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Is an ancient, conflict-loving personality archetype undermining our pro-social values?
Editor's note: Letter(s) to the editor and references can be accessed here.
Writing in 2016, New York Times columnist David Brooks described the perilous state of communal values in this country:
“The great challenge of our moment is the crisis of isolation and fragmentation, the need to rebind the fabric of a society that has been torn by selfishness, cynicism, distrust, and autonomy. At some point there will have to be a new vocabulary and a restored anthropology, emphasizing love, friendship, faithfulness, solidarity, and neighborliness that pushes people toward connection rather than distrust.”1
In my estimation, the problem of societal disintegration in the US has only worsened in the past three years. While many social, political, economic, and psychological forces are probably at work here, I have been struck by the growing prominence-and, in some circles, acceptance-of what I call the Martial Personality (MP). More precisely, this should be called the “Aresian Personality”-named for Ares, the Greek god of war-as I will explain presently.
In all likelihood, the MP has been around since our paleolithic ancestors first fought one another over mastodon meat. But in recent years, this personality type seems to have proliferated and flourished. Before exploring the archetypal foundations of the MP, I need to stress that I am not describing a new category of mental illness, such as might be included in the next edition of the DSM. Rather, I am describing a constellation of personality traits that may or may not veer into frank, clinical psychopathology; and which, paradoxically, may actually be adaptive in certain contexts-think bullfighting, politics, and Wall Street.
I also want to head off the criticism that I am describing any specific public figures, though I suspect many readers will have one or two in mind. But if you need a modern-day (fictional) character to prefigure my development of the MP, think corporate raider Gordon (“Greed is good”) Gekko, as played by Michael Douglas in the movie, Wall Street. As one anonymous reviewer described him, “Gekko isn’t in his line of work only for the money . . . he is in it to crush his opponents.”2 That is not a bad capsule summary of the MP.
Just to be clear: I believe this personality type may be seen in people on both ends of the political spectrum, and probably in the middle, as well. And though the Martial archetype is strongly male-centered, I do not believe the MP is limited to men. Indeed, readers may well recognize the “MP type” in some of their male or female co-workers, supervisors, or even former lovers (long gone, I hope!). In short, the MP is an equal opportunity archetype.
So how might MP present in modern-day guise-perhaps in a psychotherapist’s office? A brief composite sketch may be helpful at this point.
Mr Ares is a 28-year-old single male who is self-employed as a “day trader.” He is referred for psychotherapy by the woman he has been dating off and on for the past two years, and who-as the patient expresses it-“. . . said she’d kick me to the curb if I didn’t get some f---ing help.” Although he denies he has any emotional or psychological problems “except dealing with all the wimps out there,” Mr Ares is superficially willing to engage in psychodynamic psychotherapy. In the course of several sessions, the following picture of the patient emerges.
The patient was raised in a fairly stable, middle-class home. His mother was an accountant; his father, an unsuccessful entrepreneur who drifted from one sales job to another. Mr Ares described his mother as “quiet and distant-kinda mousy, to be honest.” He described his father as, “mostly out of the picture, usually on the road. When he was home, he’d rag on me about how I had to do better and fight harder-in school, in life. “Sharks die when they stop swimming,” was Dad’s favorite saying.”
From his early school years, Mr Ares was considered a “troublemaker” by teachers and peers. Although he rarely exhibited any overt violent behavior, the young Ares was constantly “picking fights” and provoking arguments with his peers, sometimes eventuating in a brief scuffle. Typically, he would pick on boys who were smaller and weaker, though occasionally, he would pick a fight with one of the larger and more aggressive boys and suffer fairly severe beatings. His middle school guidance counselor noted, in a report, that “Young ----- [first name] seems to thrive on conflict. He seems to relish the attention, the chaos that results, regardless of whose side he is on, which doesn’t seem to matter.” The report described an “extremely competitive” adolescent who “brooks no rivals,” often taking revenge on other boys he viewed as better-liked and more talented than he was. The young Ares was further described as “impetuous,” “impulsive,” “boastful,” having “a hair-trigger temper,” and “easily angered by even the most trivial slight, which usually provokes some act of retaliation.” The report concluded by noting that, “Young ---- is almost universally disliked by his peers.”
Mr Ares attended a two-year community college, where he earned an associate of science (AS) degree in business studies. After completing the two-year program, Mr Ares worked for four years in a small investment company, where he assisted one of the senior commodities trading analysts. Mr Ares described this supervisor as, “Kind of a weenie-I mean, a loser who didn’t know when to cut the jugular.” Mr Ares was eventually fired from the job, and his supervisor described him as “very smart, aggressive, but totally focused on himself and sticking it to the other guy. He loved humiliating his co-workers.” Mr Ares now works from a home office, marginally surviving as a day trader.
The archetypes: Ares and Mars
Our term “martial” (as in martial arts and martial law) is derived from “Mars”-the Roman god of war. The Roman myth depicts Mars as a both a brave warrior and a rather helpful and benign personage-perhaps a consequence of Mars’ dual role as both god of war and agriculture.3 We might say that Mars was a kind of mythic “upgrade” of an earlier, Greek model: the god Ares. As one authority puts it,
“Although most of the myths involving [Mars] were borrowed from the Greek god of war Ares, Mars, nevertheless, had some features which were uniquely Roman. Considered more level-headed than the often impulsive and disruptive Ares, Mars was also seen as a more virtuous figure by the more martial-oriented Romans . . . [and as] a protector of Rome and the Roman way of life . . .”4
In contrast, most of the myths surrounding Ares paint a much darker picture. In The Iliad, Ares is addressed by Zeus, his father, in these terms:
“. . . thou art the most odious to me; for thou enjoyest nothing but strife, war and battles. Thou hast the obstinate and unmanageable disposition of thy mother, Hera, whom I can scarcely control with my words.”5
Zeus further characterizes Ares as “wicked and fickle.” And this, from Ares’ father! Ironically, Ares-though often showing great bravado-rarely emerges victorious in battle, and is easily bested by the cool-headed warrior goddess, Athena, who calls Ares a “vain fool.”5 Mythology scholar Mark Cartwright6describes Ares as “. . . perhaps the most unpopular of all the Olympian gods because of his quick temper, aggressiveness, and unquenchable thirst for conflict.”
According to the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, Ares was “. . . not so much the god of war as of its tumult, confusion, and horrors. . . ” Ares “. . . loves war for its own sake” and has no qualms about which side of the battle he supports; ie, he “. . . sometimes assists the one and sometimes the other side, just as his inclination may dictate.”7 And Ares sometimes behaves less like a god and more like a cowardly, petulant child, as when Athena guides the spear of a Greek warrior so that it wounds Ares. At that,
“The god of war runs off to Olympus, terrifying both armies with his screams. He complains to his father, Zeus, who has little sympathy for him.”8
The martial personality and related conditions
Readers familiar with character pathology will quickly recognize certain pathological traits in both Mr Ares and his mythic counterpart. Narcissistic and sociopathic traits stand out, along with impulsivity, sadism, and aggressive behaviors. It would be fascinating to sit old Ares down and do a complete psychiatric evaluation, but a discussion of the differential diagnosis would take us far afield. (That said, I suspect Ares might meet DSM-5 criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, among others).
Despite substantial overlap with several conditions or disorders, I believe that a distinguishing feature of the MP is the individual’s sheer delight in causing harm, discomfort, or chaos: something akin to schadenfreude (from the German, Schaden (“damage, misfortune”) + Freude (“joy”). Though this term is usually defined as "malicious joy in the misfortunes of others,” psychologists Shensheng Wang, Scott O. Lilienfeld and Philippe Rochat have argued that “The process of dehumanization may lie at the core of Schadenfreude.”9 Indeed, I would argue that schadenfreude turns one’s fellow human beings into objects whose sole purpose is to feed one’s twisted need for pleasure, power, and control. Think, “School yard bully meets Machiavelli.” This is not a bad conceptualization of Ares, and of the MP.
Ares and the loss of communal values
Returning now to David Brooks’ diagnosis of present-day American culture,1 we can readily see how the narcissism, sociopathy, aggression, and dehumanization characteristic of the MP are deeply at war with communal values. The pleasure derived from sowing discord and making others suffer is radically incompatible with the values Brooks seeks to foster: namely, the “love, friendship, faithfulness, solidarity, and neighborliness that pushes people toward connection rather than distrust.”1 Put another way, the MP is incompatible with civility, which Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter10 defines as “. . . the set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our common journey with others. . .”
Since the Martial (Aresian) Personality as I have described it does not have formal diagnostic criteria, there is no way of knowing if this type has become more frequent in recent decades, thereby fueling the breakdown of communal values Brooks has described. There is, however, substantial evidence that narcissistic traits have increased in recent decades, as the research of Twenge and Campbell11 has shown. As a heuristic hypothesis, I would argue that we are seeing more and more individuals in high levels of authority-in business, industry, and government-who fit the MP profile. I suspect that these individuals are both products of a disintegrating communal culture and an accelerant to that very disintegration-in effect, creating a vicious circle of “selfishness, cynicism, distrust, and autonomy.” (We normally think of autonomy as a desirable trait, but when carried to an extreme, it can become a form of disconnected self-isolation).
If my hypothesis is correct, how do we break the vicious circle?12 That, I think, is the challenge David Brooks1 presents to us: to rebind the fabric of a society torn by Martial values. Perhaps, as psychiatrists, we have a role to play that extends beyond the clinic or office, encompassing the ethical values underlying education, government, and family. In that vein, Stephen L. Carter helps us chart the way forward:
“Teaching civility, by word and example, is an obligation of the family . . . children need to see evidence that adults can disagree and yet respect and even love each other . . . teaching civility to the next generation also requires the establishment of clear rules of respect and simple good manners in the household.”10
Perhaps we need to counter the archetype of Ares with that of Athena, whose warrior traits are humanized and balanced by her “cool and intelligent courage.”5
Dr Pies is Professor in the psychiatry departments of SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY and Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston. He is Editor in Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times (2007 to 2010).
To submit a comment, please write us at PTEditor@mmhgroup.com. All comments will be reviewed for possible publication at the end of this article. Please include your full name, title, city, and state for consideration. -Ed.
Letter to the Editor
Nice picture of this personality type. They are a malignant force opposing progress in civilization. When you put one in public office and add vulgarity and deliberate lying for self-promotion, he takes on an orange color. In terms of autonomy, he is no Roman god. He is aligned directly with a small number of like-minded exploiters. We can call them The One Percenters.
Michael Gross, MD
Woodland Hills, CA
Response From the Author
Thanks, Dr. Gross, for your astute observations on my essay. I fully agree with you that the Martial Personality type constitutes a "malignant force opposing progress in civilization." Some will visualize this personality type as "red" (Mars, after all, is "The Red Planet"); some as "blue"; and some, as "orange."
With regard to the last hue: I'm sure you will understand when I say, quoting Francis Urquart (in "House of Cards"), "I couldn't possibly comment."
Ron Pies, MD
This article was originally posted on 6/25/19 and has since been updated.
1. Brooks D. The Death of Idealism. The New York Times. September 30, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/30/opinion/the-death-of-idealism.html. Accessed June 24, 2019.
2. Gordon Gekko. Wall Street. Charactour.https://www.charactour.com/hub/characters/view/Gordon-Gekko.Wall-Street. Accessed June 24, 2019.
3. Mars. The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Encyclopedia.com.https://www.encyclopedia.com/science-and-technology/astronomy-and-space-exploration/astronomy-general/mars#Mars. Accessed June 24, 2019.
4. Cartwright M. Mars. Ancient History Encyclopedia. www.ancient.eu/Mars. Accessed June 24, 2019.
5. New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, translated by R. Aldington, D. Ames. London: Hamlyn Publishing; 1968:124-125.
6. Cartwright M. Ares. Ancient History Encyclopedia. https://www.ancient.eu/Ares. Accessed June 24, 2019.
7. Smith W. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London; John Murray; 1873. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0104:entry=ares-bio-1. Accessed June 24, 2019.
8. Lefkowitz M, Greek Gods, Human Lives. Yale University Press; 2003: 63-64.
9. Wang S, Lilienfeld SO, Rochat P. Schadenfreude deconstructed and reconstructed: A tripartite motivational model. New Ideas Psychol. 2019;52:1-11. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0732118X18301430. Accessed June 24, 2019.
10. Carter SL. Civility. Manners, Morals and the Etiquette of Democracy. New York: Harper Perennial; 1998.
11. Twenge JM, Campbell WK. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. New York: Atria Books; 2010.
12. Pies RW. Campus Protests, Narcissism, and the Dearth of Civility. Psychiatric Times. 2016;33(2):16-17. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/blogs/couch-crisis/campus-protests-narcissism-and-dearth-civility. Accessed June 24, 2019.