What is Best in Life?

Conan the Barbarian

What is Best in Life?

Conan the Barbarian articulates so simply what men know deepest in their souls. This time the wisdom comes from John Milius’ 1982 film Conan The Barbarian rather than Robert E. Howard’s brain, though the film adaptation of Conan is faithful to the literary character.

Most remember this scene:

Conan, stoic warrior amongst a den of battle-heartened warlords is asked, “What is best in life?”

Without hesitation he states, “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.”

Now, this may seem a bit barbaric to our modern ears (he is a barbarian after all) but there is truth in his answer. Conan’s answer tells the events in sequential order. His answer is that of an invading conqueror who storms an enemy’s stronghold, defeats their best warriors in battle, sends the remnant fighters fleeing to the hills abandoning their families in the process. When the crash of swords against shields have faded the only sounds left are those of the women cursing their fleeing men for leaving them to be enslaved by the conquerors.

Conan’s answer is given in three parts, but they do not have to be interpreted as one chain of events. Taken separately they have much value to modern men.

To Crush Your Enemies

The glory of defeating your enemies is a feeling as innate as hunger, thirst, and lust. Of course, when we defeat our enemies today it is vastly different from when we defeated our enemies in the past.

Take combat for instance. In the prehistoric past we warred for women or for land or both. Whether we warred more for one than the other is an argument in anthropology that his been taking place for roughly 40 years. Better evidence points to our having warred for women. But the point is we took something from those we defeated.

When our ancient forefathers conquered a people they took their enemies women in to their homes. If the women fought they were executed. The children? Sold to slavery in some far off land where they would not return to seek revenge. The elderly? Left to starve.

Genghis Khan did this to nearly all of Asia just 800 years ago. He destroyed empire after empire, razed great cities to the ground, and took so many women for his family and himself that 1% of all people on the planet share his DNA. There are many lessons to be learned from Genghis Khan, but I digress.

Norman conquest of England
What you don’t see is all the British women taken as Norman concubines

Today when we defeat our enemies in battle taking prizes is not allowed by Geneva conventions. The notion of taking an enemy’s daughter or wife in to one’s home is unthinkable, criminal even. Do we take their gold in to our treasury? Not so blatantly if it all.

So the nature of crushing our enemies is different today than it was in our past. But we still see the elation of victory in sports.

Why are sports so popular? Most people are just spectators. Professionals make up a very small portion of the greater population. They are popular because they reenact in a legal way the act of battle. One group is definitely the victor, one is definitely the loser. We the spectators establish in our own psyche some relation with the athletes because they represent our city or country or school. So when they win we feel joy, and when they lose we feel the pain.

Just look at this guy sympathize with the athletes on the field. He had nothing to do with them, but he feels like he did.

Look at these teams. One won the championship that year. The other lost a championship. Guess who won and who lost. (Sidenote: it is surprisingly hard to find images of the championship losers)

To the victors go the spoils
Sharks lose the Stanley Cup Finals

The stakes in sports are not so high as they were in warfare hundreds of years ago. Nobody loses their life (usually), there are almost no dire consequences for the wives and children of the athletes like there would be for ancient warriors. As a result of this the rewards are not so great. What is best in life is not to crush your enemies, give them a chance to improve, and try to crush them again next year. But that’s what we have in our modern world.

See Them Driven Before You

This relates to how completely one crushes one’s enemies. Conan is saying that what is best is to make sure your enemies don’t return. Crush them so completely that they live in fear of your coming.

We must contrast this again with sports. In professional sports, at least in professional basketball and professional football, the teams that have been defeated the most completely get first choice of incoming talent. They get to choose the best of the best. In professional sports a team (or individual for that matter) does not see their enemies driven before them.

In sports your enemies come back better, hungry for revenge.

Hear the Lamentations of Their Women

To victor go the spoils, or so they said. They so no longer.

No spoils go to victorious warriors.

Professional athletes? They make money off of championship performances. How about those who feel such a connection to their teams? The guys who cry when their team loses the championship and who pop the champagne cork when their team wins?

They get nothing. They only stand to lose, like they guy in the video above lost his furniture.

How Can Men Get What is Best in Life?

This is a lot harder to answer. Our world today does not encourage anyone to have what is best in life. But there may be a way to have what is best.

First you must define your enemies well, but don’t make it personal. If you owned a business, your competitors in the same market would be your enemies.

Second, you must define what crushing your enemies entails. If you owned a business, victory over your enemies would entail taking a majority of the market from your competitors.

Third, define the spoils of victory. This is not the lamentations of your enemy’s women, like it was for most of human history. If you owned a business, the spoils of war would be the increased profits.

These guys didn’t feel guilty about taking what they wanted

Of course, as a man you must ask if it is really worth it to seek out what is best in life. A man can have a perfectly happy and fulfilling and accomplished life without seeking this. But we want what is best in life.