Agis III and Louis XVI

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Andrew Bisset argues that the strength of a nation lies in its small farmers, who are both hardy and motivated to fight for their land — unlike the idle rich or the landless poor, who arise as land becomes concentrated, as in later Sparta and pre-Revolutionary France:

The mode in which Lycurgus succeeded in giving to Sparta the strength which it long possessed in an eminent degree, was this: He created in the Spartan citizens “unrivalled habits of obedience, hardihood, self-denial, and military aptitude; complete subjection on the part of each individual to the local public opinion, and preference of .death to the abandonment of Spartan maxims; intense ambition on the part of every one to distinguish himself within the prescribed sphere of duties, with little ambition for anything else.” What Lycurgus did, was to impose a vigorous public discipline, with simple clothing and fare, incumbent alike upon the rich and the poor. This was his special gift to Greece, according to Thucydides, and his great point of contact with democracy, according to Aristotle.

But he took no pains either to restrain the further enrichment of the rich, or to prevent the further impoverishment of the poor; and such neglect is one of the capital defects for which Aristotle censures him. The philosopher also particularly notices the tendency of property at Sparta (from causes which it is unnecessary to specify here, but which, will be found enumerated in Mr. Grote’s History of Greece) to concentrate itself in fewer hands, unopposed by any legal hindrances.

By whatever means the process was effected, we know that in the time of Agis III., about 250 years before Christ, when all the land of Sparta was in a very small number of hands, when the citizens were few in number, and the bulk of them miserably poor, the old discipline and the public mess (as far as the rich were concerned) had degenerated into mere forms. The attempt of Agis to bring back the State to its ancient strength, by again admitting the disfranchised poor citizens, re-dividing the lands, cancelling all debts, and restoring the public mess and military training in all their strictness, though it failed — partly from the want of ability in the sincere enthusiast who undertook it, and his misconception of what Lycurgus had really done, partly from its being made too late — at least proves the state of degradation and decrepitude to which Sparta had then fallen, and indicates some of the chief causes of that decrepitude and degradation.

About two thousand years after Agis had paid with his own life, and the lives of his wife and mother, for the noble and patriotic, but treacherous dream of a regenerated country, the dream of Agis actually became reality, in a nation which was fast perishing under the evils of a government which, like that of Sparta, favoured an exceedingly unequal distribution of property. The French Revolution, amid many crimes, may certainly be said to have regenerated the French nation as Agis proposed to regenerate the Spartan nation, and by means nearly similar to those proposed by him.

It is remarkable, too, that the French king, Louis XVI., a man, like Agis, eminent for his virtues, met with the fate of Agis. As Agis, whose sincerity is attested by the fact that his own property and that of his female relatives, among the largest in the State, were cast in the first sacrifice into the common stock, became the dupe of unprincipled coadjutors, and perished in the vain attempt to realize his scheme by persuasion; so Louis, with probably as sincere a desire to do what was best for the French nation, perished, like Agis, through the intrigues of the unprincipled people about him. But, though the fate of Louis was like that of Agis, the fate of France was very different from that of Sparta.

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