in: Character, Featured, Manly Lessons

• Last updated: June 6, 2021

The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos — #1: Introduction

Young Jack London sitting with credo text ashes dust.

“Jack London was the type of man to have commanded other men. [He has] eyes to inflame youth, inspire men, madden women.” -Frank Pease

“He just jumped into life with both feet in that courageous way of his, and he got romance and mystery and beauty out of it where other men could see only labor. That’s genius.” -Johnny Heinhold

“Jack looked like a young, ardent, hopeful fellow brimful of conviction. He instantly inspired me with his open comradeship…Whenever I saw him, he was always the center of a group; people flocked to his vital magnetism; everyone who came within its radius, loved him.” –Johannes Reimers

“His eyes were those of a dreamer, and there was almost a feminine wistfulness about him. Yet at the same time he gave the feeling of a terrific and unconquerable physical force.” -Arnold Genthe

“I never saw a man in all my life with more magnetism, beautiful magnetism. If a preacher could have the love in his make up, and the life, God, this whole world would be religious.” – Finn Frolich,

“I want to say that Jack London is one of the grittiest men it has been my good fortune to meet. He is just as heroic as any of the characters in his novels.” -Robert Dunn

“I think of him as part of the heroic youth and courage of the world.” –Edwin Markham

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been discussing Plato’s view of the tripartite soul or psyche, which the ancient philosopher compared to a chariot. Reason acts as the charioteer who is tasked with guiding and harnessing the energy of his two “horses.” The dark horse, or appetites, is earthy and rebellious, while the white horse, thumos, is noble and spirited.

I had actually done most of the research for those two posts over a year ago. But every time I sat down to write about Plato’s allegory of the chariot, and thumos especially, nothing would come out. I understood all the different elements of thumos, but I couldn’t connect them in my mind into a cohesive whole – it just seemed too abstract and confusing. I realized I didn’t fully understand thumos myself, so I couldn’t explain it to others either. And so my notes sat there and sat there — I wasn’t sure when or if I’d return to them.

Then a couple of months ago, I happened to decide to start researching the life of Jack London, figuring it might give me some interesting fodder for articles. I didn’t know much about the man, beyond having read Call of the Wild and White Fang as a kid. Yet, I had long been intrigued by London, having come across quotes like those above that described him in a stirring way I’ve rarely seen in regards to other famous men. As I began to read a biography on London, I quickly came to the realization that I wasn’t just taking in the story of a man’s life, but also a true case study on both the power and perils of thumos. Seeing how thumos had operated in a modern man of flesh and blood brought its formerly mysterious threads together for me at last. In studying this example of the embodiment of thumos, the once nebulous concept became very graspable and clear.

Once the thumos of London grabbed ahold of me, I experienced something akin to what his contemporaries described as his magnetic attraction, and I had a hard time letting go – I wound up reading not one but three biographies, and half a dozen of his novels and short stories as well. I finally had to reluctantly tear myself away to get started on this series!

What was really interesting to me is that near the end of my research, long after I had made the London-thumos connection, I found a quote of his which explicitly states that he himself saw his psyche in this way:

“I early learned that there were two natures in me. This caused me a great deal of trouble, till I worked out a philosophy of life and struck a compromise between the flesh and the spirit. Too great an ascendancy of either was to be abnormal, and since normality is almost a fetish of mine, I finally succeeded in balancing both natures. Ordinarily they are at equilibrium; yet as frequently as one is permitted to run rampant, so is the other. I have small regard for an utter brute or for an utter saint.”

Written in 1899, 17 years before his death at the age of 40, London’s declaration of success in balancing the desires of his appetites with the aims of his thumos was somewhat premature. Allowing both forces to “run rampant” in turns would lead to both the pinnacle of success and sadly, to an early grave.

The Indomitable Thumos of Jack London

Jack London’s fiercely blazing thumos gave him an insatiable appetite for life. He lived each day as if it was his last. His friend Ford Maddox Ford said London would “burn his life out by his enjoyment of it,” and Upton Sinclair described him as having “an unmatched zeal for living.” He was always reminding them, his friends said, that “we are dying, cell by cell, every minute of our lives.”

London took pride in “the captaincy of his own powers,” and subscribed to the maxim that “Satisfaction with existing things is damnation.” He referred to the journey of life as his “adventure path,” and he was ever in pursuit of “the tang of living.” As a young man, London worked in a cannery, electrical plant, and laundry facility, taught himself to sail, became an oyster pirate, traveled the Pacific aboard a seal-hunting schooner, and ventured into the Klondike in search of gold. By age 22, he had seen and done more than 99% of men will in their entire lifetime.

Yet London was not simply a flighty wanderer. When it came to his self-directed studies and becoming a writer, his discipline could be iron-clad. His interests were wide, he was a voracious reader of the great thinkers in every field, and his curiosity about the world never left him – he loved learning new ideas and debating them with others. Many were drawn to what they felt was his open and ever-questioning nature. He crammed for and passed the rigorous entrance exams of the University of California without ever finishing high school. He penned poems, short stories, and essays for 19 hours a day, and achieved bestselling eminence in just three years of supernaturally-intense effort. Before age 30 he had reached the height of literary fame and was the highest paid writer in America. By the time of his death he had authored 200 short stories, 400 non-fiction pieces, and 20 novels.

Perhaps what most intrigued people about London is how he combined what many described as a feminine sensitivity with a scrappy toughness. The San Francisco Examiner said he had both a “a prizefighter’s jaw and philosopher’s forehead” — the “instincts of a caveman and aspirations of a poet.” His second wife, Charmian, believed that his “soaring idealism,  which later, combined with an enduring practicality, made of him an extraordinary entity both as Doer and Thinker.

Charmian tells of the way in which he embodied the intuitive element of thumos: “Seldom did he come in contact with persons who could discriminate as quickly as he, due to that supreme awareness which quickened his every wakeful moment. His keynote was awareness, consciousness.” He liked to bike in the countryside, pick flowers, and lay on his back in the fields, looking at kites soaring in the sky. Whether out sailing on the water or at home in his study, his favorite thing to do was curl up with a book.

Yet he also took great pleasure in his physical strength, in feeling that within “his swelling, resilient muscles was the primordial vigor of life.” He boxed and fenced and could hold his own in a gang of toughs on the street or on a ship full of gritty sailors. He didn’t like to fight, but if pushed, he fought to win.

In short, London’s thumos burned within and without, coursing through his spirit and finding its way into his bones and sinews. He was much like the character Wolf Larsen from his novel The Sea-Wolf, whom he imbued with many of his own traits and philosophies:

“The face, with large features and strong lines, of the square order, yet well filled out, was apparently massive at first sight; but again, as with the body, the massiveness seemed to vanish and a conviction to grow of a tremendous and excessive mental or spiritual strength that lay behind, sleeping in the deeps of his being. The jaw, the chin, the brow rising to a goodly height and swelling heavily above the eyes, — these, while strong in themselves, unusually strong, seemed to speak an immense vigor or virility of spirit that lay behind and beyond and out of sight. There was no sounding such a spirit, no measuring, no determining of metes and bounds, nor neatly classifying in some pigeonhole with others of similar type.

A Man Who Lost Balance

So we see that London had a tuned up, indomitable thumos. He was a man for who it could be said that “the part of second fiddle would never do for the highpitched dominance of his nature.” Unfortunately, the dark horse of his appetites never ceased fighting for control of his chariot. He would eventually fall prey to that trap we discussed last time, in which the dark horse gets the white horse to fall in line with it, instead of the other way around. Heavy drinking was at first a natural part of the places and people he met along the “adventure path,” but later in life became a destructive habit. While he claimed no love of making money, he did enjoy spending it – too much. His debts compelled him to keep on flogging his thumos, even when it was tired, to keep churning out writings. With his white horse exhausted at the latter end of his life, it was even more vulnerable to the enticements of the dark one. His body began breaking down at the young age of 37, and by the time he was 39, his body was like that of an old man – ankles swollen, eyes bloodshot, kidneys failing, joints aching with rheumatism. At 40 he would die of some combination of morphine overdose, uremia, or lupus (the exact cause of death is still up for debate).

Jack London was a complicated figure – full of worthy traits and flaws like any man, but living at a higher pitch than most of us. It is most fitting he was called by friends and loved ones “Wolf” – the ancient symbol of the warrior, and of both destruction and creation. Why he fell to earth is telling; how he soared, inspiring. His friend explains the appeal of a man like London, and how his life speaks to the enormous potentialities of thumos in all of us:

“Individualized as his personality was he was yet symbolic. In him was expressed what a human being escaping from the Abyss might become. Charles Ferguson, the other day, spoke of Jack London as having been the-most aristocratic of men. If to be gifted beyond others, stronger than others, more beautiful in person, warmer of heart than others is to be a natural aristocrat, then… this man…was one. To me his qualities were interesting more because they showed what was in all of us than because they were exceptional. He was a genius and yet that was only to be—the ordinary human being extended. To know him was immediately to receive an accelerated enthusiasm about everybody.”

Each day for the next week and a half, we will present the life story of Jack London as a case study in thumos. If you remember from last time, Plato believed that to understand and help train one’s own thumos, it was beneficial to study the lives of other men, for the “bird’s-eye” perspective allowed you to take in the full sweep of their rises and falls, strengths and weaknesses. To get that full sweep, this look at London’s life will be fairly comprehensive, but it will not be a full biography. Rather our aim is to trace the curvature of his thumos, its highpoints and lowpoints during the course of his life. We hope you enjoy it.

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



Wolf: The Lives of Jack London by James L. Haley 

Jack London: A Life by Alex Kershaw

The Book of Jack London, Volumes 1 & 2 by Charmian London (free in the public domain)

Complete Works of Jack London (all of London’s works are available free in the public domain, or you can download his hundreds of writings all in one place for $3, which is just plain awesome)

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