The Temple of Mars

In commenting on my friend Luke Skytrekker’s recent post, in which he wickedly skewered the whole military-industrial profiteering machine, I drew out one of my points of comparison between the US and my native UK: namely that “America seems to be culturally more inclined to worship at the temple of Mars than the UK does” (I’m paraphrasing myself).

I’ve talked about this as a point of difference before (at least twice), so I don’t especially want to do another “compare and contrast” exercise as the focus of this post. But the comment, together with some of the things Luke said, got me thinking. (Luke, you dangerous man, you. Look what you’ve started! :P)

I live in Texas, in the heart of the South’s Bible Belt, surrounded by people who consider themselves staunch Christians and who would probably be shocked at the notion of worshipping Mars. That’s, like, a pagan god. We’re Christians, don’t you know?

That’s not quite what I mean, and most people will get that, but better I say it unnecessarily than cause needless offence.

I’m using Mars here as a convenient symbolic handle for war and warlikeness, martial vices and virtues and all the cultural aspects of America that reflect them. And I can see quite a few; I’m not kidding when I talk about cultural worship of Mars.

Firstly and most obviously, there’s the guns. Now, I know I have a bit of a thing with firearms – specifically I have problems with the idea of taking the life of another person – someone for whom my Saviour gave His life, but anyone will tell you that the United States of America is a resolutely weaponed country. The Second Amendment, and all that.

As someone who still doesn’t really believe in an unrestricted inherent right to possess tools of killing, the American love of stuff that makes other people go boom is a rather uncomfortable aspect of US culture. Even when you have no intention of actually killing anyone or anything, many of you target shoot for sport. Bearing arms is what separates the warrior from everyone else, and the United States is the only country I’ve ever been in that specifically delineates this as an inherent right of the citizen. It’s distinctly Martian.

The USA was even born in war. Well I know this, having just survived another Fourth of July as a Brit in America. The American Revolutionary War forms a powerful common popular-historical source of imagery which has no parallel in the land of my birth. We Brits may have a lot more history, but with the possible partial exception of the Battle of Britain or the Blitz, there isn’t any single time period that even comes close to providing a comparable source of universally positive imagery and references. America, born in revolution, midwifed by battle. We’re definitely in Mars’ metaphysical territory here.

Then there’s the current cult of extreme reverence for veterans and military service. Now, there’s something healthy and positive about honouring those who have laid their lives on the line for King and Country (or whatever you Americans lay it on the line for. Constitution, maybe), but I do wonder sometimes if we aren’t in danger of taking things too far. Failing to properly honour veterans seems like the cardinal sin of the current secular pantheon, to the extent that some of our preferment of veterans sometimes seems almost idolatrous.

Mars, I’m sure, is very happy, but I do sometimes wonder what it has to do with the Prince of Peace that so many claim to follow.  I’m sure there’s some historical reason for this, possibly in reaction to the way soldiers were treated after Vietnam, but I’m just waving a yellow flag of caution here.

It goes deeper than surface expressions like the prominence of the Revolutionary War or the love of weapons, though. Americans, as I said in my post during the last Olympic Games, love a contest and will turn anything and everything into a competition. It’s hardwired into the American psyche: the competitive drive to prove oneself faster, stronger, bigger, richer, more powerful, better than one’s opponent. The ancient Greeks called it aristeia, the challenge of single combat between two great warrior heroes, such as between Hector and Achilles in the Trojan War. I’ve referred to it as the Cult of the Winner; the American psychological need for success and victory. It doesn’t matter how you get there; if you’ve made it to the top you’ve earned it, you obviously deserve to be there. Even if you cheat or engage in dirty, gutter tactics, there’s a certain amount of shrugging of shoulders and telling people not to be crybaby losers. It’s the pursuit of victory, probably at all costs.

Not only in the ends of American culture is Mars raised on a pedestal, but also in the means. Mars is rather a god of means: he’s indifferent to his ends, whether the triumph of truth and justice or the plundering of the poor and the liar made lord; he’ll work his bloody, competitive work just as hard for the one as the other. In the thought of the Middle Ages, associated as he was with the planet that still bears his name and the astrological influences it was believed to possess, Martian virtue was a sort of hard, determined courage to do whatever is needed to achieve the goal.

Americans express this virtue in terms of personal drive: “I’m a very driven person”, they say, meaning nothing but positive. You can see it in Christ when He “set His face like flint to go toward Jerusalem”, knowing it meant His arrest and crucifixion, but classically speaking it’s the virtue of Mars. Harnessed rightly and directed towards a Godly end, it’s a glorious virtue that makes possible the facing of adversity and persecution, enabling the martyr to follow in the Lord’s footsteps in the silently courageous suffering of a sheep before its shearers. Ill-harnessed to an ungodly or purely human end, its fruit is a certain hard ruthlessness that will go full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes, prepared to sacrifice resources or family or virtue or truth or whatever on the altar of its ambition.

This is the character of Mars. And America has it full strength; tell me if I’m wrong.

I even see a sort of Martian process-orientation, indifferent to ends, in America’s incredible technological ingenuity. The focus on capability rather than ethical or metaphysical considerations has made the USA home to more inventions and breakthroughs and ingenious devices than anyone could conveniently count, indifferent to their potential uses and abuses. Mars in a good way, but also Mars’ weaknesses and disquieting nature.

Mars’ ancient astrological symbol is used by modern biologists to denote the male of a species, just as Venus’ is used to denote the female. This is interesting, because more than anywhere else in the Western world, American culture seems a prisoner of the old futile stereotypes of masculinity. The stupid, hairy, swaggering near-thuggery. The apparent need to “keep the woman in her place”. The old lie that “big boys don’t cry”, the despite of seeming weakness, the divorcement of the man from his emotions. The endless focus on physical strength. Nowhere else in the West are boys still encouraged to “grow up big and strong”. As if mere strength alone makes you a worthy human being.

The true God, the Creator and Lord of the Universe, we are told, did not choose the strong, but He chose the weak, the lowly, the despised. “Bigness” and “Strength” and “Victory” or success in worldly terms may even be a stumbling-stone and hindrance to seeing the power of God released in us. After all, God refused to use Gideon’s army until it was pared down to the 300 dog soldiers who lapped.

Mars has virtues as well as vices. Courage, determination, endurance. Medieval thought made the Sphere of Mars the heaven of martyrs, both because those who achieve a martyr’s crown usually die by violence, but also due to a mistaken linguistic connection between “martyros” and “Mars”. It takes courage, determination, discipline, persistence – all Mars’ qualities – to face persecution or oppose tyranny. The tyrant may plead “necessity” for his cruelties and abuses, but that doesn’t mean there are not sometimes real necessities that require Mars’ virtue harnessed to Divine justice and mercy.

I personally love most of the old martial hymns; they resonate with me on a level that most of the more recent “intimate” worship songs using Venusian love language do not. But the words are “Marching as to war”, not “marching to war”. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, and while it is an epic struggle for which we will need all of Mars’ virtue, it’s not anything to do with real physical war or the massive industrial complex that both feeds and is fed by it.

As a follower of the Prince of Peace, I believe we should be slow to reach for the sword, particularly in anger. There are just causes for which to wage war, but we should remember always Whose we are. We serve the “Lord of Peace/Whose pow’r a sceptre sways/From pole to pole, that wars may cease/And all be prayer and praise”. When we needs must fight, we do so without sacrificing honour or losing ourselves. In the end, Mars too has to bow before the true Mighty Warrior.


6 thoughts on “The Temple of Mars

  1. Lovely post! I haven’t the brains these days to say the things I’d like to say, but I’ll try anyway.
    While I would agree that, overall, the US has a fairly Martian culture, it is fascinating to see the regional differences in intensity. For instance, out here in the Northwest, there is next to none of that reverence for veterans you were speaking of. In fact, to be brutally honest, 90%l of the veterans I’ve ever seen around here have been homeless. You’re just as likely to see “veteran” on a cardboard sign as you are to see “lost job” or “will work for food.”
    I will certainly agree we’re obsessed with strength, though honestly I thought that was a universal human thing. As someone who used training wheels till I was nine, and probably can’t even ride a bike at all now, I’ve always found it more than annoying that strength was hailed as the greatest virtue (albeit never presented with the word “virtue”, because the word “virtue” doesn’t sell gym memberships). Even just in the realm of fiction, we’re often presented with emotionless muscle machines that slaughter dozens of people and drink too much, and they’re called heroes. The only actual empathetic, human protagonists are “unlikely heroes.” I’m actually writing a fantasy story right now satirizing classical hero archetypes (or, perhaps more accurately, examining just how messed up people would have to be to act the way heroes do).

    • Well, I’d say the lauding of strength is probably universal, but having lived in several cultures I’d have to suggest that the obsession with it is very American. Brits (and some of the other cultures I’ve lived in) are far less into strength alone.
      Many traditional British heroes are people of wit and skill far more than sheer brawn; look at Robin Hood. Strength was there, in the presence of Little John, but Robin’s long suit was the skilled profession of archery.
      Jack the Giant-Killer wins out by wits and chutzpah against the giant’s overbearing strength. Harry Potter doesn’t win through because he’s stronger than Voldemort, not even stronger in magic. Discworld’s Rincewind is cowardly and inept, saving the day by luck as much as anything else.
      Trust me; idolisation of strength alone is more American than you think.
      I’d be quite interested to read that satirical fantasy. Hero archetypes tend to be boring to write, but the differences in cultural expectation between something like a Greek hero and something like a Norse hero are quite interesting. Norse heroes, for instance, were expected to _lose_, because for the Norse, the epitome of heroism was going down fighting. You showed your true hero potential by how you faced death and defeat; and what’s really weird is that even their _gods_ were fated to lose the final battle.

      • Absolutely fascinating. I suppose the majority of the “super-strong” heroes are American. I suppose we are the country who invented superheroes, more or less (not sure if Japan beat us to it).
        I’m putting quite a few fun twists on hero archetypes to keep them interesting. The whole story is essentially set in a “modern” fantasy world, by which I mean a fantasy world that has advanced close to a modern standard of living and tech, but with the utilization of magic instead of technology; Thaumavision instead of television—you get the idea. Similarly, society has also progressed, and rather than worshipping the individuals who go out and slay goblins by the hundred and heap up gold, the world denounces them as genocidal maniacs. At least, most of the world—there’s plenty of rural communities that still idolize “good old-fashioned heroes” and so on. At the same time, nobody’s actually implying goblins and monsters are on the same level as humans, necessarily. Essentially, I’m getting to examine a fantasy world taken to its logical conclusion, and having way too much fun doing it. And getting to glimpse at how twisted people’s psyches would have to be to do the stuff some “heroes” do in classical fantasy (rescue endless streams of “damsels in distress” who are then never seen again, lock up said damsels in towers in the first place, slaughter entire underground cities’ worth of thinking and speaking beings, run around in a chainmail bikini and lop off people’s heads) is just icing on the cake.
        If you ripped out all the actual story and world, you could call the whole affair an examination of the nature of heroism, but I’d really rather not because I write satire, not allegory. As you might imagine, the protagonists are not “heroes,” and in fact are all fairly physically unremarkable. The character I personally consider the main one has a voice like an “asthmatic weasel farting through a kazoo.”
        Oh, there’s also a young kid from the country who’s seen all the glorious rural thaumavision specials and decides he wants to be a hero, which goes about as well as you might expect. Not sure if he’ll become a protagonist or not—the story hasn’t gone too far yet.
        Ultimately, I have no idea if it’ll go up online or something—I’ve been keeping my projects to myself for ages, simply because I’d really like to publish something and I know putting stuff up publicly online with no sharing constraints technically counts as publishing (after a fashion), and can leave you considered untouchable by actual publishers.

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