Sparta Revisited

The ancient city-state of Sparta has been the subject of widely divergent evaluations. Jean-Jacques Rousseau took it as a model for his highly influential book, The Social Contract. He praised Sparta as a “republic of demi-gods rather than of men.” According to Rousseau, Spartans were people of “natural simplicity,” whereas civilized men “have been corrupted in proportion as the arts and sciences have improved.”

To be Spartan was to exhibit valor and discipline to a heroic degree. Spartans are remembered as fearlessly and unflinchingly dedicated to victory on the battlefield. Thus, innumerable sports teams have identified themselves as “Spartans,” while some American towns proudly bear the name “Sparta.”

A closer examination of life in Sparta removes the romantic veneer that has long idealized it. At birth, a young male was presented before a board of elders and examined for physical deformities. If he did not meet certain standards, he was carried to a nearby gorge and left to die of exposure.

At the age of seven, a boy who had survived his initial examination was taken from his mother to begin his formal education in discipline and obedience. He was being trained for military duty and was molded into a standard called the “homoioi” (the “Similars”). Older boys were mandated to whip younger boys. Homosexual relations were regarded as standard. They were encouraged on the belief that they would promote solidarity and bravery in combat.

Because of the many lives lost through exposure and in wars, the Spartan population became greatly diminished. Sparta was vanquished in 371 B.C. at the Battle of Leuctra and never recovered. In the words of one historian, “It is important to remember that the real, original Sparta broke with a snap because it could not bend.” Sparta, for all its dedication to discipline and might, truly defeated itself.

Do we learn anything from the past? George Santayana famously said that if we do not learn anything from history we are doomed to repeat its mistakes.

America doesn’t leave babies outside to die of exposure, but her concern for removing the disabled— babies with Down syndrome, for example—is left to technicians who perform abortions.

Sports have become more important than religion, and many believe that any means is justified in the pursuit of winning. “Winning isn’t everything,” one celebrated coach exclaimed, “It’s the only thing.” Being a “loser” bears the social stigma of failure.

Homosexual relations are condoned, praised, and celebrated in America. Same-sex marriage is now politically correct, and those who oppose it are routinely vilified.

In science, Darwin’s theory of natural selection is enshrined. In society, it is applied. The prevailing belief in America is that the future belongs to the healthy and the strong. One American eugenicist has captured the essence of Social Darwinism when he speaks of the “dysgenic effect of charity.” Survival belongs to the fittest. The number of people deemed “unfit” appears to be increasing dramatically.

Is America revisiting the mindset of ancient Sparta?

Sometimes a philosophical question is most effectively answered in a way that is so sufficiently straightforward and compelling that it can be easily grasped by 9-year-olds.

A most enterprising teacher by the name of Ursula Hennessey gave her students an ingenious assignment. She had talked to them about Sparta and its absolute commitment to strength. Then, Hennessey asked her fourth-graders to go home, find out their birth weight, write it down and bring the information to class the next day. The unexpected discovery was astonishing. It turned out that those males who had been delivered prematurely or had spent the first weeks of life in the ICU because of low birth weight and underdeveloped organs were among the biggest and strongest boys in the class. The teacher looked at these boys and asked, “What would have happened to you guys in Sparta?”

The lesson is existential as well as philosophical, personal as well as universal. The boys were glad that they were not left to die of exposure (or aborted). This is the existential side. In addition, they understood that aborting for Spartan reasons was invalid and counterproductive. It also seemed contrary to charity.

Perhaps a commitment to love is more practical than a commitment to power. The power of love turns out to be stronger and more humane than the love of power. It may now be difficult to disabuse these fourth-graders of what their teacher has taught them.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, CT, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest works, How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad and Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart are available through Articles by Don: