Monday, May 11, 2015

Sparta, Its Admirers, and Moral Foundations, Part II

To continue, in Sparta, as in any militaristic society, the foundations of authority and group loyalty were very important.  No doubt that had a lot of appeal for people who saw them as undermined in their own society.

Authority:  Haidt defines this foundation as respect for (legitimate) authority and tradition.  This was thoroughly inculcated in Spartans from boyhood.  I have already recounted the importance of authority in Sparta.  Boys were placed under the authority of a youth warden, backed by young men with whips. To ensure that boys were never without authority in the absence of the warden and his supporters, any Spartiate man could punish any boy he saw misbehave.  And even if no grown man was present, each group of boys was required to have a formal leader.  Apparently most Greeks fathers outside of Sparta, upon hearing that some stranger had taken it upon himself to discipline their son, would respond by leaping to the boy's defense, or at least inquiring whether the punishment was justified. That is implied when Xenophon says that Spartans have such trust in each other that all are confident that no one punish unjustly and so if a father hears that another man hit his son, he always adds his own punishment.  To which I can only say that maybe Spartans had such a fine-tuned sense of justice that they could be entrusted with unaccountable power and never abuse it.  But to the modern reader this sounds more like simple authoritarianism -- that belief that all authorities, just or unjust, must be obeyed simply because they are authority.

Other things reinforce this impression.  Accordingly to Plutarch (admittedly less reliable than Xenophon), young men were routinely questioned by older men were routinely asked where they were going and for what and rebuked if they did not give a satisfactory answer.  Failure to rebuke was itself grounds for rebuke.  Shaming punishments were widely used.  And any show of resentment over any of this was particularly shameful.  Xenophon approves of giving the Ephors quasi-despotic power to punish any minor offense on the spot without further ado.  Certainly, there was an important curb on their arbitrary power in that Ephors served only a single, one-year term and then returned to the general citizen body.  And, again, maybe Spartans had such a fine-tuned sense of justice that they could be entrusted with despotic powers (albeit temporarily) and not abuse them.  But somehow Plutarch (if he is to be believed) is not very reassuring.  Aside from disallowing any extra strings in a harp, one hears of the Ephors expelling a visiting orator for talking too much, reprimanding a youth for knowing too much about "the road to Pylaea" (presumably a disreputable area), fining a man because he was "wronged by many" (presumably either on the theory that he must have provoked it or because he wasn't man enough to stand up for himself), and punishing a man wearing very coarse clothing for inserting a border.  Plutarch also reports that the Spartans regularly prayed to be able to submit to injustice, which rather suggests their order of priorities.  And, for what it is worth, Aristotle regarded the Ephors as too powerful, corrupt, and arbitrary.  But he was speaking of Sparta in its dotage.  They may have behaved better in its heyday.

But if all of this seems unappealing to us, consider how it must have looked to Athenian aristocrats who saw their own power lost to democracy and feared this as heralding the end of all authority, all hierarchy, and all order.  Once again Plato expresses these fears:
“And this anarchical temper,” said I, “my friend, must penetrate into private homes and finally enter into the very animals.” “Just what do we mean by that?” he said. “Why,” I said, “the father habitually tries to resemble the child and is afraid of his sons, and the son likens himself to the father and feels no awe or fear of his parents, so that he may be forsooth a free man. And the resident alien feels himself equal to the citizen and the citizen to him, and the foreigner likewise.” “Yes, these things do happen,” he said. “They do,” said I, “and such other trifles as these. The teacher in such case fears and fawns upon the pupils, and the pupils pay no heed to the teacher or to their overseers either. And in general the young ape their elders and vie with them in speech and action, while the old, accommodating themselves to the young, are full of pleasantry and graciousness, imitating the young for fear they may be thought disagreeable and authoritative.” “By all means,” he said. “And the climax of popular liberty, my friend,” I said, “is attained in such a city when the purchased slaves, male and female, are no less free than the owners who paid for them. And I almost forgot to mention the spirit of freedom and equal rights in the relation of men to women and women to men.”
The reference to equality between men and women is the ultimate proof that these fears are exaggerated and unrealistic.  Athens kept its women secluded.  But unrealistic as such fears were, they were no less real for it.

Group loyalty:  Loyalty to one's own is of course one of the primary military virtues.  Indeed, the greatest attraction of the military is the sense of tightly-knit friendship and camaraderie that it offers. Even Robert Altemeyer concedes one virtue to his "authoritarians" -- their loyalty to friends.  The Spartans were fiercely loyal to their own, even to the extent of letting it undermine military efficacy. Thus Thucydides reports that when a Spartan force was trapped and besieged on an island, the authorities became so frantic that they agreed to an armistice and sought to end the war altogether. When the Athenians captured Spartan troops and threatened them with execution unless the invasions of Attica ceased, the Spartans stopped their invasions and made reclaiming their captured forces an absolute top priority.

There is a tradeoff between breadth and depth of social ties.  It is doubtless an oversimplification to say that liberals opt for breadth in the social tie and conservatives for depth, but I think there is something to it.  The Spartans opted for depth, and it was this much deeper social tie that accounts for much of their appeal.  Hence one reads of great admiration of Sparta as a society in which the whole citizen body is one great family, all citizen men are addressed as father and have the right to discipline an errant boy, and everyone shares what is needed and helps when wanted, as in a family.

Against this attractive depth of social tie is its narrowness.  The Spartans had a small citizen body and scant regard for the rights of anyone outside of it. Classical commentators could admire the depth of Sparta's social ties while being untroubled by their narrowness because they shared that narrowness. But I believe that something else is at work here, something even more foreign to our outlook -- a view of the narrowness of the Spartan social tie not just as a regrettable companion to their depth, but as a good in itself because it fosters another classical ideal -- the full-time professional citizen.

Aristotle's Politics is revealing.  He favors some type of mixed government, combining elements of rule by the many and the few.  He praises Sparta as a good balance between rule of the many, few, and one, even as he mentions the citizen body having fallen to a mere thousand participants, which gives us some interesting insight into what he means by "many."  And ultimately, despite Aristotle's talk of balancing the "many" and the "few," he would exclude from citizenship any who lead a "mechanic or mercantile life" because such a life is "ignoble and inimicable to virtue."  True citizens must possess enough leisure to devote themselves full-time to the business of governing and have enough wealth to support their leisure.  This, Aristotle says, best preserves the well-being of the state.  But since tillers of the soil and artisans have "no share in the state," it is by no means clear that Aristotle thinks that their well-being matters.  And this clearly comes out in his talk of helots.  He considers them necessary: "[A] state that is to be well governed must be provided with leisure from menial occupations."  Just how little people responsible for "menial occupations" matter to Aristotle becomes clear with the comment:
[T]he mere necessity of policing a serf class is an irksome burden—the problem of how intercourse with them is to be carried on: if allowed freedom they grow insolent and claim equal rights with their masters, and if made to live a hard life they plot against them and hate them.
He has no answer, except to say that Spartans have not found the right balance.  Alas, we do not have Aristotle's work in which he discusses the crypteia killing off potentially troublesome helots, or the Ephors declaring "war" so that such actions would not offend against religion, so we do not know whether he considers such an institution to be good, bad, or indifferent.

Plutarch, on the other hand, is a humane man who is troubled by these things, but introduces them as a sort of an afterthought, a minor blemish on an otherwise excellent system.  But it is his biography of Solon that is most revealing what he (and so many ancients) thought of the proper citizen body:
[2] It was well enough for Lycurgus, whose city was free from swarms of strangers, and whose country was, in the words of Euripides,
             For many large, for twice as many more than large,
and because, above all, that country was flooded with a multitude of Helots, whom it was better not to leave in idleness, but to keep down by continual hardships and toil,—it was well enough for him to set his citizens free from laborious and mechanical occupations and confine their thoughts to arms, giving them this one trade to learn and practice. [3] But Solon, adapting his laws to the situation, rather than the situation to his laws, and observing that the land could give but a mere subsistence to those who tilled it, and was incapable of supporting an unoccupied and leisured multitude, gave dignity to all the trades, and ordered the council of the Areiopagus to examine into every man's means of livelihood, and chastise those who had no occupation.
In short, the upper and intellectual classes generally assumed that being a citizen should be a full-time job, and that people who had to work for a living had no place in affairs of state.  It is far from clear whether it was assumed that working people would be better off if government were left to their betters, or if no one outside this leisured class was presumed to matter at all.  Suffice it to say that ruling classes (to this day) have a remarkable talent for confusing their privileges with the common good.

Spartan toughness, austerity, courage, respect for authority, and close social ties had great appeal, especially for people who did not have a broader sense of humanity.  They continue to appeal to many people to this day.  But in the end, contrary to any romantic notions, people do not impose such burdens on themselves as the Spartans did because they are virtuous or because they are incorruptible or public-spirited -- or because they are masochists, for that matter.  People impose the sort of barracks existence on themselves that the Spartans did because they are faced with dangers that require it.  The danger of hostile neighbors?  Certainly Sparta had plenty of those, but all city-states were constantly at war with their neighbors and most did not adopt the barracks life of the Spartans.  Rather, the relentlessly unromantic Thucydides understood best, "Most of the Lacedaemonian [Spartan] institutions were specially intended to secure them against this source of danger [helots]." Spartans lived the life of circling the wagons, with all the appeal of close camaraderie, cooperation, and purpose inherent in life directed against an external enemy.  But it was also a source of immense weakness to them.  It meant that many resources had to be diverted to internal security.

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