Thermopylae – a poem on the good kind of life

Came across this poem by Constantine P. Cavafy (translated from Greek by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard) and found that it seems to say almost everything I want to say about the kind of life I want to lead. Given that I’ve a particular weakness for Classical references, this poem fulfills that while also saying much in its brevity and reminds us about the need to stick to one’s guns and to live a life that’s meaningful and principled.

Thermopylae
Honor to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they’re rich, and when they’re poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.
And even more honor is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that Ephialtis will turn up in the end,
that the Medes will break through after all.
Constantine P. Cavafy

The poem commemorates the famous battle of Thermopylae where the 300 Spartans and their allies stood their ground against the overwhelming numbers of Persians and through that, bought enough time for Sparta and the rest of the Greek states to muster a proper defence. Made even more famous recently by the movie 300 (which was spectacular but historically quite inaccurate – couldn’t resist that reference), the battle of Thermopylae reminds us of honour, loyalty and all the good things that a soldier should be. Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori and all that sort of thing. Couldn’t resist that either.

The poem beautifully takes us away from the battleground and shows us a bunch of ideas that we should live by – being constant to the principle of rightness, being compassionate and generous no matter our circumstance and being truthful in all that we do. It even brings in some nice non-judgemental ideas of not hating those who do not live by the same principles or who wrong us for we should not begrudge them their own perspectives on life either. I’m tempted to, in my biased opinion, declare how Christian the virtues are but also realise that these are virtues that are highly humanistic in nature and lie at the heart of all the major religions. Cavafy has given us a set of guides on how to lead a truly virtuous life.

The final four lines are a tad disturbing, telling us that for all that we do, there will be setbacks and the potential for failure. Ephiatis was the goatherd who betrayed the Spartans by leading the Persians through an old trail which allowed the latter to encircle and outflank the defenders, leading to their ultimate defeat at the hands of the Persians and their allies the Medes. What he says is that while we do realise that we will encounter setbacks and defeats, we fight on anyway and prepare for them because it is part of our duty to do so.

I was pleasantly surprised to find something as powerful and inspiring as this coming out of a martial situation like Thermopylae but everything’s possible in the literary world. We all have our Thermopylaes but we all will resist and soldier on as the Spartans do. Why? Because we can and we choose to.

Jacques-Louis David. Leonidas at Thermopylae. 1814. Oil on canvas. 395 x 531 cm. Louvre, Paris, France.

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9 Responses to “Thermopylae – a poem on the good kind of life”


  1. 1 wa'hpn 30 June 2008 at 8:38 08

    Stan, so what is YOUR Thermopylae?

  2. 2 gymstan 3 July 2008 at 1:43 01

    Been thinking about this quite a bit and am still trying to figure out what that is. For a start, I think living the good life in itself, not giving in to distractions and temptations and defending one’s principles against all sorts of assaults of modern living can count as a Thermopylae of sorts.

  3. 3 HL 3 July 2008 at 5:34 05

    Doesn’t this also remind you of the “Matrix” quote that I had on my whiteboard? – “Why do you do it?” We do it because we believe that it is worth it. ( Believe is a powerful motivation…ermm not “be flower”)

  4. 4 gymstan 30 July 2008 at 3:28 03

    I guess sometimes we do live not quite knowing what our Thermopylaes are – that can be scary as we could be fighting blind without realising why we do it. I believe in the principles that I live by and stand by it even at the risk of seeming odd. Maybe that’s why I’m a little odd…

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about the brushhead

had a head like a brush (it's more like an egg now). seeks to sweep through thought and faith with that brush. tries to wax philosophical but often forgets to wax off. trying to be good brush to all, while discerning what kind of brush he's meant to be.

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