The troublesome folly of man’s quest for glory & how we may overcome it


We men continue to blight the world with the same aggressive competitive behaviour that has been the cause of universal suffering throughout our history. Generally, these troubling characteristics appear to be an innate feature of our male ‘nature’, which we can see mirrored in the behaviour of other mammal species, from apes to zebras. But although we may not be able to rid ourselves of such problematic instinctive traits, the essence of the of civilisation process is to overcome and control our animal behaviours through an understanding and an awareness of them, rather than allowing our instincts to continue in controlling us.

What is the driving force behind our aggressive, competitive ambitions? Money? Power? To be desired by women? Certainly these will be factors, as our complex languages enable us to contemplate and plan for such outcomes, but ultimately the ambitious man is driven by the desire to achieve something we call ‘glory’. And though, on inspection, our notions of ‘glory’ may appear ambiguous, intangible and short-lived, our obsession with the feelings of majesty and wonderment they evoke can last a lifetime. A deep, pervading sense of ‘authenticity’ makes it all so compelling, and so hard to dismiss that our desire to attain this glory appears to have always been a very powerful motivating force.

We ambitious men certainly have our heroes; other men, more senior and perhaps quite distant, but who appear to us as somehow possessing an aura of this ‘glory’. Depending on the time and place in which we were raised, these could be warriors, explorers or footballers, film stars, lords or noble leaders – men whose status is revered. The root of our own ambition is to achieve the same kind of glory that we perceive to be possessed by our heroes – to be ‘special’ as we see them to be ‘special’ – and with every personal success comes a rewarding taste of elation as we feel ourselves to be moving towards this goal.

Meanwhile, we see other men as ‘rivals’; these are contemporaries, not heroes – even though they may appear to have achieved a level of status that outshines our own. When we sense in them a degree of ‘glory’, which we ourselves are lacking, this arouses our ‘envy’ – ambitious men are envious men – and we dream and fantasise about their glory, while the sickening flurry of insecurities, the resentment, the aggression of envy overwhelms us. In this way we are spurred on to compete, to fight to defeat our apparent opponents.

Should our own status or self-esteem happen to be challenged or undermined, the ambitious man has another trait with which to deal with this particular threat. Nothing enrages us quite so quickly as belittlement, or the knocking of those things that make us feel ‘special’, and we lash out viciously with ‘aggressive pride’, regardless of however worthy, or not, the challenge may be. As road users, we can all recall how the life-threatening actions of an absent-minded motorist do not ignite our anger half as much as those drivers who merely display their disdain towards us. Such unreasoned behaviour may hardly appear to be the workings of an intelligent, rational mind – suggesting perhaps the presence of a more ‘primeval’ nature.

But the behaviour I have described in the last three paragraphs is not human nature in particular, as we can observe the males of other communal mammal species behaving in the very same manner. To explain why this might be, we have to consider that the survival of such species has depended on evolved systems of competition and hierarchy, which help to ensure the more suitable animals gain leadership, or dominate the breeding. However, these systems can only function effectively if the individual animals within a group behave in a compliant manner. For example:

  • Individual animals must recognise their ‘superiors’ and act with deference towards them (heroes)
  • Rivals of the same sex are required to battle for positions of status (envy)
  • In order to select the most powerful and determined animals, positions of status will need to be defended with full force when challenged (aggressive pride)

Our love of ‘heroes’, our ‘envy’ and ‘aggressive pride’ are compulsive, excitable and found to be universal in human societies, attesting to them being innate, animal characteristics. And likewise with other motivational instincts, such as fear and sexual desire, there appears to be some degree of interactivity with our creative imaginations.

Of course, for an animal system of hierarchy to operate, a shared appreciation of ‘status’ must exist among its members, and naturally, human beings are obsessed with ‘status’ (much to the hindrance of socialism). From ancient jewellery and headdresses, to modern-day handbags and Swiss watches, we humans have eagerly employed our unique capabilities to indulge this primeval passion, rather than to understand and rise above it. But while many of our status symbols will represent wealth or power directly, this is certainly not an essential requirement; human societies are continually developing their cultural codes of ‘fashion’, which can apply or remove status from anything – regardless of any intrinsic value the ‘thing’ may or may not possess – so maintaining exclusivity, while giving everyone an opportunity to achieve some degree of ‘respect’.

If we are indeed participating in our own ‘animal’ behavioural system based on ‘status’, does a man really need to contemplate the value of a particular status symbol in order for it to become effective? Afterall, does a young male deer really consider the benefits of owning a large pair antlers before becoming excited by such a display? We humans have our complex languages, enabling us to rationalise such concerns, but how can the other animals become so excited by the displays of high status within their own societies? Surely some kind of primal instinct is needed to compel the individual animal to be impressed by, and to value the signs of status employed by its own species; an emotion much like ‘fear’, but as a lure of attraction, rather than a deterrent; an abstract perception of desirability or ‘specialness’, which – like ‘fear’ – can be attached to certain aspects of life as experienced by a young animal.

But apart from this apparent need for animals to possess an instinct to excite their passion for symbols of status, is there any good evidence to show that it exists? Personal experience of how our own minds operate certainly supports the idea that we do possess such a mental mechanism of motivation that generates and attaches a strong sense of ‘specialness’ to things. From our earliest memories we can recall being very aware of a deep, transcendental feeling of wonderment  – in response to viewing a broad sunset, or a starry night sky, for example – the timeless, enigmatic character of which seeming far too sophisticated to be the creation of our infant mind. We have strong, abstract notions of ‘specialness’ that become attached to aspects of the world around us; certain places and objects from our early childhood can still retain for us feelings of an almost magical quality, while for others, these things exist as merely mundane. But simultaneously we are also being ‘socialised’ into communal concepts of ‘special’ by unwittingly attaching our sense of ‘specialness’ to that we see admired by the bigger people around us; celebrities, footballers, aristocrats, big houses, fast cars, spurious religions. These attachments made so early in life will ordinarily last us a lifetime, regardless of any rational opinions we may develop which undermine our notions of a particular person, or thing, as being somehow ‘special’.

The irrational and compulsive nature of our own perceptions of ‘specialness’ are a good indication that instinctive influences are at work here. For instance, the contrived trappings of aristocracy can make the most unremarkable man appear to us as being distinctly ‘special’. And likewise with our experiences of ‘envy’, where it seems that the subconscious mind overpowers our rational judgement with similar abstract, fantasy notions of superiority. But even when we recognise these notions to be false – as we often do – our perception of this ‘specialness’ feels so deep, and so ‘authentic’ that it is so very hard to dismiss. However, this might not be seen as such a great mystery when we consider that all of our emotions are evolved animal drives, and they also feel so very deep and authentic. For us, the competitive instinct of envy is clearly dependent on these illusions of ‘specialness’, as without them we would not be motivated to perform in this animal behaviour.

Returning to the topic of our ‘heroes’ and those dreams of ‘glory’ which fire up our ambitions, we can see how the very nature of these notions corresponds perfectly with the idea that they stem from an innate animal drive. As the ambitious man becomes acquainted with his hero, or as he begins to achieve his goals of ‘success’, the ‘glory’ which he anticipated he’d acquire continues to elude him. He may temporarily relish a sense of victory, but like a desert mirage, the ‘glory’ he craves has moved on to a more distant, unfamiliar area of interest. As with our sex drive, for instance, nature doesn’t want us to remain satisfied for long, but keeps compelling us onwards with this irresistible lure of illusion.

Written & illustrated by Daniel Laidler

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