The Dream of Equality

I have been reading (yes, we are back to commenting on books!) Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (yes, Grecian is a word — you cannot fault George W. Bush for that), the version  translated by John Dryden, revised by Arthur Hugh Clough and published as part of the series Great Books of the Western World by the fine folks at the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1954. It’s one of the many books I was able to clean — with official approval — from the weeding of the JKM Library over the last couple of years. My set is mostly complete — I’m missing one volume of Shakespeare (I already have the complete Shakespeare anyway) and another volume. I forget which one, and they aren’t in front of me right now.

I think it’s Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Volume 44 of the 1954 set.

At any rate, I am reading Plutarch. I had the Penguin classics of Plutarch, but their editions ripped Plutarch’s lives from their parallel context — Romulus and Thesius, for example, were separated, and placed in volumes entitled “Founders of Rome” or “Founders of Greece” or some such. And not as Plutarch, as Greek historian and author living during the time of the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors, the Flavians and the early Antonines, for the most part intended.

I like reading books of ancient history written by the ancients themselves. There is a different approach to truth, the presenting of multiple stories without attempting to find which story is “factually correct.” It’s more about story and myth, about poetry and meaning, rather than fact. Facts rarely tell their own story. They must be chosen and discarded, and then carefully edited and woven into something that tells us who we are. Or wish to be.

What interests me today is Plutarch’s life of Lycurgus, the creator of Spartan law and organization. He is set side-by-side with Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius. Lycurgus is credited, in Plutarch’s telling, with creating a tightly organized society in which there was no gold and silver money (just bars of iron tempered in vinegar to make them difficult to alter), women were effectively the common property of all men, children we the property of the state, encouraged sexual relations between young men and older ones, and the society devoted itself to war and war making. The goal, Plutarch states, is social equality and leisure, so that the citizens of Sparta could pursue “higher things” than commerce. He writes:

It need not be be said that upon the prohibition of gold and silver, all lawsuits immediately ceased, for there was now neither avarice nor poverty amongst them, but equality, where everyone’s wants were supplied, and independence, because those wants were so small. All their time, except when they were in the field [at war], was taken up by the choral dances and festivals, in hunting, and in attendance on the exercise-grounds and places of public conversation. (p. 45)

Life was strict for Spartans, but that austerity had a purpose, allowing Spartans to spend “their leisure rationally in conversation” and “passing judgment on some action worth considering; extolling the good, and censuring those who were otherwise, and that in a light and sportive manner, conveying, without too much gravity, lessons of advice and improvement.” (p. 45)

Lyrcurgus was not without a sense of humor, and he did encourage laughter during the communal meals Spartans shared “as a sort of sweetmeat to accompany their strict and hard life.” But the purpose of Spartan life was clear:

[Lyrcurgus] bred up his citizens in such a way that they neither would or could live by themselves; they were to make themselves one with the public good, and, clustering like bees around their commander, be by their zeal and public spirit carried all but out of themselves, and devoted wholly to their country. (p. 45)

What struck me most about Plutarch’s description of Spartan society in the first quote above is just how similar it is to some very early conceptions of what true communism would look like. (They may have even been Marx’s conceptions.) A society in which all men labor and leisure. Minus the slavery of the Helots, of course, whose actual labor probably allowed for Spartan society to even function. (Plutarch doesn’t describe the situation of the Helots in his life of Lycurgus.)

This is an old dream, of a world in which there is no avarice, no clamor for lucre or wealth, in which human beings are equal and there is meaningful work for all and leisure for all. It was, I think, the dream of most communists — when they spoke of the end result of liberation, of ending man’s exploitation of man, this was the liberation they spoke of. Every man a farmer or factory worker in the morning, an artist in the afternoon, and a philosopher at night. It’s not so much articulated politically anymore — mostly folks yearning for a better society are aiming much lower, at a kinder and more-equal polity and society, and not one in which all ills are cured, all wounds healed and all brokenness made whole.

I’m not sure anyone really believes politics can do all these things anymore. But people once did. They believed fervently. They fought and bled and suffered and died for an imagined better world.

But I have a greater concern about this dream of equality. In the case of Sparta, it is welded to the purposes of the Spartan state. No individual human being is free to find their own purpose or meaning — not Helot, not Lacedæmonian — but their purpose is determined entirely by state and society. You are what the people around say you are. You live and die for what the people around say you will live and die for. You mean what the people around say you mean. And nothing more.

Yes, notions of individualism that we have in modernity are very foreign to antiquity (though probably not so foreign as we think). But often, the dreams of recreating Lycurgus’ Sparta — a world where there is no want and no avarice, in which people are freed to lead better lives for the collective or communal good — are bound to creating the kind of society and state in which individual human lives don’t matter so much. And individual human beings have little or no role in sorting out the meaning of lives, what they will and die for. Mass industrial society, and the wreckage of that society we now live in, was a society in which all were to become “one with the public good.” In which we were to become bees around our commander (whoever that might be). Individual human life has no meaning and no value save for its place in the “public good” — a “public good” arrived at solely by the assertions of the powerful in the community.

This is why I fear collective politics. I have, in the last couple of years, backed away from a positive libertarianism, mostly because human beings can only rarely choose the conditions of their existence. And efforts to choose neighbors becomes an exercise in choosing who I or we will not care about.

All the same, I still fear the destructive power of the state — and the corporation, especially as it works closely with the state (as all have since the 1870s) — to attempt to create that well-ordered world of, if not equality and leisure, then at least one in which I am just one more cog in a great machine that is society, to be used until broken and discarded when no longer convenient. (Or to be bent and abused until I am deemed useful.) I’m not so afraid of that power as I once was, mostly because we don’t live in the world of 1914. State power, while ominous and looming, is constrained in ways it was not a century ago.

But the dream inspired by Plutarch’s description of Spartan society is an old one. Somewhere it captivates. And no doubt it will captivate again. And it will devastate and destroy again too.