We all know about the Spartans, right? You know; Ancient Greek warriors, flowing red capes, glistening shields, intimidating helmets, scary six-packs…
Well these guys had a reputation for being tough – I mean real tough, formidable….and insanely resolute.
This typical portrayal of them in popular culture, (movies, comics, novels, even some history books) may be simplified and stylised for mass media consumption, but, has to be said, it is not entirely without merit.
The Spartans were after all renowned for their martial ability, their physical prowess, their battle hardiness, and possessed a fearsome reputation forged in tales of severe military training, advanced fighting techniques and above all, their almost sacrificial, do-or-die attitude in combat.
This was exemplified of course in their famous battle of Thermopylae against the Persians; (the subject of the recent Zach Snyder film ‘300’… or at least, the comic book version of it…)
The Story of the Spartans
Briefly told, this is the story where Leonidas, king of Sparta led a force of a mere 300 Spartans along with some Greek allies to stop the Persian hordes that were amassing to the north, preparing to invade Greece. At the strategically selected mountain pass of Thermopylae they outfought and outthought the enemy for three days, holding the line against insurmountable odds, only to be defeated when betrayed by one of their own.
Only the Spartans could have achieved this, exercising their unyielding belief in their physical and fighting abilities – some of the very attributes that contributed to the success and expansion of the state of Sparta into an empire.
Despite all this however, it takes more than just bravado and audacious masculinity (perceived or otherwise) to sustain a successful, prosperous society as Sparta was, especially over a number of centuries. So what actually lay behind the success, the status, pure awesomeness of the Spartans is something they are far less well-known for. It was their philosophy. The Warrior Philosophy.
Grunt, Grind and Swagger Only Get You So Far…..
You see the Spartans were guided by a philosophy, a code – a certain set of values. These were taught and instilled in them from a very young age.
There are numerous references and descriptions available, but for the purposes of this article it is enough to simply describe it as a life philosophy of ‘oneness’. It was a constant striving to be one with themselves, with everyone and everything around them; Unifying body and mind, being one with nature, equality amongst themselves, of consciously contributing to and being part of a larger entity – a community.
It was a philosophy of nature and heart. They witnessed and listened to each other speaking little, listening much. They pondered the mysteries of life, death, of heaven and of earth. This gave them a strength of spirit (heart, body and mind) that surpassed all other Greeks.
Taken from the inscriptions in the Temple of Apollo at the important ancient Greek religious site of Delphi, (also home of the Oracle which Leonidas consulted before the battle of Thermopylae) it is said that there were three defining principles that contributed to the shaping of Spartan philosophy and culture as a whole. These were: ‘Know Thyself’, ‘Nothing in Excess’ and ‘Keep the Measure’.
These three core beliefs underpinned the Spartan way of life:
1. Know Thyself
The Spartans had no doubt as to who they were and what they stood for. From childhood they were taught how to be conscious of themselves, their abilities, their potential and how to fully live within them. They were aware of their place in society, their relationship to others, to their ancestors, to the community as whole, to their state – what it meant to be a Spartan.
2. Nothing in Excess
At first glance, this may be rather obvious. After all we tend to associate the word ‘Spartan’ to sparsity, to frugality, to self-denial. This again is not entirely without its accuracies, but is not a complete picture. To the Spartans it had a deeper implications – it meant moderation, self-control, soundness of mind, and ‘harmonia’ (harmony of balance) – in all aspects of life:
The Spartans practised moderation – which to them meant simply not doing things in excess – in everything they did in their daily lives: including their thoughts, their actions, and desires. A good example of this was education.
It is well known that Spartan boys were taken away from their families at age 7 to train to become soldiers – but in fact the military training only started when they were in their late teens.
Up until they were 17 their education was ‘moderated’ amongst other important life disciplines – reading, writing, dance, singing, physical fitness, their environment, nature. (OK it wasn’t ‘schooling’ as we understand it – it was tough – they were also beaten and encouraged to fight and steal – but the point is it wasn’t a one-dimensional education based on military training.)
Spartans were also expected to exercise self-control – to have the ability to ‘command oneself’. The idea was being able to find their ‘higher selves’ and make decisions and take actions based on their values and beliefs recognising they were part of something larger, (community, Sparta) – rather than succumb to individual whims or the lesser human self. It is the greatest struggle we all as humans continually face – the one of inner conflict. They learned to overcome this by being disciplined – but with a discipline that came from within, not one that was externally enforced.
Soundness of Mind speaks for itself, but it’s the ability to reason sensibly and deal with things as they are – not the way we would like them to be.
The first three qualities dealt with the body and mind – but there was also ‘harmonia’ which dealt with the spirit. The was a quest to find harmony or ‘inner balance’ of their soul with others, and the larger ‘Soul of Sparta’
3. Keep the Measure
This in essence means living in a balanced state of being – balancing the relationship between oneself and others; and the things around you. The Spartans, by knowing who they were (knowing the measure of themselves) and having the knowledge of other things kept proper ‘measure’ between them.
This is where silence was important. This allowed them to listen attentively not only to their kinfolk, but also to nature – the sound of the breeze, the music of the river, the cry of the wild. To take the time to take in, to try to understand, to be at one with whatever one was conscious of at that present moment.
Even with just this very brief explanation of the philosophy, I’m sure there are enough details to give us an insight into what lay behind the legend of the Spartans. I’m not even suggesting theirs was a perfect culture – there were many who lived under the Spartans who thought otherwise – then again… what culture was, or is perfect?
But there is no doubt that these philosophies and beliefs the Spartans lived by contributed greatly to their success, their greatness, their stature and their longevity in the classical world.
It certainly deflects false assumptions that the Spartans were just a body and strength obsessed, military minded people knowing only of war and austerity. And more importantly I think the relevance of these qualities, these merits, are just as (if not more) applicable today, where they are needed more than ever.
One can’t help but think that having (and being able to live by) even some of the Spartan virtues of Equality, of Unity, of being One with Nature, of respecting Natural Law, of being more aware and attentive of others and our Community not benefit us all?
Perhaps some no-B.S, Spartan-like ‘inner inspection’ of ourselves – of our character, our gifts, our abilities, or potential, our integrity – would lead to some painful self-revelation:
How much idle chatter, gossip and other ‘noise’ escapes our lips daily? – In Spartan terms, what ‘measure’ do we keep between us and others? If we are chattering continuously – then so is our mind, and all ‘measure’ between us and the other person is then lost. It’s now all only about ‘us’.
What code do we live by – what set of values and principles do we hold ourselves to? Are they high, life-enhancing values? And if they are, to what degree do we live our lives consistent with them? When it comes down to it, most of us find it much easier to compromise these higher order values for lower order gratification – money, sex, whatever temporary fulfilment presents itself at that moment.
Put simply, the Spartan ‘way’ explains that your ability to adhere to what you believe to be right and true is the real measure of the person you have become till now.
Are you aware fully of who you are, what you stand for, and have the courage and ‘strength of mind’ to fulfil the potential that you have been bestowed with?
You know, there’s a remarkable trait the Spartan warriors possessed – it was called simply, the ‘stare’. It is used to describe the intensity of the eyes of the veteran soldiers.
The cut of the Spartan helmet was even designed to emphasise it. The ‘stare’ was enough they say, even for a spilt second to put fear and doubt in the enemy’s mind – and that’s all the Spartans needed to get the edge – and be able overwhelm him. This intensity did not come from arrogance, but from inner confidence and the possession of a ‘strong mind’ – knowing without doubt who they were and what they were capable of.
How is it that you look at life? Do you square up to it with the ‘stare’ of resolute, courageous intent and personal certitude to achieve your greatness, or have you just settled for the meek gaze of self-doubt and endless compromise at everything you’ve ever wanted and wished for?
Are You A Spartan Amongst Men?
References: Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World – Paul Carteledge
Spartans: A New History – Nigel M Kennell