Libertarianism.org | George H. Smith discusses how the educational system of Sparta influenced later advocates of state education. How Plato (history’s first great philosopher) wasn’t a fan of educational freedom and Aristotle explicitly repudiated the notion of limited government.
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.
History’s first great philosopher wasn’t a fan of educational freedom.
The place is Athens during the fifth century BCE. Hippocrates greets his friend Socrates with exciting news: the renowned Protagoras —a sophist (teacher of wisdom) — is in Athens. Protagoras charges a considerable fee his educational services, but Hippocrates is happy to pay the celebrated teacher and sage.
But Socrates (as written by Plato) cautions his friend. A sophist is an educational entrepreneur — “a merchant or peddler of the goods by which a soul is nourished.” Socrates then articulates what is probably the first market-failure argument against free-market education in the history of western thought. Most consumers are poor judges of educational quality, so they need experts to dictate their educational choices.
We must see that the Sophist in commending his wares does not deceive us, like the wholesaler and the retailer who deal in food for the body. These people do not know themselves which of the wares they offer is good or bad for the body, but in selling them praise all alike, and those who buy from them don’t know either, unless one of them happens to be a trainer or a doctor. So too those who take the various subject of knowledge from city to city, and offer them for sale retail to whoever wants them, commend everything that they have for sale. But it may be, my dear Hippocrates, that some of these men also are ignorant of the beneficial or harmful effects on the soul of what they have for sale, and so too are those who buy from them, unless one of them happens to be a physician of the soul. If then you chance to be an expert in discerning which of them is good or bad, it is safe for you to buy knowledge from Protagoras or anyone else. But if not, take care you don’t find yourself gambling dangerously with all of you that is dearest to you. Indeed, the risk you run in purchasing knowledge is much greater than that in buying provisions….
Plato attributes this argument to Socrates, but it concurs with Plato’s own views. It exhibits Plato’s characteristic hostility to the sophists; indeed, his many allusions to the earnings of the sophists (thirty-one in all) suggest that their entrepreneurial skills contributed to Plato’s wrath. His castigation of the sophists, even to the point of calling them intellectual prostitutes, is hypocritical, considering that Plato also made his living as a professional teacher. This has led one Greek scholar to suggest that “the pressure of professional competition” underlay Plato’s disdain.
The sophists, wrote H.I. Marrou (A History of Education in Antiquity), “were professional men for whom teaching was an occupation whose commercial success bore witness to its intrinsic value and its social utility.” They traveled from city to city and engaged in collective tutoring that might extend over a period of several years. Sophists brought about a “veritable revolution” in Greek education, adapting well to the educational free market in fifth-century Athens.
Some sophists commanded large fees, but fierce competition lowered the fees of many teachers to the point where the Greek educator Isocrates could charge only one-tenth of the fee collected by the illustrious Protagoras. Predictably perhaps, Isocrates complained that “blacklegs” (i.e., competitors) were undercutting his price by more than half. Duly offended at the verdict of a competitive market, Isocrates alleged that those who appear to sell instruction “for much less than its value” were obviously peddling an inferior product.
Plato’s argument that average people are not competent judges of educational quality was closely linked to his dislike of Athenian democracy, which he regarded as little more than mob rule. Plato harbored a deep distrust of the common man in politics and in every activity that requires special training. Derogatory references abound in the Platonic dialogues to the “nondescript mob,” the “ignorant multitude,” “the great beast,” and so forth.
This is the major reason why Plato attacked the sophists and Athenian free-market education. Educational entrepreneurs give the public what it wants and so cater to ignorance and vulgar desires. As Plato says the Republic: “Each of these private teachers who work for pay, whom the politicians call Sophists, inculcates nothing else than these opinions of the multitude which they opine when they are assembled, and calls this knowledge wisdom.”
The sophist panders to “the motley multitude.” He must “give the public what it likes,” but will public demand coincide with what “is really good and honorable”? No, says Plato; any such notion is “simply ridiculous.”
Plato does not deny the ability of a free market to educate the people. Education flourished in Athens, but, according to Plato, this was not the right kind of education. Athens lacked the political unity of Sparta, and her people indulged in the corrupting luxuries that attend every society based on commerce. It was principally because of these flaws, Plato believed, that Athens had suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Sparta during the Peloponnesian Wars.
Moreover, there were no educational experts in Athens with the power to dictate her intellectual and cultural developments, so, according to Plato, she was degenerating into tyranny, which was widely regarded as the corrupted form of democracy. Specially educated guardians — men of spotless virtue trained in the art of governing a city-state — should rule virtually without limit. A true knowledge of philosophy is accessible only to this elite; philosophy “is impossible for the multitude.”
In the Republic, Plato launches his defense of a philosophic ruling class by stressing the need for specialization and the division of labor: “More things are produced, and better and more easily when one performs one task according to his nature, at the right moment, and at leisure from other occupations.” This may seem, as some historians have suggested, to anticipate Adam Smith’s discussion in the Wealth of Nation (1776), but Plato has something very different in mind. Unlike the spontaneous economic division of labor that will naturally occur in a free market, Plato is arguing for a compulsory division of labor in the political sphere. Plato’s reference to “one task according to his nature” is absolutely foreign to Adam Smith’s way of thinking.
Plato describes political rule as the “science of guardianship,” an exacting discipline that requires special knowledge and skills accessible only to a few. A stable society requires a system of rigorous training so those best suited to rule will be able to discharge their proper functions.
A stable system of law (including custom, a kind of unwritten law) demands that members of a society be imbued with uniform and unchanging values. And because even the slightest deviation in social behavior can influence character, rulers should discourage innovation. All innovations in song and dance should be prohibited. This can be achieved, in accordance with the Egyptian example, by sanctifying orthodox music and dance — i.e., by investing them with religious significance. This means that an innovator can be exiled or, should he resist, charged with impiety (a capital crime in Plato’s ideal society). Plato feared innovation so much that he even opposed new games for children: “[I]f children introduce novelties into their games, they’ll inevitably turn out to be quite different people from the previous generation; being different, they’ll demand a different kind of life, and that will then make them want new institutions and laws.”
Since a young child “takes the impression that one wishes to stamp upon it.” children’s stories must be censored: “Shall we, then, thus lightly suffer our children to listen to any chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers and so to take into their minds opinions for the most part contrary to those that we shall think it desirable for them to hold when they are grown up?”
Plato is just getting started. The purpose of censorship is to insure that only “the fairest lessons of virtue” are taught to children. Therefore, musical instruments must also be regulated. Certain instruments, such as the triangle and harp, should be banned. Even the crafts, such as painting and weaving, do not escape Plato’s censorial gaze. Once grant to the state the right to mold character and nothing except the most trivial can elude its grasp.
The jurisdiction of Plato’s rulers is staggering — medicine, physical exercise, even “law-abiding play.” But I needn’t list every detail so long as we understand the chain of reasoning employed here, to wit: Education, broadly conceived, includes everything that influences the character of human beings. Thus, if education is a vital and indispensable function of the state, then the state has a right – indeed, a duty –to supervise every aspect of a person’s life.
Because of Plato’s comprehensive notion of education, there is scarcely any aspect of human life that his state, with its stranglehold on education, does not control. If by “totalitarian” we mean a state with power that encompasses the totality of human thought and action, then Plato’s educational state is as totalitarian as they come.
Plato’s basic argument against free-market education would be repeated, in one form or another, by later champions of state education. Consider these remarks by the American sociologist Lester Frank Ward, who has been called the “father” of the American welfare state. In his influential two-volume work, Dynamic Sociology (2nd ed., 1897), Ward advocated a comprehensive system of state education because this would shield professional educators from “the caprices” of “heterogeneously minded patrons.”
The secret of the superiority of state over private education lies in the fact that in the former the teacher is responsible solely to society, As in private, so also in public education, the calling of the teacher is a profession, and his personal success must depend upon his success in accomplishing the result which his employers desire accomplished. But the result desired by the state is a wholly different one from that desired by parents, guardians, and pupils. Of the latter he is happily independent.
Ward’s argument for educational experts who will operate without interference by parents – ignorant, narrow-minded consumers who will neither understand nor desire the kind of education needed for the greater social good — would become a mainstay of the American Progressive movement during the early twentieth century. As much as Progressives prided themselves on basing their schemes for a corporate welfare state on the latest developments in social “science,” in this regard they were merely parroting an argument that had been defended nearly 2500 years earlier by Plato.
Aristotle (384-322 BCE) was born in Stagira, a small coastal town in the political orbit of Macedonia. He traveled to Athens while still in his teens and enrolled in Plato’s Academy, where he remained for almost twenty years. Plato’s influence on Aristotle was profound, but there were also significant differences. For example, Aristotle criticized Plato’s stress on uniformity; and, in response to Plato’s call to institute communal property among the guardians (the elite class of rulers), Aristotle defended private property with arguments that would be used for centuries thereafter.
Aristotle explicitly repudiated the notion of limited government that was defended by some of his contemporaries. He quoted the sophist Lycophron as saying that a government exists “for the sake of alliance and security from injustice” and that laws should serve as “a surety to one another of justice.” Aristotle disagreed. Rather than confine itself to this negative function — the enforcement of justice — the state should actively promote the good life.
In order to promote the good life and maintain social order, the state should inculcate civic virtue. Those “who care for good government take into consideration virtue and vice in states. Whence it may be further inferred that virtue must be the care of the state which is truly so called.” This concern with civic virtue was the basis for Aristotle’s plan of a comprehensive system of state education, one explicitly based on the Spartan model.
Like Plato, Aristotle did not distinguish between the voluntary sphere of society and the coercive sphere of the state (or city-state, in their case). Consequently, individual freedom was not important enough for Aristotle even to consider when recommending laws. As a philosopher who believed he knew what is needed for a good society, Aristotle argued that laws should be concerned with producing “the healthiest possible bodies in the nurseries of the state.” The age of marriage for women should be around eighteen; for men, thirty-seven. Marriages should take place during winter, and married couples must “render service to the state by bringing children into the world.” Pregnant women should engage in moderate exercise by being required to make daily pilgrimages to a religious shrine.
According to Aristotle, “There should certainly be a law to prevent the rearing of deformed children,” but infanticide should be against the law when used merely as a method of population control. Instead, laws should limit the size of the family. When this limit is exceeded the pregnant woman should be compelled to abort by inducing a miscarriage (provided “sense and life” have not yet begun in the embryo).
The physical health of children should be closely supervised. They should be habituated from an early age to endure cold weather; this will further their health and harden them “in advance for military service.” Superintendents of education should determine appropriate stories and games, which should be neither laborious nor effeminate. In short, “The superintendents of education must exercise a general control over the way in which children pass their time.”
The legislator must also prohibit corrupting influences. The use of bad language should be proscribed “everywhere in our state,” and those who speak or act indecently “must be punished accordingly.” (Younger violators should be subjected to physical punishment, whereas older violators should “undergo indignities of a degrading character.”) And by the same logic, indecent pictures, paintings, statues, and plays should also be prohibited. The list goes on and on.
So far there seems to be no essential difference between the fundamental approaches of Plato and Aristotle, but Aristotle made a distinction that Plato had not. Aristotle, unlike Plato, drew a distinction between a good man and a good citizen, and this distinction would have a profound influence on later philosophy.
According to Aristotle, our common nature as human beings generates a concept of the good man that applies to everyone, so Aristotle agreed with Plato that in an ideal state there would be no difference between the good man and the good citizen. But Aristotle goes on to say that in states as we actually find them, the civic virtues of a good citizen vary according to the nature of the state in question. The upshot of Aristotle’s argument is that one can be a good citizen while lacking some of the moral qualities of a good man.
Civic virtue covers a good deal of ground for Aristotle, but in his distinction between the good man and the good citizen there exists the potential argument that state education should be restricted to teaching the civic virtues essential to citizenship, thereby leaving a broad area of moral autonomy to the individual — a sphere in which the state should not intervene.
Here we need to jump ahead to the thirteenth century and the writings of Thomas Aquinas, who was principally responsible for integrating many of Aristotle’s ideas into Christian political philosophy. Following Aristotle, Aquinas distinguished the good citizen from the good man; one can possess the virtues necessary for citizenship (e.g., one can abstain from theft) while being morally deficient in other respects. Although Aristotle was the source of this doctrine, Aquinas drew conclusions from it that Aristotle had not.
According to Aquinas, the purpose of human laws is to “uphold the common good of justice and peace.” Coercive laws are necessary to regulate external behavior, but they cannot create virtuous men, because (as he wrote in Summa Contra Gentiles) “the main thing in virtue is choice, which cannot be present without voluntariness to which violence is opposed.”
In contrast to an earlier strain in Christian thought, according to which the repression and punishment of sin are fundamental purposes of government, Aquinas distinguished between two categories of vice, namely, those vices that violate the principles of justice and those personal vices that do not. As Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologica:
[H]uman law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Therefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain, and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained; thus human law prohibits murder, theft and the like.
I do not wish to suggest that Aquinas was a libertarian – far from it – but in contending that individuals have a moral “sphere of action which is distinct from that of the whole,” and in contending that actions in this sphere should be left to voluntary choice, even though vice might be the result (he went so far as to defend legalized prostitution), Aquinas established a conceptual framework that would later play a major role in the libertarian distinction between vices and crimes. For Aquinas, as one commentator has noted, human laws “did not make men good but rather established the outward conditions in which a good life can be lived.” This was a significant departure from the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, neither of whom left room for a sphere of personal autonomy that should be exempt from the power of the state.
In earlier essays I discussed the Spartan model of education, its influence on Plato and Aristotle, and Plato’s objections to free market education. In this essay I have outlined Aristotle’s views on education and explained how his distinction between a good man and a good citizen was modified by Aquinas.
Tracking the influence of ideas over many centuries is always a tricky enterprise, especially in the limited space available to me in this format, but we can now proceed to examine some typical examples of how the models I outlined were used by later advocates of state education.
The Spartan model was frequently invoked during the eighteenth century by those philosophers who believed that the fundamental purpose of education should be to “form valuable citizens to the state” (as Baron d’Holbach, a patron of the French philosophes, put it). With the rise of nationalism children were seen as future citizens and patriots whose education must be carefully supervised to insure proper results. “Thus,” wrote Charles Duclos in 1750, “it is patent that in Spartan education, the first task was to form Spartans. In the same way, the sentiments of citizenship must be inculcated in every state; among us, Frenchmen must be formed, and in order to create Frenchmen, we must first work to form men.”
Montesquieu, in his immensely influential Spirit of the Laws (1748), set the stage for a good deal of Enlightenment thinking about children, the state, and education. If a democratic republic is to survive, it must imbue its citizens with civic virtue – “a love of the laws and of our country,” a love that elevates the public interest above private interests. Montesquieu praised Spartan education for its ability to produce virtuous citizens, and he left no doubt that this should be the central task of education in a republic: “Everything therefore depends on establishing this love in a republic; and to inspire it ought to be the principal business of education.”
Another formative influence on Enlightenment thinking was J.J. Rousseau, another fan of the Spartan model. In his essay on Political Economy (1758), Rousseau echoed Plato’s objections to free market education. The state should not “abandon to the intelligence and prejudices of fathers the education of their children, as that education is of still greater importance to the State than to the fathers.” Public education is needed to insure that citizens “will do nothing contrary to the will of society.” Children should be taught “to regard their individuality in its relation to the body of the State, and to be aware, so to speak, of their own existence merely as part of that of the State….”
The argument that children belong to the state is found even among American champions of state education. In 1786, Benjamin Rush, an early advocate of American independence who became known as the “father” of American psychiatry, wrote: “Let our pupil be taught that he does not belong to himself, but that he is public property.” “A system of national education,” argued Noah Webster (of dictionary fame) in 1790, will “implant in the minds of American youth…an inviolable attachment to their own country.”
This theme dominated the thinking of many nineteenth-century American educators. Systems of public education, declared an Illinois superintendent of schools, should be “conceived, designed, and carried out with direct and persistent reference to the maintenance and stability of the existing political order of the government.” A New Hampshire superintendent of public instruction argued that it is proper for government to provide education “when the instinct of self-preservation shall demand it.” A U.S. commissioner of education maintained that the individual “owes all that is distinctly human to the state” and that government education is “a means of preservation of the state.” The government should provide education, echoed a California superintendent, “as an act of self-preservation”; children “belong not to the parents but to the State, to society, to the country.”
Similar reasoning carried into the twentieth century. According to a 1914 bulletin of the U.S Bureau of Education, “The public schools exist primarily for the benefit of the State rather than for the benefit of the individual.” This is the logic that justified compulsory attendance laws. As the New Hampshire Supreme Court put it in 1902:
Free schooling…is not so much a right granted to pupils as a duty imposed upon them for the public good. If they do not voluntarily attend the schools provided for them for the public good, they may be compelled to do so. While most people regard the public schools as the means of great advantage to the pupils, the fact is too often overlooked that they are governmental means of protecting the state from consequences of an ignorant and incompetent citizenship.
Perhaps the most chilling description of the role of state education came from the influential progressive sociologist Edward Ross (1866-1951):
To collect little plastic lumps of human dough from private households and shape them on the social kneading board, exhibits a faith in the power of suggestion which few people ever attain to. And so it happens that the role of the schoolmaster is just beginning.