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Thoughts from Dr. Joe: Defining Your Thermopylae

When experiencing a certain thought, place or even the sensation of a subtle breeze, I often feel that I’ve lived this experience before. Reincarnation offers an explanation of humanity’s origin. To know that you’ve lived many lives, and that are many more to come, is an attractive perspective from which to judge the meaning of life.

After reading the verse of Thomas Davis’ reference to the battle of Thermopylae, I became enthralled with its history: “When boyhood’s fire was in my blood, I read of ancient free men in Greece where bravely stood 300 men....”

I have this uncanny feeling that I was there with King Leonidas of Sparta defending the pass against Xerxes’ Immortals. Some of us know too well the smell of gunpowder.

One of my favorite poems, “Thermopylae,” by Constantine Cavafy, commemorates the famous battle in which 300 Spartans and their allies stood their ground against the Persian army, which according to Herodotus, numbered in excess of 250,000 soldiers. I cannot quote “Thermopylae” here in its full length, but it is short and easy to find on the Internet, should you wish to read it.


There are myriad meaningful thoughts strategically placed within the poem’s verse. Such thoughts may induce a different take on how we approach the New Year.

”Thermopylae” is about courage and honor exhibited in one of the greatest stories ever told. It 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 for the New Year.


In its brevity, it reminds us to stick to our guns and live a life that’s meaningful and principled. Its messages about honor and loyalty, the qualities a soldier should possess, are of essence.

In his poem, Cavafy takes us away from the battle and tells us to be consistent to rightfulness, to be compassionate and generous no matter our circumstance, and be truthful in all that we do. We are told not to hate those who do not live by the same principles we do, or who wrong us, for we should not begrudge them their own perspectives.

The poem’s final lines tell us that life has setbacks and potential for failure: “More honor is due to them when they foresee that Ephilates will turn up in the end, and that the Medes will break through after all.”

Ephialtes was the goatherd who betrayed the Spartans by leading the Persians/Medes through an old trail, which allowed the latter to encircle and outflank the defenders. The Spartans knew they had no chance, but they stayed and fought anyway.

We all have our Thermopylae, but in the heroic life, we soldier on as the Spartans did.

JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at