How Spartan were the Stoics?

This brief article draws together some notes exploring the relationship between Stoic philosophy and the ancient Spartan way of life.

LycurgusCopyright © Donald Robertson, 2013.  All rights reserved.

[This is still a draft.  I’m aware of a few more references, I’ve yet to incorporate but please let me know of any other relevant information.]

Several modern scholars have argued that the Stoics were influenced by Spartan society.  However, the evidence in this area is sparse and interpretation sometimes requires a degree of speculation.  The sources upon which we must draw are also not 100% reliable.  Nevertheless, there are a handful of quite striking references to the influence of Sparta on Stoic thought, which are worth considering…

The Spartans were famous for the fearsome training regime (agôgê) that they put all of their citizens through.  From age seven until about thirty, Spartans were rigorously trained to become ideal citizens and soldiers. The boys slept in a mess hall, on crude straw mats, and were given only a single garment, a cloak, to wear. They were taught to tolerate hunger and to endure pain and physical discomfort, including being ritually beaten.  They also undertook rigorous physical exercise and learned the ancient martial arts.  This notoriously severe “education”, or training in the virtues of self-discipline and courage, was emulated in certain respects by the Cynic philosophers, and subsequently by the Stoics, as we’ll see below.  You may have seen the highly-stylised (fantasy) portrayal of the agôgê in the opening scenes of the Hollywood film 300, about the famous Spartan battle of Thermopylae.  When the Stoics met to debate philosophy at the Stoa Poikile, as it happens, they did so in view of a painting of the Battle of Oenoe, between Athenian and Spartan warriors, which decorated the porch.

The Stoics’ typically concise way of talking may have been inspired, in part, by the Spartans.  The region surrounding the ancient city of Sparta was also known as Lacedaemon, or Laconia, from which comes the adjective “laconic”, still used today to mean an artfully terse manner of speech.  Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was particularly renowned for his abrupt style of speech, and notoriously compressed syllogistic arguments.  Intriguingly, during a courtroom speech in which he criticises his friend Cato, the Roman statesman and Academic philosopher Cicero explicitly attributed Cato’s Stoic practices to “the Spartans, the originators of that way of living and that sort of language” (Pro Murena, 74).  Cicero appears to take it for granted that his audience, including Cato, the “complete Stoic”, will accept as uncontroversial his claim that Stoicism originated in the Spartan way of life and style of speech.  It’s notable, that the early Stoics appear to have written fairly extensively about Spartan society.  By comparison, there’s no record of any books about Aristotle, although his philosophy was well-established in Athens by the time the Stoa was founded.  So the founders of Stoicism appear to have been much more interested in discussing Sparta than in discussing Aristotle’s philosophy.

The Spartan Constitution

Zeno was a Phoenician from the town of Citium who arrived in Athens and, after training in several other forms of philosophy, eventually founded the Stoic school there. The neighbouring city-state of Sparta was at that time an enemy of the Athenian state. However, the Stoics appear to have admired the Spartans and Zeno’s account of the ideal Stoic Republic is thought by modern scholars to have been modelled primarily on ancient Sparta (Schofield, 1999).   After being shipwrecked near Athens, Zeno read about Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia and was converted to the life of a philosopher.  He became a follower of the famous Cynic Crates, although he later studied also in the Platonic Academy under the scholarch Polemo.  Zeno lived as a Cynic and embraced voluntary hardship and poverty, something which he seemingly continued after founding the Stoa some twenty years from the time when his own training in philosophy had commenced.  Later, the Roman Stoic Epictetus would sum this aspect of Stoicism up neatly in his famous slogan: “Endure and renounce.”

Plato, Xenophon, and the Cynics also appear to have admired many aspects of Spartan society.  Indeed, Diogenes the Cynic was known so much for praising the Spartan way of life that it’s said an Athenian once asked him sarcastically why he didn’t go and live among them instead, to which he replied that a doctor doesn’t carry out his role among the healthy (Stobaeus, 3.13).  We’re likewise told that when asked where in Greece he had found good men, Diogenes answered “Men nowhere at all, but boys in Sparta”, which may be an allusion to the Spartan education system (agôgê) discussed below (Diogenes Laertius, 6.27).  Again, when returning from a trip to Sparta, someone asked him where he was going, and Diogenes answered: “From the men’s quarters to the women’s.” (Diogenes Laertius, 6.59).  There are also several anecdotes about notable verbal exchanges between Diogenes and unnamed Spartans.

These important precursors may have influenced the Stoic interest in Sparta.  According to the scholar P.A. Brunt, in his Studies in Stoicism (2013), “Old Sparta apparently evoked Stoic admiration, because of the strict and simple life prescribed by Lycurgus” (p. 287).  He writes:

Chrysippus referred to men “who had reached a certain stage of progress and had come to this stage in certain disciplines (agôgai) and habits”.  Agôgê  was the subject of a work by Cleanthes (SVF I 481).  The use of the term naturally brings to mind the Spartan agôgê , which Sphaerus in one at least of two books on Sparta, and which he helped to revive under Cleomenes III.  Persaeus too wrote about Sparta, discoursing on their common meals.  It seems probable that both of them shared, very probably with similar reservations, in Plato’s approval of the Spartan system of training the young for virtue. (p. 25, references omitted)

In his book, The Stoic Idea of the City (1999) Malcolm Schofield argues in a similar manner that Zeno’s Republic appears to have been heavily influenced by Cynic ideas about the simplicity and harmony of the ideal human community, and that Stoics may have looked to idealised accounts of Spartan society as an inspiration in this regard.  Schofield concludes that Zeno’s Republic was a somewhat more Spartan-influenced response to Plato’s famous dialogue of the same name.  In the ideal Stoic Republic, men and women wore similar clothing, and there would be no need for money, temples, or law courts.  However, there’s also some evidence that Zeno, following the Cynics, envisaged the ideal society as having no need for weapons, which seems remarkably un-Spartan.

The Stoics appear to have believed that the ideal Republic was based on mutual love between wise friends, living in complete harmony with one another.  However, perhaps more controversially, Schofield suggests that the early Stoics looked favourably on Spartan pederasty, something which may have contributed to the suppression of Zeno’s Republic and other writings by later generations of Stoics.

Zeno, like the Spartans, makes love a distinctive element in his political system.  But it is a radically sublimated form of love (as in Plato); it is homosexual, but probably it can equally be heterosexual; and it has no connection with war. (Schofield, 1999, p. 56)

Although this perhaps involved some kind of intimate relationship between older and younger males, as in Sparta, it’s not clear whether it involved sex or not.  The Spartans appear to have believed that intimate relationships between young men encouraged them to become greater warriors, although several ancient sources concur that this relationship was non-sexual and Zeno’s “dream” of the ideal Stoic Republic may likewise have entailed a form of “Platonic” love between older and younger males, perhaps like the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades.

The Stoics, like many Hellenistic philosophers, particularly admired Lycurgus (820 – 730 BC) the semi-mythical founder of the Spartan constitution and the agôgê.  The Academic philosopher Plutarch wrote a biographical account of Lycurgus in which he mentions the high regard Antisthenes had for the Spartans.  He also claimed Lycurgus had seen very clearly that the welfare of any individual depends upon the concord and virtue in his city, which inspired him to develop the Spartan laws and constitution (Lycurgus, 31).  Plutarch adds that this was the basis of various philosophical accounts of the ideal state, such as Plato’s Republic.  However, he also says that Lycurgus’ Spartan constitution was the inspiration for the ideal republics described by Diogenes the Cynic and in Zeno’s Republic, quite possibly the founding text of Stoicism.  Persaeus and Sphaerus, two of Zeno’s most important students, both wrote books called On the Spartan Constitution.  Sphaerus also wrote three volumes entitled On Lycurgus and Socrates.  Moreover, Sphaerus was the tutor of King Cleomenes III of Sparta, in his youth.  He apparently assisted Cleomenes’ attempts to restore the agôgê after it had perhaps fallen into some sort of decline (Brunt, p. 91).

The Spartan agôgê

300-Spartan-AgogeIt’s not clear exactly why this is so but there are obvious similarities between the Spartan agôgê and the Cynic way of life, which influenced Zeno and subsequent Stoics.  As Hadot writes:

In his life of the Spartan legislator Lycurgus, Plutarch describes the way in which Spartan children were brought up: once they reached the age of twelve, they lived without any tunic, received only one cloak for the whole year, and slept on mattresses which they themselves had made out of reeds.  The model of this style of life was strongly idealised by the philosophers, especially the Cynics and Stoics. (Hadot, 1988, p. 7).

Hadot says that this idealisation was something of a “mirage” because Sparta was such a warlike, totalitarian state, where all citizens were trained to serve the state, whereas the Cynics and Stoics considered personal morality the goal of life.

From Spartan education, they retained only its training for perseverance, its return to a natural life, and its contempt for social conventions. (Hadot, 1988, p. 8)

“The Spartan staff and cloak”

Following Socrates, philosophers of the Cynic and Stoic schools, which some ancient authors place in the same “succession” or lineage, dressed in a similar manner, wearing the famous rough, grey, “philosopher’s cloak”, a shawl wrapped around the body, which Hadot believed was Spartan in origin.

One might add that the philosophers’ cloak (Greek tribôn, Latin pallium) worn by the young Marcus Aurelius was none other than the Spartan cloak, made of coarse cloth, that had been adopted by Socrates, Antisthenes, Diogenes, and the philosophers of the Cynic and Stoic tradition. (Hadot, 1988, p. 8).

Because this was traditionally the sole garment of a philosopher, with no shirt worn underneath, their shoulders would typically be exposed.

Hadot doesn’t mention this but according to Plutarch the symbols of a Spartan officer were twofold, the “Spartan staff and cloak”, and philosophers who wore the tribôn were also known for carrying a staff, called a bakteria.  This is the same word, meaning a staff or wand of office, was consistently used by ancient authors to describe the Spartan staff used by officers to discipline their subordinates and beat helot slaves.  The only philosophers Diogenes Laertius refers to as using one were: Socrates, Antisthenes, and the Cynics.  However, he says of Diogenes the Cynic:

He did not lean upon a staff [bakteria] until he grew infirm; but afterwards he would carry it everywhere, not indeed in the city, but when walking along the road with it and with his wallet.

He mentions that Diogenes’ bakteria was made of ash wood, and it was used for support, self-defence, and sometimes beating bystanders to make a point.  Indeed, the following story is probably apocryphal but Diogenes Laertius claims that Antisthenes used the bakteria to repel students, accepting only the most persistent ones.

On reaching Athens he fell in with Antisthenes. Being repulsed by him, because he never welcomed pupils, by sheer persistence Diogenes wore him out. Once when he stretched out his staff against him, the pupil offered his head with the words, “Strike, for you will find no wood hard enough to keep me away from you, so long as I think you’ve something to say.”

When Crates of Thebes, the Cynic, asked his student Zeno of Citium to carry a clay pot of lentil soup through the streets, and he hid it under his cloak out of embarrassment, Crates used his bakteria to smash it, spraying the contents over Zeno.

In other words, Socrates, Antisthenes, and subsequently the Cynics, appear to have borne the Spartan staff and cloak, or something closely resembling them.  This interest in Sparta may span the whole history of Stoicism, enduring for five centuries, from Zeno its founder to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the last famous Stoic, who even dressed in a similar manner, perhaps in emulation of the Spartans.

The Roman Stoics

The most highly-regarded Stoic teacher of the Roman imperial period, Musonius Rufus, says that a youth brought up “in a somewhat Spartan manner”, who is not accustomed to soft living, will be more able to absorb the Stoic teachings that death, pain, and poverty are not evils and their opposites are not good (Lectures, 1).  He links this to an anecdote about Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa, and a Spartan boy, who had been trained well for virtue and therefore easily grasped Stoic philosophy at a practical level.  Elsewhere he tells his students that Spartan boys who are whipped in public without shame or feelings of injury set a good example for Stoics, insofar as philosophers must be able to scorn blows and jeering, and ultimately even death (Lectures, 10).

He called the ancient Spartans the very best of the Greeks and praised Lycurgus as one of the greatest of all law-makers, because of the austere lifestyle he instigated for Spartan youths, which he encourages his own students to emulate, particularly noting those aspects most akin to the tough Cynic lifestyle, often admired by Stoics.

Consider the greatest of the law-givers.  Lycurgus, one of the foremost among them, drove extravagance out of Sparta and introduced thriftiness.  In order to make Spartans brave, he promoted scarcity rather than excess in their lifestyle.  He rejected luxurious living as a scourge and promoted a willingness to endure pain as a blessing.  That Lycurgus was right is shown by the toughness of the young Spartan boys who were trained to endure hunger, thirst, cold, beatings, and other hardships.  Raised in a strict environment, the ancient Spartans were thought to be and in fact were the best of the Greeks, and they made their very poverty more enviable than the king of Persia’s wealth. (Musonius Rufus, Lectures, 20)

Musonius’ most famous student was Epictetus, who became an influential Stoic teacher in his own right.  Indeed, Epictetus is the only Stoic teacher whose teachings survive today in book-length, although half of the Discourses recorded by his student Arrian are lost.  We have a fragment from the anthologist Stobaeus in which either Epictetus or Musonius Rufus – the attribution is unclear – is seen also to praise the personal example set by Lycurgus:

Who among us is not amazed at the action of Lycurgus the Spartan?  When a young man who had injured Lycurgus’ eye was sent by the people to be punished in whatever way Lycurgus wanted, he did not punish him.  He instead both educated him and made him a good man, after which he led him to the theatre.  While the Spartans looked on in amazement, he said: “This person I received from you as an unruly and violent individual.  I give him back to you as a good man and proper citizen.” (Stobaeus, 3.19.13)

The last famous Stoic, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was largely influenced by the teachings of Epictetus in his practice of Stoicism.  At the start of the Meditations, Marcus praises his painting teacher Diognetus for teaching him,

[…] to set my heart on a pallet-bed and an animal pelt and whatever else tallied with the Greek regimen. (Meditations, 1.6)

He seems to be referring to the military-style camp bed used by some philosophers to sleep on the ground.  Strikingly, he refers to the Hellenic agôgê, by which Hadot takes him to mean the “Spartan” training.  Again, this appears to suggest that, as a Stoic, he sought to emulate certain aspects of the Spartan regime and lifestyle, presumably as a means of training himself in the virtues of courage (or endurance) and self-discipline.  Curiously, the author of the 10th century Byzantine dictionary, the Suda, quotes thirty passages from The Meditations, which he refers to as the agôgê of Marcus Aurelius.

Likewise, in the Historia Augusta, which contains a brief biography of Marcus Aurelius, we’re told that from early childhood his education was handed over to notable philosophers.

He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy.  When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance – studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground.  However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins.  He was also tutored by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic philosopher […]

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5 thoughts on “How Spartan were the Stoics?”

  1. This is an interesting point:” youth brought up “in a somewhat Spartan manner”, who is not accustomed to soft living, will be more able to absorb the teachings of a philosopher that death, pain, and poverty are not evils and their opposites are not good”. Anyway, it’s amazing how people today ignore old wisdom. Sometimes it seems like all life truths have been told centuries ago but people somehow fail to listen and implement!

    1. The Roman view of the Greeks were that they were playwrights and philosophers. Actually, all of Greece was a warrior culture as portrayed by Homer. This is why the use of the warrior as an example of virtue was accepted and used. The Spartans were the primary example because they had completely fashioned their culture around war leaving room for little else. Socrates and his followers were the oddities and his death sentence is not as strange as it seems i.e. keeping in mind the ‘Melian Dialogue’ from Thucydides.