The Courage of the Spartans
Monthly virtue talk given to the St. Timothy's students on April 29, 2020, during daily (Zoom) chapel, by Rev. Luke Thompson (St. Timothy's parent)
Spartan Army at War, by Andrea Mazzocchetti
Do you know why you’re learning Latin, and if you keep up a good classical education, you’ll learn Greek? Why not Mandarin Chinese or Arabic, or the language of other great ancient empires, like Persian? The reason you’re going to learn Latin and Greek and not another language is because of courage: the courage of one of the world’s greatest warriors, and his 300 fellow soldiers. Let me tell you how the courage of a few has shaped all of history, including you. The Greek historian, Herodotus, tells of how King Xerxes of the Persians brought his huge army over to invade Greece. And his army was massive, ten times larger than the armies of the small Greek city-states. And on top of this, Greece was not prepared and ready to fight. But if a small force could delay the Persians, the Greeks would have time to get prepared. And so King Leonidas of the Greek city, Sparta, with only 300 of his Spartan soldiers, plus a few thousand other Greeks, volunteered. For Xerxes to get into Greece, his army would have to go through a very narrow pass through mountains and sea-side cliffs. And so in one of these passes, which at parts was only wide enough for a few soldiers to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, Leonidas and his 300 Spartans took a stand against tens of thousands of Xerxes’ soldiers. Xerxes sent out scouts to observe his enemy, and the scouts reported that the Spartans weren’t getting ready for a fight, but were doing exercises and combing their hair. Herodotus tells us Xerxes believed that the Spartans were reckless, thinking they could take on such large forces. And so Xerxes thought defeating them would be easy. Finally Xerxes sent his men to attack, and they found the Spartans unbelievably skilled and brave. Xerxes’ army was easily defeated with huge losses of life. Herodotus writes, “In this way it became clear to all, and especially to the king [Xerxes], that though he had plenty of combatants, he had but very few warriors.” Xerxes then sent his greatest soldiers against the Spartans, called “the immortals,” but they were utterly defeated. Wave after wave, for three days, Xerxes’ huge army could not overcome this small Greek force led by Leonidas and his brave 300. Eventually, a Greek shepherd named Ephialtes showed the Persians a secret path around the Spartans. When Leonidas heard of the treachery and that they would soon be surrounded, he sent home all the soldiers except for his remaining 300 Spartans plus some brave Thespians. And even with so few left, surrounded, weapons and shields broken, the bravery of the Spartans and Thespians was so fierce the Persians had to use whips to drive their own soldiers into battle. All Spartans and Thespians perished, including Brave King Leonidas.
In Between Cowardice and Recklessness
What about the Stand of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae makes it such a powerful example of bravery for people all over the world and throughout all of human history? Well, bravery means not being afraid, right? Not being a coward. So Leonidas was brave in that he was willing to lead his soldiers against an army much larger than his own. So, on the one hand, being courageous means not being afraid. But do you remember what Xerxes called the Spartans? Reckless: someone who is reckless fears nothing, and so they do really stupid things. If you’re reckless, you run into the street without looking. If you’re reckless, you go where your parents tell you is too dangerous. Doing those kinds of things aren’t brave, but the opposite: reckless. Aristotle calls a reckless person crazy. And the Spartans seemed kind of crazy. Right before one of the attacks, a Greek was telling a Spartan that there were so many Persian archers that when they all fired their arrows together, the arrows would be so thick in the sky, it would completely cover the sun. And do you know what the Spartan said back? “This Greek brings good news! We will get to fight in the shade!” That seems like a crazy response. Were the Spartans reckless? After all, they got themselves killed! Do you remember why Leonidas went to fight the armies of Xerxes with so few soldiers? They were trying to delay Xerxes long enough for the rest of the Greeks to get ready. And so the goal was not to defeat Xerxes, but for 300 soldiers to stop an army a hundred times greater for just a few days. And somehow the 300 Spartans did what no one else could have. It was self-sacrifice that mattered. And because of the delay, Greece did have time to prepare, and they did stop the Persians. And that is why you are learning Latin and someday Greek and not Persian. And only the Spartans with their training could do it. In between cowardice and recklessness is true courage, where you know yourself, what you are capable of, what needs to be done, and you do not shrink, but you act.
And this in-between-extremes courage is found not only on the battlefield. We can find it even in the midst of a rampant disease. Some two thousand years after Leonidas’s courageous death, in the 1300s, a deadly plague wiped out half the European population. Around 200 years later, in 1527, another plague re-emerged in the midst of the Protestant Reformation. And the reformer Martin Luther was asked: Is it okay to run away and flee the plague? And Luther responded in a very interesting way. He said the correct path is a middle way between two extremes. He said to imagine you’re walking on a road, with a ditch on both sides. If you run from the plague, and you do not stay to help your neighbours get through the plague, he writes, “we would fall off ‘the narrow way’ on the left side.” But he went on and said, “There are other sins we can fall into on the right side. These would be acting much too rashly and recklessly, tempting God and disregarding everything which might prevent death and the plague. This would mean not using medicines; not avoiding places and persons infected by the disease; joking about it and wishing to show that one is not afraid of it. This is not trusting God but tempting him. God has created medicines and provided us with intelligence to guard and take good care of our bodies so that we can live in good health. Use medicine,… keep away from persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help.” So do you see the two extremes when it comes to living in the midst of a plague or pandemic? One extreme is to be a coward that runs away and has no desire to help anyone. The other extreme is, in Luther’s words, acting rashly and recklessly: not using the brain God has given you, disregarding medicine, and aiding the spread of the disease in your recklessness.
Being a Child of God
So, courage is in the middle of being a coward and being a reckless idiot. It’s knowing the situation and who you are in the situation. So, here’s the question: do you know the situation and who you are in the situation? This process of knowing who you are begins first with knowing who God is and who you are to God. Because there are certain truths about God which you can draw on for courage in any situation. Do you know the promises God has given you to draw your valour and bravery from? He calls you to be smart, to recognize danger and treat it as danger. Because Jesus promises life will be dangerous: Jesus promises there will painful times and hard times. But God also says, he will never leave you or forsake you and he is working all things out for your good. He promises that no one can snatch you out of your Good Shepherd’s hand. So no matter who you face, no matter how great the danger, the God of the universe in control of all things is with you. But why would God never leave or forsake you? Why would God work all things out for the good of you? After all there’s plenty of times you’ve been a coward or you’ve been reckless. Why should God still stick by your side? Because you are his child. You are a precious child of God, bought by the blood of Christ. That also means that when you’ve been a coward, or have been too reckless, you’re still a child of God, because all those sins have been forgiven through Jesus, and through faith, you know it. That’s really knowing who you are, and that frees us to be braver than a Spartan facing innumerable odds, braver than a Leonidas. It frees us to be brave and calm in the middle of a pandemic. So go ahead and be courageous. Be smart, but not a coward. Be bold, but not reckless. Be who you are in God’s eyes. Be courageous.