. He kept flogging the drive component of this thumos that had pushed him to success in his twenties, well into his thirties, but to increasingly diminished returns. And he neglected to harness and train the wise decision-making and judgment elements of his thumos, letting what he had already gained slip away. His thumos was operating out of season – failing to harvest in the fall and planting fruitless seeds in the winter. He had thrived as the warrior, but could not transition into being the king.

Be a man. Manliness can be tough to define. But boy, we sure know it when we see it. It’s something easier to feel than to articulate. Despite his flaws, Jack London’s manliness leapt off every page he wrote, and that others wrote about him, with palpable force. Simply learning about him makes me want to be more of a man. Would we all be so privileged as to receive the kind of succinct tribute an old sourdough offered to London upon his death:

“I loved the man because—because he was a man; By the Turtles of Tasman, He was a man!”

Jack London sitting writing in notebook on yacht.

Farewell, Jack. Thanks for everything.

We’d like to end this series with our favorite piece of Jack’s writing, the one that perhaps best sums up the feeling of thumos that blazed through his life.

The selection comes from London’s fictional novel, The Iron Heel, published in 1908. The narrator, Avis Everhard, describes her husband Ernest, and shares his favorite poem, one which speaks to the infinite power and potential of man and the desire to live life to the fullest:

But he had pride. How could he have been an eagle and not have pride? His contention was that it was finer for a finite mortal speck of life to feel Godlike, than for a god to feel godlike; and so it was that he exalted what he deemed his mortality. He was fond of quoting a fragment from a certain poem. He had never seen the whole poem, and he had tried vainly to learn its authorship. I here give the fragment, not alone because he loved it, but because it epitomized the paradox that he was in the spirit of him, and his conception of his spirit. For how can a man, with thrilling, and burning, and exaltation, recite the following and still be mere mortal earth, a bit of fugitive force, an evanescent form? Here it is:

Joy upon joy and gain upon gain
Are the destined rights of my birth,
And I shout the praise of my endless days
To the echoing edge of the earth.
Though I suffer all deaths that a man can die
To the uttermost end of time,
I have deep-drained this, my cup of bliss,
In every age and clime—

The froth of Pride, the tang of Power,
The sweet of Womanhood!
I drain the lees upon my knees,
For oh, the draught is good;
I drink to Life, I drink to Death,
And smack my lips with song,
For when I die, another ‘I’ shall pass the cup along.

The man you drove from Eden’s grove
Was I, my Lord, was I,
And I shall be there when the earth and the air
Are rent from sea to sky;
For it is my world, my gorgeous world,
The world of my dearest woes,
From the first faint cry of the newborn
To the rack of the woman’s throes.

Packed with the pulse of an unborn race,
Torn with a world’s desire,
The surging flood of my wild young blood
Would quench the judgment fire.
I am Man, Man, Man, from the tingling flesh
To the dust of my earthly goal,
From the nestling gloom of the pregnant womb
To the sheen of my naked soul.
Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh
The whole world leaps to my will,
And the unslaked thirst of an Eden cursed
Shall harrow the earth for its fill.
Almighty God, when I drain life’s glass
Of all its rainbow gleams,
The hapless plight of eternal night
Shall be none too long for my dreams.

The man you drove from Eden’s grove
Was I, my Lord, was I,
And I shall be there when the earth and the air
Are rent from sea to sky;
For it is my world, my gorgeous world,
The world of my dear delight,
From the brightest gleam of the Arctic stream
To the dusk of my own love-night.

What did you take from learning about the life of Jack London? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

Read the Entire Jack London Series:

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Boyhood
Part 3: Oyster Pirate
Part 4: Pacific Voyage
Part 5: On the Road
Part 6: Back to School
Part 7: Into the Klondike
Part 8: Success at Last
Part 9: The Long Sickness
Part 10: Ashes
Part 11: Conclusion

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