“Consider the enormous difference between you [Spartans] and the Athenians … “
–delegate of Corinth, addressing the Spartan assembly
We’ve been talking about the ancient Spartans, the supreme example of a warrior culture, and contrasting them to their arch-rivals, the Athenians.
What better way to gain insight into these twin exemplars of the Warrior Archetype than to examine testimony from their contemporaries, from other Greeks who knew both of them well?
Fifty years after Thermopylae, a great 27-year-long war was fought between Athens and Sparta—the Peloponnesian War as recorded by the peerless historian Thucydides. In the months leading up to the commencement of hostilities, when both sides were debating whether or not they should go to war, a congress was held at Sparta. The Spartans and their allies met. The high point of this council of war came when the delegation from the Greek city of Corinth rose to speak.
Here is what they said, addressing the Spartans, word for word from Thucydides:
“… consider the enormous difference between you and the Athenians. To our minds, you are quite unaware of this difference. You have never yet tried to imagine what sort of people these Athenians are against whom you will have to fight – how much, indeed how completely different from you An Athenian is always an innovator; quick to form a resolution and quick at carrying it out. You on the other hand are good at keeping things as they are. You never originate an idea, you’re your action tends to stop short of its aim. Then again, Athenian daring will outrun its resources; they will take risks against their better judgment, and still, in the midst of danger, remain confident. But your nature is always to do less than you could have done, to mistrust your own judgment, however sound it may be, and to assume that dangers will last forever.
Think of this, too: while you are hanging back, [the Athenians] never hesitate. While you stay at home, they are always abroad, for they think that the farther they go, the more they will get. If they win a victory, they follow it up at once, and if they suffer a defeat, they scarcely fall back at all … As for their bodies, they regard them as expendable for their city’s sake, as though they were not their own. But each man cultivates his own intelligence, again with a view to doing something notable for his city. If they aim at something and do not get it, they think that they have been deprived of what belonged to them already; whereas if their enterprise is successful, they regard that success as nothing compared to what they will do next. Suppose they fail at some undertaking; they make good the loss immediately by setting their hopes in some other direction. Of them alone it may be said that they possess a thing almost as soon as they have begun to desire it, so quickly with them does action follow upon decision. And so they go on working away in hardship and danger all the days of their lives, seldom enjoying their possessions because they are always adding to them. Their view of a holiday is to do what needs doing; they prefer hardship and activity to peace and quiet. In a word, they are by nature incapable either of living a quiet life themselves or of allowing anyone else to do so. That is the character of the city which is opposed to you.”
That great 27-year war pulled Sparta out of her isolation and thrust her into the wide world. The results were not pretty. Individual Spartans, particularly their officers and commanders, were forced to leave the sheltered confines of their kingdom of virtue. Exposed to the wide world, they became corrupted. They were compelled by the war’s exigency to embrace money, to ally themselves with Persia, to establish a navy and to fight at sea.
The Spartan’s warrior code proved inadequate to the demands of total war. Conquering the city of Plataea, one of their former allies, they marched the prisoners before them one by one and asked a single question, “What action have you taken in favor of Sparta?” Those who had no answer, which was everyone, were put to the sword. When their great admiral Lysander won a sea victory over Athens, he had every prisoner’s right hand cut off. It was Lysander who boasted that he “deceived boys with knucklebones and men with lies.”
In other words, the sons of Leonidas, barely half a century after the high-water mark of Thermopylae, had seen their warrior virtue falter and fail morally and ethically.
Which will bring us in a few more episodes to Act Two in this saga: the rise of Macedonia and the coming of the next paragon of the warrior ideal, Alexander the Great.
But before we get to Alexander, let’s take a detour in time and space and go back to another fascinating aspect of the Warrior Archetype …
The female warrior.
The legend of the Amazons.
Hey guys. Loved the episode and the direction it is all going. It seems the transcript and the video are actually very different. Excited for either direction but just a heads up.
Great catch! Didn’t notice the transcripts on this page–in fact it wasn’t until the 4th or 5th episode I noticed the comments were available as well. …not a digital native…
You’ve given me 17 more written pearls of wisdom I didn’t know existed. Thanks.
The differences in attitude between the Spartans and Athenians are sadly like the current differences between the United States and Russia; as the Pentagon announces yet more multi-billion dollar Zumwalts, F-35’s and Bradley replacements in order to stop the Russians at the Fluda Gap, the Russians are busy interfering-influencing our election – yet again.
It seems both the US and the Spartans want to fight the last war instead of the next.
To echo your point about us always fighting the last war…I was in Afghanistan 05-07. We were the MI Battalion for 10th MTN DIV, the Army had just finished its transition from a Division based Army to Brigade Combat Teams, and most of the organic Divisional assets (MI BNs, ENG Bns, Signal, etc) were stripped. So we replaced this former organic asset.
Our battalion was unique in the DOD, we were from a Linguist Brigade. Nearly all of our Soldiers spoke a foreign language, but in 2005–no one spoke Pashto. Instead, we ended up paying (One of my Captains was the ‘linguist manager’ to handle all the contracts for native born linguists) upwards of $20K a month to each Afghani to be a linguist for our intelligence collectors. I believe the DOD spent well over $1 billion annually for linguist support.
Before ‘Green on Blue’ became something in the press, I was always troubled by paying a 1st or 2nd generation Afgani to translate for us during MI operations (Signals intercept, interrogations, Source meets/operations)–how well were they vetted.
I could not, and still cannot accept that the DOD did not put out a contact for $50 million to train 40,000 Soldiers in Pashto from 2002 onward. We tried to fight a corporate fight, outsourcing so many traditional Soldier jobs. KBR did our laundry, cooked, even handled fueling. Short-sighted–and it turns out to be the longest war in our history. We relied on sub-contractors for our language support–and of course they would always take vacation at the start of the fighting season, or develop asthma just when we needed them to climb 10,000 feet to support dismounted collection…
To bring this back to your point of the last war, we have yet to figure out which foreign languages we need to know. Vietnam caught us unawares, the 1st Gulf War, and the GWOT. I went to DLI in 1991 for Russian, and the Arabic school was tiny–this is after the war. You’d think someone might have reckoned that this might be a future hotspot…
Brian – I’m not at all surprised at the lack of linguists; I saw it in Anbar, in RC East (Camp Joyce, Asadabad, Torkham Gate, other little COPS, and then RC SW). We always seem to be taken by surprise, lose a lot of valiant Marines/Soldiers, and then throw 100x the necessary money to solve a problem that should never have occurred.
Let me gently disagree with your comment to Steve: while we do produce some awesome tech people and entrepreneurs, their goals are weaker: instead of looking to be the next Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, or Warren Buffett; they want to launch some stupid product like WeWork or Uber, and then cash out in a big IPO. Or maybe they’ll sell to Microsoft or Apple. Either way; they have no long term goals other than big dollars and quickly. That’s what passes for values these days?
And why not? They ruined the Dow by emphasizing retail and tech; Exxon-Mobil gets thrown off and replaced by Etsy? Etsy’s nothing more than a newer Ebay, whereas XOM finds-refines-sells oil-gas-products worldwide. And don’t get me started on ‘the values of AI’. When you take away starter jobs at McD’s and similar, you take away the training grounds for HS/College kids to learn courtesy, respect, how to deal with an irate customer, and god forbid, to look someone in the eye and say ‘thank you.’
We’ve become a short-term, me-me-me county, and I don;t even see much lip service any longer to change our tone // Andrew
PS – did you ever serve under Gen Bob Morshouer? I was with him and a 10th Mtn arty battery in Mahmudiah in Jan 2007. He was a Col then
Agree about the tendency towards short term profits over building something of value. I posted this link a few weeks back when replying to Joe Janson. It is an article by Victor Davis Hanson (a fav of min).
Terrific line about ‘thirsting for the unapologetic doer’ that resonates deeply with me.
I wrote a screed about 20 years titled “Death of the Paperboy’. We had just moved into our home and my original paperboy was sacked for an old, tortured soul in a car. I used to get my paper on my porch when the kid delivering it was 12, and wanted a $10 tip. The faceless, soulless ghoul to delivered from the car always left it in my lawn.
Now print media is dead, and the opportunities for young men/women to work part time jobs is history as well. Instead we load up these kids with $120K of college debt to get a worthless degree without the first lesson on how to show up on time, shave, press your clothes, and be courteous.
So–I do feel your pain, but I also want to share something one of my platoon sergeant’s told me years ago. Larry was an absolute genius, and almost a caricature of an NCO. TOTALLY SQUARED AWAY. I was a 1LT about to get promoted to CPT. (OCS product, was a SSG in previous life). Larry, like most of the NCOs I worked with in my life, was twice the Soldier I could ever be. Smarter. Fitter. Knew his job better. So I take Larry to lunch and ask him if he would be interested in OCS.
He looked at me dead in the eye and said, “You know Sir, (we were the same age) this world is in pretty bad shape. It always feels like we are about to tip towards catastrophe or apocalypse. The USA is this crazy cacophony of ideas. All the good and bad that bubbles up is amazing. If there is a place that will every solve the world’s problems, it will be within this cacophony. I defend that.”
I was dumbstruck. I was coming from the position of influence and material gains, Larry pointed out to me why we really serve. I’ll never forget that lunch. It caught me up short, made me reexamine my own motives.
I remain optimistic because most of the people I’ve had the blessing to be around in my adult life resemble Larry more than Travis Kalanick, Jack Dorsey, or the other tech savant-billionaires.
Have a great evening.
SSG; thanks for sharing! Andrew
I will blame Netflix and Amazon Prime, but I’ve become totally accustomed to binging a show until it is complete. We watch one episode a night.
I’m now at the stage where I will be irritable until the next drop of Warrior Archetype, probably Monday.
I eagerly anticipate the next episode, and where this series is going.
It is so refreshing to hear someone talk about the great characteristics of Americans. Finally. We are not the scourge of the planet.
Don Rumsfeld, when serving as SECDEF, was asked about the devastation of the Iraqi museums and anarchy in 2003.
“Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here.”
He was excoriated in the press, but I remember thinking, “He’s right. Freedom is messy.”
When I lived in Germany, you’d see the Germans stand on the sidewalk waiting for the red hand to change colors. This would happen downtown in what was called ‘walkplatz’, no cars were allowed. I always thought, WTF are you waiting for? Then you’d see someone jaywalking…undoubtedly an American GI.
The Germans make great cars–but they didn’t make the assembly line, the PC, iPhone, Amazon, or Netflix. They also queue up quick nicely…very orderly. Not messy. Very tidy.
Freedom is untidy. But is also what has lifted the world to the highest living conditions in the history of mankind.
Thank you for reminding us that we come from the stock of brave innovators, entrepreneurs, daring explorers, and stubborn people who’d prefer to risk months-long uncertain voyages for freedom and all those inherent risks to living under tyranny.
Beautifully stated, Brian.
Steven, I’m enjoying this series and sending a link to each out to friends.
Thank you for the effort and the insights. Mark
Hello! I really liked this episode. You can tell and describe very well. I will follow your updates.
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