So do the Spartans rate as conservative? One can see many ways in which, by modern standards, they do not. Even if we grant that modern libertarian conservatism, basing itself around strict individualism and hostility to all government regulation is specifically a product of modern capitalism and should not be applied in other societies. But one normally expects to see regard for the sanctity of private property to be conservative in all societies, since ruling classes usually have a lot of it. The Spartans, however, are often described as communists, who placed all land and helots in the hands of the state, to be parceled in equal sized lots to the citizens, as well as banning money and even seeking an equal redistribution of movables. Spartans also gave greater liberty to women (at least of the elite) to a degree that shocked the rest of antiquity, and had much freer sexual mores. Nor, contrary to their reputation, do they seem to have sought out war and foreign conquest. By what right, then are the Spartans considered conservative (or right wing)?
But I think that Sparta is fairly described as conservative if we go back to our old friend Jonathan Haidt and his six foundations of morality, with the important qualification that these are not, in fact, discrete categories, and that many things overlap. These, I think, help explain both why Sparta is properly described as conservative, and what so many writers in classical times, and some even since have found it attractive.
Harm/Care: Haidt argues that liberals have an unbalanced morality in elevating this particular value above all others. If so, I can only assume that the ancients were more balanced than we are, because they clearly did not hold this value as highly as we do today. The most obvious things that the ancients admired in Spartans was their uncorrupted, austere lifestyle, their courage in battle, their endurance for hardship and so forth. That these were achieved by very harsh treatment of Spartan boys just draws praise for the Spartans' refusal to spoil their sons. Many praises of Sparta by classical authors seem shocking to modern humanitarians. Plato's Laws has the Spartan boast of:
[T]he training, widely prevalent amongst us, in hardy endurance of pain, by means both of manual contests and of robberies carried out every time at the risk of a sound drubbing; moreover, the “Crypteia,” as it is called, affords a wonderfully severe training in hardihood, as the men go bare-foot in winter and sleep without coverlets and have no attendants, but wait on themselves and rove through the whole countryside both by night and by day.Plato's only criticism of the foregoing is that it is too limited in its outlook, emphasizing only physical courage. Xenophon sees it as most excellent to underfeed boys to teach them to steal, and to beat them if caught, to teach them to steal better and to endure pain. It is Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus that speaks so admiringly of the Spartan boy who hid a fox under his cloak and allowed it to claw him to death rather than suffer the shame of letting it escape. Even Isocrates, writing genuine anti-Spartan propaganda condemns the practice, not because it is cruel to starve boys to drive them to theft and then beat them for it, but because encouraging theft degrades the character.
But the ultimate prize has to go to Plutarch's Customs of the Spartans (not for the squeamish!) Reading through its grim parade boys half-starved to teach them to steal, boys beaten to test their endurance for pain, prayers to be able to submit to injustice, arbitrary punishments by the Ephors for trivial "offenses" and the like, it is easy for the modern reader to mistake this for hostile propaganda when it is actually praise.* The author even considers it praiseworthy that, when boys are flogged as a contest to see who can endure the most pain, some endure beating to the death rather than yield! And, significantly, Sparta's modern admirers downplay or deny such things. Have we become a bunch of humanitarian wimps, unable to appreciate real toughness? And if we do want to set aside our preconceptions and face Sparta (and Classical values in general) with an open mind, just how far do we go before we say enough is too much?
Justice: Haidt postulates that liberals value justice-as-maximum utility and conservatives value justice-as-just deserts, or justice-as-karma. Certainly, many classical sources praise the Spartan's sense of justice, but none of them really explain what they mean by the term. They simply say that the Spartans are so virtuous and so just that authorities can be entrusted with arbitrary power and never abuse it. Xenophon, for instance, boasts that any Spartiate man may hit a boy he sees misbehave, and that the boy's father, upon finding out, will hit his son as well, confident that the punishment was never delivered unjustly. Looking for something more tangible there is the matter reported by Thucydides in which General Pausanias, hero of the Persian War, was suspected of treasonable correspondence with the Persians and plotting a helot revolt. But the Ephors proceeded cautiously because they did not like to take irrevocable action against a citizen without incontestable proof. That speaks well of their sense of justice. Even upon seeing his correspondence, they wanted further proof and arranged for a co-conspirator to discuss the plan in a place where they could overhear it. That also counts in favor of their sense of justice. But, Thucydides reports, it is said that when the Ephors went to arrest him, one of them tipped him off and he fled to sanctuary. If true, that does not speak so well for their sense of justice. Plutarch says that the supervisors in charge of teaching boys were often watched in their discipline and made to correct it if they were either too harsh or too mild. On the whole, though, I do not think this gives us a good sense of how the Spartans defined justice.
Freedom: This is probably the area where our own concepts apply least. Haidt proposes that conservatives value negative liberty -- the absence of formal constraints on the individual -- while liberals value positive liberty -- absence of formal constraints is meaningless without power to fulfill one's potential. This is only the liberal-conservative distinction in a society where laissez faire capitalism is the dominant ideology, which was not the case in classical antiquity. Furthermore, the whole negative liberty/positive liberty distinction is incomplete because it ignores the underlying similarity between the two views. Both equate freedom with individualism.
But the whole concept of freedom = individualism is a modern one. By any standard that equates freedom with individualism, whether of positive or negative liberty, the Spartans don't seem very free at all. Yet they saw themselves as free and were seen as so by their contemporaries. Indeed, it was even said, "In Sparta the freeman is more a freeman than anywhere else in the world, and the slave more a slave." It will take a better scholar than me to reconstruct the concept of liberty at work here, but I am reminded of Albion's Seed, which commented that the four British American cultures all cherished their freedom, but all saw it in different ways. To the Puritans, freedom was collective rather than individual and meant, not the absence of constraints on the individual, but membership in a self-governing community that imposed the constraints without outside interference. To Virginia cavaliers, freedom was a zero-sum game, defined as being the dominator rather than the dominated. My guess is that classical philosophers in general, and Spartans in particular, saw freedom in something much closer to those terms.
But something else was at work, I think. The extreme libertarian view of freedom as individualism to the point of atomization, and the absence of any social obligation beyond refraining from force or fraud was not a concept in classical times. Even the notion of freedom as drawing a reasonable balance between the rights of the individual and to good of the community seemed alarmingly individualistic. But in Athens one does see some very early stirrings of more individualistic notions of freedom. And I think these early stirrings scared the hell out of a lot of philosophers and political scientists of the day. There early stirrings of freedom as individualism must have simply looked like anarchy or selfishness. Consider for instance Plato's description:
And the freedom from all compulsion to hold office in such a city, even if you are qualified,1 or again, to submit to rule, unless you please, or to make war when the rest are at war,2 or to keep the peace when the others do so, unless you desire peace; and again, the liberty, in defiance of any law that forbids you, to hold office and sit on juries none the less, if it occurs to you to do so, is not all that a heavenly and delicious entertainment1 for the time beingAnd his warning:
And they themselves prevail in the conflict, and naming reverence and awe ‘folly’ thrust it forth, a dishonored fugitive. And temperance they call ‘want of manhood’ and banish it with contumely, and they teach that moderation and orderly expenditure are ‘rusticity’ and ‘illiberality,’ and they combine with a gang of unprofitable and harmful appetites to drive them over the border.So I suppose I was wrong in saying the classical Greeks had no concept of freedom as individualism when the saw it with their own eyes. But they lacked an concept of individualism being an appropriate expression of freedom. And they saw the danger of individualism getting out of hand. But they lacked a fine sense of finding the difficult balance between the rights of the individual and the good of the community. Instead, the tendency was to idealize Sparta as a place where citizens set aside the selfishness of individualism and devoted themselves instead wholly to the unselfish service of the community, sharing everything that was needed and treating the entire citizen body as one big, happy family.
Purity/Sanctity: Clearly in one sense at least this was not the case. The Spartans did not share the other Greeks' notions of female modesty and chastity. But as I understand it, purity/sanctity means more than just sex. It refers in general to mastery over one's lower (physical) nature and reverence for the sacred. This would not doubt have a good deal of appeal to an older Athenian aristocrat who had seen his country become much richer since the Persian War (or a younger aristocrat who heard stories of the simply life before the Persian War) and sees his sons (or his contemporaries), with too much money and time on their hands, living in decadent luxury and engaging in the usual excesses of drinking, fighting and fraternizing that young aristocratic men all too often do. The austere, disciplined Spartans start to look appealing by comparison. Father threatens to ship his wastrel son off to military school or, in classical times, to Sparta. Alternately, some young, aristocratic men were not living lives of decadent luxury. Some were hanging out with philosophers and getting a lot of new-fangled ideas, especially ideas leading them to question traditional religion. The Spartans, now, they stuck to the traditional religion and never questioned it.
And this, too, is part of the appeal of Sparta that is largely lost to us, and one that is certainly conservative. The Greeks did not have a concept of the "march of progress," i.e., of things getting better all the time. Many did not even accept the inevitability of change in a neutral way. Instead, the assumption was that there was one right way to do things, and that any change must be degeneration. Spartans held change at bay. Plutarch, for instance, reports that when a much-respected harper added an extra string to his instrument, the Ephors confiscated it and nailed it to the wall. Another harper who added extra strings was forced to cut them out himself. Such resistance to change and degeneration must be admirable. (How conservative can you get?)
But this post is getting overly long. I will address the other two foundations -- authority and group loyalty -- in my next post.
*Then again, there is some dispute whether the work is actually by Plutarch, so I suppose it could be hostile propaganda masquerading as praise.
**To be fair to the Spartans, some modern scholars note that the extreme scourging that Plutarch describes is not mentioned in any source during the Spartans' actual heyday, and may have been added later as an imagined imitation of ancient custom.