I thought it might be interesting to read Plato and Aristotle’s views on Sparta because their philosophical approach could be an interesting contrast with that of the historians. The impact these two great thinkers have had on our modern civilization is enormous as it relates to philosophical thought, religious philosophy, and the evolution of modern science. As a former philosophy student with a god-like reverence for these “fathers of philosophy”, I expected interesting insights. Unfortunately, what I found was disappointing, for reasons I will explain.
Plato discusses Sparta in Laws; Aristotle in Politics. Plato wrote Laws as his last work in 360 B.C. at age 67 or so. Aristotle wrote Politics in 350 B.C. at 34.
When you study the writings, it quickly becomes apparent there are factors influencing the writing that have to be considered before any definitive interpretation can begin. These factors relate to their biases as Athenians, the condition of Sparta when they wrote, and their knowledge of Sparta during its most influential period.
Plato was born during the Peloponnesian War and was twenty-three years old when it ended. Aristotle was thirteen when the Spartans lost the battle of Leuctra, ending their role as the superior military power of Greece. I contend that both Philosophers were biased against Sparta for several reasons. In the first place, as Athenians, they would naturally think their own political system was the best. Secondly, both of them (particularly Plato) would have reason to resent Sparta for the Peloponnesian War and its occupation of Athens. Thirdly, they both had reason to reject the Spartan political system as too radical because it stifled the kind of independent thought they believed was important to mankind. The Spartan system did not fit their concept of the ideal political system – it wasn’t a monarchy, oligarchy, or democracy.
At the time Plato and Aristotle were writing, Sparta was a second rate power and worse. The end of the Peloponnesian War had been a false victory (Pyrrhic?) for Sparta because it forced them to govern other Poleis. The Spartans proved to be bad managers and in a short time their control over the defeated enemies was lost. Moreover the Spartan system became degraded through the influence of Athens as its citizens became more interested in wealth and the trappings of luxury than the historical military ideal. The great Spartan army had become one of mercenaries rather than citizen soldiers. Obviously, Plato and Aristotle saw what was happening and blamed the failure of Sparta on its quirky culture. I don’t know what history the philosophers had access to which would have taught them about Sparta at its zenith (Herodotus for sure), but it certainly would have been more difficult to criticize the Spartan system during a time when it was the leading power in Greece and responsible for the protection of Athens as its ally.
More details on Plato and Aristotle's views of Sparta to follow.