“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here obedient to their laws we lie.” — Simonides epitaph, quoted in Gates of Fire
Steven Pressfield's The War of Art is one of the most impactful books I've ever read—a battlecry and battle plan against that ever-present, invisible obstacle that creative types face daily. This month I was happy to pick up one of his novels, Gates of Fire. It depicts the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, in which three hundred Spartan warriors held off hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Persian invaders. Their ultimate act of sacrifice gave the rival Greek city states to muster their armies and unite against the east. Told through a series of flashbacks of different Spartan characters, Gates of Fire captures the historic moment with a brutal, caustic style.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE
"Here is an animal capable of killing a man, an animal of legendary endurance and spirit, an animal that embodies marvelous integration with its environment. This is exactly what the frustrated modern hunter would like: the noble qualities imagined; a sense of fitting into the world. The hunter wants to be the wolf." — Barry Lopez, Of Wolves and Men
A NEW GENERATION
In 1995, after passionate public debate, legal suits, and political agendas, fifteen Canadian wolves were introduced to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The next year, they added sixteen more. By 2003, 174 wolves called America's first and largest national park home and were divided into fourteen packs. Each one competed for food, mates, and territory. The Druid Pack, named by Yellowstone's research team because of its territory's proximity to Druid Peak, was the alpha pack. It boasted a staggering 37 members, the largest ever recorded on earth.
It had been early 70 years since wolves were systematically and tragically exterminated from Yellowstone by the federal government in 1926. But Yellowston's new generation of wolves weren't just surviving. They were thriving. This experiment helped to usher in a golden age of research about ecosystems and the role of the wolf in them. It also triggered complex political and legal battles. At the center of it all was a female wolf born in 2006 from the Agate Creek Pack, named O-Six. She would grow to be the favorite of Yellowstone's research teams and introduced to thousands of Yellowstone park visitors each year.
The story of American Wolf spans two decades, two states, dozens of wolf packs, and hundreds of square miles. "O-Six's story begins where all good Yellowstone wolf stories began," writes Blakeslee, "the Lamar Valley." That's the northeast corner of the park and the top-right corner of this map aboove.
O-Six fought to become the alpha female of her pack. Her ability to outlast and outwit made her a living legend amongst wolves and men during her life. As a new mother, she once was observed protecting her pups from a female grizzly bear for seven hours single-handedly. She also was seen dangerously crossing into other pack territories and convincing strong males to come breed with her own pack, in desperate need of future strength.
WOLVES VS MAN
Of course, as O-Six and all the other wolves hunted, mated, played and thrived in Yellowstone, tensions grew between ranchers, hunters, and conservationists.
Sometimes animals simply leave national parks, including wolves. Sometimes, nearby farms suffered from livestock being eaten. Sometimes, hunters would shoot radio-collared wolves accidentally or intentionally, legally or illegally. Sometimes wolves had political protection when on the Endangered Species list (Added in June 2010. Removed again in October 2020).
This tense relationship with man is not new though. Wolves used to be discussed in pre-modern civilizations as much as the weather. They were the ultimate nemesis of pastoral cultures. Dog, man's best friend, is a domesticated wolf and was used as a defense against their wild ancestor. Werewolves of course are nocturnal, wicked, and blood-thirsty, haunting our campfire stories and Netflix queues to this day.
However, there are also new stories too, like American Wolf, and the research team led by Rick McIntrye, who observed and recorded fascinating changes in Yellowstone.
WOLVES AND RIVERS
When wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone, rivers came back.
Willow is a riparian shrub that beavers love to eat. However, the elk in the park also love to eat it and the great herd had essentially striped the riverbanks clean for generations. So there were fewer beavers for many years and the waterways languished in the park. When the wolves came back in 1995, the elk moved away to higher ground for better defense from and visibility of these super-predators. So the willow grew back. The beaver population grew too. The soon-dammed waterways lead to streams, ponds, and more life.
Wolves also hunted coyotes and killed the young, which halved the over-populated smaller predators soon after. This lead to the rodent population in the park growing, and soon owl, hawk, fox, and weasel numbers, which had been suppressed, restored too. Antelope and pronghorns were hunted less thanks to much fewer coyotes and so their calves saw adulthood. Wolf kills also provided scraps for bears, eagles, foxes, coyotes, and magpies.
And so, with the wolves returning to Yellowstone after being previously exterminated by their alleged park protectors in 1926, many of the park's flora and fauna healed and thrived in ways that they had not for decades. [JG]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nate Blakeslee is a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly. His first book, Tulia, won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize and the Texas Institute of Letters nonfiction prize, and was a finalist for the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. The Washington Post called Tulia one of the most important books about wrongful convictions ever written. Blakeslee lives in Austin, Texas, with his family.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE
"Every art and every inquiry, and likewise every action and choice, seems to aim at some good, and hence it has been beautifully said that the good is that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is apparent among ends, since some are way of being at work, while others are certain kinds of work produced..." — Aristotle, Book I of Nicomachean Ethics
I love the ancient Greeks and I have loved them since discovering Edith Hamilton's illustrated Mythology in 7th grade at a school book fair. The stories of Icarus, the boy who flew too close to the sun, Narcissus, the young man who fell in love with himself, and the trials of mighty Hercules enchanted me. These and many other myths were just the beginning though.
The summer before high school, I sailed the wine dark sea with Odysseus and watched the story's prequel, Troy, dozens of times. I soon encountered other stories too: Sophocles' Antigone, the original star-crossed-lovers tragedy Pyramus and Thisbe, Shakespeare's inspiration for Romeo and Juliet. I found the parallels between Oedipus and the original Star Wars saga. I sought out Disney's re-imagined versions of Hercules and Atlantis. Later, Zack Snyder's 300.
Beyond the plays and verses and myths, I also devoured historian Victor Davis Hanson's not chronological but conceptual account of the West's first civil war between Athens and Sparta—and what it can still teach us. I revisited The Tortoise and the Hare, and Aesop's other timeless fables, which I hadn't even realized came from Greece. I encountered Atlas, the titan who shouldered the earth in Ken Levine's magnum opus—and soon after Ayn Rand's. All these stories of gods and mortals, truth and beauty, right and wrong, captured me completely and continue to capture me, as they do much of the world to this day.
Aristotle's Poetics was my introduction to the philosopher's works, which is an exploration into the arts. I deliberated picked it up since it was such a hot topic in Umberto Eco's spectacular novel, The Name of the Rose. The 1986 movie adaptation staring Sean Connery is also spectacular. Rose is a murder mystery set in 14th century England. Deeper, it's a philosophical battle royale between reason and faith. The Franciscan monk's Aristotelian thought process leads him to discover the truth of the murders at a monastery, based on induction (evidence) and deduction (logic). In contrast, the Catholic priests' faith leads them to blindly obey orders, like hiding evidence, burning a library containing Aristotle's original works, and killing people who dare to disobey.
It's been said by some that Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics is the greatest self-help book ever written. Nicomachean is the Greek word for "victor in battle," and so while courage does count in Aristotle's ethical system as one of four major virtues (courage, justice, temperance, practical judgement), the philosopher begins with an exploration of happiness. I found his approach refreshingly down-to-earth and insightful. I'm grateful to highlight below some of the key takeaways rather than try to map out precisely his virtues, which he warns about in ethics generally.
Aristotle says that moral virtues are the means to achieving various ends—all of which are some form of good—and lead to a state of happiness. Living virtuously, he emphasizes, is to engage in an active state or condition, not hit a perfect destination and stay there, passively. Humans, he argues have a unique way of properly living:
1. Seeing an end.
2. Thinking about the means to achieve it.
3. Choosing an action or series of actions to reach it.
To engage in this uniquely human process is to live virtuously. We as humans both pursue and also experience the good, that is, if one has seen, thought through, and chosen the means and ends that are proper to a human life.
THE MEANS & THE ENDS
Aristotle writes of three primary ways of life that men seem to choose over and over again: A life of pleasure, a political life, or a contemplative life. These may all exist in the same person's life, and at different life stages, but he views these three as the primary ends at which we aim. Note that when Aristotle categorizes a political life, I don't think he means engaging directly in one's government. I think here he means focusing on productive relationships with other people, primarily working a trade and building a family. This life's focus is on reputation and station in one's life, as well as achieving other externals.
The life of pleasure, Aristotle contends, is that of "fatted cattle." It is an option, but an inferior one, when considering a human's social and rational nature. A life of politics is that of pursuing honors (usually externals like wealth, reputation, and friendships). A life of contemplation, Aristotle argues is perhaps the most proper because it requires a human's unique ability to reason. This active-state of reasoning, he argues, can be the most satisfying; contemplating in the company of oneself and with others—both through reasoning speech, is the most unique to humans and perhaps the greatest source of happiness.
My favorite virtue that Aristotle explores surprised me. He views friendship as an integrator of cities and entire civilizations. Justice, a major virtue of Aristotle's system, he argues is necessary, because not all humans are friends. In those cases between strangers or enemies, goodwill is not the default state, and requires deliberate, difficult, virtuous action to treat one another properly. I found this point very interesting, and probably true.
Aristotle contends that there are primarily three types of friendships:
1. Use: those who love one another for what is useful, and for what could come to them through the friendship.
2. Pleasure: Those who love doing things together or how one makes them feel. Charm, witty conversation, experiencing the same kind of music or food.
But these two types are "incidental," and not likely to last. The complete form of friendship is that between people who are good and are alike in virtue, "since they wish for good things for one another in the same way insofar as they are good, and they are good in themselves." In this way, "...genuine friendship" for Aristotle "becomes a measure of closeness to good character," writes the editor.
THREE KEY WORDS
A professor at Hillsdale College recommended to use the Joe Sachs translation, and I am so glad that I did. These three words below are crucial to understand when reading Aristotle, but often translations or interpretations skew the spirit of them:
The Greek word "Hexis" is mistranslated often as "habit," which robs the active-minded, rational process that Aristotle is identifying. This active process can in time then become integrated with his moral character, but it is not at first, if ever, a passive, thoughtless process to establish those habits. Sachs quotes from Hamlet here:
Assume a virtue if you have it not,
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat
Of habits evil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain tonight,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence; the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature...
It's not nature that needs to be changed but our own habits—with new habits.
The Greek word "Ergon," is mistranslated often as "function." But this smuggles in the idea that humans serve a function and are a means to an end. Instead, Aristotle contends that a human's happiness is an end in itself and humans are not merely means to an end.
The Greek word "Energeia" is sometimes mistranslated as simply "activity." This, the editor contends, robs the true meaning, which is better understood as "to-be-at-work."
TWO OTHER KEY IDEAS
1. THE MEAN
Often, Aristotle is misunderstood to advocate for a balance in all things, sometimes referred to as finding The Golden Mean. This, Translator and Editor Joe Sachs argues, is imprecise. For Aristotle, the proper mean is not purely quantitative. That is, ethical behavior is not all on a sliding scale or mapped on a spectrum. Rather, it is qualitative, and proper action is largely based on the context. There is never a singular right piece of content or quantitative measurement of ethics. "Principles are wonderful things," he writes, "but there are too many of them, and exclusive adherence to any one of them is always a vice." This is because there is an inflexibility to them if misapplied to the wrong context. So, achieving ends requires an understanding of the context in which you're operating to achieve a desired end.
2. THE NOBLE
Sachs argues that often times translators misunderstand Aristotle's view of the good and the beautiful, which is sometimes mis-appropriately wrapped in language like "noble," which could smuggle in a lofty, sense of virtue detached from happiness and one's life. "Aristotle," Sachs writes, "considers moral virtue the only practical road to effective action..." and additionally that, "[The philosopher] is always alert to the natural way that important words have more than one meaning." For example, calling something a beautiful thing could be both an esthetic judgement and an ethical one. But noble actions, properly, are not divorced from practical results. This is a major philosophical difference from his teacher, Plato.
"Greatness of soul, even from its name, seems to be concurred with great things, and let us first take up what sort of great thing they are...Now the person who seems ot be great-souled is one who considers himself worthy of great things, and is worthy of them, for one who does so not in accordance with his worth is foolish, and among those who answer to the description of virtue there is no one who is foolish..." Aristotle, Book IV of Nicomachean Ethics
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE
"Do you think it's possible to live again, Monsieur? ...I mean...is it possible to die and then...live again in someone else?"
Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 Vertigo is one of my favorites since film school, and so cracking open the novel was just a matter of time. Originally penned by France's hottest thriller duo for Hitchcock himself in 1954, the novel D'entre Les Morts (The Living and the Dead) disorients and frightens through a nightmare of twists and turns.
Gevigne, a shipping magnate, asks his old friend, police officer Flavieres to follow his wife, Madeleine. She's been acting strangely as she approaches her twenty-fifth birthday—so strangely that her husband is convinced she is possessed by a ghost of her ancestor, one who killed herself—at age twenty-five. The next morning, Flavieres follows her as she frequents an old cemetery to pray at the grove of this deceased relative. And from there he stumbles into a maze of mysteries that blur the lines between the living and the dead—a maze that leads to a tower at its center. [JG]
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Boileau-Narcejac is the nom-de-plume of Pierre Boileau (1906-89) and Thomas Narcejac (1908-98), one of France's most successful writing duos, whose careers spanned four decades and led to over fifty thrillers. I want to read their debut, She Who Was No More, which inspired French filmmaker's Henri-Georges Clouzet to adapt it to screen as Les Diaboliques.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE
“When you said to me, “Tell me the story of your life,” I was not eager to begin. But when you added, “What I care most about is learning your reasons for loving life,” then I became eager, for that was a real subject.” — Jacques Lusseyran
Jacques Lusseyran was blinded at the age of seven.
It happened one day at school in 1916. A fellow schoolboy accidentally shoved into little Jacques from behind in the hallway, smashing his face against the wall. The boy's eyeglasses shattering, and despite surgeries and time to heal, Lusseyran's vision was gone forever. From that day on though, he discovered a new world amidst the darkness.
"I remember well when I first arrived at the beach two months after the accident. It was evening and there was nothing there but the sea and its voice, precise beyond the power to imagine it," Lusseyran writes. "...It spoke to me in layers all at once. The waves were arranged in steps, and together they made one music, though what they said was different in each voice. There was rasping in the bass and bubbling in the top register. I didn't need to be told about the things that eyes could see...what the waves said they said twice over."
A NEW SIGHT
This new, deeper connection to reality was something he swiftly did not only accept, but even became glad of; Lusseyran's senses of touch, smell, and hearing became heightened. "I didn't even know whether I was touching [the apple] or it was touching me. As I became part of the apple, the apple became part of me...To put it differently, this means an end of living in front of things and a beginning of living with them."
In just six weeks, with the help of his mother, he learned Braille by reading the adventures of Mowgli in The Jungle Book. She also bought him a specially designed typewriter from Switzerland. But his new blindness, of course, was painfully isolating—and tempting. His dark inner world became a kind of "drug," but he grew weary of the temptation to always live internally and not experience reality. One way to combat this temptation was to walk the streets of Paris and the countryside. Through hours and days and weeks of trial and error, Lusseyran mapped much of it. He recovered in his parents quiet, clean, empty, safe storeroom if he ever became too disoriented from the work.
From his darkness, not only did young Jacques map the city, but also the hearts and minds of the strangers, teachers, parents, and friends he encountered. "People were not at all as they were said to be, and never the same for more than two minutes at a stretch." He recounts the "smell" of social obligations at school and church. "Just think how much suppressed anger, humiliated independence, frustrated vagrancy, and impotent curiosity can be accumulated by forty boys between the ages of ten to fourteen. So that was the source of the unpleasant odor and the smoke, which, for me, was like a physical presence..."
But his friends—especially Jean—were different. "We were still two, joyfully and freely two, so much that each of us lived twice every day. What bound us together was not just friendship, it was a religion."
History marks May 1940 as when the Germans invaded France. But Jacques felt the invasion years earlier in 1934, when he was just thirteen, as he listened to the radio. He knew they would come, and looming closer to home was the reminder of his blindness by way of Jean and his boy friends who had discovered girls. "I told myself stories of boundaries that could never be crossed," but "I ridiculed my childhood dreams," Lusseyran writes. He was aware that those childhood days of "double, triple, countless, and forever new" were gone.
On June 14th, 1940, Nazi tanks entered a nearly deserted Paris. Jacques was just nineteen. Many French citizens adapted to the new reality, even allying with their conquerors. "Paris under the Occupation looked to me as if she were praying. She seems to be calling on someone, but hers was a voiceless cry."
But some would give her a voice.
97% of the French resistance were men. 3% women. The majority were under 30 years old. 14% were under 18. There were different levels of resistance—violence, sabotage, financial support, logistical support (like bicycling weapons beneath greens to escape detection). Emerging from the resistance effort were young heroes who have since become immortalized.
Guy Moquet was a young man executed randomly at the hands of the Germans, and whose letters of courage emboldened his generation. Maroussia Naitchenko was a political activist adept at sensing and escaping Gestapo traps. The "sudden courage" that thousands of young men and women felt to resist the Nazi invaders was staggering. Their work included sabotaging Nazi supply lines and radio communications, hiding Jews and other refugees, assassinating officers and guards, stealing weapon caches, and helping Allied forces in 1944 onward. But, as Lusseyran recounts, "A country in disaster is swarming with traitors," and so secrecy and loyalty were paramount.
Lusseyran was voted by his teenage comrades in the resistance to be in charge of all recruiting, because he had "the sense of human beings." During the resistance, Lusseyran interviewed 600+ potential recruits. "People would not easily deceive me. I should not forget names or places, addresses, or telephone numbers." Always before joining the resistance, candidates were told, "Go to the blind man. When he has seen you, I shall have something to tell you." French jazz clubs, a.k.a. 'Zazous,' were a popular recruiting location. During the war, Lusseyran helped build one of the largest underground networks in France.
Lusseyran was eventually arrested, betrayed by a young spy. The Nazi SS arrested him and interrogated him 38 times. They had compiled a 50-page report on his travels and activities, which they had been tracking for weeks. He declared his innocence, and, lying "twenty times per minute," managed to keep his stories in order. Still, they jailed him for six months.
"In prison, more than ever before, it is within yourself that you must live. If there is a person you cannot do without, not possibly—for instance a girl somewhere outside the walls—do as I did then. Look at her several times a day for long time...And for a long time you will not even realize you are in prison."
Eventually though, the Nazis transported Lusseyran and 2,000 frenchman to Buchenwald. There he stayed for fifteen months. When the American's liberated the concentration camp under General Patton, only thirty of those Frenchman had survived. Jacques was one of them. During the war, 380,000 men had been killed at Buchenwald alone. Jacques best friend, Jean, died of starvation the day before reaching Jacques on a train from another prison.
Lusseyran's memoir ends abruptly after recounting the war. He catalogs the first 20 years of his life, which he believes belongs to the world—especially America, to whom he is a "guest" and lived in for time as a professor. He closes his book with two truths:
1. "Joy does not come from outside, for whatever happens to us it is within."
2. Light does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes." [JG]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jacques Lusseyran ((1924-1971) was blinded at age seven, formed a French Resistance group at age seventeen, and endured fifteen months at Buchenwald. After World War II, he became a professor in the United States at Case Western Reserve University.
He wrote one other work in his lifetime, Against the Pollution of the I, a collection of six essays that chronicle the heroism at Buchenwald by fellow inmates and experiences with his inner vision throughout this life.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE
SAVE OUR SOULS
with artist Cyril Rolando
Jocko Willink & Leif Babin
TOP BOOKS 2016
My 10 favorite
(re)reads of 2016
AN ILLUSTRATED BOOK OF BAD ARGUMENTS
BOOKS OF HUCKBERRY
Zorro: The Complete Pulp Adventures
I've been reading a book a week for 15+ years. On here, I share my favorites, fiction and nonfiction alike, as well as interviews with authors, artists, and entrepreneurs I admire. If you'd like to join a family of 5,000+ creatives, subscribe for the Reading List, a monthly email round-up for plenty of leads on your next read.