Steven Pressfield is the acclaimed author of Gates of Fire and Killing Rommel: A Novel and other works of historical fiction, who recently began blogging at It’s the Tribes, Stupid! . Steve graciously agreed to contribute a guest post here at Zenpundit and I’m very pleased to present the following:
THE SPARTAN SENSE OF HUMOR
by Steven Pressfield
[Fair warning: this is NOT a political column.]
In ancient Sparta, there was a law prohibiting all citizens from hewing the roofbeams of their houses with any tool finer than an axe. The Spartans wanted their homes to be–spartan. Result: roofbeamsin Sparta were just tree trunks with the limbs lopped off.
Once a Spartan was visiting at Athens, staying in an elegant home with frescoes, marble statuary–and impeccably-squared ceiling beams. Admiring these, the Spartan asked his host if trees grew square at Athens. The gentleman laughed. “Of course not; they grow round, as trees grow everywhere.”
“And if they grew square,” asked the Spartan, “would you make them round?”
Probably the two most celebrated Spartan sayings come from the battle of Thermopylae. First is King Leonidas’ admonishment to his comrades onthe final morning, when the defenders knew they were all going to die.”Now eat a good breakfast, men, for we’ll all be sharing dinner in hell.”
The second is from the warriorDienekes, on the afternoon before Xerxes’ million-man army first appeared. The Spartans had taken possession of the pass but had not yet seen the enemy. As they were going about their preparations, a local Greek came running in, wild-eyed, having just gotten a glimpse of the Persian multitudes approaching. The invaders’ archers were so numerous, the man breathlessly told the Spartans, that when they fired their volleys, the mass of arrows blocked out the sun. “Good,” replied Dienekes, “then we’ll have our battle in the shade.”
Spartans liked their quips terse and lean. They trained their young men for this. Youths in the agoge (“the Upbringing”), the notorious eleven-year training regimen that turned Spartan boys into warriors, would from time to time be called out before their elders and grilled with rapid-fire questions. The boys were judged on the wit and economy of their answers.
The reason for this was fear. The Spartans developed their style of humor from combat and from the apprehension that precedes combat. Hoplite warfare was surely among the most terror-inducing for the individual fighter, not only because he knew that all the killing would be done hand-to-hand, but because he often had hours preceding a battle to stare at the enemy phalanx across the field, while his own imagination ran riot.The Spartans prized the type of wit that cut such tension, the kind of humor that could release fear with a laugh and pull each individual out of his own head and his own isolation.
Think about Dienekes’ quip for a moment. If we imagine ourselves there at the “Hot Gates,” it’s not hard to picture our imaginations working overtime as we wait for the enemy host to make its appearance. What would these alien invaders be like? We knew they were fierce horsemen and warriors, drawn from the bravest nations of the East. And we knew they’d outnumber us 100 to one. What weapons would they carry? What tactics would they employ? Could we stand up to them? Now suddenly a local farmer comes racing into camp, bug-eyed and out of breath, and starts regaling us with tales of the scale and magnitude of the enemy army. Were we scared? Hell, yes! You can bet the young warriors clustered around this messenger, each of them thinking, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” Then Dienekes, a commander of proven valor about forty years old, offered his icy, unperturbed quip. What happened? You can bet that after the defendershad their laugh, they noticed that their palms weren’t as clammy as they had been thirty seconds earlier. The warriors looked at each other–darkly no doubt, and grimly–and went back to their tasks of preparation for battle.
Several qualities are worth noting, I think, about both Dienekes’ and Leonidas’ one-liners. First, they’re not jokes. They’re not meant just to raise a laugh. Yet they’re funny, they’re on-point. Second, they don’t solve the problem. Neither remarkoffers hope or promises a happy ending. They’re not inspirational. They don’t point to glory or triumph–or seek to allay their comrades’ anxiety by holding out the prospect of some rosy future outcome. They face reality. They say, “Some heavy shit is coming down, brothers, and we’re going to go through it.”
And they’re inclusive. They’re about “us.” The grim prospect they acknowledge is one that all of us will undergo together. They draw each individual out of his private terror and yoke him to the group.
That’s it. That’s enough.
The reason contemporary Marines relate so instinctively to the Spartan mind-set, I suspect, is that their own attitude is so similar. Marine training, as anyone who has gone through it knows, doesn’t build supermen. Marines don’t have any special tricks to kill you with a butter knife. But what Marines know how to do better than anybody isto be miserable. That’s what Marine training teaches. Marines take a perverse pride in having the crappiest equipment, coldest chow and highest casualty rates of any American armed force. What’s the dirtiest, crummiest, most dangerous assignment? That’s the one Marines want. They’re pissed off if they don’t get it. Nothing infuriates Marines more than to learn that the army has gotten a crappier assignment than they have.
I recommend this attitude, by the way, for all artists, entrepreneurs and anyone (including bloggers) who has to motivate himself and validate himself all on his own. For facing the blank page, nothing beats it. It also engenders a wholesome species of dark, gallows pride.
Another Spartan was visiting Athens. (The river at Athens, we should note, is the Cephisus; at Sparta the river is theEurotas. The Spartans were famous, as well, for never letting any invader get anywhere near their city.) The Athenian was bragging about prior wars between the two rivals. “We have buried many Spartans,” he declared, “beside the Cephisus.”
“Yes,” replied the Spartan, “but we have buried no Athenians beside the Eurotas.”