One of the best pleasures of books is to discover one that turns out to be unexpectedly great. I had just this experience recently with the old sea classic Two Years Before the Mast. If you think a book about a sea voyage published in 1840 has got nothing to teach you, think again. Fully expecting a dated and boring read, I was shocked at how readable, gripping, and relevant this book was. It’s packed with knowledge that denizens of the manosphere will find appealing and applicable to their lives.
Richard Henry Dana was a prim and proper New Englander who dropped out of Harvard in the 1830s because of failing eyesight and unspecified health problems. Today, we would probably diagnose his crisis as just the restlessness of a healthy intellect, but in those days being a rebel was not so easy. He detested the constrictive, humdrum banality of his life. He itched to get away. To experience the beyond. The Great Other. Why did he have to do this? Well, because he had to.
Dana decided to go to sea as a common sailor on a merchant vessel from 1834 to 1836. It’s hard today to wrap our minds around just how radical this decision was at the time. Seamanship in those days was backbreaking and dangerous work. It was simply not something that Harvard students or Boston bluebloods did. Dana spent two years aboard this vessel as it sailed to South America, around Cape Horn, and eventually put ashore in California, which in those days was a wild part of Mexico.
He kept a diary of his experiences, which formed the nucleus of his later published work. The book is filled with awe-inspiring accounts of storms, conflicts aboard ship, brutal labor, the agonies of scurvy, and harrowing escapes from death. (Melville once said that his description of the frigid passage through Cape Horn must have been “written with an icicle”). We owe him a great debt, for his book is a great and timeless account of danger, struggle, courage, and perseverance. These are the major things I took away from the book:
1. You can’t idealize brute labor.
Some people who have never actually done hard physical work for extended periods of time like to idealize the peasant, the proletarian, or the laborer. And it never works. You can try to idealize labor, you can talk yourself into it, and you can almost succeed. But in the end you just can’t. The sea, like the soil, is a cruel, impersonal and brutal force; there is nothing idealistic about it, just as there’s nothing idealistic about a snarling tiger. It has to be grappled and fought with, and is never mastered. Work aboard ship is a constant life-and-death struggle to stay one step ahead of cruel Nature, who would just as soon destroy you.
2. Men must endure physical struggle to realize their true selves.
Dana knew, deep in his bones when he left mother and apple pie in Boston, that he needed to prove his mettle as a man. He needed to fight, to struggle, to slay his own dragons, on his own terms. This is the most elemental desire of man: to gain mastery over himself through conquest. You will never be a great man until you seek out and put yourself through some intense physical challenge.
3. Men who go through a life-changing, intense experience are elevated from normal society.
Dana lived out this great experience, then went on to become a lawyer and have a relatively uneventful life. But it was all worth it. Because he knew. He just knew. He had seen beyond. He had experienced life in a way that none of his peers had, and he could die with the knowledge that he had truly touched the acme of human existence. Life-changing experiences change you utterly, elevate you above the masses, and at the same time isolate you from them. You will never be able to go back to who you once were. Maybe the British writer D.H. Lawrence said it best in his own mystical way: “We know enough. We know too much. We know nothing. Let us smash something. Ourselves included. But the machine above all.”
4. To be a leader of men, you must when necessary act with ruthlessness.
There is a scene in the book where a chronic malingerer aboard ship is to be flogged by the captain. Dana describes the scene with empathy and disgust, even vomiting over the side as the seaman is whipped. Another sailor who tries to protest the flogging to the captain is himself tied up and lashed. Dana wants us to be horrified by all this. But I wasn’t, if truth be told. I thought that the slouching sailor got what he deserved. Long sea voyages can have a corrosive effect on morale and discipline. Anarchy and mutiny can threaten at any time if problems are not nipped in the bud when they start. This sluggard sailor upset the balance aboard ship and something had to be done to set things right again.
Leaders sometimes have to act with speed and decision to put everyone on notice. And besides all that, there are worse things than being flogged. Losing your self-respect, your honor, your dignity, is worse.
All told, Two Years Before The Mast is a forgotten classic of masculine virtue and adventure, and deserves more recognition than it has received in the past few decades. Check it out and see for yourself.
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