“Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans I” by Plutarch

Plutarch's Lives

The Laws of Lycurgus

Long before Adam Smith developed the idea that commerce was necessary for the accumulation of wealth, Lycurgus, the legendary Spartan lawgiver, had used this principle to curb the avarice of his countrymen, and laid down a constitution for one of the most eminent commonwealths in the ancient world. The Spartan Constitution, according to Plutarch, was also the model for Plato’s Republic, in the regulation of marriage, conception and education of children by the state, etc.

After creating the senate to balance the power between the kings and the people, Lycurgus proceeded to eliminate inequality. For there was an extreme inequality among them, and their state was overloaded with a multitude of indigent and necessitous persons, while its whole wealth had centered upon a very few. To the end, therefore, that he might expel from the state arrogance and envy, luxury and crime, and those yet more inveterate diseases of want and superfluity.

1. Division of Land

A lot was so much as to yield, one year with another, about seventy bushels of grain for the master of the family, and twelve for his wife, with a suitable proportion of oil and wine. And this he thought sufficient to keep their bodies in good health and strength; superfluities they were better without.

2. Devaluation of Money

All gold and silver coin should be called in, and that only money made of iron should be current, a great weight and quantity of which was but very little worth; so that to lay up twenty or thirty pounds there was required a pretty large closet, and, to remove it, nothing less than a yoke of oxen. With the diffusion of this money, at once a number of vices were banished from Lacedaemon; for who would take by force, or accept as a bribe, a thing which it was not easy to hide, nor a credit to have, nor indeed of any use to cut in pieces? For when it was just red-hot, they quenched it in vinegar, and by that means spoilt it, and made it almost incapable of being worked.

3. Elimination of Commerce and Superfluous Arts

Iron was scarcely portable, neither would it pass amongst the other Greeks, who ridiculed it. So there was now no more means of purchasing foreign goods and small wares; merchants sent no shiploads into Laconian ports; no rhetoric-master, no itinerant fortune-teller, no harlot-monger or gold or silversmith, engraver, or jeweler, set foot in a country which had no money; so that luxury, deprived little by little of that which fed and fomented it, died away of itself. For the rich had no advantage here over the poor, as their wealth and abundance had no road to come abroad by, but were shut up at home doing nothing. By relieving the artisans of the trouble of making useless things, he set them to show their skill in giving beauty to those of daily and indispensable use.

4. Obligatory Communal Meal

They should all eat in common, of the same bread and same meat, and of kinds that were specified, and should not spend their lives at home, laid on costly couches at splendid tables, delivering themselves up into the hands of their tradesmen and cooks, to fatten them in corners, like greedy brutes, and to ruin not their minds only but their very bodies, which, enfeebled by indulgence and excess, would stand in need of long sleep, warm bathing, freedom from work, and, in a word, of as much care and attendance as if they were continually sick.

5. Music and Poetry

Nor was their training in music and poetry any less serious a concern than the emulous purity of their speech, nay, their very songs had a stimulus that roused the spirit and awoke enthusiastic and effectual effort; the style of them was simple and unaffected, and their themes were serious and edifying. They were for the most part praises of men who had died for Sparta, calling them blessed and happy; censure of men who had played the coward, picturing their grievous and ill-starred life; and such promises and boasts of valour as befitted the different ages.

Terpander and Pindar were right in associating valour with music. The former writes thus of the Lacedaemonians, “Flourish there both the spear of the brave and the Muse’s clear message, Justice, too, walks the broad streets.” And Pindar says, “There are councils of Elders, And young men’s conquering spears, And dances, the Muse, and joyousness.”

The Spartans are at the same time most musical and most warlike; The rhythmic movement of their marching songs was such as to excite courage and boldness, and contempt for death; and these they used both in dancing, and also to the accompaniment of the flute when advancing upon the enemy. In fact, Lycurgus coupled fondness for music with military drill, so that the over-assertive warlike spirit, by being combined with melody, might have concord and harmony. It was for this reason that in time of battle the king offered sacrifice to the Muses before the conflict, so that those who fought should make their deeds worthy to be told and to be remembered with honour.

The Masterstroke

It was certainly an extraordinary thing to have taken away from wealth, as Theophrastus observes, not merely the property of being coveted, but the very nature of being wealth. For the rich, being obliged to go to the same table with the poor, could not make use of or enjoy their abundance, nor so much as please their vanity by looking at or displaying it. So that the common proverb, that Plutus, the god of riches, is blind, was nowhere in all the world literally verified but in Sparta. There, indeed, he was not only blind, but like a picture, without either life or motion.

Sayings of Lycurgus

When asked why he allowed of such mean and trivial sacrifices to the gods, he replied, “That we may always have something to offer to them”.  (IOW, sacrifices should be made, not out of superfluity and pomp, but of continuous devotion to and exercise in virtuous living.)

Being consulted whether it were requisite to enclose the city with a wall, he wrote, “The city is well fortified which has a wall of men instead of brick.” (IOW, solidarity among all citizens is the best defense against invaders.)

Pericles’ Vision for Athens

Pericles’ vision for Athens was the exact opposite of Lycurgus’ for Sparta. Athens fell less than 30 years after Pericles’ death, whereas Sparta lasted almost 500 years after Lycurgus.

That which gave most pleasure and ornament to the city of Athens, and the greatest admiration and even astonishment to all strangers, and that which now is Greece’s only evidence that the power she boasts of and her ancient wealth are no romance or idle story, was his construction of the public and sacred buildings. They converted the overplus of its wealth to such undertakings, as would hereafter, when completed, give them eternal honor, and, for the present, while in process, freely supply all the inhabitants with plenty. With their variety of workmanship and of occasions for service, which summon all arts and trades and require all hands to be employed about them, they do actually put the whole city, in a manner, into state-pay;

On Classics

For every particular piece of his work was immediately, even at that time, for its beauty and elegance, antique; and yet in its vigor and freshness looks to this day as if it were just executed. There is a sort of bloom of newness upon those works of his, preserving them from the touch of time, as if they had some perennial spirit and undying vitality mingled in the composition of them.

On the Problem with Historiography

Some men devoted their whole lives to mockery, and were ready at any time to sacrifice the reputation of their superiors to vulgar envy and spite, as to some evil genius. … So very difficult a matter is it to trace and find out the truth of anything by history, when, on the one hand, those who afterwards write it find long periods of time intercepting their view, and, on the other hand, the contemporary records of any actions and lives, partly through envy and ill-will, partly through favor and flattery, pervert and distort truth.

On Natural Causes and Signs

In my opinion, it is no absurdity to say that both natural philosopher and diviner are in the right, one justly detecting the cause of this event, by which it was produced, the other the end for which it was designed. …Those who say that to find out the cause of a prodigy is in effect to destroy its supposed signification as such, do not take notice that, at the same time, together with divine prodigies, they also do away with signs and signals of human art and concert, as, for instance, the clashings of quoits, fire-beacons, and the shadows on sun-dials, every one of which things has its cause, and by that cause and contrivance is a sign of something else.

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