Sparta was an ancient Greek-city state famous for its militaristic and disciplined way of life. After watching the movie 300 in 2007 I have always been fascinated with this society as I have written a few papers on Spartan culture throughout school. I used to just see the Spartans as bad a*sses that fought a bunch of Persians while being massively outnumbered, but when thinking deeper about the famous Battle of Thermopylae I realized something.
I realized the value of studying Sparta wasn't only useful for history nerds, military leaders, motivation junkies, or extreme athletes. However, as I read/listen to more books I find the authors referencing Sparta and the Battle of Thermopylae more and more.
How were the Spartans so effective?
People have asked and sought to answer this question over the years. A lot of books and documentaries point out that the disciplined and militaristic upbringing contributed to the success of the Spartans at Thermopylae. But one fact that stood out to me was that all the Spartans fighting in the battle were fathers of living sons. This is overlooked and I didn’t come across this until I listened to the book Courage is Calling by Ryan Holiday.
It was not a coincidence that all the Spartans were fathers as it was a requirement by King Leonidas that every Spartan fighting in the battle must have a living son. The reasoning behind this requirement is debated but nonetheless important to think about considering how brave they fought given they knew what they were up against. There is some evidence of this as Leonidas famously said
Eat your breakfast as if you are to eat your dinner in the other world.
I reflected for a little while about why the requirement of fatherhood stood out to me and I concluded that it shows that each individual had something to fight for. Of course, they were fighting for Sparta and the rest of Greece but the fact they all had living sons made the fight that more purposeful.
In my opinion, fighting for the greater good of Greece wasn’t enough for the Spartans. This is because motivation breaks down once the going gets tough. In contrast, purpose is everlasting. Purpose can sustain throughout challenges and unfairness of life. From a quote I found, Leonidas was asked
Why do the best of men prefer a glorious death over an inglorious life?
Because they believe the one to be Nature's gift but the other to be within their own control.
Leonidas's confidence in this quote could be hinting that the act of doing something challenging becomes bearable or even favorable when we can have a direct connection to it. For the Spartans, it meant holding off the Persians as long as they could for the sake of their children.
What Can We Do to Find Purpose?
For us, we are likely never to face a similar reality but there is something to be taken away, or why write about this. We need to find purpose so we can withstand the various battles we have or inevitably will have. Purposes could be our families, girlfriend/boyfriends, friends, teammates, faith groups, whatever it is just find one.
Sure we can sit there and be our purpose but the reality is we often perform better when others need/want us to. We are more prone to let ourselves down instead of others because we think if we are only hurting ourselves then that's okay. Thus, finding a purpose that's attached to your personal life helps you stay individually grounded and accountable.
The challenges we young people face are nothing like the ones the Spartans did. We aren’t fighting off conquerors or trying to save democracy. Furthermore, our failures won’t result in the deaths of loved ones or even affect our immediate well-being in most cases.
Nonetheless, we have unique challenges the Spartans didn’t have to face. We deal with job change and job loss. We face endless streams of social media content that make us feel inadequate and tempt us to buy anything and everything. We are trying to navigate our “best years” in the middle of a global pandemic but some of us have lost loved ones, have gotten mentally or physically ill, been locked down, and have been financially set back.
Our technological capabilities have made it so that the possibilities of who we want to be and what we want to do are infinite. This is why purpose is more important now than ever. For thousands of years, our individual purposes were linked to immediate needs of survival and early adult humans didn’t have to think about 20 to 30 years into the future.
Lastly, putting off these challenges can feel good in the short term but like everything else, the negative consequences will compound over time.
Think about the people in your life and decide who you want to better yourself for.
"He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how." - Friedrich Nietzche.