Reflections, Stoic advice

War and Courage

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War is sweet to those who have not experienced it

Desiderius Erasmus

Why would war be sweet to those who have not experienced it?
I believe war possess many attractive qualities for men.

Courage is essential in battle to give an example, also camaraderie and endurance. A man must show the very best of himself during war, maybe that is why it is so attractive, we all want to be our very best.
Importantly, the phrase says: “sweet,to those who have not experienced it“.
War is terrible, unimaginably terrible. Call of duty or the movie 300 portray an image of war in which, first, you never die (call of duty). Second, you don’t smell the piss and shit and the rotten flesh, neither you see women getting raped in front of their families, children dying from hunger or bombings or so many hideous and despicable things.

I believe it’s profoundly important to know or have an idea of what war really is. It’s important to read, real experience is found nowhere in hollywood or videogames, by reading we glimpse the thought of other people and so we can begin to conceive more accurately what something really is.
Steven Pressfield wrote a truly marvelous book Gates of Fire is on the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Reading list. I couldn’t recommend it more: Gates of fire in which he narrates the story of Xeones, one of the only 3 survivors of the timless battle of Thermopylae.
I honestly do not believe that the movie 300 can even begin to show just how much courage and skill the spartan warriors had in reality, in real life.
Xeones, terribly wounded is healed by Xerxes best surgeons just enough for him to narrate the story of these unbelievable fearless spartan soldiers and how was that they managed to kill so many persian men.
What made them so terribly great at the affairs of war?
Practice, spartans lived for war.
Since they were just boys they were intoduced to a war based society. At 10 years old they came of age and had to prepare for a life of service to their people, the greated honor, to die for their people.
Xeones (not a spartan himself, but a free man in Sparta) narrates his story from the very beginning, since he was 10 years old. He knew war his whole life. The epoch was flooded with conflict and conquest.
His polis (city) was invaded by the Argives. One day while he was going to the market with his beautiful cousin Diomache, they realized a farm had caught fire and went investigating. When they approached the farm they realized it was set on flames on purpose, an invasion had just began.
They ran back to there farm just to found their families had been murdered. They fled with one of their slaves and took refuge in the woods. What they lived next left me wordless. The description of the book is too great for me to try to describe it:

There is always fire. An acrid haze hangs in the air night and day, and sulphurous smoke chokes the nostrils. The sun is the color of ash, and black stones litter the road, smoking. Everywhere one looks, some object is afire. Timber, flesh, the earth itself. Even water burns. The pitilessness of flame reinforces the sensation of the gods’ anger, of fate, retribution, deeds done and hell to pay. All is the obverse of what it had been. Things are fallen which had stood upright. Things are free which

should be bound, and bound which should be free. Things which had been hoarded in secret now blow and tumble in the open, and those who had hoarded them watch with dull eyes and let them go. Boys have become men and men boys. Slaves now stand free and freemen slaves. Childhood has fled.Bodies lay in the road. Mostly men, but women and children too, with the same dark blot of fluid sinking into the pitiless dirt. The living trod past them, grief-riven. Everyone was filthy. Many had no shoes. All were fleeing the slave columns and the roundup which would be starting soon. Women carried infants, some of them already dead, while other dazed figures glided past like shades, bearing away some pitifully useless possession, a lamp or a volume of verse.

Steven Pressfield. Gates of Fire (Kindle Locations 364-367). Random House, Inc..

War is sweet to those who have never experienced it.

War is terrible, sure. But, what begins to be interesting at this point is that the spartans literally lived for it, they lived to fight and endure all this terribleness. It was their society export.

Xeones heard a man during the invasion of his polis saying:

“See how numb we are?” the man continued. “We glide about in a daze, disconnected from our reason. You’ll never see Spartans in such a state. This”—he gestured to the blackened landscape—“is their element. They move through these horrors with clear eyes and unshaken limbs.

Eventually, Xeones escapes his polis and arrives to a Spartan town where he becomes the squire of a young spartan boy, Alexandros. When first arriving to Sparta he experiences something that changed him forever. He came by a whipping of a spartan kid.
Teriander, was taking a whipping because he got caught stealing.
Stealing, the spartans declared, was not a crime. It taught spartan children resourcefulness during war times. Getting caught stealing however, was the crime.
Teriander was receiving unimaginably strong blows to the back with wooden hardened sticks by two spartan instructors. It must be said that this beatings were ritualistic (normal), to show young spartan boys law and discipline. The beatings were not meant to kill the boys, but Xeones narrates that during his lifetime he saw about a dozen boys succumb to death, unwilling to show any weakness.
Teriander, fiercely, took each blow waiting for the next one. He took so many blows that the vertebrates started to glimpse white in his back. The instructors, afraid of killing him gained breath and hit him as hard as they could so Teriander would just faint and finish the trial.
So they did, and he fainted but when he got up, blood coming out of his eyes and ears, he walked two steps and fell, never to stand again. The instructors continued with the next beating, heartless, leaving the body there until they’d finished with the next ones.
For Xeones it was a horrendous seen, but a very instructive one as well.
A very instructive one because Teriander showed what the Thermopylae 300 used later to defeat uncountable multitudes of persian warriors.

Xeones, being the squire of Alexandros a dear friend of Teriander, heard later a conversation between Dionekes (later one of the 300 and instructors of Alexandros) and his young pupil Alexandros the conversation went like this:

“Answer this, Alexandros. When our countrymen triumph in battle, what is it that defeats the foe?” The boy responded in the terse Spartan style, “Our steel and our skill.” “These, yes,” Dienekes corrected him gently, “but something more. It is that.” His gesture led up the slope to the image of Phobos (a statue of phobos the god of fear). Fear. Their own fear defeats our enemies. “Now answer. What is the source of fear?” When Alexandros’ reply faltered, Dienekes reached with his hand and touched his own chest and shoulder. “Fear arises from this: the flesh. This,” he declared, “is the factory of fear.”

“Would you characterize their demeanor as barbarous? Did they take pleasure in dealing agony to Tripod?” No. “Was their intention to crush his will or break his spirit?” No. “What was their intention?” “To harden his mind against pain.”

“Personally I think your friend Tripod was foolish. What he displayed today contained more of recklessness than true courage, andreia. He cost the city his life, which could have been spent more fruitfully in battle.” Nonetheless it was clear Dienekes respected him.

“Remember this, my young friend. There is a force beyond fear. More powerful than self-preservation. You glimpsed it today, in a crude and unself-aware form, yes. But it was there and it was genuine. Let us remember your friend Tripod and honor him for this.”

Steven Pressfield. Gates of Fire (Kindle Locations 592-594). Random House, Inc..


We might not, as the spartans did, face such terrible circumstances, but nevertheless, we all face ordeals in our everyday life. It’s inspiring to know that there has been such people in the planet. People that have given everything for their people, for their honor and that have fought stoically, neglecting everything other than their virtue.

It’s easy to think about the virtuous life, living it however, only the great can manage.

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Religious Experience

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Imagine yourself in the airplane or in the back of the seat of the car, after 5 hour of, everyone has gone quiet and contemplative. You have you headphones on, the music you are listening to has become really, really deep, you start to understand it on another level.

The music, the trip you’re making make you start to wonder about life, your life and what you are doing, your family, your girlfriend, your friends. You become contemplative and quiet.

Everyone single one of us has gone through a similar experience. It can happen when you are contemplating beautiful scenery you have never seen before. This state is no joke, you feel it in your bones.

Contemplative, solemn. This moments are very precious to us for they are meaningful and posses a depth that  can be understood only personally. It can even be a sad moment, or a very happy one, but nevertheless we accept and enjoy it with our heart, for it makes the experience of life the more richer.

Why call it religious?

William James explains that a name (christian, buddhist) is irrelevant as any experience that makes a human being merge with existence and wonder of its paradoxes, can be considered a religious experience.

What does all of these has to do with stoicism? You may be thinking.

Later in his book:  The Varieties Of Religious Experience: A Study In Human Nature he describes the stoics as merely accepting reality and bearing it. To cite him:

It makes a tremendous emotional and practical difference to one whether one accept the universe in the drab discolored way of stoic resignation to necessity, or with the passionate happiness of Christian saints. The difference is as great as that between passivity and activity, as that between the defensive and the aggressive mood.

James, William. Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature (p. 44). Kindle Edition.

William talks of the stoics as if they lived and bear life because of necessity, here is another passage:

The anima mundi, to whose disposal of his own personal destiny the Stoic consents, is 21664-Palm-Trees-At-The-Beach.jpgthere to be respected and submitted to, but the Christian God is there to be loved; and the difference of emotional atmosphere is like that between an arctic climate and the tropics, though the outcome in the way of accepting actual conditions uncomplainingly may seem in abstract terms to be much the same.

James, William. Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature (p. 45). Kindle Edition.

This last passage finishes in this point of view and explains it finally:

Marcus Aurelius agrees TO the scheme—the German theologian (christian) agrees WITH it. He literally ABOUNDS in agreement, he runs out to embrace the divine decrees.

James, William. Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature (p. 46). Kindle Edition.

So, the main difference between these religious experiences is the excitement to live. He argues that the ancient christian felt ecstatic by life, and that the stoics merely agreed to it, because they felt existence to be a power to yield to and obey.

I would digress here in that the stoics claimed Amor Fati, love of everything that happens, but I do see that William has a point on the differences in exaltation between the christian and stoic writers. Could the stoics learn something about those ancient christian writer, I believe so.

Bought are right, we have to live according to nature, the how is what interests me. This is where the christian writers have something to say.

How can we harness that ancient ability of living as if a fire burned inside ourselves? How can we harness that unreasonable fanatic outrage of will? The power of will ceases to be a necessity in such states, the frenezi of the religious experience takes hold of the person and he acts from a higher state. But, what is that state, how can you achieve it if you are not even religious?

albert-camus-biblioteca_tonaThat is a good question, and also a question of which there is no answers for like I said in the beginning, the religious experience is deeply personal.

What helps? I guess wondering more about yourself and the universe. Practice Amor fati, but really practice it and try to understand it. It’s very easy to say it, it’s extremely difficult to practice it. Maybe you’ll one day discover yourself what Albert Camus said:

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
― Albert Camus

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