The Barbarian in You
Updated: Aug 23, 2022
Overcoming the Perils of Modern Life through Vigor, Wonder, and Fellowship
“We have lying dormant in us a genetic memory. In that genetic memory there is knowledge that goes back to the ancient.”
- John Trudell, Activist -- American Indian Movement
Modern Life: “Is this it?”
In 1651, Thomas Hobbes wrote that life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes’ bare-knuckled prose reflected the time in which he lived. A time when most children died before their fifth birthday, a time when slavery and genocide were the norm, a time when disease and religious war killed millions each year. 17th Century Europe was no walk in the park, and it didn’t take much for the Grim Reaper to come knocking on your door.
To say that life has improved since then would be a gross understatement. Life today is cleaner, safer, and longer than ever before. For most of us living in the advanced industrialized world, we enjoy a standard of health and comfort that would be the envy of any 17th Century king.
As I sit here typing away in my climate-controlled home with food in the fridge and a $20 insulated coffee mug by my side, what isn’t to love? Life in the 21st Century is just better than any century before. So, if offered a time machine back to the hammering brutality of Medieval Europe, I’d have to pass. Because like you, I don’t want to escape the safety and comforts of our modern age either.
But you know what? Sometimes I do.
Despite the polish of modern life, each passing year we surrender more of our wild hearts and communal spirt to digital domination. We are descending into a pit of technology that darkens the human spirit. Sitting alone, we stare for long hours into electric worlds managed by digital masters who twist the knobs on our anger, anxiety, and resentments. If we continue to live this way we will become pseudo-drones, which really means we will become pseudo-humans. This is no way to live and it’s not anywhere close to what nature intended. As a result, many of us are suffering.
Obesity, depression, and suicide rates continue to skyrocket. More Americans will die this year from eating too much than too little, one in six will take anti-depressant medication, and twice as many will die from suicide than homicide. Looking at that data, I must ask this question: What the fuck is happening to us?
In a relatively short time, Sebastian Junger writes in his book, Tribe, we “humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.” When we compare 40 years of digitization to 200,000 years of human existence, we realize that biologically speaking we’re still cavemen. Except now, we’re cavemen who love Twitter.
This mismatch between who we are versus how we live is causing more people than ever to live, as Thoreau once wrote, “a life of quiet desperation.” And many of us are asking ourselves this desperate question: “Is this it?”
“Is this it?” When we ask that question about our lives, what we’re really asking is “where is the fire, where is the passion, and where is the purpose in my life?” We are intuiting that something inside of us is missing. What’s missing, I believe, is the barbarian in you.
Yes, that’s what I said: the barbarian in you. And before you think I’m some knuckle dragging caveman psychopath – though full disclosure, I am 3% Neandertal -- let me explain how awakening the barbarian in you will ensure you never again ask yourself, “Is this it?”
So let’s begin our journey towards understanding the barbarian in you by first addressing who “the barbarians” were in history. Next, we’ll examine why there’s a barbarian living inside each of us. And finally, we’ll see how awakening that inner barbarian will enable you to live a more meaningful and satisfying life.
Who Were the Barbarians?
Barbarian. The word comes to us from the ancient Greeks. To the Greeks, northern tribes living beyond their borders spoke unintelligible languages that sounded like “ba-ba-ba,” prompting the Greek word, "barbaros," meaning “babbler.” Translated to English, barbaros became barbarian.
For the Greeks basking in their cities of architecture, philosophy, and abundance, barbarian was a pejorative term for the uncivilized, meaning boorish, backwards, and stupid. One example of the Greek view of barbarians were the Scythians, a nomadic tribe of horsemen who roamed the Eurasian Steppe far to their north. According to the ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, Scythians were so savagely prehistoric that they turned the skulls of their dead enemies into drinking cups, drank their blood, and then flayed their skin into ribbons to stream like kite tails from their warhorses.
Nearly 2,000 years later, Chinese writers shared Herodotus’ disparaging view of barbarians. To their north roamed the Mongols, who Chinese chroniclers described as a homicidal race of savages, who, when not butchering millions and swallowing empires, also ate mice, lice, and the occasional human corpse. Compared to the Mongols, Chinese writers south of the Great Wall called their civilization, “cooked” – meaning clean, refined, and packaged. In contrast, they called the barbarians to their north “uncooked” – meaning dirty, raw, and primitive.
Though the Scythians and Mongols were brutal in war, let’s not forget that “cooked” men write the histories. State-driven narratives exist to remind “the civilized” about their superiority over “the other.” A major flaw in this us versus them narrative, however, is that it’s binary. Arguing that we are 100% good and they are 100% bad ignores the fact that nearly every way of life has its pros and cons. Thus, when examining the barbarian way of life, it’s worth considering their pros versus civilization’s cons. And if civilization’s cons (especially today) are obesity, depression, and loneliness – or at the very least, a general despondency about one’s life -- then I propose countering the cons of civilization with the pros of barbarianism.
The Roman historian Tactus did just that when he promoted the pros of barbarian life in his essay “Germania,” written 2,000 years ago to awaken debauched Roman elites to a more virtuous way of life: a barbarian way of life. Compared to the overcivilized and overindulged Romans, Tacitus described German barbarians living beyond the Roman frontier as noble savages -- stout, simple, and sincere. According to Tacitus, these Germans seem to value vigor over ease, wonder over reason, and fellowship over greed.
When it came to vigor, Tacitus said the barbarians possessed “hardy bodies, well-knit limbs, fierce countenances, and unusual mental vigor.” When it came to wonder, they “worshipped Ertha (mother earth)” and believed birds and horses delivered omens from the gods. When it came to fellowship, they feasted together and “laid their souls bare” for their tribe and each other. To live as nature intended and flourish as human beings, Tacitus encouraged his readers to be more like the barbarians.
Before you call me out for being a naïve Romantic, I realize not all Germans were noble savages. I’m sure more than a few were lazy selfish jerks. I also realize that Tacitus is expressing his own state-driven narrative, except in reverse. But what matters here isn’t the accuracy of Tacitus’ history, what matters is his message. To overcome the cons of our way of life, we should look to the pros of another -- even if some of those pros are an overly idealized version of the truth.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Tacitus directed his message to the privileged (and literate) elite. But what about the regular hard-working folks living within the Roman empire? Did becoming more “barbarian” also benefit them? In his book, Against the Grain, Yale Professor James Scott offers an emphatic yes. “Becoming a barbarian,” he writes, “was often a bid to improve one’s lot.” Faced with backbreaking labor, despotism, and few options in life, Scott argues that many ancient men ditched their plows and journeyed north beyond the grip of civilization. Over the mountains, through the cold, and off the maps they went, trekking alone or in packs, they followed their hearts towards a fresh start. In doing so, they awakened the barbarian inside -- something entirely new for them and entirely old for our species.
Migrating “north of the wall” and joining the barbarians, however, did not end with the ancient and medieval world. It continued through the nineteenth century right here in North America. In his book, Tribe, Sebastian Junger writes of a phenomenon known as “White Indians.” These were former settlers or indentured servants who lived with Native American tribes as actual members of those tribes. They married Indians, wore buckskins, and swung tomahawks beside their adopted brothers, fighting rival tribes and warding off imperial invaders.
While some White Indians entered their tribes as volunteers, others were captured as children during Indian raids on white settlements. Whether they entered against their will or not, one thing was perfectly clear: once the young man or woman became an accepted member of that tribe, few White Indians ever wished to return to civilized society. When a White Indian was eventually “liberated” by encroaching whites and repatriated back to civilization, they often escaped and returned to their adopted tribe. In considering repatriated White Indians, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “In a short time they became disgusted with our manner of life… and [would] take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods.”
Rarely did the opposite occur. According to Junger, Native Americans “almost never ran away to join white society.” This emigration was a one-way street from civilized to barbarian and hardly ever in reverse. In 1782, a French émigré lamented, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.”
White Indians, however, were an extreme minority. Most men and women living within the confines of civilization never tasted barbarian life, nor did they heed the advice of Tacitus or Rousseau to “return to nature.” Instead, they marched on with the status quo, believing their own nation-state narratives that barbarians were savages and had nothing to offer them when it came to living a happier, more fulfilling life.
What civilized men then and now fail to realize, however, is that at our core, we are all barbarians. The barbarian genome dominates our DNA. 99.9% of human history came before civilization, and certainly before industrialization and digitization. At core, we are all ancient beings.
The Barbarian Living in You
To better understand why there is a barbarian in you, think of yourself as a tiny Florida Key. Now think of pre-civilized human history as the entire North American continent. For eons, our genetic code was handed down from one generation to the next on that giant continent. But when the world turned modern, man broke away from his ancestral way of life, separating himself from the ancient source. Which leads us to where we are today: marooned on tiny islands, isolated from our true barbarian nature, and more than ever, isolated from each other.
Though we’ve become safer, cleaner, and more comfortable on our tiny islands (which is great by the way), we’ve also become lonelier, busier, fatter, and in many ways, sadder than ever before. In short, the ailments of modern life are acting against our true nature, blocking us from becoming the most human and fantastic version of ourselves.
But you don’t need to fret; a bridge to that ancient continent still exists. For at least an hour a day, you can cross that bridge and reconnect with the ancient you, the barbarian in you. To cross that bridge and reconnect, however, you must do what the barbarians did – or at least mimic what they did. In doing so, you can finally enjoy the fruits of modern life while reducing its perils. Let me explain.
To survive and thrive, our ancestors (1) hunted and fought, (2) worshipped and created, and (3) loved and cooperated. For eons, man’s existence depended on these actions for survival. As a result, man evolved to feel incredible satisfaction from such actions.
When he hunted or fought, he felt Vigor.
When he created or worshipped, he felt Wonder.
When he love or cooperated, he felt Fellowship.
Over eons of time, this ancient equation of “do this” and “feel that” eventually baked itself into our genetic code -- a code we still carry with us today. As a result, to feel the satisfaction our ancestors’ felt, we need to put down the phone and do (or at least mimic) what they did. In doing so, you will ignite your ancient soul and bring more passion, purpose, and excitement back into your daily life.
To make it happen, you must cross your ancestral bridge and awaken the barbarian in you. Here’s how to do it and I promise it works.
To survive and thrive, our ancestors hunted game and fought predators. In turn, nature rewarded their panting breaths, pounding hearts, and physical courage with exhilarations of vigor. Through vigor, man felt an electric charge inside; his muscles bulged, his lungs burned, his eyes narrowed, and he began to believe in himself as a powerful and mighty being. He felt in control of his life and his destiny.
We too can feel what our ancestors felt. But instead of spearing a mammoth or charging a medieval shield wall, we can lift weights, hike hills, and pursue aggressive actions that earn us the evolutionary prize of vigor and the satisfying endorphins that come with it.
Remember. When you do hard physical things, you cross your ancestral bridge and reconnect with the barbarian in you. So be a man (or woman) of action. When you are, you will survive, thrive, and flourish as a human being -- just as nature intended.
To survive and thrive, our ancestors worshipped nature, believed in magic, and spun tales of heroes, legends, and gods. In turn, nature rewarded their wide eyes, hushed tones, and earnest rituals with the transcendent feeling of wonder. Through wonder, man felt a gentle smoke billow inside him; his imagination grew, his beliefs soared, and he began to perceive himself as a creative and spiritual being.
We too can feel what our ancestors felt. But instead of stirring potions or chasing omens, we can read a spooky tale, walk a winter’s trail, or search for other sublime and tranquil moments that earn us the evolutionary prize of wonder and the serotonin boost that come with it.
Remember. When you open yourself to wonder and participate in the mysteries of life, you cross your ancestral bridge and reconnect with the barbarian in you. So act upon your creative and spiritual impulses. In doing so, you will survive, thrive, and flourish as a human being -- just as nature intended.
To survive and thrive, our ancestors banded together, feasted together, and protected one another. In turn, nature rewarded their long conversations, deep embraces, and protective actions with the warm feeling of fellowship. Through fellowship, man felt his heart grow, his anxieties ease, and his fears lessen; he began to feel loved and protected.
We too can feel what our ancestors felt. But instead of ritual bonfires or marching to war, we can call an old friend, attend a book club, volunteer to help those in need, or do any other act of kindness that earns us the evolutionary prize of fellowship and the oxytocin (the “love hormone”) that comes with it.
Remember. When you cultivate positive relationships with others, you cross your ancestral bridge and reconnect with the barbarian in you. So gather around the ancient fire and feel that warm hand on your shoulder. In doing so, you will survive, thrive, and flourish as a human being -- just as nature intended.
Rules of the Game
Since the dawn of man, nature has made this continuous bargain with our species: give consistent effort to survive and thrive, and you will be rewarded with the satisfying feelings of vigor, wonder, and fellowship. This is ancient stuff. These are the rules of the game. Whether it’s your morning workout (vigor), afternoon read (wonder), or evening with friends (fellowship), it feels damn good to be human -- and even better to flourish as one.