Inner & Outer Battles: Steven Pressfield’s Warrior Ethos

A Spartan mother handed her son his shield as he prepared to march off to battle. She said, “Come back with this or on it.”

Review of
The Warrior Ethos
by Steven Pressfield
Black Irish Entertainment, 2011

Fighting the Resistance, our daily inner battle, has been a theme of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and its followup, the newly released Turning Pro. But Pressfield is a novelist primarily where he has focused on wars past and future. The Warrior Ethos grows out of the years of research and writing on war.

From where does this Warrior Ethos, common across times and cultures, originate? Pressfield sees it as a necessary component of man’s development from hunting band to tribe to army. “It all comes from the hunting band’s need to survive.” The Warrior Ethos “evolved as a counterpoise to fear” and “the instinct of self-preservation.”

Warrior cultures are shame based cultures–as opposed to guilt based cultures–according to Pressfield. He writes, “A shame based culture imposes its values from outside the invdividual, by the good or bad opinion of the group. The community imposes its code on its members by such acts as shunning and public shaming.” Pressfield tells of Spartan maidens who were taught to sing songs of ridicule aimed at young men who did not demonstrate proper courage.

The Warrior Ethos is not simply a matter of overcoming fear, but rather it leads to higher and nobler virtues. “Courage is inseparable from love and leads to what may arguably be the noblest of all warrior virtues: selflessness.” Central to the Warrior Ethos is respect of the group, the unit, over the individual.

For Pressfield, the prototypical warrior culture was Sparta, which found its highest expression with the stand of the 300 at Thermopylae. Leonidas led his men on a suicide mission that ultimately saved Western civilization. The Warrior Ethos proved its worth.

The book is filled with anecdotes from Sparta to Alexander to Gen. Anthony McAuliffe at Bastogne. For Pressfield, though, this is not simply of historical interest, but rather of finding principles that will help us fight our own battles. “We all fight wars….We are all warriors.”

This leads us from the outer battle back to Pressfield’s focus on our inner battle. The former is an outworking of the latter. In the Bhagavad-Gita’s tale of Arjuna and Krishna, and in Alexander’s encounter with a recalcitrant Indian wise man, we find that the ancients recognized that inner battle, too.

Man’s war with Resistance stretches back over millennia, each generation, each individual fighting the same battle again and again. It is the battle with themselves. It is only with the Warrior Ethos that we will beat back our own Resistance.


[Related: Review of Steven Pressfield’s Turning Pro]

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