The Spartan Tradition in European Thought

The Spartan Tradition in European Thought

The Spartan Tradition in European Thought

The Spartan Tradition in European Thought

Synopsis

Ancient polemics on Sparta (by Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and others) have had a remarkable afterlife in the political and educational thought of Renaissance Italy, the France of the Philosophes, Whig England, and Nazi Germany. This book outlines the little we know of ancient Sparta, describes Greek reaction to the ambiguous institutions of the great rival to democratic Athens, makes a first attempt to follow the subsequent fortunes of the debate, and indicates Sparta's role--over twenty-five centuries--in the intellectual history of Europe.

Excerpt

Ancient Sparta: a militaristic and totalitarian state, holding down an enslaved population, the helots, by terror and violence, educating its young by a system incorporating all the worst features of the traditional English public school, and deliberately turning its back on the intellectual and artistic life of the rest of Greece. Such, at least, is the picture, if any, which mention of the name consciously or unconsciously conjures up in the minds of most people in this country today. The liberal democratic tradition that dominates modern English thought has very naturally tended to idealize Sparta's great rival, democratic Athens; and its consequent distrust of Sparta was reinforced by reaction against a very different set of political ideas, particularly prominent in Germany, where admiration for Sparta reached a fantastic conclusion under the Nazis; to some writers, at that time, Sparta was the most purely Nordic state in Greece, and an exemplar of National Socialist virtues. Two hundred years ago, however, an ordinary educated Englishman would most probably have viewed the Spartan constitution as a prototype of the British limited monarchy in all its perfection; his French contemporary might have been one of those who revered her, with Rousseau and others, primarily as an egalitarian, often more or less communistic, republic. Two hundred years before that she appeared in still other guises; as the ideal aristocratic republic, for example, practically indistinguishable from Venice. And so we might go on.

For over two and a half millennia politicians and philosophers, in the light of their own needs and convictions, have regarded now one aspect and now another of Sparta as significant. From almost the dawn of Greek history enormous prestige surrounded her, and this was exploited to recommend the most disparate virtues and institutions; the occasional reactions are correspondingly obsessive. Only Rome, sometimes as republic and sometimes as empire, has exerted greater attraction; influence cannot be measured, and is a word to avoid.

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