The concept of the “alpha male” is a useful starting point, simply for lack of a better term. What is the most “alpha” type of man that could possibly exist? I’m thinking of a particular archetype, like the Nietzsche Ubermench, although I’m reluctant to use that word because I don’t imply I’m representing Nietzsche’s views. What type of man is most deserving of high status? You might be able to visualize such a man, but how would such a man behave?
Well, I wanted to codify it, so I made a list.
Rippling/nonlinear influence, nonlinear success i.e, status. Status is zero-sum, therefore, few men can attain this position.
2. Skin in the Game
While power is positive incentive, skin in the game is negative incentive. As his own agent, he bears the costs of both success and failure. This is not to say that he must fail, only that it is evident that he assumes all risks. A bad event would hurt him before it hurts the people he is responsible for. A captain goes down with his ship.
He must interface with the material world through his hands. His actions can be seen as they affect the world directly. His power is not merely social. People with the most power usually lack this, because they sit at the top of a large hierarchy, and let people at the bottom do their dirty work.
He did not merely inherit his power. He was not granted his power by a superior. He was not appointed, hired, or hand-selected by another authority. He ripped power from the hands of the powerful, by force. He usurps, replaces the existing power structures without asking permission. To need permission is to be ultimately subservient to the will of other men.
He possesses wisdom and insight about how to improve the world. Although there is also nothing wrong with pragmatic self-interest, he is not a brute. He understands things that the prior ruling class did not understand. He uses that knowledge both to exploit the prior ruling class and to improve the world. He becomes a symbol of this vision.
The best way for me to elaborate on each item is by describing conditions that do or do not satisfy them.
Many professions strongly satisfy some of the items but not others. For example, an athlete has physical competence, but falls short on vision. If we avoid getting swept away with romantic notions of sports, we realize that pro sports players do not actually have much power.
Another example is scientist. Take one of the best scientists of a generation. He does have a vision (his insights about how the world is) and he is a type of usurper (he replaces previous understandings of the world with his understanding). At the same time, scientists have a very difficult time translating the value they create into profit for themselves, because information is hard to monopolize.
A soldier has both skin in the game and physical commitment. However, a rank-and-file solder has limited true power, because he takes orders from his authorities. He fights for the vision of his commander, not his own vision. This is because of how an army has to be.
An army general has more power than a soldier. But still, he fights for the vision of the politicians that sent him to war. And despite how a general might seem like one who usurps power, in fact, one’s power is not a total usurpation if he was promoted into his position by superiors.
Going “one level up” to the politicians does not improve this matrix, except that they have power. Great visions and fundamental usurpations are rare (but not nonexistent) among politicians.
Politicians infamously have insufficient skin in the game. The negative consequences of their actions does not come back to them. Yes, politicians can be voted out of office in a Democracy. But as a consequence of that, the “next guy” will be blamed for the long-term problems the politician caused.
What if we think about dictatorial roles? What if the policy-maker is also the conquerer? What about a warlord/warrior king? While a warlord meets many criteria, he falls short of meeting the archetype. A warlord is an opportunist. He lacks a great vision, and usually leaves his land significantly worse off. Without a proper, intelligent vision, he may be good at getting power, but cannot be celebrated.
But maybe there is an exception; maybe there is a conquering king who does have a vision… a philosopher king? A philosopher king does match the archetype, but there are no perfect embodiments of it. The person who came closest is perhaps Marcus Aurelius. The only dimension Aurelius falls short on is usurpation, because if you were chosen to be someone’s successor, your power depends on an already-privileged position.
Another job that performs well is startup founder/inventor/entrepreneur. Founding a startup is high risk (skin in the game), but can make you extremely rich (power), while changing industries and out-competing other companies (usurping), and additionally, a good startup founder will have a powerful vision.
Where startup founders fall short is the physical aspect. I do not consider typing code to qualify. The physical requirement may seem out of place, but I don’t want to include, for instance, any controversial celebrity artist with a vision. You need to get your hands dirty.
At least an entrepreneur scores higher than most typical CEOs. Most CEOs are a level of abstraction removed from the actual consequences of their decisions. They experience the upside (power) without the downside (skin in the game). They also take the approved path to power: climbing the corporate ladder, whereas founders do not need to ask permission to start a company, they simply do the work.
So, what person from legend and history best embodies the archetype?
The purpose of Nietzsche’s ubermench idea was to provide meaning in a world where the Christian God, he believed, was no longer able to provide it. This is a clue that the archetype could be found in Christianity. Let’s look at Jesus.
Power: Christian worship affirms the strength of the Jesus’s influence
Skin in the game: The symbol of the Cross represents the Christian God’s skin in the game, because he takes the form of his own human son who can suffer
Physical: In the Bible, Christ’s miracles are all generally performed by hand (Christian miracles are intimate and precise benefits, as opposed to abstract social changes)
Usurper: Christ usurped the Roman paganism
Vision: Christianity is the vision of Christ
A martyr dies for what he believes in. That’s vision, skin in the game, and a physical aspect, to the utmost.
Not all martyrs meet the archetype. A martyr meets the archetype insofar as, and to the extent that: through his martyrdom, he gains power, and discredits those who defeat him.
(Girls can exemplify this archetype too. I’m defaulting to male pronouns because it’s a male-coded archetype.)
There is a mimetic feedback cycle: the more influential a martyr becomes, the more he exemplifies the archetype, the more he is worshiped, the more he supplants the previous belief set, the more influential he becomes!
This is a big reason why Jesus is such a powerful figure. The fact that Christianity is one of the most well-subscribed belief sets of all time only affirms itself.
Alternatively, I am getting the causality reversed, and in fact, Jesus created the archetype (and our longing for it) in the first place.