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Enlightenment – Competitive Intensity within Binary Cultures

Layers of Class Competition

In establishing Aristotle’s philosophical ideal ruler, a free male citizen that is wealthy, educated, and has ample leisure time, we have simultaneously unveiled a disillusioned darkness existing within multiple layers of class related competition of ancient Athenian society. The first is supposedly inherent within nature and sees free male citizens win out over females, non-citizens, and slaves due to various different naturally superior capabilities, including reason and rationality as well as sovereignty over the golden means of the virtues. The strength of these naturalistic ideals is then compounded as they directly coincide with the cultural norms of ancient Athens via its customs and laws. 

This then seems to open up a world of possibilities for the winners of the first class war, the free male citizen. Of which Aristotle hopes these naturally selected men will choose to utilize their “collective good,” through their fully granted freedom and rights and their capability to then obtain a greater abundance of resources and time, toward a disciplined habituation of virtue and wisdom. He hopes they will evolve into the final form of humans… into good citizens, and possibly even into good rulers. Good rulers that will then proceed by prioritizing the well-being of the Greek city-state and the citizens within it over their own individual desires, thus enacting the ultimate naturally symbiotic relationship between the final form amongst humans and the final form of human creation, the polis.

Yet, within this world of possibilities there are also many other choices that can be made. Especially with all of this privilege, all of this freedom, and all of these rights. Perhaps some men did follow in the footsteps of Socrates and lead a life of arete, of excellence in character, of wisdom, and eudaimonia. Perhaps some men strived to even emulate the prime mover and aimed to become pure rationality, so that their thoughts, words, and actions just flowed, virtuously. But, the probability of being able to achieve these things, given that most men probably either did not fully understand these concepts or even agree with them, seems to be somewhat of an illusion. Instead, a lot of men wanted something real. Something tangible that would bring them a more immediate sense of pleasure. Hence, the consensus amongst these free male citizens of Athens seems to be that they wanted wealth, to help successfully feed their desires for pleasure as well as avoid any fears of pain.

Power, Order, and Communisitic Connections

Plato saw the desire for pleasure and wealth amongst male Athenian citizens. He saw the tensions within this particular privileged class struggle. A struggle that would divide even its citizens into the ultimate hierarchy of rich and poor. Into economic haves and have nots. And he believed that what was ultimately being sought after was not just wealth, but power, as power was the means in which one could maintain their wealth, maintain their pleasure, and stay safe from the dangers of pain, poverty, and weakness. Plato wanted to check both the pursuit of power and wealth, primarily by trying to eliminate any possible corruption associated with it. 

This entailed a sharp criticism of the Athenian democracy, which he believed produced a great amount of this imbalance. To heal this perceived cycle of affliction via pleasure/pain-wealth-power-corruption, Plato would try to restore what he perceived to be a harmonious balance through a more communisitic approach of enhanced equality, through his utopian leadership training system.

But where did Plato get these ideas from? One of his main influences seems to be Sparta. For the strength and might of the long-time rival of Athens was not only feared throughout all of Greece, it was also respected, and ultimately admired. And it wasn’t only admired for the lethal capabilities of its military via the combined toughness and precision of its superb hoplite soldiers. It was also admired for its virtuous order as a society, or its “eunomia,” including its people’s obedience to its nation’s laws, customs, and leadership. For a lot of people, most especially Plato, these were the virtues that created the unique product that was Sparta and its warriors. For Plato, one aspect of particular interest regarding their eunomia was a limitation on the amount of freedom that Sparta’s free male citizens could have. They were bound to obey the code. The Spartan code. 

Spartan Mythological Origins

There is a mythology behind this infamous code that supposedly turned its generally held customs into hardened laws. One that is rooted within the very fabric of supernatural, religious, and mythological Greek beliefs and had the power to gain universal respect amongst all of the Greek city-states. Of particular significance to this story is the Greek God Apollo, son of the widely accepted all powerful Greek God Zeus, and the Oracle of Delphi. 

The Greek God Apollo was believed throughout ancient Greece to be associated with order, measure, and beauty. According to Greek mythology, he founded the location of the Oracle at Delphi on a mountainous region of Greece in Corinthia by killing a venomous snake, or python, that roamed the area. Then the high priestess Pythia, with two additional priestesses accompanying her, is said to have inhaled the stench of the dead snake and simultaneously eaten narcotic laurel leaves making her both delirious and the official conduit of the divine word of Apollo. Although this sounds extremely superstitious and potentially a place riddled with fear, the festivals at Delphi were celebrated throughout ancient Greece in honor of Apollo and were overwhelmingly positive in their recognition of him as the god of health, wisdom, reason, and song. Kings, slaves, men, and women each came from all over the then known world to the Oracle at Delphi, anxious to be told their own personal prophecy and reveal their fate. 

According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, the story of the Spartan code was founded under similar pretenses. No different than any of the other people before him, a Spartan by the name of Lycurgus went to the Oracle at Delphi and received a prophecy. And the message he received was essentially the Spartan code in the form of a “rhetra,” or an edict. Although this in itself may have passed the initial litmus test with at least some of the people of Sparta, its exact origins were still supposedly altered by the legislators and leaders within Sparta’s unique oligarchy government to state that Lycurgus had in fact learned of the code through the commands of a divine God. Apparently these leaders believed that this was the safest way to effect change within its society. 

Plato most likely knew that the mythological origins of Sparta were largely fabricated, even the main character of this story, Lycurgus, is now largely regarded as fictional. But Plato doesn’t seem to care, because he saw its effectiveness. He saw the results. He saw the spectacular order that Sparta operated with first-hand, and his desire to achieve and establish this same type of virtuous order, this eunomia, became an obsession, underpinning every major aspect of his utopia. His own myth of the metals, using a fear of the Gods as a tactic to deter people from either straying from and corrupting the system in any way, directly reflects this. Then again, perhaps this is not the full picture. To better understand, let us now analyze the details within the Spartan Code.

Laconic Intensity & Courage

There seems to be a higher level of intensity when one mentions the people of Lacedemonia, who were also known throughout ancient Greece as “the Spartans.” An intensity that was carefully nurtured within all of its people, but especially its class of male citizen warriors. For in order to be considered good in Sparta, one had to have the greatest of survival instincts wherein the mind and body worked as one. Elite physical fitness and mental toughness that would produce within them a supreme courage. 

A courage that extended all the way into sacrifice for their way of life as a warrior’s death, or dying in battle, was considered the highest possible honor. If one was defeated in battle and then tried to return home, even if they were wounded, they were disgraced. More so, the mothers and wives of these warriors allegedly weighed in with one of the most iconic “laconic” statements, “return with your shield or on it,” meaning the only acceptable reason why you should return if you don’t win your battle, is if you die and are carried back. The word “laconic” represents a method of speech that is forceful, abrupt, and terse. It seems that laconic speech was, and still is, very much an essential element of most people’s perception of a badass. And the word itself derives from both their more formal name of Lacedemonia and their very way of life. 

The essence of the warrior centric culture of Sparta is such that everything else, not just speech, training, and battle, revolves around it including sex and marriage, music and songs, education, religion, and most especially, politics. And if any aspects of these other areas of culture were seen as impeding their warrior way of life in any way, they were either limited or banned altogether. For example, if a foreigner happened to be peacefully traveling through their territory and needed a place to stay, they would only allow them to stay for a maximum of a couple of days before kicking them out, forcefully if necessary. Protecting their military secrets was a top priority related to this, but they also wanted their people and their society to maintain order, to remain true to their code, and to be untainted by outside versions of reality. Note how this is almost directly juxtaposed to the culture of Athens, wherein freedom was abundant and diversity was highly encouraged by its government as they believed that it ultimately helped the Athenian citizen to flourish via education, wisdom, virtue, and happiness as well as gain wealth and power.

Pre-training – Eugenics, Breeding, & Health

The process of shaping and molding these warriors begins in Sparta at birth, starting with eugenics. And with Sparta, as with most everything else, their process was considered to be the most extreme in the Greek world. The Spartan code via Lycurgus called for any child that was perceived to be even slightly defective, by either the father or specialized members of the state, to be thrown off a cliff to die. And this wasn’t a sacrificial, religious practice either. This was a practice to ensure the health and vigor of their people. 

The Athenians also had a form of eugenics, but theirs was primarily one of exposing. Wherein defective children, or just unwanted children in general, were brought to a central location in town and left to hopefully be picked up and adopted by someone else more willing and / or capable to care for the child. If not, the child would meet the same fate as that of Sparta’s.

This ruthless, uncompromising mentality carried forward into every other stage of Spartan life. The code even encouraged men, especially weaker men via age or illness, to share their wives with other men who were considered to be of the greatest stock, with men who had the greatest physical gifts. Lycurgus apparently asked, why should we pay breeders for the finest horses and dogs and not do the same with our people? For, in addition to order and obedience, health was considered a supreme virtue amongst the Spartan society, so much so that sickness was even considered to be a crime. 

Although other Greek city-states, even Athens, had some form of breeding preferences, especially related to eligibility of citizenship, the extremity of allowing other men to procreate with your wife for the benefit of the nation seems to be uniquely Spartan. Similarly, health and beauty were universally praised to be good and even virtuous throughout all of ancient Greece. Yet, for Sparta to believe that sickness was a crime speaks volumes of their overwhelming need for physical health in order to sustain itself and was, once again, definitively at the polar extreme amongst its fellow Greek city-states. 

Childhood Training – Militaristic vs. Academic 

Let us proceed with the Spartan child’s life, assuming that they passed the initial test of eugenics. The boys, upon reaching the age of seven, were taken from their homes to start their training to become warriors in a state run military academy, called the “agoge”, where they essentially remained, living in a communal lifestyle with shared meals and living spaces until the age of 30. Rigorous to say the least, these academies were designed to expose any form of physical weakness or character cowardice. Fortitude, both mental and physical, was the ultimate aim. 

Athenian boys began their education at the age of six in private schools with a much more robust depth and breadth of subject matter than its rival Sparta. In Athens, reading, writing, arithmetic, music, and gymnastics were the fundamentals that every boy learned. Whereas the learning curriculum of Spartan boys was limited to music, gymnastics, and their war-like games whereby any knowledge that was passed along to them was almost exclusively oral as they supposedly did not write anything and most Spartan men were believed to be illiterate. 

The highly competitive war-like games of the young Spartan boys were played in the nude, up until the age of 12 whereby they first received clothing, and were designed to reveal weakness as much as to depict strength. The Spartan men watched, encouraged, and even instigated the young boys to help elevate the level of competition amongst them. Further, Spartan men acted as intimate mentors to the young boys. A practice that was thought to stimulate and even revitalize the courage of men in battle. This is reflected in some of their battle / warrior songs as there were elements of both love and war within them.

In addition to competing against one another, Spartan boys were trained from a young age to be self-sufficient as they had to undergo a rigorous element of their training called “krypteia” in which they had to forage for their own food with nothing more than a knife for long periods of time, months perhaps, with no assistance. Another preparatory skill set for war, this was one wherein stealing food was considered to be morally permissible as long they didn’t get caught, and whereby flogging was the typical punishment. Additionally, to help harden and condition their bodies and minds to the external elements, all boys up to the age of 30 were required to sleep outside throughout the year and rarely bathed. Hence, the Spartan male’s successful progression from young boy into adulthood and citizenship was based on adherence to the Spartan code and their warrior culture, as they didn’t allow for anything beyond the code. 

For Athenian boys, they remained in private school until the age of 16 whereby they began their transition into more physical exercises, geared to train them for specific duties within the military until the age of 18. Then, at 18, they became adults and simultaneously started their specialized military service duties until the age of 21. Then at the age of 21, after successfully completing all of the previous stages, they are freed from their parents and admitted as citizens into Athenian society. Spartan men were not given the privilege of citizenship until the age 30, when they officially finished their military training. But honoring the code continued even after they earned their citizenship as Spartan men still had to collectively eat and contribute to one meal per day in the public sphere to ensure that they didn’t go soft. 

Common Sources of Strength

Depths of Slavery

The extreme austerity of Sparta’s warrior culture created profound necessities. Since they were always on military campaigns, as they did not have other professions, they required a substantial amount of assistance to sustain itself. And just as in the case of Athens, they relied heavily on the backs of both women and slaves. Perhaps, even more so.

The origin story of the Spartans follows their overzealous nature in that they believed they were originally the direct descendants of the ancient Greek mythical hero Hercules. And further that their Greek neighbors, the Messenians, had tried to impede them from realizing their potential by displacing them from their land and separating them from their Herculean roots. Given this violation of their believed birthright, they declared war on their neighbors, conquered them, and then enslaved them for approximately 5 centuries (8th century B.C – 4th century B.C), during which time they were known as “Helots.” The Athenians, by contrast, believed that they naturally sprung forth from their land and were the native inhabitants.

The scope of Helot enslavement by the Spartans was immense, apparently on a scale of 10 Helots for every 1 individual Spartan soldier. This enabled the strength and military might of Sparta to become two fold via the excellence of the Spartan soldier and the vastness of their personal slaves whom are now believed to have been forced to fight alongside the Spartans in their battles. The enslavement of the Helots thus enabled the Spartans to greatly expand their lands, wealth, and resources as they became one of, if not the biggest Greek city-state during these times. Even the battle of Thermopalye, with the supposed mythical number of exactly 300 Spartan soldiers staving off the hundreds of thousands of Persian soldiers, is now believed to have been most likely embellished as it didn’t account for the proportional number of Helots who would’ve most likely been fighting right alongside them. 

Helots also had much less to look forward to in terms of the spectrum of citizenship, freedom, and rights than the slaves of Athens did for they were never even eligible for manumission. Further, part of the Spartan code, under their training via the krypteia, required them to continuously observe, track, and even hunt Messenians to control their population and ensure that they didn’t unite and start a revolt against them. Given this, the Helot not only lacks the hope of one day becoming free, but they also lack basic security over their livelyhood as at any given moment, the Spartan may decide, even on a whim, to murder them. Athenian slaves may have been whipped, flogged, shackled, and branded but they were rarely murdered. It was a crime to murder a slave in Athens. Slaves in Athens had numerous critical functions as we previously discussed, most importantly increasing wealth and time for the master and sustaining the growth and development of Athens as a polis. They weren’t even admitted into the military, let alone forced to fight. 

Love, Marriage, & Equality

The women of Sparta were truly unique within the landscape of ancient Greece. Not only were young girls allowed to learn gymnastics, as well as frequently practice running and even wrestling, they were encouraged to do so to enable them to become the most fit and fertile mothers possible. In terms of physical beauty, it is said that the Spartan women, and men for that matter, were by far the most beautiful amongst all of the other Greek city-states. 

Although men could marry women before they were eligible for citizenship at the age of 30, they could not live with their wife. Instead, they had to escape their communal barracks and visit them secretly during the night. Supposedly designed within the Spartan code itself, these night visits were actually geared to stimulate sexual activity and hopefully increase the Spartan population, which given all of their societal restraints regarding the external world, became an ever increasing internal struggle that Sparta dealt with throughout its history. So much so that celibacy was also deemed to be a crime. Surprisingly, celibacy was also forbidden in Athens, although the enforcement of the law, both socially via shame and criminally, does not seem to have been nearly as severe as it was in Sparta.

The women of Sparta were also given much more responsibility at home in terms of managing both important business affairs as well as domestic ones while the men were either away on military campaigns or training throughout the year. And custom allowed Spartan women to speak their minds when they addressed their husbands, not only in private, but in public as well. Yet, most significantly, Spartan women could lawfully both inherit and bequeath property. Given all of this, their place within the spectrum of freedom and rights was far beyond that of Athenian women who were subjected exclusively to domestic affairs. Further, Spartan women accumulated wealth and enjoyed a much finer lifestyle than that of their Spartan male counterparts as they were too busy to do so, constantly either training or actively engaged in battle. 

Spartan women, and men, were more similar to the earlier Homeric days of Greece that were depicted in the Iliad and the Odyssey, than that of Athenian men and women. There was, and has been throughout the course of history, a certain fabled glory associated with the Spartan people. This even extends into the perception of equality amongst the Spartan male citizens. Yet, there was, just as the case was with Athens, imbalance in terms of wealth and power. And corruption. All within the virtuous order of their ranks and their society. 

Up Next

Athens and Sparta were the dominant forces of ancient Greece. Together, they defeated the Persian empire and enabled Greece to become the new global power. But their differences seem so vast, that it was almost inevitable that they would compete for authority and control within Greece itself. Hence their decades long Peloponnesian Wars. All of this was bound to have a profound impact on the philosophies of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Next, we will continue to unravel this quintessential story and the amazing philosophies that developed alongside them.

Let’s fucking do this, eh!!! Onto the next one!!! Good times:)

Thank you for joining me on this philosophic journey!

Next blog post – Binary Thresholds of Trust within Truths of Persuasion and Interpretation

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