Saturday, November 06, 2004

America, Kingship and the Spartans

Michael Moore worked with volunteers to make available video footage of election conditions in Ohio. He also provides "17 Reasons Not to Slit Your Wrists" and ends with the note:

Feeling better? I hope so. As my friend Mort wrote me yesterday, "My Romanian grandfather used to say to me, 'Remember, Morton, this is such a wonderful country -- it doesn't even need a president!'"


Historically, centralized societies tend to favor some form of kingship, and kings must be seen as such, either through popular choice, or diktat. The need of the king to prove his locus standi is accomplished by allying with regional and religious powers. In medieval Ethiopia, for example,

Ethiopian kingship, beginning with Axum and extending to the late Middle Ages, had a propensity to become more centralized and increasingly dominated by Christianity. Ethiopian kingship progressed from a completely feudal, traditional African institution to one that was dominated by Christianity and increasing centralization.


To guard against the creeping despotism that is a danger in these cases, especially of 'vaunting ambition', the Spartans adopted a model of dual kingship with limited powers, while allowing a flourishing oligarchy within the two ruling parties, each serving as a check on the other. Sparta was the only superpower in the region, until the emergence of the Athenians after their internal struggles were resolved.

The Spartan model might appeal to a conservative viewpoint, with its emphasis on social rules, military training

Shortly after birth the child was brought before the elders of the tribe, who decided whether it was to be reared: if defective or weakly, it was exposed in the so-called Training of Citizens.

Thus was secured, as far as could be, the maintenance of a high standard of physical efficiency, and thus from the earliest days of the Spartan the absolute claim of the state to his life and service was indicated and enforced.

Spartiates were absolutely debarred by law from trade or manufacture, which consequently rested in the hands of the perioeci, and were forbidden (in theory) to possess either gold or silver, the currency consisting of bars of iron, thus making thievery and foreign comerce very difficult and discouraging the accumulation of riches. Wealth was, in theory at least, derived entirely from landed property, and consisted in the annual return made by the Helots who cultivated the plots of ground allotted to the Spartiates.


While American representative democracy might be similar in form to Athenian direct democracy, nothing could be further from the truth. The perpetual state of war in the Athenian republic caused its failure. Further, Athens was hated by its allies, and imposed a dictatorial 'Warsaw-pact' like regime, as opposed to the American benevolent hegemony that characterizes American global relations.

Comparisons between the American experience & Athens/Sparta can be found in War and Democracy: A Comparative Study of the Korean War and the Peloponnesian War edited by David McCann et. al. A review of this book by Karl Walling of the Naval War College notes,

So why compare these two wars? The reason is that they were (and were perceived to be) largely struggles between different kinds of societies—democratic Athens versus authoritarian Sparta in Greece; and the liberal-democratic United States versus international communism in Korea, led by the Soviet Union with assistance from China. These were tests of democracy during great struggles for hegemony, with Athens ultimately failing that test after twenty-seven years of war, and the United States surviving the challenge after forty-odd years of the Cold War. Why did one democracy succumb and the other prevail?

Foundations of an answer lie in this book’s five sections, which respectively address the character of democracy at war, the nature of these different wars, the dilemmas of small states during struggles between major powers, the dynamics of populism and civil-military relations in these conflicts, and the culture of democracy at war.
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This eclectic mix of essays reminds us that democracy can be both an asset and a liability to its votaries in time of war.


Different views by different men - all guardians of the light, of democracy. A shining example in history was King Leonidas of Sparta, who defended Sparta's independence against the Athenians


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