It’s awfully hard for a libertarian to defend Lakeaemon, or as more commonly known, Sparta. They were a military state, children taken from their parents at 7 and enrolled in the agoge, a compulsory military training school. Any physically unfit babies were cast off a cliff. Their lives, upon becoming a Peer (or similar or Spartiate) were constant training for the battlefield. They were permitted no other job.
They held slaves, the helots of Messenia. They had no trade, allowed no possessing or use of money, and waged war for sport. They were a monarchy and individualism was beaten out of them, literally. They were the model society for Plato as well as Roussaeu. Both idealized them and it served as the model for their ideal state.
Their entire life was lived for the moment when they would die in battle for the state. Their lives meant nothing, but only victory on the battlefield. It is the glorification of the state. It’s an ideal that would be sought two millenia later in Nuremburg. Their helmet and cuirass could be lost without penalty, as they were for the protection of the individual. Their shields, if lost, meant loss of citizenship. For the hoplon was meant to protect your peer in the ranks.
Yet, I’ve been reading more of them, most notably Cartledge’s The Spartans and even though a novel, Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. And of course, the accounts of Herodotus, Xenophon, Thucydides, et al. And I find them to be terribly intriguing as well as inspiring.
How could that be? Certainly the scarlet and lambda were not signs of peaceful cooperation, non-aggression, and liberty. But one cannot help but admire them as a most “individualistic” group, if ever the case could exist.
They lived as they chose, and fought to live that way. There is no gain from war, yet they really never sought gain from war. Oddly enough, when they did, as under the reign of Lysander, they suffered and eventually were destroyed. Upon victory over Athens in 404, they began to assert their dominance over the rest of Hellas. This would be their undoing not much more than a generation later, when two Thebans, Epaminondas and Pelopidas, would do what had never been done before: bring an army into the heart of Lakedaemonia.
In is ironic then that it was exactly their desire for empire which was their downfall, the one thing they never sought prior.
But why are they so inspiring. Well, without a doubt, there is a romantic vision of the Spartans. Once one looks past their militarism and slave holding, there is an oddly endearing sort of life. Women of Athens, even the noblewomen, were second class citizens at best. Rarely were they alone outside the house. Never could they own property. Yet Spartan women were in many respects the ones who ran Sparta. Aristotle was very critical of the role of women in Spartan society.
There they could own property. There they were in most respects the equals of men. And no, this isn’t feint praise, nor is it feminist agitprop. Women were never treated as less than full citizens. Maybe their main role, birthing the next generation of warriors, was not what some might call liberating. Yet, their brashness, their boldness, their openly womanliness which earned them the epithet “thigh flashers”, was unique in all of Hellas. Plutarch has some notable sayings of Spartan women. I do not know of any other Greek women who have earned such immortality. And, their beauty was renown in all of Greece. Helen was said to be Lakedaemonian.
How can one not read of Gorgo’s quip
Being asked by a woman from Attica, “Why is it that you Spartan women are the only women that lord it over your men,” she said, “Because we are the only women that are mothers of men.
and not wish that all women were of such fiber. And what a much freer society we’d have. (Consider the progressive era, the temperance movement, and so much of the modern welfare state, the “nanny” state, if you will. Hate to say it, but womens’ suffrage has been the great bane of liberty.)
But Sparta was much more than her women. And I guess that much, of not most, of the Spartan legacy is from the Hot Gates, Thermopylae. The three hundred, hand picked and all knowing they were marching to their deaths, are the ultimate of never giving in and hold steadfast to your ideals. I sometimes think of the ostracism of Mises, Rothbard, and others, how they were relegated to second class status in the university. Yet they stood firm in their beliefs. They never sold their souls or intellectual integrity.
Libertarians live in a world filled with interventionism, where it takes great strength and courage to defend liberty. We seem to be a 300, getting slammed by a million “lotus eaters” and eventually falling victim to the weapon of cowards, the ballot box. (archers did in the remaining knights, where for us, the nameless state and its apparatchiks, serving the “god” democracy are the great destroyers of liberty)
The Spartans sent the rest of the Hellenes home, choosing to fight and die rather than live under another’s rule. Offered by Xerxes to be masters of Greece, to be wealthy beyond all measure, they instead chose obedience to their laws. One cannot but admire to the fullest such an act, even with what their laws were.
It is easy to see why they were held in such reverence of the ideal society, that if ever a whole could be mustered into a single sovereign, then this was it. Obedience to the laws was in Sparta, true liberty, and why Rousseau thought similar obedience such in his ideal as well. But Sparta was unique in so many ways, proving itself the exception to the rule.
Maybe we should more admire Athens, a commercial state, one much more open and free. But it too sought empire, and did so through force. There is much to admire in Athens, birthplace of western philosophy.
No state is ever ideal, and well that is the case. Maybe “no state” is the ideal. It’s just that there is something special to admire in Sparta, that given all their faults, is still worthy.