Book Reviews, Literary

Review: A MAN AT ARMS, by Steven Pressfield.

From the acclaimed master of historical fiction comes an epic saga about a reluctant hero, the Roman Empire, and the rise of a new faith.

One of the most interesting facets of religious belief is that religious belief has answers for everything. The Bible is full of what’s called “wisdom literature,” with advice on how to solve everything short of how to fix holes in drywall. In Orthodox Judaism, this is supplemented with incredibly detailed rabbinical teachings. Deuteronomy 6:9 commands that the words of the Shema prayer be written on the doorposts of your house, which is easy enough, until you realize that there’s a dispute as to whether the words on the scroll should be horizontal or vertical, and that because of that, you have to put them diagonally.

Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion. (Here’s how you can tell; Stoicism doesn’t have holidays.) Stoicism is behaviorist; its teachings are focused on ethics and virtue. The true stoic isn’t (as the modern usage has it) someone who is indifferent to emotion; it is someone who lives their lives consistent with their own ethical code.

I don’t know if Steven Pressfield identifies as a Stoic or not, but his signature philosophy is something of an uneasy marriage between Stoic ideas and Manichean cosmology. The Manicheans, like George Lucas, believe in a dark side in constant conflict with goodness and light. Pressfield’s philosophy, expressed succinctly, is that there is a creative spark of light in all of us, and an invisible dark force, called Resistance, that is trying to blot that spark out. The job of the creative mind is to create, and not to surrender to the siren call of Resistance, however that manifests (usually as negative self-talk).

The appeal of the Pressfield Way, for lack of a better term, is threefold. First, it’s uncomplicated. It doesn’t take a very sophisticated viewpoint to understand that applying butt to chair is work, and checking your email and Twitter and sneaking into the kitchen for a snack is not-work, and is therefore the work of Resistance. Second, it’s task-oriented, a philosophy that is supremely helpful if you have a job to do that needs doing and you need to eliminate distractions in order to do it. Third, it tallies with lived experience. Everyone deals with obstacles and procrastination every day; the Pressfield Way is dead useful as a mental model for addressing these conflicts. (I just this minute brought up the George R.R. Martin website, and he’s busy watching movies and reading Hemingway and, as far as we know, not writing, so that tells you something right there.)

There are, however, three main limitations with using the Pressfield Way in practice. First, it can’t always tell you what kind of work to do. This is especially difficult if, like me, you have creative projects pointing at different directions every day. Down in the basement, I have furniture that needs to be refinished, and an art project that I need to finish, and the kids got a keyboard from Santa Claus and I want to learn how to play that at some point. I have this book review to finish, and a hundred others I’ve written that I want to cross-post to my website. I have to rework the website for my (struggling) publishing company, and I have a web project about baseball and one about music that I want to complete. I have a good idea for my sixth law review article. My fourth novel is about halfway complete, and then I have two non-fiction projects (one about politics and one about history) that I want to pursue. And I have a day job on top of that. I not only have your ordinary garden-variety everyday Resistance to deal with, I have an inner voice telling me that I need to work on the other things that keeps me from completing the thing I am doing.

Second, the Pressfield Way can’t tell you if the work you are doing is crap or not. The most common self-talk you get from Resistance is what you are doing sucks and you are wasting your time with it. Pressfield teaches us that Resistance is always lying and always full of crap. Which is true enough as far as it goes, but every lie has a kernel of truth in it. Maybe what I am doing really does suck. How do I know? How can I tell? (This is where your editor and your beta readers come in.)

The third limitation in the Pressfield Way is love.

A MAN AT ARMS is about this limitation, about the intersection of fighting Resistance with finding love. Its hero is Telamon, a Greek warrior in the Roman legions now working as a mercenary. Pressfield portrays him as an exemplary Stoic, someone who acts according to his own code, impervious to any other concerns other than the welfare of his mules. Telamon accepts a commission from a Roman officer to track down a fugitive Christian who is carrying Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. The Romans want to suppress the apostle’s message, and Telamon wants to be paid.

The problem is that there’s a little girl involved.

As a story, A MAN AT ARMS Is lacking in a lot of ways. Telamon seems scarcely human, and seems an unlikely object of childish devotion. The narration is chock-full of little deviations, some helpful, others with the consistency and appeal of cold oatmeal. The action scenes are taut and cinematic, though, and the villains are suitably villainous. But the attraction is in the clash of philosophies more than anything else, and in this area if no other, A MAN AT ARMS is instructive, and worthwhile.

The message of the Pressfield Way in terms of the twenty-first century would-be novelist, typing merrily away on his wireless keyboard, listening to 80’s rock through his Bose speakers, is forthright. Spouses and children are tools of Resistance. You spend all your time hanging out with other people, whoever they are (which you can’t of course always do in this year of grace 2021), and you are not going to get as much work done, and that is a fact. But you have to talk to your wife, you can’t (sigh) let your kids play with their screens all day, you have to do your other job, and what do you do with that? Pressfield, in his other books, says that you fight Resistance, you become a professional, you follow the path of the warrior.

In A MAN AT ARMS, he comes to a very different conclusion, and the correct one. Pressfield paints an idealized man of infinite Stoic virtue and accomplished prowess, the exemplar in many ways of his own personal philosophy, and it all comes to tatters in the face of love.