View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Friday, October 24, 2003

Sparta and Athens

The conflict between Sparta and Athens occupies a central place in Western cultural mythology. The symbolism inherent in the battle between the cultured, philosophical Athenians, and the militaristic Spartans is tremendously powerful. We still, in some sense, mourn Athens's loss, and the eventual decline of democracy that came with it. In some sense, the wars of the 20th Century were a reversal of that war, with the democracies defeating the Spartan, militaristic and dictatorial ideologies of fascism and communism. And can there be any doubt that a society that celebrates suicide bombers is today's Sparta?

And yet, those pictures of the Israeli soldiers crying over their comrades' deaths looked for all the world like a family mourning. Israel wants to be Athens, but it has had to be Sparta, too. Kids, 18-year-olds, serve a mandatory 2-year stint with real guns in some of the most hostile territory imaginable. Compare the average American 20-year-old with the average Israeli of the same age. (Many of them still only have the civilian experience of 18-year-olds. I had one Israeli freshman at DU come to me with help on an Excel project, and she had never used Excel before. She was seriously, if needlessly, reconsidering her interest in business because she felt handicapped by this.)

But these people, in this country where everyone is a soldier until he's 50, still produce all the elements of a vital culture. Books people want to read, new technologies people want to buy, medicines and treatments they want for themselves. To be a certified tour guide in Israel is not merely to master 3500 years of history, but also the local geology, zoology, and botany. Their neighbors have forced them to be Sparta, but they only do so in the service of Athens.

Aside: this characterization is a little unfair to Sparta. Sparta was never ruled by one man, or even by a static oligarchy, but by a rotating hierarchy, in which all men over a certain age were able to participate to one degree or another. In short, they were not an unmixed totalitarian state, although they were highly militaristic - they just represent that now in our imagination. Likewise, the Athenians ruled over an empire of unequal partners that eventually threw them off, allying with the Spartans and the Pesians to defeat them. But they promoted democratic elements in their neighbors, and have come to represent enlightenment and culture to us. If American politics is played within the 40-yard-lines of life, these two societies probably represented the 25- or 30-yard-lines of their world. The Soviet Union, Hitler, and Mao were playing in the shadow of their own goalposts.

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