Friday, 29 March 2013

I just realised my headmaster must have read Xenophon

I stumbled upon "Spartan Society" by Xenophon today, and his description below bears some eerie similarities to my boarding school experiences...... The whole thing is worth a read.

4. Now that I have explained about procreation I want to give a precise account of education. Elsewhere in Greece those who claim to give their sons the finest education put their children under the care of servants as tutors and dispatch them to schools to learn reading and writing and music and the art of wrestling. They make their children’s feet soft with shoes and their bodies delicate with many clothes. As for food, they let them eat as much as their stomachs can hold. But Lycurgus, in place of the private assignment of slave tutors to each boy, stipulated that a man should take charge of them as Train-in-Chief. Lycurgus gave this man authority both to assemble the boys and to punish them severely. He also gave him a squad of young adults equipped with whips to administer punishment when necessary. The result has been that respect and obedience in combination are found to a high degree at Sparta.

5. Rather than letting boys’ feet grow soft in shoes, he told them emphatically to make them strong by not wearing shoes, in the belief that this practice should enable them to walk uphill with greater ease, jump better, and run faster than the one with shoes. And instead of their clothes serving to make them delicate, he required them to become used to a single garment all year round, the idea being that thereby they would be better prepared for cold and heat. As for food, he instructed the eiren to furnish for the common meal just the right amount for them never to become sluggish through being too full, while also giving them a taste of what it is not to have enough. His view was that boys under this kind of regimen would be better able, when required, to work hard without eating, as well as to make the same rations last longer; they would be satisfied with a plain diet, would adapt better to accepting any type of food, and would be in a healthier condition. He also considered that a diet which produced slim bodies would also make them grow tall.

6. On the other hand, while he did not allow them to take what they required effortlessly, to prevent them suffering from hunger he did permit them to steal in order to ward off starvation. Clearly a prospective thief must keep awake at night, and by day must practice deception and lie in wait, as well as have spies ready if he is going to seize anything. So clearly it was Lycurgus’ wish that by training the boys in all these ways he would make them more resourceful at feeding themselves and better fighters. Someone might ask then, if he considered theft a good thing, why on earth did he inflict many lashes on a boy who was caught stealing? My answer is, because people chastise anyone who does not perform satisfactorily. After making it an honor for them to snatch as many cheeses as possible from the Temple of Artemis Orthia, he commanded others to whip them, thereby demonstrating that a short period of pain may be compensated by the enjoyment of long-lasting prestige. With the intention that even in the absence of the Trainer-in-Chief the boys should always have someone ein charge of them, he authorized any citizen who happened to be present at the time to give the boys whatever instruction he thought proper, and to punish any slip they might make. By this measure he gave the boys a greater sense of respect. To ensure that someone should be in control of the boys even when no adult happened to be on the spot, he deputed the smartest of the eirens to take command of each squadron. As a result the boys of Sparta are never without someone in charge of them.

7. The time when boys reach their teens is the very moment when others remove them from tutors, remove them from schools and have nobody in charge of them any longer, but rather leave them independent. Here, too, Lycurgus took the opposite view. Because he appreciated that at this age boys become self-willed and are particularly liable to cockiness — both of which produce powerful cravings for pleasure — this was the age at which he loaded them with the greatest amount of work and contrived that they should be kept occupied most of the time. In his wish to see a sense of respect strongly implanted in them, he have orders that even in the streets they should keep both hands inside their cloaks, should proceed in silence, and should not let their gaze wander in any direction, but fix their eyes on the ground in front of them. Certainly, you would sooner hear a cry from a stone statue or succeed in catching the eye of a bronze one than a Spartan boy. And whenever they attended the mess, they were only allowed to respond to questions the men put to them. Such, then, was the attention he devoted to youths.

8. However, he displayed the greatest concern by far for the young adults, in the conviction that they had the most influence for the good of the state if they were of the right character. From his observation that when people have the strong innate spirit of competition their choruses are the ones most worth watching, he came to think that if he could also urge the young adults to compete in excellence, then they would attain the height of manly gallantry. Let me explain how he used to urge them.

9. From among them the ephors select three of those in their prime. Each of these picks 100 men with a clear explanation of why he approves some and rejects others. As a result those who do not achieve the honor are at war with both those who have dismissed them and those chosen instead of them, and the two groups are on the lookout for any negligent act which may go against the accepted standards of honor. This is also the type of competition most highly favored by the gods and best suited to a citizen community — in which the conduct demanded of brave men is spelled out and each of the two groups independently strives to ensure that it will always prove superior. But should any need arise they would as one protect the city with all their might. They must keep themselves physically fit too, since their rivalry brings on fights whenever they meet. However, all passers-by have the right to separate the combatants. Anyone who defies the man attempting to separate them is brought before the ephors; they levy a stiff fine in their desire to establish the principle that anger must never prevail over respect for the law.

10. As for those who have passed beyond the youngest grade of adulthood, other Greeks, after removing their obligation to keep up their physical strength, nonetheless require them to go on serving in the army when necessary. Lycurgus by contrast made hunting the noblest of pastime for men of this age, so that they could stand up to the exertions of campaigning just as well as the youngest men. This then completes my account of the training Lycurgus prescribed by law.

11. When Lycurgus too the Spartans in hand they were living in separate households like Greeks elsewhere. He concluded that this was the cause of a great amount of misbehavior and so devised his scheme for common messes, thinking gthat these would reduce disobedience. The rations he fixed in such a way that they should have neither too much nor too little food. There is never a shortage of food on the table, yet neither is there a lavish spread. When it came to wine he stopped excessive drinking — which causes both physical and mental degeneration — and just let each man drink whenever he felt thirsty. In his view this is the least harmful and most enjoyable way of drinking. With common messes of this type how would anyone ruin either himself or his household by greediness or alcoholism?

12. In other cities men of the same age generally congregate together and respect only their own social group. But at Sparta Lycurgus mixed ages together in the belief that it is beneficial for the younger men to learn from the older ones. Indeed, it was the custom that any noble act on the part of any citizen was discussed in the messes, so that there was limited opportunity for drunken behavior. Eating out certainly brings out more benefits. To get home the Spartans have to walk, taking care not to trip and fall under the influence of wine. They also have to do in the dark what they do by daylight; men still liable for military service are not even allowed a torch. Lycurgus further noted that the same rations improve the complexion, physique, and strength of hard workers, whereas they give lazy people a bloated, ugly, and feeble appearance. It would certainly not be easy for anyone to find men healthier or more physically adept than Spartiates.

13. Lycurgus definitely held the opposite view to the majority of Greeks in the following ways too. In other cities each man is master of his own children, slaves, and property.. But Lycurgus, in his wish to arrange that citizens might enjoy a mutual benefit without injury to anyone, caused each man to be master of other people’s children just as much as his own. Should any boy ever tell his father that he was beaten by another, then it is a disgrace if the father does not give his son another beating. To such a degree do Spartans trust each other not to discipline children carelessly or dishonor good order. He even authorized them to use other people’s household servants too if anybody needed them. He also authorized the sharing of hunting dogs. They have the same arrangement with horses, so that if someone needs to go somewhere fast and happens to spot a horse anywhere, he just takes it, and then duly returns it after use. He also arranged to have food caches stocked throughout Sparta so that those in need could break the seals and take what they needed. By sharing with each other in this way, even those who possess little can benefit from everything in the polis whenever they are in need.

14.  There are also the following practices instituted by Lycurgus which are quite the opposite from those elsewhere in Greece. In the other poleis everyone naturally makes as much money as possible; some are farmers, others ship owners or traders, while crafts support others. But at Sparta Lycurgus banned all free men from the pursuit of wealth and prescribed that their sole concern should be with things that make cities free. Lycurgus demanded that provisions should be contributed on an equal basis and the way of life be uniform, thus doing away with self-indulgent passion for wealth. There is no point in making money even for the sake of clothes, since it is physical vitality which gives men a distinctive appearance not lavish dress. There is no point in amassing money to spend on fellow members of the mess either, since Lycurgus instilled the idea that the person who helps his companions by undertaking physical labor is more reputable than the one who spends money — the former service comes from the heart, whereas the latter is a function of being rich.

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