To understand Plato, and indeed many later philosophers, it is necessary to know something of Sparta. Sparta had a double effect on Greek thought: through the reality, and through the myth. Each is important. The reality enabled the Spartans to defeat Athens in war; the myth influenced Plato's political theory, and that of countless subsequent writers. The myth, fully developed, is to be found in Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus; the ideals that it favours have had a great part in framing the doctrines of Rousseau, Nietzsche, and National Socialism.1 The myth is of even more importance, historically, than the reality; nevertheless, we will begin with the latter. For the reality was the source of the myth.
Laconia, of which Sparta, or Lacedaemon was the capital, occupied the south-east of the Peloponnesus. The Spartans, who were the ruling race, had conquered the country at the time of the Dorian invasion from the north, and had reduced the population that they found there to the condition of serfs. These serfs were called helots. In historical times, all the land belonged to the Spartans, who, however, were forbidden by law and custom to cultivate it themselves, both on the ground that such labour was degrading, and in order that they might always be free for military service. The serfs were not bought and sold, but remained attached to the land, which was divided into lots, one or more for each adult male Spartan. These lots, like the helots, could not be bought or sold, and passed, by law, from father to son. (They could, however, be bequeathed.) The landowner received from the helot who cultivated the lot seventy medimni (about 105 bushels) of grain for himself, twelve for his
wife, and a stated portion of wine and fruit annually.2 Anything beyond this amount was the property of the helot. The helots were Greeks, like the Spartans, and bitterly resented their servile condition. When they could, they rebelled. The Spartans had a body of secret police to deal with this danger, but to supplement this precaution they had another: once a year, they declared war on the helots, so that their young men could kill any who seemed insubordinate without incurring the legal guilt of homicide. Helots could be emancipated by the State, but not by their masters; they were emancipated, rather rarely, for exceptional bravery in battle.
At some time during the eighth century B.C. the Spartans conquered the neighbouring country of Messenia, and reduced most of its inhabitants to the condition of helots. There had been a lack of Lebensraum in Sparta, but the new territory, for a time, removed this source of discontent.
Lots were for the common run of Spartans; the aristocracy had estates of their own, whereas the lots were portions of common land assigned by the State.
The free inhabitants of other parts of Laconia, called 'perioeci', had no share of political power.
The sole business of a Spartan citizen was war, to which he was trained from birth. Sickly children were exposed after inspection by the heads of the tribe; only those judged vigorous were allowed to be reared. Up to the age of twenty, all the boys were trained in one big school; the purpose of the training was to make them hardy, indifferent to pain, and submissive to discipline. There was no nonsense about cultural or scientific education; the sole aim was to produce good soldiers, wholly devoted to the State.
At the age of twenty, actual military service began. Marriage was permitted to anyone over the age of twenty, but until the age of thirty a man had to live in the 'men's house', and had to manage his marriage as if it were an illicit and secret affair. After thirty, he was a full-fledged citizen. Every citizen belonged to a mess, and dined with the other members; he had to make a contribution in kind from the produce of his lot. It was the theory of the State that no Spartan citizen should be destitute, and none should be rich. Each was expected to live on the produce of his lot, which he could not alienate except by free gift. None was allowed to own gold or silver, and the money was made of iron. Spartan simplicity became proverbial.
The position of women in Sparta was peculiar. They were not secluded, like respectable women elsewhere in Greece. Girls went through the same physical training as was given to boys; what is more remarkable, boys and
girls did their gymnastics together, all being naked. It was desired (I quote Plutarch's Lycurgus in North's translation):
that the maidens should harden their bodies with exercise of running, wrestling, throwing the bar, and casting the dart, to the end that the fruit wherewith they might be afterwards conceived, taking nourishment of a strong and lusty body, should shoot out and spread the better: and that they by gathering strength thus by exercises, should more easily away with the pains of child bearing…. And though the maidens did show themselves thus naked openly, yet was there no dishonesty seen nor offered, but all this sport was full of play and toys, without any youthful part or wantonness.
Men who would not marry were made 'infamous by law', and compelled, even in the coldest weather, to walk up and down naked outside the place where the young people were doing their exercises and dances.
Women were not allowed to exhibit any emotion not profitable to the State. They might display contempt for a coward, and would be praised if he were their son; but they might not show grief if their new-born child was condemned to death as a weakling, or if their sons were killed in battle. They were considered, by other Greeks, exceptionally chaste; at the same time, a childless married woman would raise no objection if the State ordered her to find out whether some other man would be more successful than her husband in begetting citizens. Children were encouraged by legislation. According to Aristotle, the father of three sons was exempt from military service, and the father of four from all the burdens of the State.
The constitution of Sparta was complicated. There were two kings, belonging to two different families, and succeeding by heredity. One or other of the kings commanded the army in time of war, but in time of peace their powers were limited. At communal feasts they got twice as much to eat as any one else, and there was general mourning when one of them died. They were members of the Council of Elders, a body consisting of thirty men (including the kings); the other twenty-eight must be over sixty, and were chosen for life by the whole body of the citizens, but only from aristocratic families. The Council tried criminal cases, and prepared matters which were to come before the Assembly. This body (the Assembly) consisted of all the citizens; it could not initiate anything, but could vote yes or no to any proposal brought before it. No law could be enacted without its consent. But its consent, though necessary, was not sufficient; the elders and magistrates must proclaim the decision before it became valid.
In addition to the kings, the Council of Elders, and the Assembly, there was a fourth branch of the government, peculiar to Sparta. This was the five ephors. These were chosen out of the whole body of the citizens, by a method which Aristotle says was 'too childish', and which Bury says was virtually by lot. They were a 'democratic' element in the constitution,3 apparently intended to balance the kings. Every month the kings swore to uphold the constitution, and the ephors then swore to uphold the kings so long as they remained true to their oath. When either king went on a warlike expedition, two ephors accompanied him to watch his behaviour. The ephors were the supreme civil court, but over the kings they had criminal jurisdiction.
The Spartan constitution was supposed, in later antiquity, to have been due to a legislator named Lycurgus, who was said to have promulgated his laws in 885 B.C. In fact, the Spartan system grew up gradually, and Lycurgus was a mythical person, originally a god. His name meant 'wolf-repeller', and his origin was Arcadian.
Sparta aroused among the other Greeks an admiration which is to us somewhat surprising. Originally, it had been much less different from other Greek cities than it became later; in early days it produced poets and artists as good as those elsewhere. But about the seventh century B.C., or perhaps even later, its constitution (falsely attributed to Lycurgus) crystallized into the form we have been considering; everything else was sacrificed to success in war, and Sparta ceased to have any part whatever in what Greece contributed to the civilization of the world. To us, the Spartan State appears as a model, in miniature, of the State that the Nazis would establish if victorious. To the Greeks it seemed otherwise. As Bury says:
A stranger from Athens or Miletus in the fifth century visiting the straggling villages which formed her unwalled unpretentious city must have had a feeling of being transported into an age long past, when men were braver, better and simpler, unspoiled by wealth, undisturbed by ideas. To a philosopher, like Plato, speculating in political science, the Spartan State seemed the nearest approach to the ideal. The ordinary Greek looked upon it as a structure of severe and simple beauty, a Dorian city stately as a Dorian temple, far nobler than his own abode but not so comfortable to dwell in.4
One reason for the admiration felt for Sparta by other Greeks was its stability. All other Greek cities had revolutions, but the Spartan constitution remained unchanged for centuries, except for a gradual increase in the powers of the ephors, which occurred by legal means, without violence.
It cannot be denied that, for a long period, the Spartans were successful in their main purpose, the creation of a race of invincible warriors. The battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.), though technically a defeat, is perhaps the best example of their valour. Thermopylae was a narrow pass through the mountains, where it was hoped that the Persian army could be held. Three hundred Spartans, with auxiliaries, repulsed all frontal attacks. But at last the Persians discovered a detour through the hills, and succeeded in attacking the Greeks on both sides at once. Every single Spartan was killed at his post. Two men had been absent on sick leave, suffering from a disease of the eyes amounting almost to temporary blindness. One of them insisted on being led by his helot to the battle, where he perished; the other, Aristodemus, decided that he was too ill to fight, and remained absent. When he returned to Sparta, no one would speak to him; he was called 'the coward Aristodemus'. A year later, he wiped out his disgrace by dying bravely at the battle of Plataea, where the Spartans were victorious.
After the war, the Spartans erected a memorial on the battlefield of Thermopylae, saying only: 'Stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here, in obedience to their orders.'
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.
Apart from war, the reality of Sparta was never quite the same as the theory. Herodotus, who lived at its great period, remarks, surprisingly, that no Spartan could resist a bribe. This was in spite of the fact that contempt for riches and love of the simple life was one of the main things inculcated in Spartan education. We are told that the Spartan women were chaste, yet it happened several times that a reputed heir to the kingship was set aside on the ground of not being the son of his mother's husband. We are told that the Spartans were inflexibly patriotic, yet the king Pausanias, the victor of Plataea, ended as a traitor in the pay of Xerxes. Apart from such flagrant matters, the policy of Sparta was always petty and provincial. When Athens liberated the Greeks of Asia Minor and the adjacent islands from the Persians, Sparta held aloof; so long as the Peloponnesus was deemed safe, the fate of other Greeks was a matter of indifference. Every attempt at a confederation of the Hellenic world was defeated by Spartan particularism.
Aristotle, who lived after the downfall of Sparta, gives a very hostile account of its constitution.5 What he says is so different from what other people say that it is difficult to believe he is speaking of the same place, e.g. 'The legislator wanted to make the whole State hardy and temperate, and he
has carried out his intention in the case of men, but he has neglected the women, who live in every sort of intemperance and luxury. The consequence is that in such a State wealth is too highly valued, especially if the citizens fall under the dominion of their wives, after the manner of most warlike races…. Even in regard to courage, which is of no use in daily life, and is needed only in war, the influence of the Lacedaemonian women has been most mischievous…. This license of the Lacedaemonian women existed from the earliest times, and was only what might be expected. For ... when Lycurgus, as tradition says, wanted to bring the women under his laws, they resisted, and he gave up the attempt.'
He goes on to accuse Spartans of avarice, which he attributes to the unequal distribution of property. Although lots cannot be sold, he says, they can be given or bequeathed. Two-fifths of all the land, he adds, belongs to women. The consequence is a great diminution in the number of citizens: it is said that once there were ten thousand, but at the time of the defeat by Thebes there were less than one thousand.
Aristotle criticizes every point of the Spartan constitution. He says that the ephors are often very poor, and therefore easy to bribe; and their power is so great that even kings are compelled to court them, so that the constitution has been turned into a democracy. The ephors, we are told, have too much licence, and live in a manner contrary to the spirit of the constitution, while the strictness in relation to ordinary citizens is so intolerable that they take refuge in the secret illegal indulgence of sensual pleasures.
Aristotle wrote when Sparta was decadent, but on some points he expressly says that the evil he is mentioning has existed from early times. His tone is so dry and realistic that it is difficult to disbelieve him, and it is in line with all modern experience of the results of excessive severity in the laws. But it was not Aristotle's Sparta that persisted in men's imagination; it was the mythical Sparta of Plutarch and the philosophic idealization of Sparta in Plato's Republic. Century after century, young men read these works, and were fired with the ambition to become Lycurguses or philosopher-kings. The resulting union of idealism and love of power has led men astray over and over again, and is still doing so in the present day.
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. What he says must be treated with great caution by the historian of institutions, but to the historian of myth it is of the utmost importance. 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 admirable 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 East, 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 had conquered.
What is important to the historian of the world is not the petty wars between Greek cities, or the sordid squabbles for party ascendancy, but the memories retained by mankind when the brief episode was ended—like the recollection of a brilliant sunrise in the Alps, while the mountaineer struggles through an arduous day of wind and snow. These memories, as they gradually faded, left in men's minds the images of certain peaks that had shone with peculiar brightness in the early light, keeping alive the knowledge that behind the clouds a splendour still survived, and might at any moment become manifest. Of these, Plato was the most important in early Christianity, Aristotle in the medieval Church; but when, after the Renaissance, men began to value political freedom, it was above all to Plutarch that they turned. He influenced profoundly the English and French liberals of the eighteenth century, and the founders of the United States; he influenced the romantic movement in Germany, and has continued, mainly by indirect channels, to influence German thought down to the present day. In some ways his influence was good, in some bad; as regards Lycurgus and Sparta, it was bad. What he has to say about Lycurgus is important, and I shall give a brief account of it, even at the cost of some repetition.
Lycurgus—so Plutarch says—having resolved to give laws to Sparta, travelled widely in order to study different institutions. He liked the laws of Crete, which were 'very straight and severe',6 but disliked those of Ionia, where there were 'superfluities and vanities'. In Egypt he learned the advantage of separating the soldiers from the rest of the people, and afterwards, having returned from his travels, 'brought the practice of it into Sparta: where setting the merchants, artificers, and labourers every one a part by themselves, he did establish a noble Commonwealth'. He made an equal division of lands among all the citizens of Sparta in order to 'banish out of the city all insolvency, envy, covetousness, and deliciousness, and also all riches and poverty'. He forbade gold and silver money, allowing only iron coinage, of so little value that 'to lay up thereof the value of ten minas, it would have occupied a whole cellar in a house'. By this means he banished 'all superfluous
and unprofitable sciences', since there was not enough money to pay their practitioners; and by the same law he made all external commerce impossible. Rhetoricians, panders, and jewellers, not liking the iron money, avoided Sparta. He next ordained that all the citizens should eat together, and all should have the same food.
Lycurgus, like other reformers, thought the education of children 'the chiefest and greatest matter, that a reformer of laws should establish'; and like all who aim chiefly at military power, he was anxious to keep up the birth rate. The 'plays, sports, and dances the maids did naked before young men, were provocation to draw and allure the young men to marry: not as persuaded by geometrical reasons, as saith Plato, but brought to it by liking, and of very love'. The habit of treating a marriage, for the first few years, as if it were a clandestine affair, 'continued in both parties a still burning love, and a new desire of the one to the other'—such, at least, is the opinion of Plutarch. He goes on to explain that a man was not thought ill of if, being old and having a young wife, he allowed a younger man to have children by her. 'It was lawful also for an honest man that loved another man's wife … to intreat her husband to suffer him to lie with her, and that he might also plough in that lusty ground, and cast abroad the seed of well-favoured children'. There was to be no foolish jealousy, for 'Lycurgus did not like that children should be private to any men, but that they should be common to the common weal: by which reason he would also, that such as should become citizens should not be begotten of every man, but of the most honest men only.' He goes on to explain that this is the principle that farmers apply to their live-stock.
When a child was born, the father brought him before the elders of his family to be examined: if he was healthy, he was given back to the father to be reared; if not, he was thrown into a deep pit of water. Children, from the first, were subjected to a severe hardening process, in some respects good—for example, they were not put in swaddling clothes. At the age of seven, boys were taken away from home and put in a boarding school, where they were divided into companies, each under the orders of one of their number, chosen for sense and courage. 'Touching learning they had as much as served their turn: for the rest of their time they spent in learning how to obey, to away with pain, to endure labour, to overcome still in fight.' They played naked together most of the time; after twelve years old, they wore no coats; they were always 'nasty and sluttish', and they never bathed except on certain days in the year. They slept on beds of straw, which in winter they mixed with thistle. They were taught to steal, and were punished if caught—not for stealing, but for stupidity.
Homosexual love, male if not female, was a recognized custom in Sparta, and had an acknowledged part in the education of adolescent boys. A boy's lover suffered credit or discredit by the boy's actions; Plutarch states that once, when a boy cried out because he was hurt in fighting, his lover was fined for the boy's cowardice.
There was little liberty at any stage in the life of a Spartan.
Their discipline and order of life continued still, after they were full grown men. For it was not lawful for any man to live as he listed, but they were within their city, as if they had been in a camp, where every man knoweth what allowance he hath to live withal, and what business he hath else to do in his calling. To be short, they were all of this mind, that they were not born to serve themselves, but to serve their country…. One of the best and happiest things which Lycurgus ever brought into his city, was the great rest and leisure which he made his citizens to have, only forbidding them that they should not profess any vile or base occupation: and they needed not also to be careful to get great riches, in a place where goods were nothing profitable nor esteemed. For the Helots, which were bond men made by the wars, did till their grounds, and yielded them a certain revenue every year.
Plutarch goes on to tell a story of an Athenian condemned for idleness, upon hearing of which a Spartan exclaimed: 'show me the man condemned for living nobly and like a gentleman.'
Lycurgus (Plutarch continues) 'did accustom his citizens so, that they neither would nor could live alone, but were in manner as men incorporated one with another, and were always in company together, as the bees be about their master bee'.
Spartans were not allowed to travel, nor were foreigners admitted to Sparta, except on business; for it was feared that alien customs would corrupt Lacedaemonian virtue.
Plutarch relates the law that allowed Spartans to kill helots whenever they felt so disposed, but refuses to believe that anything so abominable can have been due to Lycurgus. '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.' Except in this matter Plutarch has nothing but praise for the constitution of Sparta.
The effect of Sparta on Plato, with whom, at the moment, we shall be specially concerned, will be evident from the account of his Utopia, which will occupy the next chapter.