After getting over my disappointment with the follow-up to 300 I was reminded how badass Spartans were. They were just so hard.
Not like chiseled-hard but like soul-hard. They train harder than anyone else, their living conditions were harder than the others, and their code of honor was harder than anyone else. In my excitement to become a faux-Spartan I read Steven Pressfield’s The Warrior Ethos.
It’s not as good as The War of Art or Turning Pro but maybe more interesting for anyone who enjoys military history.
A lot of the ideas are useful to us. Our actions are rarely life-or-death important, but maybe we should treat them like they were. Our generation could use a little hardening.
(All quotes come directly from The Warrior Ethos. Emphasis mine. And I use “he” but of course chicks are just as badass as men, okay?)
1. Fear Shame.
These cultures created an intense fear of shame in order to support honorable actions. It’s a brutal tactic (and one that can get easily misused) but was extremely effective.
Warrior cultures (and warrior leaders) enlist shame, not only as a counter to fear but as a goad to honor. The warrior advancing into battle (or simply resolving to keep up the fight) is more afraid of disgrace in the eyes of his brothers than he is of the spears and lances of the enemy.
It sounds brutal but it pushed soldiers to do what they didn’t think they could. How easy would it be to lead the life you know you should be if anything less were intensely shameful? Imagine you weren’t babied at every misstep but instead violently pushed back onto the path you actually want to be on.
2. Embrace Hardship
Civilized life has us aiming for more and more comfortable lives. When we get comfortable enough we become depressed. Instead of allowing technology to simplify our lives it tends to add complexity.
Nassim Taleb’s recent aphorism explains this phenomenon: High Modernity: routine in place of physical effort, physical effort in place of mental expenditure, and mental expenditure in place of mental clarity.
The rich lifestyle is almost always at odds with the good life. We’re aiming at the wrong thing. The aim should be better actions, not better stuff. This story sums up this side of Spartan badassery:
When the Spartans and their allies overcame the Persians at Plataea in 479 B.C., the spoils included the great pavilion tents of King Xerxes, along with the king’s cooks, wine stewards and kitchen servants. For a joke, the Spartan king Pausanias ordered the Persian chefs to prepare a typical dinner, the kind they would make for the Persian king. Meanwhile, he had his own cooks whip up a standard Spartan meal.
The Persian chefs produced a lavish banquet composed of multiple courses, served on golden plates and topped off by the most sumptuous cakes and delicacies. The Spartans’ grub was barley bread and pig’s-blood stew. When the Spartans saw the two meals side by side, they burst out laughing. “How far the Persians have traveled,” proclaims Pausanias, “to rob us of our poverty!”
The Spartans did not see the feast as some great reward. Their focus was on honor, not rich foods. Their self-discipline was so great that the greater pleasure came in rejecting the feast.
Warren Buffet is famous for attending dinners with celebrities, businessmen, and politicians and refusing to eat anything but a hamburger and French-fries. It made many people feel awkward before it became a kind of signature.
3. Look Down on Excess
You would never find a Spartan admiring the craftsmanship of anything without utility. By law, roof beams in Sparta could not be finished with anything but an axe.
Once, a Spartan was visiting Athens and his host was showing off his own mansion, complete with finely detailed, square roof beams. The Spartan asked the Athenian if trees grew square in Athens. “No, of course not,” said the Athenian, “but round, as trees grow everywhere.” “And if they grew square,” asked the Spartan, “would you make them round?”
This kind of quip serves a purpose in warrior cultures. Mostly to be more badass.
4. Strength in Comedy
One of the more famous quips:
As the Spartans were preparing their defensive positions, a native of Trachis, the site of the pass, came racing into camp, out of breath and wide-eyed with terror. He had seen the Persian horde approaching. As the tiny contingent of defenders gathered around, the man declared that the Persian multitude was so numerous that, when their archers fired their volleys, the mass of arrows blocked out the sun.
“Good,” declared Dienekes. “Then we’ll have our battle in the shade.”
These types of quips “… don’t solve the problem. Neither remark offers hope or promises a happy ending. They’re not inspirational. The deliveries of these quips don’t point to glory or triumph – or seek to allay their comrades’ anxiety by holding out the prospect of some rosy outcome. The remarks confront reality. They say, “Some heavy shit is coming down, brothers, and we’re going to go through it.”
A warrior doesn’t need hope, coddling, or inspiration. Our generation is soft. We think we need to be motivated before we do something. We think we need to serve some grand purpose.
The bravest thing we could do is confront reality as it is.
5. The Only Thing You Need To Fight For
We don’t need to live our life for some magnificent abstract concept. What if the most important cause you could live for is your family and friends?
Dienekes instructed his comrades to fight not in the name of such lofty concepts as patriotism, honor, duty, or glory. Don’t even fight, he said, to protect your family or your home.
“Fight for this alone: the man who stands at your shoulder. He is everything, and everything is contained within him.”
The soldier’s prayer today on the eve of battle remains not “Lord, spare me” but “Lord, let me not prove unworthy of my brothers.”
This is true selflessness. It’s dedicating your life to the most simple thing in the world: the people you love. I’m not sure there’s a better way to do it.
6. Uncertainty Caused Honor
Randomness plays a much heavier roll in our lives than popular culture would have us believe. Nassim Taleb has done great workshowing this to be true. Eric Reis has introduced this concept to the business world at large via his great book The Lean Startup and the movement surrounding it. Yet we still tend to judge people based on the outcome they experience instead of the actions they take.
In the era before gunpowder, all killing was of necessity done hand to hand. For a Greek or Roman warrior to slay his enemy, he had to get so close that there was an equal chance that the enemy’s sword or spear would kill him. This produced an ideal of manly virtue – andreia, in Greek – that prized valor and honor as highly as victory.
Honor came from right action instead of favorable outcome. Lady Fortuna has too much say to only celebrate those favored by her.
There’s more uncertainty in the world now than ever before. This means it’s imperative for each of us to create our own inner scorecard that allows us self-respect for taking respectable actions – regardless of the outcome.
7. Internal Battles Aren’t That Different
In the Bhagavad-Gita the warrior Arjuna is commanded by Krishna to destroy the worst parts of himself. The foes within his own mind that would sabotage him on his way fulfilling his potential. How is he instructed to do this?
Fix your mind upon its object.
Hold to this, unswerving,
Disowning fear and hope,
Advance only upon this goal.
These directions work in the external and internal worlds. For those of us living in civilization, the inward battle is usually the toughest.
May the Force be with you.
Or, at least, may you allow yourself to try really fucking hard.