Thursday, March 26, 2015

Lycurgus: Order out of Chaos

The Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus - alternately, Lykurgus - is so shrouded in ambiguity that some scholars question whether he even existed. While the latter view may be extreme, it is a reminder to caution when formulating assertions about Lycurgus.

Living somewhere between the ninth and seventh centuries BC, he created more than simply laws. He formulated what might even be called a constitution. He shaped Spartan government and society.

Plutarch, relying on earlier sources like Plato, tells us that Lycurgus was pivotal in the formation and stability of Spartan government. Recall that ‘democracy’ meant here ‘mob rule’ and not the formation of a republic by freely elected representatives.

For the state, which had hitherto been wildly oscillating between despotism and on the one hand and democracy on the other, now, by the establishment of the Council of Elders, found a firm footing between these extremes, and was able to preserve a most equitable balance, as the eight-and-twenty elders would lend the kings their support in the suppression of democracy, but would use the people to suppress any tendency to despotism.

It was the wild oscillation which made Sparta ready, perhaps, to embrace a rather stark life as proposed by Lycurgus. His patterns made the word ‘Spartan’ from a mere geographic designation into a synonym for austerity. Plutarch describes the social patterns:

The training of the Spartan youth continued till their manhood. No one was permitted to live according to his own pleasure, but they lived in the city as if in a camp, with a fixed diet and fixed public duties, thinking themselves to belong, not to themselves, but to their country.

Clear-minded Athenians harbored some admiration for the Spartans, although the two were at war with each other. The political corruption and decadence among the Athenians made the model of Lycurgus attractive.

The Spartan collective memory understood that the uncomfortable disciplines had been their path out of anarchy, an anarchy which would have rendered them easy prey for the Athenians. Thus they continued the disciplines for generations after the first-person experience of that moment of crisis.