What causes one culture to flourish while another flounders?
Why do some civilizations reach great heights only to fall mightily?
Historians have dedicated great tomes to these questions. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West are two prime examples of this line of inquiry.
But another can be found not in a work of non-fiction, but that of historical fiction. In Tides of War, author Stephen Pressfield provides a fictionalized account of one of the greatest conflicts in history — the Peloponnesian War — fought between two of the West’s greatest civilizations: Athens and Sparta.
While Tides of War is a work of historical fiction, Pressfield went to great lengths to maintain the integrity of the actual events described, relying on primary sources from Thucydides and other Greek historians. He also worked to capture the ethos of the time, and the men who inhabited it.
Peppered in between Pressfield’s thumos–inspiring depictions of battle, are penetrating deductions about the cultural forces going on behind the scenes — the differences between the warring parties’ mindsets and principles, and how these differences led to mighty, imperialistic Athens falling to modest, republican Sparta.
While the decline of a civilization is often chalked up to economics or politics, Pressfield theorizes that Athens deteriorated because one particular aspect of its individual and national character degraded, and another was substituted in its place.
Sparta and Athens: A Tale of Two City-StatesDespite living in close proximity with one another (the cities were only about 150 miles apart) and sharing the same gods, the Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta were more different than alike. While Sparta was more communal (some would even say fascist), Athens celebrated individual liberty and freedom. While Sparta disdained wealth and luxury (going as far as outlawing money), Athens was a commercial empire. While Sparta’s military might lay in their fierce and indomitable army, Athens ruled the seas with their navy. Sparta was content with remaining a small and independent city-state; Athens was much more imperialistic — ever seeking to expand its influence politically, economically, and culturally.
The Spartans valued things like poetry, music, and philosophy more than is popularly believed, but such pursuits were decidedly subsumed by an emphasis on military training. This focus created one of the most effective, disciplined, and fearless armies in the world. Athens, on the other hand, celebrated art and philosophy as the pinnacle of human flourishing, and produced aesthetic masterpieces along with many of the most influential thinkers and philosophers in Western history, including Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Athens and Sparta differed politically as well. Sparta maintained a democratic system with a balanced constitution that divided power among three groups. A system of checks and balances prevented any one group from gaining too much power. Athenians, on the other hand, governed themselves under a radical democracy in which every male citizen was expected to participate.
While Sparta and Athens banded together for the sake of Greek freedom during the Persian War, they were reluctant allies. Each had long kept a suspicious watch on the other. Spartans were particularly wary of the Athenians’ increasing imperialism, believing it was only a matter of time before they would try to conquer their slice of the Greek peninsula. It was exactly that fear which led to the thirty-year Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Though the decades-long conflict would decimate the power and strength of both city-states, Sparta emerged the victor.
While both Sparta and Athens had their particular strengths and weaknesses, by the time of the Peloponnesian War, the latter had forgotten the apothegm attributed to their mythological law-giver Solon: “Nothing in excess.” Athenian virtues and ideals were taken to such extremes that they became vices. Love of individual liberty and expression degenerated into narcissistic, hyper-individualism; robust commercial enterprise morphed into unhinged avarice; hardiness and restraint were replaced with softness and debauchery; active and healthy democracy devolved into mob rule and demagoguery.
Even the great philosophers of Athens — Socrates and Plato — became increasingly critical of Athenian degradation, contrasting the discipline and virtue of the Spartans with the civic and moral decay of their fellow citizens. They looked on with dismay as a once thriving culture was slowly eaten by the cancer of decadence.
Spartan Bravery and the Difference Between Courage and BoldnessWhat was the core difference between Athens and Sparta, then? We’ve dissected external differences between the city states, but was there a deeper, foundational quality that the Spartans maintained, and Athenians lacked, that led to the latter’s decline and ultimate defeat?
In Tides of War, Pressfield uses the Spartan naval admiral Lysander to give answer to this question. In perhaps the most stirring scene in the book, Lysander stands before thousands of Spartans and their allies in the lead-up to the Battle of Notium and gives them a rousing speech. In it, he lays out the differences between Athens and Sparta and makes the case for why the Spartan way of life is superior, and why, in the end, his men will prevail.
For Lysander, the heart of what separates Spartans from Athenians is this:
“We, Spartans and Peloponnesians, possess courage.Andreia, or courage, was the dominating quality of the Spartans; thrasytes, or boldness, was the dominating quality of the Athenians.
Our enemies possess boldness.
They own thrasytes, we andreia.
Pay attention, brothers. Here is a profound and irreconcilable division.”
For the Greeks, the word andreia meant both courage and manliness. Courage was the sine qua non of being a mature man; the two qualities were inextricably intertwined.
Thrasytes, on the other hand, was more of a boyish trait.
“The bold man is prideful, brazen, ambitious,” Lysander explained. “The brave man calm, God-fearing, steady.”
While Lysander set up a stark dichotomy between boldness and courage, acting with the former can occasionally be useful even for a grown man; sometimes impulsive, even reckless action is needed to seize a fleeting opportunity.
But where boldness exists, it must always be coupled and harnessed with courage; courage must be the prevailing quality of a man’s character.
In his speech, Lysander elucidates the difference between men who primarily act from boldness, and those who primarily act from courage, and details “what kind of man these conflicting qualities produce.”
Below I highlight Lysander’s words from Tides of War, and explore how they applied both to the Spartans, and equally well to men today: