‘What the Spartans have done for us’

We’re only 16 months past the events of September 11, 2001. However, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, they say, and terrible and ghastly as those tragic events were, they have at least also provoked what I believe to be a salutary spate of Western reflection on just what it is to be «Western,» on what «Western civilization» is, or should be. As one ancient Greek exemplar of that civilization is famously reported to have said, «the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being,» and the process of re-examining and rethinking about what is distinctive and admirable – or at any rate defensible – about Western civilization, values and culture seems to me both to have been in itself a wholly good thing and to have had some notably positive outcomes. For example, it has made us realize that we in the West do not necessarily have all the best answers. It has come to be better appreciated that what are often imagined to be uniquely «Western» concepts and practices, such as reason, freedom and democracy, have had, and still do have, their active counterparts in Eastern cultures as well. Indeed, there have been key Eastern – not least including Islamic – contributions to the tradition of Western civilization. But for Arabic scholars in what we call the Middle Ages, for example, a number of key works of Aristotle would have been lost to us, and Aristotle is about as central to any construction of the Western cultural tradition as it is possible to get. Some of us Westerners post 9/11 were provoked, specifically, into wondering aloud whether any definition of our civilization and its cultural values would justify our dying for them, or even maybe killing for them – as the suicide hijackers of September 11, or the suicide bombers of the West Bank and Gaza, clearly were and are prepared to die for their fundamentalist brands of Islam. Those of us who are historians of ancient Greece wondered that with especial intensity. For the world of ancient – or as we sometimes say Classical – Greece is, as I’ve already implied in quoting Socrates’s famous aphorism, one of the principal taproots of our Western civilization. Greece and us The connection between the two, Greece and us, was forcefully expressed, and with conscious paradox, in the mid-19th century by John Stuart Mill in a review of the first volumes of George Grote’s pioneering, liberal-democratic history of ancient Greece. As Mill put it, the Battle of Marathon – which was fought in 490 BC by the Athenians with support only from the neighboring small city of Plataea against the invading Persians – was more important than the Battle of Hastings, even as an event in English history. So too, arguably, or so at least I should want to argue, was the Battle of Thermopylae, fought 10 years later between a small Spartan-led Greek force and an even more massive force of invading Persians. Unlike Marathon, of course, Thermopylae was formally a defeat for the Greeks, yet it was none the less glorious or culturally significant for that, since it was soon converted into a moral, that is, a morale, victory. And as Napoleon once put it, in war the morale factor is three times as important as all the other factors put together. He of all people ought to have known what he was saying about Sparta’s finest hour. Indeed, some would even say – and I’m tempted to include myself in their number – that Thermopylae was Sparta’s finest hour. In any case, it’s Sparta’s Thermopylae experience that provides me with my starting point and constant point of reference in trying to answer the question posed in this talk: What have the Spartans done for us? Perhaps we might begin by asking – as the Persian King Cyrus was supposed to have asked, in about 550 BC – who are these Spartans? One answer is that they were the Dorian (Doric-speaking) inhabitants of a Greek city-state in the Peloponnese that for many centuries was one of the greatest of ancient Greek powers. Another answer, as one of Cyrus’s successors, Xerxes, found out all too painfully, is that they were a fighting machine strong enough, skillful enough and sufficiently iron-willed to repel even his vast hordes and so frustrate his attempt to incorporate the mainland Greeks in an oriental empire that already stretched from the Aegean in the West to beyond the Hindu Kush. Xerxes discovered these facts about Sparta in person, at Thermopylae, and his appointed commander-in-chief, Mardonius, discovered them again at Plataea the following year, when it was the Spartans under Regent Pausanias who played the lead role in that famous and decisive Greek victory. That, in turn, is one, not insignificant, answer to the question why today we should care who the ancient Spartans were. They enabled the development of the civilization that we have chosen in crucial ways to inherit and learn from. What if the Persians had won in 480-479? Either that Greek civilization would have been significantly different thereafter and/or we should not have been its legatees in the same ways or to the same degree. Another answer to the question why the ancient Spartans matter to us today concerns the impact of what has been variously labeled the Spartan myth, mirage, or tradition. That is to say: the variety of ways in which Sparta and Spartans have been represented in mainly non-Spartan discourses, both written and visual, since the late fifth century BC has left a deep mark on the Western tradition, on the understanding of what it is to belong to a Western culture. Dark underside Sparta impinges upon our everyday consciousness through enriching our English vocabulary. Ancient Sparta has given us not one but two English adjectives: «spartan,» of course, and «laconic.» Less obviously, and less happily, the Spartans have bequeathed us also the noun «helot,» used to refer to a member of an especially deprived or exploited ethnic or economic underclass. It thus reflects, accurately, the dark underside of the Spartans’ more positive achievements. The Greek word heilôtês probably originally meant «captive,» and certainly it was as captives and enemies that the Spartans treated the unfree subordinate population of Helots – that is, as prisoners of war whose death sentence they had merely suspended so as to force them to labor under constant threat of extinction in order to provide the economic basis for the Spartan way of life. Other Greek cities, not least Athens, were also, of course, crucially dependent on unfree labor for creating and maintaining a distinctively politicized and cultured style of communal life. But the slaves of the Athenians were typical in that they were a polyglot, heterogeneous bunch, mainly «barbarians» or non-Greek foreigners, and were mostly owned individually. The Helots of Sparta, by contrast, were an entire Greek people, or perhaps two separate peoples united by a common yoke of servitude, and they were subjugated collectively. These three words – spartan, laconic, helot – are just a small, linguistic token of the fact that English or British culture, indeed Western culture as a whole, has been deeply marked by what the French scholar François Ollier neatly dubbed «le mirage spartiate.» He coined that phrase, not coincidentally, in the 1930s, an era when Sparta – or rather ideas of how Sparta had supposedly worked as a society – exercised a particular fascination for totalitarian or authoritarian rulers, most notoriously for Adolf Hitler and the pseudo-scholarly members of his Nazi entourage, such as Alfred Rosenberg. Discipline, orderliness, soldierly hierarchy and a subordination of individual endeavor to the overriding good of the State were among the Spartan virtues that they were most attracted by – but only to put them to the most perverted uses. It is this modern totalitarian or authoritarian reception of ancient Sparta that has probably tarnished for good Sparta’s reputation as a political ideal or model in modern Western liberal-democratic societies. Voltaire vs Rousseau Yet Sparta’s reputation had not always been put to such sinister or heinous uses. In the 18th century, one of the many internal debates that flourished among Enlightenment intellectuals was between the proclaimed paradigmatic virtues of Athens and those of Sparta. In the Athens corner, predictably, was Voltaire, the advocate of learning and luxury. Sparta, which notoriously had rejected both, at least in theory or ideology, was hardly calculated to appeal to a thinker like him. Yet in the Sparta corner stood, equally redoubtably, if not so predictably, the surely no less enlightened and progressive thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was a huge fan of (the wisdom of Sparta’s laws) and an even greater fan of its legendary lawgiver Lycurgus. In Lycurgus’s Sparta, Rousseau saw a society devoted to implementing the general will in a collective, self-effacing, law-abiding, and above all thoroughly virtuous way. He was not the first, or the last, intellectual to deploy an image or vision of Sparta as an integral component and driving force of a whole program of social and political reforms. Among the first on record to do so was Plato, and through him Sparta has a very good claim to be the fount and origin of the entire tradition of utopian thinking and writing.