The Spartan Tradition in European Thought

By Elizabeth Rawson | Go to book overview
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No ONE today would think of taking Agesilaus as a model, either for himself or for his rulers. And ideas of constitutional government and its safeguards have been profoundly modified since the days of clamour for the mixed state or for the ephorate. But when we discuss rival patterns for society as a whole, we still find we have not quite forgotten Sparta; and the modern reader, who tends to be better acquainted with Plato than with Plutarch or Polybius, may find more interest in a brief consideration of Sparta's part in the Utopian tradition.

The imaginary states depicted by economic and social reformers from the sixteenth century on drew inspiration, from the start, from many sources. Theoretically, of course, from reason and nature; in practice, very often, from reaction against crying contemporary abuses, above all faction, war, and the unhappy effects of extreme social contrasts and rapid economic change; from the traditional belief that money was the root of all evil, from admiration for the humble and hardworking early Christian communities or the monastic orders, and, as time went on, from the strange peoples of the newly discovered continents. But Plato's Republic remained vitally important, above all because it had established the literary genre, and to many the authority of Aristotle continued to recommend the ideal state briefly sketched at the end of the Politics. The Renaissance was well aware that the ideal states of ancient and modern times bore a strong family resemblance (due, of course, to common and usually unconscious presuppositions even more than to direct imitation), and also that Sparta, not this time merely following, as so often, in the wake of Rome, headed the whole list and gave it the encouragement of her real existence. For one thing, Plutarch had explicitly praised Lycurgus for achieving, through his legislation, what Plato and the other philosophers had only dreamt of


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