Friday, 12 July 2019

Nationalist Sparta Versus Democratic Athens

Marble statue of a helmed hoplite
(5th century BC); Maybe Leonidas
Classical Athens was a noisy democracy in which people were not well organized. Sparta, on the other hand, was a highly organized nationalistic state whose political system was devoted to maximizing military power at all costs. They fought devastating wars—during the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC), the alliance led by Sparta was victorious over the Athenian alliance.

For reasons that are unclear, the Athenian society, which was crippled and demoralized by the defeat in the Peloponnesian War, gave rise to several brilliant minds, including philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

The militarily powerful Sparta did not produce a single major thinker, but it played a critical role in keeping Athens safe from invaders—this, I think, was the key contribution that the Spartans have made to the cause of philosophy, literature, and art. In 480 BC, the Persian King Xerxes would have wiped out Athens and rest of Ancient Greece if the Spartan King Leonidas had not stopped the Persian army comprising of more than 200,000 soldiers at the narrow passageway of Thermopylae.

Without nationalistic and militaristic Sparta, there would not have been any democratic and liberal Athens—and without Athens, it is possible that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and several other artists and writers might not have found a conducive social environment for doing their work. By protecting Athens from the Persians, Sparta granted the brilliant minds of Athens the opportunity for completing their work.

The learning that we can draw from the history of Classical Athens and Sparta is that a democratic and liberal environment is necessary for the flourishing of literature, art, and philosophy, but such an environment cannot survive without the support of a nationalistic force.

3 comments:

Unknown said...

I agree with your premise and would add that another great democracy of the ancient world was Syracuse which produced the exceptional mind of Archimedes. Both Athens and Syracuse engaged in robust trade throughout the Mediterranean world and ideas travelled with the merchants. A plethora of ideas milling around the public square must have provided fertile ground for brilliant and imaginative minds, and the more open societies allowed their development.

Anoop Verma said...

good point.

BerserkRL said...

I said this on facebook but thought I should add it here too.

"For reasons that are unclear, the Athenian society, which was crippled and demoralized by the defeat in the Peloponnesian War, gave rise to several brilliant minds, including philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle."

When Athens was defeated in the Peloponnesian war, Socrates was in his 60s and Plato was in his 20s. Aristotle wasn't from Athens. So it wasn't a "crippled and demoralized" Athens that gave rise to those three thinkers (though it was a "crippled and demoralized" Athens that put Socrates to death).

On the broader question, I don't think it's mysterious why so many great thinkers (both natives and immigrants) were found in Athens. Athens had more freedom of speech and inquiry than any other Greek city.

"In 480 BC, the Persian King Xerxes would have wiped out Athens and rest of Ancient Greece if the Spartan King Leonidas had not stopped the Persian army comprising of more than 200,000 soldiers at the narrow passageway of Thermopylae."

Well, but he didn't stop them. The Spartans LOST the battle of Thermopylae. The triumphant Persian army then proceeded to Athens and burned it down. The Athenians, who had retreated to Salamis, then bounced back and defeated the Persians in a naval battle, and the Persians were then on the defensive for the rest of the war.