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In Defense of Sparta

The alt-right and other fanatics of the ancient civilization are distorting history. Sparta can teach us how to rethink liberal democracy.

Paris Papaionnou/AFP/Getty

The city of Sparta isn’t much to look at these days. A couple small ruins, some olive trees, and down below, the cold waters of the Eurotas River. Nothing half as flashy as the Parthenon.

Like their prized republic, admirers of ancient Sparta don’t have nearly the same reputation they used to. It used to be the case that minds as distinguished as Rousseau’s or Montesquieu’s looked to Sparta for inspiration, but lately interest in this peculiar, long-lived ancient Greek city is confined to the likes of anarcho-libertarian cranks, neo-fascist thugs, and fitness obsessives.

“The metastasis of Sparta worship in the ‘fake news’ age offers an object lesson in how to rewrite the history of a people and a culture, pressing them into the service of hard-line political movements marked by racism, nationalism, and tyranny,” Myke Cole wrote last week in The New Republic, lamenting how a society that “ceased to be a real political force more than 2,100 years ago” had “come to hold such a widespread, and increasingly pernicious, influence on contemporary society.”

There’s plenty to lament here, it’s true. These latter-day laconophiles (lovers of Sparta, that is) tend to exalt the cruellest, grittiest, and most violent aspects of Spartan life. They make virtues of the brutal training regimen forced upon young Spartans, of the city’s merciless repression of its surrounding population, of its anti-intellectual and hyper-martial mores.

It’s also true that we can find in Sparta’s history starker versions of the darker tendencies of our own society: militarism, intolerance of outsiders, indifference toward the value of human life. At the same time, today’s laconophiles overlook characteristics of Spartan society that many of them would object to, including relative economic equality, cultural egalitarianism, and military restraint.

The Spartans are a strange case: They rejected anything resembling liberal democracy, abandoned commerce, industry, and trade, and by doing so, rose to preeminence in the Greek world and maintained their independence for seven centuries—far longer than any modern republic.

It’s hard to know for sure, but our ancient sources suggest that the unique set of laws and customs that regulated Spartan behavior at home was the key to their longevity. Lycurgus, the founder of the Spartan regime, is said to have decreed that only iron bars would be accepted as currency. It became so difficult to make or accumulate money, since it had to be carted around in huge wheelbarrows, that citizens gave up on their desire to make a fortune and reconciled themselves to living on a largely materially equal basis to their fellow-citizens.

Lycurgus also had all the citizens eat together at common tables, in an effort to prevent the development of luxurious habits and to make sure private relationships, even familial ones, did not undermine the community. Another advantage of eating together was that the Spartans couldn’t drink too much—otherwise they’d have trouble finding their way home in the dark.

Women also played a more conspicuous role in Spartan life than elsewhere in ancient Greece (although that is not saying very much). Spartan women went through the same training as men, and mothers were seen as a mainstay of civic virtue. In Athens, on the other hand, in his famous Funeral Oration, the orator Pericles gallingly told Athenian women that the best thing they could do for the city was stay home and out of the public eye.

Sparta preserved its regional dominance more by restraint than by hunger for conquest. Thucydides’s history portrays the Spartans as reluctant to go to war and often more merciful than their more liberal-minded opponents, the Athenians. It’s no insignificant fact that when Sparta won the bloody Peloponnesian War, it spared a defeated Athens from the violent reprisals that Athens itself often meted out to cities it defeated.

Plutarch tells us that in Sparta, those who were free—that is, the citizens—were freer than people anywhere else in the world. To our ears that sounds strange. Even the Spartan citizens, who were greatly outnumbered by the enslaved helots and noncitizen residents (the períoikoi, or “people who live around here”), had constant duties imposed on them—whether fighting in a war, or training young Spartans, or getting beaten up for stepping out of line. How could they be called free?

Benjamin Constant, a Swiss-French liberal thinker writing at the start of the nineteenth century, had one answer. There were two kinds of freedom: one ancient, one modern. Modern freedom put a premium on rights—that is, assurances that people would not be prevented from associating freely, from expressing their opinions, from acquiring property and using it as they wished. It entailed putting limits on politics that would restrain both tyrants and tyrannical majorities.

Ancient liberty, on the other hand, was unabashedly majoritarian. It was not individual but communal. To be free in an ancient sense was to participate in the life of the city on equal terms with others, and have a say in public debates on domestic and foreign affairs, the results of which would bind everyone. This Spartan kind of freedom was active, not passive. It made no promises about religious freedom. It had no concept of a private sphere of rights—but it was freedom nonetheless.

Constant wanted to argue that this communal form of freedom was simply disagreeable for modern people, who demand different things from their governments, and crave the luxury that only individual freedom and a capitalist system can provide. The French Revolution, he claimed, was nothing more than a misguided effort to force this austere ancient form of communal liberty on a modern people too accustomed to nice things. Drunk on the praise Rousseau had heaped on Sparta, the bloodthirsty revolutionaries went to any length to make the French wear togas—but it was never going to work.

This charge stuck. After the French Revolution, Sparta became stigmatized as the favorite city of illiberals, and Athens became the ancient republic par excellence. During the nineteenth century, English thinkers like J.S. Mill and George Grote worked to reimagine tumultuous Athens as a forerunner to the placid, liberal Victorian commonwealth. Sparta had its revenge, in a way, in the twentieth century. Fascism and communism found the modern form of individual liberty lacking, and sought to reinject community—albeit in monstrous, immoderate ways that trampled on liberty.

Luckily for us, liberalism won the ensuing conflict. But we ought not make the same mistake Constant did in the nineteenth century and throw Sparta on the dust heap of history. Something in human nature craves more than a sphere of rights, more than promises of nice things and free association. One need neither equate nor endorse the rise of democratic socialism on the left and of nationalism on the right to observe that each demonstrates, once again, that people crave more than individual liberty, full stop. People want actively to participate in the life of a community, too, and our politics ought to answer to that. While we should beware the Sparta myth, we would also do well to emulate the best that culture had to offer.