Spartan Lessons on Comportment, Leadership, and Perseverance

So last time, I talked about the Spartans in rather negative terms, but I did draw some interesting lessons from this reading that I want to share. In amongst the description of Sparta, and Lycurgus are lessons on leadership and perseverance.

The story of Lycurgus himself raises an interesting distinction that I have heard made before and find interesting to read here. There is a difference between leadership and command.

People follow leaders because they trust that leader to make the right decisions and do the right thing.

People obey commanders out of fear of some kind of sanction.

This idea is explored in William McNeill’s The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, and doubtless other places, but it also shows up in the story of how Lycurgus came to be the law giver of Sparta.

Plutarch writes that “A true leader himself creates the obedience of his own followers; as it is the last attainment in the art of riding to make a horse gentle and tractable, so is it of the science of government, to inspire men with a willingness to obey. “

With that as a general statement, he goes on to say that Lycurgus “thought rather that the happiness of a state, as a private man, consisted chiefly in the exercise of virtue, and in the concord of the inhabitants; his aim, therefore in all his arrangements was to make and keep them free-minded, self-dependent, and temperate.”

We can argue over whether or not he achieved those aims. Certainly “free-minded” is up to debate in a military society, but the approach to the happiness of a state is worth consideration. Let’s take a look at an example or two from the biography of Lycurgus.

First, Plutarch tells us that Lycurgus came to power after the death of his father and older brother, but once he found that his sister-in-law was pregnant, said that the kingdom belonged to her child and that he was only the king for the time being. Even though his sister-in-law offered to abort the child and marry him, he refused. Her brother offered to arrange for the death of the child, and he turned this down as well. He left town to prevent anyone from doing these things and planned to remain gone until the child was old enough to take over. But Sparta called him home.

“Lycurgus was much missed at Sparta, and often sent for, “for kings indeed we have,” they said, “who wear the marks and assume the titles of royalty, but as for the qualities of their minds, they have nothing by which they are to be distinguished from their subjects”; adding that in him alone was the true foundation of sovereignty to be seen, a nature made to rule, and a genius to gain obedience.”

Lycurgus came back and began to institute changes such as making everyone equal in possessions and wealth. This naturally stirred up some trouble, and in a protest, a wealthy young man hit him with a stick and by some accounts cost Lycurgus an eye. When this Alcander was given to Lycurgus for punishment, Lycurgus took him in and made him wait upon him at his table. “The young man, who was of an ingenuous temper, without murmuring did as he was command; and being thus admitted to live with Lycurgus, he had an opportunity to observe him, besides his gentleness and calmness of temper, an extraordinary sobriety and indefatigable industry, and so, from and enemy became one of his most zealous admirers, and told his friends and relations that Lycurgus was not that morose and ill-natured man they had former taken him for, but the one mild and gentle character of the world.”

Thus Lycurgus made an ally out of an enemy and used that ally to get others to trust him. It is the old maxim of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, practiced by leaders from Lycurgus to Lincoln.

There is one other leadership lesson I want to draw from the Spartans before I close. Lycurgus made a law that Sparta should not make war “often, or long, with the same enemy, lest that they should train and instruct them in war, by habituating them to defend themselves.”

Plutarch tells us the story of Agesilaus, a Spartan leader who made war on the Thebans so many times that he made the Thebans a match for the Lacedaemonians (Spartans). Antalcidas (another Spartan statesman) saw Agesilaus wounded after a fight with the Thebans and said to him that he was paid for making the Thebans into good soldiers whether they wanted to be or not.

There are two lessons from this. The first is that you can learn from your enemies and they can learn from you. One should draw lessons from their defeats. So, in every encounter, you should draw lessons from it.

The second lesson is one of perseverance. If you learn from your past defeats you can prove victorious in the long run.

I read this story at a time when I was doing a lot of competitive fencing and often taking a beating on the strip. It helped me reframe my experience and think to myself that my opponents would eventually turn me into a better fencer.

Next Time: Plutarch’s Numa Pompilius – Looking at the Lawgiver of Rome


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