November 12, 2007

What one is

Two weeks of (happily) blogging-free travel -- some 3500 km driving, another 1000 km by train, to the northern reaches of the country and back. Plenty to write about, here and elsewhere; plenty too that has happened in the meantime around us all. I hope to catch up soon, at any rate before the next bout of travel beginning mid-December ...

Meanwhile, here's something to get this space started again.

Partly because I was asked to speak about Leonidas and Thermopylae to a set of 12-year-olds (see Burning inside), I just re-read Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. This is a narration of the story of Thermopylae by a Greek survivor, Xeo, to the Persian King Xerxes. And yes, there's plenty in the book that made me think.

These few lines from near the end moved me, and I thought you would like to read them too.

(The setting: this is on the third morning of the battle, when the last few hundred surviving Spartans prepare to face the tens of thousands of the Persian enemy, fully aware that they are about to be slaughtered.)
    I will tell His Majesty what a king is. A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men's loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them. He serves them, not they him.

    In the final moments before the actual commencement of the battle, when the lines of Persians and Medes and Sacae, the Bactrians and Illyrians, Egyptians and Macedonians, lay so close across from the defenders that their individual faces could be seen, Leonidas moved along the Spartan and Thespian foreranks, speaking with each platoon commander individually. When he stopped besides Dienekes, I was close enough to hear his words.

    "Do you hate them, Dienekes?" the king asked in the tone of a comrade, unhurried, conversational, gesturing to those captains and officers of the Persians proximately visible across the no-man's-land.

    Dienekes answered at once that he did not. "I see faces of gentle and noble bearing. More than a few, I think, whom one would welcome with a clap and a laugh to any table of friends."

    Leonidas clearly approved [Dienekes'] answer. His eyes, however, darkened with sorrow.

    "I am sorry for them," he avowed, indicating the valiant foemen who stood so proximately across. "What wouldn't they give, the noblest among them, to stand here with us now?"

    That is a king, Your Majesty. A king does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example makes them free.

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