How Spartan were the Stoics?
[At the moment this is still a draft, based on my rough notes but this seems to be an aspect of Stoicism that arouses much interest and controversy, so I’ve put them together in a blog article for others to comment upon. I’m aware of a few more references, I’ve yet to incorporate but please let me know of any other relevant information.]
Several modern scholars have argued that the Stoics were influenced by Spartan society. However, it must be emphasised from the outset that the evidence in this area is sparse and interpretation necessarily requires a degree of speculation. The sources upon which we must draw are also not 100% reliable. Nevertheless, there are a handful of quite striking references to the influence of Sparta on Stoic thought, which are worth considering.
The Spartans were famous for the fearsome training regime (agôgê) that they put all of their citizens through from age seven until they were aged about thirty, with the goal of making them ideal citizens and soldiers. The boys slept in a mess hall, on crude straw mats, and were given only a single garment, a cloak, to wear. They were trained to tolerate hunger and endure pain and physical discomfort, including being ritually beaten, and undertook physical exercise and training in the ancient martial arts. Certain key aspects of this notoriously severe “education” or training in the virtues of self-discipline and courage appear to have been emulated by the Cynic philosophers, and subsequently by the Stoics, as we’ll see below. You may have seen the highly-stylised (fantasy) portrayal of the agôgê in the opening scenes of the Hollywood film 300, about the famous Spartan battle of Thermopylae. When the Stoics met to debate philosophy at the Stoa Poikile, they did so in view of a painting of the Battle of Oenoe, between Athenians and Spartan warriors, which decorated the porch.
Sparta was also known as Lacedaemon, from which comes the adjective “laconic”, which we still use today to mean an artfully terse manner of speech. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was renowned for his abrupt style of speech, and notoriously compressed syllogistic arguments, and early Stoics perhaps sought to imitate the Spartans in this respect. Intriguingly, during a courtroom speech in which he criticises his friend Cato, the Roman statesman and Academic philosopher Cicero explicitly attributed Cato’s Stoic practices to “the Spartans, the originators of that way of living and that sort of language” (Pro Murena, 74). Cicero appears to take it for granted that his audience, including Cato, the “complete Stoic”, will recognise his depiction of Stoicism originating in the Spartan way of life as being relatively uncontroversial.
The Spartan Constitution
Zeno was a Phoenician from the town of Citium who arrived in Athens and founded Stoicism there. The neighbouring city-state of Sparta was at that time an enemy of the Athenian state. However, the Stoics appear to have admired the Spartans and Zeno’s account of the ideal Stoic Republic is thought by modern scholars to have been modelled primarily on ancient Sparta (Schofield, 1999). After being shipwrecked near Athens, Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, read about Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and was converted to the life of a philosopher. He therefore became a follower of the famous Cynic Crates, although he later studied also in the Platonic Academy under the scholarch Polemo. Zeno lived as a Cynic and embraced voluntary hardship and poverty, something which he apparently continued after founding the Stoa some twenty years after his own training in philosophy had commenced. Later, the Roman Stoic Epictetus would sum this aspect of Stoicism up neatly in his famous slogan: “Endure and renounce.”
Plato, Xenophon, and the Cynics also appear to have admired many aspects of Spartan society. Indeed, Diogenes the Cynic was known so much for praising the Spartan way of life that it’s said an Athenian once asked him sarcastically why he didn’t go and live among them instead, to which he replied that a doctor doesn’t carry out his role among the healthy (Anthology, 3.13). These important precursors may have influenced the Stoic interest in Sparta. According to the scholar P.A. Brunt, in his Studies in Stoicism (2013), “Old Sparta apparently evoked Stoic admiration, because of the strict and simple life prescribed by Lycurgus” (p. 287).
Chrysippus referred to men “who had reached a certain stage of progress and had come to this stage in certain disciplines (agôgai) and habits” . Agôgê was the subject of a work by Cleanthes (SVF I 481). The use of the term naturally brings to mind the Spartan agôgê , which Sphaerus in one at least of two books on Sparta, and which he helped to revive under Cleomenes III. Persaeus too wrote about Sparta, discoursing on their common meals. It seems probable that both of them shared, very probably with similar reservations, in Plato’s approval of the Spartan system of training the young for virtue. (p. 25, references omitted)
In his book, The Stoic Idea of the City (1999) Malcolm Schofield argues in a similar manner that Zeno’s Republic appears to have been heavily influenced by Cynic ideas about the simplicity and harmony of the ideal human community, and that Stoics appear to have looked to the idealised accounts of Spartan society as an inspiration in this regard. Schofield concludes that Zeno’s Republic was a somewhat more Spartan-influenced response to Plato’s famous dialogue of the same name. In the ideal Stoic Republic, men and women wore similar clothing, and there would be no need for money, temples, or law courts. However, there’s some evidence that Zeno, following the Cynics, envisaged the ideal society as having no need for weapons, which seems remarkably un-Spartan.
The Stoics appear to have believed that the ideal Republic was based on mutual love between wise friends, living in complete harmony with one another. However, perhaps more controversially, Schofield suggests that the early Stoics looked favourably on Spartan pederasty, something which may have contributed to the suppression of Zeno’s Republic and other writings by later generations of Stoics.
Zeno, like the Spartans, makes love a distinctive element in his political system. But it is a radically sublimated form of love (as in Plato); it is homosexual, but probably it can equally be heterosexual; and it has no connection with war. (Schofield, 1999, p. 56)
Although this perhaps involved some kind of intimate relationship between older and younger males, as in Sparta, it’s not clear whether it was consummated or not. The Spartans appear to have believed that intimate relationships between young men encouraged them to become greater warriors, although several ancient sources concur that this relationship was non-sexual and Zeno’s “dream” of the ideal Stoic Republic may likewise have entailed a form of “Platonic” love between older and younger males, perhaps like the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades.
The Stoics, like many philosophers, appear to have particularly admired Lycurgus (820 – 730 BC) the semi-mythical founder of the Spartan constitution and the agôgê. The Academic philosopher Plutarch wrote a biographical account of Lycurgus in which he claimed the Spartan had seen very clearly that the welfare of any individual depends upon the concord and virtue in his city, which inspired him to develop the Spartan laws and constitution (Lycurgus, 31). However, Plutarch adds that this was the basis of various philosophical accounts of the ideal state, such as Plato’s Republic, and the ideal republics described by Diogenes the Cynic and Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, in his own Republic, which appears to have been the central text of early Stoicism. Persaeus and Sphaerus, two of Zeno’s most important students, also both wrote books called On the Spartan Constitution. Sphaerus also wrote thee volumes entitled On Lycurgus and Socrates, about the ancient founder of Sparta’s constitution. Sphaerus was the tutor of King Cleomenes III of Sparta, in his youth. He assisted Cleomenes’ attempts to restore the agôgê after it had perhaps fallen into some sort of decline (Brunt, p. 91).
The Spartan agôgê
In his life of the Spartan legislator Lycurgus, Plutarch describes the way in which Spartan children were brought up: once they reached the age of twelve, they lived without any tunic, received only one cloak for the whole year, and slept on mattresses which they themselves had made out of reeds, The model of this style of life was strongly idealised by the philosophers, especially the Cynics and Stoics (Hadot, 1988, p. 7).
Hadot says that this idealisation was something of a “mirage” because Sparta was such a warlike, totalitarian state, where all citizens were trained to serve the state, whereas the Cynics and Stoics considered personal morality the goal of life.
From Spartan education, they retained only its training for perseverance, its return to a natural life, and its contempt for social conventions. (Hadot, 1988, p. 8)
However, following Socrates, philosophers of the Cynic and Stoic schools, which some ancient authors place in the same “succession” or lineage, dressed in a similar manner, wearing the famous rough, grey, “philosopher’s cloak”, which Hadot believed was Spartan in origin.
One might add that the philosophers’ cloak (Greek tribôn, Latin pallium) worn by the young Marcus Aurelius was none other than the Spartan cloak, made of coarse cloth, that had been adopted by Socrates, Antisthenes, Diogenes, and the philosophers of the Cynic and Stoic tradition. (Hadot, 1988, p. 8).
In other words, this interest in Sparta may span the whole history of Stoicism, enduring for five centuries, from Zeno its founder to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the last famous Stoic, who even dressed in a similar manner, perhaps in emulation of the Spartans.
The Roman Stoics
The most highly-regarded Stoic teacher of the Roman imperial period, Musonius Rufus, says that a youth brought up “in a somewhat Spartan manner”, who is not accustomed to soft living, will be more able to absorb the Stoic teachings that death, pain, and poverty are not evils and their opposites are not good (Lectures, 1). He links this to an anecdote about Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa, and a Spartan boy, who had been trained well for virtue and therefore easily grasped Stoic philosophy at a practical level. Elsewhere he tells his students that Spartan boys who are whipped in public without shame or feelings of injury set a good example for Stoics, insofar as philosophers must be able to scorn blows and jeering, and ultimately even death (Lectures, 10).
He called the ancient Spartans the very best of the Greeks and praised Lycurgus as one of the greatest of all law-makers, because of the austere lifestyle he instigated for Spartan youths, which he encourages his own students to emulate, particularly noting those aspects most akin to the tough Cynic lifestyle, often admired by Stoics.
Consider the greatest of the law-givers. Lycurgus, one of the foremost among them, drove extravagance out of Sparta and introduced thriftiness. In order to make Spartans brave, he promoted scarcity rather than excess in their lifestyle. He rejected luxurious living as a scourge and promoted a willingness to endure pain as a blessing. That Lycurgus was right is shown by the toughness of the young Spartan boys who were trained to endure hunger, thirst, cold, beatings, and other hardships. Raised in a strict environment, the ancient Spartans were thought to be and in fact were the best of the Greeks, and they made their very poverty more enviable than the king of Persia’s wealth. (Musonius Rufus, Lectures, 20)
Musonius’ most famous student was Epictetus, who became an influential Stoic teacher in his own right. Indeed, Epictetus is the only Stoic teacher whose teachings survive today in book-length, although half of the Discourses recorded by his student Arrian are lost, We have a fragment from the anthologist Stobaeus in which either Epictetus or Musonius Rufus, the attribution is unclear, is seen also to praise the personal example set by Lycurgus:
Who among us is not amazed at the action of Lycurgus the Spartan? When a young man who had injured Lycurgus’ eye was sent by the people to be punished in whatever way Lycurgus wanted, he did not punish him. He instead both educated him and made him a good man, after which he led him to the theatre. While the Spartans looked on in amazement, he said: “This person I received from you as an unruly and violent individual. I give him back to you as a good man and proper citizen.” (Stobaeus, 3.19.13)
The last famous Stoic, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was largely influenced by the teachings of Epictetus in his practice of Stoicism. Although he does phrase it in an ambiguous manner, at the start of the Meditations, Marcus appears to praise someone called Diognetus for introducing him, in his youth, to a lifestyle based on the agôgê “and to set my heart on a pallet-bed and an animal pelt” (Meditations, 1.6). Again, this appears to suggest that, as a Stoic, he sought to emulate certain aspects of the Spartan training regime and lifestyle, presumably as a means of training himself in the virtues of courage (or endurance) and self-discipline.