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Our (Misguided?) Athenian Identification

I am curious about how modern Westerners have a tendency, perhaps a preference, to identify our world with Athenian politics and culture despite our Spartan values.

We deem Spartans to be crude, brutal, puritanical, authoritarian, and blindly ignorant. In our age of materialism we deplore “spartan” lifestyles.¬†Even worse, Spartans are disciplined militarists whose lives, in one way or another, revolve around war.

[interlude: this online thesaurus offers scores of synonyms for the word “spartan”. Are we spartan?]

We prefer to see ourselves as Athenians. We are refined, compassionate, open-minded, democratic, worldly, and wise. We find militarism repugnant and prefer enlightened diplomacy to war.

Of course, were we to sketch a Venn Diagram of Sparta and Athens we might find that the intersecting portion is larger than the two disjointed portions combined. For instance, Athens had certain non-democratic tendencies (most infamously, citizenship and voting restrictions) and Sparta was not as authoritarian as some might believe (The Spartan Assembly, or Ecclesia, seems to be no less democratic than the Athenian Ecclesia). Moreover, Athenians were no less averse to war than Spartans (Athens did not cultivate and maintain an Empire with fluffy bunnies and knock knock jokes while Sparta had no Empire to boast of, only two small colonies).

In short, I’m confounded by the fact that we are perfectly willing to trace western civilization back to the ancient Greeks but that we’ve done so by overemphasizing our cultural congruities with Athens while downplaying our Spartan heritage. Athens and Spartans have much in common and we, like it or not, have much in common with them both.

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