Why Leaders Study the Greek Classics

By | July 29, 2018

[July 29, 2018]  There’s an old stereotype that soldiers in the military are a bunch of knuckle-dragging dimwits who don’t have a creative thought or significant accomplishment in their pathetic lives.1  Contrary to that view, however, is a growing trend among most Western-nation military leaders to study the Greek classics.

Several of my neighbors at a recent get together in our clubhouse were a bit surprised when I told them about it.  They told me that I must be dreaming or smoking pot or something to believe this.  So they said, in spite of only one of them having served in the U.S. military.  At the time, in my mind, I asked why was it that this old stereotype was so persistent notwithstanding being contrary to the facts.

The reaction I received is common.  Ultimately, the more important question is why military leaders are studying the classics.  I believe the answer lies in the philosophy of an ancient Chinese General, Sun Tzu.  This general wrote that to, “know thy self, know they enemy, a thousand battles, a thousand victories.”

In the U.S. and in many Western nations, we really don’t know ourselves that well.  This may be an unpopular observation but I think the reason is that we’ve been told since childhood that we are special and can do nothing wrong.  Of course, that is not true and when reality meets truth, the results can be messy.  That is why military leaders are trying to get back to the basics by studying the Greek classics.

By studying the Greek classics we can get a much better understanding of other cultures, an idea why people act the way they do, and we can pick up a few military lessons along the way.  Ultimately, studying the classics provides us with a much better understanding of ourselves and – for soldiers – a better understanding of a potential enemy.

The reason there is a military is to protect the nation from outside forces.  History has demonstrated militaries are often misused (e.g., putting down internal dissent) but their value outweighs the risks of not having one.  Yet, to protect the nation, those who are in the armed forces must be strong, smart, resilient, and know ourselves and the enemy.

Leaders can learn many valuable lessons from the Greek classics.  We are studying them more.  At Hillsdale College, there is a free on-line series about the classics (see link here where you can sign up).  I highly recommend listening to the lectures.

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  1. This applies to more than Army soldiers but to any of the armed force members, especially U.S. Marines.  Those in the military are often believers too.
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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

23 thoughts on “Why Leaders Study the Greek Classics

  1. Yusaf from Texas

    I think you’re right Jelly. Well said.

  2. Delf A. "Jelly"

    I think it is unusual today to study the Greek classics because of all the political correctness. The Greeks, especially the Spartans, were tough men and women. If you were weak, you were killed to told to get out (which ultimately lead to you being killed). They were never conquered (if my history lessons are accurate) but their empire did fall after they got soft. Being soft, however, had nothing to do with democracy but with the natural tendency of mankind to take the easy road to success.

  3. Scotty Bush

    It’s now been decades but my time in college was a time of leisure and hard study. Greek classics were a part of it and I never regretted it at the time. Although I was unhappy about studying them at the time, my profs were right.

    1. Gil Johnson

      Same here. Thank you Scotty for bringing back memories from long ago.

  4. Mike Baker

    Good article today that made me think about reading more history.

  5. Martin Shiell

    I asked a friend of mine last year, who had recently graduated college. if there was any emphasis or encouragement about reading Greek classics. His answer was a big yes. The professors didn’t consider them very important.

  6. Bryan Lee

    A much more complex subject matter today. I would like to add that most of what we read about ancient Greece was written by the Athenians. I wish we had more about the Spartans because that is where much of today’s democracy germinated.

    1. Greg Heyman

      Good observation Bryan. Yes, I think Sparta is more like Western nations than Athens. More is better here but I’m afraid the Spartans didn’t leave much for us to read.

  7. Jonathan B.

    I don’t think what we learned as kids helps us much with the Greek classics. Reading them as adults is where we can derive our own lessons from them. The history of the Greeks, as espoused in the lecture series at Hillsdale Collge and other great places of learning is what we should strive to read, study, and support such institutions.

  8. Dennis Mathes

    Growing up in California, there was little emphasis on this in High School. College didn’t help me much either. It was only after when I moved to Boston that folks around me recommended the Greek Classics. I’m glad they did. Is something wrong with the state of California. Oh, I already answered that question.

  9. Nick Lighthouse

    Now this is a good read for my Sunday morning after reading the Wall Street Journal and having a hot cup of coffee (no sugar, no cream). Fortunately, only smart people will agree with you.

  10. Tony B. Custer

    I also never really considered reading much about the “classics.” I will now and get back to you.

  11. Billy Kenningston

    I never considered these “old stories” about history and the Greeks to be much about anything useful. Why not? It was in the past and who could learn from long ago when they had shields and spears. Well, I was wrong. Today, I regularly read the Greek classics and they are so vibrant and full of great info that I rarely go a week without one. Thanks, Gen. Satterfield for a reminder of their value.

  12. Joe Omerrod

    Thanks for a great article for our professional development. Keep ’em coming.

  13. Janna Faulkner

    A good article. I’m glad my mom made me start reading some of the Greek plays when I was a teenager. I kept up my reading and evolved into reading the history of Greece, especially Athens and Sparta.

  14. Army Captain

    You are correct, in my opinion, that the best leaders study history and especially the Greek classics of philosophy and history. Much is to be learned and all of us can easily access the books and articles and lectures on them. Thanks.

    1. Doug Smith

      Thanks Army Captain for helping us focus on what is important for military leaders.

    2. Watson Bell

      Thanks again for your service and pithy comments.

    3. Lynn Pitts

      Spot on, Army Captain. Thanks for confirming this for our readers.

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