Sunday, December 19, 2010


Just read about the life of Spartan citizens c. 500 BCE.  Has expanded my perspective on my own life:

The basic story is that Spartan citizens began taking over neighboring areas, and turning many of the people in those areas "helots," essentially slaves. The helots continued to live with their family on their original land, but were forced to contribute appx 50% of their crops to the Spartan citizen that owned them. Their freedom was also very limited.  They were subject to intermittent, essentially random, acts of violence.

As Sparta became increasingly powerful, more and more areas were subjugated, with the population of Spartan citizens staying around 8,000 or so men. In order to maintain their hold on their enslaved populations, which greatly outnumbered the Spartans, the Spartans developed a martial culture unlike anything I've ever heard of, which is the really interesting part of all this:

To be a Spartan citizen you had to be the legitimate son of a Spartan citizen. Males lived with their mother (and sometimes their father) until age 7. At that point they left home, joining their peers in a long and arduous process of acculturation and physical training which continued until age 30. They learned to be "hoplites", the armed warriors that together form the feared Spartan phalanx, a tight mass of highly organized, disciplined, and expensively armored Spartan citizens wielding spears. During their training they are taught by older warriors. It seems that their lives were completely focused on their training. Any sort of excess was discouraged. There was no currency, in order to discourage the amassing of wealth. The only measure of wealth was how much helot land you owned. Meals for all were meagre, including a dark bloody pork soup that was thought inedible by other Greeks. Not all male citizens were able to complete the training; those that didn't were ostracized and lost certain privileges enjoyed by the remainder of the citizens. The only male citizens that didn't train were the sons of the two kings. By creating this highly disciplined martial culture the Spartans were able to maintain their stronghold over the helots despite being vastly outnumbered. They were also able to take over larger and larger areas.

Now of course this whole situation was presumably miserable for all concerned- the helots lived in constant fear of their masters and the Spartans lives were very restricted. But it's also beautiful how the Spartan culture was so deeply ingrained into the hoplite. Spartan hoplites were regarded as the best warriors of the known world. In addition to skill and strength, they had learned extreme discipline. Their discipline and willingness to die for the Spartan cause is illustrated by the Spartan's stand at the pass at Thermopylae:

The Persian Empire was marching with a massive army, with a large Navy alongside, south through Greece, intending to conquer Athens, Sparta, and the rest of Southern Greece.  The Greeks tried to halt the Persians at the narrow pass at Thermopylae, a tiny path at the time between the Aegean Sea on the east and mountains to the west. A small group of Spartan (and other) hoplites, led by the Spartan King Leonidas, managed to hold the pass for a few days. A local traitor told the Persians of a small path through the mountains that would allow the Persian army to get past the phalanx and surround the small group. When the Spartans learned they'd been surrounded, it was clear that staying at the pass would be fatal. However, the Spartans hoped to at least delay the advance of the Persians to allow preparations to be made back home for further defense. King Leonidas sent home any hoplites who had not yet born a son. Those that had sons stayed to die alongside their king in defense of their land. When the Spartans heard the Persians had threatened to darken the sky with arrows in the upcoming slaughter, one Spartan replied "So much the better, we will fight in the shade." Essentially every hoplite that stayed to defend the pass died.

When I think of self-interest, I usually think of money, especially the luxury it buys. For the Spartan, it sounds like the amassing of wealth (aside from land) and enjoying luxuries such as exotic food was actually undesirable. The Spartan actually prefers the life of privation. And this isn't just the elite or some minority group, this is the entire male population of Sparta. So what does selfishness mean to the Spartan? He simply seeks personal honor, but according to the rules he has learned, personal honor is good for the group.  What would the Spartan version of Bernie Madoff look like? Deceiving others for personal gain is much less attractive if there is little perceived benefit from being wealthy.

Is the desire for luxury actually something we learn culturally? Until I learned all this about Spartan culture I guess I assumed that desire for luxury and comfort was a basic human instinct. But now that I think about it more, I wonder if luxury is an acquired taste? I heard a story about Bedouins being rescued by Westerners from the desert during a drought and being offered beds indoors, but many of them didn't like it and resumed sleeping on the ground outside. A monk from any religion, by definition, avoids luxury. Siddharta, the protagonist in Herman Hesse's book of the same name, is successful due to his ability to wait, fast, and read. Perhaps unlearning the taste for luxury is empowering. In middle class America, it seems that lots of distress is created by "living beyond your means," ending up in stressful debt in order to feed the hunger for luxury. Without the desire for luxury, it's much easier to earn enough to forget about money. And with no desire for luxury, greed and graft are not temptations. The question "How much money would it take to get you to do X?" would not have an answer. I'd be successful to unlearn the taste for luxury.

1 comment:

  1. I know I'm late on this, but good read Will.

    On whether the desire for luxury is learned, I'd say it is to a point. Every culture desires different luxuries, so in that case it's impossible to say culture doesn't have a major, if not defining role. But I would say that the desire for leisure is an intrinsic one, and I believe our yearning for luxury is just an exaggerated consequence of that.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your idea, "Perhaps unlearning the taste for luxury is empowering." I've never read Hermen Hesse's book, but the story of Siddharta fascinated me from the moment I heard it. The Buddhists tenets of impermanance and disattachment are so simple and yet at the same time difficult to adhere to.

    Anyways, I'm beginning to ramble. Great first entry.