300: What Does Sacrifice Actually Mean?

Zack Snyder's 300 (2006), an adaptation of Frank Miller's comic series of the same name, is one of my favorite films. From that, and from my previous post on Fight Club (1999), you are perhaps already forming an idea of what kind of moviegoer I am. I like epic films. I like brain-twisters. I like a lot of bloody carnage. But what I really like in these films -- something that is often absent or co-opted in other films -- is their sense of heroism and self-sacrifice. In some films (like Fight Club and 300), this can be difficult to see and often can be overshadowed by things like multiple personality disorders and CGI-enhanced abdominal muscles. I find it unfortunate and rather bizarre that the first thing many people say to me when I express my admiration for this film is, "You know their abs are fake, right?" It bothers me that many people can't seem to get past the superficial elements of the film in order to see the strength of the story being told beneath them. Underneath the CGI are real characters, not empty husks, and underneath the slow-motion action sequences and suspended globules of blood is a story that tackles head-on the question of what sacrifice really means.

There are two ideas of sacrifice being used throughout the narrative that are, in a sense, directly opposed to one another. On the one hand, there is the "sacrifice" required or recommended by the villainous or cowardly characters, such as Xerxes, Theron, Ephialtes, and the Ephors (those creepy old men who divine the will of the gods through drugged dancing girls). The notion of sacrifice proposed by these characters is one that undermines the true meaning of sacrifice by using the language of heroism to promote a form of moral slavery. It is in the "best interest" of Leonidas, king of the Spartans, to give Xerxes what he desires. It is "heroic" of him to allow Xerxes to conquer them without bloodshed, to put his own desire to fight aside in favor of "protecting" his people from certain death. Xerxes and Ephialtes tell Leonidas that it is in his own interest, as well as that of his comrades and nation, to join Xerxes; he and his loved ones will receive wealth, power, prestige, and reward beyond measure. Isn't that what a good leader should provide for his people? Isn't that what a good husband, father, king should choose for those he loves? Is it not a kind of sacrifice, a heroic sacrifice, to put aside his own pride in order to protect his family from the pain of losing him and his people from the horror of Xerxes' merciless army?

This notion of "sacrifice" is deeply flawed in two important ways. The first is in the means: it is never acceptable to make concessions to moral evil for the sake of a supposed good. The ends never justify the means. Leonidas desires to protect his nation from Xerxes' army, yes, and he could do so by simply agreeing to allow Xerxes to "oversee" Sparta and paying a tax. Bowing to Xerxes would allow his people to live in peace and avoid bloodshed. But this act has serious consequences attached to it. Xerxes' world is one built on slavery, and not just the kind that subjugates a person's physical body to the will of another: the slavery of Xerxes is a spiritual bondage. It is slavery to money. It is slavery to pleasure. It is slavery to ambition. The Ephors, Ephialtes, and Theron all make this abundantly clear through their words and actions throughout the film as they encourage Leonidas to capitulate to Xerxes' demands. In bowing to Xerxes, Leonidas must bow to all that he represents; he must bow to evil, yield to it, make concessions, and every concession is another step down the road to eternal bondage. There is no deal we can make with the devil that does not end in hell. When confronted with evil, there is no accord that can be struck, no truce to be made. The only proper response to evil is to fight it.

The second flaw in the villains' notion of "sacrifice" is the idea that one can demand the sacrifice of others for some vague notion of the "common good". Theron encourages Leonidas to use his power as king to make the decision to sacrifice the freedom of his people in exchange for their lives. Ephialtes asks Leonidas to sacrifice the safety of his men to satiate Ephialtes' own desires for glory and perhaps to strike a blow for equality. In both cases, Leonidas is asked to make others into a sacrifice on behalf of larger goals. This can be a very tempting idea, but it denies the reality of what a sacrifice truly is. A sacrifice must be a denial of self to oneself and a gift of self to others. No one can make the decision on behalf of others to sacrifice anything. No world leader anywhere can ever justly say, for example, "My people are going to make the sacrifice to never eat fast food again in order to ease the strain on our health care system", and then enforce that sacrifice on them. This is immediately not a sacrifice on anyone's part, but a slip into totalitarianism that denies the inviolability of the free will of every individual human person. It is true sometimes that "sacrifices must be made", but they can only be made on the individual level by the free choice of the person making the sacrificial gift of themselves on behalf of others. This is exactly what Leonidas and his three hundred do. Leonidas is careful to stress the importance of freedom in going to face Xerxes. He chooses to do it himself, and the men who come with him are each willing to sacrifice themselves to help stop the threat to their homeland. By telling the political leaders of his kingdom that he is merely "taking a walk", Leonidas strives to ensure that his sacrificial actions do not impinge on their freedom to make sacrificial choices of their own. This is what lies at the heart of all heroic sacrifice: the courage to make a sacrifice of oneself in freedom and out of love.

This second point is intrinsically connected to a third: we cannot sacrifice what is not ours to give. If the reality of sacrifice is a denial of the self in order to give of the self in love on behalf of others, then it stands to reason that the thing we must deny ourselves and the thing we must give of ourselves must actually be ours. And this is where 300 runs into a nasty little problem. Leonidas' queen Gorgo also attempts to make of herself a sacrifice in order to support her husband's heroic stand against evil, but her sacrifice falls short of its aims, both in the plot and in principle. Gorgo believes that she needs Theron's support in the senate in order to move the politicians to support open war against Xerxes; she agrees to give him whatever he wants in order to obtain his support. Naturally, as an ambitious and vicious character, Theron desires the queen's body in exchange for his voice. Gorgo agrees to this and, in doing so, betrays everything her husband is fighting for: freedom, integrity, reason, virtue. Her end goal of helping her husband does not justify the moral evil of adultery, regardless of the circumstances. While Leonidas has gone to war to protect his wife and the wives of his comrades from the rape and pillage of the Persian army, Gorgo enacts the very thing he fights and dies to shield her from. Rather than giving freedom to herself or others, Gorgo's submission to Theron's demands, her act of bowing to evil, makes her a slave to his word when he accuses her before the senate and works to set the politicians even more ardently against her. It may be argued that, regardless of the outcome of her actions, Gorgo's choice was indeed sacrificial because she subjected herself to something she did not want in order to give of herself to help the husband she loved. However, this idea does not take into account the reality of marriage, in which two people give completely of themselves to the other and receive the other in return as a gift. Gorgo's marital relationship with Leonidas means that her sexuality is absolutely something she cannot offer as a sacrifice for the war effort. Her sexual gift is something she has already given to Leonidas through their marriage and cannot be offered to anyone else while that marriage lasts. In effect, her sexual gift is not something that belongs solely to her and, therefore, cannot be sacrificed without denying Leonidas the freedom to make the sacrifice as well. She does not ask him if he is willing to make this sacrifice, nor does she have the opportunity to do so, but I have a strong suspicion that, even if she did, he would say no. Her actions, no matter what good she hoped to gain from it, cannot be considered truly sacrificial because they make concessions to evil and sacrifice what cannot be freely sacrificed.

It might be argued that Gorgo's and Leonidas' actions are symbolic of male and female sacrifice: a male yields his body up to physical death, while a woman yields her body up to a kind of sexual death. However, both men and women are called to the same kind of heroism, a heroism that does not make distinctions based on gender: that of the martyr. Martyrdom, the most perfect form of sacrifice, requires that the integrity of the soul remain unbroken. Martyrdom demands that one endure any sort of physical evil before one would dare to commit or participate in a moral evil. Martyrdom means that one acknowledges the good of the spiritual life as far above and beyond any good the physical life has to offer. For the martyr, the temptations of Xerxes fall on deaf ears, for the temptations to wealth, sex, and power have no hold on their hearts and are seen as the fleeting vanities that they are. It is the martyr who truly hopes for the good of all mankind when he is able to stand firm in the midst of the deepest trials and not crumble beneath the onslaught of evil. It is the martyr, the one who understands what true sacrifice consists of, who is able to "fight in the shade", to stand firm even when the sky is darkened with countless arrows: "You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day" (Ps. 91:5). This is the highest example of heroic sacrifice, and it is also the true glory of which Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans could only imagine.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

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