Great Books Distilled: Books by History's Greatest Innovators, Founders, and Investors

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Daniel Scrivner

The Warrior Ethos: Lessons From The Greatest Warriors in History

Book Summary

This is my book summary of The Warrior Ethos by Steve Pressfield. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.

Video Book Summary

On Outliers with Daniel Scrivner, I recorded a hour-long summary of The Warrior Ethos by Steve Pressfield.

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Steven Pressfield’s The Warrior Ethos is a deep historical examination of the values and ethics of warriors throughout history—from the ancient Spartans to Japan’s Samurai to Alexander the Great—and how these values can be applied to the battles we each fight. We all struggle daily to find and defense our sense of purpose, to show up as our best ourselves, and to overcome the obstacles we face in our own pursuits. In that struggle, there's much we can learn and apply from the world's great warriors and warrior cultures.

There’s no other better author to write this book than Steven Pressfield. He’s spent his career writing about war—external and internal wars, ancient and modern ones, real wars from history and imagined ones. One of his books, Gates of Fire, which tells the story of the 300 Spartans sent to fight and die against the Persian emperor King Xerxes, is my all-time favorite book. Steven Pressfield has also written A Man at Arms, The Virtues of War, Killing Rommel, The Afghan Campaign, Tides of War, and some incredible nonfiction books including The War of Art.

The Book in Three Sentences

When we speak of The Warrior Ethos, we really speak of Warrior ethics and values as ethos is latin for ethics. Warriors prize virtues including courage, honor, loyalty, integrity, love, and selflessness—many of which evolved as a counterpoise to fear and self-preservation. True warriors lead from the front, they prize valor and honor as highly as victory, they embrace adversity and shared suffering, and they exemplify selflessness.

What is the Warrior Ethos?

  • The dictionary defines ethos as: The moral character, nature, disposition, and customs of a people or culture. Ethos is derived from the same Greek root as ethics. The Warrior Ethos is a code of conduct—a conception of right and wrong, of virtues and vices.
  • “The Warrior Ethos evolved from the primary need of the spear-toting, rock-throwing, animal-skin-wearing hunting band: the need to survive. This need could be met only collectively, as a group working in unison. To bind the band together, an ethos evolved—a hunter’s ethos. Every warrior virtue proceeds from this—courage, selflessness, love of and loyalty to one’s comrades, patience, self-command, the will to endure adversity. It all comes from the hunting band’s need to survive.”
  • The Warrior Ethos evolved as a counterpose to fear and self-preservation. In the era before gunpowder, all killing was of necessity done hand to hand. For a Greek or Roman warrior to slay his enemy, he had to get so close that there was an equal chance that the enemy’s sword or spear would kill him. This produced an ideal of manly virtue—Andreia in Greek—that prized valor and honor as highly as victory. For the god who ruled the battlefield was fear Phobos—Greek for fear.
  • The Warrior Ethos is taught. On the football field and in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Courage is modeled for the youth by fathers and older brothers, by mentors and elders. It is inculcated, in almost all cultures, by a regiment of training and discipline. Which typically culminates in an ordeal of initiation. The Spartan youth receives his shield, the paratrooper is awarded his wings, the Afghan boy is handed his AK-47.
  • The Warrior Ethos mandates respect for the enemy. The foe is granted full honor as a fighting man and defender of his home soil and values. From Cyrus through Alexander to the Greeks and Romans and on down to Rommel and the Afrika Korps, today’s enemy was considered tomorrow’s potential friend. And thus granted his full humanity.
  • The ancients resisted innovation in warfare because they feared it would rob the struggle of honor. “King Agis was shown a new catapult, which could shoot a killing dart 200 yards. When he saw this, he wept. ‘Alas,’ he said. ‘Valor is no more.’”
  • The lioness hunts. The alpha female defends the wolf pack. The Warrior Ethos is not a manifestation of male aggression or the masculine will to dominance. It rests on the will and resolve of mothers, wives, daughters, and female warriors, to defend their children, their home soil, and the values of their culture.

Warrior Cultures are Shame-Based

  • Almost all warrior cultures are shame-based. One example from Sparta: “The maidens of Sparta were taught songs of ridicule with which to humiliate any young man who displayed want of courage in battle. When a warrior accused of being a ‘trembler’ returned to the city, the pretty young girls clustered around him, mocking him and defaming him with these anthems of shame.”
  • If a Spartan youth failed to show courage in battle, his fiancée would abandon him. The magistrates would not permit him to marry. If he was married already, he and his wife were forbidden to have children. If the warrior had sisters of marriageable age, their suitors would be compelled to part from them. The man’s whole family would be shamed.
  • The Spartans revered courage and honor above all else—setting at times an unrealistically high bar for both. “At Thermopylae in 480 B.C., every one of the 300 Spartans died resisting the Persian invaders except one, a warrior named Aristodemus who was withdrawn at the last minute because an eye inflammation had rendered him temporarily blind. The next year, the Spartans again faced the Persians, at Plataea, in central Greece. This time, Aristodemus was healthy and fought in the front rank. When the battle was over, all who had witnessed his actions agreed that Aristodemus had earned the prize of valor, so brilliant and relentless had been his courage. But the magistrates refused to award him this honor, judging that he was driven by such shame that he risked his life recklessly, deliberating seeking to die.”

The Opposite of Shame is Honor

  • Once, in India, after years on campaign, Alexander the Great's men threatened to mutiny. They were worn out and wanted to go home. Alexander called an assembly. When the army had gathered, the young king stepped forth and stripped naked. "These scars on my body," Alexander declared, "were got for you, my brothers. Every wound, as you see, is in the front. Let that man stand forth from your ranks who has bled more than I, or endured more than I for your sake. Show him to me, and I will yield to your weariness and go home." Not a man came forward. Instead, a great cheer arose from the army.
  • Courage—in particular, stalwartness in the face of death—must be considered the foremost warrior virtue. A short Roman story on courage: “A detachment of Romans was cut off in a waterless place. The enemy commander demanded their surrender. The Romans refused. ‘You are surrounded,’ declared the enemy captain in exasperation. ‘You have neither food nor water. You have no choice but to surrender!’ The Roman commander replied, ‘No choice? Then have you taken away as well the option to die with honor?’"
  • Warriors advancing into battle are more afraid of disgrace in the eyes of their fellow warriors than they are of the spears and lances of the enemy.
  • The warrior's sense of humor is terse, dry—and dark. Its purpose is to deflect fear and to reinforce unity and cohesion. The Warrior Ethos dictates that the soldier make a joke of pain and laugh at adversity.

The Will to Victory

  • The will to fight, the passion to be great, is an indispensable element of the Warrior Ethos. It is also a primary quality of leadership, because it inspires men and fires their hearts with ambition and the passion to go beyond their own limits.
  • A lesson on when the battle is won: “A Roman general was leading his legions toward the enemy in a swampy country. He knew that the next day’s battle would be fought on a certain plain because it was the only dry, flat place for miles. He pushed his army all night, marching them through a frightening and formidable swamp, so that they reached the battle sit before the foe and could claim the higher ground. In the aftermath of victory, the general called his troops together and asked them, ‘Brothers, when did we win the battle?’ One captain replied, ‘Sir, when the infantry attacked.’ Another said, ‘Sir, we won when the cavalry broke through.’ ‘No,’ said the general. ‘We won the battle the night before—when our men marched through that swamp and took the high ground.’”
  • Epaminondas, the great Theban general, was the first to beat the Spartans at the battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C. Here’s how he did it: “The evening before the fight, Empaminondas called his warriors together and declared that he could guarantee victory on the morrow if his men would vow to perform one feat at the moment he commanded it. The men, of course, responded aye. ‘What do you wish us to do?' ‘When I sound the trumpet,' said Empaminondas, ‘I want you to give me one more foot. Do you understand? Push the enemy back just one foot.’ The men swore they would do this. Battle came. The armies clashed and locked up, shield against shield, each side straining to overcome the other. Empaminondas watched and waited till he judged both armies had reached the extremity of exhaustion. Then he ordered the trumpet sounded. The warriors of Thebes, remembering their promise, summoned their final reserves of strength and pushed the foe back only one foot. This was enough. The Spartan line broke. A rout ensued.”

Leading From the Front

  • During the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and all of Israel's subsequent conflicts, casualties sustained by officers have exceeded proportionally by far those suffered by men of the enlisted ranks. Why? Because the primary leadership principles that Israeli officers are taught is "Follow me."
  • One of the most admirable traits of the Warrior Ethos is its embrace of skin in the game. Warriors demand that their leaders lead from the front, that they share in their burdens and sacrifices, as well as the honor attained by fighting with courage and selflessness. Leadership, outside of war, is often completely devoid of skin in the game—leaders reap the spoils without any real risk or ownership for failures. Which is why so many of the world’s great leaders were warriors and warrior leaders.
  • “During the Sinai Campaign of 1956, the commander of an Israeli armored regiment violated orders and attacked down the length of the Mitla Pass, sacrificing numerous men and vehicles to capture a strongpoint that was later given up. Despite public outrage at this act of insubordination, the Israeli commander-in-chief, General Moshe Dayan, refused to discipline the man. “I will never punish an officer for daring too much, but only too little.”
  • There’s an ancient precept that killing the enemy is not honorable unless the warrior places himself equally in harm’s way—and gives the enemy an equal chance to kill him. Similarly, the Samurai code of Bushido forbade the warrior from approaching an enemy by stealth. Honor commanded that he show himself plainly and permit the foe a fighting chance to defend himself.
  • Soldiers of the Israeli Defense Forces (who often must fight against enemies who target civilians, who strike from or stockpile weapons within houses of worship and who employ their own women and children as human shields) are taught to act according to the principle called Tohar HaNeshek: “purity of the weapon.” Which is derived from two verses in the Old Testament. What it means is that the individual soldier must reckon, himself, what is the moral use of his weapon and what is the immoral use. When an action is unjust, the warrior must not take it.

Tales from Sparta

  • "The Spartans do not ask how many are the enemy but where are they." — Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans
  • Plutarch asked, “Why do the Spartans punish with a fine the warrior who loses his helmet or spear but punish with death the warrior who loses his shield?” The answer: Because helmet and spear are carried for protection of the individual alone, but the shield protects every man in the line. The group always comes before the individual.
  • At Thermopylae on the final morning, when the last surviving Spartans knew they were all going to die, they turned to one of their leaders, the warrior Dienekes, and asked him what thoughts they should hold in their minds in this final hour to keep their courage strong. Dienekes instructed his comrades to fight not in the name of such lofty concepts as patriotism, honor, duty, or glory. Don’t even fight, he said, to protect your family or your home. “Fight for this alone: the man who stands at your shoulder. He is everything, and everything is contained in him.”
  • In ancient Sparta, Lycurgus took the city from a normal society to a warrior culture. Here’s how he did it: “So that no man would have grounds to feel superior to another, Lycurgus divided the country into 9,000 equal plots of land. To each family, he gave one plot. Further, he decreed that the men no longer be called ‘citizens’ but ‘peers’ or ‘equals.’ So that no man might compete with another or put on airs over wealth, Lycurgus outlawed money. A coin sufficient to purchase a loaf of bread was made of iron, the size of a man’s head and weighing over 30 pounds. So ridiculous was such coinage that men no longer coveted wealth but pursued virtue instead.” Furthermore, “Lycurgus outlawed all occupations except warrior. He decreed that no name could be inscribed on a tombstone except that of a woman who died in childbirth or a man killed on the battlefield."
  • The Spartan leader Leonidas famously said on the final morning at Thermopylae: “Now eat a good breakfast, men. For we’ll all be sharing dinner in hell.”
  • Spartans liked to keep things short. Once, one of their general captured a city. His dispatch home said, “City taken.” The magistrates fined him for being verbose. “Taken,” they said, would have sufficed.
  • As the Spartans were preparing their defensive positions, a native of Trachis, the site of the pass, came racing into camp, out of breath and wide-eyed with terror. He had seen the Persian horde approaching. As the tiny contingent of defenders gathered around, the man declared that the Persian multitude was so numerous that, when their archers fired their volleys, the mass of arrows blocked out the sun. “Good,” declared Dienekes. “Then we’ll have our battle in the shade.”
  • The most famous Spartan mother story is also the shortest: A Spartan mother handed her son his shield as he prepared to march off to battle. She said, “Come back with this or on it.”
  • A story from Ancient Sparta: The warriors, brothers, were fleeing from the enemy back toward the city. Their mother happened to be on the road and saw them running toward her. She lifted her skirts about her waist. “Where do you two think you’re running? Back here from whence you came?”
  • In Sparta, boys were allowed to stay with their mothers till they were seven. At that age, they were taken from their families and enrolled in the agoge, the “upbringing.” This training lasted till they were eighteen, when they were considered grown warriors and were enrolled in the army. Here’s a look at the conditions they trained in: “The boys in training were given one garment, a rough cloak that they wore all year long. They slept out of doors years-round. Each boy carried a sickle-like weapon called a xyele. They were allowed no beds but instead had to make nests of reeds gathered each night from the river. They were not permitted to cut the reeds with their sickles but had to tear them with their bare hands." Food for the boys in training was similarly spartan—typically pig's blood porridge. A visiting Persian envoy was once given a taste of it and said, “Now I understand Spartan courage in battle. For surely death is preferable to dining upon such slop.”
  • “At Thermopylae in 480 B.C., every one of the 300 Spartans died resisting the Persian invaders except one, a warrior named Aristodemus who was withdrawn at the last minute because an eye inflammation had rendered him temporarily blind. The next year, the Spartans again faced the Persians, at Plataea, in central Greece. This time, Aristodemus was healthy and fought in the front rank. When the battle was over, all who had witnessed his actions agreed that Aristodemus had earned the prize of value, so brilliant and relentless had been his courage. But the magistrates refused to award him this honor, judging that he was driven by such shame that he risked his life recklessly, deliberating seeking to die.”
  • Once, a Spartan was visiting Athens. His Athenian host threw a banquet in his honor. Wishing to show off for his guest, the Athenian indicated several illustrious personages around the table. “That man there is the greatest sculptor in Greece,” he declared, “and that gentleman yonder is its finest architect.” The Spartan indicated a servant from his own entourage. “Yes,” he said, “and that man there makes a very tasty bowl of soup.”
  • “When the Spartans and their allies overcame the Persians at Plataea in 479 B.C., the spoils included the great pavilion tents of King Xerxes, along with the king’s cooks, wine stewards, and kitchen servants. For a joke, the Spartan king Pausanias ordered the Persian chef to prepare a typical dinner, the kind they would make for the Persian king. Meanwhile, he had his own cooks whip up a standard Spartan meal. The Persian chefs produced a lavish banquet composed of multiple courses, served on golden plates, and topped off by the most sumptuous cakes and delicacies. The Spartans’ grub was barley bread and pig’s blood stew. When the Spartans saw the two meals side by side, they burst out laughing. ‘How far the Persians have traveled,’ declared Pausanias, ‘to rob us of our poverty!’"
  • Here’s how Spartans got married: Lycurgus wanted to encourage passion, because he felt that a child conceived in heat would make a better warrior. So a young Spartan husband could not live with his bride—he spent all day training and slept in the common mess. If the young couple were to consummate their love, the husband had to sneak away from his messmates, then slip back before his absence was discovered. “It was not uncommon for a young husband to be married for four or five years and never see his bride in daylight, except during public events and religious festivals.”

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About the author

Daniel Scrivner is an award-winner designer turned founder and investor. He's led design work at Apple and Square. He is an early investor in Notion,, and Good Eggs. He's also the founder of Ligature: The Design VC and Outlier Academy. Daniel has interviewed the world’s leading founders and investors including Scott Belsky, Luke Gromen, Kevin Kelly, Gokul Rajaram, and Brian Scudamore.

Last updated
Apr 28, 2024

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