Sunday, January 09, 2005

Sparta: A Terrifying Premonition

That which has been is that which will be,
And that which has been done is that which will be done.
So, there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one might say, “See this, it is new”?
Already it has existed for ages which were before us.
There is no remembrance of earlier things…Ecclesiastes 1:9-11

Imagine a state in which there is no money, no poverty, no wealthy class. All the rich have been disenfranchised and their wealth and land redistributed evenly. There is no such thing as adultery. There is no covetousness, for private wealth is eschewed, and the means of daily living are provided and shared. Every citizen understands his or her part in the maintenance of the society, and there are no walled cities because every citizen is a defender of the city. All the generations have their place, and understand how to pass the culture down to the youth so that the society is self-preserving. Laws are not written down, because they are “imprinted on the hearts of their youth” through discipline. This culture is so successful it lasts for many centuries.

Sound good? According to Plutarch and various other ancient historians, a man named Lycurgus achieved this vision in the state of Sparta about 900 BC (yes, that’s almost 3000 years ago, just a short time after the Trojan War.) Since this would be still (in Greece at least) the age of legend, the absolute historicity of these accounts is certainly doubtful. What is beyond doubt is that this society was admired by Plutarch and many others, and a similar society is proposed by Socrates in Plato’s Republic.

Indeed, what’s not to admire? Does this not approach even a description of the New Jerusalem, an attainment of Shalom in a fallen creation? Before going on here, go back and re-read the description. Really, what is wrong with this?

Well, let us look behind the final achievement to the means used to bring it about and maintain it. The state itself redistributed the land and wealth, and assigned each family its portion. The state forbid the trading of gold and silver and set up a coinage based on heavy iron ingots, making the accumulation and exchange of this coin extremely unwieldy. They even distempered the iron so it could not be reworked into useful items. They closed the borders of the land so that traders could not enter and spoil the society. They forbid the manufacture of any but the most basic and absolutely essential items. Houses could not be adorned; they had to be shaped only with an axe and saw, to prevent the building of fancy homes.

There was no adultery because men and women were free to share their spouses, were even encouraged to do so, so as to provide healthy and robust babies. Girls and boys were exercised continuously and often presented to each other naked, to encourage the pairing of healthy human stock. All newborns were evaluated by the state’s representatives. If healthy and of good shape, they were kept. If weak or of odd shape, they were thrown into a local chasm. All children were raised by the state in a hierarchical society in which the elder and stronger continually tested the mettle of the younger, so as to weed out the weak. The city bred its citizens in the same manner as it bred its sheep.

The state also controlled all industry, commerce, and the arts, including music and poetry. The content of the lyrics was prescribed, to maintain the values upon which the society was founded. Every aspect of life was prescribed and managed by the society, acting through the state.

All of these ideas are thoroughly “modern”, and all have been revisited in the 20th century. I think of the collectivization of farms and industry in Russia, China and Cambodia; of the Iron Curtain preventing exchange of goods and ideas; of the eugenics movement in this country and its terribly efficient application in Nazi Germany; of the Hitler Youth; of the Cultural Revolution in China. Closer to home, I think of Peter Singer’s views on infanticide and sexual “ethics”, and of our own society’s continual effort to control the content of the education of our youth by standardization of public education. Our political discussions continually center on the question, how much of life and economics should be controlled by the state? And until very recently the answer has been similar to Lycurgus’s: “most of it, perhaps all of it”. Even today in the USA, almost every aspect of life and culture is directly or indirectly prescribed by the state. Even the “Christian Right” seems to want to use the state to regulate morality. We seem comfortable with the idea of a monoculture; we just disagree on how it should look.

What is the source of this impulse toward totalitarianism? Can we move away from it? If we wish to create a society that is just in all its aspects, can we do so without creating a totalitarian society? Does a “top down” methodology for societal change not require totalitarian control?


  1. Very interesting discussion.

    Do you read David Koyzis's blog?

  2. Not yet, but I shall check it out!