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Descartes Praised Lycurgus. It’s Our Earliest Glimpse of the Problem with Modernist Thinking

There’s a direct line between Descartes’ admiration for Lycurgus and modernity’s parade of love affairs with strong leaders who would use rationality to impose their subjective reality on the world.

Descartes, by placing ultimate importance on one's ideas, gave credibility to the outrageous ideas that littered modernity. 

Lycurgus put the “Spartan” into Sparta.

Before Lycurgus, Sparta was like other Greek cities. Its citizens sang, celebrated love and good food, wrote poetry, and crafted fine pottery.

After Lycurgus, Sparta became grim and tough, determined to keep its slave class under control despite the daunting slave-to-citizen ratio (10:1?).

Music, poetry, fine pottery, and good food vanished. Family and love remained, but in twisted forms.

Men were discouraged from marrying small wives. Men with vigorous wives were encouraged to lend them to vigorous men. Men who grew too old to service their young wives were expected to make her available to young men.

The newborn was brought before a state council of inspectors. If rejected, the baby was thrown from a cliff.

At age seven, boys were removed from their families and raised by the state in barracks. Martial training was everything and done in the nude. The teachers provoked quarrels among the boys so they’d fight. An annual ritual involved whipping several boys until their blood stained the ground. At age 12, each boy received only one garment to wear for the year. He was not allowed to bathe much and was required to sleep in the open, on a bed of rushes. He was taught to read and write, but barely. He was taught to forage and steal. Stealth was valued above all, and getting caught doing whatever—stealing, trying to bang one’s own wife—brought punishment (great shame, flogging, etc.). At age 30, if the boy survived all this, he was admitted to full citizenship.

The girls were allowed to live at home, but under parallel severities, like being required to attend public gatherings naked so they’d be ashamed if they weren’t hot, with the result that they’d take care of their bodies and be healthier and better able to bear a lot of children. Reading and writing weren’t wasted on girls.

Adults didn’t fare much better. From age 30 to 60, a man was still required to spend much time in communal living, away from his family. He was forced to contribute to his commune by providing an allotment of food and, if he failed, his citizenship was forfeit.

Foreigners were distrusted and often compelled to leave or simply prohibited from entering in the first place. Precious metals were even banned so there would be little commerce with other Greeks, with the resulting “soft” influences such commerce might bring.

Lycurgus: A Successful Man

The good thing about Lycurgus’ reforms is that they worked. The problem with Lycurgus’ reforms is that they worked.

Sparta dominated the Peloponnesian League for almost 200 years (560-380 BC). It kept the peace in its region. Everyone admired the Spartan hoplite and no one wanted to trifle with him. The movie 300 about the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC accurately portrayed the awesomeness that was Sparta’s martial arts. It even became the hegemonic power in Greece for a short spell.

Other Greeks praised Sparta. The general consensus in ancient Greece was that the Spartan men were stronger and the Spartan women hotter.

But people praised Sparta, Will Durant assures us, only because they didn’t have to live there. The Spartan code produced great soldiers but nothing more. After 550 BC, it produced no poets, sculptors, or builders. Its people were cold, cruel, and selfish. Sparta finally beat Athens in war, but Athens beat it in every other way. Sparta became a mere cow pasture. Visitors still throng the remains of ancient Athens today.

Descartes’ Praise for Lycurgus

We’re not even positive Lycurgus existed, but the ancient tradition tells us that, from the mind of Lycurgus sprang the soul of Sparta. Or, more accurately, from the mind of Lycurgus sprang the soullessness of Sparta.

It’s hard to admire Lycurgus. It’d be like admiring a man like Zoolander, a male model who understood nothing outside the world of physical attraction. It took Zoolander to the greatest heights of modeling but that was it. Lycurgus appreciated nothing except the world of stark survival and domination. It took Sparta to the greatest heights of Greek power but that was about it.

But one man admired Lycurgus and his brutal top-down reforms.


In fact, Lycurgus is the only legislator Descartes ever praised.[1]

And what did Descartes like about Lycurgus’ reforms?

Specifically that: They were Lycurgus’ reforms.

It was, in fact, one of the first things Descartes thought about when he spent that famous day in a stove. He didn’t think about analytical geometry or whether he actually existed. He thought about how the best things spring from the mind:

One of the first considerations that occurred to me was that there is very often less perfection in works composed of several portions, and carried out by the heads of various masters, than in those on which one individual alone has worked.

The best buildings are designed by a single architect. Cities that grow over time suck because they’re cramped with crooked streets, but a city laid out by a single surveyor who uses his reason is much better.

He then applied the same logic to human affairs, praising the example of Sparta:

I believe that if Sparta was very flourishing in former times, this was not because of the excellence of each and every one of its laws, seeing that many were very strange and even contrary to good morals, but because, being drawn up by one individual, they all tended towards the same end.

It’s the “Defecated Rationality” of Modernist Thinking

Artless Sparta. Cruel and cold Sparta.

That’s what Descartes thought was excellent, solely because it sprang from the rationalization of one man.

For Descartes, the ammunition from the mind is everything a person needs. The mind becomes his “inner tribunal,” in the words of Basil Willey.[2] And if that mind is particularly astute, it can guide and mold everything around it, from buildings to cities to entire states.

We can see in Descartes’ admiration for Lycurgus’ reforms that idealism creates a large measure of trust in top-down planning and implementation. Indeed, Descartes’ is arguably exclusive trust in top-down measures.

There’s a direct line between Descartes’ admiration for Lycurgus and modernity’s parade of love affairs with strong leaders who would use rationality to impose their subjective reality on the world. Hitler’s subjective reality said the Jews ruined Germany and he had the solution. Lenin said society needed to evolve past capitalism he could make it happen. Lyndon Johnson said poverty was a scourge and he had the ideas needed to eliminate it.

We know the results: dead Jews, dead Kulaks, dead urban centers.

They were all born of a novel and groundbreaking notion that came from Descartes’ head. His central theme--that one’s ideas are the things that matter--produced a modern mindset that placed way too much confidence in one’s ideas, no matter how new or novel, and no matter how divorced from authority and tradition.


I believe it’s important to see how Descartes’ idealism—the mere notion that all knowledge starts in one’s head—plays out in the real world, especially in its earliest stages. If I were to say, “Cartesian philosophy gave us Hitler,” that wouldn’t carry much weight. But to show that Descartes himself, applying his philosophy, admired a legislator like Lycurgus, we can better see the connection. I hope to use future columns to explore a few other ways that Cartesian philosophy played out in early modernity.

[1] Strauss and Cropsey, History of Political Philosophy (Chicago, 1987), p. 424.

[2]Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background (Doubleday, 1953), p. 95.