A QUESTION OF CHARACTER:
The Objectivist Versus The Machiavellian

by John Little


There is a popular adage used in military parlance that has found its way into the common palaver: "You never give your enemy the knife he needs to cut your throat." The implication is obvious; you don't give help, in the form of information or assistance or support of any means, to someone who could rise up to a position of power sufficient to challenge your status, your market (or markets, given the current international business climate) or your ability to earn a living. In other words, you don't assist your competition.

This attitude, at least in regard to bodybuilding, was championed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who made no secret about his embrace of this creed, stating in the movie Pumping Iron that when his good friend Franco Columbu came to him for advice on some point of bodybuilding:

Earlier, in that same movie, he related to the amusement of a journalist how he had deliberately sabotaged a young bodybuilder's first attempt at competition by deliberately instructing him to do something that would result in his being disqualified and pulled from the stage in humiliation (i.e., to growl and scream at varying pitches as he posed). I would like you to consider the bigger picture of what transpired here for a moment: a young competitor came to him for advice who looked upon Arnold (as indeed most of us did in the mid to late 70s) as being almost godlike in terms of his physique, success and, indeed, the aura that he created. Instead of helping him or even politely declining to offer advice, Arnold instead deliberately chose to sabotage the bodybuilder's chances of winning or even placing in the contest by betraying his confidence (i.e., by deliberately misleading him under the guise of appearing to be his benefactor) and negating whatever serious efforts and preparations the bodybuilder had put into preparing for his first contest. In all likelihood, this individual never competed in bodybuilding again. As this bodybuilder was an amateur, and thus not a threat to Arnold in terms of being a competitor at the Mr. Olympia level of development, one might well wonder why Arnold would feel the need to act so maliciously and what benefit Arnold could have derived from subjecting the young man (and his psyche) to such public humiliation.

Mike Mentzer and Arnold Schwarzenegger Backstage

Then, near the film's finale, Arnold is recorded on film attempting to disrupt Lou Ferrigno's pre-contest preparations for the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest in South Africa. Presumably his attempts to distract Lou backstage were made in an effort to unhinge Lou psychologically, causing him to question his self-confidence and break his focus, thereby rendering him incapable of being at his best and diminishing his chances of winning the title (a rather odd presumption in retrospect, given that the contest was judged on stage, not backstage, and that it was largely adjudicated on a series of compulsory poses that Lou hit with no problem whatsoever). However, Arnold did win the contest, thus proving in the minds of many the efficacy of this invasive "never give a sucker an even break" attitude. On pages 663 and 664 of the 1987 edition of his book, Arnold Schwarzenegger: Encyclopedia Of Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold relates with a fair degree of satisfaction how he undermined the efforts of two of his fellow bodybuilding competitors - Serge Nubret and Frank Zane. He fouled up Nubret's confidence by "repeating" that one of the judges thought Nubret looked too small to be competing in the heavyweight division, which, of course, made Nubret, in Arnold's words:

Arnold goes on to relate how, during the 1980 Mr. Olympia contest in Sydney, Australia he told fellow Mr. Olympia winner Frank Zane a joke onstage during the prejudging which resulted in Zane laughing too hard to hit his poses successfully, thus giving Arnold a competitive edge.

I will pass on what the odds might be that seasoned professionals like Frank Zane and Serge Nubret would be subject to such ploys, but let's take Arnold at his word; he set out to sabotage the chances of two of his fellow competitors in these contests and succeeded - a very lofty goal, indeed.

When I was younger, I, like so many other bodybuilding neophytes, laughed along with Arnold at his belittling of his fellow competitors; by detecting and exploiting an opponent's potential weakness, Arnold looked like a brilliant tactician and, by making his competitors look stupid, he - by contrast - appeared to be quite clever. I've since learned that making yourself look good against people whom you have handicapped isn't really much of an accomplishment. Such anecdotes and tactics no longer serve as inspiring to me, nor even as humorous. In the 20-plus years I've been involved in the bodybuilding game I've met many people who shared Arnold's character trait on the matter of winning not by virtue but by suppressing the standard of competition; a viewpoint I find sad if not contemptible. Over the years I've learned a little more about the ways of the world and of man, and even on occasion had opportunity to speak with most of the principals of Pumping Iron. Moreover, I've shed a great deal of the naiveté that I possessed when I was a youth watching that film for the first time, and am now quite firmly of the opinion that, with exception granted to the military, this credo of "never give your enemy the knife to cut your throat" is the motto of timid souls who, insecure within themselves, fear that what they have -- or perceive to have -- is hanging by so precarious a thread that it could be lost at any moment, with the result that they feel compelled to employ whatever means are at their disposal to prevent others from gaining positive exposure or success, rather than channeling their energies into trying to improve themselves. The focus of such people is always externally motivated; i.e., on how they are perceived, rather than how they can improve, and it reveals a profound lack of self-esteem and an overriding fear of life itself. For if anyone can be a threat, if anyone can take what you have, then you never really had a firm grip on it (and thus the right to it) in the first place.

The goal of a rational bodybuilder should be to fully actualize his potential as a human being - not simply his physical (i.e., muscular) potential, but his intellect and spiritual development as well. After all, the "body," as such, includes not merely the muscles, but the brain and the sense of self that attends using both efficaciously. Focusing so obsessively on only one aspect of this triumvirate will result in - at best - a lopsided development of one's human stature. And, I'm sorry, but the quest for bodybuilding immortality is the hitching of your wagon to a falling star; a moment in geological time. Where are the champions of 30 years ago? Of 20 years ago? Of Five years ago? No longer do they grace the covers of our industry's magazines; no longer do they endorse the "latest" products. Occasionally, they will attend the odd bodybuilding contest, where, every three years or so, they are paraded out en masse for the fans, to reassure them that there actually is a history to this sport - and then they disperse into the background like the wake behind a ship, waiting for the next event in which they might receive some acknowledgment. How grotesque.

Those who focus solely on their muscles or the trophies they win for developing their muscles never grow as human beings; they fail to develop any attribute that is not bodybuilding-related and so their whole identity is box-cared to what they do (or did) as opposed to who they are or what achievements still beckon them further head on life's path. Such individuals want so badly to have external acceptance and recognition; to touch that flame of public adulation and momentary glory, seldom realizing that as they draw closer to the flame, it invariably consumes them whole (incidentally, I say "momentary" deliberately, as anything that depends on popular support - from magazine exposure to winning bodybuilding championships - is never immune from the vicissitudes of change). At some level, they must be aware of the transitory nature of their bodybuilding careers and have come to the conclusion that, rather than develop other interests so that they can continue to grow as human beings (e.g., writing, music, painting, philosophy, literature, or learning a new trade or craft), they instead must direct their efforts to zealously guarding their small dissolving fiefdom lest someone arrive on the scene who might prove a more worthy or enduring figure.

Apart from Arnold, who is simply an archetype of this belief, there are other bodybuilders who have risen to the top of bodybuilding, or who have made the sport their profession, who likewise subscribe to it and who believe that they must do everything in their power to keep others down or keep from them information that would prove of immense value to their life and/or bodybuilding careers. After all, according to this dictum, one does not seek to empower the competition; one must destroy it. "Machiavellian," "Cut-throat" and "Win-at-all-costs" are all phrases that have been adapted to represent this philosophy.

I'm proud to point to the example of Mike Mentzer as being a brilliant example of someone who was the antipode of this creed. Mentzer represented the attitude of attempting to perpetually improve one's self - rather than arresting one's development by suppressing competition. It's not an easy path to travel by any means, but all attempts to ascend to new heights are seldom without turbulence. In order to fulfill his stature as a human being, Mentzer believed that he had to grow in all areas of his humanity; he studied philosophy to better determine truth from falsehood; he studied art to understand both its meaning and purpose; he studied psychology to better learn the workings of the mind; he studied logic to learn the rules of correct thought; he studied the sciences to understand the workings of human physiology and how best to strengthen his body; he studied business in order to learn how to earn a living - not by working for others but for himself and on his own terms -- and he studied education so that he might be better able to communicate to others the knowledge he had come to obtain. Throughout all of these varied disciplines ran the central thread of Reason, which Mentzer held to be the passkey to all human progress. And this is not to suggest that Mike was perfect (he would have been the first to admit that he was not), but he made it a point to put forth the effort to fulfill his human stature and, unlike most, he was aware of the significance that attended one's doing so.

Mike understood that the mind and the thoughts one chose to entertain and the values one sought to gain or pursue had an immeasurable effect upon one's character and outlook on life. It is no secret that he placed human reason on a pedestal - and with just cause; reason is what lifted us out of the caves, allowing us to make logical and informed choices in our daily lives by illuminating the paths we choose to travel and resulting in our only true sense of self-esteem. As Mentzer wrote in his only work of fiction, The Integrated Man (a narrative tale that proved to be his last writing and is included in his last book High-Intensity Training: The Mike Mentzer Way, to be published by McGraw-Hill in the Fall of 2002):

Proceeding from this base, Mentzer learned that the only meaningful rewards one receives in life are the ones achieved by the quality of your work, which, in turn, are determined by the validity of your ideas and the actions you employ to realize them. In the realm of bodybuilding, this would refer to the ideas one holds with regard to training, dieting and presentation; the successful realization of these "physical" goals, lends confidence to your own intellectual capacity to then dare to achieve additional goals - including those outside of bodybuilding such as interpersonal relationships, business ventures and other areas of productive achievement. Moreover, the underlying ethos is progress; i.e., to get better each time out and to learn both from your successes and your mistakes, so that you continue to improve.

Mentzer's viewpoint, of course, stands in stark contrast with Arnold's, both as a matter of approach and as a departure point for motivation. Bodybuilding writer Jack Neary reported that "after the [1980] Olympia, defending champ Frank Zane would ask Arnold why he came back to compete. And Arnold would tell him "To get back at Mentzer and Boyer Coe; to show them they can't get away with knocking me and my training." (pg. 20, Muscle & Fitness; Olympia Report: Arnold's Victory Creates Controversy & Bitterness, by Jack Neary).

Such a mindset would have been entirely foreign to Mentzer; to compete to "show" others is external and unnecessary. Who cares what other people think about how you train? It's hardly worth the mental calories required to contemplate, as no matter what you believe, there are going to be others who disagree with it - even in such an exacting a science as mathematics there are disputes! Upsetting someone else's applecart for purely external motives reveals an interest more in the success or failure of others, than in the improvement of one's self. As Mentzer used to say, "the only one you can accurately compare yourself to is you!"

If, for example, two people of Mentzer's mindset were competing for a bodybuilding title, they would use their faculty of reason to decide upon a course of training and diet to improve themselves to the point where they would both would be at their absolute best on the day of the contest - physically and mentally - and the one who made the more rational decisions in these areas would, as a result, be revealed as the best physique on stage, thereby validating not only his efforts in the gym, but the efficacy of his ideas and the potency of his mind. The idea, restated, is simply for you to use your mind in a specific manner that leads to self-improvement, rather than to dissipate this energy into worrying about how others might think, or what nefarious acts you could conceive and execute in order to orchestrate the downfall or obstruction of others. As Mentzer once wrote:

To this end, Mentzer never attempted to undercut or sabotage his competition -in bodybuilding, business or life. In fact, he would often go out of his way to lend his genuine support to others, to help them achieve their goals and to build on their achievements. Not to mislead you, Mentzer's benevolence in such matters was not motivated by altruism; it was rather because he wanted to do his part to live in a world of rational achievement and enlightened self-interest; for he knew that if he could help to raise the standard of bodybuilding, his actions -- rather than holding him back - would instead motivate him to become even better. The maxim "a high-tide lifts all ships" finds application here. Mentzer's actions stemmed from the ethical tenets of his personal philosophy which were, as he once related to me, as follows:

Having had the good fortune of knowing Mike for a period of some 22 years I can cite many examples of Mike's actions in support of this statement, but three will suffice:

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