[extropy-chat] 300 and the Gates of Fire

BillK pharos at gmail.com
Sun Mar 11 08:28:32 UTC 2007

On 3/11/07, Amara Graps wrote:
> Come on, they were human  too. I hate it when a culture (especially from
> old history) is painted with a broad brush, losing the nuances of
> context and the history and much more.
> I understand well how some of the philosophy that the Spartans
> represented laid the groundwork for many horrific events in human
> history, but I would appreciate it they could be described with
> a little more understanding. I think that J.B. Bury (as usual)
> does an excellent job for the Greeks. The book that I recommended
> previously can help in that regard too.
>  From _History of Greece_ J.B. Bury, pg. 133-134. (My copy is published
> in 1938, but there exist many newer publication dates for this work too)
> {begin quote, typing errors mine}
> Thus Sparta was a camp in which the highest object of every man's life
> was to be ready at any moment to fight with the utmost efficiency for
> his city. The aim of every law, the end of the whole social order was to
> fashion good soldiers. Private luxury was strictly forbidden; Spartan
> simplicity became proverbial. The individual man, entirely lost in the
> state, had no life of his own; he had no problems of human existence to
> solve for himself. Sparta was not a place for thinkers or theorists; the
> whole duty of man and the highest ideal of life were contained for a
> Spartan in the laws of his city. Warfare being the object of all the
> Spartan laws and institutions, one might expect to find the city in a
> perpetual state of war. One might look to see her sons always ready to
> strive with their neighbours without any ulterior object, war being for
> them an end in itself.
> But it was not so; they did not wage war more lightly than other men; we
> cannot rank them with barbarians who care only for fighting and hunting.
> We attribute the original motive of their institutions, in some measure
> at least, to the situation of a small dominant class in the midst of
> ill-contented subjects and hostile serfs. They must always be prepared
> to meet a rebellion of Perioeci or a revolt of Helots, and a surprise
> would have been fatal. Forming a permanent camp in a country which was
> far from friendly, they were compelled to be always on their guard. But
> there was something more in the vitality and conservation of the Spartan
> constitution, than precaution against the danger of possible
> insurrection. It appealed to the Greek sense of Beauty. There was a
> certain completeness and simplicity about the constitution itself, a
> completeness and simplicity about the manner of life enforced by the
> laws, a completeness and simplicity too about the type of character
> developed by them, which Greeks or other cities never failed to
> contemplate with genuine, if distant admiration. Shut away in "hollow
> many-clefted Lacedaemon," out of the world and not sharing in the
> progress of other Greek cities, Sparta seemed to remain at a standstill
> and a stranger from Athens of 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. If this was the effect
> produced upon strangers, we can imagine what a perpetual joy to a
> Spartan peer was the contemplation of the Spartan constitution; how he
> felt a sense of superiority in being a citizen of that city, and a pride
> in living up to its idea and fulfilling the obligations of his nobility.
> In his mouth "not beautiful" meant contrary to the Spartan laws," which
> were believed to have been inspired by Apollo. This deep admiration for
> their constitution as an ideally beautiful creation, the conviction that
> it was incapable of improvement-- being, in truth, wonderfully effective
> in realising its aims-- is bound up with the conservative spirit of the
> Spartans.
> {end quote}

They got themselves into a closed loop that they couldn't get out of.

They invaded the next door country out of necessity and gained a lot
of fertile land and slaves. But the slaves were rebellious. So the
Spartans went on a war footing to keep control of the slaves. But
there were a lot of slaves, so all the Spartans ended up in the army
to enable their state to survive  But they needed the slaves to work
the land to support the army. It was a vicious circle.  And they had
difficulty producing enough children. Especially as they killed all
the weak children. That's what eventually led to their downfall.

When I was reading about the Spartans, it strongly reminded me of the
Russian Communist system. Where the state was everything. Communism
also has that 'ideal state' appeal to philosophers. So long as you
ignore personal freedom, the beauty of subservience to the state
system has a lot of theoretical appeal. But it is hell in practice.
The Athenians thought the Spartans were insane.

The suicide mission to Thermopylae reminded me of the Chernobyl
disaster. When the Soviet troops were asked for volunteers to sweep
the fiercely radioactive debris off the roof, as one man they all
stepped forward, prepared to die for the good of the state.

You can be impressed by their dedication, but, really, the system was quite mad.


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