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?

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    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. Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 7:32
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    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
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 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
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 7:40

4 Answers 4


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? Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 18:32
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    @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
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 22:13
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    @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. Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 23:07
  • At least Plato's political theory is related to the crisis following the defeat against Sparta, the civil war and subsequently the death of Socrates.
    – cipricus
    Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 17:30

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

  • This is a great anecdote. Would you happen to have a reference for it?
    – Demetrios
    Commented Mar 11, 2020 at 17:44
  • @Demetrios: Unfortunately not. I read it about 30 years ago.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Mar 11, 2020 at 19:36

The portrayal of Sparta and Athens as complete opposites masks the fact that neither city was one-dimensional.

In Athens there had always been a faction leaning towards oligarchy, the prime example of which being Kimon son of Miltiades, who even had his son named Lacedaemonian. Please bear in mind that Kimon, despite his pro-Spartan views, was in no way in the minority. He was voted to the office of general in consecutive years until about 464 BC by the democratic Athenian Assembly, which clearly indicates that he had the support of the majority of the demos. (The office of general was one of the few offices not allocated by lottery in the Athenian democracy). You need to be aware that in the eyes of the Athenians themselves, the birth of democracy in Athens owed a great deal to Sparta, as it had been with the help of a Spartan army that the Athenians had expelled the tyrant Hippias son of Peisistratus. Athenian democracy was not perceived by Athenians as the undisputedly preferred way of government. When it started it was a completely new experiment no one really knew how it could turn out.

Among the aristocrats it was Themistocles who first realized that – despite its flaws – democracy could confer a unique military advantage, as it permitted the operation of a sizeable naval fleet on top of the standing army of hoplite infantry. As the Athenian empire was built on the foundations of its mighty fleet of triremes, the numerous but poor democratic rowers were able to extract more and more political power from the aristocrats, which shifted the balance in their favour, particularly in the years after Pericles’ death. It is important to realize that during the Peloponnesian War it was the poor rowers who pressed for aggression in the hope of military pay and/or conquests. In contrast, those more inclined towards peace were the wealthy landowners who suffered from the Spartan incursions in the Athenian country side and had to carry also the financial burden of military operations. In the eyes of many, the demise of Athens was in large part due to the flaws of overly unbounded democracy.

In Sparta, despite the thoroughly militarized regime, the constitution had important democratic elements, most notably the Apella. Those with political rights were perfectly equal, as indicated also by their name “homoioi” (meaning "identical") and they amounted to about 9,000 at the time of the Persian Wars. It is true that the Spartan state was less liberal than Athens, but still within Sparta there were differing views. The regent Pausanias is likely to have been a proponent of political change, involving more rights for helots (see also this stack exchange question). At the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War the Spartans are clearly depicted as being divided between the peace-seeking, conservative faction led by King Archidamus – a personal friend of Pericles – and the war-like faction of the ephors.

In the eyes of the Athenians and Greeks in general, the Spartans were regarded as enemies of tyranny and proponents of self-government by land-owning hoplite citizens. Throughout the Greek world this was a very natural aspiration, it was the norm. It was the advent of democracy that first called this into question. The answer could not have been unanimous, not even in Athens.



Why did Athenian philosophers praise Spartan culture and laws, which would preclude philosophers like themselves?

The curious point is that all these philosophers(Socrates, Aristotle, Plato) were clearly products of the open and tolerant Athenian society in which they lived.

Athens was not an open tolerant society. Athens was often a dysfunctional mob which persecuted those in the minority and which ultimately tried to enslave all of Greece only to be thwarted by Sparta. Athen's most honest and thoughtful critics were it's philosophers. Philosophers like Socrates who Athens put to death (made him commit suicide). Like Plato who invented the Republic in an attempt to cure some of Democracies systemic flaws..(tyranny of the majority). Like Aristotle who left Athens after Plato died and joined and advised Alexander the Great who conquered Athens.

It is important here to distinguish between Democracies like Athens and Republics like many countries today. Republics by their nature restrict the freedom of the majority in order to safeguard the rights of individuals.

To rely on the American experience, as many Americans often conflate the two (Democracy and Republic) the American founding fathers had no doubt which form of government they were establishing and why..

'Understanding Power', Noam Chomsky All the Founding Fathers hated Democracy — Thomas Jefferson was a partial exception, but only partial.

  • John Adams “Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”

  • James Madison “Democracy is the most vile form of government. ... democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property: and have in general been as short in their lives as the have been violent in their deaths.”

  • Alexander Hamilton, Speech to Congress, June 21, 1788 “It has been observed by an honorable gentleman, that a pure democracy, if it were practicable, would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved, that no position in politics is more false than this. The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.”

  • George Washington
    “It always has been, and will continue to be, my earnest desire to learn and to comply, as far as is consistent, with the public sentiment; but it is on great occasions only, and after time has been given for cool and deliberate reflection, that the real voice of the people can be known.”

  • Thomas Jefferson The republican is the only form of government which is not eternally at open or secret war with the rights of mankind.”

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