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Soundtrack for Your Thumos

thumos soundtrack inspiring music playlist

The ancient Greeks believed that a man’s soul or psyche was made up of three parts: Reason, Appetites, and Thumos. While an understanding of the first two parts of this tripartite model of the soul remains with us, the concept of thumos has been mostly lost in our modern day. We tellingly have no word that directly corresponds to it.

The Greeks believed thumos was essential to andreia (manliness) and conceived of it as an incredibly rich and complex energy. Thumos is a man’s life force – the passion that gives spiritedness to the young, and lends freshness and vigor to the old. It is the seat of emotions, and the emotion itself. The Greeks most associated it with anger, especially a righteous rage that springs to life when a man’s honor, loved ones, or community are threatened. Thumos fuels the drive of action, ambition, and the desire to fight, as well as a man’s gameness, courage, and ability to stay “in the arena” once the battle is underway. It is the “fire in the belly” that pushes a man to leave behind safety and security, to despise mediocrity, and to want to excel his fellow men and become the best of the best.

Not only does thumos represent a man’s fighting spirit, but also the energy of discernment and deliberation. It acts as an aid in decision-making and problem-solving. A man ponders possibilities in his thumos, and in turn, it offers inspiration on what course of action to take.

Because the ancient Greeks thought of thumos as a distinct part of a person, they believed you could talk to it — tell it to endure, to be strong, or to be young. In The Iliad, Achilles delights his thumos by playing the lyre.

Thumos is hard to describe, but easy to feel coursing through you. Luckily, not only can you please your thumos with music, you can also use music to fire it up.

Thumos music is akin to “pump up music” — but not identical. It’s not about whipping yourself into a super agro state, and it doesn’t just prime your body for brute force action. You feel it in your bones and your brain. It activates both the primal and higher parts of your spirit. It sweeps you along through the troughs and pinnacles of the human experience — not just anger and joy, but grief and sorrow. It momentarily pulls back the veil on an ideal that is usually so ineffable and inaccessible — greatness. Basically, thumos music makes you feel alive.

Below are several albums and songs that are guaranteed to invigorate your thumos. It’s what I listened to while writing the Semper Virilis series a few months ago, and it continues to be my soundtrack for thinking and writing about heavy, deep, and complex topics. I’ll also listen to my thumos soundtrack when I’m working out; it makes those deadlifts and HIITs seem even more legendary.

Most of the music in my thumos soundtrack comes from orchestral soundtracks from epic films. There’s something about orchestral music, especially when woven with intense chanting choruses, that deeply stirs the “fire in the belly.” Maybe epic movie soundtracks tap into that primordial, Dionysian part of our brain the same way that the music and chanting choruses that accompanied the tragedies of the ancient Greeks invigorated the Hellenistic spirit. Maybe it’s the timelessness and majesty of orchestral music. I don’t know. I just know that when I listen to it, my heart beats a bit faster, the hairs on my arm stand up, and I feel primed for inspiration and ready for a fight — be it physical, mental, or spiritual. Watching the movies that accompany these soundtracks is another great way to boost your thumos, but that’s another post.

When you need to not only get pumped up for something, but to show up fully alive for it, listen to songs that awaken your thumos. Whether it’s reaching a new PR on your deadlift, playing in the state championship game, writing a research report, shaking off the bad mojo lingering from a break-up, summoning the courage to quit your job, or whatever challenge you’re facing, this is the soundtrack for you. While all the songs on these albums are great for thumos, I’ve handpicked a few of my favorites from each one. Hopefully it will serve as a starting point for creating your own thumos soundtrack.

Follow and Listen to the Entire Soundtrack on Spotify!



Braveheart Soundtrack 

Check out “The Battle of Stirling,” “‘Sons of Scotland,'” “‘Freedom,'” and “End Credits.”


Gladiator Soundtrack 

“The Battle,” “Strength and Honor,” “Elysium,” and “Honor Him” are great.


The Last of the Mohicans Soundtrack 

“Main Title,” “Elk Hunt,” “Fort Battle,” and “Top Of The World” are my favorites on this one.


The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Soundtrack

Check out “The Prophecy,” “Many Meetings,” and “Amon Hen.”

two towers

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Soundtrack

“The King Of The Golden Hall” and “The White Rider” are two of my favorites from this album.


The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Soundtrack

Lots of great thumos-inspiring music on this album, but a few of my favorites are “The Ride of the Rohirrim,” “The Fields of the Pelenor,” “The End of All Things,” and “The Return of the King.”


The Last Samurai Soundtrack

“Red Warrior” and “The Way of the Sword” are epic.


Inception Soundtrack

Listen to “Time” and “Dream is Collapsing.”


300 Soundtrack

“To Victory,” “Immortals Battle,” and “Returns a King” really get the blood hot with thumos.


Invincible – Two Steps From Hell

I don’t know where I first learned about the group Two Steps From Hell, but I’m glad I discovered them. They’re a music production company in L.A. that makes epic-sounding music for movies, video games, and television. Over the years they’ve put together albums of their most popular tracks. All the music is thumos-inspiring. On Invincible be sure to check out “Heart of Courage,” “Super Strength,” and “To Glory.”


Archangel – Two Steps From Hell

“Strength of a Thousand Men,” “Army of Justice,” and “The Last Stand” are a few of my favorites.


SkyWorld – Two Steps From Hell

Check out “All the Kings Horses” and “For the Win.”


Classics, Vol 1 – Two Steps From Hell

“Sons of War,” “Clash of Empires,” and “Birth of a Hero” are great.


Miracles – Two Steps From Hell

“Men of Honor” is my favorite on this album.


The Magnificent Seven Soundtrack

“Main Title,” “Council of War,” and “The Hallelujah Trail” are especially good from this album.


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Soundtrack

“Il Buono, Il Cattivo, Il Brutto” is a classic. Most of the other songs on this album are a variation of the main title song. “Il Triello” has some nice trumpets and thumos-invigorating vocals.


Band of Brothers Soundtrack

“Main Title,” “Band of Brothers Suite Two,” and “Band of Brothers Requiem” are must-listens.


The Pacific Soundtrack

“Honor,” “With the Old Breed,” and “Landing Peleliu” are good listens.


Saving Private Ryan Soundtrack

“Hymn to the Fallen,” “Approaching the Enemy,” and “The Last Battle” are a few of my favorites from this album.


The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place – Explosions in the Sky

This one is a bit different from most of the selections on this list. Explosions in the Sky is an instrumental rock band from Austin, Texas. While not orchestral, their music is definitely thumos-inspiring, which is probably why their songs “Your Hand In Mine” and “First Breath After Coma” off this album were used in both the movie and TV version of Friday Night Lights (my favorite television show of all time). I get chills every time I listen. It reminds me of the emotion and drama of my high school football days, which in turn reminds me to maintain some of that youthful thumotic spiritedness even as I get older.


“Ride of the Valkyries” by Richard Wagner

The great military strategist John Boyd would often listen to Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” while working out his revolutionary ideas. I figured if it helped him change warfare as we know it, this song could help me write awesome stuff (including posts about him — kind of meta).

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

The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos — #10: Ashes


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

Jack London might have lived a long and happy life – living comfortably off the fruits of his literary achievements, devoting himself to making his ranch a success, writing new works only when and if he felt like it, enjoying his family and friends, and continuing to travel the world. But the desires of his appetites — his dark horse — would keep this kind of healthy, balanced future ever out of reach.

Forever in the Hole

Jack did not become a writer because it was his great passion, but simply because he wanted to do something creative in his work, and writing provided such an outlet along with the financial independence he sought. It was a means to an end, and while he wasn’t a slave to those means, he struggled with managing the ends:

“I am writing for money…More money means more life to me. I shall always hate the task of getting money…I’d sooner be out in the open wandering around most any old place. So the habit of money-getting will never become one of my vices. But the habit of money spending, ah God, I shall always be its victim.”

There was almost no time in Jack London’s life when he was not in debt, although this was not entirely due to profligate spending habits. Throughout his life he had felt duty-bound to take care of his family members, and his acquaintances as well. He supported his mother, his old wet nurse Mammie Jenny and her family, his nephew who had been abandoned by his stepsister, his ex-wife, and their two daughters, as well as Charmian and himself. Beauty Ranch also became a weigh station for every tramp and old sailor London had ever crossed paths with in his youth. Jack was known for his generous heart and hospitable spirit, and he welcomed all visitors with a night’s stay, a hot meal, and a few dollars in their pocket before they headed on their way. And then there were the letters anyone who reaches prominent success receives by the bucketful – requests for money for this or that cause or charity or need. London almost never turned such requests down.

But on top of these allocations of his funds, Jack also enjoyed blowing cash on all the good things in life. After a childhood of just getting by, it gave him great satisfaction to purchase the very best, top of the line version of everything from boxing gloves to saddles. He sunk literal boatloads of money into the yacht he intended to sail around the world, hiring a completely inept building manager for its construction who ended up making everything cost several times as much as it should have. He enlarged his ranch, buying up more land and expanding into different operations, even though the ones already started had yet to become profitable. Then there was the construction of what Jack hoped to be the centerpiece of the ranch — a 4-story, 2-million dollar, 15,000-square foot stone mansion: Wolf House. Designed to have the feel of a large cabin or lodge, the gem of the house for Jack was to be his large study that was set off from the rest of the house – a retreat where he could write undisturbed. Below it, connected by a spiral staircase, would sit the realization of Jack’s boyhood dream: a large library where he could store his massive collection of books.

Jack swelled with pride and excitement as he watched the Wolf House take shape each day. But paying the bills for it, along with the rest of his debts, was a constant scramble. He frequently wired his publisher in New York, pleading for an advance on his next book.


To keep himself from getting too far into the hole, London had to constantly be generating income by writing new manuscripts. While writing had always been a commercial venture for him, it increasingly became a chore of bare necessity, as he turned out pot-boilers and hackwork he hoped would quickly sell. The drive of his thumos deserved a rest, but he was forced to keep flogging his white horse day after day, pushing it to continually produce. For a decade his fiery thumos had been game for such unrelenting effort, but the ceaseless toil began to take a grave toll.

A Spiritedness Extinguished


In Plato’s allegory of the chariot, thumos acts as the seat of a man’s emotions and his lofty, noble ideals, and it is the source of feelings of delight and awe. Thumos and Reason are supposed to work together – intellect tempered with passion – to help a man progress through life. But as Jack’s white horse slowed to an exhausted trot, his Reason began to operate in isolation without this needed counterbalance.

There are some people who can plumb the very depths of knowledge and experience much of what the world has to offer and still hold onto their ideals, and others who find that such study and horizon-broadening makes them cynical and jaded. Jack was one of the latter. “I burned my fingers that time I clutched at the veils of Truth and rent them from her,” he said. Having been introduced to the stark realism of Nietzsche, Spencer, and Darwin in his youth, and read many more works of science and philosophy through the years, a view of life as strictly biological – a matter of primitive survival of the fittest – had come to dominate his worldview.

During his “Long Sickness,” Jack came to see his youthful ideals – belief in the desirability of recognition, the power of dreams and goals, the nobleness of sacrifice and altruism, the ineffable beauty of art and culture, the special nature of human love, and so on – as simply “fond illusions” that “keep the world spinning round.” These illusions — the Good, the Just, the Beautiful – Truths of the capital-letter variety that Plato championed – were irrational, false facades, veils of pretense used by modern civilization to hide the bald biological reality of existence. Such illusions were clung to by sentimentalists who believed in the immortality of the soul and a world of meaning; they were too cowardly to face the fact that there were no “higher” aims or morals, and that humans were just animals that operated solely from self-interest.

Jack could even admit that his beloved socialism was an illusion like all the rest. Yet at first he chose to hold onto it, and other “illusions” too, deciding he’d keep on believing in them anyway; he “knew the illusions were right” and that their uplifting effect on his outlook and attitude had helped pull him out of his Long Sickness. But holding onto ideals while at the same time conceding that they are in fact illusions is an effort that cannot long be sustained. As London lost his grip on his ideals, he came to agree more and more with his Sea-Wolf, who argued that life is “piggishness”:

“I believe that life is a mess,…It is like yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves and may move for a minute, an hour, a year, or a hundred years, but that in the end will cease to move. The big eat the little that they may continue to move, the strong eat the weak that they may retain their strength. The lucky eat the most and move the longest, that is all. What do you make of those things?” He swept his arm in an impatient gesture toward a number of the sailors who were working on some kind of rope stuff amidships. “They move; so does the jellyfish move. They move in order to eat in order that they may keep moving. There you have it. They live for their belly’s sake, and the belly is for their sake. It’s a circle; you get nowhere. Neither do they. In the end they come to a standstill. They move no more. They are dead.”

As Jack got older and his Reason increasingly trumped his ideals, he tried to keep his reading and studying to lighter subjects, in hopes it would alleviate his cynicism, or at least not deepen it:

“I pursued Truth less relentlessly, refraining from tearing her last veils aside even when I clutched them in my hand. I no longer cared to look upon Truth naked. I refused to permit myself to see a second time what I had once seen. And the memory of what I had that time seen I resolutely blotted from my mind.”

But hiding from knowledge could not be the answer and the cat could not be put back in the bag; the spiritedness and burning curiosity of Jack’s youth were gone.

Enter Stage Left: John Barleycorn

Jack had drank on and off throughout his life, taking part when fraternizing with other men on the “adventure path,” but feeling no need for it, and actually rather enjoying its absence, when it was unavailable, such as aboard the Sophie Sutherland or through the long Klondike winter. And he felt no urge to drink during the times when he was driving towards a new goal and glorying in the challenge of studying and writing. Of such periods he said: “I possessed too many fine faiths, was living at too keen a pitch… alcohol could not give me the fervors that were mine from ideas and ideals.”

But as Jack’s ideals and thumos faded, and his spirits flagged, John Barleycorn took hold of the reins of his dark horse and urged her on. His first move was to present himself as an antidote to Jack’s boredom in social situations, which had begun to be quite painful and acute as a result of his jadedness about life in general:

“I had climbed too high among the stars, or, maybe, I had slept too hard. Yet I was not hysterical nor in any way overwrought…I was merely bored. I had seen the same show too often, listened too often to the same songs and the same jokes. I knew too much about the box-office receipts. I knew the cogs of the machinery behind the scenes so well, that the posing on the stage, and the laughter and the song, could not drown the creaking of the wheels behind.

When I was in company I was less pleased, less excited, with the things said and done. Erstwhile worth-while fun and stunts seemed no longer worth while; and it was a torment to listen to the insipidities and stupidities of women, to the pompous, arrogant sayings of the little half-baked men. It is the penalty one pays for reading the books too much, or for being oneself a fool. In my case it does not matter which was my trouble. The trouble itself was the fact. The condition of the fact was mine. For me the life, and light, and sparkle of human intercourse were dwindling.”

Jack saw no solution outside the bottle: “And now we begin to come to it. How to face social intercourse with the glamour gone? John Barleycorn!” Alcohol helped him enjoy himself more and act as a pleasing host and guest.


For a time, Jack’s drinking was limited to social situations, but his mind eventually made a leap: if John Barleycorn could heighten his enjoyment of parties and dinners, why not let it heighten his happiness in other areas as well? He recounts this heartbreaking turning point:

“I remember one day Charmian and I took a long ride over the mountains on our horses. The servants had been dismissed for the day, and we returned late at night to a jolly chafing-dish supper. Oh, it was good to be alive that night while the supper was preparing, the two of us alone in the kitchen. I, personally, was at the top of life. Such things as the books and ultimate truth did not exist. My body was gloriously healthy, and healthily tired from the long ride. It had been a splendid day. The night was splendid. I was with the woman who was my mate, picnicking in gleeful abandon. I had no troubles. The bills were all paid, and a surplus of money was rolling in on me. The future ever widened before me. And right there, in the kitchen, delicious things bubbled in the chafing dish, our laughter bubbled, and my stomach was keen with a most delicious edge of appetite.

I felt so good, that somehow, somewhere, in me arose an insatiable greed to feel better. I was so happy that I wanted to pitch my happiness even higher. And I knew the way. Ten thousand contacts with John Barleycorn had taught me. Several times I wandered out of the kitchen to the cocktail bottle, and each time I left it diminished by one man’s size cocktail. The result was splendid. I wasn’t jingled, I wasn’t lighted up; but I was warmed, I glowed, my happiness was pyramided. Munificent as life was to me, I added to that munificence. It was a great hour —one of my greatest. But I paid for it, long afterwards, as you shall see. One does not forget such experiences, and, in human stupidity, cannot be brought to realize that there is no immutable law which decrees that same things shall produce same results. For they don’t, else would the thousandth pipe of opium be provocative of similar delights to the first, else would one cocktail, instead of several, produce an equivalent glow after a year of cocktails.”

At first London limited his drinking to his leisure time, keeping his mornings when he worked and wrote soberly sacrosanct. But then he began to enjoy a drink during his writing sessions, and soon felt the need for a cocktail right after waking up.  It wasn’t long before he was drinking all the time. London was unhappy with his intensifying need for alcohol and the rising strength of his dark horse. He knew that despite the illusions of happiness and high living alcohol provided him, there would be a steep price to pay:

“This is not a world of free freights. One pays according to an iron schedule–for every strength the balanced weakness; for every high a corresponding low; for every fictitious god-like moment an equivalent time in reptilian slime. For every feat of telescoping long days and weeks of life into mad magnificent instants, one must pay with shortened life, and, oft-times, with savage usury added.”

Jack would argue with the “White Logic” – the mollifying voice alcohol produced in his head — trying to fight against its enticements:

“I know you for what you are, and I am unafraid. Under your mask of hedonism you are yourself the Noseless One and your way leads to the Night. Hedonism has no meaning. It, too, is a lie, at best the coward’s smug compromise.”

Yet the Noseless One – death — continued to win out.

A Superman Falls to Earth


In Jack’s late thirties, he suffered a streak of terrible luck. He and Charmian tried for a child together; their first died just a few hours after it was born, the second ended in a miscarriage. His ranch was damaged by weather and insects. He suffered an appendicitis. And in a singularly horrible twist of fate, his magnificent, newly finished Wolf House – which had been two years in the making — burned to the ground just days before he and Charmian were set to move in. London bore of all these setbacks stoically. But each one further broke his spirit.

London’s physical health deteriorated as well. By age 37, the strong, ready-for-anything body of his youth of which he had taken so much pride had become bloated and creaky – old before its time. His formerly fit waistline had expanded, his joints ached from rheumatism, and he was stricken with uremia – kidney failure. Doctors pleaded with him to change his habits, but he refused to alter course. He continued to chain-smoke 60 Russian Imperials a day, gorge himself daily on two nearly raw ducks (his favorite meal), and enjoy the regular company of John Barleycorn. He was constantly fatigued and in pain, and when kidney stones arose to deepen his suffering, he added morphine to his arsenal of self-medications.

As London approached forty, his dark horse had taken command of his soul, and his defeated white horse had fallen back. In his youth, thumos had led the way, propelling him on unforgettable adventures and to the heights of success, while pulling his appetites into line with its stride.  Now it was the dark horse that was in control — the white horse that was forced to do its bidding. Jack’s appetites urged him to spend beyond his means, which compelled him to constantly write to generate income, and pushed an already exhausted thumos to the point of collapse. Without the strength of thumos motivating him towards exploration and noble aims, the dark horse’s desires for the short-term numbness and pleasures of drink and drug took center stage. Meanwhile, stripped of thumos’ companionship, Jack’s Reason operated in isolation – ever turning back on its own thoughts, and failing to pay attention to and rein in the dark horse’s impulses. Jack’s chariot, which had once flown so high, became disastrously unbalanced, and plummeted to earth.


Charmian recounts their last conversation on the night Jack died:

“He picked up two wooden box-trays of reading matter that he had brought with him, and lifted them to the table on which stood his almost untasted supper.

‘Look,’ he said, his voice low and lifeless, ‘see what I’ve got to read to-night.’

‘But you don’t have to do it, mate,’ I said, trying to stir his spirit. ‘Always remember that you make all this work and overwork for yourself, and it must be because you choose to do it rather than to rest. My ancient argument, you know!’

There followed a colloquy upon relative values, and then he stood up abruptly, came around the small table, and flung himself on the couch into my arms.

‘Mate-Woman, Mate-Woman, you’re all I’ve got, the last straw for me to cling to, my last bribe for living. You know. I have told you before. You must understand. If you don’t understand, I’m lost. You’re all I’ve got.’

‘I do understand,’ I cried. ‘I understand that there’s too much for you to do, and that you’re straining too hard to get it done. Are you so bound on the wheel that you cannot ease up a little, both working and thinking? You are going too fast. You are too aware. And you are ill. Something will snap if you don’t pull up. You are tired, perilously tired, tired almost to death. What shall we do? We can’t go on this way!’

The green shade was well down over his face, and I could not see his eyes. But the corners of his mouth drooped pathetically. Poor lad, my poor boy—he was, indeed, tired to death.”

Jack London never woke up from his sleep that night and died on November 22, 1916. He was 40 years old. A popular myth developed that London committed suicide. In truth, no one will ever really know what killed him. The doctor who examined him put “uremia” on the death certificate as the cause of death. A morphine overdose may have contributed to, or caused his death, but whether it was intentional or accidental is again impossible to say. Some scholars even think it was in fact lupus that did him in.

Having studied and wrote of the man intensely for the last few months, I do not personally think he killed himself. Yet he was not anxious about holding onto life either, and deliberately prolonging it was not a priority. This was, after all, the man who said he’d “rather be ashes than dust.” He told Charmian he wanted to live to be 100, but he had never been scared of death and would not have likely bemoaned his early demise. For someone who had pushed himself so hard in life, he saw death as a “sweet rest,” telling Charmian: “Think of it!—to rest forever! I promise you that whensoever and wheresoever Death comes to meet me, I shall greet Death with a smile.”

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)

The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos — #9: The Long Sickness

young jack london sitting credo text ashes dust

Jack London followed up the resounding success of The Call of the Wild with two more popular novels: The Sea-Wolf and White Fang. He continued to publish numerous short stories, articles, essays, and poems in magazines across the country as well. Now thirty years old, he was the highest paid writer in the country and a national celebrity. All the rich and famous, the movers and shakers, wanted to meet him, to dine with him, to have him attend their parties.

As Jack rubbed shoulders with society’s upper crust – ladies and gentlemen who would not have even looked in his direction just a few years before — he expected to feel elation. Everything he had worked for was finally his. Yet what he experienced instead was utter emptiness. He looked around and saw only “sycophants, well-dressed, well-mannered and glib.” He had thought that rising to the top of his profession would fulfill that aching for greatness that had been urging him on since boyhood. But he realized, with a rising sense of panic, that fame and recognition did not satisfy:

“The things I had fought for and burned my midnight oil for had failed me. Success — I despised it. Recognition — I was appalled by their unlovely mental mediocrity. Love of woman — it was like all the rest. Money — I could only sleep in one bed at a time, and of what worth an income of a hundred porterhouses a day when I could eat only one?”

jack london portrait slightly blurry headshot

Jack London had come to a realization experienced by many who spend years focusing all their energies on a singular goal: the climb can be far more satisfying than the summit itself. Astronauts and Olympic athletes often become depressed after they return from space or win a medal. After devoting years of their life to reaching that achievement, they are then faced with a new challenge: navigating a featureless landscape and the yawning question of “What now?” So it was with London. He fell into a dark depression, which he termed his “Long Sickness.” For the first time in this vital man’s life, the world felt repulsively hollow. And while his thoughts did not turn to John Barleycorn as a solution to his gnawing emptiness during this time, he obsessed about something far more serious: “my revolver, the crashing eternal darkness of a bullet.”

Four things would ultimately pull Jack out of his Long Sickness: his passion for Socialism, the land, physical exercise, and his soulmate.

Recovering from the Long Sickness

jack london standing outdoors with hat and short tie

Of the all the ideals Jack had once held in his youth, only his socialist political views continued to burn within him:

“It can be seen how very sick I was. I was born a fighter. The things I had fought for had proved not worth the fight. Remained the People. My fight was finished, yet something was left still to fight for—the People…the People saved me. By the People was I handcuffed to life. There was still one fight left in me, and here was the thing for which to fight.”

Jack threw himself with “fiercer zeal into the fight for socialism,” passionately stumping for it in speeches and in his writing. Although his publishers warned him that his rhetoric was a turn-off to a large segment of the population, and would cost him a good deal of money (perhaps in the hundreds of thousands of dollars), Jack persisted in crusading for his beloved cause. Doing so helped him maintain a sense of purpose and provided an outlet with which to keep the embers of his thumos smoldering.

Even more beneficial, however, was finding the next great challenge of his life: ranching. Thumos is not designed to run full throttle day in and day out, but rather to gallop along steadily, waiting to be called up to full service in certain seasons when all of its energy, fight, and drive are needed. To recover from such taxing seasons, men throughout history have found it wise to give their thumos some pasturage – quite literally — by turning to the land and to nature. Think of Cincinnatus returning to the plow he had left behind after being summoned from his farm to don his senatorial toga and then successfully leading the Romans in battle. Or George Washington’s desire to leave public life behind and retire to Mount Vernon after commanding the Continental Army. Even modern day soldiers have found nature to be an effective curative in healing the trauma of war. Working the land can be restorative for a man’s spirit, while at the same time offering him the challenge of pitting himself against the elements of nature. It allows him to exercise his thumos, but to do so in a steady, calming way that doesn’t exhaust it in the same way that human battles do, and brings satisfactions different than the honor and awards of the civilized world.

Jack london and his pigs at Beauty Ranch.

Jack and his pigs at Beauty Ranch.

London had been relentlessly driving the white horse of his thumos towards success for nearly a decade. It was tired and so was he. He was also drained by the strain of being in the public eye and dealing with the constant criticism of his work and personal life. He “grew tired of cities and people” and being surrounded by what increasingly felt like the grating superficialities of modern life. Jack called the city a “man trap,” and all he wanted “was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in and get out of Nature that something which we all need, only the most of us don’t know it.” So in 1903 Jack bought 1,000 acres of land in Sonoma Valley – his Beauty Ranch. As Charmian put it, because of his “disheartenment with human beings, both in the mass and as individuals in the main, he turned to the soil to save himself.” London intended to create a true working ranch and successful business enterprise. He planned for stands of eucalyptus trees, a giant barn, a blacksmith shop, two grain silos, and a pig enclosure for herds of swine. As his biographer put it, Jack was “always at his best when setting himself seemingly impossible tasks,” and “he threw himself body and soul at this new challenge.” “I am trying to master this soil and the crops and animals that spring from it,” Jack said himself, “as I strove to master the sea, the men, and women, and the books, and all the face of life that I could stamp with my ‘will to do.'”

Jack london horseback Valley of the Moon ranch Glen Ellen, California.

Jack looks over the Valley of the Moon at his ranch in Glen Ellen, California.

In addition to the exercise he got managing his ranch, London also found that bouts of purposeful physical activity of all sorts lifted his spirits greatly. He took joy in riding horseback over his land, hiking over its hills, and swimming in its watering holes. He boxed, and fenced, and shot guns. He practiced diving — working on his forward and backwards somersaults, walked on his hands to strengthen his arm muscles, and rode his bike out into the countryside. With his good friends, he tramped through the woods, roughhoused, and flew kites. At night they would sit around the campfire reading and talking, and would then fall asleep under the stars. He bought a stout sloop, The Spray, and would spend weeks living aboard the boat and sailing around the bay. Jack wrote to a friend about his new regimen: “It is Voltaire, I believe, who said: ‘The body of an athlete and the soul of a sage; that is happiness.’”

If fighting for socialism, working the land, and getting out and exercising, began his “convalescence” from depression, it took “the love of woman to complete the cure and lull my pessimism asleep for many a long day.”

The Final Piece to His Happiness: Jacks Meets His Mate-Woman

Jack london and wife mate-woman Charmian on front porch

Jack and Charmian

Jack believed that were two types of females: Mother-Woman and Mate-Woman. The former was pure, sweet, and domestic – well-suited to raising children. The latter was strong, clever, lusty, and full of life – the kind of woman London could see partnering up with primal man in the primitive days of yore.

Jack’s first wife was a Mother-Woman. When he was 24 and his writing career was just beginning to take off, he tied the knot with Bess Maddern. When it comes to successfully guiding the chariot of one’s soul, the charioteer should let reason guide his thumos, which is the seat of love and emotion. But reason shouldn’t entirely usurp the role of the white horse. Young Jack had gotten the idea into his head that love was too unstable an emotion on which to build a marriage, and that a man should take a wife on purely rational grounds. He felt the restraint of marriage would add further steadiness to the life of discipline he was creating for himself at the time and would make him a more “wholesome” man. Jack did not love Bess, and she did not love him, and both openly acknowledged that fact. They liked each other well enough, he thought Bess would be a good mother, and he figured those two things would form a sufficient enough foundation for a lifetime of marital happiness.

Jack and Bess conceived two daughters together but it did not take long for London to realize he had made a big mistake. She was indeed the doting mother he had imagined, but she had no time or interest in anything outside of their children – Jack’s ideas, hobbies, friends, and, most dishearteningly, his sexual advances. Jack was a highly virile man who had enjoyed many a fling in his youth and scoffed at what he felt were society’s overly prudish views of sex. But Bess was not interested in sexual exploration or even basic intercourse, which even within the bounds of marriage she saw as debase. Sex was thus a rarity for the couple. Jack described Bess to friends as “a gossip, mean-spirited, and cold as the Klondike,” and felt as though he were suffocating in the relationship.

jack london and charmian sitting on yacht

Jack and Charmian sit on the yacht they were building in hopes of sailing it around the world.

As Jack’s marriage to Bess dissolved, he met his perfect match, his Mate-Woman: Charmian Kittredge. Charmian worked independently as a stenographer, and was everything Bessie, and most other women of the day, was not. Her contemporaries described her as unattractive, but Jack was smitten with this woman who was able to keep up with his need for physical and intellectual stimulation. Charmian was sexually uninhibited, far from demure, and would not get hysterical when things took a turn for the dangerous or the simply annoying. As such, she made the perfect travel partner and adventure companion. She sailed, hiked, rode horses, and even boxed with Jack throughout their marriage. She was well-read and well-educated and became his helpmate professionally – transcribing and editing his writings. In his Mate-Woman, Jack found “a rare soul…who never bored me and who was always a source of new and unending surprise and delight.”

jack london charmian sitting at desk over maps planning voyage

Jack and his Mate-Woman plan their voyage.

Plato believed that communion with one’s lover was essential to growing back the wings of your horses when your chariot had fallen to earth, and it was Charmian that at last pulled Jack out of his Long Sickness. Together they found new ways to satisfy London’s hunger for adventure and challenge. In 1907, they took off in a yacht on what they hoped to be a seven-year voyage around the world. Jack wished to get away from public life altogether, and to test himself again in a new endeavor. He taught himself navigation and piloted the yacht on the open water to Hawaii, the Solomon and Marquesas Islands and several small islands in between, where they encountered primitive and even cannibalistic tribes. Unfortunately, because of an incredibly severe sunburn Jack developed in Hawaii, when he discovered the new sport of surfing and obsessively rode the waves until burnt to a crisp, and an equally severe case of psoriasis that swelled his hands to twice their size, the couple had to cut their voyage short. Jack recuperated in Australia, and then he and Charmian sailed back home, arriving two years after they had shipped out.

In 1912, three years after returning from their last big adventure, Jack and Charmian signed on as crew to one of the last remaining tall ships sailing the ocean which was carrying cargo on a five-month journey from New York, around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and finally up to Seattle. Together the couple worked, talked, read (Jack brought along 50 books), and made love. Jack spent much time in the high perch of the mizzen-top mast, reflecting on life. In the mornings he wrote his 1,000 words and Charmian typed them up.

london and charmian on snark yacht sailing around world

Ranching, loving, and adventuring, London remembered these times as ‘”far and away” the happiest of his life. “Life went well with me,” he said. “I took delight in little things. The big things I declined to take too seriously.”

But it was not, sadly, a happiness that would last. Despite his efforts to pull out of his depression, Jack’s balanced hold on his thumos and his appetites would remain tenuous. He would soon lose his grip on them, leading to an ascension in power of his dark horse, a tragic imbalance in the forces of his soul, and an early demise.

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)



The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos — #8: Success at Last

young jack london sitting credo text ashes dust

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

“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.” –Jack London, The Call of the Wild


Jack London’s most popular novel, The Call of the Wild, is a tale of a domesticated dog, Buck, who is thrust into the wilderness. He is forced to learn the brutal rules of a new world and how to mush mightily in front of a dogsled, and eventually breaks away to become the leader of a wild wolf pack. Jack said it was a story of “the dominant primordial beast,” and as such it is his story as well. Like Buck, Jack would pass through a crucible of difficulty, learn to thrive and delight in the harness of discipline, and harken to the deep-seated call to become the best of the best. He would outwork everyone else to earn a position at the head of the pack through skill and prowess and fight.

Jack’s fight began soon after he returned from the Klondike. After months of sitting in the “White Silence” of the Great North, pondering what he wanted out of life, he had returned home committed to either becoming a writer or perishing in the attempt.

Forging a Life of Discipline

jack london quote good brain won't get down and dig

London sat down at his desk, pulled out his old typewriter, and resumed the life of iron-clad discipline he had embraced while studying for his collegiate entrance exams, which, if you’ll remember, consisted of 5am wake-up calls and 19-hours of daily toil.

Though he had been living in the wilderness for the last year, Jack did not chafe at returning to being holed up in a room from sunup to sundown. One of the things London’s friends marveled at was this great dichotomy of his character – how he could take his unfettered spirit, his fierce thumos, and channel it at will into a rigidly disciplined, unwavering drive for success. As his friend Anna Strunksy put it:

“His standard of life was high. He for one would have the happiness of power, of genius, of love, and the vast comforts and ease of wealth. Napoleon and Nietzsche had a part in him…and it was by the force of his Napoleonic temperament that he conceived the idea of incredible success, and had the will to achieve it. Sensitive and emotional as his nature was, he forbade himself any deviation from the course that would lead him to his goal. He systematized his life. Such colossal energy, and yet…He lived by rule. Law, Order and Restraint was the creed of this vital, passionate youth.”

Yet while London was an ardent “disciple of regular work,” this did not mean that such self-mastery came naturally to him. “Temperamentally,” Jack said, “I am not only careless and irregular, but melancholy.” “Still,” he added, “I have fought both down.” One way he mastered his penchant for irregularity was establishing a fixed goal of writing at least a thousand words every day, six days a week (sometimes on Sundays and holidays too). He wrote to a friend: “I am sure a man can turn out more and much better in the long run, working this way, than if he works by fits and starts.” London would keep this habit of writing 1,000 words a day for the rest of his life, no matter his physical or mental conditions – whether he was tired, sick, hung-over, traveling aboard a ship rocking violently in a storm, vacationing in Hawaii, or covering a war in Japan. It especially did not matter whether he was feeling “inspired” on a given day; London thought the idea of creative inspiration was bunkum – the complaint of its absence an excuse of the lazy and cowardly. Success in writing, or any other vocation, London argued, was all about effort and willpower – “digging” as he liked to put it:

“A strong will can accomplish anything…There is no such thing as inspiration and very little genius. Dig, blooming under opportunity, results in what appears to be the former, and certainly makes possible the development of what original modicum of the latter one may possess. Dig is a wonderful thing, and will move more mountains than faith ever dreamed of. In fact, Dig should be the legitimate father of all self-faith.”

A large part of Jack’s own digging and refinement process involved studying the work of other great writers (Rudyard Kipling in particular) with an eye towards improving his own. Besides developing one’s philosophy of life, Jack considered this kind of study of one’s “mentors” the second great key to success in life. He described his own process through his fictional alter ego, Martin Eden:

“Reading the works of men who had arrived, he noted every result achieved by them, and worked out the tricks by which they had been achieved — the tricks of narrative, of exposition, of style, the points of view, the contrasts, the epigrams; and of all these he made lists for study. He did not ape. He sought principles. He drew up lists of effective and fetching mannerisms, till out of many such, culled from many writers, he was able to induce the general principle of mannerism, and, thus equipped, to cast about for new and original ones of his own, and to weigh and measure and appraise them properly. In similar manner he collected lists of strong phrases, the phrases of living language, phrases that bit like acid and scorched like flame, or that glowed and were mellow and luscious in the midst of the arid desert of common speech. He sought always for the principle that lay behind and beneath. He wanted to know how the thing was done; after that he could do it for himself. He was not content with the fair face of beauty. He dissected beauty in his crowded little bedroom laboratory…and, having dissected, and learned the anatomy of beauty, he was nearer being able to create beauty itself.”

After London had soaked his brain with the elements of great writing he admired, he set about trying to create his own. Jack sought to develop a different style from the popular fiction of the time — work that was full of the “the fancies and beauties of imagination…an impassioned realism, shot through with human aspiration and faith.” He endeavored to capture “life as it was, with all its spirit-groping and soul-reaching left in.”

Day after day London refined his style and dug through his brain, pulling out memories of the raging waves of the Pacific and the harsh cold of the Klondike. He feverishly banged out essays, articles, poems, short stories, and serialized fiction on his rickety typewriter. Except for “breaks” to visit the library, “he wrote prolifically, intensely, from morning till night, and late at night.” Just as Buck learned to pull sleds in the Klondike, Jack “worked faithfully in the harness, for the toil had become a delight to him.” “Life was pitched high” he wrote in Martin Eden. “The joy of creation that is supposed to belong to the gods was his.”

The Sting of Rejection

Unfortunately, the joy he sent out into the world was not reciprocated. Each time he placed a new piece inside an envelope and sent it off to newspapers, magazines, and journals around the country, his heart would swell with hopes that it would be accepted. And each day as he opened his mailbox to see yet another round of rejection notices, his heart would sink. One editor even took the time to write that the quality of his work was such that he really ought to find a different profession. Jack would try to shake off the constant rebuffs, place the rejection notices in a file and the returned manuscripts in a pile of “retired” work, and then begin pounding at his typewriter once more.

Yet, months of rejections coupled with his merciless work schedule slowly began to take their toll – exhausting him both mentally and physically. His skin grew pallid from a lack of fresh air and sunlight. He had to pawn many of his possessions to buy food, and still found himself in debt with the grocer. His cheekbones became more pronounced and his muscles withered as he tried to get by eating as little as possible. His energy and optimism dropped along with his weight, and at times he felt he should give up altogether — not just writing, but life itself. What depressed him most was how lonely he felt – he had no one to help him with his writing or even to simply offer encouragement. As he wrote in a letter to a friend:

“Nor has anybody ever understood. The whole thing has been by itself. Duty said ‘Do not go on; go to work.’ So said others, though they would not say it to my face. Everybody looked askance; though they did not speak, I knew what they thought. Not a word of approval, but much of disapproval. If only some one had said, ‘I understand.’ From the hunger of my childhood, cold eyes have looked upon me, or questioned, or snickered and sneered. What hurt above all was that they were some of my friends—not professed but real friends. I have calloused my exterior and receive the strokes as though they were not; as to how they hurt, no one knows but my own soul and me… for good or ill, it shall be as it has been—alone.”

In spite of all this failure, and as we have seen, true to his character, London would poke at the embers of his determination and find the will to continue striving. He concluded the letter above by saying:

“So be it. The end is not yet. If I die I shall die hard, fighting to the last, and hell shall receive no fitter inmate than myself.”

white fang illustration white dog fighting black wolf

Success Begins to Make Itself Known

Still, as a hedge against the potential of failure, and to please the family and friends who told him to quit this fruitless writing business and get a “real” job, he took the civil service exams and passed with flying colors. The manager of the post office called to offer Jack a position as a mail carrier. London was conflicted. He had just turned 23 and his friends were settling down, getting married, and starting good professions. Being a mailman would bring decent, steady pay, and his family needed money. He considered continuing to write, but doing so just as a hobby instead. Most sobering of all, he had to face the fact that in his five months of trying, and in sending out almost 50 manuscripts, he had only succeeded in having one piece published, and that in a magazine for children. But his mother, surprisingly, encouraged him to turn the job down – to finally take a chance on his own dreams after years of dutifully supporting the family. They would get by, she told him. So he rejected the offer. London would have no plan B, no back-up day job if success was not soon forthcoming. He would put all of his chips into becoming a writer.

At last, six months after returning from the Klondike, Jack received news that his gamble might just pay off. The Overland Monthly agreed to publish London’s “To the Man on Trail,” and then also accepted “The White Silence.” Jack’s fresh, virile style began to attract notice. “I would rather have written ‘The White Silence,’” the literary critic of The San Francisco Chronicle confessed, “than anything that has appeared in fiction in the last ten years.” The Overland Monthly requested six more of Jack’s articles. They’d paid just $7.50 per piece for them, but as the premier literary journal of the West – one that was read by many movers and shakers in the publishing industry – the deal promised beneficial exposure.

London’s real break came in November 1899, when the Atlantic Monthly decided to publish “An Odyssey of the North.” This piece broke the dam, and at last the publishers came calling. London signed a deal with Houghton Mifflin to put together a collection of his short stories: The Son of the Wolf. After facing so many rejections, the positive reviews brought the sweet music of vindication to Jack’s ears: “These stories are realism, without the usual falsity of realism,” praised The New York Times. “You cannot get away from the fascination of these tales,” The San Francisco Chronicle effused. The public loved Jack’s punchy, muscular prose, and felt as though his stories stirred something long dormant within them. As they read of his protagonists pitting their mettle against the elements of nature, they felt their own call to the wild – a keen desire to have an adventure themselves.

Finally, A Dream Realized

In three years of “studying immensely and intensely,” Jack had made himself into a full-time writer, and more opportunities came his way. A month after The Son of the Wolf was released, Cosmopolitan (which at this time was a well-regarded magazine for the whole family) offered him a plumb position as editor and staff writer. London turned it down without hesitation. Like Buck, after gathering strength in the discipline of the harness, he desired to exercise that strength with minimal restraint and full independence. As he wrote to a friend, “Of course I shall not accept it. I do not wish to be bound…I want to be free, to write of what delights me, whensoever and wheresoever it delights me. No office work for me; no routine; no doing this set task and that set task. No man over me.”

the call of the wild first edition book cover by jack london

Over the next few years, Jack continued to sleep but five hours a night (“There was so much to learn, so much to be done… I blessed the man who invented alarm clocks”) and his profile continued to rise as he successfully published numerous articles and several short story collections and novels. His books sold decently, but were not blockbusters. Stratospheric success would arrive with the 1903 publication of The Call of the Wild. Jack had intended it to be another of his short stories, “but it got away from me, and instead of 4,000 words it ran 32,000 before I could call a halt.” The novel became an instant classic. Its story reverberated through a society anxious that it had become too refined, too civilized, too domesticated and had lost its rugged, pioneering spirit. Such a theme has pricked the hearts of each succeeding modern generation, and the book has been in print continuously for over a century, sold millions of copies, and become the most widely read of the American classics.

Now 27 years old, Jack London had reached the pinnacle of the literary world. By venturing more and fearing less, by working longer and harder than anyone else, he had overcome his humble past and risen head and shoulders above his peers. By harnessing his thumos, and embracing his identity as the lone wolf, he had made himself stronger and more powerful than the average man. The same thrill of dominance that enlivened Buck coursed through him as well:

“When the long winter nights come on and the wolves follow their meat into the lower valleys, he may be seen running at the head of the pack through the pale moonlight or glimmering borealis, leaping gigantic above his fellows, his great throat a-bellow as he sings a song of the younger world, which is the song of the pack.”

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)

The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos — #7: Into the Klondike

young jack london sitting credo text ashes dust

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

When the ship Excelsior docked in San Francisco in 1897, it carried word that would grant Jack London salvation from his mindless toil in a steam laundry: gold had been discovered in the Klondike.

The whole country was quickly seized with gold fever, and Jack was not immune. The North called to him as a chance for adventure, as well as an opportunity to earn the fortune that would finally allow his family to live comfortably, and free him to make a career as a writer without having to worry about the constant press of bills and hunger.

Venturing to the Great North

yukon gold alaska map routes to canada

London secured the funds for his venture from his stepsister in return for agreeing to take her sickly 60-something husband along with him. Jack used the money to outfit a nearly 2,000-pound kit of supplies for the two men, and then boarded a steamship for the 8-day voyage up to Seattle and on to Juneau. Once he and his brother-in-law landed, they climbed into 17-foot canoes and were paddled by the natives 100 miles to the Dyea beachhead — a site of complete chaos. Three thousand “cheechakos” — the derisive native term for tenderfeet from the lower 48 — swarmed about. Many in their naivety did not realize that the Klondike was not located anywhere near where their ship would dock, but was in fact situated more than 500 miles to the north in the heart of the Canadian Yukon. Faced with an arduous trek by foot and boat, some men, including Jack’s brother-in-law, turned right around and went home.

Having studied up on the geography of the land and a former miner’s account before setting out, Jack was better prepared than most. He had an idea of what was coming, and knew that the first leg of the journey was a 28-mile uphill hike to Lake Lindeman. Most of the new arrivals had figured they would be able to pay the natives at reasonable rates to shoulder their packs for them along the way. But the indigenous porters, taking advantage of the enormous demand for their services, were charging a hefty thirty cents per pound. With the Canadian Mounties requiring those who wished to cross the border to have a year’s supply of food and equipment, the assistance could cost the equivalent of a man’s entire salary for the year. Without the necessary funds or the physical strength to carry their own supplies, another large cohort of would-be prospectors were defeated before they had even begun.

Not Jack. He had already settled in his mind the physically demanding method he would use to shoulder his supplies himself. He divided up his half-ton kit into around a dozen smaller loads, and would take each load a mile, cache it, and then return for another. This meant that every mile of forward progress required nearly 25 miles of hiking, half of them while shouldering 75-100 pounds of supplies. Jack relished the physical challenge, however, and took pride in his ability to outpace many of the native porters.


London is thought to be the young man at the forefront of the group on the right. The men are at Sheep’s Camp, a resting place a few miles from the arduous Chilkoot Pass.

For the first six miles, London and several friends he had met along the way were luckily able to pull their supplies along in a boat down a river. Then Jack began his double-back trekking method for the next eight miles, carrying load after load up an incline, through mud and rain, and around boulders. In three weeks the men reached the first rest camp, and there gathered strength for the most arduous part of the trek – a single-file ascent of the Chilkoot Pass.


Three-quarters of a mile in length at a 45-degree angle, sourdoughs referred to the Chilkoot Pass as “the worst trail this side of hell.”

Three-quarters of a mile in length at a 45-degree angle, sourdoughs referred to it as “the worst trail this side of hell.” The weaker among the would-be prospectors collapsed. Hordes beat a trail back to Dyea in defeat and others went mad and even shot themselves. Jack simply bore down in determination, put one foot in front of the other, and ignored the burn in his legs and back as he carried a half-ton of supplies to the summit, 100 pounds at a time.


To get his half-ton of supplies to the top of the pass, Jack made around a dozen trips up and back.

From the top of the pass it was nine more miles of trekking through a steep canyon to the banks of Lake Lindeman, the headwaters of the Yukon River. It had been three weeks since Jack left Dyea, but the journey was truly just beginning. He now had to float, sail, and navigate the 500 miles of lakes and waterways en route to Dawson, which sat 50 miles from the goldfields.

If Jack’s physical strength and grit had been an asset so far, now his technical skills and sailing experience became a huge advantage. He and his comrades felled some trees and made two boats to convey them on their voyage. Although he was but 21 years old, Jack’s confidence and skill made him a natural leader, and the older men trusted him to pilot them safely through the treacherous waters. It was a trust greatly tested – Jack chose to shoot the boat over six-foot ridges of water and turbulent rapids, between rocky reefs and sheer cliff walls, and through two powerful whirlpools. The men had seen several boats ahead of theirs broken to bits, their passengers drowned right before their eyes, and most of the other prospectors chose to portage around these man-slaying dangers. But when it came to a choice between several days of portaging or two minutes of running the shoots, Jack chose the latter. Having departed in mid-summer, the early Arctic winter was setting in fast, and they needed to make it to Dawson before the waterways sealed with ice.

Charmian recounts Jack’s feverish race against time:

“By unabating zeal the boys kept just ahead of the forbidding freeze-up that set a bar of iron to the progress of the less forehanded. Lakes froze on their flying heels, so slim was the margin. Jack learned what it meant to pit one’s raging impotence against the imperturbability of nature. Never a waking moment did they lose, and allowed no more time for sleep than was absolutely required…

Their sternest battle was across Lake Laberge, the freeze-up of which threatened in the gale. Three days they had been thrown back by cresting seas that fell aboard in tinkling ice. On the fourth Jack said: ‘To-day we’ve got to make it—or we camp here all winter with the others.’ They almost died at the oars, but ‘died to live again’ and fight on. All night, like driven automatons they pulled, and at daybreak entered the river, with behind them a fast frozen lake. And their pilot, from what I know of him, I can swear did not realize half his weariness, so elated must he have been to be thus forward—one of the very few who had made it through.”

After barely making it over Lake Laberge, London and his partners decided to settle in and hole up in the cabins of an abandoned mining camp. They were just 75 miles from Dawson, but the Yukon River was quickly freezing up. The men figured they’d try their hand where they were; they had encountered discouraged Klondikers on a return journey who informed them that supplies were non-existent for weathering the winter in town, and that the best claims further up the Yukon had already been staked. Jack found a bit of gold dust in nearby Henderson Creek and staked a claim there. A few days later he took his boat to Dawson to register it.

By the time Jack had completed an arduous hike through the snow to return to camp (an experience he would later draw on to write his best short story, “To Build a Fire”), winter had thoroughly set in, and there was nothing left to do but ride it out. When the weather was fairer Jack would venture out to the creek, huddle in an old dugout, and spend the time panning for gold and thinking about life. The impenetrable stillness and silence of his surroundings — what he called nature’s “White Silence” — was overwhelming:

“Nothing stirred. The Yukon slept under a coat of ice three feet thick. No breath of wind blew. Nor did the sap move in the hearts of the spruce trees that forested the river banks on either hand. The trees, burdened with the last infinitesimal pennyweight of snow their branches could hold, stood in absolute petrifaction.”

Such an empty, lonely landscape stirred deep, humbling introspection for Jack:

“Nature has many tricks wherewith she convinces man of his finity, — the ceaseless flow of the tides, the fury of the storm, the shock of the earthquake, the long roll of heaven’s artillery, — but the most tremendous, the most stupefying of all, is the passive phase of the White Silence. All movement ceases, the sky clears, the heavens are as brass; the slightest whisper seems sacrilege, and man becomes timid, affrighted at the sound of his own voice. Sole speck of life journeying across the ghostly wastes of a dead world, he trembles at his audacity, realizes that his is a maggot’s life, nothing more. Strange thoughts arise unsummoned, and the mystery of all things strives for utterance. And the fear of death, of God, of the universe, comes over him, — the hope of the Resurrection and the Life, the yearning for immortality, the vain striving of the imprisoned essence, — it is then, if ever, man walks alone with God.”

When weeklong blizzards raged and the temperature dipped to 60 degrees below zero, Jack hunkered down in his cabin, wrapped himself in thick blankets, and wiled away the time trading stories and debating life’s big questions with his companions. The men’s cabins were a frequent destination for visitors – natives, fellow prospectors, and gritty trappers would stop by to break the tedium of winter. One who met and tested wits with London during this time was W.B. Hargrave, who offers a portrait of London during this time that is worth quoting at length (we even included it in the Manvotionals book), for it truly offers a snapshot of Jack in the very prime of his manhood:


“No other man has left so indelible an impression upon my memory as Jack London. He was but a boy then, in years . . . But he possessed the mental equipment of a mature man, and I have never thought of him as a boy except in the heart of him . . . the clean, joyous, tender, unembittered heart of youth. His personality would challenge attention anywhere. Not only in his beauty for he was a handsome lad but there was about him that indefinable something that distinguishes genius from mediocrity. Though a youth, he displayed none of the insolent egotism of youth; he was an idealist who went after the attainable; a dreamer who was a man among strong men; a man who faced life with superb assurance and who could face death serenely imperturbable. These were my first impressions; which months of companionship only confirmed.

I remember well the first time I entered [his cabin]…One of his partners, Goodman, was preparing a meal, and the other, Sloper, was doing some carpentry work. From the few words which I overheard as I entered, I surmised that Jack had challenged some of Goodman’s orthodox views, and that the latter was doggedly defending himself in an unequal contest of wits. Many times afterward I myself felt the rapier thrust of London’s, and knew how to sympathize with Goodman.

Jack interrupted the conversation to welcome me, and his hospitality was so cordial, his smile so genial, his good fellowship so real, that it instantly dispelled all reserve. I was invited to participate in the discussion, which I did, much to my subsequent discomfiture.

That day—the day on which our friendship began—has become consecrated in my memory. I find it difficult to write about Jack without laying myself open to the charge of adulation. During the course of my life . . . I have met men who were worth while; but Jack was the one man with whom I have come in personal contact who possessed the qualities of heart and mind that made him one of the world’s overshadowing geniuses.

He was intrinsically kind and irrationally generous.  . . . With an innate refinement, a gentleness that had survived the roughest of associations. Sometimes he would become silent and reflective, but he was never morose or sullen. His silence was an attentive silence. I have known him to end a discussion by merely assuming the attitude of a courteous listener, and when his indiscreet opponent had tangled himself in the web of his own illogic, and had perhaps fallen back upon invective to bolster his position, Jack would calmly roll another cigarette, and throwing his head back, give vent to infectious laughter—infectious because it was never bitter or derisive. . . . He was always good-natured; he was more — he was charmingly cheerful. If in those days he was beset by melancholia, he concealed it from his companions.

Inasmuch as Louis Savard’s cabin was the largest and most comfortable it became the popular meeting place for the denizens of the camp. Louis had constructed a large fireplace, and my recollections of London are intertwined with the many hours we spent together in front of its cheerful light. Many a long night he and I, outlasting the vigil of the others, sat before the blazing spruce logs, and talked the hours away. A brave figure of a man he was, lounging by the crude fireplace, its light playing on his handsome features—a face that one would look at twice even in the crowded city street. In appearance older than his years; a body lithe and strong; neck bared at the throat; a tangled cluster of brown hair that fell low over his brow and which he was wont to brush back impatiently when engaged in animated conversation; a sensitive mouth, but lips, nevertheless, that could set in serious and masterful lines; a radiant smile, marred by two missing teeth (lost, he told me, in a fight on shipboard); eyes that often carried an introspective expression; the face of an artist and a dreamer, but with strong lines denoting will power and boundless energy. An outdoor man—in short, a real man, a man’s man.

He had a mental craving for the truth. He applied one test to religion, to economics, to everything. “What is the truth?” “What is just?” It was with these questions that he confronted the baffling enigma of life. He could think great thoughts. One could not meet him without feeling the impact of a superior intellect.

Many and diverse were the subjects we discussed, often with the silent Louis as our only listener. Our views did not always coincide, and on one occasion when argument had waxed long and hot and London had finally left us, with only the memory of his glorious smile to salve my defeat, Louis looked up from his game of solitaire (which I think he played because it required no conversation) and became veritably verbose. This is what he said: ‘You mak’ ver’ good talk, but zat London he too damn smart for you.’”

Weakened in Body, Strengthened in Spirit


Two brothers London met in Dawson, or more accurately, their canine companion, would feature prominently in Jack’s future. Louis and Marshall Bond’s dog (seen with Marshall on the left), a huge half collie, half St. Bernard mix, would become the inspiration for Call of the Wild’s protagonist, Buck.

As the long winter wore on, the vitality Hargrave so admired in London began to ebb. His skin grew sallow, his teeth loosened, his gums bled, and his joints ached. Having subsisted on a diet of bacon, beans, and biscuits for months, Jack had developed a severe case of scurvy. As soon as the ice began to break up in the river, he partially dismantled his cabin and built a raft to float to Dawson in order to have himself examined. A priest there who offered medical care ameliorated his condition with some raw potatoes, but he advised Jack to get home as quickly as possible if he valued his life – fresh food was scarce and astronomically expensive in Dawson. Jack being Jack, he still stayed on for a few weeks to soak in the colorful life of a remote boomtown before beginning his journey back to the States. He could have returned the way he had come, but as Charmian put it, “he seldom retraced a road.” Instead, he and a friend decided to pilot a small skiff 1,800 miles down the entire length of the Yukon and out to the Bering Sea. After passing numerous native villages, taking in beautiful vistas, being nearly eaten alive by swarms of mosquitos, and having a whole other set of adventures, Jack arrived at the port of St. Michael, Alaska, and boarded a steamship back to San Francisco. He paid for his passage by stoking coal, until his weakened body finally gave way and the sympathetic crew allowed him to knock off and recuperate.

After being away for nearly a year, London arrived back home debilitated and broke; his trip to the Klondike had netted him but $4.50 in gold dust. But the experience had provided him with things far more valuable – seeds that would soon bear spectacular fruit. Most obviously, the adventure burnished him with a cache of rich material that he would mine again and again, spinning his observations of the icy North into bestselling stories that would catapult him to the heights of success. But the confidence to even attempt to transform those stories into literary gold was also born in the Yukon. “In the Klondike,” Jack said, “I found myself.” The journey had taxed his stamina and determination and employed his technical skills — pushing his mental and physical abilities to their limits. It had strengthened the heart of an already powerful thumic confidence and hardened his conviction of making it as a writer. If he could scale Chilkoot Pass, navigate thousands of miles of river, and weather an Arctic winter, he could struggle with words until he had become their master. London was ready to take on the fight for his future, and he had already determined its outcome. Before he left his cabin in the Klondike, he carved this on a beam:


Jack London, Miner, Author, Jan 27, 1898

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)



The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos — #6: Back to School

young jack london sitting credo text ashes dust

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

The students of Oakland High School did not know what to make of their new peer. He was older than them, nineteen, and wholly unlike anyone else who walked the halls. With a handsome, bronzed face, disheveled curly hair, a mouth full of chewing tobacco, a salty vocabulary, and a series of adventures under his belt of the kind they had only read about, students were either repulsed or magnetically attracted to him – often both.

It had been five years since Jack London had been in enrolled in school, and his life in the intervening time had created a gulf between him and his fellow students, whom he found naïve and often callow in comparison. It wasn’t just his age and experience that set him apart; while most of the other students came from middle and upper class backgrounds, with nothing to burden them but their studies, Jack became the janitor’s assistant to support his family, cleaning his peers’ toilets after they headed home for the day.

But when it came to sharpness of mind and pure ambition, London had no rival. He was determined to develop his intellectual capacities to their fullest extent and enroll in college – strengthening his mind so that he might make a living with it. He once again became the Oakland library’s most regular patron, checking out armfuls of books at a time. He used what little money he was able to keep for himself to purchase a dictionary, and he made it a goal to learn 20 new words a day. He studied and copied old poetry, and wrote his own as well. He penned articles for the school’s prestigious journal, many of which were accepted for publication (even if his raw tales of skinning seals and clinging to rail cars shocked many of his peers). He joined a local debating society that was largely composed of professionals and university students, and there he made several friends who were drawn to his guileless sincerity. They helped polish his grammar and tutor him in classes.

Jack honed his debating skills by speaking on a soapbox outside Oakland’s city hall to passersby, beseeching them to hear him out on the principles of socialism. His rhetoric and passion drew him larger crowds than any other speaker. But it also landed him in jail when the police decided he had violated a law against conducting public meetings without the mayor’s approval. He asked for a jury trial, served as his own defense, and was acquitted.

Yet, the story of his arrest scandalized parents of pupils at the high school who were already anxious about their children rubbing shoulders with this older, socialistic former hobo. London felt pressure from the administration to leave and decided to drop out.

Now twenty, London was not in the least bit discouraged from his goal of attending college. He enrolled in the University Academy of Alameda, a “cramming” prep school in which students could complete four years of high school in only two. Ever ambitious, Jack received permission to finish all the requirements in just a single semester. He plunged headfirst into the coursework, but was expelled just five weeks later, told by the superintendent that while he was to be commended for how well he was excelling, allowing him to complete two years of coursework in only a few months was creating resentment amongst the other students. It simply wouldn’t do to have a working class tough besting his well-heeled peers.

Jack was devastated, but still undeterred from his path. His college friends, just as indignant about this ill-treatment as he was, rallied around him, promising to tutor him in preparation to take the University of California’s rigorous entrance exams – passage of which was the only requirement for admission.

While Jack London’s wanderlust could run to overflowing on occasion, when it was time to get to work, he was able to channel his thumos into a laser-sharp singularity of purpose. His discipline could be as boundless as his quest for adventure.

In truth, autodidactic-mode was London’s most natural setting – and he eagerly buckled in for what can only be called a superhuman effort. Holed up in a small room at the back of his parents’ house, he sat at a small table with a stack of books and old entrance exams, and studied for nineteen hours straight, seven days a week, for three months. As Jack wrote of his fictional alter ego, Martin Eden, “Never had the spirit of adventure lured him more strongly than on this amazing exploration of the realm of the mind.” Despite his Spartan schedule, Jack relished the journey, and only wished he could squeeze more hours out of the day to study. He had a difficult time closing his notebooks and calling it a night, and would jump out of bed as soon as his alarm went off in the morning, eager for another nineteen-hour bout with the books:

“Though he slept soundly, he awoke instantly, like a cat, and he awoke eagerly, glad that the five hours of unconsciousness were gone. He hated the oblivion of sleep. There was too much to do, too much of life to live. He grudged every moment of life sleep robbed him of, and before the clock had ceased its clattering he was head and ears in the wash-basin and thrilling to the cold bite of the water.”

English, science, math, and history – Jack downloaded it all into his brain. As he worked through chemical formulas and quadratic equations with only scant rest, “his vitality,” Charmian wrote, “was taxed almost to bursting. His muscles twitched as once before they had nearly twitched into St. Vitus’ dance. Even those dependable sailor-eyes wavered and quivered and saw jumbled spots, but as always through life, he won out.”

The Herculean toil paid off. London passed the three-day entrance exams with distinction and was granted entry to the University of California. From cannery boy, to oyster pirate, to schooner sailor, to Berkeley student: Jack accomplished whatever he put his mind to. Many a man will claim that distinction, but very few can claim it to be utter truth in the way Jack London could.

He borrowed the money for tuition from his old friend Johnny Heinold, and set foot on campus with unbounded enthusiasm – he wanted to take practically every course the school had to offer. A fellow student admired London’s “open frankness that was like a flood of sunshine,” and described him as “radiating light and warmth” as he talked about his plan to tackle as much of the curriculum as possible.

The semester went well, but it would turn out to be London’s one and only. His family’s financial situation had declined, and they again needed Jack to forgo school in order to get a full-time job. For his part, Jack said he left with little regret. College had not lived up to his high hopes – he had found the courses full of superficialities and that he often knew more than the professors. He realized he had, and could, learn more through self-study than by sitting in a classroom.

On His Way to Becoming a Writer

jack london portrait sitting posing in chair

With his short stint in formal education behind him, Jack felt it was time to make a full attempt at earning a living with his mind. He had thought about doing something with music, but didn’t feel he had the talent for it, and settled on giving writing another go. He just needed to figure out what he should write – philosophy, poetry, politics, or fiction? He decided there was no better way to find out than to start writing, and to write as much as possible. London vividly describes the mental and even physical strains of his complete immersion into the craft:

“I wrote, I wrote everything—ponderous essays, scientific and sociological, short stories, humorous verse, verse of all sorts from triolets and sonnets to blank verse tragedy and elephantine epics in Spenserian stanzas. On occasion I composed steadily, day after day, for fifteen hours a day. At times I forgot to eat, or refused to tear myself away from my passionate outpouring in order to eat.

And then there was the matter of typewriting. My brother-in-law owned a machine which he used in the daytime. In the night I was free to use it. That machine was a wonder. I could weep now as I recollect my wrestlings with it…

How my back used to ache with it! Prior to that experience, my back had been good for every violent strain put upon it in a none too gentle career. But that typewriter proved to me that I had a pipe-stem for a back. Also, it made me doubt my shoulders. They ached as with rheumatism after every bout. The keys of that machine had to be hit so hard that to one outside the house it sounded like distant thunder or someone breaking up the furniture. I had to hit the keys so hard that I strained my first fingers to the elbows, while the ends of my fingers were blisters burst and blistered again. Had it been my machine I’d have operated it with a carpenter’s hammer.

The worst of it was that I was actually typing my manuscripts at the same time I was trying to master that machine. It was a feat of physical endurance and a brain storm combined to type a thousand words, and I was composing thousands of words every day which just had to be typed for the waiting editors.”

Despite the taxing nature of Jack’s disciplined effort, this new kind of “adventure-path” did not lead him to John Barleycorn, even when it became clear that the undertaking would not immediately bear the kind of fruit he had hoped for; his animated, well-harnessed thumos was galloping in command, pulling the dark horse of his appetites into line with its noble stride:

“Oh, between the writing and the typewriting I was well a-weary. I had brain- and nerve-fag, and body-fag as well, and yet the thought of drink never suggested itself. I was living too high to stand in need of an anodyne. All my waking hours, except those with that infernal typewriter, were spent in a creative heaven. And along with this I had no desire for drink, because I still believed in many things—in the love of all men and women in the matter of man and woman love; in fatherhood; in human justice; in art—in the whole host of fond illusions that keep the world turning around.

But the waiting editors elected to keep on waiting. My manuscripts made amazing round-trip records between the Pacific and the Atlantic. It might have been the weirdness of the typewriting that prevented the editors from accepting at least one little offering of mine. I don’t know, and goodness knows the stuff I wrote was as weird as its typing. I sold my hard-bought school books for ridiculous sums to second-hand bookmen. I borrowed small sums of money wherever I could, and suffered my old father to feed me with the meager returns of his failing strength.

It didn’t last long, only a few weeks, when I had to surrender and go to work. Yet I was unaware of any need for the drink-anodyne. I was not disappointed. My career was retarded, that was all. Perhaps I did need further preparation. I had learned enough from the books to realize that I had only touched the hem of knowledge’s garment. I still lived on the heights. My waking hours, and most of the hours I should have used for sleep, were spent with the books.”

Jack’s second short experiment with becoming a writer had ended just like his first: with a pile of rejection notices. But he understood why – that what he was producing was not yet up to par. He had no one to tell him “you are all wrong, herein you err; there is your mistake,” as he groped along alone in his craft. Thus he was discouraged, but true to form, not dismayed; this was not the end but only a delay.

The Cold Reality of Life Strikes Again

What Jack needed was more experience and study to refine his skills. But while the editors were content to wait, his bills were not. He was forced to take a job at a steam laundry, one located, ironically enough, at a prep academy. Each day he sweated away pressing the clothes of students whose only cares were for classes and gossip. At first he was determined to keep up his independent studies once he got home from work, continuing to parcel out just five hours of sleep at night in order to have time to hit the books. But he found himself too exhausted to keep his eyes open, even when he read “lighter” material. Life became the steam laundry and his bed. As he wrote of Martin Eden, he could feel the progress he had made slipping away and the keen muscles of his thumos atrophying:

“He was too dazed to think, though he was aware that he did not like himself. He was self-repelled, as though he had undergone some degradation or was intrinsically foul. All that was god-like in him was blotted out. The spur of ambition was blunted; he had no vitality with which to feel the prod of it. He was dead. His soul seemed dead. He was a beast, a work-beast. He saw no beauty in the sunshine sifting down through the green leaves, nor did the azure vault of the sky whisper as of old and hint of cosmic vastness and secrets trembling to disclosure. Life was intolerably dull and stupid, and its taste was bad in his mouth. A black screen was drawn across his mirror of inner vision, and fancy lay in a darkened sick-room where entered no ray of light.”

Jack was never one to suffer such stagnation for long. What he needed was enough money to provide a distraction-free space in which to write, without the press of bills hanging over his head. When news reached the shores of California of gold discovered in the Great North, it seemed to Jack that such an opportunity, as well as a brand new adventure, had arrived.

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)

The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos — #5: On the Road

young jack london sitting credo text ashes dust

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

As Jack London worked more than ten hours a day, seven days a week keeping thread wrapped around bobbins in a jute mill, his deep sea voyage, and with it his life of adventure, began to seem very far away. It was back to being a “Work Beast” with no time for sailing, reading, or anything else but sleep.

When Jack’s mother saw a contest announced in a local newspaper calling for the best descriptive article by a young writer twenty-two and under, she encouraged her son to enter. He frequently reminisced about his experience piloting the Sophie Sutherland through the typhoon anyway, she argued, so why not put the memory down on paper? London was hesitant at first; he hadn’t yet given much thought to writing at this point in his life and working on the article would mean sacrificing precious sleep. Finally he relented and stayed up two nights in a row to pen the piece – he was practically delirious by the time it was finished. When the contest results were announced, Jack, the eighteen-year-old, largely self-educated autodidact, had taken first prize, besting students from Berkeley and Stanford. Along with the honor, he won $25 – an intoxicating amount of money that almost equaled an entire month toiling at the mill.

Encouraged by his success, Jack furiously typed up several more articles and sent them out to magazines and newspapers. But all he received in reply was a spate of rejection notices. Perhaps, Jack thought, the moment of success had just been a fluke.

London decided he needed to pursue a more stable and lucrative professional career. Like many young men his age, he had grown up reading rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger-type success – tales in which a young lad, full of perseverance and pluck, starts at the bottom of a company and tirelessly works his way to the top. Jack figured it was time for him to start his own similarly bootstrapped ascent. Becoming an electrician interested him, so he “bade farewell forever to the adventure-path” and called on the supervisor of an electric railway company. Jack told him of his desire to work his way through the ranks and his willingness to begin on the very lowest rung on the ladder. The supervisor commended Jack for his attitude and promised him that such advancement was certainly possible if he would labor diligently. He put London to work shoveling coal in the powerhouse seven days a week, with one day off per month. He was supposed to receive $30 a month for ten hours a day of labor, but he was paid by the amount of coal shoveled, and they regularly gave him more than twelve hours of coal to work through every day. But just as he had on the Sophie Sutherland, Jack was determined to show he was up to the task and had what it took to get ahead. Hour after hour he shoveled, until his body dripped with sweat, his muscles cramped up, and he was forced to don thick leather splints to brace up his badly aching wrists. When he rode the streetcar home at night, his knees would buckle from sheer exhaustion.

Eventually a fireman at the plant took pity on the bone-wearied young man and told him the truth of the situation. Before the supervisor had hired him, his job has been the work of two grown men, each of whom made $40 a month. “The superintendent, bent on an economical administration, had persuaded me to do the work of both men for thirty dollars a month,” Jack bitterly recalled. “I thought he was making an electrician of me. In truth and fact, he was saving fifty dollars a month operating expenses to the company.” Even worse, one of the men Jack had displaced had committed suicide – despondent he couldn’t find work to support his family. The fireman apologized for not telling Jack sooner, saying the supervisor had warned everyone not to, and that he’d been sure Jack would quit on his own after just a day or two of the crushing toil.

Jack left the job in disgust. He felt exploited and like something of a scab. Thoroughly disillusioned with toiling as a wage slave, he left the working world behind entirely for life on the road. Traveling by foot and rail, he set out to join up with “Kelly’s Army.” The “army” was a contingent of protestors that were headed across the country to meet up with a larger march in Washington D.C. led by Jacob Coxey. Coxey was leading a movement decrying the rampant unemployment caused by the Panic of 1893 and petitioning the government to create public works jobs. London himself set out not so much because of sympathy with the cause, but simply because his wanderlust was calling once more.

There was much to this new life of tramping that appealed to London’s adventurous sensibilities. Seeing parts of the country he had never before beheld inspired his native curiosity and sense of wonder, and he especially enjoyed gaining the prowess required to ride the rails without being killed. It was a daring adult game of hide n’seek, with the hobos trying to stay out of sight and the conductors and brakemen looking to ferret them out and toss them off the train. Jack often traveled undetected by clinging to struts underneath the cars, with only inches between him and the tracks below. “His agility in ducking under rapidly moving cars,” Charmian said, “always remained a matter of pride to him, calling as it did for the smoothest coordination of nerve and muscle.”

Jack equally took pleasure in meeting new people from all walks of life. When the “army” made camp at night in open fields, the men would sit around the fire talking about their lives, complaining about the conditions in their old jobs, and voicing their displeasure with the current economic system. Jack had never thought much about politics before, and this was his first full exposure to the ideas of socialism – an exposure that would grow into a lifelong, thumos-fueled passion. London’s socialism tends to be a fixation for some people, and as it is not possible to understand him, or the arc of his thumos, without understanding his views on the subject, let us pause here and explain more about it.

Jack London: Socialist Superman

jack london portrait flat cap overcoat

London believed that one of the master keys to success was finding a “philosophy of life.” As a young man he first developed his own philosophical outlook by reading works by Darwin, Nietzsche, and Spencer. From his studies of these thinkers, London came to view the world in terms of biological evolution, and believed that despite the thin veneer of civilization, people were still driven by the same primal urges that had motivated their ancestors. Modern people, London believed, could still be stirred by the now faint “Call of the Wild.” Just like the dog Buck in that story, a man could sometimes sense the misty shadows of his primitive past reaching out to him, filling “him with a great unrest and strange desires,” causing him to “feel a vague, sweet gladness,” and bringing to him an awareness “of wild yearnings and stirrings for he knew not what.” And just like in that “other and dimly remembered world,” success was a matter of the survival of the fittest. The strongest and brightest, those with the most courage and fight, could become leaders of the pack – perfected, Nietzschean Supermen. Transforming himself into such a god-like figure would be the guiding aim of London’s life:

 “To be a man was to write man in large capitals on my heart. To adventure like a man, and fight like a man and do a man’s work — these were things that reached right in and gripped hold of me as no other thing could. And I looked ahead into long vistas of a hazy interminable future in which, playing what I conceived to be a man’s game, I should continue to travel with unfailing health, without accidents, and with muscles ever vigorous…This future was interminable. I could only see myself raging through life without end. Lustfully roving and conquering by sheer superiority and strength.”

Forged in his youth, Jack’s primal, survival of the fittest philosophy would remain his core belief throughout his life. It was softened, but not supplanted, by his socialism. Before leaving to tramp across the country, his own grinding work experiences had convinced him the current system was unfair and inhumane. Out on the road, Jack saw men who had once been healthy and strong like he was, but who had been crippled by accident or illness. Unfit for labor, they had been tossed aside by society, and Jack realized that he too could suffer a similar fate – even doing the grueling factory work he despised might become impossible. From the seeds of this sobering observation grew London’s belief that all people deserved a fairer shake in life.

Socialism at the turn of the century did not have the same connotations as it does today, and Jack’s views on the subject were complex. He advocated for things like regulations against child labor (his time as the pickle cannery ever at the back of his mind), more honest and transparent elections, and the municipal ownership of utilities (so that a young lad wouldn’t be stuck, say, shoveling coal for 12 hours a day). He liked to think of himself as a radical, but as a reporter who listened to Jack’s speeches wrote, “Any man, in the opinion of London, is a socialist who strives for a better form of government than the one he is living under.” While stumping for socialism in his later years, he bought a large yacht, a ranch, and kept a manservant to attend to his needs. A couple of quotes from two of his biographers can help sum up the various strains of London’s thinking as succinctly as possible:

“[His] was never the socialism of the slacker. He did not oppose the finer things in life, indeed he wanted them for himself…But everyone, he believed, should have an equal opportunity for the good life, which the current system of labor exploitation rendered manifestly impossible. Fortunes gained by sweat and brilliance were acceptable; fortunes gained by capitalizing on the desperation of others were not.”

“He took a backseat to none in his insistence on equality of opportunity and dignified treatment in the workplace, but to him socialism was not about banning wealth; it was about banning wealth accrued by exploiting others.”

Although London’s competing philosophies may seem contradictory (indeed, even his fellow contemporary socialists criticized his enjoyment of the luxuries his literary wealth made possible) London himself did not see his desire to be a Superman and his passionate socialism as being at odds. He could enjoy the wealth he created for himself with a clear conscience, he said, because he had not earned it on the backs of others. And it also served as a means to an end, as Charmian explained: “He would himself first climb out of the pit, that he might live to reach a hand to the fellow who could not rise by himself.” In other words, London worked hard to gain the good life for himself, not simply because he enjoyed it, but because he believed his success would put him in a better position to help others as well; he thought a man should strive mightily for greatness, but not live solely for himself. He would become a Superman, yes, but a socialist Superman — one who would not let fame and success blind him to a concern for the less fortunate. In short, he took “survival of the fittest” as his private governing philosophy, while advocating for socialism as the governing principle of the public sphere. He was, one friend said, “the most inherently individualistic” and “unsocialistic of all the Socialists I have met.”

Whether one personally agrees with London’s socialism or not is in fact immaterial, at least in the context of the specific subject of this series. Thumos sparks a man’s passionate fight for causes of a social, political, and religious nature, but it may call one man one way, and another man another. It is thumos, too, that provokes man’s desire to argue about who has gotten it right and who has misdirected this force!

Home Again, Home Again

The seeds of Jack’s socialism had been firmly planted, but hungry and disillusioned with the way he felt the leader of Kelly’s Army had been putting on airs, he deserted the march in Missouri, and rode the rails alone to Chicago, and then to New York. After some more adventuresome tramping (and a month-long stay in jail for vagrancy – an experience that outraged Jack when he was denied a trial), London traveled by freight train 3,000 miles through the icy Canadian landscape to Vancouver, and then worked aboard a steamship to earn his passage back to California.

London’s time tramping had been another rite of passage that had heightened his curiosity about the world even further and given him clarity about what to do with his future. The broken lives of his fellow hobos had been a clear warning to Jack, and he saw that a life of physical labor was too precarious. Instead, he would make a living, and rise to greatness, using the power of his mind. To do so, he needed to get that mind in fighting condition. It was time to go back to school.

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)


The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos — #4: Pacific Voyage

young jack london sitting credo text ashes dust

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

On January 12, 1893, his seventeenth birthday, Jack London signed onto the Sophie Sutherland, a splendid three-topmast schooner bound for seal hunting in the Bering Sea, and ultimately Japan. Jack was three years shy in experience and two years short in age of the minimum requirements for seamen, but his old friend Johnny Heinold vouched for Jack’s prowess on the water and unique character. And when the captain of the Sophie Sutherland met with Jack himself, he was greatly impressed with the young man’s maturity and determination and welcomed him aboard.

Jack knew that while he was technically their equal according to the ship’s articles, his new mates would view his youth and inexperience with resentment. They had earned their standing by serving their fellows on previous voyages, being hazed, and learning the ropes firsthand; he, on the other hand, was a landlubber by comparison who had never ventured into the deep sea. Jack could see that he had to prove he could carry his own weight from the get-go, or endure “seven months of hell at their hands.” He decided to work in such a way that none of his companions would be able to find fault with him:

“My method was deliberate, and simple, and drastic. In the first place, I resolved to do my work, no matter how hard or dangerous it might be, so well that no man would be called upon to do it for me. Further, I put ginger in my muscles. I never malingered when pulling on a rope, for I knew the eagle eyes of my forecastle mates were squinting for just such evidence of my inferiority. I made it a point to be among the first of the watch going on deck, among the last going below, never leaving a sheet or tackle for someone else to coil over a pin. I was always eager for the run aloft for the shifting of topsail sheets and tacks, or for the setting or taking in of topsails; and in these matters I did more than my share.”

Because Jack did all that was asked of him and more, his thumic pride and sense of honor demanded that he be treated with respect, not as one of the other sailors’ servants. If there was any question of this in his shipmates’ minds, it was convincingly resolved one afternoon down below deck. Red John, an enormous and imposing Swede, had been looking for trouble with Jack since the Sophie Sutherland set sail. On his “peggy day,” in which he was responsible for cleaning the kitchen’s dishes and the sailors’ quarters, Red John decided that Jack ought to do the chores for him. Several times he gave his gruff command, but Jack, who was relaxing on his bed weaving a rope mat, did not offer the slightest acknowledgement to the Swede’s entreaties.

Red John, in his anger, threw down the coffee pot he was holding and backhanded the recalcitrant youth across the mouth. London, exhibiting the kind of cat-like reflexes he would later ascribe to the “Sea Wolf,” landed a blow right between the other man’s eyes, dodged his sledgehammer-like counter, and then leapt onto his shoulders. Jack wrapped his legs around Red John’s ox-like neck, and began choking him and digging at his eyes with his fingers. Red John fought back by ferociously ramming Jack against the cabin’s beams, opening up wounds on the teenager’s scalp and upper body. Though blood dripped down his face, Jack simply squeezed all the harder, and would not give in until his opponent finally gurgled an assent to his repeated query: “Will y’leave me alone, now? Will y’let up on me for keeps? Will y’leave me be?—Will yuh Will yuh?”

Jack’s stand won him enormous respect from his shipmates, including Red John himself, who was thoroughly impressed with this “wild cat” who refused to be whipped. “It was my pride that I was taken in as an equal, in spirit as well as in fact,” Jack recalled. “From then on, everything was beautiful, and the voyage promised to be a happy one.”

John Barleycorn on the Adventure Path

The Sophie Sutherland carried no alcohol, and Jack didn’t mind at all. He felt his foggy mind clearing and sharpening up once more, and was content to spend his free time reading the small library of books he had brought along, including Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and most appropriately, Moby-Dick.

Yet when the ship would pull into port, it was a different story. London discovered once more that “the adventure-path” is “one of John Barleycorn’s favorite stomping grounds.” As he had observed along the waterfront back home, Jack found that alcohol was both a constant accompaniment to the life of exploration, and a detractor from it.

When the ship pulled into harbor in the Bonin Islands, around 600 miles south of Japan’s mainland, for water and repairs, Jack gazed with wonder upon the jungle-covered volcanic peaks, and breathed in the new, exotic scent of the tropics. “It was my first foreign land,” Jack remembered. “I had won to the other side of the world, and I would see all I had read in the books come true. I was wild to get ashore.”

Jack and his two best mates spotted “a pathway that disappeared up a wild canyon, emerged on a steep, bare lava-slope, and thereafter appeared and disappeared, ever climbing, among the palms and flowers.” The men were stirred to follow the path wherever it might lead, sure that they would come across “beautiful scenery, and strange native villages, and find Heaven alone knew what adventure at the end.” Jack was excited and “keen for anything.”

But as the young men rowed onto the beach, they came first to the island’s small town, where sailors from around the world were riotously drinking, singing, and dancing. Jack’s companions suggested they have a drink before starting on their hike, and London felt he could not decline “these two chesty shipmates”: “Drinking together, glass in hand, put the seal on comradeship. It was the way of life.”

Jack and his friends made it no further ashore. Over the next ten days, they camped out at the small bars in town and drank their fill. One of his friends practically went mad with booze and destroyed some local property that they had to pitch in and replace. Jack lost his shoes, pants, and belt. And they never did, Jack recalled with regret, “climb that lava path among the flowers.”

It was the same story when the Sophie Sutherland landed in Japan. After the ship had hunted seals for three months in the Bering Sea and filled its holds with their skins, it pulled into port at Yokohama. Jack was eager to get off the ship and explore the country, but stopped first at a public house to have just a couple of drinks with the boys. Two weeks later, all he had seen of Japan was “a drinking-place which was very like a drinking place at home or anywhere else over the world.”

Jack Takes the Helm

jack london quote man without courage

If Jack missed out on some degrees of adventure, there were still plenty to be had during his voyage of the Pacific. Its apex, what Jack would later recall as his “moment of highest living,” occurred when the Sophie Sutherland sailed into the thick of a typhoon off the coast of Japan. The seas were so rough, the ship so taxing to control, that each man could take but a one-hour shift at the wheel before requiring rest, and every crew member had to take a turn. Finally at seven in the morning, Jack was called up from his quarters to man the helm. A seventeen-year-old greenhorn, it was up to him alone to battle nature’s fiercest elements and pilot the ship and its passengers safely through the storm:

“Not a stitch of canvas was set. We were running before [the storm] with bare poles, yet the schooner fairly tore along. The seas were all of an eighth of a mile apart, and the wind snatched the whitecaps from their summits, filling the air so thick with driving spray that it was impossible to see more than two waves at a time. The schooner was almost unmanageable, rolling her rail under to starboard and to port, veering and yawing anywhere between southeast and southwest, and threatening when the huge seas lifted under her quarter, to broach to. Had she broached to, she would ultimately have been reported lost with all hands and no tidings.

I took the wheel. The sailing master watched me for a space. He was afraid of my youth, feared that I lacked the strength and the nerve. But when he saw me successfully wrestle the schooner through several bouts, he went below to breakfast. Fore and aft, all hands were below at breakfast. Had she broached to, not one of them would ever have reached the deck. For forty minutes I stood there alone at the wheel, in my grasp the wildly careering schooner and the lives of twenty-two men. Once we were pooped. I saw it coming, and, half-drowned, with tons of water crushing me, I checked the schooner’s rush to broach to. At the end of the hour, sweating and played out, I was relieved. But I had done it! With my own hands I had done the trick at the wheel and guided a hundred tons of wood and iron through a few million tons of wind and waves.”

London would later say that this experience was “possibly the proudest achievement of my life”:

“My delight was in that I had done it, not in the fact that twenty-two men knew I had done it. Within the year, over half of them were dead and gone, and yet my pride in the thing performed was not diminished by half…This delight is peculiarly my own and does not depend upon witnesses. When I have done some such thing, I am exalted. I glow all over. I am aware of a pride in myself that is mine and mine alone. It is organic; every fiber of me is thrilling with it…

Life that lives is life successful, and success is the breath in its nostrils. The achievement of a difficult feat is successful adjustment to a sternly exacting environment. The more difficult the feat, the greater the satisfaction at its accomplishment.”

Return Home

The Sophie Sutherland arrived back to San Francisco on August 26, 1893. Jack had been away for seven months, and in that time had become a man among men. He would always see this voyage as a seminal turning point in his life – a rite of passage. Charmian wrote:

“The pleasure of camaraderie with his fellows below or on deck, or aloft in the shrieking rigging in a gale, was not to be calculated. No exhausting strain could dampen the ardor of holding his own with the best in sheer muscular rivalry. Even in middle age, for him to be able to say, ‘I have toiled all night, both watches on deck, off the coast of Japan,’ meant more to him than the best passage he had ever written.

Unfortunately, Jack’s high-flying life of adventure came quickly to a halt once he was home. The money he had earned on his voyage, handed dutifully over to his family, was quickly gone. The country had plunged into an economic depression, and professional work of any kind was nearly impossible to come by. Many of Jack’s friends had been killed or gone to jail while he had been away, and risking a similar fate by returning to the life of an oyster pirate held no appeal. Jack needed a regular job to support his family, and was finally forced to take work in a jute mill factory wrapping the vegetable fiber thread around bobbins, making ten cents an hour…the same wage he had earned at the pickle cannery a few years earlier. Everything had changed, and nothing had.

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)


The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos — #3: Oyster Pirate

young jack london sitting with credo text ashes dust

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

As fifteen-year-old Jack London toiled away in a steamy, rank pickle factory for ten cents an hour, he hatched a plan that would allow him to make much more money, and return to the open water and sky he so sorely missed. He would become a pirate. An oyster pirate.

The Sothern Pacific Railroad had begun to lease out tracts of its coastal acreage for the exclusive use of oyster farmers. The oyster beds, which had been considered a public resource, were transformed into a protected monopoly. This takeover deprived working-class fishermen of a source of income and food. Thus, even though the act became a felony, the police often looked the other way when sailors continued to harvest oysters from the now private tidal farms, and these “oyster pirates” took on the air of local folk heroes. Jack London was eager to join their ranks.

Oyster bed, San Francisco Bay, 1900

Oyster bed, San Francisco Bay, 1900

London borrowed the money to purchase a small sloop, the Razzle Dazzle, from Mammy Jennie and quickly began his pirating operation. Under the cover of darkness, he would stealthily pilot the sloop into the shallow water along the bay’s coastline. Armed guards patrolled the area from raised platforms, and Jack had to maintain absolute silence during the raid; the smallest knock would reverberate through the night. Jack would nose the boat onto shore near an oyster bed, and then he and a partner would climb out onto the tidal flat, wade through the thick mud, and fill sack after sack full of mollusk booty. Then as morning dawned, they raced other pirates to the Oakland markets, jockeying to be the first to sell the harvested oysters for hefty sums to local restaurateurs who didn’t inquire about their origin.

Jack soon found that he could make more money in a week pirating oysters than he could in a whole month at the cannery; he would hand over a large portion to his family, and still have enough to go out and have a good time.

Jack’s prowess and daring in his new “career,” his seeming disregard for the danger inherent to the gig, and his rapid success, won him the admiration of his peers, and the title “Prince of the Oyster Pirates.”

He also gained equal standing among the toughs who prowled along the waterfront. Young Jack wanted to prove he was a man; that despite his bookish predilections, he was full of grit and brass. He started running with gangs and going out gambling, carousing, and getting in a few brawls. He still did not relish fighting, but he fought to win whenever pushed; not that he was always successful — he was once knocked unconscious for seventeen hours.

Jack Gets Acquainted with John Barleycorn

London remained a regular at the Heinold Saloon, but he now spent less time studying the dictionary and more time drinking, buying rounds for his fellow patrons, spinning engaging yarns, and listening to the crackling tales of veteran whalers and harpooners who had traveled the world. Reading was still Jack’s favorite pastime, and he stole away to the Oakland Public Library whenever he could. But he had grown more self-conscious about exhibiting his love of learning around his salty peers. He would wait to crack open the books until he was alone, holed up at night in the cabin of the Razzle Dazzle.

London claimed that during this time, and for most of his life, he felt no pull towards alcohol, and didn’t enjoy drinking it. John Barleycorn, Jack’s favorite personified moniker for alcohol, tasted and registered to his senses as poison. But he drank with his fellows because it seemed to be an essential part of manly camaraderie. He said it was “the price I would pay for their comradeship” and his ticket into their world:

“All this glorious passage in my life was made possible for me by John Barleycorn. And this is my complaint against John Barleycorn. Here I was, thirsting for the wild life of adventure, and the only way for me to win to it was through John Barleycorn’s mediation. It was the way of the men who lived the life. Did I wish to live the life, I must live it the way they did.”

So London heartily drank with his fellows in order to be accepted. Yet he “carefully avoided overdrinking” – showing he was a good sport was one thing, he felt, while getting drunk was pointless. Nonetheless, his new drinking habit was beginning to have some unfortunate effects on his thumos. For one, his conscience, he observed from time to time, seemed to be dulling:

“As I bought drinks—others treated as well— the thought flickered across my mind that Mammy Jennie wasn’t going to be repaid much on her loan out of that week’s earnings of the Razzle Dazzle. ‘But what of it?’ I thought, or rather, John Barleycorn thought it for me. ‘You’re a man and you’re getting acquainted with men. Mammy Jennie doesn’t need the money as promptly as all that. She isn’t starving. You know that. She’s got other money in bank. Let her wait, and pay her back gradually.’

And thus it was I learned another trait of John Barleycorn. He inhibits morality. Wrong conduct that it is impossible for one to do sober, is done quite easily when one is not sober. In fact, it is the only thing one can do, for John Barleycorn’s inhibition rises like a wall between one’s immediate desires and long-learned morality.”

London was most concerned, however, by the way in which his drinking was slowly squelching the spiritedness of his thumos, fostering apathy and a premature cynicism:

“I had a few months still to run before I was seventeen; I scorned the thought of a steady job at anything; I felt myself a pretty tough individual in a group of pretty tough men; and I drank because these men drank and because I had to make good with them. I had never had a real boyhood, and in this, my precocious manhood, I was very hard and woefully wise. Though I had never known girl’s love even, I had crawled through such depths that I was convinced absolutely that I knew the last word about love and life. And it wasn’t a pretty knowledge. Without being pessimistic, I was quite satisfied that life was a rather cheap and ordinary affair.

You see, John Barleycorn was blunting me. The old stings and prods of the spirit were no longer sharp. Curiosity was leaving me. What did it matter what lay on the other side of the world? Men and women, without doubt, very much like the men and women I knew; marrying and giving in marriage and all the petty run of petty human concerns; and drinks, too. But the other side of the world was a long way to go for a drink. I had but to step to the corner and get all I wanted at Joe Vigy’s. Johnny Heinhold still ran the Last Chance. And there were saloons on all the corners and between the corners.”

This dulling of his sense of adventure greatly disturbed Jack. When he drank, as London always put it, the “maggots” would start crawling around in his brain, whispering to him “that life is big,” and that he and his companions were  “all brave and fine—free spirits sprawling like careless gods upon the turf and telling the two-by-four, cut-and-dried, conventional world to go hang.” Alcohol gave him the sensation of being wild and free, but Jack’s penetrating thumos saw through the illusion and continued to spur him to seek experiences outside the walls of his favorite saloons:

“When I never drew a sober breath, on one stretch, for three solid weeks, I was certain I had reached the top. Surely, in that direction, one could go no farther. It was time for me to move on. For always, drunk or sober, at the back of my consciousness something whispered that this carousing and bay-adventuring was not all of life. This whisper was my good fortune. I happened to be so made that I could hear it calling, always calling, out and away over the world. It was not canniness on my part. It was curiosity, desire to know, an unrest and a seeking for things wonderful that I seemed somehow to have glimpsed or guessed. What was this life for, I demanded, if this were all? No; there was something more, away and beyond.”

London’s growing conviction that he needed to forge a new path in life was dramatically cemented when he fell off a sloop drunk one night and began to drift out to sea. At first his alcohol-soaked mind was seized with the romantic notion that this was a beautiful and fitting end to life and to let himself be swept away. But as a strong current took hold of him, and began to pull him farther and farther from shore, his mind quickly sobered up and snapped to the awareness that he wanted to live. He desperately attempted to swim to shore, barely winning the fight against exhaustion before clawing his way onto land.

A Desire to Turn the Page


Life for London was unconstrained, but it had taken a turn contrary to his expansive dreams. He could see his current pursuits invariably leading to a dead end – death or jail — neither of which were the kind of romantic possibilities he sought. It was time to do something else.

Jack first tried switching sides, trading his status as oyster pirate for a badge working for the California Fish Patrol. As a deputy, his job was much like that of a game warden and involved arresting waterborne lawbreakers, a group to which he had just belonged. Despite his youthful desire to live wild and loose, he had a counter-streak that greatly respected law, and the necessity of it, and he found catching felons much more satisfying than being one.

While out on patrol one day, he saw a gang of teenage hobos skinny dipping, and decided on a whim to take off with them on a tramping journey. He left his home state for the first time and traveled by foot and rail all the way to the Sierra Nevadas. But the criminal shenanigans of his new companions were no better than his old ones, and once more anxious of losing his freedom to the slammer, Jack returned to Oakland.

He may have gone home, but his short journey had only whet his appetite for exploration. He was ready to make a clean break with his old life and to strike out far beyond his comfort zone. He was ready to go “before the mast,” out to the deep sea and whatever lay behind the horizon. A man, London believed, “must venture into the unknown because he is afraid of it.” And Jack London was ready to become a man.

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)


The Life of Jack London as a Case Study in the Power and Perils of Thumos — #2: Boyhood

young jack london sitting with credo text ashes dust

This article is part of a series that studies the life of Jack London, and especially his display of the Ancient Greek concept of thumos

John Griffith London was born in San Francisco in 1876 the illegitimate son of Flora Wellman — a free-loving spiritualist who conducted séances in her home. He never knew his biological father. His mother was manipulative (when her stepdaughter was once asked what Flora’s profession had been, she answered “professional martyr”), emotionally unstable, and prone to temper tantrums, and she had little time or affection for her only child. She sent her infant son off to live with Virginia Prentiss, a former slave who acted as his wet nurse and first true mother figure. She called him “Johnny” (a name that would stick until he started referring to himself as “Jack” in his early teens), and he called her “Mammy Jennie.” Jack would remain loyal to Prentiss for the rest of his life.

Sometime in the first year or two of Jack’s young life, Flora took him back in. In his absence, she had married John London. Jack’s stepfather loved the boy like his own son, and took him hunting and fishing, providing him a refuge from Flora’s ever-changing moods. Jack would remember him as the best man he ever knew.

John did his best to support the family, but Flora, who fervently believed they would one day come into great wealth, squandered away the money on lottery tickets and misguided business ventures. The family frequently fell on hard times and moved regularly, placing Jack in the unenviable position of often being the new kid in school. Hungry and dressed “like a scarecrow,” he remembered enviously gazing at the meat-filled lunchboxes of his peers, a longing that led him to relish meat throughout his life and to feast to his heart’s content on barely-cooked duck and “cannibal sandwiches” (raw beef chopped fine with small onions) once he became successful.

Jack London in 1885, at age 9. posing with dog

Jack London in 1885, at age 9.

Jack was often lonely as a child and turned to books for companionship. Discovering the Oakland Public Library was a revelation, and its kindly librarian, Ina Coolbrith (who would become a literary celebrity in her own right), mentored the young boy and sparked his love of reading. As Jack remembers of that time, “I read everything, but principally history and adventure, and all the old travels and voyages. I read mornings, afternoons, and nights. I read in bed, I read at table, I read as I walked to and from school, and I read at recess while the other boys were playing.”

But Jack’s reading days and childhood would not last long. At age ten he was recruited to help support the family, a responsibility he would continue to shoulder until his death decades later. Young Jack became a newsboy, a job which required him to rise at three am to deliver the morning paper, head to school, and then go right from school in the afternoon to deliver the evening paper. On Saturdays he worked on an ice wagon and on Sundays he set pins at a bowling alley (no automatic re-setting machines in those days!).

Life as a paperboy left Jack little time for books, but being out on the streets provided a new kind of education. “I was busy,” he said, “getting exercise and learning how to fight, busy learning forwardness, and brass and bluff.”

Jack and His Skiff

“It was upon the liquid two-thirds of earth’s surface that I saw him the most blissfully content. Dawn or twilight, he loved the way of a boat upon the sea. His bright inquisitive spirit might have sailed to its human birthing, so native was he to the world’s watery spaces. The sea nurtured a gallant and adventurous spirit that made us all watch his banner. His influence was felt like a great vitalizing breath from the West—wide land of red-veined men—in which he lived and died. ‘Seamen have at all times been a people apart,’ curiously so, from the rest of their kind; and the sailor Jack London was a man apart from the rest of himself. Imagination, nerves, work, pleasure, all ran in smoother grooves when his feet stood between the moving surface and the blowing sky, his own intelligence the equalizing force amidst unstable elements. Seldom in waking hours without books or spoken argument exerting upon his wheeling brain, yet at the helm of his boat, braced for day-long hours, he would stand rapt in healthful ecstasy of sheer being, lord of life and the harnessed powers of nature, unheedful of physical strain, his own hand directing fate.” –Charmian London

Early in his life, Jack London heard the alluring call of the sea. Having devoured the tales of old voyagers, he desired a taste of the salt spray for himself. “I wanted to get away from monotony and the commonplace,” he remembered. “I was in the flower of my adolescence, a-thrill with romance and adventure, dreaming of wild life in the wild man-world.”

When he graduated from the eighth grade, London took the little money he had saved from his jobs that hadn’t been turned over to his family, bought a fourteen-foot skiff, and went about teaching himself how to sail. The San Francisco Bay and Oakland Estuary, full of treacherous shallows, strong currents, and commercial and fishing traffic, was no easy training ground for an inexperienced boy of just fourteen. Yet he toiled away, learning by trial and error, seeking to “master the manners of little craft until their management should become automatic to hand and brain.”

As he learned to sail, his little skiff became a place of contemplative solitude, where he could read and think, away from the chattering civilization on shore. His young mind began to ponder the big questions of life, measuring possible answers by his “one sure test”: “Will it work—will you trust your life to it?” At the same time, he honed his prowess for the very concrete problems of handling the boat in different conditions – his failure to do so creating the very concrete result of capsizing. It was here then, at sea, that London perhaps first began to develop his practical philosophy of life — his identity as both doer and thinker. It was here too that Jack first whet the hunger of his thumos for challenge – for the battle of man against the elements of nature – and began to gain the technical skills that lend confidence to thumos and enable it to seek greater adventures.

It was also while sailing his skiff that Jack got his first peek into the world of men – at least the kind of men he aspired to become. When a sixteen-year-old sailor asked London to put him aboard a ship, the Idler, sitting out in the bay, so that he might meet with a harpooner on board, Jack eagerly set sail. The Idler was rumored to take part in opium smuggling, and Jack had often sailed by it in his skiff, intrigued by its air of mystery and illegality. When Jack pulled alongside the large ship, the Idler’s caretaker invited both of the young men on board. As London, the sailor, and the nineteen-year-old harpooner headed below deck, Jack “followed with bated breath down the brassy companionway, and filled his lungs with the musty, damp odor of the first sea-interior he had ever entered.” He was utterly taken with what he saw in the cabin:

“The clothing . . . smelled musty. But what of that? Was it not the sea-gear of men?—leather jackets lined with corduroy, blue coats of pilot cloth, sou’westers, sea boots, oilskins. And everywhere was in evidence the economy of space—the narrow bunks, the swinging tables, the incredible lockers. There were the tell-tale compass, the sea-lamps in their gimbals, the blue-backed charts carelessly rolled and tucked away, the signal-flags in alphabetical order, and a mariner’s dividers jammed into the woodwork to hold a calendar. At last I was living.”

The three young strangers quickly became friends over numerous drinks and hours of storytelling and banter. When his companions had passed out in a stupor, Jack, determined to show his strength in being able to hold his liquor, climbed back topside and into his skiff. Though the sea was rough and choppy, he sailed through the black of night towards the Oakland shore, his whole being electrified in having briefly crossed over into the world of wild men:

“I set sail, cast off, took my place at the tiller, the sheet in my hand, and headed across channel. The skiff heeled over and plunged into it madly. The spray began to fly. I was at the pinnacle of exaltation. I sang “Blow the Man Down” as I sailed. I was no boy of fourteen, living the mediocre ways of the sleepy town called Oakland. I was a man, a god, and the very elements rendered me allegiance as I bitted them to my will.

His companions on the Idler were not the only deep-water sailors with which London became acquainted. Young Jack began hanging out in saloons along the rough and tumble waterfront, spending much of his time in Oakland’s J.M. Heinold Saloon. Its proprietor, Johnny Heinold, soon saw that Jack was quite unlike the other patrons he had seen come and go. London frequented the saloon less for the company and the drinks, and more for the opportunity to study a large dictionary that sat in the window of that establishment. He could spend hours poring over its pages, trying to master new words. “Never a bit of attention would he pay to the men drinkin’ and smokin’ and jokin’ up here at the bar,” Heinold remembered, “he just fell to on that old book and read it like he’d like to learn everything in it.” If any of the other patrons wanted to harass him for his “sissy” interests, Jack was ready to stand up for himself. “He was gentler than a woman,” said Heinold, “yet he wasn’t to be walked over—I don’t care how big the guy was. He never fought much, but he’d set his jaw a certain way, and look with them flashing deep eyes of his, and that was all he needed to do. You see, he never bluffed.

Young Jack London studying the dictionary at J.M. Heinold's Saloon

Young Jack London studying the dictionary at J.M. Heinold’s Saloon. The saloon’s name was changed in Jack’s lifetime to “Heinold’s First and Last Chance” and it remains in Oakland to this day.

Unfortunately for Jack, his first go as a sailor was cut short, as was his formal education. While he had been bringing home fish to his family as an economic justification for his days spent out on the skiff, they decided the young man needed to move on, not to high school, but to full-time employment.

An Adventurous Spirit, Canned

Jack found work at a cannery, stuffing pickles into jars for ten cents an hour. His official shift was a grueling 16 hours a day, seven days a week, but as London recalled, he was often required to labor even longer:

“Many a night I did not knock off work until midnight. On occasion I worked eighteen and twenty hours on a stretch. Once I worked at my machine for thirty-six consecutive hours. And there were weeks on end when I never knocked off work earlier than eleven o’clock, got home and in bed at half after midnight, and was called at halfpast five to dress, eat, walk to work, and be at my machine at seven o’clock whistle blow.”

There were “No moments,” London lamented, “here to be stolen for my beloved books.”

London felt his intellect and his thirst for adventure shriveling away. He began to despair of becoming a wage slave, with death his only out:

“I asked myself if this were the meaning of life—to be a work-beast? I knew of no horse in the city of Oakland that worked the hours I worked. If this were living, I was entirely unenamored of it. I remembered my skiff, lying idle and accumulating barnacles at the boatwharf; I remembered the wind that blew every day on the bay, the sunrises and sunsets I never saw; the bite of the salt air in my nostrils, the bite of the salt water on my flesh when I plunged overside; I remembered all the beauty and the wonder and the sense-delights of the world denied me. There was only one way to escape my deadening toil. I must get out and away on the water. I must earn my bread on the water…I wanted to be where the winds of adventure blew. And the winds of adventure blew the oyster pirate sloops up and down San Francisco.”

To those oyster pirate sloops is where we shall turn next time.

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)




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)

Got Thumos?

illustration phaedrus allegory of chariot black white horses thumos

Last week we explored Plato’s allegory of the chariot, which the ancient philosopher used to explain the tripartite nature of the soul or psyche. In the allegory, a chariot (representing the soul) is pulled by a rebellious dark horse (symbolizing man’s appetites) and a spirited white horse (symbolizing thumos). The charioteer, or Reason, is tasked with harnessing the energy of both horses, getting the disparate steeds into sync, and successfully piloting the chariot into the heavens where he can behold Truth and become like the gods.

We presented the allegory not simply because of the insights it can offer into the nature of man and how we may progress in our lives, but even more importantly, to lay the foundation for a discussion of thumos.

While the other components of Plato’s vision of the soul have ready modern equivalents, there is no word in our language that truly corresponds to thumos. This is most telling. When a culture lacks the word for something, it is because they lack the concept of it.

The Greeks believed thumos was essential to andreia — manliness. It is mentioned over seven hundred times in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Philosopher Allan Bloom called it “the central natural passion in men’s souls.” If we have lost the ability to recognize, appreciate, cultivate, and utilize one of the three main components of our nature, we should not be surprised when negative consequences follow. When one hears of a lack of virility, fight, energy, and ambition in modern men, of a malaise of spirit that has settled over our sex, what is really being spoken of is a shortage of thumos. For millions of men, thumos lies dormant, an energy source left untapped. It is as if each of us had a potential Kentucky Derby-caliber thoroughbred waiting in the stable, ready and eager to run, but we kept him locked away, only trotting him out for pony rides at children’s birthday parties.

Recovering an understanding of thumos, and its role as the vital life and energy source of men’s souls, will be our task today.

What Is Thumos?

As we mentioned last time, Plato envisioned the three components of one’s soul as independent entities. Thumos was thought to be the most independent of the bunch. The Greeks believed it was found in animals, humans, and the gods. Thumos could act separately from you, or in cooperation with you — as an accompaniment, tool, or motivation behind some action. Because it was a distinct part of yourself, you could talk to it, tell it to endure, to be strong, or to be young (thumos was associated with the passion and power of youth, but older people could have it too). In the Iliad, Achilles speaks “to his great-hearted thumos” when anxious about the fate of Patroculus. He also delights his thumos by playing the lyre.

The Greek philosopher Empedocles called thumos the “seat of life.” If it left you entirely, you would faint, and permanent separation meant death.

Thumos likewise constitutes the “seat of energy that can fill a person,” and serves as the active agent within man. It is the stimulus, the drive, the juice to action — the thing that makes the blood surge in your veins. Philosopher Sam Keen got at the idea with his concept of “the fire in the belly.”

The Romans held a similar belief, equating energy with virtus, or manliness. “The whole glory of virtus,” Cicero declared, “resides in activity.”

What is the nature of this energy and where does it lead? The Greeks saw thumos as serving several distinct, yet interrelated functions. As with honor, it is a concept that was once so implicitly understood that it did not have to be explained, and attempting to describe it at a great remove makes what was once a natural, lived experienced seem much more complicated. The best we can do is illustrate it from its different angles, and hope that the pieces resonate and come together into a recognizable mosaic.

Note: In this post we use phrases like, “The Greeks believed…” This is not to imply that the ancient Greeks were monolithic in their philosophy – different ideas on manliness and thumos existed. What we have done here is distilled out the core threads of thumos on which there was a good amount of agreement, and woven them together along with our own interpretation.

The Functions of Thumos

Seat of Emotion

Thumos is both the source of emotion and the emotion itself. The agent and the function are fused. Thumos births and embodies things like joy, pain, fear, hope, and grief. Thumos is also tied up with love. The Greeks would say you could love someone “out of your thumos.”

Thumos is most closely associated, however, with anger. In Greek writings thumos “seethes,” “rages,” and “boils.” It is a special kind of anger – activated when a man’s honor is violated, when his reputation is on the line, when his family and property are threatened. It drives a man to stand up for himself, for his country, for his loved ones.

The anger of thumos can not only be directed at others and external enemies, but also towards oneself. Thumos makes you angry at yourself when you fail to live up to your principles and code of honor. Plato uses the example of a man who sees a pile of corpses, looks away, and keeps on walking, but then returns to gaze upon it again. He is angry with himself for giving into a base inclination. Thumos can make you indignant of your own desires, if those desires compel you to do something contrary to the dictates of Reason.

Drive to Fight

illustration ancient roman warrior on white horse with sword

Thumos not only produces anger, but then channels that anger into the impulse to fight. When Nestor, King of Pylos, recalls his past exploits, he says, “My hard-enduring heart [thumos] in its daring drove me to fight.” Thumos motivates warriors before and during combat. The Greeks said courageous soldiers had a “valiant thumos” during war. In Seven Against Thebes, it is said that before battle the soldiers’ “iron-lunged thumos, blazing with valor, breathed out as if from lions glaring with the war-god’s might.” Valor here is translated from andreia – manliness. The warriors’ thumos blazes with manliness in anticipation of the fight.

A man of thumos glories in a fight – whether against others, the elements of nature, or his baser desires — as a way to test his mettle and prove himself.

Courage, Steadfastness, Indomitability

Once a man is in a fight, thumos spurs him on, motivating him to stay in the arena and continue fearlessly striving for victory. This “gameness” is a quality of thumos man shares with the beasts. In Sam Sheridan’s exploration of The Fighter’s Heart, he observes the centrality of gameness in dogfighting. “We almost don’t care how good the dog fights,” he notes, “the fight is just an elaborate test to check his gameness.” Adds a dog trainer Sheridan speaks with: “Give me a game dog any day, a dog that bites as tissue paper but keeps coming back and I’ll take him.”

Fearless indomitability is central to the success of the human warrior as well, who must not lose heart as the heat of battle intensifies, and his morale flags. To encourage their respective armies to fight harder in the midst of combat, Ajax and Hector “stirred up the thumos and strength” of each of their men.

Plato did not see human gameness as being of the same kind demonstrated by animals, however. Rather, he argued that man’s thumos, at least when properly trained, is born of a rational type of courage — that man is andreios (manly) when his thumos “holds fast to the orders of reason about what he ought or ought not to fear, in spite of pleasure and pain.” In other words, when engaged in a worthy fight, you neither recklessly underestimate real threats that should be feared, nor overestimate threats that shouldn’t be feared, and are not swayed from your course by either the satisfaction of pursuing blind revenge nor the fear of being hurt and the love of comfort and luxury. Plato argued that andreia meant conquering fear and pain of any sort – being the kind of man “who confronts misfortune in all cases with steadfast endurance.”

Evaluation, Discernment, Decision-Making

So thumos keeps you in a fight that your Reason has decided is indeed a worthy one. But how do you make that determination?

Plato believed, as Angela Hobbs put it, that “courage involves both emotional commitment and evaluative belief, an intellectual and emotional appreciation of what things are worth taking risks for and in what circumstances.”

Thumos plays a role in both the emotional and evaluative parts of that equation. As we mentioned last time, the task of Reason as the “charioteer” is to take stock of his own desires, and those of his two horses, and then to choose to satisfy only his best and truest ones – those that lead to virtue and arête, or excellence. Reason’s ally in this task is his white horse, or thumos, which can be trained to help make this kind of judgment.

Shirley Sullivan offers examples of this function of thumos in Greek literature:

Thumos is mentioned in connection with several intellectual activities. These include pondering, thinking, knowing, deliberation, planning and perceiving. Often too a person puts things into thumos for consideration. Odysseus ‘ponders evils in his thumos’ for the suitors. Zeus ‘thinks about events’ in his thumos as he watches the battle of Troy…Hermes ‘deliberates in thumos’ how to take Priam safely from Achilles’ camp. Circe tells Odysseus ‘to plan in his thumos’ the course he will take after passing the Sirens. Telemachus tells Penelope that now that he has grown up, ‘he perceives and knows in his thumos’ good and evil. It is in thumos that Hesiod tells Perses to ‘consider’ the value of the competitive spirit.”

Thumos is the place in which you ponder possibilities, and at the same time, it helps you know and understand which of those possibilities to choose. It’s related to gut feelings and intuition — what Jeffrey Barnouw calls “visceral thinking” — and it also has a prophetic quality – giving you a sense of foreboding about where a decision may lead, or something bad to come.

I personally believe you can know a decision is right when both your mind and heart agree – when your Reason and thumos align. When you feel that swelling of the heart, that course of excitement and inspiration running through your veins, that’s thumos telling you you’re on the right course.

Ambition and the Drive for Recognition and Honor

In contrast to the lower desires of the dark horse simply for pleasure and material wealth, thumos seeks independence over possessions and sensuality, and recognition and honor over security. Thumos desires pride and prestige for its own sake. This drive for recognition will motivate him to risk much, even his own life, for his reputation, and also for the reputation of a group to which he is devoted. Plato calls thumos “the ambitious part [of the soul] and that which is covetous of honor.”

Thumos pushes a man to despise mediocrity and to want to excel his fellow men, to dominate, and be the best of the best. Thumos is ultimately what drives a man to seek glory, and above all, legacy.

So now we can see that while thumos is often translated today as spiritedness, heart, passion, will, courage, anger, boldness, or fierceness, it is really a combination of all those descriptions and yet still something more – something that no modern word is able to fully convey. Perhaps the best and simplest definition I’ve come across is “energetic thinking that leads to action.”

Harnessing the White Horse

Just like the dark horse of our appetites, the white horse of thumos can be used for either good or ill. The Greeks called it both “dark-faced,” “vain,” “terrible,” “greedy,” and “pitiless”…as well as “courageous,” “noble,” “kindly,” “moderate,” and “strong.” Properly harnessed and guided it has even more potential to lead a man towards eudemonia, or full human flourishing, than the dark horse, but if allowed to run wild, it can lead a man to destructive ends. It’s up to the charioteer to steer his thumos in a noble path.

Unused Thumos

illustration hose in stable sad and old unused

The charioteer may err by failing to hitch the white horse to the chariot at all, or not exercising him to build up his strength. The Greeks said that a man’s thumos could be “sluggish,” and certainly there are a good number of men today who match that description. A man lacking in thumos is the “nice guy” who can’t stand up for himself when others push him around. He is placid. Nothing arouses him. He has no ideals for which he fights and no real drive or ambition in life. He is content with mediocrity, or at least doesn’t have the will to figure out how to make things better. He’s the kind of guy who thinks the whole idea of “manliness” is really rather silly and feels he is above the kind of  “unenlightened” competitions and jockeying for position that occur amongst men, when really, deep down, he’s simply ashamed that he doesn’t think he could make the cut and stand among them.

Unbridled Thumos

illustration wild white horse bucking angry

A man may also run to the other extreme of failing to rein in his thumos at all. The Greeks called this “yielding to thumos,” or letting one’s thumos “run beyond measure.” The consequences of letting one’s white horse run wild vary. When the Greeks used thumos in a negative sense, it was most often in the context of the emotions, which they thought of as passions. Being ruled by one’s passions could be dangerous if it usurped the role of Reason and overruled a man’s rational faculties.

Of the emotions, anger was the most important to check and channel, and restraining anger and restraining thumos were closely connected. One type of man with unbridled thumos is he who wants to fight everyone about everything. The guy at the bar who starts a shoving match if he simply thinks you looked at him funny. He’s filled with anger, but it has no specific target – it’s just boiling inside him all the time, and the littlest thing can set it off. Thumos is much like fire – control it and it becomes an enormous power, handle is loosely and it can burn you and consume everything you touch.

For the Greeks, Achilles was the archetype of a man who yielded too much to his thumos. Achilles’ thumos imparts many good qualities to this consummate warrior; he is strong, brave, aggressive when wronged, driven to success, and nearly invulnerable. But his white-hot anger and concern for honor sometimes lead him to stubbornness and dishonor. The Iliad describes him as being moved by menos [anger] and overweening thumos,” and its first two lines tellingly read: “Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles/the accursed rage that brought great suffering to the Achaeans.” When Agamemnon robs Achilles of his war prize and lover, Briseis, Achilles bristles at this dishonor and refuses to fight or lead his troops. Before he slays Hector, his nemesis pleads for an honorable burial, but Achilles roars in reply: “my rage, my fury [thumos] would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw – such agonies you have caused me!” He then kills Hector, ties him to a chariot, and shamefully drags his lifeless body around the gates of Troy. Because of such acts, Ajax says that Achilles has let his thumos become “savage, implacable, and even straightforwardly bad,” and Apollo labels his thumos as “arrogant.”

The Greeks also warned that unbridled thumos could be “foolish” and “flighty,” carrying a man after one flash of inspiration after another. They were speaking to the  second type of man who leaves his thumos unbridled – he who gets a new idea, burns with excitement for it for a few days or weeks, but doesn’t have the drive to keep it going. He quickly gets bored and moves onto the next thing he’s “super passionate” about. His thumos is always chasing after one thing or another without clear aim or purpose.

Thumos Under the Sway of the Dark Horse

Besides failing to utilize the white horse, or letting it run wild, an additional problem the charioteer must avoid is letting his thumos get in-sync with the dark horse, rather than the other way around.

As you’ll remember from last time, the white horse, when properly trained, becomes the ally of the charioteer. Ideally, Reason and thumos work together to pull the rebellious dark horse in line with their mission and cadence. When there is a conflict between what Reason knows is right, and what the appetites want to do, thumos springs into action to defend Reason’s aims. But if Reason isn’t careful, the dark horse can get the white horse to team up with it instead.

When this happens, what you get is what we’ll call “spirited hedonism” — something the Greeks saw young people as especially susceptible to. Thumos feels the desire to do great things, to be passionate, to take on adventure and risk, and live life to the fullest, but the dark horse takes this motivation and shunts it off into a narrow and inferior channel – the mere penchant for partying hard. Thumos wants to really live, and the appetites convince him that nights out getting smashed at the same bars, repeated on an infinite loop, is real living. Part of this man bemoans the fact that he never really seems to go anywhere or see anything, but the dark horse quiets that concern, saying he really is living it up, while encouraging him to get another drink.

Thumos Properly Employed

illustration chariot race man pushing on white black horses

Thumos, properly trained and harnessed, can be one of man’s greatest allies — inspiring and guiding him, stirring him up, and driving and urging him on towards the peaks of greatness. It can perceive his possibilities and make them real. The Greeks believed that a man experienced true happiness “in thumos.”

The way to best make use of thumos is “simple:” directing it towards its natural aims – that which is noble and fine, honorable and excellent. Plato believed that thumos was made to “fight on behalf of what seems to be just,” and the Greeks saw this force of the soul as essential in making moral choices. In the poetry of Bacchylides, Apollo declares that the way to “delight thumos” is by “doing holy acts…for this is the highest of gains.”

In order to get thumos to pursue noble aims, Plato argued, you had to teach it to respond to Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. This can be done, I believe, by learning to use, and finely tuning your innate radar for such things. When you encounter what is Good, you can feel it resonate in your soul and swell your heart. Interestingly, one of the functions the Greeks assigned to thumos was the producer of “reverent awe.” The proof that something is Good is that it helps make you a better man – it bears good fruit. The more your thumos picks up on these signals, and responds to them, the better it gets at doing so, and as this virtuous cycle continues, your thumos grows ever stronger and you progress as a man.

Thumos does not simply draw you to that which is good, it inspires you to fight for it. Thumos’ natural home is the battlefield. Its most essential nature is that of an aid to courage, strength, and indomitability for the warrior in combat. But its spur to fight operates off the battlefield as well. It drives a man to stand up for his ideals, cherished causes, and moral choices. It also fuels his desire for recognition, honor, and status – the drive to become the best of the best in any arena of competition – whether sports, profession, or even simply life itself. In any situation where you choose not to back down from your beliefs and goals despite opposition, and refuse to give in when others try to crush you, thumos is by your side.

Thumos is also what drives a man to fight for a life less ordinary – one filled with more risk and adventure. Thumos is that source of vitality that pushes a man to live life as fully as possible, to drink deep from it, to choose “the strenuous life” over self-indulgence and mediocrity.

Thumos and Technical Skills


In whatever kind of fight a man is engaged, Plato argued that the acquirement of technical skills – mastery – can act as a stimulus to courage and an aid to thumos. Training gives a man confidence that can bolster him in the midst of stress and opposition. For example, the more a soldier has been trained in and has rigorously practiced the arts of war and defense, the more he is able to fall back on that training in the heat of the battle, and the less likely he is to become paralyzed or give up. As Hobbs puts it:

“Technical skills on their own will not make for courage; nor can they provide thumos, if thumos is altogether lacking. They can, however, help bolster thumos and make it more effective…Plato does not confuse technique with virtue, but he is clear-eyed about the need to provide the best possible environment for virtue to develop.”

Thumos Neutered

Why is it that many men seem so lacking in thumos today?

Thumos is a potent force – left wild it destroys, but harnessed it creates. The thumos of man is responsible for the lion’s share of society’s progress.

Yet in our modern day, instead of helping men to harness their thumos for positive ends, society has decided it is better to neuter the force altogether. To protect some people from getting hurt, we’ve tried to breed it out of men, even if it means its positive effects will be sacrificed along with the negative. It is like getting rid of electricity, and all the benefits that have come with it, because some people get electrocuted.

From an early age, boys are taught to sit still, to be quiet. Physical fighting of any kind results in suspension. Competition is frowned upon because it means some will be left out and feel bad. Rewards and recognition are distributed equally; everyone is given a prize to avoid hurt feelings. As a result, boys feel less motivated to fight to rise to the top.

We’ve unfortunately come to think of elements of thumos, like anger, as entirely bad. Instead, what we need is an understanding that anger is neither bad nor good – it’s all in how it’s directed. There is such a thing as righteous indignation. The anger that drives one to stand up for that which is just and right. If you snuff out the force that makes bad men hurt the weak, you also eliminate the force that moves good men to protect the vulnerable.

Plato argued that you didn’t breed fierceness out of men, you trained it. Men of the warrior class, he argued, should be trained to neither be watchdogs who barked at everything – even innocent noises — nor watchdogs that only whimpered and rolled over when someone invaded the house. They were gentle with those they knew, and fierce with strangers of ill-intent. Their thumos was ready, if needed, to fight.

Thumos Seeking Role Models

I can imagine that much of this seems very abstract and it may be hard to see how it applies to your own life. What can help make it more tangible is observing how thumos has operated in the lives of other men.

Plato believed that thumos naturally seeks heroic role models. These role models can inspire thumos, and also, as Hobbs put it, “give life shape and structure.”

Our own lives can seem like an amorphous stream – it’s just one thing after another. We see the world through our own eyes, so it’s hard to get a real perspective on how we’re doing and where we’re at in our journey. Because we can view them as outside observers, it is much easier to see the shape and structure of the lives of others, especially when you can read their biography and take in the sweep of their lives from start to finish. It’s easy to identify the different seasons they went through, their rises and falls, the important turning points. We can see how certain choices they made led to certain outcomes. And we can get a sense of the kind of things it’s possible for a man to accomplish and what sorts of aims we might seek in our own lives.

By studying how other men throughout history succeeded (and failed) to harness their thumos, we can get a sense of the nature of thumos and how to guide our own white horse.

With that in mind we will conclude this series with a case study of the life of  Jack London, who stands as the perfect example of both the power and perils of thumos. By examining the influence of thumos on a modern man, hopefully you will be able to much more easily grasp the nature of thumos and how you might cultivate it in your own life.




Plato and the Hero: Courage, Manliness and the Impersonal Good by Angela Hobbs

The Laws of Plato By Plato, Thomas L. Pangle

Psychological and Ethical Ideas: What Early Greeks Say by Shirley Darcus Sullivan

Odysseus, Hero Of Practical Intelligence: Deliberation And Signs In Homer’s Odyssey by Jeffrey Barnouw

Retrieving Political Emotion: Thumos, Aristotle, and Gender by Barbara Koziak

Illustrations by Ted Slampyak

What Is a Man? The Allegory of the Chariot

illustration phaedrus allegory of chariot white black horses

What is a man? What sort of man should I be? What does it mean to live a good life? What is the best way to live and how do I attain excellence? What should I aim for, and what training and practices must I do to achieve those aims?

Such questions have been asked for thousands of years. Few men have grappled with them more, and provided keener insight to the answers, than the philosophers of ancient Greece. In particular, Plato’s vision of the tripartite nature of the soul, or psyche, as explained though the allegory of the chariot, is something I have returned to throughout my life. It furnishes an unmatched symbol of what a man is, can be, and what he must do to bridge those two points and attain andreia (manliness), arête (excellence), and finally eudaimonia (full human flourishing).

Today we will discuss that allegory and its meaning. While an understanding of the whole allegory and the pondering of it can bring great insight, the ultimate goal of this article is in fact to lay the foundation for two more posts to come in which we will uncover the nature of the one component of Plato’s vision of the soul that has almost entirely been lost to modern men: thumos.

The Allegory of the Chariot

In the Phaedrus, Plato (through his mouthpiece, Socrates) shares the allegory of the chariot to explain the tripartite nature of the human soul or psyche.

The chariot is pulled by two winged horses, one mortal and the other immortal.

The mortal horse is deformed and obstinate. Plato describes the horse as a “crooked lumbering animal, put together anyhow…of a dark color, with grey eyes and blood-red complexion; the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.”

The immortal horse, on the other hand, is noble and game, “upright and cleanly made…his color is white, and his eyes dark; he is a lover of honor and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory; he needs no touch of the whip, but is guided by word and admonition only.”

In the driver’s seat is the charioteer, tasked with reining in these disparate steeds, guiding and harnessing them to propel the vehicle with strength and efficiency. The charioteer’s destination? The ridge of heaven, beyond which he may behold the Forms: essences of things like Beauty, Wisdom, Courage, Justice, Goodness — everlasting Truth and absolute Knowledge. These essences nourish the horses’ wings, keeping the chariot in flight.

The charioteer joins a procession of gods, led by Zeus, on this trip into the heavens. Unlike human souls, the gods have two immortal horses to pull their chariots and are able to easily soar above. Mortals, on the other hand, have a much more turbulent ride. The white horse wishes to rise, but the dark horse attempts to pull the chariot back towards the earth. As the horses pull in opposing directions, and the charioteer attempts to get them into sync, his chariot bobs above the ridge of heaven then down again, and he catches glimpses of the great beyond before sinking once more.

If the charioteer is able to behold the Forms, he gets to go on another revolution around the heavens. But if he cannot successfully pilot the chariot, the horses’ wings wither from lack of nourishment, or break off when the horses collide and attack each other, or crash into the chariots of others. The chariot then plummets to earth, the horses lose their wings, and the soul becomes embodied in human flesh. The degree to which the soul falls, and the “rank” of the mortal being it must then be embodied in is based on the amount of Truth it beheld while in the heavens. Rather like the idea of reincarnation. The degree of the fall also determines how long it takes for the horses to regrow their wings and once again take flight. Basically, the more Truth the charioteer beheld on his journey, the shallower his fall, and the easier it is for him to get up and get going again. The regrowth of the wings is hastened by the mortal soul encountering people and experiences that contain touches of divinity, and recall to his memory the Truth he beheld in his preexistence. Plato describes such moments as looking “through the glass dimly” and they hasten the soul’s return to the heavens.

Interpreting the Allegory

Plato’s allegory of the chariot can be interpreted on a number of levels – as symbolic of the path to becoming godlike, spiritual transcendence, personal progress and attainment of “Superhuman” status, or psychological health. There is much one can ponder about it. Below we delve into several of the main points.

The Tripartite Soul

The chariot, charioteer, and white and dark horses symbolize the soul, and its three main components.

The Charioteer represents man’s Reason, the dark horse his appetites, and the white horse his thumos. We’ll explore the nature of thumos in-depth next time, but for now, you can read it simply as “spiritedness.” Another way to label the three elements of soul are as the lover of wisdom (charioteer), the lover of gain (dark horse), and the lover of victory (white horse). Aristotle described the three elements as the contemplative, hedonistic, and political, or, knowledge, pleasure, and honor.

The Greeks saw these elements of soul as physical, almost independent entities, not so much with bodies, but as real forces, like electricity that could move a man to act and think in certain ways. Each element has its own motivations and desires: reason seeks truth and knowledge, the appetites seek food, drink, sex, and material wealth, and thumos seeks glory, honor, and recognition. Plato believed reason has the highest aims, followed by thumos, and then the appetites. But each soul force, if properly harnessed and employed, can help a man become eudaimon.

Reason’s job, with the aid of thumos, is to discern the best aims to pursue, and then train his “horses” to work together towards those aims. As the charioteer, he must have vision and purpose – he must know where he is going — and he must understand the nature and desires of his two horses if he wishes to properly harness their energies. A charioteer can err by either failing to hitch one of the horses to the chariot altogether, or by failing to bridle the horse, and instead letting him run wild. In the latter case, Plato argued, “the best part [Reason] is naturally weak in a man so that it cannot govern and control the brood of beasts within him but can only serve them and can learn nothing but the ways of flattering them.”

Obtaining Harmony of Soul

The masterful charioteer does not ignore his own motivations, nor the desires of thumos and appetite, but neither does he let his two horses run wild. He lets Reason rule, takes stock of all his desires, identifies his best and truest ones – those that lead to virtue and truth — and guides his horses towards them. He does not ignore or indulge them – he harnesses them. Each horse has its strengths and weaknesses, and the white horse can lead a man into the wrong path just as the dark horse can, but when properly trained, thumos becomes the ally of the charioteer. Together, reason and thumos work to pull the appetites into sync.

Instead of having “civil war amongst them,” the deft charioteer understands each role the three forces of his soul play, and he guides them in carrying out that role without either entirely usurping their role, nor allowing them to interfere with each other. He achieves harmony amongst the elements. Thus, instead of dissipating his energies in contradictory and detrimental directions, he channels those energies towards his goals.

Achieving this harmony of soul, Plato argues, is a precursor to tackling any other endeavor of life:

“having first attained to self-mastery and beautiful order within himself, and having harmonized these three principles, the notes or intervals of three terms quite literally the lowest, the highest, and the mean, and all others there may be between them, and having linked and bound all three together and made of himself a unit, one man instead of many, self-controlled and in unison, he should then and then only turn to practice if he find aught to do either in the getting of wealth or the tendance of the body or it may be in political action or private business, in all such doings believing and naming the just and honorable action to be that which preserves and helps to produce this condition of soul.”

The foundational nature of gaining mastery over one’s soul, Plato continues,

 “is the chief reason why it should be our main concern that each of us, neglecting all other studies, should seek after and study this thing—if in any way he may be able to learn of and discover the man who will give him the ability and the knowledge to distinguish the life that is good from that which is bad, and always and everywhere to choose the best that the conditions allow.”

A man that makes this pursuit his aim, and allows it to guide all his thoughts and actions, “will gladly take part in and enjoy those which he thinks will make him a better man, but in public and private life he will shun those that may overthrow the established habit of his soul.”

Taking Flight and Progressing in Our Journey

As you’ll remember, in the allegory of the chariot, the chariot falls from the heavens when the horses do not receive adequate nourishment from the Forms, or when the horses rebel and the charioteer does a poor job of directing them. They lose their wings, and must stay on earth until they regrow – a process which is hastened by remembering what one saw before the fall.

Plato believed that discovering all truth was not a process of learning, but of remembering what one once knew. His philosophy may be interpreted literally as saying we had a preexistence before this life. But it also has meaning in a more figurative sense. We get off track in becoming the men we wish to be when we succumb to vice (being overpowered by the dark horse), and we tend to succumb to vice when we forget who we are, who we want to be, and the insights into those two pieces of knowledge we have already attained and experienced. Doing things that remind us of the truths we hold dear keeps us “in flight” and progressing with our lives.

For more on this important subject, I highly recommend reading: Hold Fast: How Forgetfulness Torpedos Your Journey to Becoming the Man You Want to Be, and Remembrance Is the Antidote

Understanding the Dark Horse

In order to train and harness the power latent in the forces of his soul, a man must understand the nature of his “horses” and how to utilize their strengths and rein in their weaknesses.

A man’s dark horse, or appetites, are not difficult to understand; you have probably felt its primal pull towards money, sex, food, and drink many times in your life.

But despite our intimate acquaintance with our appetites, or perhaps because of it, the dark horse is not easy to properly train and make use of. Doing so requires achieving moderation, or as Aristotle would put it, finding the “golden mean” between extremes.

A man who lets his appetites run completely wild is the unabashed hedonist. He does not seek to rein in the dark horse at all, letting him pull the chariot after whichever pleasure crosses its path. This is the man who lives for nothing higher than to eat good food, get drunk, have sex, and make money. He seeks after effeminizing luxury with abandon and will do anything to get it. With no check to his behavior, the result can be a giant gut, pickled brains, massive debt, and a prison sentence for corruption.

A life wholly dedicated to the satisfaction of one’s bodily and pecuniary pleasures make man no different than the animals. Aristotle called such a life bovine, and Plato argued that the result of letting oneself be dominated by his appetites “is the ruthless enslavement of the divinest part of himself to the most despicable and godless part.” Such a man, Plato submitted, should be “deemed wretched.”

On the other end of the spectrum is the man who sees his physical desires as wholly wrong or sinful – troublesome or evil stumbling blocks on the path to spiritual purity or enlightenment. This man seeks to nullify his flesh, and cut off its cravings for pleasure entirely. This is the man who spends so much of his life thinking of sex as sinful, that he can’t turn off that association and enjoy it, even after he is married. He averts his eyes from women as living porn. Food is merely fuel. He often seems flat, sterile, and closed off to others, though often you can sense the bottled impulses bubbling beneath the surface that he’s tried so hard to deny. And because of the lack of a healthy outlet, that bubbling often becomes a toxic stew that will one day burst forth in a decidedly unhealthy way.

Plato believed that the appetites were the lowest of the forces of the soul, and that allowing the dark horse to dominate and enslave you would lead to a base, unvirtuous life far from arête and eudaimonia. Yet he also argued that the dark horse, if properly trained, imparted just as much energy to the pulling of the chariot as the white horse did. The chariot that soars highest makes use of both horses side by side. A would-be ace charioteer neither entirely indulges his dark horse nor wholly cuts him off. He harnesses and directs the energy in a positive way.

Between the two extremes of unchecked hedonism and the iron-fisted squashing of bodily appetites lies a middle way. This is the man who maintains a sense of sensuality and earthiness, who makes room for the pleasures of body and money but puts them in their proper place, who, as Dr. Robin Meyers puts it, is able to find “the virtue in the vice.” He enjoys sex thoroughly, but does so within the context of love and commitment. He enjoys good food and drink, without mindlessly engorging and imbibing. He appreciates money, and that which it can buy, but does not make acquiring it his central aim.

The dark horse, when properly trained and directed, can lead one closer, not further from the good life. Pleasures satisfied with discretion make a man happy and balanced, and keep him feeling healthy and motivated enough to tackle his higher goals. And the appetites themselves can lead directly to those loftier aims. The desire for money, when kept in balance, can lead to success, recognition, and independence. Lust, when properly directed, leads a man to love, and Plato believed that beholding one’s lover was a central path to recalling the Beauty of the Forms, and regrowing one’s wings for another trip into the heavens.

That is the nature of the dark horse – a force that can be used for both good and ill, depending on the mastery of the charioteer. It is fairly easy to grasp, if not always to live. But what of the white horse, thumos? That is another matter. There is no word in our modern language equivalent to this ancient concept. We have here rendered it “spiritedness,” but in truth it encompasses much, much more. It is to that subject we will turn next time.

Read Part II: Got Thumos?

You can read the entire Phaedrus online for free here. Plato/Socrates hit the subject from another angle and metaphor – that of a rational man, lion, and hydra-like beast – in Book IX of the Republic.

Illustration by Ted Slampyak