Laconophilia was near universal among the important Athenian philosophers: Socrates, Aristotle, Plato and his followers - all praised Spartan culture and its laws, even after Sparta fell from glory consequent to the Battle of Leuctra.

The curious point is that all these philosophers were clearly products of the open and tolerant Athenian society in which they lived. Spartan society was reportedly the opposite of that. It's very hard to see an institution like the Akademia encouraged or even tolerated at all in Sparta.

How could these important Greek philosophers praise a society and system of law which would not tolerate people like themselves?

This question is especially poignant in regards to Plato, who was keenly interested in systems of governance and their effect on individuals living under their rule. Did he really not realize that someone like himself and his Akademia would not be accepted within the Spartan system?

Finally, it's ironic for all these brilliant philosophers to praise the values of Sparta, a city-state that had no philosophers of its own as a direct result of these values. Was this irony lost on them too?

  • 7
    Hi CuriousPericles and welcome to History SE. This is an interesting question but I think the section in your link following 'Philosophers' pretty much provides the answer (see 'Contrary views'). It is perfectly possible to praise large parts of a system without wanting to live under it, and there was much criticism of the Spartans themselves. If there is something which that paragraph doesn't address, you can edit your question to make it clear what it is that you feel is lacking or unexplained. – Lars Bosteen Jan 6 '19 at 7:32
  • In Athens, Philosophers- like Socrates- could be put to death. In Sparta, they'd have been regarded merely as good conversationalists. Why? In Athens, you had wealthy and ambitious people who formed cliques and involved the State in potentially profitable (for them) but also potentially ruinous (for everybody else) wars and alliances. – Vivek Iyer Jan 7 '19 at 18:24
  • The socratic philosophers lived after the Peloponnesian wars and the Athenian Empire. Athens was different. The first one, Socrates, was executed for his views. – John Dee Apr 8 '19 at 7:40

This question probably can't produce anything but opinion-based answers, but I'll take my shot. I would say two factors are at play here:

First, the lauding of extravagant praise on an "alien" system was often used by classical-era writers as a method of criticizing flaws in their domestic system. Tacitus' Germania is a typical example of this. Athens was marked by internal political conflict and corruption at the best of times; the Spartan system was viewed (externally, at least) as lacking these flaws.

Second, the Spartan system dramatically simplified economic and political relationships within the polity, and this probably appealed to thinkers who were trying to create systems of reason. Free societies are less amenable to rational analysis because the web of relationships within them is too dense to analyze. (See Hayek, The Use of Information in Society) When philosophers set about creating "rationally ordered" societies, they tend to start by using violence to dramatically simplify a society's internal relationships, to make them easier to control. The Spartan society would appeal to that type of mind, since it had already simplified itself.

  • I was not aware of this "heaping external praise to condemn internally" system. Do we know if Spartan society really was as excellent as these philosophers tend to portray it? For example, was it really free of corruption and internal conflict? – CuriousPericles Jan 6 '19 at 18:32
  • 4
    @CuriousPericles the idea is not to accurately portray the other society, but to put it as a mirror to criticize one's own society in a not-so-open way. You can even use a completely invented society to that effect (for example, see Jonathan Swift's Gulliver Travels). – SJuan76 Jan 6 '19 at 22:13
  • 2
    @CuriousPericles There was definitely internal conflict at times (for example between kings Kleomenes and Demaratos) but - as far as we know - it didn't lead to any kind of armed conflict until the late 3rd century. Corruption became a major problem after the Peloponnesian War, but again we don't know the extent of it before that. – Lars Bosteen Jan 6 '19 at 23:07

There was a story of an event that took place in Athens. A group of men were watching an athletic contest. An old man wandered into the auditorium, where all the seats were taken. Finally, one young man arose, and offered the old man his seat. The other young men in the vicinity applauded.

The old man said something like, "You Athenians know what to do, but it takes a Spartan to do it." That's how Athenians often felt about Spartans, especially after Thermopylae

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.