Throughout Gates of Fire, fear is pervasive, from the destruction of Xeo’s city to the hovering threat of the Persian invasion to the horrors of Thermopylae. Dienekes, seasoned mentor to the young Alexandros and the master whom Xeo serves as squire, is preoccupied with the study of fear and how it may be overcome. Through Dienekes’ exploration of the question of fear at pivotal moments in the story, Pressfield argues that fear can’t be overcome by any mere exertion of courage or loyalty to principle, but by love for one’s brothers.
Dienekes, though a hardened warrior, struggles to articulate the nature of fear and how to combat it. At the beginning of the story, Dienekes insists that there is an indefinable “force beyond fear” that urges the warrior to fight for reasons other than simply his self-preservation. After Alexandros’s friend Tripod is cruelly beaten to death in training, Dienekes sees in Tripod’s refusal to surrender a certain admirable resistance to fear. He comforts his protégé Alexandros, explaining that fear originates in one’s flesh: “Never forget, Alexandros, that this flesh, this body, does not belong to us […] If I thought this stuff was mine, I could not advance a pace into the face of the enemy. But it is not ours, my friend. It belongs to the gods and to our children, our fathers and mothers and those of Lakedaemon a hundred, a thousand years yet unborn. It belongs to the city which gives us all we have and demands no less in requital.” Despite this lofty appeal to the glory of Lakedaemon, however, Dienekes isn’t able to explain precisely what this force beyond fear consists of.
Around the campfire on the eve of Thermopylae, Dienekes raises this question again with his fellow warriors: “All my life […] one question has haunted me. What is the opposite of fear? […] To call it aphobia, fearlessness, is without meaning. […] I want to know its true obverse, as day of night and heaven of earth.” He adds that veterans “cobble our courage together on the spot, of rags and remnants. The main we summon out of that which is base. Fear of disgracing the city, the king, the heroes of our lines […] But [fear] is always there. The closest I’ve come is to act despite terror. But that’s not it either.” In other words, even hardened soldiers are haunted by fear, and must scrape together courage out of their fear of disgrace. But Dienekes is convinced that the opposite of fear must be something positive; it can’t be just fortitude in the face of terror.
It isn’t until the eve of the final battle that Dienekes gets his answer—and this comes, ironically, from a non-Spartan ally named Suicide. After being given his once-hated nickname, Suicide explains, he eventually came to see its wisdom: “to extinguish the selfish self within, that part which looks only to its own preservation, to save its own skin. That, I saw, was the victory you Spartans had gained over yourselves. […] When a warrior fights not for himself, but for his brothers, […] then his heart truly has achieved contempt for death, and with that he transcends himself and his actions touch the sublime.” Fear is overcome not out of mere refusal to surrender, as for Tripod, or concern for one’s reputation, but in truly being willing to give up everything for those one loves. This insight from a Scythian outsider finally sheds conclusive light on Dienekes’ question— perhaps because Suicide is under no compulsion to die alongside the Spartans, yet chooses to do so anyway. “The opposite of fear,” Dienekes tells Xeo that night, “is love.”
This insight about love and fear informs Dienekes’ final speech to the Spartans and allies before battle: “Here is what you do, friends. Forget country. Forget king. Forget wife and children and freedom. Forget every concept, however noble, that you imagine you fight for here today. Act for this alone: for the man who stands at your shoulder. He is everything, and everything is contained within him. That’s all I know. That’s all I can tell you.” Dienekes knows that at this crucial hour, no single personality, philosophy, or even personal tie will suffice to uphold his men. Each can only seek to love and protect the man next to him; only this will be a sufficient counterpoint to fear.
This insight is further illustrated by the actions of other characters. Despite the fact that Xeo joined the Spartans out of bloodlust toward those who destroyed his family and city, he remains with the doomed warriors even when he’s given the chance to leave, having come to see them as his beloved brothers. And Rooster, who’s despised the Spartans all his life as a slave, reappears at the end of the story as a Spartan warrior himself—in response to the merciful reprieve he’d been shown by his captors, he joins them and shows mercy to a captive Persian (Gobartes, the story’s narrator) in turn. This final act solidifies that acting out of love and selflessness is the key to overcoming one’s fears and being a courageous soldier.
Fear, Courage, and Love ThemeTracker
Fear, Courage, and Love Quotes in Gates of Fire
What kind of men were these Spartans, who in three days had slain before His Majesty’s eyes no fewer than twenty thousand of His most valiant warriors? Who were these foemen, who had taken with them to the house of the dead ten, or as some reports said, as many as twenty for every one of their own fallen? What were they like as men? Whom did they love? What made them laugh? His Majesty knew they feared death, as all men. By what philosophy did their minds embrace it? Most to the point, His Majesty said, He wished to acquire a sense of the individuals themselves, the real flesh-and-blood men whom He had observed from above the battlefield, but only indistinctly, from a distance, as indistinguishable identities concealed within the blood- and gore-begrimed carapaces of their helmets and armor.
“Listen to me, boy. Only gods and heroes can be brave in isolation. A man may call upon courage only one way, in the ranks with his brothers-in-arms, the line of his tribe and his city. Most piteous of all states under heaven is that of a man alone, bereft of the gods of his home and his polis. A man without a city is not a man. He is a shadow, a shell, a joke and a mockery. That is what you have become now, my poor Xeo. No one may expect valor from one cast out alone, cut off from the gods of his home.”
We talked for hours in secret on the pursuit of esoterike harmonia, that state of self-composure which the exercises of the phobologia are designed to produce. As a string of the kithera vibrates purely, emitting only that note of the musical scale which is its alone, so must the individual warrior shed all which is superfluous in his spirit, until he himself vibrates at that sole pitch which his individual daimon dictates. The achievement of this ideal, in Lakedaemon, carries beyond courage on the battlefield; it is considered the supreme embodiment of virtue, andreia, of a citizen and a man.
Bruxieus began to fear for us. We were growing wild. Cityless. In evenings past, Bruxieus had recited Homer and made it a game how many verses we could repeat without a slip. Now this exercise took on a deadly earnestness for him. He was failing, we all knew it. He would not be with us much longer. Everything he knew, he must pass on.
Homer was our school, the Iliad and Odyssey the texts of our curriculum […] Bruxieus tutored us relentlessly in compassion, that virtue which he saw diminishing each day within our mountain-hardened hearts […]
We must have a city, Bruxieus declared.
Without a city we were no better than the wild brutes we hunted and killed.
This, I realized now watching Dienekes rally and tend to his men, was the role of the officer—to prevent those under his command, at all stages of battle—before, during and after—from becoming “possessed.” To fire their valor when it flagged and rein in their fury when it threatened to take them out of hand. That was Dienekes’s job […]
His was not, I could see now, the heroism of an Achilles. He was not a superman who waded invulnerably into the slaughter, single-handedly slaying the foe by myriads. He was just a man doing a job. A job whose primary attribute was self-restraint and self-composure, not for his own sake, but for those whom he led by his example. A job whose objective could be boiled down to the single understatement, as he did at the Hot Gates on the morning he died, of “performing the commonplace under uncommonplace conditions.”
“Mankind as it is constituted,” Polynikes said, “is a boil and a canker […] Fortunately God in his mercy has provided a counterpoise to our species’ innate depravity. That gift, my young friend, is war.
War, not peace, produces virtue. War, not peace, purges vice. War, and preparation for war, call forth all that is noble and honorable in a man. It unites him with his brothers and binds them in selfless love, eradicating in the crucible of necessity all which is base and ignoble. There in the holy mill of murder the meanest of men may seek and find that part of himself, concealed beneath the corrupt, which shines forth brilliant and virtuous, worthy of honor before the gods. Do not despise war, my young friend, nor delude yourself that mercy and compassion are virtues superior to andreia, to manly valor.”
I had never seen the city in such a state as in the aftermath of that debacle. Heroes with prizes of valor skulked about, while their women snapped at them with scorn and held themselves aloof and disdainful […] To marshal such a magnificent force, garland it before the gods, transport it all that way and not draw blood, even one’s own, this was not merely disgraceful but, the wives declared, blasphemous.
The women’s scorn excoriated the city. A delegation of wives and mothers presented itself to the ephors, insisting that they themselves be sent out next time, armed with hairpins and distaffs, since surely the women of Sparta could disgrace themselves no more egregiously nor accomplish less than the vaunted Ten Thousand.
Put this fatigue-spawned dream from your mind, Your Majesty. It is a false dream, a phantasm. Let the Greeks degrade themselves by resort to superstition. We must be men and commanders, exploiting oracles and portents when they suit the purposes of reason and dismissing them when they do not […] If you retire now, Lord, the Greeks will say it was because you feared a dream and an oracle.
“Now consider, friends, that which we call women’s courage.
What could be more contrary to female nature, to motherhood, than to stand unmoved and unmoving as her sons march off to death? Must not every sinew of the mother’s flesh call out in agony and affront at such an outrage? Must not her heart seek to cry in its passion, ‘No! Not my son! Spare him!’ That women, from some source unknown to use, summon the will to conquer this their own deepest nature is, I believe, the reason we stand in awe of our mothers and sisters and wives. This, I believe, Dienekes, is the essence of women’s courage and why it, as you suggested, is superior to men’s.”
Nothing fires the warrior’s heart more with courage than to find himself and his comrades at the point of annihilation, at the brink of being routed and overrun, and then to dredge not merely from one’s own bowels or guts but from one’s own discipline and training the presence of mind not to panic, but to yield to the possession of despair, but instead to complete those homely acts of order which Dienekes had ever declared the supreme accomplishment of the warrior: to perform the commonplace under far-from-commonplace conditions.
“A most impressive testimony of faith, my lord,” the prince spoke after some moments. “Such devout orations cannot fail to sustain your men’s courage. For an hour. Until darkness and fatigue efface the passion of the moment, and fear for themselves and their families resurfaces, as it must, within their hearts.”
The noble repeated with emphasis his report of the mountain track and the Ten Thousand. He declared that if the hand of the gods was at all present in this day’s events, it was not their benevolence seeking to preserve the Hellenic defenders but their perverse and unknowable will acting to detach them from their reason. Surely a commander of Leonidas’s sagacity perceived this, as clearly as he, lifting his glace to the cliff of Kallidromos, could behold there upon the rock the scores of lightning scars…
“When I first came to Lakedaemon and they called me ‘Suicide,’ I hated it. But in time I came to see its wisdom, unintentional as it was. For what can be more noble than to slay oneself? Not literally. Not with a blade in the guts. But to extinguish the selfish self within, that part which looks only to its own preservation, to save its own skin. That, I saw, was the victory you Spartans had gained over yourselves […] When a warrior fights not for himself, but for his brothers, when his most passionately sought goal is neither glory nor his own life’s preservation, but to spend his substance for them, his comrades, not to abandon them, not to prove unworthy of them, then his heart truly has achieved contempt for death, and with that he transcends himself and his actions touch the sublime.”
“Why do we remain in this place? A man would have to be cracked not to ask that question. Is it for glory? If it were for that alone, believe me, brothers, I’d be the first to wheel my ass to the foe and trot like hell over that hill. […] If we had withdrawn from these Gates today, brothers, no matter what prodigies of valor we had performed up till now, this battle would have been perceived as a defeat. A defeat which would have confirmed for all Greece that which the enemy most wishes her to believe: the futility of resistance to the Persian and his millions. If we had saved our skins today, one by one the separate cities would have caved in behind us, until the whole of Hellas had fallen.”
“Brothers, I’m not a king or a general. I’ve never held rank beyond that of a platoon commander. So I say to you now only what I would say to my own men, knowing the fear that stands unspoken in each heart—not of death, but worse, of faltering or failing, of somehow proving unworthy in this, the ultimate hour […] Here is what you do, friends. Forget country. Forget king. Forget wife and children and freedom. Forget every concept, however noble, that you imagine you fight for here today. Act for this alone: for the man who stands at your shoulder. He is everything, and everything is contained within him. That’s all I know. That’s all I can tell you.”
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 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 […] 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.