Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8 ESV)
We are at war with the powers of Hell. That sounds a bit dramatic, doesn’t it? And yet it is true. It is easy for us to forget that the devil himself is our enemy. We get so absorbed in the details of life that we can no longer see the big picture. When viewed from up close, we’re competing with other people, trying to achieve status, make money, develop skills, make friends, etc. In these minigames that, taken together, make up the metagame of life, our opponents are not too different from us. But if you take a step back and look at the metagame, you can see that we, collectively, are in a cosmic struggle against evil personified. Does any of us stand a chance against that?
In the Plato’s Alcibiades, Socrates speaks to a youth about what it takes to lead a polis. Alcibiades thinks he’s hot stuff. He thinks he’s prepared to be in charge, despite being young and inexperienced. Socrates sets him straight, pointing out to him that his true rivals are not those within the city, but those outside who seek to destroy it. They are descended from gods, better raised and educated, better trained in the art of war. His goal in saying these things is to instill fear in his pupil to motivate him to improve himself and become worthy of the power to which he aspires.
I think that Peter is doing something similar in the passage above. He is pointing out that our enemy is more powerful than we are so that we will be appropriately cautious. Neither Socrates nor Peter, however, say that we are to abandon hope because our enemy is great. On the contrary, because we have God on our side, we can be proceed with cautious confidence.
I have pasted an excerpt from Alcibiades below. I recommend reading the dialogue in its entirety, if you have time.
SOCRATES: Well, and in reference to your own case, do you mean to remain as you are, or will you take some pains about yourself?
ALCIBIADES: With your aid, Socrates, I will. And indeed, when I hear you speak, the truth of what you are saying strikes home to me, and I agree with you, for our statesmen, all but a few, do appear to be quite uneducated.
SOCRATES: What is the inference?
ALCIBIADES: Why, that if they were educated they would be trained athletes, and he who means to rival them ought to have knowledge and experience when he attacks them; but now, as they have become politicians without any special training, why should I have the trouble of learning and practising? For I know well that by the light of nature I shall get the better of them.
SOCRATES: My dear friend, what a sentiment! And how unworthy of your noble form and your high estate!
ALCIBIADES: What do you mean, Socrates; why do you say so?
SOCRATES: I am grieved when I think of our mutual love.
ALCIBIADES: At what?
SOCRATES: At your fancying that the contest on which you are entering is with people here.
ALCIBIADES: Why, what others are there?
SOCRATES: Is that a question which a magnanimous soul should ask?
ALCIBIADES: Do you mean to say that the contest is not with these?
SOCRATES: And suppose that you were going to steer a ship into action, would you only aim at being the best pilot on board? Would you not, while acknowledging that you must possess this degree of excellence, rather look to your antagonists, and not, as you are now doing, to your fellow combatants? You ought to be so far above these latter, that they will not even dare to be your rivals; and, being regarded by you as inferiors, will do battle for you against the enemy; this is the kind of superiority which you must establish over them, if you mean to accomplish any noble action really worthy of yourself and of the state.
ALCIBIADES: That would certainly be my aim.
SOCRATES: Verily, then, you have good reason to be satisfied, if you are better than the soldiers; and you need not, when you are their superior and have your thoughts and actions fixed upon them, look away to the generals of the enemy.
ALCIBIADES: Of whom are you speaking, Socrates?
SOCRATES: Why, you surely know that our city goes to war now and then with the Lacedaemonians and with the great king?
ALCIBIADES: True enough.
SOCRATES: And if you meant to be the ruler of this city, would you not be right in considering that the Lacedaemonian and Persian king were your true rivals?
ALCIBIADES: I believe that you are right.
SOCRATES: Oh no, my friend, I am quite wrong, and I think that you ought rather to turn your attention to Midias the quail-breeder and others like him, who manage our politics; in whom, as the women would remark, you may still see the slaves’ cut of hair, cropping out in their minds as well as on their pates; and they come with their barbarous lingo to flatter us and not to rule us. To these, I say, you should look, and then you need not trouble yourself about your own fitness to contend in such a noble arena: there is no reason why you should either learn what has to be learned, or practise what has to be practised, and only when thoroughly prepared enter on a political career.
ALCIBIADES: There, I think, Socrates, that you are right; I do not suppose, however, that the Spartan generals or the great king are really different from anybody else.
SOCRATES: But, my dear friend, do consider what you are saying.
ALCIBIADES: What am I to consider?
SOCRATES: In the first place, will you be more likely to take care of yourself, if you are in a wholesome fear and dread of them, or if you are not?
ALCIBIADES: Clearly, if I have such a fear of them.
SOCRATES: And do you think that you will sustain any injury if you take care of yourself?
ALCIBIADES: No, I shall be greatly benefited.
SOCRATES: And this is one very important respect in which that notion of yours is bad.
SOCRATES: In the next place, consider that what you say is probably false.
ALCIBIADES: How so?
SOCRATES: Let me ask you whether better natures are likely to be found in noble races or not in noble races?
ALCIBIADES: Clearly in noble races.
SOCRATES: Are not those who are well born and well bred most likely to be perfect in virtue?
SOCRATES: Then let us compare our antecedents with those of the Lacedaemonian and Persian kings; are they inferior to us in descent? Have we not heard that the former are sprung from Heracles, and the latter from Achaemenes, and that the race of Heracles and the race of Achaemenes go back to Perseus, son of Zeus?
ALCIBIADES: Why, so does mine go back to Eurysaces, and he to Zeus!
SOCRATES: And mine, noble Alcibiades, to Daedalus, and he to Hephaestus, son of Zeus. But, for all that, we are far inferior to them. For they are descended ‘from Zeus,’ through a line of kings—either kings of Argos and Lacedaemon, or kings of Persia, a country which the descendants of Achaemenes have always possessed, besides being at various times sovereigns of Asia, as they now are; whereas, we and our fathers were but private persons. How ridiculous would you be thought if you were to make a display of your ancestors and of Salamis the island of Eurysaces, or of Aegina, the habitation of the still more ancient Aeacus, before Artaxerxes, son of Xerxes. You should consider how inferior we are to them both in the derivation of our birth and in other particulars. Did you never observe how great is the property of the Spartan kings? And their wives are under the guardianship of the Ephori, who are public officers and watch over them, in order to preserve as far as possible the purity of the Heracleid blood. Still greater is the difference among the Persians; for no one entertains a suspicion that the father of a prince of Persia can be any one but the king. Such is the awe which invests the person of the queen, that any other guard is needless. And when the heir of the kingdom is born, all the subjects of the king feast; and the day of his birth is for ever afterwards kept as a holiday and time of sacrifice by all Asia; whereas, when you and I were born, Alcibiades, as the comic poet says, the neighbours hardly knew of the important event. After the birth of the royal child, he is tended, not by a good-for-nothing woman-nurse, but by the best of the royal eunuchs, who are charged with the care of him, and especially with the fashioning and right formation of his limbs, in order that he may be as shapely as possible; which being their calling, they are held in great honour. And when the young prince is seven years old he is put upon a horse and taken to the riding-masters, and begins to go out hunting. And at fourteen years of age he is handed over to the royal schoolmasters, as they are termed: these are four chosen men, reputed to be the best among the Persians of a certain age; and one of them is the wisest, another the justest, a third the most temperate, and a fourth the most valiant. The first instructs him in the magianism of Zoroaster, the son of Oromasus, which is the worship of the Gods, and teaches him also the duties of his royal office; the second, who is the justest, teaches him always to speak the truth; the third, or most temperate, forbids him to allow any pleasure to be lord over him, that he may be accustomed to be a freeman and king indeed,—lord of himself first, and not a slave; the most valiant trains him to be bold and fearless, telling him that if he fears he is to deem himself a slave; whereas Pericles gave you, Alcibiades, for a tutor Zopyrus the Thracian, a slave of his who was past all other work. I might enlarge on the nurture and education of your rivals, but that would be tedious; and what I have said is a sufficient sample of what remains to be said. I have only to remark, by way of contrast, that no one cares about your birth or nurture or education, or, I may say, about that of any other Athenian, unless he has a lover who looks after him. And if you cast an eye on the wealth, the luxury, the garments with their flowing trains, the anointings with myrrh, the multitudes of attendants, and all the other bravery of the Persians, you will be ashamed when you discern your own inferiority; or if you look at the temperance and orderliness and ease and grace and magnanimity and courage and endurance and love of toil and desire of glory and ambition of the Lacedaemonians—in all these respects you will see that you are but a child in comparison of them. Even in the matter of wealth, if you value yourself upon that, I must reveal to you how you stand; for if you form an estimate of the wealth of the Lacedaemonians, you will see that our possessions fall far short of theirs. For no one here can compete with them either in the extent and fertility of their own and the Messenian territory, or in the number of their slaves, and especially of the Helots, or of their horses, or of the animals which feed on the Messenian pastures. But I have said enough of this: and as to gold and silver, there is more of them in Lacedaemon than in all the rest of Hellas, for during many generations gold has been always flowing in to them from the whole Hellenic world, and often from the barbarian also, and never going out, as in the fable of Aesop the fox said to the lion, ‘The prints of the feet of those going in are distinct enough;’ but who ever saw the trace of money going out of Lacedaemon? And therefore you may safely infer that the inhabitants are the richest of the Hellenes in gold and silver, and that their kings are the richest of them, for they have a larger share of these things, and they have also a tribute paid to them which is very considerable. Yet the Spartan wealth, though great in comparison of the wealth of the other Hellenes, is as nothing in comparison of that of the Persians and their kings. Why, I have been informed by a credible person who went up to the king (at Susa), that he passed through a large tract of excellent land, extending for nearly a day’s journey, which the people of the country called the queen’s girdle, and another, which they called her veil; and several other fair and fertile districts, which were reserved for the adornment of the queen, and are named after her several habiliments. Now, I cannot help thinking to myself, What if some one were to go to Amestris, the wife of Xerxes and mother of Artaxerxes, and say to her, There is a certain Dinomache, whose whole wardrobe is not worth fifty minae—and that will be more than the value—and she has a son who is possessed of a three-hundred acre patch at Erchiae, and he has a mind to go to war with your son—would she not wonder to what this Alcibiades trusts for success in the conflict? ‘He must rely,’ she would say to herself, ‘upon his training and wisdom—these are the things which Hellenes value.’ And if she heard that this Alcibiades who is making the attempt is not as yet twenty years old, and is wholly uneducated, and when his lover tells him that he ought to get education and training first, and then go and fight the king, he refuses, and says that he is well enough as he is, would she not be amazed, and ask ‘On what, then, does the youth rely?’ And if we replied: He relies on his beauty, and stature, and birth, and mental endowments, she would think that we were mad, Alcibiades, when she compared the advantages which you possess with those of her own people. And I believe that even Lampido, the daughter of Leotychides, the wife of Archidamus and mother of Agis, all of whom were kings, would have the same feeling; if, in your present uneducated state, you were to turn your thoughts against her son, she too would be equally astonished. But how disgraceful, that we should not have as high a notion of what is required in us as our enemies’ wives and mothers have of the qualities which are required in their assailants! O my friend, be persuaded by me, and hear the Delphian inscription, ‘Know thyself’—not the men whom you think, but these kings are our rivals, and we can only overcome them by pains and skill. And if you fail in the required qualities, you will fail also in becoming renowned among Hellenes and Barbarians, which you seem to desire more than any other man ever desired anything.
ALCIBIADES: I entirely believe you; but what are the sort of pains which are required, Socrates,—can you tell me?
SOCRATES: Yes, I can; but we must take counsel together concerning the manner in which both of us may be most improved. For what I am telling you of the necessity of education applies to myself as well as to you; and there is only one point in which I have an advantage over you.
ALCIBIADES: What is that?
SOCRATES: I have a guardian who is better and wiser than your guardian, Pericles.
ALCIBIADES: Who is he, Socrates?
SOCRATES: God, Alcibiades, who up to this day has not allowed me to converse with you; and he inspires in me the faith that I am especially designed to bring you to honour.
ALCIBIADES: You are jesting, Socrates.
SOCRATES: Perhaps, at any rate, I am right in saying that all men greatly need pains and care, and you and I above all men.
ALCIBIADES: You are not far wrong about me.
SOCRATES: And certainly not about myself.
ALCIBIADES: But what can we do?
SOCRATES: There must be no hesitation or cowardice, my friend.
ALCIBIADES: That would not become us, Socrates.