Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Why, #1

By Steven Pressfield | Published: July 9, 2014

Why am I writing this blog? Why are you reading it? It’s not a bad idea to pause once in a while and ask questions like these.

The Acropolis at Athens, seen from Mt. Lykabettos

The blog started about five years ago. It has evolved through a number of iterations. I’ve written in this space about what interests me, but I’ve also taken cues from comments and responses from readers and tried to dig deeper into issues that seemed to strike a chord.

What are we talking about on this blog? What’s our theme? What are we trying to get at, you and I?

I’m going to take the next few Wednesdays and attempt to answer that, at least from my own perspective.

What comes to mind at once is a thought from what to me is one of the seminal passages in the literature of Western civilization—Pericles’ Funeral Oration from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (translation below by Rex Warner).

Once each year at Athens in the ancient days, the citizenry gathered, outdoors “in the most beautiful quarter outside the city walls,” to honor the fallen in battle from the previous twelve months. A citizen “chosen for his intellectual gifts and for his general reputation” delivered an address. This particular year, 431 BCE, that man was Pericles.

Pericles took the occasion—a critical one for the city because it was in the second year of a great and fateful war—to speak not just to honor the dead but to address the subject of Athens herself.

What made the city so great and powerful?

Why was Athens pre-eminent in all the world?

What were her beliefs and principles? What type of person was the typical Athenian?

Here is perhaps the most famous (and, to me, most significant) passage from Pericles’ oration:

Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece, and I declare that in my opinion each single one of our citizens, in all the manifold aspects of life, is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and to do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility.

The rightful lord and owner of his own person. I don’t know if that thought had ever been uttered in any place other than Athens and the other Hellenic democracies. I’m not sure if any prior civilization had even deemed it an ideal worthy of aspiration. Earlier cultures had prized honor, strength, courage, piety, and other virtues. But individual autonomy? Wow, what a wild idea!

(Let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that women were largely excluded from political affairs in ancient Athens [though there were notable exceptions, as Pericles' own consort, Aspasia]. Let’s say for argument’s sake that Pericles included all Athenians in this statement.)

That phrase—the rightful lord and owner of his own person—is to me the definition of the term “citizen” in the best and highest sense, as the Greeks conceived it and, in fact, invented it. The citizen as opposed to the subject, the slave, the courtier, the tribesman, or even the citizen in the Spartan sense, which was far more collective and which prized individual autonomy far less highly, if at all.

This, I think, is what we’re talking about on this blog.

We’re talking about individual autonomy.

The enemy, by this conception, is any force internal or external that would compel you or me to serve its ends and not our own. This conception also implies, as Pericles stated in a different part of his oration, that when free citizens pursue the callings of their own hearts in the proper civic spirit, their achievements redound not only to their own individual benefit but to the good of society as a whole.

Am I getting too heavy here? Bear with me a little please.

When we speak on this blog of identifying, confronting, and overcoming Resistance, we’re talking about becoming the rightful lords and owners of our own persons. When we talk about professionalism in our crafts and our lives (as opposed to amateurism), we’re addressing the same aim.

But our focus on this blog is personal, not political. The issues we’re addressing go deeper than the level of politics, i.e. becoming free from external oppression, tyranny, and intimidation. They go deeper than the corporate sphere, that is, emancipating ourselves from limits or circumscriptions imposed by those who hold economic power over us. Our aims are deeper than cultural oppression as well, meaning those societal forces that seek to produce conformity, obedience to the norm, etc.

We’re talking on this blog about overcoming internal oppression, tyranny, and intimidation. We’re talking about confronting sabotage from within. Our preoccupation here is with overcoming our own shadow tendencies toward laziness, timidity, procrastination, arrogance, pettiness, and lack of attention, clarity, and focus.

We’re talking about instilling in ourselves the capacities of self-motivation, self-discipline, self-validation, self-reinforcement. We’re talking about acquiring the ability to overcome distraction, superficiality, iconization of self and others, self-obsession, narcissism, and the myriad other self-generated vices that stop us from becoming our authentic selves and from doing our true work, whether that is personal, professional, whatever.

Again, in Pericles’ phrase, becoming “the rightful lords and owners of our own persons.”

This stuff, we gotta admit, is pretty high on the Maslow Pyramid. It’s heady material. It’s about self-realization and self-actualization, though not necessarily about “success” as the conventional culture defines it. You don’t have to be rich to be sovereign over your own person. You don’t have to have a New York Times bestseller or a startup you just sold to Google.

What we’re aspiring to, then, at least as the collective enterprise of this blog defines it, is individual autonomy in the highest and most moral sense. Which brings us to the next question: how does such freedom (and the power that comes with it) fit into the greater arc of our lives and the lives of our families? If we’re free to act, what actions should we take?

Pericles in his oration was speaking of the individual in the political sense. Here on this blog our focus is more on the individual in the artistic sense, or, perhaps more accurately, the individual in her pursuit of a calling in the arts.

We’ll wade into that subject next Wednesday.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

27 Responses to “Why, #1”

  1. Mary Doyle
    July 9, 2014 at 5:20 am

    “We’re talking on this blog about overcoming internal oppression, tyranny, and intimidation. We’re talking about confronting sabotage from within…we’re talking about instilling in ourselves the capacities of self-motivation, self-discipline, self-validation, self-reinforcement.” Pure gold Steve. Since discovering this blog about a year ago I am continually amazed at how you and your team manage to deliver fresh inspiration week after week, and if you all truly appreciate how many of us are uplifted by what you do. I hope you are. We are grateful.

  2. Mike Byrnes
    July 9, 2014 at 5:36 am

    Thanks Steve. Periodic gut checks help me to refocus and recommit.

  3. Gary emineth
    July 9, 2014 at 6:13 am

    Who is John Galt?

  4. July 9, 2014 at 6:18 am

    A bit heavy, indeed, especially on 4 hours of sleep.

    Well, there’s also G-d’s admonition to Cain about “sin crouching at the door,” and the imperative in Deuteronomy to “choose life.” The Torah and prophets, etc., constantly reference the battle against the “evil inclination” (the Term in Jewish thought for Resistance). Pericles spoke in the political sense, the Jews (who preceded him) spoke in a spiritual sense. The artistic sense, which suffuses this blog, emerges from, and at its best is in conversation with, both.

    Thanks.

  5. July 9, 2014 at 6:26 am

    “We become what we think about” has been uttered by many wise men over the years. If we think about a specific goal, we’ll reach it. With no goals we’re living a confused and desperate life… Thanks Steve for Press-fielding the reset button this week and taking it back to basics. We have to know why we’re “fighting” in order to win the war against Resistance.

  6. Scott Whisler
    July 9, 2014 at 6:36 am

    Strong post, Steve.

    I love that the work on this blog is so consistent with this “Why” – it’s what makes this space so unique and the reading of it so instructive.

  7. July 9, 2014 at 6:47 am

    This is why I fight the fight I’ve chosen, for myself and for others.

  8. July 9, 2014 at 7:13 am

    And I love each of your blog posts :)

  9. Donn McAfee
    July 9, 2014 at 7:19 am

    As autonomous individuals, we, gathered here around this blog, have become an ether-community. And you who run the show are the generous reason. If it’s anywhere near as satisfying to be a supreme leader as it is to be a citizen you are full of fortune.
    When people ask me “what do you do?” the answer usually makes for quizzical & queazy faces, but during the quiet seconds of their pained mental processing I interject, “I have a mentor,” which elicits an “ahhh”, as if I’d said “I’m friends with the Dali Lama.” This blog, this community, and you cyber-leaders are what I’m referring to: my mentor.
    Thank you for lighting the path. I sure hope you stay.

  10. Walter Trauth
    July 9, 2014 at 7:36 am

    Ahh, Pressfield, is it possible you have surpassed yourself? Thank you.

  11. Barbara
    July 9, 2014 at 7:42 am

    Thanks, Steve, for this reminder, today, now.

  12. Irene
    July 9, 2014 at 8:24 am

    Thanks Steve. Fabulous post and I don’t think it was too heady at all.

  13. Pat
    July 9, 2014 at 8:57 am

    Steve – I continue to be very grateful for your thought-provoking writing like this that comes to my inbox. Pieces like this force me to confront the internal forces I cleverly hide from too frequently.

  14. Garry
    July 9, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Brilliant post Steve – full of truthful resonance.

    Thanks brother.

  15. Eleatic Visitor
    July 9, 2014 at 9:21 am

    Beautiful short essay. Looking forward to the other installments.

    “Enlightenment is the emergence of the person from his/her own self-imposed irresponsibility.”

    …first sentence of Kant’s short essay What is Enlightenment? where irresponsibility (Minderheit) is a bolder-than-usual translation of the word for not being a fully mature adult, not having proven oneself ready to vote and have power over your own property and affairs, needing others to make these life choices for you – literally “being a minor”.

    Isn’t that where we all are before we turn pro?

  16. July 9, 2014 at 9:27 am

    Jesus Christ!

  17. Barbara Allie
    July 9, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Thanks Steve for your post!
    I will print it out for safe keeping to reread at a later date. Much like I reread Emerson’s “Self Reliance” – to remind myself of my worth, validity and individual autonomy.

  18. Suzyn
    July 9, 2014 at 11:23 am

    Thanks for all you write, Steve. I would love it if you could delve more deeply into *identifying* our true work.

  19. Jeannine
    July 9, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    Outstanding. Thank you.

  20. July 9, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    He shoots, he scores!

    Posts like today are what captured my attention, and keep me coming back.

    Agree with others…not too heady, but the marrow of this blog.

    Been thinking a lot about boundaries–those imposed by others (governments, corporations, military, institutions, etc)–and how I have always thrown myself against them. Got a speeding ticket a weeks ago for example.

    What I think I am finally beginning to learn from this blog, my own experience, and other readings & reflection is: either create your own boundaries or perish. External rules cannot make the man. A career Soldier is not disciplined if he does not internalize the behaviors for their own legitimacy. For example daily exercise is not to pass a PT test, it is a necessary component of a fully actualized life.

    The way I am beginning to understand ‘turning Pro’ in my own language is to come to grips with my own frailty–of mind, spirit, and will. Blaming God, the world, Mother Nature while shaking my fist at the injustice of my own drama, it is to recognize my own limitations for what they are–and create my own boundaries/rules/laws to protect my ideal self (the one I want to grow into) from my current/weak/ego-driven/completely untrustworthy self. I cannot be left to my own devices, but I am also the only one that can create the rules around myself to protect me from me…crazy.
    Thanks again.
    bsn

    • July 9, 2014 at 3:42 pm

      I couldn’t have said it better, Brian. That’s a micro-novel all by itself!

  21. July 10, 2014 at 8:20 am

    Steve, thank you yet again for another inspiring post. The historian in me is pleased, but the artist and writer even more so. I’d never thought about those words in Pericles’ funeral oration from that angle. But it rings true – to become the best that we were meant to be, we have to master ourselves and defeat Resistance.
    BTW, I think Athens should also make you an honorary citizen!
    Thanks for the great work and I look forward to the other posts on this.

  22. Barry
    July 10, 2014 at 8:25 am

    Thank you for stepping back and taking time to write this post. You and your team continue to put out a level of value and truth that I find nowhere else, and why I look forward to all of the posts. This one helps me understand why this blog, and all of the comments from others, are so powerful for me and my experience.

    You are not getting too heavy, everyone else is too light. It can be hard to find the ‘good, true and beautiful’ that speaks directly to the soul.

    To “is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person…with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility” It’s the “exceptional” part of the quote that stands out to me. To be “exceptional” at least in my experience, is damn hard, and it is what is required to turn Pro. First, I have to be the rightful lord and owner of “me”, which is hard enough, and then I have to do it with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility? Really?

    My soul says “yes, really.” then adds, “and, it is the ONLY way…both for us individually, and for society.”

    I’ve never read Pericles before. Per this, “that when free citizens pursue the callings of their own hearts in the proper civic spirit, their achievements redound not only to their own individual benefit but to the good of society as a whole.”

    To me this is what the Conscious Capitalism movement is about. A message of truth speaking out through the ages.

    As you state, the aim is the same in both our personal and professional lives. There is no “identifying, confronting, and overcoming Resistance” in any one part of our lives. It is integral, comprehensive, total. When developing oneself, it seems, one has to go through the “narrowing”… A note I have from someone quoting a bible verse, ‘Enter through the narrow gate and take the narrow path. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction. But narrow is the gate and path and there are only few who travel it.”

    Your books and this blog provide the tools and stories I need for the daily battle with the Resistance, and thus my companion on the journey to become the rightful lord and owner of my own person. Signposts for how to stay on the narrow path.

    One more thing to add (which will make the longest post I’ve ever written 2x’sas long). It’s regarding the focus of this blog.

    I experience this blog as much broader than “the individual in her pursuit of a calling in the arts.” Maybe this is because I define “the arts” too narrowly. For me it is also for individuals involved in the creative process, whatever may be the arena.

    An example…

    My wife is in a career change. An accountant by training, she is now a teachers assistant at a Montessori school and is studying to become a Montessori teacher. I picked up one of her books last week, “Maria Montessori – Her Life and Work” by E.M. Standing, copyright 1957. When I read a few paragraphs I immediately thought, “this is what Steven Pressfield talks about, just in a different way.” Here’s the passage…

    Distorted Modern Ideas of Work
    “Our modern industrialized society, according to Montessori, has lost all true sense of the value and meaning of work. This is partly because, in the present state of society, division of labour as we know it rests on false foundations; it is the result of the unchecked possessiveness of whole groups of men. Love of possession and love of power are “deviations” from the normal. It is these which have brought about a social condition in which some do no work at all, or very little, but live parasitically on the labors of others. “Work,” says Montessori, “Is so truly the natural expression of ‘normalized mankind (each species living on earth has its ‘cosmic mission’) that man’s true name should be homo laborans rather than homo sapiens! But, alas, as things are at present, most persons have lost this ‘instinct of the species.’ It is lay in person of exceptional power – the geniuses – that this love of work persist as an irresistible impulses, surviving in spite of the unhappy conditions which have smothered it in the majority. Such are for example, the artists, discovered, explorers, reformers, and so forth who — like children — cannot help working, and have by their heroic efforts rediscovered the instinct of the species.”

    “Montessori believes that if the child — at each stage of development — was given the opportunity of doing the special kind of work for which his nature craves, it would lead to a more harmonious humanity, a humanity largely delivered from the love of possession and the love of power.”

    Even if no-one sees or reads this post, it doesn’t matter. For me this blog provides a community where like minds and hearts can engage and resonate around the depth of the possibility of what we can become, if we can ‘confront and overcome that sabotage from within.’

    For this, I am eternally grateful for you and your team and the work that you do. And for the community gathered around to experience the wisdom… so we can individually and collectively (dare I say that!?) push forth with exceptional grace and versatility as the rightful lord and owner of our persons

    Namaste,
    -Barry

    • Dennis
      July 12, 2014 at 12:04 pm

      Thanks Barry, I’ve read your post. There is always value if we put our heart into it.

      Dennis

    • July 12, 2014 at 3:35 pm

      Barry…wow! So much good exchange happening here. I’ve come to rely on Mr. Pressfield as a fellow general at war, sharing ideas and strategies for the Great War each of us must fight if we are to do our work and do it well.

      But good ideas and great minds are also to be found here in the comments. Thank you for this:

      “Such are for example, the artists, discovered, explorers, reformers, and so forth who — like children — cannot help working, and have by their heroic efforts rediscovered the instinct of the species.”

      “Montessori believes that if the child — at each stage of development — was given the opportunity of doing the special kind of work for which his nature craves, it would lead to a more harmonious humanity, a humanity largely delivered from the love of possession and the love of power.”

      It’s a simple idea, enjoying work for the sake of it, but a powerful one. It makes you appreciate Now all the more, and it casts a lovely spell on the Future.

      Namaste. :)

      Angela

  23. July 10, 2014 at 6:58 pm

    Steven, I have been away for awhile but it’s good to be back reading the words of a like-minded soul. 5 stars. :)

  24. Jay Cadmus
    July 17, 2014 at 8:36 am

    As one struggles with his stringing of words in coherence; so goes his personal feeling of worthiness as one given the words to write.
    A friend directed me to your book…and, recently to this blog.
    What you teach here is for young authors and well aged writers.