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Athens Or Sparta?

8 April 2009
Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney

I have long enjoyed the amateur study of history, finding it to be a fountain of relevant thought not only on where we’ve been but where we’re headed.  The recent re-emergence of the Dark Prince, Dick Cheney, into the debate on national defense and the firestorm of support it got from the right makes me realize that this topic, which I’ve wanted to explore for quite some time, is still timely—even in the Age of Obama.

We Americans like to compare ourselves, and our Democracy, to the Golden Age of Athens, where western democracy was born.  Republicans particularly like to make a big show of their unending support of democracy, yet the Republican Party that has emerged out of the last two national elections seems less and less democratic than they would have us believe.

neuman-ae-picture-idHere in Texas our state legislature is embroiled in a bitter debate over voter ID.  The Republicans want to require us to show our driver’s license or some sort of identification when we go to the polls.  The Democrats oppose it.  The reasons for the two positions aren’t all that hard to understand, although there’s a lot of noise around the Republican position.  You know, illegal aliens “storming” the polls on election day.  Sadly, if that were true, we would now be a Democratic state instead of a far, right-wing Republican state.

vote_idWhat the Democrats contend is that requiring voters to show an ID, in addition to their legal voter’s certificate, will keep many away from the polls because they are not drivers.  This includes a great number of senior citizens who, much to their credit, realize that their days as drivers are gone.  I feel like it amounts to a new poll tax on people who don’t drive.  They would be required to go to the DMV and pay for a state issued ID card, which is the same price as a driver’s license.  That spells poll tax to me.  Since you don’t drive, you must pay to vote.  But I digress because voting rights is an issue close to my heart.

The real topic of today’s discussion is the difference between the two political parties on defense issues.  One need only look at the laughable Republican budget submitted last week to see that the Grumpy Old Party thinks that our government should only spend its money on defense (offense), whereas the Democrats feel that it is in the nation’s best interest to expend monies on wide-ranging items of national need.  But money aside, there is still a huge difference around how Republicans see America’s role in the world as opposed to how Democrats see it.  The difference is between being the Sparta of our age or the Athens of our age.

Spartan Soldier

Leonidas of Sparta

Let’s take a look at these two ancient city states that we equally glorify in our cultural traditions.  Sparta was the great defender of the Ancient Greek world.  The rest of the Greeks could count on the Spartans to come to the rescue in times of foreign invasions.  There was a reason for this.  The Kingdom of Sparta based its culture on military training at the expense of all else.

Boys were taken from their homes at the age of eight to begin their military training.  And that training was rigorous to say the least.  Many did not survive it, perishing in the “life or death” ordeals that were part of the military curriculum.  That’s just the way that the Spartans looked at things: survival of the fittest.  Spartan infants who were born with any birth defect whatsoever were “exposed,” that is left out in the elements to die.  The Spartans seem to have had little respect for the sanctity of human life.

This attitude permeated their “political” vision of society.  There is a reason we use their name, Spartan, to describe a life devoid of pleasures and material excess.  It was their practice to deprive themselves of “material pleasures,” instead spending their money on war preparations.  Every man was a soldier for life, provided he survived the trials of military training into adulthood.  The prevailing thought was that any boy who could not achieve the goal of becoming a fearless warrior was not worth having and should die along the way.  What the Spartans demanded of themselves was “absolute” lockstep obedience to military authority, and their most fervent desire was to die in battle instead of living to a ripe old age and dying in their beds.  This  attitude made them the greatest warriors of their age.

Reconstruction of 5th Century BCE Acropolis

Reconstruction of 5th Century BCE Acropolis

The Athenians, Ancient Greece’s other Super Power, were of a different mindset.  They celebrated knowledge and art and exercised military might only when confronted with a military threat from outside their territory.  Then, they, too, would become fierce warriors defending their homeland.  Their legacy of gifts to the world are immeasurable.

The Acropolis at Night

The Acropolis at Night

A trip to the Greek National Museum in Athens is one of the greatest experiences of my life.  There you will find art from the Greek world stretching back as far as the 15th century B.C.  And one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life was when my taxi from the airport rounded a curve and the Parthenon appeared dead ahead like a bejeweled crown atop the Acropolis.  The feelings of that moment were only topped the next day when I literally walked the grounds amid the beautiful architecture that the ancient Athenians held most hallowed, their temple to the Goddess Athena.

Pallas Athena, Goddess of Truth

Pallas Athena, Goddess of Truth

Athena was not only the embodiment of the Greek Goddess of war, but also the Goddess of Wisdom, because the Athenians realized that entering into war needed to be considered wisely.  They never lost sight of the idea that entering into a war unwisely could result in the loss of everything they held dear.  And they trusted themselves as equal citizens to exercise a collective wisdom through democracy: perhaps their greatest gift of all to us.  So the citizens of Athens gathered atop a hill across from the Parthenon and exercised their right to vote.  I think it is interesting to note that this was not done up on the sacred grounds of the Temple of Athena, but in a nonsectarian location, allowing them their own consciences and free will to make decisions that affected everybody.  And once the vote was cast, that was the direction of travel until the next vote.

Of course, due to the immense size of our population and territory, we are unable to practice that form of pure democracy; but we do get the chance regularly to go to the polls and express our will as citizens.  And while Republicans would like to have “majority rule” on spiritual and minority racial issues, they don’t seem all that concerned with the idea of majority rule when it comes to political issues that affect the “direction of travel” that the people have chosen.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

In the past few weeks we have seen Dick Cheney reject the majority decision to close Guantanamo Bay, stop torturing war prisoners and begin to wind down our involvement in Iraq, all things that President Obama made clear during the campaign that he would do.  We also had that old devil Newt Gingrich demand that we start bombing North Korea immediately! And there is a continuing chorus from the right against the idea of actually speaking to other sovereign nations of the world.  They keep insisting that the only way to bring peace to the world is to threaten use of our superior military strength to force every other nation of the world to do as we say.

Michelle Bachmann, Evil Witch of the North

Michelle Bachmann, Evil Witch of the North

As if that weren’t enough evidence, we also had the ever entertaining and scary Michelle Bachmann (R-MN), who has called upon her constituency to “become armed and dangerous” to the Obama Administration.  Here in gun-crazy Texas there is actually a move in our state legislature to allow students to carry guns into schools, which leads into the NRA’s continuing defense of the right of every American to own and use an assault weapon.  And some guy whose name I didn’t catch appeared on Hardball yesterday claiming that the Obama Administration has “plans ready” to go out and take away everyone’s guns.  That one was new to me.  But he felt that Congresswoman Bachman was perfectly reasonable, and I would assume that he would also allow students to carry guns into classrooms, not only in Texas but nationwide.

It seems to me that the remnants of The Republican Party have fallen into a modern-day Spartan mentality where they want to go to war with everybody who disagrees with them, inside our nation and out, and impose some sort of Spartan rule on everyone who is not them.  No money need be spent for luxuries such as health care, schools, or clean air.  Now, I would like to give my brothers on the right who call themselves Republicans the benefit of the doubt, but I’m not hearing any voice from that side of the aisle denouncing the destructive rhetoric that their fringe espouses.  ANYBODY?  I’m listening.  (The sounds of silence.)


Athens at dusk

Sparta Today

Sparta today

I have one piece of historical evidence to offer to the macho Grumpy Old Party.  Go to Greece and walk amid the wonders of the Parthenon.  Look down upon the vibrant modern city of Athens that lays at its feet.  Then take a trip to Sparta.  There you will find almost nothing to mark the location of one of the most famous cities in antiquity—hardly one stone upon another.  Of course, neither city state was able to withstand the Roman invasion, but Athens lived to see another day; Sparta did not.  Which would you rather your descendents live in?  Athens or Sparta?


4 Comments leave one →
  1. morelightthanheat permalink
    9 April 2009 9:00 am

    Jack, from one history buff to another, a most interesting analogy.

    My spouse, who has worked in military aerospace for 40 years, has looked at Gates’ plan and found it quite reasonable. It addresses our current needs for effective tools in asymmetric conflicts while not ignoring the possibility of future conflict with a major power. It clearly uses a utility/efficiency test — cutting or phasing out those programs that are wildly over budget and behind schedule. Those who are screeching that it represents a gutting of the military, or even more wildly that it cuts the defense budget, are just plain lying.

    And perhaps most importantly looking into the future, it may well have the effect of producing more realistic cost estimates during the bidding process and minimizing “requirements creep” that plagues so many programs — the proposed Marine One helo is a prime example.

    Expect the jobs issue to be a huge one as Congress seeks to keep each and every program that reaches into their districts. If you haven’t watched “Why We Fight,” I highly recommend it. The defense contractors have carefully spread spending on every system around to as many states as possible to protect their butts.

  2. 17 January 2010 7:41 am

    I like your analogy, but to be perfectly honest, It doesn’t really work.

    The truth of the matter is that Athens, around the time of the Peloponnesian War, was and extremely expansionist state. The higher-ups in Athens wanted to extend their dominance over the entire Greek world and basically subdue all other Greek states under the Athenian Empire (much like modern American Imperialist attitude).

    Furthermore, Athenian “Democracy” excluded 90% of the people who lived in Athens, including non-citizen residents who were often born there, slaves, women, etc… Also, even most of the citizens of Attica could not vote because of the impracticalities of a Direct democracy.

    Sure Athens had Socrates. But he Admired Sparta (like all Athenian philosophers). And the Athenians killed him for his trouble.

    The Spartans were indeed single-minded in their military ways, but were ironically much less aggressive than their Athenian neighbors. Mostly they defended Greece from maniac Persians and kept their Helots in line. And let us not forget Thermopylae, which is really the only reason we have Greek philosophy anyway.


    Spacelord, a Laconophile

    • 18 January 2010 5:14 pm

      Esteemed Spacelord,

      Thanks for your comments. I cannot argue your points because they are well taken. However, the fact remains that the city state that devoted itself to military training and readiness is a clump of rocks on the ground, and Athens at least devoted some energy to things other than warfare and there is a modern city huddled around their architectural wonders today. I would add, also, that my great concern today is that, like Athens, we are embarking on the building of an empire, so we are in agreement on that point. I sometimes wonder if we have any palatable choices left as a nation. We are spoiled by the “spoils” of our imperial modern lifestyles much as the Romans were and I see little if any real chance that we are capable as a people of giving that up.

      All said, thank you so much for stopping by and adding your comments. It is always a pleasure to hear from an intelligent being, even if he is from “space.”

      Left-eyed Jack, a liberal and proud of it.


  1. Topics about Athens » Archive » Athens Or Sparta? « Left Eye on the Media

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