February 13, 2005

Poor soup

This is a short passage from a novel I'm reading, Steven Pressfield's Tides of War. It is about the Peloponnesian war of the 5th Century BC: the internecine fighting between Athens and Sparta, with other Greek city-states lined up on either side, that dragged on for years and ended with Athens destroyed.

It is also about the pre-eminent Greek of the times, and therefore the most famous man in the world Greeks knew: Alcibiades. Brilliant, charismatic, handsome and maddening, Alcibiades was at once the saviour of Athens and its ruin, adored and hated in equal measure across Greece.

This passage is narrated by a man who knew and fought with Alcibiades, Polemides ("Pommo"). He and his brother, Lion, are with another warrior called Telamon, waiting for fighting to begin in the ultimately disastrous Athenian campaign against Syracuse, in Sicily.

Of course this is fiction, a modern writer's imaginary reconstruction of times 2500 years ago. But this passage left me thinking about many things. The nature of the man Alcibiades, but a lot more besides. With no more ado:


The topic was heroism. Was the valour of men in mass as worthy of note as the solitary champion?

"We have a proverb in my country," Telamon declared:

    "Heroism makes good song but poor soup.

This means steer wide of champions. Passion is their coin. Lion has chosen his hero well in Alcibiades, for this creature breathes passion and arouses it. He will end badly." ...

"Are you saying, Telamon, that heroism has no place for you, a professional soldier?"

"Heroes are recognized by their tombs."

At this I protested. Telamon himself was a hero!

"You confound prudence with valour, Pommo. If I fight up front, it's because I find it safer. And if I fight to win, well ... the dead line up before no paymaster."

Telamon had said all he wished; he stood to depart. Lion pressed. "What about pay, my friend? Surely you feel passion for this."

"I use money but never permit money to use me. To serve for pay sets a man at a remove from his or his commander's desire. This is money's proper use; it renders service in its name a virtue. Love of country or glory, on the other hand, unites one to the object of one's desire. This makes it a vice. The patriot and the fool serve without pay."

"The patriot because he loves his country," proposed Lion.

"Because he loves himself. For what is a man's country but the multiplied reflection of himself, and what is this but vanity? Again your choice of champion is surpassing, my friend, for who of all men loves himself more than Alcibiades? And who more personifies love of country?"

"And is love of country a vice?"

"Less a vice than a folly. But then all love is folly, if by love one means that which one clasps to one's heart, rendering no distinction between it and oneself."

"Then Alcibiades by your measure is a slave to Athens?"

"None surpasses him in abjection."

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