Thursday, December 31, 2009

For auld lang syne - Happy New Year!

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!
and surely I’ll buy mine !
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.


We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.


We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.


And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give us a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.


Robert Burns (1759 – 1796)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Saint Joseph's Oratory - first visit

My mother died in November (see Saying goodbye to mother and Mother). I could not be present for the funeral in England so that day I went to Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal.
I had been meaning to go there for some time, and I am ashamed to say it took my mother’s death to get me there. I have made a point of visiting many great cathedrals on my trips to England but I know nothing of those in Montreal where I live.

So the day of my mother’s funeral found me climbing the many steps leading up to the Oratory on Montreal’s Mount Royal. The photos do not do credit to the dimensions involved. The building is huge and imposing in stature in itself quite apart from the fact that it sits on top of a mountain. The architecture of the façade is in the classic Greco-Roman style.

Climbing the steps, I feel small and fragile and humbled. At the top of the steps I turn to see the city stretched out before me, and beyond it an uninterrupted horizon of hazy hills. Yet still the Oratory towers above me. I enter.

Inside I am surprised to find escalators rising up to the next floors. Then another, and another. The escalators give the impression, not that one is rising up to heaven, but rather that one is surfacing from an underground world of base emotions into the real world of the spirit above.

Finally, I surface at the Basilica. With only images of old cathedrals in my mind, I am surprised to see the pure simple lines of this Basilica. I have little time to reflect more because I am immediately overwhelmed with sorrow and sit down in the first bench to cry.

Slowly my emotions work themselves out and I sit peacefully contemplating the altar and the cross. I say a prayer for my mother. A mother and her child walk down the aisle. The mother stops and kneels and makes the sign of the cross and continues on.
Eventually I get up and walk around the altar. On the wall behind is a mosaic. I read an inscription in French: ‘Joseph the Just, Holy Husband of the Virgin Mary, Guardian of the Son of God’.

On one side of the altar is a statue of Frère André, founder of the Oratory.

I linger a little, absorbing the peace that vibrates in this place. As I leave, I pass by a message engraved in one of the marble blocks that make up the walls of the Basilica. It reads:

‘Even in the heart of darkness Your hand grasps me, because for You the night illuminates as much as the day’.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Footprints in the snow

Feeling ‘in a high state of grease’ (as Stephen Maturin would put it) from too much eating and too little moving, I decided I better go for a walk tonight. Nothing like a walk ‘to set you up’ (as Jack Aubry would put it).
It was 10 degrees below zero, but Canadians consider that quite mild to go for a walk. Where was it I read that only at minus 60 is it considered ‘too cold to go to the mall’…? So wrapped up like an astronaut I set off on my usual circuit that takes me along by the baseball park. There was a beautiful thin blanket of snow on the ground, just enough to make everything pure and white but not thick enough to hinder walking. The ‘crunch, crunch’ of my steps lulled me into a state of meditation.
I thought of the recent holiday dinner where my new girlfriend met my son for the first time and my daughter for the second. After my daughter’s first meeting my girlfriend would say ‘she is so beautiful and charming, so different than you…ha, ha’ and comments along those lines. After my son’s meeting it was ‘he is so handsome’ to which I replied ‘yes, he’s my son’ to which she replied ‘no, no, he doesn’t resemble you… ha, ha’. After the third or fourth comment of this kind I went to dig out my first (and only) British passport, issued in 1979 when I was 22 years old, 1 year older than my son today. ‘I hope you are ready for this’ I said, as I passed her my passport containing, basically, a photo of my son. Perhaps a more intense look in the eyes, but for the rest, copy and paste. ‘There!’ I exclaimed triumphantly. ‘Let us hear no more of this ‘Oh, your son is so handsome…’’
I came to the end of my path and turned around to walk back the way I had come. There on the path, unmistakably mine yet curiously alien, my footprints in the snow.

Photo by MsJimmy

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

We who merely happen to be walking around

Here is another interesting video for you. It’s an amazingly high quality film of the view from a streetcar travelling down Market Street in San Francisco in 1905. What I found so unusual in this film is that there is nothing… unusual. It must be that we are so used to seeing bad quality films of this period that we begin to think that all people walked like Charlie Chaplin or something, or that they were in some way quaint or inferior to us. In this film we see clearly that the people are like us. The policeman gives us his universal policeman stare, people gingerly cross the street avoiding the tracks as we would do, the fellow on the bicycle rides like anyone you would see today, the boy running could be the neighbour’s son.

From there it is easy to see that two hundred years ago or even a thousand years ago, apart from the props, people were basically the same. Just because we live in an era that is technologically, politically and socially more ‘advanced’ (so to speak), it does not necessarily mean we are better or even different than people who came before us. To me, the film illustrates clearly our alikeness, our solidarity with our ancestors. We, like they, are merely living in the ‘now’ of the present moment. We go about our business, thinking - as they probably did - that we are in some way more privileged, more intelligent, more everything than those who came before. But this is not true. I am reminded of a quote from G.K. Chesterton about the importance of tradition:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.

Monday, December 7, 2009

'Thought moments' by Michael Simon Toon

I came across the following video a few months ago. An interviewer asks people in the street some simple questions about life, and some perhaps more difficult. The interviewees are suddenly called upon to reflect on whom they love most for example, something they may not have done before. We then observe them as they think and we can almost hear the wheels turning in their heads. It is a strangely moving experience for us too, as we watch them discover and share with us their life beliefs in a matter of seconds.

Watching this video, I understand that we are all bound together more by our similarities than we are separated by our differences. People are the same wherever you go. We all want to be happy, we all want to love and be loved. Only the details change. It is heartening to see what similar, common loves and hopes and virtues are to be found in everyone around us, people like you and me, passing by in the street.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Ship's log - December 2009

You may have noticed I tried another header image for a while. But we are back to Andrew Beierle’s beautiful photo and my original motto. There is just too much power in this image and in this metaphor of harnessing your inner strength. Looking at the man we see he is strong in himself but there is a greater power available to him. He must use all his strength and ingenuity to master it but we see that he can do it. And then, on such a ‘horse’, how he will fly! I hope some of my posts live up to this promise for you.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Courage - committing to a higher purpose

We come to the end of my posts on courage, for now. It was revealing to me to ponder the nature of courage and its importance. I never thought about it much before. Now I see that it makes ALL the difference. I see that courage is the cure for many evils including sadness, despair, laziness, and of course fear. Just think of the word 'discouragement’: the taking away of our courage takes away all our power and brings us low in spirit. To raise our spirit up we must find a goal, a principle, a reason to put BEFORE our sadness, our jadedness, or our comfort - that is the definition of courage. Then we will harness the power of courage in our lives.

Everything good in my life is a result of chances I took, goals I worked for, sacrifices I made. And the reverse is true: what is lacking is a result of chances I did not take, bold efforts I did not make, fears I did not break. When I feel down or in a rut or blocked, I know now with absolute certainty that it is my courage which is flagging.

I am reminded of a quote of W.H. Murray speaking of the power of courage from his book The Scottish Himalayan Expedition:

… when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money— booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth… that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

I know now that to get what I want from life I will have to cultivate more courage than I have been doing. I will have to get more buddy buddy on a daily basis with courage. There is no substitute. Nothing else will do the job. Then and only then may I one day get to change my blog name to Healed Philosophy.

You are only as strong as your purpose, therefore let us choose reasons to act that are big, bold, righteous and eternal. Barry Munro

Who dares nothing, need hope for nothing. Johann Friedrich Von Schiller

Whether you be man or woman you will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honour. James Allen

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage. Anais Nin

Great things are done more through courage than through wisdom. German proverb

Spiritual cowardice is not only weakness but wickedness. G.B.Gambrell

Knowledge without courage is sterile. Baltasar Gracian

Moral courage is the most valuable and usually the most absent characteristic in men. George Patton

He who loses wealth loses much; he who loses a friend loses more; but he who loses his courage loses all. Cervantes

Wealth lost - something lost; Honour lost - much lost; Courage lost - all lost. German proverb

May you live all the days of your life. Jonathan Swift

For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, "It might have been". John Greenleaf Whittier

A great deal of talent is lost to the world for want of a little courage. Every day sends to their graves obscure men whose timidity prevented them from making a first effort. Sydney Smith

Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow that talent to the dark place it leads. Erica Jong

We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world. Helen Keller

Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm. Robert Louis Stevenson

Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, to sleep in peace. God is awake. Victor Hugo

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Courage - according to the Ancients

Courage is knowing what not to fear. Plato

Courage is to take hard knocks like a man when occasion calls. Plautus

Courage is a kind of salvation. Plato

Courage is its own reward. Plautus

Courage leads starward, fear toward death. Seneca

Courage easily finds its own eloquence. Plautus

Courage is the virtue which champions the cause of right. Cicero

Nothing is as valuable to a man as courage. Terence

A man full of courage is also full of faith. Cicero

Fear is only as deep as the mind allows. Japanese proverb

Let us be brave in the face of adversity. Seneca

A smooth sea never made a skilled mariner. English proverb

A decent boldness ever meets with friends. Homer

The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are. Marcus Aurelius

It is courage, courage, courage, that raises the blood of life to crimson splendour. Live bravely and present a brave front to adversity! Horace

Dare to begin! He who postpones living rightly is like the rustic who waits for the river to run out before he crosses. Horace

It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live. Marcus Aurelius

There is nothing in the world so much admired as a man who knows how to bear unhappiness with courage. Seneca

Where fear is, happiness is not. Seneca

It is better by noble boldness to run the risk of being subject to half of the evils we anticipate than to remain in cowardly listlessness for fear of what might happen. Herodotus

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage. Seneca

Fortune helps the brave. Virgil

Fortune reveres the brave, and overwhelms the cowardly. Seneca

Fortune and love favour the brave. Ovid

Fortune favours the audacious. Erasmus

Audacity augments courage; hesitation, fear. Publilius Syrus

Fall seven times; stand up eight. Japanese Proverb

A coward turns away, but a brave man's choice is danger. Euripedes

It is easy to be brave from a safe distance. Aesop

To know what is right and not do it is the worst cowardice. Confucius

The superior man makes the difficulty to be overcome his first interest; success comes only later. Confucius

This is courage ... to bear unflinchingly what heaven sends. Euripedes

Nothing befalls a man except what is in his nature to endure. Marcus Aurelius

God gave burdens, also shoulders. Jewish proverb

The burden is equal to the horse's strength. Talmud

Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself. Do not lose courage in considering your own imperfections, but instantly set about remedying them - every day begin the task anew. Saint Francis De Sales

The beauty of the soul shines out when a man bears with composure one heavy mischance after another, not because he does not feel them, but because he is a man of high and heroic temper. Aristotle
Photo from Wikimedia

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Saying goodbye to mother

Once when I was 2 or 3 years old, my mother pretended to be unconscious or dead. Of course I called out and fretted and shook her and just before I got too upset she of course ‘woke up’ and hugged me. She told me if it ever happens again I must go and get the neighbours. She would have been 23 or 24, a young mother playing games with her son.

My mother died last week, aged 73, far from me in England, surrounded by her other ‘children’ (all of them grandparents). I live in Montreal Canada and I saw her last in September. It was the first time we really spoke for several years following an estrangement. She had been ill for a long time, so we knew this was probably the last time we would see each other. There was no drama about it really. We spoke as if there would be more times, knowing there would not. We kissed goodbye like I was going to school, only further. Or perhaps like she was going to school, only further.

I know she loved me and was proud of me. She was always proud of me. I brought her a lot of joy I know. But whereby we get our joy we also get our pain and I fear I brought her much sadness too, in the later years. I feel that more than ever today. I wish I had not. I love you mam.

Top image: Saint Joseph's Oratory of Mount-Royal

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Courage - Pericles' funeral speech

I am reading Donald Kagan’s book The Peloponnesian War which tells the story of the long death struggle between Sparta and Athens and their respective allies in the fifth century BC. It is a gripping read as is Livy’s tale of the similar struggle to come between Rome and Carthage (see Roman fortitude). The participants are evenly matched: Sparta is the greatest military power on land, but Athens is the greatest military power on the sea. (In this the war resembles the struggle between Napoleonic France and maritime Britain).

Athens is fortunate in having a great leader in the form of Pericles, ‘son of Xanthippus (a victorious general in the Persian war), the leading man in Athens at that time, and the ablest in speech and in action.’ From Thucydides, a historian and participant in the war, we learn that Pericles’ teacher, Anaxagoras, had instilled in him

…a lofty spirit and an elevated mode of speech, free from the vulgar and knavish tricks of mob-orators, but also a composed countenance that never gave way to laughter, a dignity of carriage and restraint in the arrangement of his clothing which no emotion was allowed to disturb while he was speaking, a voice that was evenly controlled, and all the other characteristics of this sort which so impressed his hearers.

Pericles persuades the Athenians that if they avoid a decisive land battle but wait patiently behind their city walls, relying on supply from the sea which they control, Sparta will realise that they are powerless and will sue for peace. It is a wise strategy but it goes against the grain of the time, especially with the impetuous young. When a Spartan army lays waste the bountiful Athenian countryside while the Athenians watch from the walls, Pericles has to (bravely) bear their accusations of timidity and cowardice. Only he can hold the Athenians in check from certain disaster.

And yet there were times when they were sorely vexed with him, and then he tightened the reins and forced them into the way of their advantage with a master's hand, for all the world like a wise physician, who treats a complicated disease of long standing occasionally with harmless indulgences to please his patient, and occasionally, too, with caustics and bitter drugs which work salvation. For whereas all sorts of distempers, as was to be expected, were rife in a rabble which possessed such a vast empire, he alone was so endowed by nature that he could manage each one of these cases suitably, and more than anything else he used the people's hopes and fears, like rudders, so to speak, giving timely check to their arrogance, and allaying and comforting their despair. Plutarch

Pericles holds back the Athenians from doing what the Spartans want them to do: come out and fight a decisive battle on their terms - on land - where they are the stronger. In this wise but ungrateful and unpopular task he reminds us of Fabius Maximus who, after Rome’s crushing defeat at Cannae, refuses all battle with the seemingly invincible Hannibal. He only shadows him with his army, a constant threat to be guarded against, letting the advantage of time in favour of the Romans do its work. (This resemblance was clear to Plutarch also: I found that he pairs Pericles and Fabius Maximus together in his Parallel Lives, see here).

Pericles bides his time and events prove him right. When funeral rights are held for those who have perished in the first year of war, the Athenians call upon him to give the eulogy as their foremost leader. His speech is not only a eulogy to the fallen Athenian brave but to all brave men. It is a tribute to courage, which puts something higher, something more important, above personal interest and personal safety: freedom and the common good.

You must every day look upon the power of your city and become her lovers, and when you have understood her greatness consider that the men who achieved it were brave and honourable and knew what was necessary when the time came for action. If they ever failed in some attempt, they were determined that, at least, their city should not be deprived of their courage and gave her the most beautiful of all offerings. For they gave their lives for the common good and thereby won for themselves the praise that never grows old and the most distinguished of all graves, not those in which they lie, but where their glory remains in eternal memory, always there at the right time to inspire speech and action. For the whole world is the burial place for brave men; not only does the epitaph inscribed on monuments in their native country commemorate them, but in lands not their own the unwritten memory; more of their spirit even than of what they have done, lives on within each person. Now it is for you to emulate them; knowing that happiness requires freedom and freedom requires courage, do not shrink from the dangers of war.


Courage is what preserves our liberty, safety, life, and our homes and parents, our country and children. Courage comprises all things. Plautus

So, as you go into battle, remember your ancestors and remember your descendants. Tacitus

Happy the man who ventures boldly to defend what he holds dear. Ovid

So when the crisis is upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a tough and stalwart antagonist... that you may prove a victor at the Great Games. Epictetus

Things never go so well that one should have no fear, and never so ill that one should have no hope. Turkish proverb

To persevere, trusting in what hopes he has, is courage. The coward despairs. Euripedes

It is the bold man who every time does best, at home or abroad. Homer

In times of stress, be bold and valiant. Horace

In difficult situations, when hope seems feeble, the boldest plans are safest. Livy

He shall fare well who confronts circumstances aright. Plutarch

Image: Discurso funebre Pericles by Von Folz, from Wikipedia

Friday, November 20, 2009

Courage - never give up

To listen to all my talk of the courage of the ancients one would think there were no examples worthy of note closer to hand. But of course there are. We baby boomers are but one or two generations away from the last world war when another seemingly invincible foe threatened to conquer the free world. Another Battle of Thermopylae took place only 70 years ago. A few men again stood against many. The defending heroes numbered about the same as that Greek advance guard long ago, but instead of spears and short swords they wielded Hurricanes and Spitfires.
Their battle would be called the Battle of Britain, but their story begins before that. Here is an excerpt of Churchill’s address to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940 following the evacuation of 335,000 allied troops from Dunkirk

A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all. The enemy was hurled back by the retreating British troops. He was so roughly handled that he did not hurry their departure seriously. The Royal Air Force engaged the main strength of the German Air Force, and inflicted upon them losses of at least four to one; and the Navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried over 335,000 men, French and British, out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead. We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was gained by the Air Force….

This was a great trial of strength between the British and German Air Forces. Can you conceive a greater objective for the Germans in the air than to make evacuation from these beaches impossible, and to sink all these ships which were displayed, almost to the extent of thousands? Could there have been an objective of greater military importance and significance for the whole purpose of the war than this? They tried hard, and they were beaten back; they were frustrated in their task. We got the Army away; and they have paid fourfold for any losses which they have inflicted. Very large formations of German aeroplanes - and we know that they are a very brave race - have turned on several occasions from the attack of one quarter of their number of the Royal Air Force, and have dispersed in different directions….

When we consider how much greater would be our advantage in defending the air above this Island against an overseas attack, I must say that I find in these facts a sure basis upon which practical and reassuring thoughts may rest. I will pay my tribute to these young airmen. The great French Army was very largely, for the time being, cast back and disturbed by the onrush of a few thousands of armoured vehicles. May it not also be that the cause of civilization itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen?


The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart. Robert G. Ingersoll

Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm. Winston Churchill

Who hath not known ill fortune, never knew himself, or his own virtue. David Mallett

Everyone will be taxed according to his means. Johann Friedrich Von Schiller

Optimism is essential to achievement and it is also the foundation of courage and true progress. Nicholas Murray Butler

Optimism is the foundation of courage. Nicholas Murray Butler

Stand upright, speak thy thoughts, declare the truth thou hast, that all may share; be bold, proclaim it everywhere. They only live who dare. Voltaire

Courage, in the final analysis, is nothing but an affirmative answer to the shocks of existence. Kurt Goldstein

Where life is more terrible than death, it is the truest valour to dare to live. Sir Thomas Brown

Often the test of courage is not to die, but to live. Conte Vittorio Alfienri

Courage is generosity of the highest order, for the brave are prodigal of the most precious things. Charles Caleb Colton

The bravest are the tenderest. The loving are the daring. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Courage is grace under pressure. Ernest Hemingway

Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. Helen Keller

Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace. Amelia Earhart

Freedom is not for the timid. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

Image by Molock67

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Courage - what Leonidas said

Leonidas, the son of Anaxandridas and brother to Cleomenes, when one said to him, Abating that you are king, you are no better than we, replied, But unless I had been better than you, I had not been king.

His wife Gorgo, when he went forth to Thermopylae to fight the Persian, asked him what command he left with her; and he replied, Marry brave men, and bear them brave children.

The Ephors saying, You lead but few to Thermopylae; They are many, said he, considering on what design we go.

And when they again asked him whether he had any other enterprise in his thought, he replied, I pretend to go to hinder the barbarians’ passage, but really to die fighting for the Greeks.

When he was at Thermopylae, he said to his soldiers: They report the enemy is at hand, and we lose time; for we must either beat the barbarian or die ourselves.

And to another saying, What, the flights of the Persian arrows will darken the very sun, he said, Therefore it will be pleasant for us to fight in the shade.

And another saying, What, Leonidas, do you come to fight so great a number with so few? — he returned: If you esteem number, all Greece is not able to match a small part of that army; if courage, this number is sufficient.

And to another discoursing after the same manner he said, I have enough, since they are to be killed.

When Xerxes wrote to him thus, Sir, you may forbear to fight against the Gods, but may follow my interest and be lord of all Greece, he answered: If you understood wherein consisted the happiness of life, you would not covet other men’s; but know that I would rather die for the liberty of Greece than be a monarch over my countrymen.

And Xerxes writing to him again thus, Send me thy arms, he returned, Come and take them.

When he resolved to fall upon the enemy, and his captains of the war told him he must stay till the forces of the allies had joined him, he said: Do you think all those that intend to fight are not here already? Or do you not understand that those only fight who fear and reverence their kings?

And he ordered his soldiers so to dine, as if they were to sup in another world.

And being asked why the bravest men prefer an honourable death before an inglorious life, he replied, Because they believe one is the gift of Nature, while the other is peculiarly their own.

Being desirous to save the striplings that were with him, and knowing very well that if he dealt openly with them none would accept his kindness, he gave each of them privately letters to carry to the Ephors. He desired likewise to save three of those that were grown men; but they having some notice of his design refused the letters. And one of them said, I came, sir, to be a soldier, and not a courier; and the second, I shall be a better man if here than if away; and the third, I will not be behind these, but the first in the fight.

From Plutarch’s Laconic Apophthegms; or remarkable sayings of the Spartans
Image derived from a photo from Wikimedia

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Courage - Leonidas and the 300 Spartans

The story of the Battle of Thermopylae (literally ‘the hot gates’) is a classic tale of courage. It has recently been dramatized and brought to the wider attention of a modern audience in Zack Snyder’s film ‘300’ based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller. While it is obvious that the film (and the novel) is highly stylized, any film that strives to bring to life the great and virtuous deeds of the past will always get my thumbs up. The film lacks a ‘Saving Private Ryan’ type of realism – largely in its portrayal of the Persians as inhuman monsters - but the essential message rings true. (Compare this to Oliver Stone’s film Alexander where the subject and essential message are hopelessly misunderstood and misrepresented.)

Wikipedia has a good overview of the Battle of Thermopylae here.

It is 480 BC and the Persians under Xerxes I are marching with a huge army to invade Greece. Xerxes is eager to avenge the failure of his father Darius I’s invasion which was thwarted by the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.

Unfortunately for the Spartans, the invasion comes during the sacred festival of Carneia as well as during the Olympic Games and so it would be doubly sacrilegious for them to go to war at this time. Therefore it is decided to send an advance force to hold the ‘hot gates’ until the main Spartan army can march and join them later. King Leonidas takes his personal royal bodyguard of 300 men and about 1,000 support troops and helots. They will later be joined by other small contingents of Greeks.

Leonidas and his men are under no illusions; they know they are going to their deaths. Even though the hot gates will afford them a narrow and advantageous defensive position, even though the Spartans are the Delta Force, the Royal Marines of the ancient world, the Persian army numbers in the hundreds of thousands. And the Oracle of Delphi has prophesied:

O ye men who dwell in the streets of broad Lacedaemon!
Either your glorious town shall be sacked by the children of Perseus,
Or, in exchange, must all through the whole Laconian country
Mourn for the loss of a king, descendant of great Heracles.

Thus we know that Leonidas is under no illusions and also by the fact that he gives orders that only those Spartans may come who have living sons. He asks for volunteers to replace those who do not. We also have the following from Plutarch:

And another saying, What, Leonidas, do you come to fight so great a number with so few? — he returned: If you esteem number, all Greece is not able to match a small part of that army; if courage, this number is sufficient.

And to another discoursing after the same manner he said, I have enough, since they are to be killed.

And when they again asked him whether he had any other enterprise in his thought, he replied, I pretend to go to hinder the barbarians’ passage, but really to die fighting for the Greeks.

The Spartans always esteemed courage and not numbers as this famous quote by King Agis II tells:

The Spartans do not ask how many but where they are.

The Spartans take up the defence of the hot gates by forming a shield wall or phalanx. At this time the Greek hoplites fought with a long spear so that only the first two ranks could fight the enemy. Later Philip of Macedon would introduce the 16 foot sarissa, a long pike, allowing the first five rows of the phalanx to fight. (When occasion demanded, they also fought with a short sword).

Over three days the Spartans ‘cut to ribbons’ all the Persian troops sent against them, including Xerxes elite troops, the notorious ‘Immortals’. Their name stemmed from the fact that they wore masks to conceal their individual identity and their numbers were always maintained at exactly 10,000 so that it seemed that none ever died.

The Spartans are undone finally when the Persians learn from a Greek traitor that there exists a mountain path which will allow them to outflank and attack the Spartans from the rear. On learning that the path has not been held by the Phocian allies he had stationed there, Leonidas orders his Greek allies to retreat and prepares to form a rearguard with only his 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans. This will allow his other 3,000 Greek allies to escape.

Leonidas’ rearguard leave their defensive position and attack Xerxes’ advancing army so as to sell their lives dearly and kill as many Persians as they can.

Two of Xerxes’ brothers are killed at this time as is Leonidas himself, thus fulfilling the Delphic prophecy. As the Immortals arrive in their rear the Spartans retreat to a hill where they are showered with arrows until all are killed.

The Battle of Thermopylae was a defeat for the Spartans. It did not significantly slow down the advance of Xerxes’ army, nor did it inflict significant losses on the Persians (although they lost some 20,000 men). But had the Persians not discovered the mountain pass, had the Spartans held the hot gates some days longer, Xerxes huge army would have run out of provisions and been forced to retreat. The defence of Thermopylae could have become a successful military operation instead of a courageous act of self-sacrifice.

The Battle of Thermopylae may have been a defeat, but as Michel de Montaigne said, ‘There are some defeats more triumphant than victories’. Thermopylae was a victory of the spirit, which takes no account of fear, no account of danger, no account of possible outcomes but which takes account only of the most important things: of honour, of duty and of freedom. As an example of courage, it may be equalled but it can never be surpassed.

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie. Simonides of Ceos

Images from the movie '300' and Wikimedia

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Courage - Alexander the Great

I recently came across the site of The Online Library of Liberty which has among others the text of Plutarch’s The Morals. Here I found Plutarch’s commentary about the life of Alexander the Great. In it he shows how Alexander exemplified virtue in his life and won his successes by sweat and blood and without the help of Fortune, or rather in spite of ill Fortune.

I studied Alexander’s life story some years ago. I could happily write a blog about Alexander alone. There are many striking examples of personal courage in Alexander’s life but one in particular made a deep impression on me. Hollywood could find no more dramatic moment of courage in history than this one but has so far chosen to ignore it.

So I was very gratified to read Plutarch’s eloquent account of the incident. I think you will find it gratifying also, for it is something god-like, hardly to be believed and reveals the essence of Alexander’s life and how he inspired awe and admiration in all, friend and foe alike.

First we must set the stage. Alexander is the most charismatic general in history and his men love him. It is said he can greet 3,000 of them by their name. Alexander and his small army have conquered all of Persia. They are now advancing laboriously through India, conquering small tribes and cities as they go, as Alexander’s ambition drives him to seek a way to the Ocean. They are not a happy band of brothers at this time. In fact the army is close to mutiny. As Peter Green puts it, ‘They were sick of glory and honour. They had endured more in 8 years than most men are called upon to face in a lifetime. Now all they wanted was a quick, safe journey home.’ When Alexander calls upon them to storm the walls of yet another Oxydracian tribal stronghold, they refuse. Alexander is furious and climbs up a ladder himself to shame them, cutting down the defenders on the wall. There he stands, the enemies’ arrows whistling about his ears. His men shout up at him to come back down. He looks at them for a moment and then jumps down… into the stronghold.

Brasidas advanced his fame all over Greece, by breaking through the enemy’s army lying encamped by the seaside near Methone; but when you read of that daring jump of Alexander’s (so astonishing to the hearers, much more to them that beheld it) when he threw himself from the walls of the Oxydracian metropolis among the thickest of the enemy, assailing him on every side with spears, darts, and swords, tell me where you meet with such an example of matchless prowess, or to what you can compare it but to a gleam of lightning violently flashing from a cloud, and impetuously driven by the wind? Such was the appearance of Alexander, as he leaped like an apparition to the earth, glittering in his flaming armour. The enemy, at first amazed and struck with horror, retreated and fell back; till seeing him single they came on again with redoubled force.

Now was not this a great and splendid testimony of Fortune’s kindness, to throw him into an inconsiderable and barbarous town, and there to enclose and immure him a prey to worthless enemies? And when his friends made haste to his assistance, to break the scaling-ladders, and to overthrow and cast them down? Of three that got upon the walls and flung themselves down in his defence, endearing Fortune presently despatched one; the other, pierced and struck with a shower of darts, could only be said to live. Without, the Macedonians foamed and filled the air with helpless cries, having no engines at hand. All they could do was to dig down the walls with their swords, tear out the stones with their nails, and almost to rend them out with their teeth. All this while, Alexander, Fortune’s favourite, whom she always covered with her protection, like a wild beast entangled in a snare, stood deserted and destitute of all assistance, not labouring for Susa, Babylon, Bactria, or to vanquish the mighty Porus. For to miscarry in great and glorious attempts is no reproach; but so malicious was Fortune, so kind to the barbarians, such a hater of Alexander, that she aimed not only at his life and body, but at bereaving him of his honour and sullying his renown. For Alexander’s fall had never been so much lamented had he perished near Euphrates or Hydaspes by the hand of Darius, or by the horses, swords, and axes of the Persians fighting with all their might and main in defence of their king, or had he tumbled from the walls of Babylon, and all his hopes together. Thus Pelopidas and Epaminondas fell; whose death was to be ascribed to their virtue, not to such a poor misfortune as this.

But what was the singular act of Fortune’s favour which we are now enquiring into? What indeed, but in the farthest nook of a barbarous country, on the farther side of a river, within the walls of a miserable village, to pen up and hide the lord and king of the world, that he might there perish shamefully at the hands of barbarians, who should knock him down and pelt him with whatever came next to hand? There the first blow he received with a battle-axe cleft his helmet and entered his skull; at the same time another shot him with an Indian arrow in the breast near one of his paps, the head being four fingers broad and five in length, which, together with the weight of the shaft which projected from the wound, did not a little torment him. But, what was worst of all, while he was thus defending himself from his enemies before him, when he had laid a bold attempter that approached his person sprawling upon the earth with his sword, a fellow from a mill close by came behind him, and with a great iron pestle gave him such a bang upon the neck as deprived him for the present both of his senses and his sight. However, his virtue did not yet forsake him, but supplied him still with courage, infusing strength withal and speed into those about him. For Ptolemy, Limnaeus, and Leonnatus, and some others who had mounted or broken through the wall, made to his succour, and stood about him like so many bulwarks of his virtue; out of mere affection and kindness to their sovereign exposing their bodies, their faces, and their lives in his defence. For it is not Fortune that overrules men to run the hazard of death for brave princes; but the love of virtue allures them - as natural affection charms and entice bees – to surround and guard their chief commander.

From The Second Oration of Plutarch concerning the Fortune or Virtue of Alexander the Great, Plutarch, The Morals, Vol. 1

We have seen that courage is not recklessness; courage is not courage unless guided by prudence. Alexander’s jump was not recklessness but a calculated risk of his life in the cause of a greater goal. He knew his men would follow him. What he miscalculated was the lack of means. His men, on seeing him disappear beyond the wall, surged up the few ladders available like men possessed and overburdened them so that they broke. Others threw themselves like demons against the gates with axes and it was finally the breaking open of the gates which saved Alexander. In a blind rage of revenge and grief his men killed everyone in the stronghold. Alexander survived his wounds, but only just.

If you want to know more about the incredible life of Alexander, I highly recommend Peter Green’s book Alexander of Macedon.

With audacity one can undertake anything. Napoleon

He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat. Napoleon

The battle is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Patrick Henry

No great thing comes to any man unless he has courage. Cardinal James Gibbons

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die. G.K. Chesterton

One man with courage makes a majority. Andrew Jackson

Image: Statue of Alexander and Bucephalus at Thessaloniki, Greece by Rippedangelwings

Saturday, November 14, 2009


The moment a child is born, the mother is also born. She never existed before. The woman existed, but the mother, never. A mother is something absolutely new. Rajneesh

Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children. William Makepeace Thackeray

God could not be everywhere, and therefore he made mothers. Jewish proverb

A mother is a mother still, The holiest thing alive. Samuel Taylor Coleridge

An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy. Spanish proverb

The mother's heart is the child's schoolroom. Henry Ward Beecher

Some mothers are kissing mothers and some are scolding mothers, but it is love just the same, and most mothers kiss and scold together. Pearl S. Buck

The real religion of the world comes from women much more than from men - from mothers most of all, who carry the key of our souls in their bosoms. Oliver Wendell Holmes

The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness. Honoré de Balzac

A woman has two smiles that an angel might envy, the smile that accepts a lover before words are uttered, and the smile that lights on the first born babe, and assures it of a mother's love. Thomas C. Haliburton

Thou art thy mother's glass, and she in thee Calls back the lovely April of her prime. Shakespeare/De Vere

The best conversations with mothers always take place in silence, when only the heart speaks. Carrie Latet

He is a poor son whose sonship does not make him desire to serve all men's mothers. Harry Emerson Fosdick

Men are what their mothers made them. Ralph Waldo Emerson

A man never sees all that his mother has been to him until it's too late to let her know that he sees it. W. D. Howells

Friday, November 13, 2009

Courage - conquering limiting fear

I remember reading a list of what people fear and being surprised to see that public speaking was feared more than death. This is something I can relate to because public speaking was and is one of my fears. And it is a peculiar aspect of life that what we fear always catches up to us at some point.

Every difficulty slurred over will be a ghost to disturb your repose later on. Rabindranath Tagore

When I was a child I was humiliated at school by a teacher. We were given the task of thinking of some subject to present to the class. I said I couldn’t think of anything and she said to recite the Lord’s Prayer instead. Everyone made their presentations and the teacher saved me for last. By then I had thought of some subject which I shyly presented, then I recited the Lord’s Prayer. The whole class burst out laughing and I was completely humiliated. Ever since that time I was terrified of speaking before groups and I avoided it.
Until the day came when an important job opportunity arose which entailed giving a training course as the first step. I was hired because of my expertise. I went through the trainer’s training course and everything went well until the day came when I had to make my first presentation to my colleagues.
I remember taking a solitary walk just before the presentation in a state of pure, intense, petrified anguish. The sun and the deep green of the grass were annoyingly beautiful that day. I was at a fork in the road and two very different destinies (it seemed) lay before me depending upon my choice. Necessity again was my staunch ally, but I am here to tell you that I had to take all of my courage in both hands that day when I made that presentation. The content was good, for I had prepared thoroughly. The delivery was awful. But I did it and subsequent presentations improved slowly.
Years later, destiny again cruelly placed me in the position of having to give training courses and I had to live through an extremely difficult period, doing something I feared and hated on a daily basis. But I did it. I wasn’t good, and I never liked it. But I got to the point where it was merely disagreeable to me rather than frightening.

Fear limits us. How much easier those trying experiences would have been for me if I had not avoided speaking before groups in the past, if I had confronted my fear before my destiny depended upon it.

As Tagore says, what we fear will catch up to us one day; it is a law of life. Better we face it now, by our own choice, and take away its bullying, limiting power over us.

The first duty of man is to conquer fear; he must get rid of it, he cannot act till then. Thomas Carlyle

Attacking is the only secret. Dare and the world always yields; or if it beats you sometimes, dare it again, and it will succumb. William Makepeace Thackeray

The block of granite, which was an obstacle in the path of the weak, becomes a stepping stone in the path of the strong. Thomas Carlyle

Life is like a grindstone; whether it grinds you down or sharpens you up depends on what you are made of. Anonymous

I believe that anyone can conquer fear by doing the things he fears to do. Eleanor Roosevelt

Fear is met and destroyed with courage. James F. Bell

Courage mounteth with occasion. Shakespeare/De Vere

Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once. Shakespeare/De Vere

But screw your courage to the sticking place and we'll not fail. Shakespeare/De Vere

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy. Dale Carnegie

Often the difference between a successful person and a failure is not one has better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on one's ideas, to take a calculated risk - and to act. Maxwell Maltz

You can conquer almost any fear if you will only make up your mind to do so. For remember, fear doesn't exist anywhere except in the mind. Dale Carnegie

Act, and God will act. Joan of Arc

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Courage, remembered

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal

Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;

They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,

Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,

Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

'For The Fallen', by Laurence Binyon

Image by daliscar

Friday, November 6, 2009

Courage - the wiser brother of Fear

Humility may the root of virtue but courage is its spirit. Courage is the spirit of virtue because as C.S. Lewis said, courage is the form of every virtue at the testing point. Virtues are by definition qualities we choose (if we are wise) and develop and by definition they are often not easy to practice, otherwise everyone one would be virtuous all the time. Therefore we sometimes need courage to stick to the path of virtue when it would be easier and safer not to.
But what is courage?

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. Ambrose Redmoon

Courage is doing what you're afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared. Edward Vernon Rickenbacker

Valour is a gift. Those having it never know for sure whether they have it till the test comes. And those having it in one test never know for sure if they will have it when the next test comes. Carl Sandburg

There is no such thing as bravery; only degrees of fear. John Wainwright

Courage is fear holding on a minute longer. George S. Patton

Some have been thought brave because they were afraid to run away. Thomas Fuller

Fear and courage are brothers. Proverb

Courage is subordinating fear to the background as we give priority to a higher purpose, more important to us than our safety or comfort. Courage hears the voice of Fear, as an older wiser brother hears the complaints of his sibling, but he doesn’t allow it to stop him.

Do not take counsel of your fears. George Patton

The goal is too important to be left in the hands of fear. There is a kind of necessity to courage, a kind of obligation. That is why often heroes will say they did nothing courageous, they only did what had to be done, what anyone would have done. They did not hesitate.

If you have a strong enough why you can bear almost any how. Nietzshe

Real valour consists not in being insensible to danger; but in being prompt to confront and disarm it. Sir Walter Scott

Courage is not recklessness. Courage has confidence, wisdom, awareness. It is a conscious choice, not a moment of panic. There is no honour in recklessness, there is much honour in courage.

Courage is a virtue only so far as it is directed by prudence. François de Fenelon

Courage is... the knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared. David Ben-Gurion

Life is a series of choices. Every moment we decide what we will do in the next moment, either through good habits or by considered thought. This is the beauty of life, our ability to consciously choose. And with courage, we assure that our choices will always be consistently good when what is happening to us is not.

Facing it - always facing it - that's the way to get through. Face it! Joseph Conrad

As we shall see, fortune smiles on the brave. But that is not the reason to be brave, though it is a nice side benefit. Virtue is its own reward, courage also. What does it matter that we succeeded or not, as long as we acted virtuously with courage? By definition, courage will have no regrets.

Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt. Shakespeare/De Vere

There would be nothing to frighten you if you refused to be afraid. Gandhi

Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them. Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it. Rabindranath Tagore

Every difficulty slurred over will be a ghost to disturb your repose later on. Rabindranath Tagore

Health, happiness and success depend upon the fighting spirit of each person. The big thing is not what happens to us in life - but what we do about what happens to us. George Allen

The best way out is always through. Robert Frost
Image from Documents and Designs

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Courage - the spirit of virtue

In my recent post To base jump or not to base jump? I spoke about risk and pleasure, namely that to risk one’s life for the sake of pleasure was something I could not understand. Halvor Angvik, the chap in the video hurtling down the Eiger in a wingsuit, replied he would rather say “I won’t risk going through my life without living.”

Having thought some more on the subject, I think I was wrong to say they are risking their lives for pleasure. Pleasure is not the right word. And I was wrong to dismiss such noble aims as ‘pushing beyond one’s limits’ and ‘conquering one’s fear’ with the back of the hand as being nothing more than searching for ‘a kick’. Pushing beyond limits and conquering fear are valid and important activities and deserve more respect than that.
I feel like the proverbial critic sitting safely in his armchair, speaking about those who bravely act.

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. Theodore Roosevelt

With those who identify happiness with virtue or some one virtue our account is in harmony; for to virtue belongs virtuous activity. But it makes, perhaps, no small difference whether we place the chief good in possession or in use, in state of mind or in activity. For the state of mind may exist without producing any good result, as in a man who is asleep or in some other way quite inactive, but the activity cannot; for one who has the activity will of necessity be acting, and acting well. And as in the Olympic Games it is not the most beautiful and the strongest that are crowned but those who compete (for it is some of these that are victorious), so those who act win, and rightly win, the noble and good things in life. Aristotle (Nocomachean Ethics)

In his response, Halvor went on to say this:

Every person has to take calculated risks at some points in life to get or do something they really want, something that makes life worth living. It does not have to be physical consequences; it might be an economical compromise, related to someone you love or other things you really value in life. Some risks might be bigger than others, but once you've found out what you really want to do in life I bet you would think its worth taking some risks for.
What’s left of life if you won’t risk doing what you really want to do? Are you truly living then? I would not be.

He is absolutely right of course. Base jumping is the extreme example, but taking risks to go after what you want is part of life, or should be. Most of us would not even be here if our fathers had not taken the risk of making a first move toward our mothers. Everything good we have achieved in our life at some point involved our taking a risk. Sometimes a small one, sometimes a greater.

Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow. Mary Anne Radmacher

Sometimes the biggest act of courage is a small one. Lauren Raffo

For man's greatest actions are performed in minor struggles. Life, misfortune, isolation, abandonment and poverty are battlefields which have their heroes - obscure heroes who are at times greater than illustrious heroes. Victor Hugo

When I was a young man living in England, I knew I wanted to leave and live abroad. And I knew with absolute certainty that it would happen, one way or another. So when the opportunity came to go to the Bahamas to work, I took it without a second thought. Of course I was nervous when the day approached and I was leaving my family (who I would see again only once in the next 13 years). But it was what I wanted with all my heart, so I did not bat an eyelid. Later, much later, I was to move to Canada, to French Quebec in fact, where I didn’t have a job or speak the language. Again, ‘necessity’ gave me all the courage I needed.

Necessity does the work of courage. Nicholas Murray Butler

The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become. Charles Dubois

Look back on your life and you will see that all your victories, small and great, required courage and willingness to take a risk. And how many of your disappointments and failures can you put down to your fear to act or follow through?

In my posts about humility we came across this quote:

Humility is the root, mother, nurse, foundation, and bond of all virtue. Saint John Chrysostom

Humility may be the root of virtue, but as we shall see, courage is its spirit.

Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others. Winston Churchill

Without courage, all other virtues lose their meaning. Winston Churchill

Courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues; because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other. Samuel Johnson

Courage is the greatest of all the virtues. Because if you haven't courage, you may not have an opportunity to use any of the others. Samuel Johnson

One isn't necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest. Maya Angelou

With courage you will dare to take risks, have the strength to be compassionate, and the wisdom to be humble. Courage is the foundation of integrity. Keshavan Nair

Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point. C.S. Lewis

Courage and resolution are the spirit and soul of virtue. Thomas Fuller

Courage is the footstool of the Virtues, upon which they stand. Robert Louis Stevenson

Courage is the basic virtue for everyone so long as he continues to grow, to move ahead. Rollo May

Nothing but courage can guide life. Marquis de Vauvenargues

True courage is not the brutal force of vulgar heroes, but the firm resolve of virtue and reason. Alfred North Whitehead

No passion so effectually robs the mind of its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. Edmund Burke

To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom. Bertrand Russell

Half a man's wisdom goes with his courage. Ralph Waldo Emerson

Courage is always the surest wisdom. Wilfred Grenfell

Without courage, wisdom bears no fruit. Baltasar Gracian

Thursday, October 22, 2009

To base jump or not to base jump? Halvor Angvik's response

The blogosphere is a weird and wonderful place: in the evening you can write a post about a video you have seen of some crazy guy hurtling down the rocky face of the Eiger in a wingsuit and in the morning you can get a reply from him.
That’s right shipmates, here is Halvor Angvik’s response to my previous post To base jump or not to base jump? As you will see, Halvor comes across as a very intelligent, thinking, reasonable kind of guy. Here is his description of the science, the art and ultimately, the philosophy of base jumping.

Hi Alex. I stumbled over this blog while searching for copies of my Youtube video, which has been posted on quite a few sites after someone copied it to Liveleak recently. Internet is quite small sometimes...

First of all I want to thank you for the general review of the composition and the music, and for crediting Ugress which I think make some really unique music. The original video is found on my channel: but it seems this copied version is of a pretty good quality.

As it seems you have put some thought into this, I thought you might want a response from the jumper.

I would like to start of with some technical stuff, to put us on common ground when evaluating risks. As much as I have to agree that what we do in a wingsuit is falling, under the right conditions it is a very controlled way of falling. The ratio between forward and downward movement is up to 3:1, which means you can cover great distances. The thrust generated by air resistance fighting gravity is so powerful that the smallest changes of angle on your body or wings will make radical changes on your glide path for all three axes.
As a pilot, it feels more like flying than falling, and with reference to objects in close proximity you can actually pick a line in the terrain and fly it. Nothing need be left to chance if the jump is planned right and executed in the right conditions.

To refer to this particular video, I mainly fly in close proximity parallel to the wall, with high vertical clearance to the terrain. At any given moment I can disconnect from the wall, with enough speed in the suit that it can be done in the blink of an eye. It’s also worth mentioning that I never start out that close on the first jump on a new object. I jumped one of the walls in the video 10 times on that trip and the difference between the first and the tenth jump is huge when it comes to proximity and time spent parallel to the wall.

The most dangerous thing you can do with a wingsuit is to fly close proximity OVER the terrain. That requires a lot more planning and skills. You need to know that the angle of the terrain is well within your glide ratio limits and you need to know which parts of the flight you are in the clear to break off or pull, and where you have dedicated yourself to a line you will have to finish.

When flying over terrain you never maximize your glide ratio. By using a GPS logging device, I have calculated that I use approximately 70% of my lift capabilities when I fly steep over terrain. When I have picked a line, I know that I always have reserves to pull out if for some reason I end up lower than I thought I would. This goes for the two last jumps of the video.

In the first flight, over Eiger, you can notice the camera is shaking a lot. That is because I am going so steep I’m penetrating the relative wind on an angle where I start to lose all actual lift on the wings. I’m flying almost 1:1 in ratio at some points, which means I have around 60% more lift I can use. That flight was planned using 3D maps from Google Earth and pilots, as well as the one (pilot) who showed me the line and had done it several times before in a gradual approach.
The last jump actually only has an 8-10 second section where I have dedicated myself (to a line I must finish), the rest of the flight I can always break off to the left. At the point where I’m flying through the V-crack, I am actually trying to fly even lower into the crack, but I’m going as steep as I can while still having a stable flight. That means that I have loads of reserves to "pop" up and clear it with good margins.

These facts probably won’t change your mind about base jumping being a very high-risk activity, and it shouldn’t. It is a high-risk activity because any single mistake - whether it’s misjudgement of wind and weather, your skills for a specific object, or simply a mistake during flight or deployment, or equipment maintenance and packing - will most likely kill you. It might however help you to understand that I don’t do this for the risk itself, and the kick I get from handing my life over to faith and see how I manage. Every jump is planned to every last detail, and with good margins. I never doubt that my packing or rigging is good, because I will check it again until I am 110% sure it’s good, and I never fly off a mountain unless I am sure I can make the flight. It still doesn’t make it safe, but maybe it makes you see that it’s not that irresponsible either.

This brings me over to the philosophical part of this reply. Why do I jump? It is not because I’m fearless or braver than anyone else. I think I am as scared as any person and I certainly think a lot about the consequences of my actions. Neither is it for the adrenaline rush exclusively, though it is a good side effect. : )
Fear is one of the most powerful feelings I experience. It’s hard to control once it hits you and it’s hard to rationalize once it’s there. Ever since I was a small kid I have always liked to challenge that feeling, and the huge reward of satisfaction, and in some cases euphoria, I get from defying it and going through with something I am afraid of. When I first started jumping, that was probably one of the only motivations I had. As this is something I have been doing so long, and it is definitely not something I have from my family, I am quite sure part of this need is something I’m just born with.

After some jumps however, getting over the first jumps where I didn’t really have the personal experience to know how well the equipment worked and that I could do controlled jumps relatively safely, I found that base jumping gives me more than just chasing and conquering my fear.

When it comes to jumping mountains, you get to travel and experience untouched nature and places you would never go to if it had not been for the jumping, and you meet a lot of people with the same interests on the way. The feeling of freedom I get from hiking and climbing around in the mountain, out of reach of cell coverage and civilization, knowing that I am going to fly off a mountain when I get to the top, gives me an inner peace unmatched by anything else. Everyday problems are simply left at home in the city and I feel absolutely free. Mixing that up with the excitement and the overwhelming sensation I get from the feeling of flying through the terrain, it’s hard to imagine that I will ever find anything else that will give me as much as base jumping.

"To risk your life for the sake of pleasure is something I cannot understand".
I would rather say "I won’t risk going through my life without living". Every person has to take calculated risks at some points in life to get or do something they really want, something that makes life worth living. It does not have to be physical consequences; it might be an economical compromise, related to someone you love or other things you really value in life. Some risks might be bigger than others, but once you've found out what you really want to do in life I bet you would think its worth taking some risks for.

What’s left of life if you won’t risk doing what you really want to do? Are you truly living then? I would not be.

Thank you Halvor for taking the time to clarify what we see in the video and for sharing with us your passion and motivation for base jumping. I feel so much better about it now. I have moved it down the risk scale from 99.5 to something around 93, perhaps on a level with Formula 1 racecar driving, in the rain.
And I honour you for taking the calculated risks you do to go after what you want out of life… and scaring the wits out of the rest of us with your videos. God bless you, brother.

See my other posts about courage

Thursday, October 15, 2009

To base jump or not to base jump? That is the question.

The subject of this post is a little off topic. I came across the following video recently and it blew me away. It also got me thinking. And since thinking is what this blog is about, I wanted to share the video and my thoughts with you.

The video is a spectacular composition of base jump footage shot in the Alps. In base jumping, grown men of sane mind throw themselves off a mountain and open a parachute at the last minute… for fun. The jumpers are wearing a wingsuit, which gives them some forward motion while falling and allows them some degree of control over the direction of their fall. They reach speeds of about 140mph. As one of them says in another video, ‘At first when we base jumped our goal was to get as far from the rock face as possible. But after a while that became boring, so now we play around with it a little.’ Playing around with it means they guide themselves using the wingsuit to ‘buzz’ the rock face to as close as an arm’s length away and thread themselves through little irregularities in the rock wall. The scary thing about it is you must remember they are not flying, they are falling. They cannot ‘pull up’ if they have misjudged the height of the next rock wall.

From a philosophical point of view, I think they are crazy. My opinion is the same as the one I give to people who ask me if I have ever been parachute jumping. To risk your life for the sake of pleasure is something I cannot understand. If you are talking about practicing parachute jumping as a military skill, a necessary ability in a noble cause, then I can see the point and find it worthy, and laudable.
The same goes for base jumping. The jumpers may be worthy and laudable people, but it does not come particularly from this activity. You can bombard me with the arguments ‘oh, they are pushing beyond their limits, oh they are conquering their fear’ and all that, the bottom line is they are doing it for a kick. Whereas if you were to ask a group of soldiers to learn to base jump in order to carry out a mission to save lives, it would be noble, brave and admirable. That is my view. I am open to your arguments.

Having said that, all tastes can be found in nature. That these guys and gals get a kick from doing this is a part of the human kaleidoscope. There will always be people willing to risk their lives for the thrill of it. You certainly cannot deny that what they do calls for huge dollops of courage. And it must give them a huge kick.

The music by Ugress that accompanies the video is very well chosen and the video is beautifully edited to match it. If it were not for the music, this would be just another base jump video. But the music takes the images to another level, beyond the edge of the real to a nightmare world where reason has no say. Here you have the dreadful dark awesome power and beauty of the human spirit, taunting death with a smile and a laugh, as it hurtles through space. Only to land and climb back up the mountain to do it again.

Note: See the jumper Halvor Angvik’s response to this post here.

Thanks to Halvor Angvik for the video and editing, to Ugress for the music, and to Pakiavelli for publishing to Youtube

Monday, October 5, 2009

Chester Cathedral - through young eyes

While in Chester last month I visited Chester Cathedral. I have also visited the cathedrals in York, Lincoln and Durham on previous visits long before I began this blog. Chester ranks up there with the most notable, tracing its founding to just after the Norman Conquest almost a thousand years ago.

Whilst I was there it just so happened that a group of pre-schoolers were visiting the cathedral. About a hundred of them were sitting on the floor of the nave right in front of the organ.

There they were, a little bundle of young lives, some still clutching their favourite teddy bears, full of innocence and hope, the joy and treasure of the community. I was reminded of a quote of Carl Sandburg:

A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.

They were listening attentively to a guide who was explaining to them the functioning of the great organ, and as he explained the organ’s capabilities the organist would demonstrate them. The sounds ranged from something like the low tremor of an earthquake to the airy notes of a pipe whistle soaring into realms only dogs can hear.

It was quite touching to feel at the same time the weight of the ages in these old, holy stones and the fragility of the new life in these little children. It was also pleasing to see that they had been brought to this place at such an early age to be imbued with its power.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Black Prince

As I crossed the street from Leeds Station my eye fell on a striking equestrian statue some distance on the left. I went over to have a look at it. Now I must have crossed that street a dozen times in all my trips to England but never once did I seem to notice this statue, an amazing lack of observation on my part that I cannot explain. It was a statue of the Black Prince, no less.

The Black Prince was the son of Edward III, the victor of the Battle of Crécy, where a small English army destroyed a large French one by the use of the medieval equivalent of the tactical nuclear weapon: the longbow.

The prince ‘won his spurs’ (became a knight) at the age of 16 at that battle. There is a passage in Froissart that tells us something about the way the prince won his spurs and the sang froid and hard love of Edward III.

In the morning, the day of the battle, certain Frenchmen and Germans perforce broke through the archers of the prince’s battalion, and came and fought with the men-of-arms hand to hand. Then the second battalion of the Englishmen came to succour the prince’s battalion, the which was time, for they had then much ado; and those with the prince sent a messenger to the king, who was on the little windmill hill.
Then the knight said to the king, “Sir, the Earl of Warwick and the Earl of Stafford, Sir Reginald Cobham, and other such as be about the prince your son, are fiercely fought withal, and are sore handled: wherefore they desire you that you and your battalion will come and aid them, for if the Frenchmen increase, as they doubt they will, your son and they shall have much ado.”
Then the king said, “Is my son dead, or hurt, or on the earth felled?”
“No, Sir,” said the knight, “but he is hardly matched; wherefore he hath need of your aid.”
“Well,” said the king, “return to him and to them that sent you hither, and say to them that they send no more to me, whatever adventure befalleth, as long as my son is alive; and also say to them, that they suffer him this day to win his spurs, for if God be pleased, I will that this day’s work be his, and the honour thereof, and to them that be about him.”
Then the knight returned again to them, and showed the king’s words, the which greatly encouraged them; and they repented in that they had sent to the king as they did.

Thus the Black Prince won his spurs that day and went on to defeat the French himself at the Battle at Poitiers, fulfilling all his father’s hopes for him.

And such was Edward III in a time when a good king could bring glory and prosperity to his people and a bad king utter ruin. Soon the powers of kings would be curtailed by parliament, which is in effect an insurance policy against the consequences of having a bad king. Looking at the economic mess we are in today, some might prefer taking their chances with a king.

The Black Prince is buried in Canterbury Cathedral and what seems to be (I have not been there) a magnificent gilded copper effigy rests above his tomb, portraying the prince as the epitome of the chivalric knight.

David Green (in his book The Black Prince) notes that the tomb undoubtedly retained an aura many years after the prince’s death, for Shakespeare/De Vere has the archbishop of Canterbury say to Henry V:

Look back into your mighty ancestors:
Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire’s tomb,
From whom you claim; invoke his warlike spirit,
And your great-uncle’s, Edward the Black Prince,
Who on the French ground play’d a tragedy,
Making defeat on the full power of France,
While his most mighty father on a hill
Stood smiling to behold his lion’s whelp
Forage in blood of French nobility.

Photo of tomb effigy from Wikimedia

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)

Discover The Tale of Genji, the 11th Century classic of Japan (click image)
Kiyomizudera Temple has a large veranda looking out over Kyoto and beyond