What war is Gen X and Gen Y fighting, what is the purpose of our generation? Every generation has its own great war. For some generations, that is an international military war. For other generations, it is a war for civil rights or economic class power or human liberty. Every generation fights for something great, every generation has a spoken or unspoken idea about what greatness is. Greatness is what you fight for, greatness is what you are willing to die for. What is the greatness that our generation fights for? What is the purpose of our lives, and of our generation?
Some people may say that the purpose of our generation is: technology progress, medicine and research progress, openness of information, international peace, legal justice, economic opportunity, domestic security, inner peace, family love. While these answers sound nice, imagine that these goals were realized. Imagine we had international peace, we had economic opportunity for all, we had family love, etc. What then? Is the human saga done? Do we all just go and retire? What is a human when he has no more enemies to fight – when he is simply safe and comfortable?
I am going to say something that many of us have felt or thought vaguely: that the human species – perhaps the only intelligent form of life in the universe – is capable of imagining and creating a world that is more epic, heroic, profound, adventurous, visionary, open, public, engaging, connected, challenging, empathetic, leadership-driven, that is greater than any previous civilization or empire. Past civilizations and empires lifted up their kings, emperors, or presidents into heroic stature. In the internet age, in the psychology age, in the post-industrial age, every human on earth has the opportunity to become the leader of their own modern tribe. Earth can be the empire of a billion emperors, each leading their world of their own art, skill, profession, town, academic topic, political agenda. Humanity is not a herd of followers but an empire of heroic leadership. Every human citizen of the new empire should be a heroic leader.
There is a deep psychological reason that we are instinctively wired to become heroic leaders, and a deep psychological and cultural reason that we have not reached this potential. The cow eats grass, the lion hunts gazelle, and the human builds empires. We are the first generation where every human has the opportunity and resources to build and contribute to an empire, either online or in real life. Building a new heroic empire is our greatness and our purpose. Building a civilization with a billion heroic leaders is our great war. This great war starts with understanding the human psyche, our need for greatness, and why we have as a species given away our greatness.
To understand what greatness the human species is capable of, it requires that we look back in history to see the original instincts and goals that the human animal had originally evolved. The human animal evolved from ape to tribes of hunter-gatherers over millions of years. Most of human evolution optimized for the instincts and goals of a tribal human animal. In this tribe, every member had a purpose and a leadership responsibility. There were chiefs, hunters, tool makers, shamans, tribal elders, etc. These roles were extremely important, since the survival and growth of the tribe depended on the purposefulness of each member. Yet most important of all, each member of the tribe believed that the greatness of their tribe was their own greatness. Each warrior wanted to perform heroic deeds for the tribe. The tribal elders administered wisdom and justice for the tribe. To ancient man, the idealized good, true greatness, was the tribe itself.
Tribes had mythologies where each tribe believed the universe was created for their tribe – and their tribe was responsible for the harmony and justice of the universe. Spirituality, morality, ethics, mythology, history, art, and culture all idealized the tribe. Nothing was greater than the tribe. Tribal members literally created entire belief systems where their tribes were the purpose of life and of the universe. The tribe was, above everything else, the idealized good.
We now live in a world where the world is our tribe, and it is very clear we do not think of the ‘world tribe’ as the pinnacle of greatness, as the idealized good. We do not really have a mythology or morality or belief system that invests the world tribe as the idealized greatness and the purpose of life. There are several reasons for this:
- Decline of Heroism. Warriors, chiefs, elders, shaman, and tool makers could develop a reputation for honor, heroism, and leadership in small tribes because everyone would know about everyone’s deeds. In modernity, there are simply too many people for everyone to know about everyone else’s heroic deeds.
- Corruption at Scale. It is easier believe you live in a just and fair society when you know everyone in your tribe and everyone knows everyone else’s crimes or punishments. In modernity, we don’t consider the world to be ‘our tribe’ because people can hurt us or exploit us without being punished or without their reputation being hurt.
- End of Empathy. In ancient tribes, all elders were called parents and all kids were children of the tribe. Children were initiated into adulthood by the entire tribe. This created a strong empathetic family dynamic that we are missing today. We don’t consider our tribe to be great because we don’t consider them family – we consider them strangers.
- Solving Survival. While not all issues of survival are solved, humans are much less preoccupied with just surviving. The greatness of the tribe and great deeds of the tribe were often in defense of a tribe’s survival. Without the preoccupation with survival, it is often unclear what the end result of great heroic deeds would be.
We still see glimmers today of believing our current tribes are the idealized goal of life: whether the tribes are our nations, political parties, sports teams, regions, cultures, genders, arts, etc. Yet these sub-tribes are nowhere near the extreme idealized greatness of the ancient tribe. It could be said that the Roman Empire was the last great tribe, the last great group of people who collectively idealized the greatness of their tribe above all other things. Ever since the decline of the Roman Empire, idealized greatness has never been just one thing. Ever since the Roman Empire, if you walked through a city or culture or event or nation, you would not see the same degree of idealized collective greatness.
We may ask – so what if idealized collective greatness is has declined, and all we have now is patchwork of insincere partial idealizations? Life is more comfortable, technology is more advanced, we live longer, we have more civil rights, and we have more military peace. Yes, past generations have fought many wars to win those accomplishments of the human species. We have gratitude for past generations. The goal of our generation, building on a platform of technology and comfort and healthcare and military peace, is to reconnect with a more original instinctive psychological purpose for our species – to live like we were part of a truly great world tribe – part of the empire of a billion emperors. I will discuss next why the human mind was wired to eventually live within the empire of a billion emperors.
The Psychology of Greatness
I’m going to make use of the new modern psychology theories based on the works of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Heinz Kohut. Each in their own way spoke of the infant’s psyche chiefly existing in a state of infantile grandiosity. Infantile grandiosity is an infant’s belief that the infant is the entire world, that the infant and the parents are one, the infant and the food and drinks are one, the infant and the toy are one. The infant does not understand that the mom is a different person, that the toy is a separate object. When an infant cries and it receives milk, the infant believes it is both crying and getting milk as if it were all-powerful and it were in complete control of getting milk. The infant doesn’t understand that someone else has control over the milk. The infant has infantile grandiosity, believing it is all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing.
The role of emotionally intelligent parents, and the experience of navigating a hostile world, usually wean the child off of the belief that the child is all-powerful and is the idealize good. When humans are not weaned off of this infantile grandiosity, then later in life they will pathologically believe that they are somehow more special than others, that their feelings are more important than others, that everything exists just to serve the self, and that outside laws do not apply to the self. This is called ego inflation and leads to many modern pathological personality disorders. Also on the flip side, if the child is abused or neglected and the infantile grandiosity is simply killed off, then the adult will grow up believing that idealized greatness is impossible. This leads to ego deflation, which is another subset of pathological personality disorders.
The healthy psyche does not actually lose the infantile grandiosity, it simply invests the grandiosity in something else. Something else needs to be idealized, needs to be great, needs to be the purpose of life. This process is known as projection or transference. Because it is immature and unhealthy to believe that the self is all-powerful idealized greatness, the healthy mind transfers the idealized self, what Jung calls the archetypal self, onto something else. If a human does not transfer their idealized greatness onto something else, they basically remain like immature lost anxious children forever. If a human does not transfer its idealized greatness onto something else, they will never know authentic love or authentic friendship or authentic security in the world, since some part of them still believes only they exist.
The first idealized transference is from child to parent. At a certain age the child no longer believes it is all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, it believes the parent is. If the child has no loving parents, they may never experience this first type of idealized transference. The parent then takes on the role of weaning the child off the idealized transference and often initiating the child into believing that the tribe or empire is the idealized good. All ancient tribes and civilizations had initiation rituals which helped transfer the idealized good from the parent to the tribe. Initiation rituals helped the child understand that the parents were not all-good, the tribe was.
From a biological and cultural perspective, the receiver or container of this infantile grandiosity has, for most of history, been the tribe. The unconscious logic goes: ‘I’m not all-good, my parents are not all-good, the tribe is all-good’. This is why warriors will happily die in battle for their tribe. This is why tribal elders will commit to hours of work of leading their tribe and arguably getting little in return except for respect. In psychoanalytic theory, that which receives one’s infantile grandiosity is called the container. Believe it or not, the human animal was evolved for millions of years to transfer its archetypal self, its infantile grandiosity, its sense of greatness, onto the tribe. This is clear from native american tribes whose warriors gladly died in battle for the tribe, to the Romans who wrote constantly about the glory of Rome, and worked incessantly to push the greatness of their empire-tribe into others. An empire is just a very successful tribe. A stone mason in Rome was not laying stone, he was building the greatness of Rome.
Since the transference of idealized greatness rarely happens in modernity, a young adult’s infantile grandiosity is transferred onto a patchwork of things from money to professional career to sports achievements to compulsive dating / hookups. None of which are complete containers of idealized greatness. Some men may idealize romantic love and believe the purpose of life is to please women. Some people may idealize sports achievements and cling to their high school athletic identities late into the mid-life. Others may rant on Facebook about their idealized political beliefs without really taking much action. There are a thousand places to partially invest idealized greatness. Very few – if any – of these are of the idealized extreme that we would die for their cause. The greatness of the tribe is the true authentic idealized greatness we would die for.
The Archetypal Self
Edward Edinger’s work Ego and Archetype as well as Robert Moore’s work Facing the Dragon, among others, all speak about how humanity has transferred our infantile grandiosity – our need for something to be all-good and all-powerful – onto outside mythologies or spiritualities or kings. If humanity ever had a purpose that the individual was willing to give their life for, that purpose was a transference of their infantile grandiosity. For millennia, protecting the nation and going to war was the idealized greatness. Just as a child would die for their parent because of idealized transference, an adult would die for their motherland. Yet in modernity there are few things we would be willing to die for. I am not saying we literally put our lives at risk for the greatness of the world tribe. I am saying it is difficult for us to even imagine laying down our lives for any type of idealized greatness.
Jung, Edinger, and Kohut believed that the human being only idealizes something when the receiver, the container, can actually successfully receive the idealized transference. A good container of idealized transference is not just a family or a loved one or a career, it must be an entire culture and mythology. History has shown that people are only willing to die for a cause when their entire culture and mythology contain the greatness of their cause. Put another way, a person’s culture and mythology must be designed to contain their idealized transference. Greco-Roman culture was not isolated to the 1,000 years of its existence, it inherited 5,000+ years of mediterranean values from Indo-Iranians, Babylon, Crete, Egypt, and millennia of cultural evolution. Put another way, Greece and Rome were good tribal containers of human infantile grandiosity because they inherited over 5,000 years of mythology, culture, art, spirituality, and heroic leadership. Rome could be said to be the mass production of ancient mediterranean tribal culture. And never since Rome has an empire inspired the same level of collective idealized greatness in its people.
What made ancient tribes as well as Greek and Roman empires good containers of human grandiosity? It was their leadership cultures. As Robert Moore writes in The King Within, infantile grandiosity is transferred onto the tribe and its leadership. Idealization transference only sticks when we authentically believe the tribe is led by great people. This is a positive feedback loop, since people look for heroic leadership to contain their grandiosity, and heroic leaders seek out acts of greatness and achievements so they can be the containers of the culture’s grandiosity. Tribal man invested much of his ego in the tribe’s chief and a Roman citizen invested much of their ego in the greatness of the emperor and the empire.
The deep self, the archetypal unconscious self, the infantile grandiosity of the idealized self, this is always seeking a container for transference. The most natural container is a tribe and its leaders, an empire and its leaders. These leaders do not need to be tyrants by any means. Athens invested its collective ego into Themistocles who was democratically elected. US citizens idealized many past presidents such as Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, or Eisenhower. Yet the archetypal self is not adequately transferred onto just a leader, it must be contained within a heroic leadership culture. People must authentically believe in the heroic vision of their tribe or empire, or else the idealized transference is incomplete or insincere. In order for a people to be willing to die for a tribe or a cause, they must invest most if not all of their infantile grandiosity onto the leader and the tribe together, the heroic leader and the heroic culture. When this happens, people have a greater purpose, people will die for a cause. This is the authentic transference of the archetypal self.
Requirements for the transference of the idealized self
The most purposeful people live in the most purposeful tribes and empires. Our generation generally lacks a unified purpose, so we must understand the requirements of a successful transference of the idealized self, for the successful idealization of the tribe or empire. For the complete transference of idealization, you need all of the following.
- Heroic Leadership. This does not have to be one leader, heroic leadership could be a heroic group of leaders or even a heroic populus fo which everyone is a leader. Yet the heroic leaders must project a vision to the tribe or empire about what the tribe is capable of, they must have strong disciplined leadership, they must inspire, and they must be examples of how to live.
- Heroic Mythology. Humans may be the empire-building animals, but we think in mythologies. For most of human history, mythology was more than just entertaining stories, it was the story of us, it was the story of who we were and where we were going as a tribe or empire. In modernity, we have no mythology. If anything, our mythology is a story that anyone who tries hard enough can make millions of dollars. Yet if we play out this scenario and we all made millions of dollars, what then? Is that the end of the myth? Our modern myth is spiritually, politically, and emotionally insufficient.
- Heroic Culture and Society. An ancient Greece, anyone could compete in writing plays, athletic competitions, arguing philosophy, designing pots, telling new myths. A heroic culture and society is one with open door competition. Anyone can enter and compete against anyone. This contrasts with an exploitation or authoritarian society that resists open upward competition, this contrasts with conservative societies that resist progress and change. In Heroic cultures and societies, change and innovation is constant, and no one can simply rest on their previous accomplishments.
- Heroic Vision. The leaders, the myths, and the culture must share a united elevated vision of justice, beauty, merit, heroism, openness, empathy, progress, longevity, legacy. In a heroic vision, our actions help build a better tomorrow for generations to come. In a heroic vision, we cannot imagine a better world or way of life than the one we are helping create. An authentic heroic vision is literally the best vision of humanity that a species is capable of. In modernity our heroic vision seems to be simply equality. But if everyone was equal, what next? If we had equality, what then is the greatest vision we can have for our species?
If these 4 requirements are met, then the human psyche is able to definitively and authentically believe that the tribe / empire is idealized greatness, that the path and vision is all-good, that the empire will be all-powerful. When these 4 requirements are met, the human species is then unable to contemplate a higher stage of humanity than the one it is pursuing.
The breakdown of culture as idealized greatness is mostly due to the breakdown of mature authentic leadership. With the increase in scale of a tribe and the increase in complexity of the weapons, it becomes easier for tyrants and capitalists to exploit the people and corrupt the 4 requirements of tribal greatness.