Bryan Caplan  

300 and Freedom

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Great Quip... Atlas Left a Big Tip...

While watching 300 for the second time today, I kept remembering David Stannard's description of America's Founding Fathers as "slaveholding philosophers of freedom." There's a lot of high-minded talk in 300 about free Greeks standing against Persian tyranny (not to mention quasi-Randian denunciations of "mysticism"!). But the reality is that Sparta was a totalitarian society built on a particularly brutal form of state slavery. Here's a choice bit from Plutarch:

To return to the Lacedaemonians [Spartans]. Their discipline continued still after they were full-grown men. No one was allowed to live after his own fancy; but the city was a sort of camp, in which every man had his share of provisions and business set out, and looked upon himself not so much born to serve his own ends as the interest of his country... And indeed one of the greatest and highest blessings Lycurgus procured his people was the abundance of leisure which proceeded from his forbidding to them the exercise of any mean and mechanical trade. Of the money-making that depends on troublesome going about and seeing people and doing business, they had no need at all in a state where wealth obtained no honour or respect. The Helots [Spartan slaves] tilled their ground for them, and paid them yearly in kind the appointed quantity, without any trouble of theirs.

Oh, and don't miss the Spartan custom of periodically murdering Helots for the fun of it.

The sad historical truth is that "freedom" is usually a code word for no more than "the right of our tribe to collectively rule itself."


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
John S writes:

I saw this movie yesterday, and it is awesome, but, even though I don't know much about greek history, those parts struck me as very strange. Thanks for informing.

john writes:

Yeah, there's no doubt that Frank Miller appropriated the Athenian concept of freedom and handed it over to the Spartans. Really, the message of the movie - "Freedom is worth fighting and dying for" is intended for our consumption, more than a reflection of the Spartan lifestyle.

But then it is, after all, an adaptation of a graphic novel, hardly the most "literal" interpretation of the past.

Some people see this movie and say "It's a pro-Iraq War propoganda film." Those people are liberals.

Some people see this movie and say "Let's go kill us some Persians!" Those people are conservatives.

Some people see this movie and say "If I were stuck in the same situation, I would rather fight and die than surrender to a tyrant." Those people are libertarians

:-)

Dennis Mangan writes:

Oh, so the Spartans didn't have illegal immigrants, publicly-funded universities, and Nancy Pelosi, therefore they weren't really free. Is that what you're saying? Does the fact that they stood up for their country mean nothing? And why exactly is "the right of our tribe to collectively rule itself" incompatible with "freedom". You must know Isaiah Berlin's essay, "Two Concepts of Freedom"; one of the concepts elucidated therein is precisely the concept denounced here.

Dennis Mangan writes:

Oh, yes, your regular denunciations of the Founding Fathers and the other men who made America great, and who laid the foundations for your own freedom and economic success, are pathetic.

eric writes:

Any group with a strong enough bond to protect itself from outside forces will have some collective organization (how else to form a phalanx?). And without the Greeks, were would we be, or would we even be?

Everyone was stupid back then: closed minded, superstitious. Random scribes may seem modern, but they are recollected selectively. The key is not what the Spartans did wrong, but what they did right, which created modern civilization. That it didn't come from Persia, or Africa, or America, is not prejudice, but factual. It was because supercilious Greeks gave us logic, philosophy, republicanism, etc. Don't be too hard on your father.

Nico writes:

I find it amusing how folks like Dennis Mangan can say feel so confident accusing somebody while being so plainly ignorant of the person's actual views.

Dennis, look- your suggestion that Prof. Caplan favors Nancy Pelosi and public universities betrays such a complete ignorance of the Professor's repeatedly states views as to be comical. I suggest taking 5 minutes to skim over your opponent's writings next time.

I'll also add that I find it unfortunate that anyone who doesn't fall in lockstep with the prevailing nationalist bullshit is immediately assumed to be a leftist.

Richard Pointer writes:

Dear Dr. Caplan,
I have always thought of the Spartans as the 'communist/autocratic' city state and the Athenians as the 'democratic/citizenicratic' city state.

That idea goes back to my grade school days.

My education now is in European, Russian and Eurasian studies.

The history of the Soviet Union during WWII reminds me a great deal of this history.

I guess it is just another layer of possible political analogy/analysis to put on top of all the others for this film.

Steve Sailer writes:

"The sad historical truth is that "freedom" is usually a code word for no more than "the right of our tribe to collectively rule itself.""

True. But the alternative often has been being ruled by another tribe. And without a few Spartan virtues, we will be ruled by another.

Tino writes:

Helots were not slaves, they were serfs.

It is not clear to me how much of Spartan lack of liberty was due to laws and how much due to (endogenously imposed) preferences. Having said that even if Spartans were collectivist they *were* part of an alliance that included the most individually free people on the planet.

PS.

Why does everyone assume Persians winning the war (Salamis) would have mattered much for western civilisation? What they usually did was tax gold and soldiers, and leave people alone. How much did greek civilization changed from almost 300 years of Persian occupation? Jewish civilisation? Were Ionian cities less culturally developed?

Tino writes:

"How much did greek civilization changed from almost 300 years of Persian occupation?"

I meant how much did EGYPTIAN civilisation change.

Martin writes:

If your own country's history is so repugnant to you, why do you still draw a paycheck with a slaveowner's name on it?

Or have you passed the event horizon that lies between all ideology and hypocrisy?

flix writes:

@Tino,
You are right, the Spartans were not fighting for freedom but rather for independance.

Steve,
But the alternative often has been being ruled by another tribe

How about that modern concept of

individual rights
on which your country was founded?

Matt writes:

At the risk of being labeled a conservative...

The US vs SU cold war was compared to Athens vs Sparta, with Athens being the democratic state and Sparta the militaristic/totalitarian one. The war versus the Persians, however, is not totally unlike the current war versus Islamic (and Persian!) terror.

The first was a war of ideology between members of the same civilization. The second was a war between two civilizations.

Wild Pegasus writes:

Sailer's capacity to turn any discussion into Mexiphobia is remarkable.

Having read much of ancient Greek philosophy and theater, I know that the "freedom" so heavily promoted by the Spartans in 300 is definitely not the freedom that we libertarians cherish. Spartan was a totalitarian society funded by slavery.

- Josh

Michael writes:

What I find interesting is that many of the great intellectuals of Athens--Socrates, PLato Aristophones--had great admiration for the totalitarian state of Sparta. This is of course particularly interesting when we note that intellectuals had great admiration for the Soviet Union. Indeed, it seems that intellectuals often have admiration for radical philosophies with the good Prof. Caplan providing a good example.

TGGP writes:

I believe in David Hackett Fischer's "Albion's Seed" it is discussed how the Puritans, Quakers, Cavaliers and Scots-Irish all had different conceptions of freedom that helped shape that which we have today. The one held by the slave-holding planter-aristocracy cavalier's has been likened to that of Ayn Rand, though it also had similarities with Sparta. I would say it was closest to the latter in the form of George Fitzhugh (though he himself would still have preferred Athens).

I do find it disappointing that Caplan degrades the founding fathers' advocacy of freedom (which could hardly be denied as a precursor to his own) again here. They can certainly be criticized, but should not be lumped in with Spartans. I would advise that Caplan read Thomas Sowell's "The Real History of Slavery", which discusses how aware some of them were that the ideas they espouses conflicted with owning slaves and the circumstances affecting how they came into possession of slaves in the first place and their manumission (or lack or delay of it) even if it does not justify them.

Mike Everett writes:
the reality is that Sparta was a totalitarian society...

The Greek states, Sparta included, were democratic in comparison to Persia. Even the Athenians, most democratic of all, owned slaves.

... built on a particularly brutal form of state slavery

Particularly brutal? Not in that era.

Bill writes:

Yeah, there's no doubt that Frank Miller appropriated the Athenian concept of freedom and handed it over to the Spartans.

Wrong. The Athenians (as stated above) had chattel slaves (like the antebellum U.S. south); they were arguably worse off than the serfs of the Spartans were.

Everyone was stupid back then: closed minded, superstitious.

Most people are still stupid, close-minded, and superstitious today. What's your point?

Helots were not slaves, they were serfs.

True. Quite like those of European feudalism. I doubt the average European lord treated his serfs better than the Spartans did, including murdering them on occasion.

How about that modern concept of individual rights on which your country was founded?

Maybe our nation was founded on this idea, but it has pretty much been lost. Most Americans seem to subscribe to the dictum: Individual rights for me, but not for thee.

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