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Guest Post: “The Spartan Sense of Humor” by Steven Pressfield

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.”

14 Responses to “Guest Post: “The Spartan Sense of Humor” by Steven Pressfield”

  1. Lexington Green Says:

    Michael Yon had an example of this very thing today:
    ‘ Tonight at dinner, a young Marine Lance Corporal sat in front of me at the crowded dining facility.  “Good evening, Sir,” he said.  I asked, “Are you living like animals out there?”  “Livin’ the dream, Sir!” ‘
    And, of course, Chesty Puller’s quips during the retreat from Chosin Reservoir are very Spartan.
    I imagine that Lt.Gen Puller and Leonidas embraced like brothers when they met in Valhalla.

  2. Jim Carrozza Says:

    Good stuff Steve. That same Spartan sense of humor can be applied to the trials of todays job market as well. Anything to help ease the pain and give one a cynical little grin in the face of insurmountable odds.

  3. Andrew Lubin Says:

    What was it Chesty Puller said when he found out they were surrounded – "good, now we can shoot in every direction!"

  4. morgan Says:

    Andrew, not to be picky but as a former Marine I must correct your Puller quote, subsitute the word "attack" for shoot and you’ve got what Chesty said.  Semper Fi.

  5. Larry Dunbar Says:

    Of course this gallows humor is also prevalent in the private sector as well. Our casting crew could not plug-off a 100,000 lb furnace full of aluminum and we had a molten river of aluminum heading towards a pit full of water. When this happens an explosion is usually the order of the day, the size of the explosion being the size of the river. This was very big.

    I was told to escort the fire trucks into the area, which I did. I positioned them probably too close, but it was about 10 foot below grade, which I thought would optimize their response time after the blast. When asked where is the fire that needed to be put out, I laughed and responded, “There is no fire”, "You’re here to put out the fire after the explosion" and showed them where the explosion would take place, if it actually happened. I didn’t mean to laugh, and the firemen were not amused. They left the area very quickly and parked a couple hundred feet further away. I still remember the look on their faces as I laughed at them. And the situation was anything but funny. I could see my partner (from the relative safety of my location) at the site where hell could break loose, frantically shutting down water valves and trying to get some control over the situation. Luckily, nothing happened, but there seemed to be the same kind of humor after, as before, the incident. Excluding myself, I would say the crew that responded to that incident were very Spartan-like.

  6. Smitten Eagle Says:

    And there is the overused, but grimly funny…"Come on  you sons of bitches!  You wanna live forever?!"

  7. Larry Dunbar Says:

    Or, you want to live to be 45 and healthy? Ya, right, who would have guessed?

  8. historyguy99 Says:

    I am reminded of a passage written by BDG Theodore Roosevelt Jr. to his wife, upon being relieved by General Patton in Sicily.

    "The longer I live the more I think of the quality of fortitude–men who fall, pick themselves up and stumble on, fall again, and are trying to get up when they die."

  9. Duncan Kinder Says:

    Another aspect of the Spartan mentality was that notoriously the typical Spartan,  when left on his own outside of Sparta,  made the proverbial drunken sailor on shore leave look like a piker.

  10. Travis Jackson Says:

    I’ve been competing in powerlifting off and on for twenty years now- anyone who lifts heavy things for fun knows that some days you win, and some days gravity wins. All powerlifters develope a healthy sense of humility if they stay in it long enough, and gallows humor, Spartan-style is a very necessary tool. Our group’s two favorite sayings in the gym (our battlefield, if you will) are “We may be stupid, but we can lifft heavy things”, and “If there is less then two feet of intestine hanging out of your ass, you have to finish the set.”

  11. zen Says:

    Excellent comments.
    Travis, I completely hear you on the powerlifting analogy – having once ripped open my palm in the crease of my right hand and snapped the bicep tendon on my left, both incidents while deadlifting. Powerlifting is a sport of extremes ( which is why I ultimately stopped doing it – was taking a toll)

  12. Travis Jackson Says:

    Zen- Owwwwch! Deadlifting looks like you should be able to avoid injury easily- I mean, you just drop it if it hurts, right? That’s what makes the sport so dangerous- it requires such explosive movement, and by it’s very nature you must push everything in your body right to the breaking point. Injuries occur so quickly you can’t do a damn thing to stop them. Congratulations, btw, on being able to get away from it- I’m 41 and trying to back down myself. So far I’ve torn my abdominal wall twice, my left supraspinatus tendon, dislocated my right shoulder and I put my left patella around the back of my leg squatting. My apologies to all (esp SP) for the aside here- wasn’t looking to hijack the thread. I guess the relevance to the article is that any endeavor (where suffering, misery and/or the threat of bodily harm are just part of the game) could use the application of some good ole Spartan attitude. If you don’t “Man up” (no offense intended, ladies), you just might not show up. Great topic for conversation, Mr. Pressfield.

  13. Titus Pullo Says:

    An expert at talking knows also when to talk

  14. T Morgan Says:

     A friend of mine who was in the SAS told me a story about a group of soldiers who were under fire while they were landing on a beach, they saw men being killed and injured as they tried to secure the beach a solders leg was shoot off the soldier shouted “I’ve lost my leg” as the other soldiers ran by one shouted back at him “No you haven’t it’s over there”    

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