Leonidas, Lenin, and Larry walk into a pub…

Lenin—founder of Soviet socialism; small, waspish, and brainy with pin-prick eyes and a comfortable, wheedling voice; represents the average socialist viewpoint
Leonidas—Spartan king who died at Thermopylae defending Greece from becoming enslaved to the Persian empire; sunburnt, and bigger and tougher than the average NFL defensive lineman, with vocal chords developed by shouting orders to troops over the din of battle; represents the viewpoint of the average lover of liberty
Larry—always pulling all-nighters to become a Dragon Warrior 5 whiz; represents the viewpoint of the average American college or high school student

Lenin and Larry walk into a pub for fish and chips.

LENIN: What’s up Larry?
LARRY: Aw, nothin’. Just hangin’ out.
LENIN: Ever think about what you’re gonna do when you graduate?
LARRY: Well, I’ll get a job, I guess. Something that doesn’t take too much time away from playing Dragon Warrior 5.
LENIN: What kind of job?
LARRY: I really don’t care that much. It just needs to pay the bills—you know, get me some Ramen, get me some clothes, pay for the apartment, keep the electricity on—for Dragon Warrior 5, ya’ know.
LENIN: Sounds nice. But what if you lose your job?
LARRY: Um…well. That would be bad. I guess I’ll just find another one.
LENIN: A lot easier said than done. Especially if the economy goes bad.
LARRY: I guess adulting is scary. Well, I can always play Dragon Warrior 5 for comfort.
LENIN: Hey you know what, Larry? I’ll let you in on a little secret. I can actually help you get a job you’ll never lose.
LENIN: Better than that, I can get you free housing, free clothing, and free food. I can give you security.
LARRY: Wow! How do I get this stuff?
LENIN: Just vote for any candidate in your area who’s running on a socialist platform. They’re all inspired by me. And when they get power, you will get all that stuff.
LARRY: Cool! How can I help them get power?
LENIN: Well, like I said, vote for those candidates, and keep telling everyone exactly what I just told you. But don’t take any questions. Focus on spreading the word. Almost nobody will object to free food.
LARRY: I know; that’s how all the different clubs and things get people to join. Hey, even people who aren’t interested will come to a meeting that promises free food.
LENIN: Now imagine if they could also get free clothes and free housing.
LARRY: No kidding! All of my friends are complaining about rent and water and electricity bills.
LENIN: See, support for socialism spreads like wildfire at colleges. You can also tell the freshmen to tell all their high school friends about socialism, too. After all, not everybody does go to college, and we socialists don’t want to miss even one young American.
LARRY: Sure. Hey, didn’t I read about you in my history class?
LENIN: I hope so. I’m the darling of history textbook authors. After all, I’ve done what most poorly-paid professors can only dream of doing: I used my intellectual work to overthrow the ruling class and set up socialism to help the poor.
LARRY: Yeah, I remember now. That’s so great! I hope everybody in the world knows about you. Can I take a selfie with you? Then I can post it on social media. I’ve only got about 9,000 followers, but hey, at least that’s 9,000 more people who will know your story.

They take the picture, and Larry is in the process of posting it to social media when there is a loud clash of bronze-headed spear on bronze-plated hoplon as Leonidas enters and takes off his bronze helmet with its crest of nodding horsehair.

Leonidas pull quote

LEONIDAS: Ah, fish and chips! They look delectable and I’m famished. (To the man behind the register) Can I get two orders of them please? (To Lenin and Larry) Leonidas of Sparta, and you are?
LARRY: I’m Larry, and this is my pal,—
LENIN: Call me Vladimir.
LEONIDAS: Pleased to make your acquaintance, Larry, Vladimir.
LARRY: Vlad’s so cool! So woke! He’s really just being modest. Because he’s famous for being the great Vladimir Lenin who destroyed the ruling classes and set up socialism in Russia and a bunch of other countries that Russia was friends with. We studied him in history class, and now I’ve met him in person! So cool!
LEONIDAS: Indeed, it is truly sublime to meet the great heroes of the past, like Theseus and my own ancestor, Herakles. So, Larry, you are a student? What do you study?
LARRY: Oh, I’m a Modern Social Trends major. We study, um, modern social trends.
LEONIDAS: Ah. Then you probably haven’t heard about me. And what will you do after you finish your course of study?
LARRY: Well, I’m kind of skipping the whole job thing. Lenin says I can help him promote socialism so that eventually everyone the United States will be able to get free housing, free food, free clothes, and have a guaranteed job.
LEONIDAS: That sounds…remarkable. Where does it all come from?
LENIN: Well, first it is necessary to overthrow the ruling classes and the rich—after all, they don’t really care about the poor, so they don’t deserve to be rich. Then you can use the money of the rich to give everyone everything they need.
LEONIDAS: I see. And what happens when the money runs out?
LENIN: Oh, money’s not a problem once you get everything started. You see, everyone is guaranteed a job—in fact, everyone must work—so everything is produced in-house, so to speak, and everyone is just given what they need.
LEONIDAS: I’m not sure that clarified the issue. Actually, now I’m even more confused. Precisely who will give everyone what they need?
LENIN: Oh, well, The Party.
LENIN: Yes, The Party ensures that everyone has what they need. Everyone, that is, who supports The Party. Those who do not support The Party as much as they should are not supplied and are eliminated accordingly. This ensures that our society will exist in perfect friendliness. Because of course, no one would be silly enough to believe that there should be a society without perfect friendliness.
LARRY: Well sure!
LEONIDAS: My apologies, Lenin, but I’m still confused. How exactly does The Party, as you say, know what everyone needs?
LENIN: It’s perfectly simple. We live in the twenty-first century. This is the age of human miracles. We can know everything. Everything has been calculated according to the most advanced mathematical methods. The average worker needs only 113.3981 grams of bread and 0.94635 liters of water per day. The average worker’s apartment needs to be only 74.322432 cubic meters large. The average child needs only minimal schooling: simple counting to 500 at most, writing one’s name, teaching that they must support The Party, honesty, diligence, and politeness. The children who are more-average than the others will be specially-educated by The Party, of course. They must be made into our engineers, our doctors, our chemists, our architects, and our energy scientists.
LEONIDAS: So you won’t have any philosophers?
LENIN: Oh, all thinking is done by the Vanguard of the Proletariat, which ends up being, of course, The Party.
LEONIDAS: I see. And what about musicians and artists and dancers and actors?
LENIN: If anyone really feels the need to do something that does not put food on the plates of the Proletariat, you can rest assured that The Party will put them into their proper places.
LEONIDAS: But how can you be sure that what you’re doing is really best for the people?
LENIN: Oh, we are already sure. We already know. We are beyond questioning. The time to help the poor is now.
LEONIDAS: But you’ve said people will only get bread and water. What if the poor are sick—or just sensible—and need meat to keep up their strength?
LENIN: The poor can simply submit their request for meat to their local Party office, and it will be approved by the Party Official In Charge of Meat Requests and returned to the local shop with a little meat—that is of course, if the worker who made the request is a loyal member of The Party.
LEONIDAS: But why would you not allow the people to simply buy their own supplies?
LENIN: Because the people do not know what they really need; they might make mistakes. They might spend their money on frivolous things, bourgeois things, aristocratic things, things that smack of excellence and beauty, or worse, of courage.
LEONIDAS: But why would you not want your people to have excellent and beautiful things? Why would you not want your people to think about courage?
LENIN: That’s quite simple. Courageous people might want to help themselves. They would think that they would not need The Party. They would believe they had better ideas, and then—horror of horrors—they might start putting those ideas into action.
LEONIDAS: What’s wrong with that?
LENIN: Everything’s wrong with it! If people are allowed to think for themselves and act on their own ideas, they won’t need The Party. But The Party is the only way that everyone in the society will be friendly with one another—it’s the only way of making sure everyone gets along and doesn’t disagree. The Party is the only way that everyone in society is equal.The Party is the only way that everyone in society will be provided for.
LEONIDAS: You’re sounding more like Xerxes every minute.
LEONIDAS: What do they teach young people at these schools? Yes, Xerxes, the Persian king who had my corpse beheaded after the battle of Thermopylae because I and my Spartans and the Thespians dared to stand up against him.
LARRY: So you overthrew the ruling class too?
LEONIDAS: No. In Greece, the law ruled. The law, developed by huge groups of people debating it, kept our society in order. Athena told us that breaking the law would send our society into chaos. She also said that it would be just as bad if only one person or exclusive group of people—like Lenin is talking about—had all the power, because that power would go to the leaders’ heads and the leaders would turn our city into their slaves. We Greeks were free to move, to speak, to buy and sell, to debate ideas, to marry and have families, to learn how to fight and to carry our weapons, to play sports and compete in the Olympic and Isthmian and Pythian games, to hold office and help run our cities, to commission and make monuments and grave stones and offerings to the gods, to criticize the people who held office and hold them accountable for breaking the law or for misleading the people. We had so much freedom that we had six different words for it. And we weren’t about to let the Persians take it away from us.
LENIN: It sounds like your society was very, ahem, unfettered, uneven, too boisterous, rather unrefined, and certainly not up to laboratory standards.
LARRY: Actually, no offense Lenin, but it sounds pretty cool. So what happened?
LEONIDAS: When the Persians came, the Oracle told me that either I would die and Sparta would stay free, or I would live and Sparta and I would be enslaved by the Persians. So I knew exactly what I had to do.
LARRY: Sure thing—run for your life!
LARRY: What?!
LEONIDAS: If the Persians won, they would take away all of our freedoms. We would not be allowed to speak freely, or criticize our leaders when they did wrong, or buy and sell, or participate in the government, or marry and have children as we wished, or play sports, or learn everything we believed was necessary for a Greek to learn. The Persians would not have allowed us to do any of these things because they wanted to control us and make us slaves to their empire. They wanted to kill our freedom, our ability to choose things for ourselves—to choose our leaders, to choose our wives, to choose our business, to choose our ideas, to choose our religion, to choose our sports, to choose our property. If you cannot choose those things, why would you want to live?
LARRY AND LENIN: It’s better than dying.
LEONIDAS: Some might say so. The Greeks and tribes of the north said so. And the Persians were thrilled. But when the Persians showed up, they just forced the people of those cities to serve them; the Persians drank whole rivers dry and ate up every bit of food those cities had. The Greek cities who went over to the Persians’ side ended up being totally controlled by the Persians. Then when the Persians were done with them, they just moved on and added the next city to their list of slaves.
LARRY: Oh. But…they were still alive though. And isn’t living always better than dying?
LENIN: Of course it is. That’s why The Party must always come to power everywhere. Nothing is so important that you need to die for it. Everyone knows that. And The Party ensures that no one will die unnecessarily.
LEONIDAS: Except of course, as you said, the people who disagree with The Party.
LENIN: Well, certainly.
LARRY: What? The Party would kill people just because they wanted more than 113.3981 grams of bread per day? I’ve been putting those numbers in on my phone and that’s just like only being allowed to eat a quarter-pounder—divided over all three of your meals. That’s crazy! And it wouldn’t even have beef and cheese and catsup, which is even crazier!
LENIN: Now Larry…
LEONIDAS: It is certainly unpleasant. But what is far worse is the point that anyone who disagrees with The Party will be killed by The Party.
LENIN: You make it sound so extreme. Say instead that they are eliminated, or for less-extreme cases, simply re-educated.
LEONIDAS: Your words are different, but your intentions are the same. I will not change my words. The Party kills anyone who opposes it because The Party wants to be in charge of every detail of everyone’s life. Just like the Persians. And when anyone comes to be in charge of every detail of another person’s life, the person in charge gets to like telling the person he controls what to do. That’s why we Greeks never let anyone stay in office too long. We had to remind our leaders that we the people were really in charge, and that our leaders were in office to serve us, not the other way around. But you have diverted the conversation from answering Larry’s question.
LARRY: What question?
LEONIDAS: Whether living is always better than dying.
LARRY: Oh right. Well, you already said you died to save Sparta because Oracle said you had to. That’s quite a computer system! I didn’t know the Greeks had computers. But why did you want to save Sparta if you wouldn’t live to see it? And why couldn’t you just agree to be a slave and save your life?
LEONIDAS: I am a Spartan. I am a free man. The Persians wanted to destroy Sparta and to take away freedom from all of the Greeks. They wanted to destroy what we are. They wanted to take away a large part of our very existence. To take Sparta from Leonidas and to take freedom from Leonidas leaves you with someone who is not fully Leonidas. To be fully myself, I must be a Spartan and a free man—not a Persian slave. I would not wish Persian slavery on myself, nor would I wish it on my people.
LENIN: That sounds all very nice, but had you lived to be a mere 150 years old, you would have seen Greece collapse. You would know that freedom doesn’t last. It collapses into revolution. And then the fun begins, because people like myself and my fellows in The Party get to arrange everything so that everyone can have everything they need.
LEONIDAS: I could say the same thing about you, Lenin. Had you lived until December 25, 1991, you would have seen that slavery doesn’t last either. Your precious Union of Soviet Socialist “Republics” (the Romans would laugh at your terminology), was a failure ten-thousand times as large as the Colossus at Rhodes. You could even have looked backwards to 1865—just five years before you were born—and seen that slaves, this time in the United States (which the Romans would salute), eventually do work to get their freedom. So you see, Larry, freedom and slavery—the freedom to make choices for yourself and the slavery of having someone else choose everything for you—are both potentially short-lived.
LARRY: But which one lasts longer?
LEONIDAS: That’s the question. It’s up to you and your society. If you already are enslaved, you have to decide whether you’re going to try to become free. Once you put your mind to it, slavery can collapse almost overnight—as the East Germans and the Czechs found out in November 1989. But if you are currently free, you and your society have to be determined never to become slaves. The Romans succeeded best—they kept their true republic for 400 years, give or take.
LARRY: So how do you keep freedom?
LEONIDAS: How do you keep anything you care about? What do you care about?
LARRY: Dragon Warrior 5. I use it all the time, fix anything broken as soon as there’s a problem, always lock my apartment door so no one can steal it. I even got so worried about protecting it that I installed a security system.
LEONIDAS: Then you already know the basics of protecting freedom. You have to exercise your freedoms to keep them. You have to use your freedom to vote and learn and communicate to make sure that you are promoting freedom and political leaders who will support freedom. You have to fix even small holes in freedom before they get bigger. You have to vote out officials who do not protect freedom. And you have to be ready to keep your freedom protected. You have to be willing to fight for freedom—and I mean literally (Picking up his spear and hoplon and putting on his helmet with its crest of nodding horsehair). That’s what these are for.
LARRY: Whoah! Awesome! Hey, can I get a selfie with you? If I post it on social media, my 9,000 followers will all learn your story.
LEONIDAS: Ok, but I’m afraid that once they know, you’ll lose some followers—maybe all of them.
LARRY: It’s a risk I’m willing to take.
LENIN: But, but, but, but, but you’re holding, ahem, weapons! Larry, you don’t really want anyone to get hurt? You’re the kind of nice guy who wouldn’t dream of hurting anyone, remember?
LEONIDAS: I think he may be becoming the kind of man who wouldn’t dream of allowing anyone to hurt his liberty. Besides, if he’s a Dragon Warrior 5 champion, he’s already killed more enemies in that game than I have in real life. Good day, gentlemen.
LENIN: Don’t believe a word he says. I should never have allowed you to speak with him. The ancients are so unenlightened. So un-woke. So barbarian. We live in the twenty-first century. We are the ones who really know things.
LARRY: You keep saying that, Lenny, but you were the one who couldn’t really answer Leonidas’ questions. I’m thinking—
LENIN: On no! He’s thinking
LARRY: …yes, I’m thinking that you’re the one I shouldn’t believe. I’m going to go ask him where I can get some of that armor. Here, you can finish the rest of my fish and chips. And by the way, they’re not free—because I had to pay for them—but I’m giving them to you, as a gift.

Photos: The Spartan monument at Thermopylae, Greece