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On Fear

"All my life," Dienekes began, "one question has haunted me. What is the opposite of fear? To call it aphobia, fearlessness, is without meaning. This is just a name, thesis expressed as antithesis. To call the opposite of fear fearlessness is to say nothing. I want to know its true obverse, as day of night and heaven of earth.”

"Expressed as a positive," Ariston ventured.

"Exactly!" Dienekes met the young man’s eyes in approval. He paused to study both youths’ expressions. Would they listen? Did they care? Were they, like him, true students of this subject?

"How does one conquer fear of death, that most primordial of terrors, which resides in our very blood, as in all life, beasts as well as men?" He indicated the hounds flanking Suicide. "Dogs in a pack find courage to take on a lion. Each hound knows his place. He fears the dog ranked above and feeds off the fear of the dog below. Fear conquers fear. This is how we Spartans do it, counterpoising to fear of death a greater fear: that of dishonor. Of exclusion from the pack."

Suicide took this moment to toss several scraps to the dogs. Furiously their jaws snapped these remnants from the turf, the stronger of the two seizing the lion’s share.

Dienekes smiled darkly.

"But is that courage? Is not acting out of fear of dishonor still, in essence, acting out of fear"?

Alexandros asked what he was seeking.

"Something nobler. A higher form of the mystery. Pure. Infallible."

He declared that in all other questions one may look for wisdom to the gods. “But not in matters of courage. What have the immortals to teach us? They cannot die. Their spirits are not housed as ours in this.” Here he indicated the body, the flesh. “The factory of fear.”

Dienekes glanced again to Suicide, then back to Alexandros, Ariston and me. “You young men imagine that we veterans, with our long experience of war, have mastered fear. But we feel it as keenly as you. More keenly, for we have more intimate experience of it. Fear lives within us twenty-four hours a day, in our sinews and our bones. Do i speak the truth, my friend?”

Suicide grinned darkly in reply. 

My master grinned back. “We cobble our courage together on the spot, of rags and remnants. The main we summon out of that which is base. Fear of disgracing the city, the king, the heroes of our lines. Fear of proving ourselves unworthy of our wives and children, our brothers, our comrades-in-arms. For myself I know all the tricks of the breath and of song, the pillars of the tetrathesis, the teachings of the phobologia. I know how to close with my man, how to convince myself that his terror is greater than my own. Perhaps it is. I employ care for the men-at arms serving beneath me and seek to forget my own fear in concern for their survival. But it’s always there. The closest I’ve come is to act despite terror. But that’s not it either. Not the kind of courage I’m talking about. Nor is beastlike fury or panic-spawned self-preservation. These are katalepsis, possession. A rat owns as much of them as a man.” 

He observed that often thoser who seek to overcome fear of death preach that the sould does not expire with the body. “To my mind this is fatuousness. Wishful thinking. Others, barbarians primarily, say that when we die we pass on to paradise. I ask them all: if you really believe this, why not make away with yourself at once and speed up the trip?

"Achilles, Homer tells us, possessed true andreia. But did he? Scion of an immortal mother, dipped as a babe in the waters of Styx, knowing himself to be save his heel invulnerable? Cowards would be rarer than feathers on fish if we all knew that.”

Alexandros inquired if any of the city, in Dienekes’ opinion, possessed this true andreia

"Of all in Lakedaemon, our friend Polynikes comes closest. But even his valor I find unsatisfactory. He fights not out of fear of dishonor, but greed for glory. This may be noble, or at least unbase, but is it true andreia?”

Ariston asked if this higher courage in fact existed.

"It is no phantom," Dienekes declared with conviction. "I have seen it. My brother Iatrokles possessed it in moments. When I beheld its grace upon him, I stood in awe. It radiated, sublime. In those hours he fought not like a man but a god. Leonidas has it on occasion. Olympeius doesn’t. I don’t. None of us here does." He smiled. "Do you know who owns it, this pure form of courage, more than any other I have known?"

None around the fire answered.

"My wife," Dienekes said. He turned to Alexandros. “And your mother, the lady Paraleia.” He smiled again. “There is a clue here. The seat of this higher valor, I suspect, lies in that which is female. The words themselves for courage, andreia and aphobia, are female, whereas phobos and tromos, terror, are masculine. Perhaps the god we seek is not a god at all, but a goddess. I don’t know.”

…”I was thinking of women’s courage. I believe it is different from men’s.” 

The youth hesitated. Perhaps, his expression clearly bespoke, it smacked of immodesty or presumptuousness to speculate upon matters of which he possessed no experience.

Dienekes pressed him nonetheless. “Different, how?”

Ariston glanced to Alexandros, who with a grin reinforced his friend’s resolve. The youth took a breath and began: “Man’s courage, to give his life for his country, is great but unextraordinary. Is it not intrinsic to the nature of the male, beasts as well as men, to fight and to contend? It’s what we were born to do, it’s in our blood. Watch any boy. Before he can even speak, he reaches, impelled by instinct, for the staff and the sword—while his sisters unprompted shun these implements of contention and instead cuddle to their bosom the kitten and the doll

"What is more natural to a man than to fight, or a woman to love? Is this not the imperative of a mother’s blood, to give and to nurture, above all the produce of her own womb, the children she has borne in pain? W know that a lioness or she-wolf will cast away her life without hesitation to preserve her cubs or pups. Women the same. Now consider, friends, that which we call women’s courage:

"What could be more contrary to female nature, to motherhood, than to stand unmoved and unmoving as her sons march off to death? Must not every sinew of the mother’s flesh call out in agony and affront at such an outrage? Must not her heart seek to cry in its passion, ‘No! Not my son! Spare him!’ That women, from some source unknown to us, summon the will to conquer this their own deepest nature is, I believe, the reason we stand in awe of our mothers and sisters and wives. This, I believe, Dienekes, is the essence of women’s courage and why it, as you suggested, is superior to men’s."

My master acknowledged these observations with approval. At his side Alexandros shifted, however. You could see the young man was not satisfied.

"What you say is true, Ariston. I had never thought of it in that way before. Yet something must be added. If women’s victory were simply to stand dry-eyed as their sons march off to death, this would not alone be unnatural, but inhuman, grotesque and even monstrous. What elevates such an act to the stature of nobility is, I believe, that it is performed in the service of a higher and more selfless cause.

"These women of whom we stand in awe donate their sons’ lives to their country, to the people as a whole, that the nation may survive even as their own dear children perish. Like the mother whose story we have heard from childhood who, on learning that all five of her sons had been killed in the same battle, asked only, ‘Was our nation victorious?’ and, being told that it was, turned for home without a tear, saying only, ‘Then I am happy.’ Is it not this element—the nobility of setting the whole above the part—that moves us about women’s sacrifice?"

-taken from Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire

  1. virtueisknowledge posted this