I dropped out of the University of Florida in the summer of 1976, to spend the last months before reporting to Parris Island with my parents in Chiavari, Italy. That summer alongside the Mediterranean, I read several books, but a passage in H.D. Kitto's "The Greeks", struck me. I could only dimly remember the words. I had no concept of what lay ahead, but the quote would be prescient. Thirty nine years later, after looking for the book and its passage, I found it.

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Leonidas I

 "No one can say that Sparta was vulgar. Nor would a Spartan have admitted that Sparta was artistically barren. Art, poiesis, is creation, and Sparta created not things in words or stone, but in men."

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At the time, I saw enlisting as killing off my past. I now realize I was just beginning a new phase, organically growing from the previous one. I had already acquired a concept of life as creation from Nietzsche. What I could not then know was how my enlistment would bring out the physical dimension in my self-awareness and how it would then benefit me forty years later. Nothing in my prior 21 years hinted at how my mind and body would embrace physicality. But I did not, even then, see it as a dichotomy with mind. Rather, I realized that it was the foundation upon which health, both physical and mental, rests. We are physical beings.

Sparta and Athens were a dialectic between the artificial distinctions of body and mind. Now, the two city states represent concepts, mental images of abstract ideas. In 400 BC, they were rival empires. Sparta was a hyper-conservative military oligarchy. It bred a population solely dedicated to the preservation of the Spartan way of life, the continuity the political legacy of Lycurgus, and its domination of the peoples surrounding it in the Peloponnese and beyond. Its men were supreme soldiers; it was the dominant military force in Greece. Spartans accurately bragged that Sparta needed no walls. Its men were its protection. Athens was a great naval power and founded the Greek colonies throughout the Mediterranean Sea. In its time, it was the center of trade between the East and the West. As such, it churned with new immigrants, new ideas, new ways of self-governing. The West exists, in part, because of Sparta's dramatic feats on the field of battle against Asian Empires. But we think the way we do because of the Athenians. Out of Athenian churn came the first historian, the first systematic philosophers, the first dramatists. Western medicine, astronomy, science, geometry all came from its incessant creation. Even Western Christianity stems from pagan Athens. Before his conversion, Saint Augustine was a Platonist. From Plato's Forms we get our comprehension of souls, the Spirit, and the Kingdom of Heaven. But all concepts are an illusion that give us the comfort of thinking we understand something beyond us. Thus, we reduce these incredibly complex city states and hundreds of years of history into a simple dialectic.

Sparta was conservative, perhaps. But they were conservative to a tradition that included the only formal education for women in Greece. Women were  educated on a level to equal to men. Like men, they engaged in atheletics and physical training. Their traditonal attire scandalized the rest of Greece. While Athenian women were required to cover head to toe, Spartan women dressed in short gowns notorious for their slit up the leg to allow these athletic women freedom of movement in their active lives. Sparta understood the social value of healthy, independent women as wives, mothers, and Spartans. It was unique in Classical Greece in delaying the female age of marriage until 20, when girls had fully matured and were physically ready for the stresses of childbirth. Women married and divorced, owned their own lands, and ran the city while the men were on the battlefield defending it or training to defend it. This emancipation caused consternation in the Greek city states, but it was a point of pride for Spartan women. When asked by why Spartan women are the only ones who can rule men, Gorgo, wife to Leonidas I, replied: "Because we are also the ones who give birth to men." Because of these healthy lives, Spartan women had the longest life expectancy of Greek women.

 Spartan woman

Spartan woman

Sparta gave the world the tradition of physical training in the nude.

 Discobolus in National Roman Museum Palazzo Massimo alle Terme 90 150

Discobolus in National Roman Museum Palazzo Massimo alle Terme


Spartan men joined and served in military units from age 20 to age 30. Like pre-Empirial Rome, men could not participate in public life until they had served their cities in the phalanx and, later, the legions. They were the most complete expression of "the Warrior Ethos" the Western World has ever produced. 0n their way to battle, wives and mothers would send them off with the expression "Come back with your shield, or on it." The rigorous training bred rigorous living. In her prime Spartans lived lives of simple austerity, believing that lack of luxury and riches would dis-incentivize invaders. When Phillip of Macedon  remarked "If I conquer Sparta, I will raise it", the Laconic reply was "If". Neither Phillip nor his world-conquering son, Alexander ever attacked Sparta. Only the Romans would subdue the city. But in deference to this amazing society, they left it intact. In Roman times Sparta became a tourist attraction, where the increasingly debauched Romans came to admire the tough hardiness of a people who still clung to their Classical ways. 

At Parris Island, they told us that we were training to be warriors. At Officer Candidates' School the told us that we were learning to embrace and mentor the Warrior Ethos. As a recruit, I was struggling to survive a physical and mental ordeal for which my civilian life could not have possibly prepared me. The Marine experience molded my mind, a mind already made receptive by the class I had taken in Stoicism while still a student. As a Candidate, I was already a sergeant. I understood the life of the Marine and also saw the sacrifices a Marine's family makes. I grew envious of the civilian population that created us with their funding and sent us to fight seemingly mindless wars while they worried about who would win the next Super Bowl or World Series. While my mind had embraced the Marine's Warrior Ethos, I longed for the life of civilian indulgence and privilege that I could see mainstream America living. I resented the price my family was paying.

Though I did not realize it, the the Marine Corps combined with my studies in classical philosophy to change me. Most superficially, I came to realize that my biggest failures came when I made choices out of fear: to avoid something I perceived as a negative consequence. Into this category fell decisions like not taking class because I was afraid of not doing well in it or a duty assignment because I thought it might be too rough. All my successes came from choosing the harder path. The choice of Marine Corps over the other branches landed me into the one service that strives to build new men out of the citizens that came to its gates, to adopt the Warrior Ethos. When the time came, choosing to leave the certainties of being a Marine officer in pursuit of acceptance into an electrical engineering program at  U.F. was certainly the harder path. My family and I benefited from the results of that choice for the rest of our lives. These experiences taught me a lesson for a lifetime: always chose the harder path. I was learning from life what I only half learned in the Corps. Choosing the harder path is a component of the Warrior Ethos.

The Corps taught us that the society which we protect is very different from the culture of Marines. One obvious symptom of this difference is our physical well being. Health and nutrition scientists call the society we live in obesogenic. We are surrounded by information and advertising channels that offer ways to more completely indulge ourselves, in either lack of exercise or self-indulgent eating. Our bodies, minds, and health suffer the consequences. This sloth and over-consumption was first legitimized in our middle class, mercantile minds by the words "the pursuit of happiness" and, now, more manipulatively and cynically, by "you deserve a break today". Self-indulgence permeates most of what we do. We think nothing of idling our cars for a quarter of an hour to avoid feeling slightly cold, of circling a parking lot endlessly to avoid a walk of a few extra yards, of lounging for hours in over-designed armchairs watching television while we unconsciously stuff ourselves with all manner processed foods that had been engineered to be addictive. We wake in environmentally controlled homes, commute in environmentally controlled cars to environmentally controlled offices and shopping malls, spending our lives as comfortable as possible. As the decades pass, our minds and bodies reflect the lives we lead. We come to believe that the way we live is normal, even healthy. As we get fatter and more addled, not only do we forget the abilities of which our bodies are capable, we come to believe that the obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, dementia, and growing frailty are the natural result of aging. We tell ourselves that there are easily procured medications to make the results of a lifetime of sloth and gluttony go away. We validate this decline with a daily dose of advertising telling us that this way of life is healthy and that small pills will make us better. But the truth is that the pills come with side effects, often worse than what they are meant to control. Their net effect is often to accelerate the decline. Humans decay when they are comfortable.

 We choose to be what we are. Our bodies and minds are the cumulative representations of these choices. As we age, the results of our choices become more manifest. I cannot believe that there is any value or honor in succumbing to the indulgences and pressures to chose the easier path. Obviously, it is unnatural and unhealthy. But its also lacks honor. We create value in ourselves when we press our minds to wrap around a previously unknown concept, understand it, and make it our own. We create value when we strain against an inexorable weight to push it off our chest; when we reach for that inner strength to push our bodies one more mile. We create value in ourselves when we build the discipline to consistently strive over a lifetime to sharpen our mind and strengthen our body. To create value in ourselves in this obesogenic society is to embrace the Warrior Ethos. We choose hardness, discipline, and the challenge of stress because it makes us better people and better people contribute more to the society, city state, or nation in which we live.

The by product of this stress manifests as beauty, in mind and body. These are the characteristics we admire in youth and that youth relishes. But they are timeless.

 Diana and a Hound National Gallery of Art

Diana and Hound at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.