Politics II: Spartans!

Lest we forget our mission to read through the Politics, let's finish the rest of book two today (or this weekend, as you have time). This section treats, among other things, the famous Spartan society, one of the most complete attempts ever to organize society around success in war. The Spartans had vanquished Athens and Athenian democracy for a while, not long before Aristotle's own time. He was born in 384 BC, about twenty years after the Peloponnesian War ended. This is roughly akin to someone born now learning about the Gulf War: far enough removed that it wasn't part of their literal consciousness, but close enough to know many veterans of it and to ask after it with some authority.

Aristotle himself was not from Athens, but from Stagira. As a student of Plato's, of course, Athens would have occupied a place in his thought. But Stagira had its own history of violence: in Aristotle's lifetime, it was destroyed by the Macedonian kingdom. However, in gratitude for Aristotle's work tutoring his son Alexander (the Great), then-king Philip rebuilt the city rather than leaving it in ruins.


Joseph W. said...

I had to find another link for the last few lines, as they didn't show up in this one. It seems to me that the constitutions he's talking about here, like the ideas we talked about before, were designed for a world of scarcity and stagnation - with a State trying to figure out how to get enough people to supply its armies (Aristotle reports the Spartans had trouble with this), or control its population by "encouraging the separation of men from women," and concerning itself with how much the people choose to eat. (Never happens in our own day, nope.)

I enjoyed the sections on courts even though they don't speak to any reform I think we need now. In the section on Hippodamus he takes as given that judges (as opposed to arbitrators) aren't allowed to confer with each other on their judgments - which decidedly limits their ability to be flexible in judgments. Arbitrators in our own day, incidentally, have the reputation of "splitting the baby" - of normally finding that the person being sued has to pay, but limiting the amount - and some arbitration agreements include a "trial of Socrates" clause (the parties propose answers, and the arbitrator has to choose between them) in part to prevent this...

I was interested in his description of the Athenian constitution under Solon as mixed, with the law courts as the most democratic element. For our own time and place it makes much more sense to me to have an "aristocractic" judiciary - chosen (or elected) from people who've demonstrated some degree of legal knowledge and hold some kind of respect in the legal profession.

What do you think - is there anything in this discussion of the Spartan and Cretan constitutions that could help us with a problem we've got today?

Grim said...

I do in a way: Sparta can be helpful in understanding something about cultures with strongly enforced warrior codes. We don't have a problem with this internally (the opposite seems to be true), but we do deal with North Korea (for example); and we see this to some degree in places like Saudi Arabia.

Sparta's intense warrior ethos seems to me not to arise from the danger posed by other Greek states (or even by Persia, in an earlier age). All the other states faced similar threats without undertaking this model.

Rather, it seems to come from their subject population, the Helots. The Greek states had slaves, but they didn't have a subject population -- slaves might be war captives, or individuals who had fallen into debt, or something similar. The Helots were a breeding population of some kind of slaves (or something like serfs: there is confusion in the literature).

Thus, the Spartan warrior society existed because it had not an external threat, but a permanent internal threat. Of course it produced some praiseworthy qualities as well, however: genuinely admirable qualities, which don't appear in conditions in which there is a threat of internal revolt sufficient to produce the devout martial virtue.

It's another reason to worry about fascism even in Western society, as our states insist on importing cheap labor at below-market rates (Latinos here, Muslims in Europe). They're building a problem with a well known "solution" that is unlikely to be pleasant -- and that's a problem we have right now to which Sparta is quite relevant.