I had known little of the Spartans, other than what I looked up prior to the movie's release. I had always been smitten with that grand last stand. At the time, I was a anarchist revolutionary, and what anarchist revolutionary wouldn't love to go out fighting against a horde of enemies in defense of what you believed. One could imagine a million men, dressed in the jackboots and uniforms of cookie-cutter fascists, charging against the small, but strong lines of the world's last hope for anti-capitalist, anti-hierarchical freedom. Oh!What a sight, at least in the mind of an anarchist, anyway. 300 wasn't an anarchist-friendly movie, though, unlike V for Vendetta, which was adapted from an anarchist theory-laden graphic novel.
Individualism and anarchism have a unsteady relationship. Many of the branches of anarchism are collectivist as many branches of anarchism are born out of socialist thought, but because of their anti-government beliefs individualism plays a major role in most of its theories. Schools of thought like anarchist-communism barely consider the individual's position, as the individual must contribute to the collective, though he is not obliged to be part of the community as statist communism compels the individual to be. Individualist anarchism is an American-born ideology (think Thoreau, the lone rebel in the cabin refusing to conform) that is anti-capitalist, but puts the individual's liberty far higher than that of the community he is in.
This may come as a surprise to those who haven't researched history of ideologies. Socialism did not begin as a statist movement, but as a collection of different factions with a slew of different theories on collective social change. It was at the First (socialist) International where the Marxists, the most statist of factions, pulled a large, democratic coup against the anti-government socialists and took over the International's major organs. From then on, anarchism was relegated to the fringes of the fringe ideologies of the time. Though, please note that right-wing anarchism, or anarcho-capitalism, is not a branch of the original anarchism, but the radical wing of libertarianism. People like Murray Rothbard or Ludwig Von Mises were never part of the First International or any socialist international, but came to their anarchist conclusions separate of the left-wing anarchists.
At the time of the movie's showing, I was an individualist anarchist. I was for the individual's liberty over that of the community or the state. I did realize that an anarchist could not live on his own, that human beings are social creatures that crave community, I also held that the individual's liberty cannot be violated by the group no matter what. I believed in total free speech, total freedom of action as long as it didn't hurt anyone else, freedom to arm oneself, and so on. Looking back on it, any hope that in a society where individual rights are absolute against the rights of the community would survive long is utopian, but much of anarchism is utopian. It was my belief in the right of self-defense and my love of revolutionary acts that would be the vulnerability that a new set of ideas would latch on to.
A New Set of Ideas
300 took on my anti-nationalist, anti-war, anti-brutish manly men views. It said that you must die for a greater good that is traditional, something that's been around for hundreds of years, something that isn't revolutionary at all. That was new.
The movie literally beings with a description of a extreme social Darwinist tradition of tossing away unhealthy Spartan babies. From there, it teaches the viewer that at age 7, Spartan males are taken away from their mothers to be entered into the eleven-year indoctrination program called the agoge (ah-go-gee). In the agoge, Spartan kids are taught how to fight and how to survive. They are taught about pride in their people and that to die as a Spartan warrior in battle is the greatest accomplishment in life. To an anarchist, even a little nationalism is fascistic. The Spartans' nationalism is Hitler-esque fascistic. I should have been appalled at the eugenics, the culture of violence and the hyper-nationalism. I was condemning the United States for much less. I was condemning the United States for everything. Yet, this culture was both alien and addictive. It was reaching into a place in my head that held the need for a greater cause. For years, that meant giving up civilization, whole systems of governance and commerce. For a kid, that's nothing. The militarism, the nationalism, the cultural pride over the barbarians, I'd heard it all before, but it had never been shown to me in such artistry or with a deeper presentation than mindless patriotism, as far as I could remember. I could of seen a movie or read a story deeper than 300 before then, but completely dismissed its views due to my closed-minded, childish brain.
Suddenly, the values I had fought against for years started to dig into my mind. Confidence, pride in nation and citizenship, masculinity, the warrior mind; these things slowly began to make sense in a way deeper than just biological and cultural normalities, things I rejected as a far leftist. After I watched the movie, these ideas ate away at such ideas as gender being a social construct or nationalism being a way for the most powerful to divvy up resources and labor. Within a week, I bought a book that summarized Spartan history and culture. I was intensely interested in how Spartan culture really was and surprised at what I found.
The Spartan empire first expanded before its warrior culture was established. It invaded its neighbor Messenia and enslaved its people. These slaves, or helots, became the underlying labor force of the Spartan nation. The helots outnumbered the Spartans by at least 3-to-1 and because of continuing rebellions and the risk of external invasion during uprisings, the Spartan lawmaker Lycurgus developed what became the Spartan code.
According to the code, only Spartan males could be in the military, though Spartan females were trained in combat as well. Spartans males could not have any other profession than warfare and could not attain full citizenship in Sparta without serving the city-state in war for a number of years. Manual labor and artisan professions were left to the helots and the free, non-citizen class known as the periokoi respectively. Periokoi were outsiders who were free from the slavery of the helots because of service or necessity, but would never attain the full rights and responsibilities of Spartan citizenship.
The Spartan system of indoctrination and education was called the agoge. Around age 7, Spartan children would be taken and put into groups that were overseen by full Spartan warriors. They would be trained in warfare, but also in survival. One of the legendary parts of the agoge is tossing the trainees into the wild to survive on their skills as hunters and as thieves. If they were caught stealing, they would be punished harshly. Not for the crime of thieving, but for the crime of being caught. The agoge wasn't totally militaristic, though, as future warriors had to also know things like music, singing, dance, philosophy and, most importantly, the ability to have one of the sharpest wits in the entire Greek world. The word laconic, the style of speech that is blunt and quick witted, is rooted in the Greek name for Sparta: Lakedemon.
The Spartan culture appears fascistic (enslavement, militarism, etc), but the government of Sparta was anything but. In fact, the multi-layered, multi-system government appears to be more in the shape of a republic than a monarchy or autocracy, as most Greek city-states were or mob rule as it was in Athens. In simplistic terms, at the top was a dual kingship, created out of the resolution of a power struggle between two great Spartan houses years before the code was created. The kings, while powerful, balanced each other with their powers. One could not simply overrule the other. Below the kings were the ephors, a council of five respected Spartan elders who were a check on the dual kings and advised them. Below the ephors, was a council of male Spartan citizens who, like any other city council, debated laws and requests from the kings. You can find a more complex chart of Spartan governance here.
A militaristic people with a republican-style government was something I never considered. On the left and in libertarianism, militarism and liberty never mix. On the left, a republican state and militarism equal a fall into a cult fascism. While Sparta fell into disarray many generations after the 300's last stand, during its greatest imperial expansion its system of governance never faltered as the Wiemar Republic or the Roman Republic did. During the time of Sparta's greatest commitment to its values and governance, it remained a large and impressive power in the Greek world.
The Romans, after encountering and then conquering the Greeks, took on many of their values and ideas, and it created a Greco-Roman civilization. One of the major influences on this civilization was the Spartans and their loyalty and pride. While not a historic parallel, the American nation and its people have similar qualities to the Spartans, the Greeks as a people and the Roman Republic. The Founders were highly influenced by the Romans and Greeks in philosophy, politics and cultural values. Cities and veteran groups were named after Roman and Greek heroes. The freedoms and responsibilities of American citizens are taken from the values of writers like Plato and Cicero.
Like Sparta's early imperialism, America's revolutionary creation imbued its people with a more aggressive, militaristic quality than other nations. Our Constitution declares the ownership of firearms is an individual right, just as important as the right to speak freely, believe freely or the right to be free of torture or unlawful imprisonment. No other major power has such a explicit right written into their national foundation. Despite the protests of the more “enlightened” peoples of America, our military founding is part of our culture.
Just before a major combat scene, Stelios, the quick witted Spartan that dared the Persians to “fight in the shade”, talked about experiencing the perfect death, I could feel the elation he felt at the thought. I could justify the thought. I could explain the rationality behind the thought. I agreed with the thought. What came over me?
Thinking about it now, thinking about all my years as a hardcore revolutionary anarchist, I was looking for a real cause to believe in. Then and now, I believe the world is screwed up six ways 'till Sunday. Tyrannic nations are abusing their people. Economies are rising and falling. The poor are poor. The rich are rich. Torture, hate, genocide. It's still all there no matter what I believe. I could be a peace-loving, long haired, pacifist who never hurt a fly, Saddam Hussein would still have been torturing his people in rape rooms and throwing them off buildings if Bush hadn't deemed him a danger to America and the world. It was that very thought that converted me.
If we hadn't gone to war, torture and rape and human created hell would still be inflicted upon the Iraqi people by Saddam Hussein. The ideology behind the war didn't matter anymore. The so-called theories behind the war didn't matter. The fact that the White House screwed up in selling the war didn't matter. It didn't matter in the long run because the Iraqi people were free and we had an obligation to see that they had every chance to keep that freedom. This wasn't what liberals and libertarians call neo-conservatism, the idea that we should be implanting democracies by force, I do not hold to that, but because we were already there, and because our honor and Iraqi liberty was a stake, we had to win the war. We had to finish what we started. It wasn't about social justice or a perceived moral right that could not be violated. It wasn't about being right about failure and ignoring success. The code was in me now. The code became my new filter.
Of course, the Spartan code is a 2500 year old belief based upon survival in a world where city-state governments fought each other over and over, where your enslaved manual labor outnumbered you several times over and where vast foreign empires swooped down and destroyed entire people's with a point of the finger. The code breaks almost every one of our laws. It is genocidal, eugenic and hyper militaristic. Yet, like the movie, the essence of it, the heart of it, took me over.
The Essence of a Code
300 was just a movie, but aren't movies just our stories put on a large screen based on someone's visual imagination? Wasn't the story of the 300 itself just a movie in the minds of young Greeks and others for millennium until it was put to the screen? These stories inspired hundreds of generations to all sorts of things with their lives or the lives of others. We tend to dismiss inspiration from fictional stories today, yet it remains a major part of everyone's life. Whole religious are made from what others consider fictional stories. Hell, Scientology, a religion that talks about on alien souls, is based on the writings of a science fiction author. The past eight years, radical liberalism has been running on the story that our last President stole two elections. I highly doubt anyone can fault me for citing 300 as inspiration, especially when its based on an actual historical event.
My change from anti-imperialist anarchist to national security libertarian with a warrior code took around five months from the day I saw 300 to the day I came to the conclusion that the morals of past decisions didn't matter as much as the result of their execution. It was only the beginning. My life was changing at that time, not just politically, but personally and professionally. This isn't special, of course, as such metamorphosis is natural in rational adults. But, these changes would led to my current beliefs and to my expanded and complex political ideology.
In short, this egocentric autobiography is going to get a lot longer. Beware.
Eugen Joseph Weber, The Hollow Years - At Amazon, Eugen Joseph Weber, *The Hollow Years: France in the 1930s*.
6 hours ago