Lessons on Sparta and Militant Democracy

Ancient Spartan
Lycurgus of Sparta

Ancient Sparta is one of the Founding Fathers' first examples of civilization ruled by law, not man. However, the man attributed to instilling laws that lasted 700 years in Sparta was known as Lycurgus, a descendant of Hercules and "the second prince in one of two royal families in Sparta" (ahistoryofgreece.com). Lycurgus' pursuit of a secure state led him to establish a regime that valued stability and security more so than liberty.

Lyrcurgus traveled to the island of Crete to learn about systems of government where he encountered the ancient poet, Thales, who sung about harmony, simplicity, strength, and happiness for mankind. In Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus, Thales is described as a noble lawgiver in Crete as well as a talented musician whose songs "permeated with ordered tranquillity, so that those who listened to them were insensibly softened in their dispositions, insomuch that they renounced the mutual hatreds which were so rife at that time, and dwelt together in a common pursuit of what was high and noble"(Life of Lycurgus).

Before returning to Sparta from Crete, Lycurgus went to the Oracle of Delphi to submit "prayers for good laws, and the Oracle promised him a constitution which should be the best in the world." Lycurgus went on to invent the institution of a senate, or Council of Elders, which, as Plato says, by being blended with the "feverish" government of the kings, and by having an equal vote with them in matters of the highest importances, brought safety and due moderation into counsels of state. In order to prevent self-interest from corrupting his polity, Lycurgus persuaded his fellow-citizens to make one parcel of all their territory and divide it up anew, and to live with one another on a basis of entire uniformity and equality in the means of subsistence, seeking preëminence through virtue alone, assured that there was no other difference or inequality between man..."(Life of Lycurgus).

The character of Sparta can be illuminated by his dialoguge between Lycurgus and a citizen in a written letter:

"When they asked how they could ward off an invasion of enemies, he answered: "By remaining poor, and by not desiring to be greater the one than the other." And when they asked about fortifying their city, he answered: "A city will be well fortified which is surrounded by brave men and not by bricks"(Life of Lycurgus).

Spartan virtue was so admired by the Founders that Sam Adams "prayed that Boston would become a Christian Sparta," referring to the traits of "frugality, selflessness, valor, and patriotism" (Richard, 31).

However, Aristotle said that "while the Spartans' single minded pursuit of courage had provided them with essential security, it had also deprived them of the the ability to live in a way that has real value" (Richard, 29). The sacrifice of all personal freedoms for the goodness and security of the polis was meant to prevent other foreigners from enslaving the Spartans, yet obsession with selflessness leads historians to question whether the Spartan system could be sustainable without the most virtuous of leaders. The lack of private livelihoods and liberty for the sake of community and equality shows a certain degree of disregard for the dignity of the common man, who must live subordinate to a ruling class, always preparing him or herself for battle.

Although the Spartans instilled admirable cultural traits, and by most accounts lived in happiness, Plutarch said that military culture was so strong that warriors followed commanders' order by "immediately submitted, like bees swarming to their queen"(Life of Lycurgus).

Thomas Jefferson said "the suppression of individuality for the sake of boot camp training of the Spartans created military monks" (Richard, 32). Because the Founders desired liberty and personal pursuits after living under a monarchy, the Spartans were not the precise model of democracy, yet, the role of Lycurgus in establishing a Constitution and a Senate cannot be dismissed. Furthermore, the Spartan militia of common citizens who had the bravery to side with the Navy of Athens in the Persian war, served as an inspirational anecdote in history that parallels the colonial militias that rose up against the British, equally as overmatched in number and wealth.

Lessons on Sparta and Militant Democracy