George H. Smith discusses how the educational system of Sparta influenced later advocates of state education.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

Around the twelfth century BCE, Dorian tribes, warlike nomads of uncertain origin, settled in southern Greece. By 800 these tribes had established political dominion in the territory of Laconia. The resulting state, Lacedaemon, was ruled by Sparta, a powerful city in the Eurotas Valley.

Before long the Spartans turned their gaze to the neighboring land of Messenia. After two long and arduous wars the Spartans conquered the Messenians and enslaved them. Known as “Helots,” these slaves were assigned with parcels of land to individual Spartans, thereby supporting the Spartans and freeing them for other activities. Helots were treated with extreme brutality. Each year Sparta ceremoniously declared war against them, which made the murder of Helots a permissible act of war.

The specter of a Helot revolt was ever‐​present. An earthquake in 464 nearly devastated Sparta, and the ensuing uprising was barely contained. Thucydides records the Spartan fear of the Helots during the Peloponnesian Wars (431–404), when “fear of their numbers and obstinacy” guided Spartan “policy at all times having been governed by the necessity of taking precautions against them.” This persistent threat helped to transform Spartan culture into an austere militaristic culture in which individuals were compelled to serve the state.

Sparta subordinated the individual to the demands of the state. This would be unremarkable were it not for the praise that Sparta would later receive from some seventeenth‐ and eighteenth‐​century political philosophers who wanted to establish a republican form of government.

We might wonder what lesson political philosophers with libertarian tendencies thought they could learn from the Spartan model, other than viewing it as a negative model that teaches us which policies a free society should avoid. For what, then, was Sparta praised? Certainly not for its cultural or philosophical achievements. As the Greek historian Werner Jaeger put it, “[N]o Spartan name occurs in the long roll of Greek moralists and philosophers.” Jaeger continued:

Sparta has an unchallengeable place in the history of education. Her most characteristic achievement was her state; and the Spartan state is the first which can be called, in the largest sense, an educational force.

As post‐​Renaissance intellectuals looked back on Sparta, many saw something other than brutal totalitarianism. They saw a planned, well‐​ordered society where individual goals were subordinated to the common good, a society where education was controlled by the state and where civic virtues were instilled in children at an early age.

Plato and Aristotle, though by no means unqualified admirers of Sparta, endorsed the Spartan principle of state education, and their endorsements played major roles in elevating the Spartan model to a pride of place in the modern era. Plato’s blueprint of an authoritarian society called for a state system of centralized education supervised by a minister of education. “In this conception,” wrote the Greek scholar Ernest Barker, “Plato was definitely and consciously departing from the practice of Athens, and setting his face towards Sparta.” Plato’s aim was “to combine the curriculum of Athens with the organization of Sparta.”

Plato’s view of the relationship between the child and the state reflects the Spartan influence, as we see in this passage from The Laws. “Education is, if possible, to be, as the phrase goes, compulsory for every mother’s son, on the ground that the child is even more the property of the state than of his parents.”

Aristotle also preferred the Spartan approach over Athenian free‐​market education. Although Aristotle criticized Plato’s obsession with uniformity in some respects, he agreed that uniformity in education is good because it promotes civic virtue: “The citizen should be molded to suit the form of government under which he lives,” wrote Aristotle, which means that “education should be one and the same for all….” Aristotle rejected the educational laissez‐​faire of Athens in which “everyone looks after his own child separately, and gives them separate instruction of the sort which he thinks best.”

Aristotle clearly understood the broader philosophical underpinnings of the Spartan model:

Neither must we suppose that any one of the citizens belongs to himself, for they all belong to the state, and are each of them a part of the state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole. In this particular as in some others the Lacedaemonians are to be praised, for they take the greatest pains about their children, and make education the business of the state.

A Latin translation of Aristotle’s Politics appeared around 1260. Plato’s Republic, previously known to Western Europeans second‐​hand, became available in the mid‐​fifteenth century and sparked a flurry of interest among Renaissance humanists.

Plato and Aristotle were not the only classical writers to infuse a passion for the Spartan model into European culture. Another important source was the Greek biographer Plutarch. His book Parallel Lives was translated into Latin in 1470 and later into English and other languages. As Elizabeth Rawson noted in The Spartan Tradition in European Thought, Plutarch “was one of the chief sources of laconism [admiration of Sparta] for the Renaissance, when the Parallel Lives were the staple reading of schoolboys and statesmen.”

Plutarch lived centuries after the events he wrote about, so the accuracy of his account is open to question. But the Sparta known to Renaissance humanists and later philosophers was the Sparta described by Plutarch. And that account, accurate or not, is the one that influenced generations of European intellectuals.

According to Plutarch, Spartan laws were originally framed by Lycurgus – a possibly mythical figure who would become the prototype for various utopian schemes in which a single man, a wise lawgiver, invents and implements the legal system of an ideal society.

Plutarch tells us that Lycurgus instituted a kind of communism, including the equal division of land. Lycurgus also prohibited using gold and silver as money, so “that there might be no odious distinction or inequality left amongst” the Spartans. An iron money was substituted which eliminated sundry vices from Sparta, “for who would rob another of such coin?”

Lycurgus outlawed all superfluous luxuries and arts, but this prohibition, Plutarch astutely notes, was unnecessary. Other city‐​states ridiculed the Spartan iron money and refused to accept it, thereby halting foreign trade. Consequently, “luxury, deprived little by little of that which fed and fomented it, wasted to nothing and died away of itself.” (This concern with “luxury” would become a major topic of discussion and debate within the ranks of eighteenth‐​century libertarian thinkers.)

Plutarch describes Sparta “as a sort of camp” in which “no one was allowed to live after his own fancy” but was required to serve “the interest of his country” instead. Lycurgus understood that a rigorous and comprehensive system of state education, by imprinting one’s duty to serve the state “on the hearts” of Spartans from an early age, was the “best lawgiver”

As part of his grand educational scheme, Lycurgus instituted state control over marriage — an idea that found favor with Plato and later utopian writers. “Lycurgus,” Plutarch explains, “was of a persuasion that children were not so much the property of their parents as of the whole commonwealth.” The case for eugenics follows logically from this premise. After all, Plutarch argues, the owners of dogs and horses take special care to procure fine breeding, so why should women — who “might be foolish, infirm, or diseased” — be allowed to choose their own mates and thereby endanger the quality of state‐​owned children?

Spartan boys were taken from their parents at age seven and placed under the close supervision of government educators. “The whole course of Spartan education was one continued exercise of a ready and perfect obedience.”Although many later advocates of state education rejected the militaristic and totalitarian emphasis of Spartan education, they were enthusiastic about the potential implicit in the Spartan model. They saw no reason why the same means could not be adjusted and employed so as to serve ends other than obedience to a totalitarian state. If a system of state education were to focus on the civic virtues needed for a free society, such as a respect for individual rights and obedience to a limited government, then surely it would be a good thing.

Sparta and Athens became competing models of education, especially for those Enlightenment intellectuals who did not want to leave education under the control of the Catholic Church and other religious authorities. The contrast between the Athenian model and the Spartan model could not have been more clearly delineated. Athens, with its brilliant intellectual and cultural achievements, enjoyed a free market in education. Sparta, an intellectual and cultural wasteland, was dominated by a system of state education.

For modern libertarians the choice between these two models would seem virtually self‐​evident. But this was not so for some of our predecessors, who thought that the Spartan model, suitably revised, would provide a better foundation and more security for a free society than educational laissez‐​faire ever could. This curious anomaly in the history of libertarian thought has rarely received the attention it deserves.