The Jester

by: dialup (Nicholas Cloud), AO The Citadel, St. Charles MO

(This article originally appeared in the March 27th edition of the St. Louis F3 Accelerator. F3 is a “national network including 3,198 free, peer-led workouts for men in 242 regions [whose] mission is to plant, grow and serve small workout groups for men for the invigoration of male community leadership.” All opinions expressed in this article are my own.)

Doing hard things to gain small improvements over time is a core F3 principle. It is a core masculine principle, fundamental to building the character of a man. And there is no harder thing than building good character through constant vigilance against one’s Jester – that inner seductive voice that assures a man that short-term indulgences will produce long-term happiness and fulfillment in his life.

From a man’s perspective, the Jester is immortal. It exists as long as a man is above ground, breathing. It is an unwelcome but consistent companion along life’s entire journey. And it is a very old companion. The Jester has an enormous advantage over a man because it relies on a few fundamental biological and psychological truths to spin its yarn.

Humanity is relatively immature: we claim to rationally value things like temperance, compassion, charity, etc., but are biologically ill-suited for these values. The parts of a man’s brain that are responsible for long-term thinking and planning are relatively young and weak (in the scope of evolutionary history), and the parts of his brain that are responsible for short-term gratification are very old and powerful. Instead of temperance, our bodies value excess; instead of compassion, war; instead of charity, exploitation. Emotion and desire are such fundamental parts of the human decision-making process, that James Clear devotes entire chapters on how to game them to change negative behavior in his book Atomic Habits[1]. Our psychologies favor immediate certainties over eventual possibilities, and the Jester exploits this characteristic.

The Jester also exploits the brain’s chemical reward system. Certain actions lead to significant biological gratification. Any man who indulges in promiscuity, pornography, alcohol, weed, unnecessarily risky behavior, excessive media consumption, etc. does so because there is a very visceral sense of pleasure gained from each of these. That sense of pleasure is the brain’s way of rewarding behavior that it has summarily blessed as valuable. In these situations, the Jester has tricked the brain, however. The brain “thinks” it is rewarding sexual connection, culinary prowess, bravery, and intelligence – it assumes each behavior is exercised for a man’s benefit, because it assumes a) that a man’s life is “nasty, brutish, and short”[2], and 2) that any pleasure a man can get from life should be rewarded because it gives him an incentive to enjoy living and reproduce as much as possible (in the face of very depressing and demotivating circumstances).

And because the brain is a jerk, it intentionally decreases the amount of reward doled out for rewardable actions, so that we work for them more often, to a more intense degree, to recapture the same euphoric feelings we experienced when we first acted. This gives us the motivation to double-down on good behaviors: the more we exercise, the more we have to exercise to achieve the next gain. The more we have sex with our Ms, the more we desire sex with our Ms (and the more refined our technique becomes). But this system also has a dark side. When we listen to the Jester and trick the brain with negative behaviors, the more we have to perform those negative behaviors to keep the brain’s rewards coming. And because these negative behaviors are destructive, our obsession becomes our own demise. It is a terrible form of insanity.

The brain’s reward system is maladapted to long lifespans and prosperity. That puts it directly at odds with modern living. Every day demands long-term planning and deliberate lifestyle choices which require significant mental focus. And those choices must be more important to us than what the Jester promises in lieu of them. A man’s character is a composite of his choices and actions, guaranteed through repetition. Henry Hazlitt, an early 20th century author, concluded that will-power over the Jester is “the desire to become a certain type of character.”

“When popular language says that a man is the master of his own desires, that he holds them in leash and under his control, it means that this desire to be a certain kind of character is at all times vivid and powerful enough to be acted upon in preference to any other fleeting or recurrent desire that may beckon him… if your ability to refuse to yield to [a] particular impulse becomes in your mind a challenge to and a test of your entire character, you have thrown into the scale a mighty force to ensure your taking the right action.”[3]

Denying the Jester is not a negative pattern of abstinence, then, but a positive matter of construction; of constructing the kind of character that ensures the long-term success of a man, his family, and his community. This is a large task, and the Jester uses this fact to overwhelm us with a sense of impossibility. Indulging in a small vice seems comparably insignificant and much less daunting than “building character”. But this is misdirection. Character is an accumulation of consistent decisions and actions, made one at a time. The only decision that matters in the moment is the next one we make. This is how our character gets 1% better, and our Jester gets 1% weaker, every day.

  1. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, James Clear
  2. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes understood that the general mode of living for many throughout history has been difficult and ugly.
  3. The Way to Will-Power, Henry Hazlitt