When Aggression is Good

Aggression is often associated with toxic masculinity, malicious violence, or ignorance. In one sense, this is reasonable. The word aggression does indeed typically refer to encroaching upon the rights of others or unlawful military activity.

But, in the past, the virtue of fortitude was said to consist of both aggression and endurance in the face of the danger of death for noble purposes. And the fact of the matter is that the Greek word for fortitude was also the word for masculinity, so absurd levels of daring or risk-taking for no reason do, in fact, have a linguistic connection to masculinity. But the association of masculinity or masculine drive with outright evil or lack of nobility itself seems malicious because the conceptual connection is entirely lacking, especially when one looks at Aristotle and Aquinas’ understanding of fortitude and aggression. 

The sad thing about these associations of masculine aggression with evil is the that the larger culture appears to associate initiative and personal drive with evil as well.

I’ve observed on Twitter that it is becoming increasingly popular to decry language of personal responsibility as “problematic.” “Problematic” is code-speech for “things which should not be discussed.”[1]  But personal drive and initiative are and have always been central to success, survival, and happiness. Aggression, insofar as it is a virtue (a good habit), is the application of reason and will-power in the face of risk and fear. 

In a weaker sense, aggression is the virtue of habitual willingness to take risks for noble purposes. This understanding of aggression is, of course, directly related to confidence.

My goal is to explain how aggression, in this sense, can be good.

Aggression is Human

In ancient literature like the Bible, Epictetus, and the Iliad, human nature is to subdue nature. While there are deeper biblical resonances and theological inferences to be made, that’s not what I’m trying to talk about here. Instead, I simply want to observe that in ancient literature human beings were seen to be happy or participating in the good-life when they bent nature to their will in some constructive fashion.[2]  This observation is made in Aristotle, Stoic literature, and in the work of modern psychologists like Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. 

Aggression Precedes Success

Aggression, because it involves bending nature to our will, leads to feelings of success when we successfully change the world around us.

This is how art and culture are created, by cultivating nature. Indeed, the man that can look at the obstacles in the world around him and find ways to further his own noble agenda is in fact in tune with his nature as a human being. Marcus Aurelius wrote about this with striking rhetorical flair:

“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces— to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it— and makes it burn still higher.”[3]

In other words, learning to take risks in order to accomplish our goals, is a part of our nature.

Being Successfully Human Makes Us Happy

Finally, then, aggression of the sort I’ve spoken of will make us happy. The reason for this is the fact that achievement is part of what helps people find meaning in their lives. This fact is scientifically attested, but more importantly the basic experience of most people you’ll talk to is that their sources of sadness and regret are the achievements they failed to attain due to laziness or fear.

If you want to be happy don’t sell your nature for the demands of others to be good, sit still, and merely accomplish what they want you to do. Develop the habit of aggression.


[1] Mark R Sneed, The Social World of the Sages: An Introduction to Israelite and Jewish Wisdom Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 287-289. In an otherwise excellent book about ancient wisdom literature, the author claims that the sages’ admonitions to personal responsibility are actually elitist attempts to vilify the poor and explanations which call them warnings cannot “completely justif[y]” just elitism. Of course, Proverbs, Job, the Psalms, Sirach, and Ecclesiastes are clear that sometimes bad things happen to good people and that hard work can never guarantee success, but this way of thinking is extremely common in our culture.

[2] See Genesis 1-2, Psalm 8, and all of Proverbs. One should also look through Aristotle’s ethics and the Stoic literature. 

[3]Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: A New Translation (Random House Publishing Group Kindle Edition, 2002), Kindle Locations 1117-1120.

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