Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Learning honor and courage from a poem

January 15, 2014|By Joe Puglia

I enjoy the periodic notes I receive from my readers; it’s nice to know that someone appreciates my thoughts. Recently I received a question from a reader, “Dr. Joe, I read the poem ‘Thermopylae’ by Constance Cavafy you used as a literary reference. I didn’t get it!”

I fired off a reply. “Read me next week,” I said.

‘Thermopylae’ is one of my two favorite poems. The other is ‘Ithaca,’ also by Cavafy. I am guilty of referencing them often. Both possess the secret of life. Asking a question about poetry is like asking for the time of day and then being told how to build a clock.

I often experience the phenomenon déjà vu when a thought or place seems much too familiar. To have lived many lives and to realize there are many more to come is an attractive perspective from which to judge life’s messages. Reincarnation offers a hint relative to the miracle of déjà vu.


To understand the poem you first have to understand history. When boyhood's fire was in my blood, I read of ancient free men in Greece where 300 Spartans guarded the pass Thermopylae. I had this uncanny feeling that I was there with King Leonidas of Sparta defending the pass against Xerxes’ Immortals.

There is a myriad of meaningful thoughts strategically placed within Cavafy’s verse.

“Honor to those who in the life they lead define and guard a Thermopylae.

Never betraying what is right, consistent and just in all they do,

but showing pity also, and compassion;

Generous when they're rich, and when they're poor, still generous in small ways, still helping as much as they can;

Always speaking the truth, yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honor is due to them when they foresee

(as many do foresee) that Epilates will turn up in the end,

and that the Medes will break through after all.”

Thermopylae is about courage and honor exhibited in one of the greatest stories ever told and validates those who fought heroically to the end even knowing that they were doomed. Theirs is a unique sense of honor.

Thermopylae defines the heroic life and is metaphorically linked to that which brings meaning and depth to our lives. Living the heroic life thus becomes our guide. What is your Thermopylae? How do you define it? Perhaps these are salient questions to be answered in 2014.

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