Justice and Humanity

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

The Spartan system of training cultivated hardihood and patriotism, but it did not cultivate justice and humanity:

On the contrary, in their aggressions on other States, and in their treatment of the races which they had subjected, they practised combinations of injustice, fraud, and atrocity, which, as Mr. Grote has observed, “even yet stand without parallel in the long list of precautions for fortifying unjust dominion.”

And this indicates another leading defect in the Spartan institutions, which was the opposite extreme to the leading defect of the Athenian government. As the ruin of the Athenian government arose, as we shall see, from an excess of talk in the shape of long harangues, instead of dialectical discussion, one great evil in the Spartan government arose from an absence of all public discussion whatever: for the Spartan character was of an eminently unintellectual type; destitute even of the rudiments of letters, rendered savage and fierce by exclusive and overdone bodily discipline, and, if possessing many of the qualities requisite to procure dominion, possessing none of those calculated to render dominion popular or salutary to the subject.

This anti-intellectualism wasn’t just a moral failing:

This intellectual defect of the Spartan character becomes more striking, when we find that it rendered all their excellent bodily training unavailing against inferior bodily training, where the inferiority was compensated by the leadership of a great and commanding mind. For the bodily training at Sparta combined strength and agility with universal aptitude and endurance, and steered clear of that mistake by which Thebes and other cities impaired the effect of their gymnastics — the attempt to create an athletic habit suited for the games, but suited for nothing else. Yet Thebes, by the aid of one great mind leading her councils and commanding her armies, gave Sparta an overthrow from which she never recovered — from which, indeed, the weak part of her system, particularly the accumulation of the land in very few hands, rendered it impossible for her to recover.

In a society so eminently unintellectual as that of Sparta, it may be pronounced impossible for a firstrate general to be produced. It may be true that great generals are born, not made: but their genius requires an atmosphere somewhat intellectual for its development; and we hear nothing of great generals (if such there are) born among savages. The Spartan training did, indeed, include the cunning as well as the hardihood and ferocity of the savage. But the strategy of a great general must soar somewhat beyond the cunning of an ordinary savage, or even of a Spartan. Indeed, two of the greatest generals the world has yet seen, the one in ancient, the other in modern times, were philosophers as well as generals and statesmen. The first gained the battle of Leuctra, the second the battle of Leuthen, both acting on the same strategical principle.

The principle upon which Epaminondas acted at Leuctra and Mantinea, and Frederick at Rosbach and Leuthen, consisted in bringing a superiority of numbers to bear upon a particular point, and by defeating that part, and driving it in upon the rest, throwing into confusion and defeating the whole. The way in which Epaminondas explained this principle to the Thebans, who stood somewhat in awe of the acknowledged military superiority of the Spartans, was this: having taken an adder of the largest size, he showed it to them; and then, in their presence having shattered the head of the animal, he said, ” You see that the rest of the body is useless, the head being gone. So is it with the head of our enemies; if we break to pieces the Spartan part, the rest of the body, consisting of their allies, will be

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