Stoicism as a Spartan Philosophy of Life

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the last famous Stoic philosopher of antiquity, contains a curious passage where the Roman emperor thanks his painting tutor, Diognetus, for having introduced him to philosophy. Marcus says that Diognetus also encouraged him:

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

The suggestion that Marcus, as a boy, embraced certain austere features of a self-disciplined “Greek” lifestyle is actually confirmed by the Historia Augusta:

[Marcus Aurelius] 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 […]

That is, when Marcus was only twelve years old, under the guidance of Diognetus, presumably a Greek, he began to adopt a lifestyle described as somehow modeled upon the Greek agoge, a word normally used to denote the ancient Spartan training regime. Here we’re told that Marcus’ agoge, or regime, involved training in “endurance” (tolerant).

From age seven until about thirty, Spartan boys were rigorously trained to become ideal citizens and soldiers. They slept in a mess hall, on military camp beds, and were given only a single garment, a cloak, to wear. They were taught to tolerate hunger and to endure pain and physical discomfort. They were also trained in rigorous physical exercise and the ancient military arts.

They always went without a shirt, receiving one garment [a cloak] for the entire year, and with unwashed bodies, refraining almost completely from bathing and rubbing down. The young men slept together, according to division and company, upon pallets which they themselves brought together by breaking off by hand, without any implement, the tops of the reeds which grew on the banks of the Eurotas. — Plutarch, On the Ancient Customs of the Spartans

Marcus likewise says that his agoge involved, among other things, sleeping on a camp-bed on the ground, like a soldier on a campaign, under animal skins rather than soft blankets. The French scholar Pierre Hadot, therefore, noted the curious similarity between Marcus’ agoge and the Spartan regime:

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 idealized by the philosophers, especially the Cynics and Stoics. (Hadot, 1988, p. 7).

Elsewhere, Plutarch describes the Spartan youth as having “hair untrimmed, taking cold baths,” and as eating “coarse bread, and supping on black porridge” (Life of Alcibiades).

Historia Augusta mentions that as part of the austere lifestyle he adopted in his youth Marcus donned the “Greek cloak” (pallium), traditionally associated with the followers of Socrates, and later Cynic and Stoic philosophers. However, as Hadot notes, this cloak, a single piece of cloth made from grey (undyed) wool, was also traditionally associated with the Spartans.

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).

The author of the 10th-century Byzantine dictionary known as the Suda quotes thirty passages from The Meditations that he refers to as the agoge of Marcus Aurelius, borrowing the word used by Marcus himself in the passage quoted above. Once again, it sounds as though Marcus’ use of Stoicism as a philosophy of life was being compared to aspects of the Spartan training regime and lifestyle.

This might seem surprising. However, centuries earlier, during the Roman republic, the orator and philosopher Cicero had mentioned that the Stoics looked and sounded like Spartans. During a legal speech, Cicero explicitly attributed his friend and courtroom opponent Cato’s Stoic practices to “the Spartans, the originators of that way of living and that sort of language” (Pro Murena, 74). Cicero takes it for granted that his audience, including Cato, the “complete Stoic”, will accept as uncontroversial his claim that the Stoics modeled their lifestyle and manner of speaking upon that of the ancient Spartans.

The Stoics were renowned for their concise way of talking as were the Spartans before them. The region surrounding the ancient city of Sparta was 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 known for his abrupt style of speech, and notoriously compressed syllogistic arguments. Once when someone complained that his philosophical arguments were very short, Zeno replied that they were and that if he could he’d make the words shorter as well.

I think brevity was considered a virtue in Stoic philosophy in part because the founders of the school believed that philosophical doctrines should be simple and concise enough to be memorable and easily recalled in the face of adversity. That happens to be one of the reasons why Stoicism is popular once again today. People find the Stoics eminently quotable and their sayings easy to remember, such as: “Stop arguing what a good man should be and just be one.”

Socrates and Sparta

Now, ancient Sparta was, for the most part, a notoriously brutal regime. The severe training (agoge) they put their young sons through was intended to build courage and self-discipline in preparation for military service. However, I suspect what philosophers from at least the time of Socrates onward intended was to argue that certain aspects of the Spartan training could be adapted for use in a philosopher’s way of life, in the service of developing a character shaped by wisdom, justice, and virtue in general.

We’re told that Socrates definitely thought that his fellow Athenians should model their way of life more on that of their ancestors, or that of the Spartans:

Socrates: “If they [the Athenians] rediscovered their ancestors’ way of life and followed it no worse than they did, they would prove to be just as good men as they were. Alternatively, if they took as their model the present leaders of the Greek world [the Spartans] and followed the same way of life, then with similar application to the same activities they would become no worse than their models, and with a closer application, they would actually surpass them.” (Xenophon, Memorabilia of Socrates, 3.5)

Indeed, in his comedy, The Birds, Aristophanes, a contemporary of Socrates, portrays the young Athenian youths who followed Socrates as being obsessed with Sparta (Laconia) and emulating the austere way of life more associated with Spartan youths.

[…] Laconian-mad; they went long-haired, half-starved, unwashed, Socratified with scytales [wooden staffs] in their hands. (Aristophanes, The Birds, 1282)

Socrates and his followers were known for their admiration of Sparta, which was controversial because during his lifetime Athens had been conquered and violently oppressed by the Spartans, following the Peloponnesian War.

For example, Plato’s Crito, which depicts the scene in the Athenian prison as Socrates awaits execution, mentions his great admiration for the laws of Sparta and Crete, which he was “always saying are well-governed”. In The Republic Plato likewise portrays Socrates claiming that the constitutions of Crete and Sparta represent the best forms of government, superior to that of Athens. One of Socrates’ most influential students, Xenophon, fled from Athens to Sparta and spent the rest of his life there. He wrote a treatise about a Spartan society called On the Lacedaemonian Constitution. Plutarch likewise tells us that one of Socrates’ most austere students, Antisthenes, who is traditionally seen as the founder or at least inspiration for the later Cynic tradition, held Spartan society in, particularly high regard.

The Cynics and Stoics on Sparta

The Cynic and Stoic philosophers who came later were therefore greatly influenced by Socrates and apparently shared his admiration for aspects of the Spartan education system, seeking to wed training in self-discipline with the study of philosophy.

A generation after Socrates, 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”, as though he thought the agoge should be a lifelong training (Diogenes Laertius, 6.27). Again, when returning from a trip to Sparta, someone asked him where he was going, and Diogenes, exhibiting the typical sexism of his era, answered: “From the men’s quarters to the women’s.” (Diogenes Laertius, 6.59).

The Cynics famously referred to their Spartan-style training in endurance as “voluntary hardship.” We’re told, for instance, of Diogenes the Cynic:

In the summer he used to roll in the sand, and in the winter embrace snow-covered statues, using every means to train himself to endure hardship… (Diogenes Laertius)

However, the Spartans were apparently unimpressed by these public displays of endurance and taught Diogenes that once he’d mastered such feats he needed to keep finding new challenges.

On seeing Diogenes the Cynic embracing a bronze statue in extremely cold weather, a Spartan asked him whether he was feeling chilly; and when he replied no, the Spartan said, ‘Then what’s so wonderful in what you’re doing?’ (Plutarch, Spartan Sayings)

It seems that, like Socrates, the Cynics were perceived as modeling themselves on the Spartans, taking aspects of the agoge’s training in endurance and self-discipline and employing them in the service of philosophy as a way of life, the cultivation of a more general type of wisdom and virtue

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, had originally been a Cynic philosopher, and in many ways, the Stoics resembled their predecessors the Cynics, including their interest in philosophical training influenced by the Spartan agoge. In his Studies in Stoicism (2013), the scholar P.A. Brunt wrote: “Old Sparta apparently evoked Stoic admiration, because of the strict and simple life prescribed by Lycurgus” (p. 287). The Stoics, like many Hellenistic philosophers, particularly admired Lycurgus (820–730 BC) the semi-mythical founder of the Spartan constitution and the agoge.

There’s no doubt that the Stoics were particularly interested in studying the original Spartan laws and education system. Plutarch wrote a biographical account of Lycurgus in which he claims that his Spartan constitution was the inspiration for the ideal societies described by Diogenes and in Zeno in their books both entitled The Republic. Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoa, wrote a book entitled On Agoge, which perhaps contained an early Stoic appraisal of the Spartan education system. Perseus and Sphaerus, two of Zeno’s most important Stoic students, both wrote books called On the Spartan Constitution. Sphaerus also wrote three volumes titled On Lycurgus and Socrates.

Moreover, according to Plutarch, Sphaerus went to Sparta to train the youth who would become King Cleomenes III in Stoic philosophy, which he did “with great diligence and success”. We’re told that Sphaerus greatly admired Cleomenes’ strength of character. Whereas the famous Spartan king Leonidas had once said that certain poetry could inspire Spartan youth to courage in battle, Sphaerus’ inspired Cleomenes’ and other Spartan youths to virtue and the love of glory through his lectures in Stoic philosophy. Presumably, because of his initial success in this regard, Sphaerus then proceeded to assist Cleomenes’ later attempts to restore the agoge after it had fallen into decline (Brunt, p. 91).

Socrates, therefore, had been an admirer of the Spartan agoge as were several of his most important students, the Cynics, and the early Stoics who came after them. These aspects of Spartan training apparently continued to influence the characteristic way of life adopted by Cynic and Stoic philosophers right down to the time of the Roman empire.

The Roman Stoics on the Spartan Lifestyle

Marcus Aurelius writes, in a private letter to his rhetoric tutor and family friend Fronto:

Then we went to luncheon. What do you think I ate? A wee bit of bread, though I saw others devouring beans, onions, and herrings full of roe.
In another letter, Fronto says that he saw one of Marcus’ young sons holding “a piece of black bread, quite in keeping with a philosopher’s son.”
Eating cheap unhusked bread or barley-bread was something associated with the Cynic tradition and probably therefore with some Cynic-influenced Stoics. For example, one Cynic letter says: “It is not only bread and water, and a bed of straw, and a rough cloak, that teaches temperance…” We’re told of Crates, the Cynic teacher of Zeno, who abandoned his fortune: “Having adopted simpler ways, he was contented with a rough cloak, and barley-bread, and vegetables, without ever yearning for his former way of life or being unhappy with his present one.”

Whereas the Cynics were known for mainly drinking water and eating coarse bread, lentils, and lupin seeds, we have a surviving lecture from Musonius Rufus, the teacher of Epictetus, who says that Stoics should prefer food that’s healthy and easy both to obtain and to prepare, such as “fruits in season, certain vegetables, milk, cheese, and honeycombs.” In any case, it’s clear that philosophers in the Cynic-Stoic tradition believed in following a simple diet, although perhaps not as severely restricted as that of the original Spartan agoge whose youths dined on the notorious black broth, made from pig’s blood.

Musonius Rufus nevertheless says that 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).

Indeed, he praised Lycurgus as one of the greatest of all law-makers, because of the austere training he instigated for Spartan youths, which Musonius encourages his own students to emulate.

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. (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 like an unruly and violent individual. I give him back to you as a good man and proper citizen.” (Stobaeus, 3.19.13)

Spartan Sayings

The ancient Spartans were known, as we’ve seen for their brevity of speech. However, they combined this with a certain type of succinct wisdom, which philosophers such as the Stoics and Cynics greatly admired. The philosopher Plutarch gathered together many of their remarks in Sayings of Spartans. Elsewhere Plutarch explains:

They learned to read and write for purely practical reasons; but all other forms of education they banned from the country, books and treatises being included in this quite as much as men. All their education was directed toward prompt obedience to authority, stout endurance of hardship, and victory or death in battle. — The Ancient Customs of the Spartans

First of all, the Spartans, like the Stoics, prized good character and self-discipline. When someone said, for instance, that the Spartan Alcamenes lived a very austere life although he owned plenty of property, he said, “Yes, for it is a noble thing for one who possesses much to live according to reason and not according to his desires.” Character is more important than property. When some people were amazed at the costliness of the raiment found among the spoils of the barbarians, the Spartan Pausanias said that it would have been better for them to be themselves, men of worth, than to possess things of worth. The Spartans were also doubtful whether intellectuals of the sort that flourished at Athens had much of value to teach them. When asked why he didn’t admit one of the most learned men of the time to his presence, the Spartan king Agasicles reputedly said: “I want to be a pupil of those whose son I should like to be as well.”

The Spartans, therefore, thought that Athenian philosophers such as the followers of Plato’s Academy talked too much about virtue without actually training themselves to have virtuous characters. When the Spartan Eudamidas saw the elderly head of Plato’s Academy, Xenocrates, discussing philosophy, he inquired who the old man was. Somebody said that he was a wise philosopher who was seeking virtue. “And when will he use it,” said Eudamidas, “if he is only now seeking for it?” Likewise, when the philosophers in the Academy were conversing long and seriously, and afterward some people asked the Spartan Panthoidas how their conversation impressed him, he said, “What else than serious? But there is no good in it unless you put it to use.” This “cynical” attitude toward the Academy, and other overly-verbose philosophers, was shared by the Cynics.

The Spartans thought that too much talking was a vice. An orator who asserted that he could speak the whole day long on any topic whatsoever, they expelled from the country, saying that a good speaker must keep his discourse equal to the subject in hand. Likewise, an ambassador who had come to Sparta made a long speech. When he had stopped speaking and asked Agis what report he should make to his people, the Spartan said, “What else except that it was hard for you to stop speaking, and that I said nothing?” Antalcidas, when a lecturer was about to read a laudatory essay on Heracles, said, “Why, who says anything against him?” When somebody found fault with Hecataeus the Sophist because, when he was received as a member at the common table, he spoke not a word, Archidamidas said, “You do not seem to realize that he who knows how to speak knows also the right time for speaking.” In a council meeting, Demaratus was asked whether it was due to foolishness or lack of words that he said nothing. “But a fool,” said he, “would not be able to hold his tongue.”

Lochagus, the father of Polyaenides and Seiron, when the word was brought to him that one of his sons was dead, said, “I have known this long while that he was fated to die.” Similar remarks are attributed to Xenophon and others. These perhaps influenced the Stoic Epictetus’ notorious advice “If you are kissing your child or wife, say that it is a mortal whom you are kissing, for when the wife or child dies, you will not be disturbed” (Encheiridion, 2).

Being asked how one could be a free man all his life, Agis said, “By feeling contempt for death.” Anaxandridas was asked why the Spartans, in their wars, ventured boldly into danger, and he replied, “Because we train ourselves to have regard for life and not, like others, to be timid about it.” When Philip of Macedon invaded the Peloponnese, and someone exclaimed, “There is a danger that the Spartans may meet a dire fate if they do not make terms with the invader,” Damindas replied, “What dire fate could be ours if we have no fear of death?” Likewise, when Antipater made dire threats against the Spartans if they didn’t comply with his demands, they answered, “If the orders you lay upon us are harsher than death, we shall find it easier to die.”

The Spartans also believed that they should train themselves to act decisively but without anger clouding their judgment.

Moreover, the rhythmic movement of their marching songs was such as to excite courage and boldness, and contempt for death; and these they used both in dancing and also to the accompaniment of the flute when advancing upon the enemy. In fact, Lycurgus coupled fondness for music with the military drill, so that the over-assertive warlike spirit, by being combined with melody, might have concord and harmony. — Plutarch, On the Ancient Customs of the Spartans

In other words, although fierce in battle, Spartans did not allow either fear or anger to govern their actions. When one of the Helots, or slaves, conducted himself rather boldly toward the Spartan Charles, for instance, he said, “If I were not angry, I would kill you.”

When someone commended to Ariston the maxim of Cleomenes, who, on being asked what a good king ought to do, said, “To do good to his friends and evil to his enemies,” Ariston said, “How much better, my good sir, to do good to our friends, and to make friends of our enemies?” This, which is universally conceded to be one of Socrates’ maxims, is also referred to Ariston, says Plutarch. (Socrates famously disputes this traditional definition of justice in Book One of Plato’s Republic.)

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