Reading History # : Sparta

Question to consider:

The word ‘excellent’ has been sapped of its vigor. As an concept relaying valuable information, it is insipid But for the Greeks…

Historians speak of political institutions, which Samuel Huntington defined as “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior”. There are a myriad of institutions that pertain to ordering society, perhaps the most important being the state, the rule of law, and accountability/enforcement.

During the 7th century BC, Sparta instead embarked on a brave and revolutionary experiment designed to bind its citizens even more closely together. Precisely when the Greeks separated intellectually from other ancient civilizations is difficult to pin down, but concurrently with the important development of life within the polis was the increasingly standardized belief among the Greeks that the non-human world could be interpreted through human life rather than through observation of nature (as in animistic religions). Ultimate truth might be achieved by contemplating man rather than seeking messages from the gods; knowledge has a direct relation to life. The old animistic ways thus gave way to the humanistic. Furthermore, Greek philosophers sought an all-encompassing Law that governed all existence. They were the first to seek, to borrow a term from Albert Einstein, a unified field theory, a theory that explained everything. Many of them spoke of a divine order, and of a divine wisdom that ordered all things. The Spartan community was in many ways an eccentric and fleeting thing. It perhaps sounds strange to call a society that existed for some four hundred years fleeting. But the ideas which inspired the citizens of Sparta are imperishable because they are an expression of human instinct that is fundamental to Western heritage. Although the particular society (i.e. Sparta) that incorporated it has vanished, the ideal of political life itself remains true and valuable today. We will see that this code for life in the polis has been immortalized in the words of one of Sparta’s generals, in poems written over 2600 years ago, but still resonates with us today. And while all the city-states of Greece did not approve of Sparta or her policies, they did, like us, recognize the universality of her ideas concerning citizenship. When we discuss what is honorable and what is disgraceful or contemplate the relationship between the individual and the state, we engage in a dialogue with ancient Sparta.

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