Three Ancient Greek Texts for the Warrior-Philosopher

Within the vast surviving body of ancient Greek texts, the philosopher-warrior can find a wealth of knowledge on the art of war and self-initiation through philosophy. Since the Greeks are not known to have written manuals or how-to books, but intentionally veiled their secrets and truths across multiple texts, I have carefully selected three that when put together meaningfully contribute towards both the warrior and the philosophical path. In approaching this vast topic, I categorized the material not in a chronological, but in a dramatic order. This order also follows the Platonic thought of the three parts of the human soul (appetite, spirit and reason), with the aim to cultivate the corresponding virtues (temperance, courage, and wisdom) and for the mutual harmony between soul and body.

The first text that I suggest, Xenophon’s Constitution of the Spartans, draws from the history of the ancient Spartans, a legendary empire and masters of warfare. This is followed by Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, a biography of Alexander the Great that provides important insight on how to cultivate the spirited part of the soul. Alexander represents an ideal archetype of the warrior-philosopher-king who has mastered the ability to control his drive and emotions at the highest possible level. Finally, the third text, Heraclitus’ Fragments, inspires an inward journey towards self-knowledge and wisdom. It is my hope that the suggestions below will offer the inspiration and sources needed for further study and contemplation of the matter at hand.

Lacedaimonion Politeia (Constitution of the Spartans) by Xenophon

It occurred to me one day that Sparta, though among the most thinly populated of states, was evidently the most powerful and most celebrated city in Greece; and I fell to wondering how this could have happened. But when I considered the institutions of the Spartans, I wondered no longer. Lycurgus, who gave them the laws that they obey, and to which they owe their prosperity, I do regard with wonder; and I think that he reached the utmost limit of wisdom. For it was not by imitating other states, but by devising a system utterly different from that of most others, that he made his country pre-eminently prosperous.[1]

This powerful description of the Spartans is how the ancient Greek historian, philosopher, and soldier Xenophon (430—354 BCE) opens his Politeia. For those not familiar, politeia can be defined as the “condition and rights of a citizen” or simply citizenship. Xenophon was in the rare position of being a pupil of the philosopher Socrates and a contemporary of Plato. He was also an Athenian who fought for the side of Sparta during the Persian-Spartan war (400-387 BCE) next to the general Agesilaus[2]. His Lacedaimonion Politeia provides valuable historical accounts on the institutions of ancient Sparta and delivers an intimate view of the life and disciplines of its citizens and their infamous military elite. Xenophon openly shows his admiration for Sparta and summarizes the various elements that made the city and its citizens so successful. Through his text, the reader will be initiated into the way of life of the Spartans, learning from their multifaceted discipline while exploring several values at once, and how they relate to the philosopher-warrior’s path. The value of learning obedience at a young age, the importance of friendship, and the significance of attaining enormous physical dexterity are just some of the topics explored. Xenophon also accentuates the importance of a virtuous life, especially in regards to the virtue of courage in battle. All these qualities are at the heart of the Spartan’s life, intrinsically connected to their history as an empire, and in simple terms, the stuff of legend.

Life of Alexander by Plutarch

Plutarch’s Life of Alexander belongs to his Parallel Lives biography series. A Greek biographer from Chaeronea (a city 50 miles east of Delphi), Plutarch (46 –120 ACE) was a renowned Platonist and also held the position of priest at Delphi for nearly the last thirty years of his life. He also had access to a vast collection of rare texts, making his writings an invaluable source of information. Life of Alexander paints an intimate portrait of Alexander the Great, highlighting his strengths and limitations. While Alexander is known as one of the greatest military minds of all time, he was also a skilled healer, a pupil of the philosopher Aristotle, as well as an initiate of the Orphic mysteries and those of the Great Gods of Samothrace (Cabeiric mysteries). These elements make Alexander one of the best examples of a true warrior-philosopher, worthy of admiration and serious examination. In his biography, Plutarch gives great emphasis to Alexander’s education and training as a young boy, and to what extent that education influenced the enormous drive and desires that shaped his behavior later in life. Two of the most important elements of Alexander’s character that Plutarch accentuates are his many virtues as a leader and soldier in battle, matched only by his unusual degree of self-control. Plutarch describes how Alexander demonstrated enormous wisdom, respect, and restraint in his treatment of Darius’ family who became his captives after the Battle of Gaugamela (331 BCE):

For he gave them leave to bury whom they pleased of the Persians, and to make use for this purpose of what garments and furniture they thought fit out of the booty. He diminished nothing of their equipage, or of the attentions and respect formerly paid them, and allowed larger pensions for their maintenance than they had before. But the noblest and most royal part of their usage was, that he treated these illustrious prisoners according to their virtue and character, not suffering them to hear, or receive, or so much as to apprehend anything that was unbecoming.[3] 

Even though Alexander could be a formidable enemy and a ferocious warrior, he always carried his education with him, and through his character demonstrated his undying admiration for virtue.

Fragments by Heraclitus

A central aspect in the life of anyone who wants to progress and master a martial art, a musical instrument, or any other worthy craft, is to take control of the mind and use it as a well-driven chariot for meaningful living and expression through that craft. The importance of the above idea is also stressed by the philosopher Plato in Book IV of the Republic: “And ought not the rational principle, which is wise, and has the care of the whole soul, to rule, and the passionate or spirited principle to be the subject and ally?”[4] Some of the most powerful and creative ideas that can assist the seeker in achieving this great task can be found in the collected Fragments of the philosopher Heraclitus. Heraclitus (540 – 480 BCE) was a Greek philosopher from Ephesus (Asia Minor) who “propounded a distinctive theory which he expressed in oracular language. He is best known for his doctrines that things are constantly changing (universal flux), that opposites coincide (unity of opposites), and that fire is the basic material of the world.”[5] Fire, in the philosophy of Heraclitus, besides being a natural element, is also equated with Logos, the medium that unites the soul with the mind. In addition, another important and original idea in his system is his view of war as a creative necessity. For Heraclitus, War was a creative cosmic force presiding as a king on a throne ruling the whole cosmos. At the same time, war meant struggle, philosophically and literary:   “War is the father of all and king of all, who manifested some as gods and some as men, who made some slaves and some freemen.”[6]

Even though it can be difficult to decipher Heraclitus due to his oracular language, it is that kind of struggle to understand his ideas that will create the conditions in the mind of the philosopher-warrior to do the necessary inner work, ruled and guided by reason.

Through the study of these texts, one can find many valuable elements to enhance one’s craft. Some of the benefits of seeking knowledge and wisdom through history and philosophy are the catharsis of the soul through inner dialectics, a higher ability for problem solving through reason, and the building of a virtuous character. In conclusion, I hope to have shared a meaningful way to approach these ancient texts that carry within them the seeds of wisdom and inspiration for furthering the path of the philosopher-warrior in a systematic way.

References:

Browning, Eve A. “Xenophon.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2018. <https://www.iep.utm.edu/xenophon/>.

Dryden, John, Trans. “Alexander by Plutarch.” The Internet Classics Archive, Daniel C.    Stevenson, <http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/alexandr.html>.

Graham, Daniel W. “Heraclitus.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Feb 8, 2017.

< https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/>

Graham, Daniel W. “Heraclitus.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 10 Mar. 2018. <https://www.iep.utm.edu/heraclit/>.

Jowett, Benjamin, Trans. “The Republic by Plato.” The Internet Classics Archive, Daniel C.             Stevenson, <classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.5.iv.html>. Accessed 11 Mar. 2018.

Rickard, J (7 December 2015), Agesilaus II, king of Sparta, c.444-360 BC,   <http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_agesilaus_III_sparta.html>

“Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians.” Translated by E.C. Marchant and G.W.             Bowerstock, Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaimonians, chapter 1, Perseus,    <          http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0210%3Ate    xt%3DConst.+Lac.%3Achapter%3D1>.

[1] Marchant & Bowerstock

[2] Rickard

[3] Dryden

[4] Jowett

[5] Graham, 2017

[6] Graham, 2018

Tony Crisos is a guitarist, educator, philosopher, and esoteric arts practitioner, born in Greece and now living in the USA.

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