300 and Freedom
By Bryan Caplan
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.”