*this blog post is my reading summary series of History of Western Philosophy. For chapter 11, you can read here.
Book 1: Ancient Philosophy
Part 2: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle
Chapter 12: The Influence of Sparta
Sparta had influenced on Plato and later philosophers. To understand him, we have to understand first the influence. Sparta had double effects on Greek thought: through the reality and through the myth. (p. 99) Each of them is equally important. We will discuss the reality first, then we can continue with the latter.
Laconia or Lacedaemon was the capital of Sparta. It was located in the south-east of Peloponnesus. The Spartans conquered the country and the native of Laconia there was enslaved. The serfs were called helots.
Laconia (the red area)
picture was taken from Wikipedia
All the land belonged to the Spartans, but they were forbidden to cultivate it by themselves. Because the labor degraded themselves and they might be needed for military services. The serf remained attached to the land. They couldn't be bought or sold, but they were passed down from father to son. These helots were Greeks, too. They resented their servile condition. If they had a chance to revolt, they would use it. To anticipate this danger, the Spartans had a body of secret police to deal with it. Helots could be emancipated, but only by the State, not by their masters. They were emancipated, if they fought exceptionally brave in battle, which rarely happened.
At 8 B.C. the Spartans conquered Messenia. There they enslaved the native of Messenia.
Messenia (the red area)
picture was taken from Wikipedia
The only thing that mattered to a Spartan was war, which he was trained from he was born. All children had to be inspected. Only the vigorous ones were allowed to be reared. When they reach the age of twenty, they would be trained in a big school. The purpose of the training was to make them hardy, indifferent to pain, and submissive to discipline. (p. 100) There was no cultural and scientific education. The sole aim was to produce good soldiers.
Women in Sparta were not secluded. Girls went through the same physical training like boys. They practiced together in gymnastic and all being naked. Women were not allowed to show emotions. They might allow to show contempt to coward, but they couldn't show grief if their new-born babies were condemned to death as a weakling or if their sons were killed in battle.
There were two kings in Sparta, belonging in two different families and succeeding by heredity. There was a Council of Elders, consisted of 30 members including the kings. The rest of the members must be over sixty years old, and were chosen for life by the whole body of citizens, but only from aristocratic families. The Council tried criminal cases, but the Assembly was the one to reach the verdict. The Assembly consisted of all the citizens. It could not initiate anything, but it could give vote yes or no to a case. However its verdict was not sufficient enough. The elders and the magistrates must proclaim the decision before it became valid. (p. 101) Another branch of government in Sparta besides the kings, the Council, the Assembly, is the five ephors. The ephors were intended to balance the kings.
In early days, Sparta produced poets and artists, just like any other of Greek cities. But, in 7 B.C. Sparta had crystallized itself to military specialty, which it became famous for its military strength. Sparta was admired by other Greeks for its stability. Other Greek cities had revolutions while Sparta's constitutions remained unchanged for centuries.
For a long time, the Spartans proved themselves invincible on land. They retained their supremacy until the year 371 B.C., when they were defeated by the Thebans at the battle of Leuctra. This was the end of their military greatness. (p. 103)
To put aside all the military greatness of Sparta, we will now see the other reality of Sparta. Herodotus wrote that no Spartan could resist a bribe. We were told that Spartan women were chaste, but it happened several times that reputed heir to kingship had to put in sidelines because he was an illegitimate son. Also we were told that the Spartans were patriot, yet King Pausanias was a traitor. Here we already know that Athens fought Persia to liberate the Greeks of Asia Minor and the adjacent islands, and Sparta didn't take place in alliances. It remained aloof. As long as the Peloponnesus was safe, there's no reason for Sparta to concern what happened around its neighbourhood.
Aristotle gave hostile criticism to Sparta's constitution. He said that the ephors was very poor therefore they were easy to bribe. Their power was so great even kings could be compelled to court them. Aristotle also accused the Spartans for being avarice.
All these reality wasn't the one that persisted in our mind. In fact the one that persisted in our imagination was a myth from Plutarch. Russell wrote:
The myth of Sparta, for medieval and modern readers, was mainly fixed by Plutarch. When he wrote, Sparta belonged to the romantic past; its great period was as far removed from his time as Columbus is from ours. ... Greece has influenced the world, always, through its effect on men's imaginations, ideals, and hopes, not directly through political power. Rome made roads which largely still survive, and laws which are the source of many modern legal codes, but it was the armies of Rome that made these things important. The Greeks, though admirably fighters, made few conquests, because they expended their military fury mainly on each other. It was left to the semi-barbarian Alexander to spread Hellenism throughout the Near Est, and to make Greek the literary language in Egypt and Syria and the inland parts of Asia Minor. The Greeks could never have accomplished this task, not for lack of military force, but owing to their incapacity for political cohesion. The political vehicles of Hellenism have always been non-Hellenic; but it was the Greek genius that so inspired alien nations as to cause them to spread the culture of those whom they conquered. (p. 104-105)
Plutarch wrote that Lycurgus made laws for Sparta. He traveled to many places. He liked the laws of Crete, which he considered as straight and severe, and disliked the laws of Ionia, which was superfluities and vanities. From Egypt, he learnt to separate soldiers from the rest of the people. He forbade gold and silver, only allowed iron coinage. He banished all superfluous and unprofitable sciences. Next he ordained all citizens should eat together and should have the same food.
Lycurgus thought education for children was really important. In marriage, for the first few years couples were still burning in love. It's not a shame if an old man married a young girl and he allowed a younger man to have children with his wife. When a child was born, he would be examined by the elders. If he were healthy, he would be allowed to be reared. If not, he would be thrown into a deep pit of water.
Homosexual love was a recognized custom in Sparta and had acknowledged part in the education of adolescent boys. (p. 106) A boy's lover would suffer from the boy's actions. For example, if a boy cried because he was hurt in fighting, his lover was fined for his cowardice.
There was a law that allowed Spartans to kill helots whenever they wanted, but he refused to believe that anything abominable was from Lycurgus. He said:
"For I cannot be persuaded, that ever Lycurgus invented, or instituted so wicked and mischievous an act, as that kind of ordinance was: because I imagine his nature was gentle and merciful, by the clemency and justice we see he used in all his other doings." (p. 107)
So, that was all from Chapter 12: The Influence of Sparta. Next on Chapter 13 we will know the sources of Plato's opinions. Stay tuned! \m/