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Reception of Sparta in Recent
The Literary Reception
of Sparta in France
Haydn Mason
The effect of the Spartan myth in France shows an unbalanced pattern. It takes till the
eighteenth century for its impact to be felt, and it falls away again after the French
Revolution, to some extent because the Revolutionary leaders had espoused Spartan
ideals, but also in response to a world more heavily based on commercial capitalism.
What exactly is the Spartan myth? Ancient Sparta has left us no document on this s­ ubject,
and numerous interpretations exist. Paul Cartledge sums it up as having three components: the Spartan polity had been uniquely free from internal disorder; this was due mainly
to the omnipresent lawgiver Lykourgos, whose laws had been dutifully obeyed by the
Spartan citizens; and these laws were strikingly different from those of other Greek States
(2001, 170). Stephen Hodkinson puts some flesh on these bones. For him, there are four
essential strands: the military system, with all male members as soldiers, membership
depending upon the compulsory supply of food to the common mess where they dined
daily; the economic system, in which each citizen had enough land and helots to meet his
personal engagement; the political system, where the citizens in assembly had a formal rule
in decision‐making, while considerable influence remained with the kings and the gerousia;
the social system of a common, public and rigorously equal way of life (2000, 3–4).
26.1 Pre‐Enlightenment
The Middle Ages largely ignored the Graeco‐Roman cultures of Antiquity. But with the
Renaissance and the discovery of Sparta (mainly through Plutarch), Italy in particular
developed an interest, with Machiavelli displaying a considerable amount of reflexion on
A Companion to Sparta, Volume II, First Edition. Edited by Anton Powell.
© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2018 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Haydn Mason
the Spartan State. This was less marked in France. Jean Bodin (1530–96) paid Sparta
attention in Les six livres de la république, but only to dismiss the ‘régime mixte’ (with
powers shared between the kings and the gerousia) as unworkable. Only absolute sovereignty in the hands of the kings made for a viable State; only this form of inequality could
protect order in the body politic. The coming of Henri IV to the throne in 1589 and the
establishment of a secure kingdom after the religious wars appeared to be the proof of
Bodin’s theory of sovereignty.
Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) found Sparta an interesting topic and, influenced by
Plutarch and Seneca inter alios, he was won over to admiration: ‘Montaigne est séduit
par cette primauté de l’esprit communautaire’ (‘Montaigne is seduced by this primacy of
the communal spirit’).1 The author of the Essais (1580) sees Lykourgos’ immutable laws
as a protection against arbitrariness and revolutionary disorder, a key value in Montaigne’s
hatred of revolution. But that said, Lykourgos went too far, since he removed the need
for personal autonomy amongst the citizens and allowed too much authority to religion
in law‐making. In addition, Montaigne is put off by the cruelty inherent in Spartan
­education, though he approves of its aims. In this mixed picture, however, he awards
Sparta the prize for the best regime that has ever existed in European civilization. Both
he and Bodin reflect the troubled times in which they lived, in their desire to see the
establishment of a stable political order in France.
That stability reappeared under Louis XIV (1643–1715), who from 1661 assumed
personal control of the French government. So reference to Sparta becomes yet more
irrelevant. While René Descartes (1596–1650) makes a fleeting allusion in his Discours
de la méthode (1637) to the unity of Sparta decreed by Lykourgos, he shows little interest
in what Sparta connoted. Rather more enthusiasm is to be found in Denis Veiras’s
Histoire des Sévarambes (1677), not unexpectedly as the work is a Utopic tale. Inspired
by Plutarch’s Life of Lykourgos, Veiras describes a régime of total equality ruled by
Sevarias, where education is managed by the State, children being taught from seven
years of age in schools completely independent of parental control. The State is governed
by a monarch on Divine Right principles, which however are not absolute. If there is
here an indirect criticism of the Roi‐Soleil’s rule, it is at most muted, for Veiras insists on
the duty of obedience to the lawful authority.
More characteristic of the age is Jacques‐Bénigne Bossuet’s Discours sur l’histoire
­universelle (1681). Its author, a leading apologist for the Church under the great
monarch, would have found little to praise in an egalitarian State. Bossuet does in fact
include an appreciative paragraph or two on ancient Greece, but it is punctuated by devastating condescension. The law, he concedes, was totally sovereign; but that is of no
concern to present‐day interests: ‘la Grece … préférait les inconvénients de la liberté à
ceux de la sujétion légitime, quoiqu’en effet beaucoup moindres’ (Oeuvres complètes, iv. 247)
(‘Greece preferred the disadvantages of liberty to those of legitimate government, which
in fact were much less serious’). Nor is François de Fénelon, any more than Bossuet,
inspired by Sparta, though he pursued a line of moderate opposition to the monarchy.
Les aventures de Télémaque (1699), which was to remain so popular throughout the
eighteenth century, bears few traces of Spartan influence; and in his Dialogues des morts
(1692) Fénelon’s liberal outlook is shown in his objection to Spartan life. Sokrates,
speaking to Alkibiades, expresses strong antipathy to Sparta’s treatment of the helots
and to her overriding militarism: ‘Quelle barbarie que de voir un peuple qui se joue de la
The Literary Reception of Sparta in France
vie d’un autre! … Les Lacédémoniens […] ne savent que faire du mal’ (Œuvres xix.
193–4) (‘What horrible barbarism, to see a nation make play with the lives of others! The
Spartans … know only how to do evil’).
No better instance of attitudes to Sparta under Louis XIV can be found than Pierre
Bayle’s Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697). An omnivorous reader, Bayle intended
the Dictionary to be a universal encyclopedia. So Sparta is treated in six different articles.
But collectively they demonstrate a wholesale indifference to Spartan ways. Bayle’s main
concern is not with the political institutions, but only the dangerous consequences for
public morality that he sees in the festivals when young men and women mingle together
fully naked. His views on the troubled history of the ancient republics are peremptorily
summarized as ‘une leçon bien capable de désabuser ceux qui s’effarouchent de la seule
idée de Monarchie’ (article ‘Hobbes’, remark C) (‘a lesson quite capable of disabusing
those who are frightened by the very idea of Monarchy’).
However, the absolutist ideology which appeared unarguably right at the height of
Louis XIV’s reign was to undergo great changes as relativist theories of history emerged.
Attention shifts from dynastic policies, warfare and international treaties to focus rather
on social and intellectual matters. ‘Philosophic history’ by such as François‐Marie Arouet
de Voltaire will become the norm. (The very title of Voltaire’s world‐history, Essai sur les
moeurs, is itself a manifesto.)
In this new environment, ancient Greece becomes a focus for discussion; and within it
Sparta is generally seen as antithetical to Athens. A society based on austerity, equality, a
strict system of public education and civic patriotism is set alongside one loving cultural
refinement, personal liberty and affluence. Spartan warlike inclinations are contrasted
with Athenian ‘douceur’ (‘softness’). The debate on luxury that will develop momentum
in the eighteenth century will find in Greek and Roman Antiquity models from which to
draw moral and political lessons.
26.2 Rollin and Montesquieu
A vital influence is provided by Charles Rollin (1661–1741), whose Traité des études
(1726–28) and Histoire ancienne (1730–38) achieved an immediate popularity that was
to continue into the next century. Despite his fervent Jansenist convictions, Rollin led
the way in fostering an interest in Greek history, which had formerly been the province
of arcane scholarship. (Grell (1995) sees Rollin as the ‘réference essentielle’ on Sparta:
i. 57–8.) The Traité in particular sets out an authoritative study programme for the
Université de Paris, reflecting Rollin’s past experience as Rector. Rollin importantly
­creates an ardent admiration for Lykourgos that will become a dominant theme in other
later writings:
II n’y a peut‐être rien dans toute l’histoire profane de plus attesté ni en même temps de plus
incroyable que ce qui regarde le gouvernement de Lacédémone, et la discipline que
Lycurgue y avait établie … Il conçut le hardi dessein de réformer en tout le gouvernement
de Lacédémone. (ii. 364)
There is perhaps nothing in secular history better documented or also more incredible than
that concerning the government of Sparta and the control of it that Lykourgos had
established. He devised the bold plan of completely reforming Spartan government.
Haydn Mason
Rollin drew up a balance‐sheet on Sparta, dividing his reflexions into ‘choses louables’
(‘praiseworthy things’) and ‘choses blâmables’ (‘blameworthy things’). The former
include: mixed government, where the law is the ‘unique maîtresse’ (‘the sole sovereign’) rather than the kings; an equal land‐sharing (which, after the political institutions, he considers the most important achievement); and the education system. But on
the other side of the picture he lists: the ‘barbaric’ custom of exposing weak children to
die; the often cruel treatment of the young in the schools; the exclusion of cultural
training; the ‘inhumanly’ stoical attitudes of the mothers; and the concentration on
­military pursuits. Rollin is particularly offended by the lack of modesty in the nudity at
festivals, and he attacks Lykourgos’ laws as being related to the ‘ténèbres’ (‘darkness’)
and ‘désordres’ (‘disorders’) into which he believes that paganism was plunged. To it he
opposes the ‘purity of the laws of the Gospel’ and ‘the dignity and excellence of
Christianity’. While the land distribution and the absence of money are admirable in
helping to abolish economic inequality, Rollin also points out that Lykourgos, ‘en
établissant ces lois, avait les armes à la main’ (‘was armed when creating these laws’).
By contrast, Christians had in their thousands sold up their property to follow Christ
into poverty (ii. 389). Rollin’s admiration is clearly tempered by his fundamental belief
in a quite different mode of living.
What Rollin contributes in information about Sparta paves the way for the reflexions
on the nature and significance of Sparta that Charles de Secondat de Montesquieu
(1689–1755) will offer in his great work, De l’esprit des lois (1748). As the title indicates,
the author seeks to discover the laws underlying various forms of government; and he
proposes his famous taxonomy, dividing all societies into three types: democracy, monarchy and despotism. In order to illustrate what he means by democracy, he turns to the
republics of Antiquity, motivated by what he calls ‘virtue’, which he interprets as a
combination of ardent patriotism and love of equality. Such a State, he believes, had to
be small, for otherwise it could not coherently exist (viii. 16); therefore it cannot belong
to the modem age. As proof of this, Montesquieu cites, with some irony, a failed
experiment: the seventeenth‐century English Commonwealth, where the citizens,
though lacking antique virtue, had made impotent efforts to set up a democracy (iii. 3).
In this ancient world, Sparta plays an exemplary role, albeit secondary to republican
Rome. Like Rollin, Montesquieu is impressed by Lykourgos’ extraordinary qualities,
which verge on the incredible: ‘Quand vous voyez, dans la vie de Lycurgue, les lois qu’il
donna aux Lacédémoniens, vous croyez lire l’histoire des Sévarambes’ (‘When you look
at Lykourgos’ life and the laws which he gave to the Spartans, you think you’re reading
the story of the Sevarambes’). He goes on to express admiration for Lykourgos’ political
sense in understanding the character of Sparta and also his subsequent ruthlessness in
contravening received ideas so as to make that character compatible with the laws:
Lycurgue, mêlant le larcin avec l’esprit de justice, le plus dur esclavage avec l’extrême l­ iberté,
les sentiments les plus atroces avec la plus grande modération, donna de la stabilité à sa ville.
Il sembla lui ôter toutes les ressources, les arts, le commerce, l’argent, les murailles: on y a
de l’ambition, sans espérance d’être mieux: on y a les sentiments naturels, et on n’y est ni
enfant, ni mari ni père: la pudeur même est ôtée à la chasteté. C’est par ces chemins que
Sparte est menée à la grandeur et à la gloire … (iv. 6)
The Literary Reception of Sparta in France
Lykourgos, combining together larceny and a spirit of justice, the harshest slavery and
extreme liberty, the most appalling sentiments and the greatest moderation, conferred stability upon his city. He seemed to be depriving her of all her resources, the arts, trade,
money, the city‐walls; ambition exists but with no prospect of improving one’s lot; natural
feelings exist, yet there are no children, husbands, fathers; even modesty is removed from
chastity. These were the means whereby Sparta was led to greatness and to glory …
Though generally favourable to Sparta, Montesquieu does not go so far as to prefer it
to Athens. As the title of this work suggests, his purpose is to conduct an enquiry into
the ‘spirit of the laws’. How do laws and customs, in their manifold diversity the world
over, obey the general rules of both the physical and the social worlds? (Unsurprisingly,
he has been termed the first sociologist.) So, in setting down Sparta and Athens side by
side, he offers no moral judgment. Instead, their different natures are outlined, and the
consequent implications:
Il y avait dans la Grèce deux sortes de républiques: les unes étaient militaires, comme
Lacédémone; d’autres étaient commerçantes, comme Athènes. Dans les unes on voulait que les
citoyens fussent oisifs; dans les autres on cherchait à donner de l’amour pour le travail. (v. 6)
In Greece there were two types of republics; some were military, like Sparta; others were
commercial, like Athens. In the former, citizens were required to be idle; in the latter,
efforts were made to inspire a love of work.
This paradoxical emphasis upon idleness is consistent with Montesquieu’s ambivalent
approach to a State like Sparta. Here was a society in which inequalities of wealth apparently did not exist and where the love of frugality led to one particular form of happiness,
‘le seul bonheur de rendre à sa patrie de plus grands services que les autres citoyens’ (v. 3)
(‘the unique happiness of giving greater service to the motherland than did other
­citizens’). For himself, he indulges no illusions about this kind of well‐being, comparing
it with asperity to the monastic life: ‘Pourquoi les moines aiment‐ils tant leur ordre?
C’est justement par l’endroit qui fait qu’il leur est insupportable’ (v. 2) (‘Why do monks
love their order so much? Precisely because of what makes it intolerable to them’).
Hence the ‘excellence’ of such a community depends on the absence of luxury: ‘moins
il y a de luxe dans une république, plus elle est parfaite’ (vii. 2) (‘the less luxury there is in
a republic, the more perfect it is’). Yet Lykourgos had abolished not only luxury but also
the arts, commerce and even private family feelings. Sumptuary laws are essential. Even so,
unconditional democracy is doomed to fail sooner or later: ‘Les républiques finissent par le
luxe’ (vii. 4) (‘Republics end up with luxury’). Given that they are also necessarily small,
Montesquieu’s conclusion becomes clear: Sparta has no place in the contemporary world.
In any event, democracies are no more free than artistocracies: ‘La liberté politique ne
se trouve que dans les gouvernements modérés’ (‘political liberty is to be found only in
moderate governments [i.e., monarchies]’). Although Montesquieu seems to hesitate
between the republican ideal and modern England, he eventually decides in favour of the
latter. Nevertheless, his wide‐ranging survey, alongside Rollin’s scholarly account, serves
to put Sparta in the forefront of Enlightenment consciousness. The two obliged their
readers to confront the wider questions posed by a nascent capitalism. What validity, if
any, might one still attach to rank and privilege?
Haydn Mason
26.3 Mably and Rousseau
With Gabriel Bonnot de Mably (1709–85) we come to Sparta’s first whole‐hearted
­supporter: so much so that he is described in the Année littéraire (1776, vol. 4) as an
‘austère spartiate égaré dans les rues de Paris’ (‘an austere Spartophile, lost in the streets
of Paris’). He apparently demonstrated his enthusiasm visibly by going about the capital
wearing the Lykourgan cloak on his shoulders (Galliani, 3.181–9). An apologist for
French absolutism in his early works, by 1750 he had become a classical republican, to
whom Sparta and early Rome were to act as models. Mably saw Sparta as unique, above
all because of Lykourgos’ genius. Like Montesquieu, he felt that the lawgiver had intuited the essential nature of the Spartans: ‘il descendit, pour ainsi dire, jusque dans le fond
du coeur des citoyens’ (‘he penetrated, so to speak, right into the depths of the citizens’
hearts’), and ‘forced the Spartans to become wise and happy’ (Oeuvres complètes, iv. 16, 20).
Following on Plutarch’s Life of Lykourgos, Mably is convinced that Lykourgos was
uniquely responsible for the coherence that existed in Spartan institutions and manners;
such could not have come about merely through a succession of reforms. The banning
of gold and silver, the use of iron currency and the meals taken in common in public, all
these rules helped to found a society that was to remain free from corruption for six
­hundred years. Money is replaced by freedom, love of country, justice, temperance,
­frugality (OC, ix. 97). Sparta declined only when people had become infected by greed
as landowners (OC, ix. 118).
Mably envisaged an idyllic existence, free from oppression and want but also from
ennui, even though the citizens were forbidden to farm the land (which was left to the
Des hommes toujours occupés des exercices de la chasse … du pugilat, de la lutte, etc., se
preparaient dans leurs plaisirs mêmes à devenir d’intrepides défenseurs de la patrie … Le
temps fuyait rapidement pour les Spartiates; et au milieu de cette vie toujours agissante,
comment les passions … auraient‐elles trouvé un moment pour tromper, séduire et corrompre
un Lacédémonien? (Oeuvres complètes, x. 109)
Men always occupied in hunting … boxing, wrestling, etc., were being prepared even in
their pleasures to become intrepid defenders of the nation … Time flew by for the Spartans,
and amid this ever‐active life … how would the passions have found a moment to deceive,
seduce and corrupt a Spartan?
This was the best of all possible worlds. But the chances of ever returning to such a
state of prelapsarian innocence appear most unlikely: ‘viendra‐t‐il parmi nous un nouveau Charlemagne? On doit le désirer, mais on ne peut l’espérer’ (Oeuvres posthumes,
iii. 270) (‘will another Charlemagne come amongst us? It is desirable, but one cannot
place any hopes on it’).
Mably, however, is not solely consumed by futile nostalgia This evocation can also
serve as a critique on which to base reformist appeals against the status quo, which
threatened to decline into despotism in a corrupt age. He felt it might be possible to
establish in France a republican framework such as England had known under Cromwell.
For England still enjoyed, like Sweden, a form of ‘gouvernement libre’ in which the aristocracy worked harmoniously with an hereditary prince. Whereas the English had the
The Literary Reception of Sparta in France
Magna Carta as a ‘compass’, no such fundamental law existed in France, nor any firm
constitutional order (Observations sur l’histoire de France). In practice the best hope
might be a recall of the Etats‐généraux, the assembly composed of the three Etats (clergy,
nobility, commoners) which had existed from medieval times up to 1614. They might,
he suggests, be assembled every two to three years, and should never be dissolved.
For ‘le parlement est le seul corps qui pourrait mettre quelques entraves au pouvoir
­arbitraire’ (Œuvres posthumes, iii. 280) (‘Parliament is the only body that could place
some restrictions on arbitrary power’).
As Mably sees it, the supreme aim of politics is a moral one, to ‘faire aimer la vertu’
(‘inculcate a love of virtue’). The full title of one of his most important works makes this
clear. Entretiens de Phocion sur le rapport de la morale avec la politique (‘Phokion’s
Conversations about the relation of Morality to Politics’) (1763). It is the function of the
State to exploit Natural Law, according to which reason, virtue and happiness are closely
linked. But Lykourgos had shown the citizens that morality was not earned so easily:
‘Il les endurcit au travail, à la peine, à la fatigue’ (v. 96). (‘He hardened them to labour,
grief, fatigue’.)
In his opposition to private property, Mably clashed with the Physiocrats, a group of
economic thinkers who held that landed wealth was the keystone of the social order, with
agriculture as the most effective vehicle of financial growth. So Antiquity had no part in
all this, since it had ignored the importance of agricultural principles as the basis of
material property. A leading Physiocrat, Pierre‐Paul Le Mercier de La Rivière, proposed
in L’ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques (1767) that this ‘essential order’ was
founded on property rights. Mably responded with a direct refutation, Doutes proposés à
l’Ordre … (1768), in which he claimed that Spartans knew no such property rights, since
they possessed only the usufruct of the land during their lifetime. Yet ‘hors de l’ordre
naturel et essentiel des sociétés … Sparte a fait de plus grandes choses que les Etats que
vous jugez plus sages qu’elle, et a joui d’un bonheur pendant six cents ans’ (OC xi. 6–7)
(‘outside the natural and essential order of societies … Sparta did greater things than the
States which you consider to be wiser than her, and enjoyed happiness for six hundred
years’). Only when property rights were established did Sparta go into decline.
Mably’s later years were clouded by pessimism, and at his death he was a forgotten
figure (Wright (1997) 6). His hopes of a ‘révolution ménagée’ (‘controlled revolution’)
on the model of the seventeenth‐century Dutch Revolution had come to naught, after
the Maupeou coup of 1771 had overthrown (albeit temporarily) the Parlements. But
with the recall of the Etats‐généraux in 1788, Mably’s views became again relevant to the
changed times, and his influence as a Spartophile was to remain into the nineteenth
Mably has encountered strong criticism from Grell, who sees his antithetic contrasts
(virtue/vice; greatness/decadence; happiness/adversity) as simplistic (i. 473). But a different perspective, less exclusively French and setting him in the line of the ‘Atlantic
republican tradition’ which embraces the Netherlands, Cromwellian England and colonial America, suggests a greater solidity to his thinking. From a different viewpoint, he
has been seen by Rawson and others as an early Communist. But as Wright shows (1997,
98–102), his objection to property does not cohere with the utopian socialism of such as
Jean Meslier and Dom Leger‐Marie Deschamps, where the State is predicted to wither
away when an authentic society is established.
Haydn Mason
Mably and Jean‐Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) were at first on friendly terms, as one
might expect from their similar views on Sparta. But in 1764, relations changed when
Rousseau heard rumours that Mably was describing his Lettres écrites de la Montagne as
‘des clameurs d’un démagogue effréné’ (‘clamourings of a frenetic demagogue’). Things
got worse when Rousseau claimed to find in Mably’s Entretiens de Phocion ‘une compilation
de mes écrits, faite sans retenue et sans honte’ (Les Confessions, 735–6) (‘a compilation
of my writings, put together in an uncontrolled and shameless manner’). Henceforth
Rousseau viewed Mably as an enemy. Mably riposted in Sur la théorie du pouvoir
Rousseau, que nous avons tous connu, est un grand exemple et peut‐être unique, de tout
ce que l’imagination peut produire à la fois de bien et de mal […] Il faut trancher le mot,
quoiqu’il me paraisse dur: Rousseau, je le dis pour son bonheur, était fou dans toute la force
du terme … un homme que j’ai connu, que j’ai aimé, qui a eu le malheur d’avoir une raison
égarée. (Sur la théorie du pouvoir politique, 271–4)
Rousseau, known to us all, is an example, great and perhaps unique, of what the imagination
can produce for good and for evil … To speak plainly, though that seems harsh: Rousseau,
I say it for his own good, was mad in the full meaning of that word … a man whom I have
known, have loved, and who has been unfortunate enough to have a troubled mind.
In fact, broad parallels conceal significant differences in philosophic attitudes. As Wright
points out, the concept of ‘general will’ is absent from Mably, just as ‘mixed government’
does not figure in Rousseau. Whereas Mably accepted political representation, such a
practice is denounced by Rousseau. Furthermore, the more limited vision of Mably
makes little use of such concepts as ‘state of Nature’, ‘social contract’ and
For Rousseau turns the myth of Sparta into a more fundamental debate about the
values of an authentic society. Mably’s commentary stops short of articulating a wholly
persuasive relationship between ‘man’ and ‘citizen’, while Rousseau was to address this
from his very first essay, the Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750). Many others before
him had explored the polarity between Athens and Sparta, as also the falsity of social
appearances; indeed, the claim that we all wear a mask in society was scarcely new.
(To name but one, Jean‐Baptiste’s Molière’s Le Misanthrope (1666) had shaped his
comedy around that self‐same theme.) But what made this Discours so special was the
intensity of the onslaught upon the moral vacuity of contemporary manners. Into this
attack, the picture that he paints of Sparta fits neatly, as a signal instance of happy and
virtuous ignorance. That said, Sparta is only rarely singled out for specific mention, and
republican Rome serves his purpose just as well. In fact, the first example cited of ancient
purity is Egypt, ‘cette première école de l’Univers’ (OC, iii. 10) (‘that first school of the
Universe’); and many other States are also mentioned. However, when Rousseau finally
comes to Sparta, the appeal is clarion‐like. It is first alluded to in periphrasis, then apostrophized, and finally contrasted with Athens. Space does not permit of a full quotation
from this stylistically heightened passage; a few excerpts must suffice:
Oublierais‐je que ce fut dans le sein même de la Grèce qu’on vit s’élever cette Cité aussi célèbre par son heureuse ignorance que par la sagesse de ses Lois, cette République de demi‐dieux
plutôt que d’hommes? Tant leurs vertus semblaient supérieures à l’humanité! (iii. 12–13)
The Literary Reception of Sparta in France
How could I forget that, at the very heart of Greece, one saw the rise of this city, as renowned
for its happy ignorance as for the wisdom of its Laws, this Republic of demigods rather than
men? So much did their virtues seem superior to humanity!
Sparta represents for Rousseau the most pure phenomenon of a way of life that once
existed but exists no longer. During the quarrel that arose from publication of the
Discours, he taunts his opponents with this indubitable fact:
L’embarras de mes adversaires est visible toutes les fois qu’il faut parler de Sparte. Que ne
donneraient‐ils point pour que cette fatale Sparte n’eût jamais existé? … C’est une terrible
chose qu’au milieu de cette fameuse Grèce qui ne devait sa vertu qu’à la philosophie, l’Etat
où la vertu a été la plus pure et a duré le plus longtemps ait été précisément celui où il n’y
avait point de philosophes. (iii. 83)
My opponents are visibly embarrassed every time Sparta is mentioned. What would they not
give for this terrible Sparta to have never existed? … How dreadful that amid this wondrous
Greece which owed its virtue solely to philosophy, the State whose virtue was the purest and
the most enduring was precisely the one where there were no philosophers.
The triumphalist note is all too clear. Rousseau goes on to point out that in theory
Athens should have been the conqueror, since it was larger and wealthier, whereas in fact
it was Sparta that won out.
Such is Rousseau’s fascination for Sparta that he follows the Discours with a Parallèle
entre les deux républiques de Sparte et de Rome. The two States receive equal praise (‘toutes
deux brillèrent à la fois par les vertus et par la valeur’ (OC, iii. 539; ‘both shone alike in
virtues and in valour’). But in particular the author insists upon the providential appearance of Lykourgos to hand down to Spartans their sublime institutions. He will go on to
undertake an Histoire de Lacédémone (remarkable in that it is the only history Rousseau
ever attempted), because of ‘un penchant presque invincible’ born of his admiration for
‘des hommes qui ne nous ressemblent en rien’ (iii. 544–5) (‘an almost unconquerable
inclination … men unlike us in every respect’). Although the Histoire peters out, not even
getting to Lykourgos, the very effort in an unusual genre testifies to Rousseau’s continuing
admiration for the possibilities of human endeavour which Sparta had represented.
Thereafter, the ancient city will appear only intermittently as a noble ideal. (Curiously,
Sparta does not appear in the Rousseau Correspondence, except in letters written to
Rousseau.) The Discours sur l’inégalité (often referred to as his second Discours) is in
many ways a fuller development of the earlier Discours, so one might have expected an
even greater emphasis on Sparta. But in fact mentions are few, with one important
exception; when Rousseau contrasts Lykourgos with other legislators who had merely
tinkered with their institutions, while he had ‘cleaned out the whole place’, before
­constructing ‘a fine building’ (iii. 180). If one takes Judith Shklar’s view (1996) that
Rousseau follows two ideals throughout his career, compatible but distinct: Sparta, and
the Golden Age (the ‘state of Nature’), then the Inégalité clearly belongs to the latter,
since the thesis that natural man was expelled from his original Paradise owes far more to
the myth of Eden than to Sparta.
A specific aspect of what Rousseau sees as a social falsehood will soon occur. In 1757,
Volume VII of the Encyclopédie (see later) appeared. It contained the article ‘Genève’ by
Jean d’Alembert, in which the author proposes the establishment of a permanent theatre
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in the city where once Calvin had held sway. It would, he claimed, bring together the
wisdom of Sparta and the politesse of Athens. Rousseau’s hostile reaction was spontaneous.
In three weeks he composed an extensive Lettre à d’Alembert – written, he says in his
Confessions, while ‘je versai de délicieuses larmes’ (ed., 585) (‘I shed delicious tears’).
He is opposed to theatre because he sees it as dependent upon a fraudulent relationship
between the actors coldly calculating their effect on the audience and the spectators who,
in their turn, are observing them in a state of voyeuristic alienation. But he is not against
every form of spectacle. In place of conventional drama he advocates open‐air amateur
entertainments, where all are actors and all spectators, the whole assembly coming
together in a spirit of transparent integrity and total equality. This brings him to recall
nostalgically ‘les jeux et les fêtes de ma jeunesse’ in Geneva; and that reminds him of a
more ancient archetype:
cette Sparte que je n’aurais jamais assez citée pour l’exemple que nous devrions en tirer;
ainsi … le Spartiate ennuyé soupirait après ses grossiers festins et ses fatigants exercices.
C’est à Sparte que dans une laborieuse oisiveté, tout était plaisir et spectacle. C’est là que les
rudes travaux passaient pour des récréations, et que les moindres délassements formaient
une instruction publique. C’est là que les citoyens continuellement assemblés, consacraient
la vie entière à des amusements qui faisaient la grande affaire de 1’Etat, et à des jeux dont
on ne se délassait qu’à la guerre. (v. 122)
this Sparta, which I shall never have mentioned often enough for the example that we
should draw from it; thus […] the Spartan when bored would yearn for his coarse feasts and
arduous exercises. It was at Sparta that, in the midst of diligent idleness, all was pleasure and
spectacle. There rough labours were thought of as recreations, and even the slightest diversions contributed to the public education. There the citizens, being continually called
together, devoted their whole lives to entertainments that were the prime concern of the
State, and games from which only war distracted them.
Here, in a passage owing direct inspiration to Plutarch’s Life of Lykourgos, is the ­portrait
of an ideal society in which work and play have achieved a perfect balance. But there can be
no hope of resurrecting these mores. In one specific area, Rousseau is sure that this would
be impossible. The spectacle of naked Spartan girls dancing in public would be too shocking
for ‘tout peuple qui n’est qu’honnête’ (‘every nation that is merely honest’) (v. 122).2
In 1762 Rousseau’s Contrat social was published. Here Rousseau offers a remedy for
the evils identified in the Inégalité, prescribing a basis for legitimate government in an
authentic society based on a true ‘Contract’, where the citizen, enjoying perfect freedom, is nevertheless at one with the General Will, which is sovereign and inalienable.
The Legislator for this people will be an ‘extraordinary man’, fully cognizant of all human
passions while impervious to them himself. The shadow of Lykourgos falls all too clearly
across this figure. Sparta plays a key role in the Contrat, even though it is secondary to
Rome. Their joint influence is fundamental, playing a decisive role in Rousseau’s political
thought here and elsewhere. As in Sparta quite specifically, money‐making is to be
avoided: ‘Ce mot de finance est un mot d’esclave; il est inconnu dans la Cité’ (iii. 429)
(‘This word “finance” is a slave’s word; it is unknown in the City’). Yet it is not, as it
tends to be with Mably, a nostalgic evocation. Rousseau inveighs against those who
would relegate it, like Veiras’s Sévarambes, to ‘le pays des chimères… je peignais un objet
existant’ (iii. 810) (‘the land of wild dreams … I was depicting an object which actually
The Literary Reception of Sparta in France
existed’). As the opening paragraph of the Contrat indicates, he will consider ‘les ­hommes
tels qu’ils sont, et les lois telles qu’elles peuvent être’ (iii. 351) (‘men as they are, and laws
as they can be’). This shows the delicate balance he will tread between reality and
­principle, which makes the Contrat so difficult to interpret.
Yet Rousseau would write important works of political advice on the constitutions of
Corsica and Poland, where again Sparta can be seen as a model. In the Considérations sur
le gouvernement de Pologne, Lykourgos reappears, as the man who imposed an ‘iron
yoke’ but also ‘montra sans cesse la patrie dans ses lois, dans ses jeux, dans sa maison,
dans ses amours, dans ses festins. Il ne lui laissa pas un instant de relâche’ (iii. 957)
(‘unceasingly displayed the sense of nationhood through its laws, its games, its love
affairs, its feasts. He did not allow it a single moment of relaxation’). It is out of this
relentless constraint under which citizens were forced into civic morality that there
emerged the ardent love of homeland which was always, he remarks, the strongest or
rather the only passion of the Spartans, a passion which made them into superior beings
(iii. 957). This is the same passion underlying the Contrat social, turning men into
­citizens through devotion to the common cause. By making sentiment an essential
element in his thinking, Rousseau may be said to have brought patriotism into political
philosophy. Conversely, the land‐sharing interests him little; legitimate property (as distinct
from illegal possession) is an intrinsic part of the Social Contract.
26.4 The Encyclopédie
As might be expected, Sparta finds its way into the Encyclopédie (1751–1772), that vast
compilation of knowledge under the editorship of Denis Diderot and (until 1759) Jean
Even more adulatory of Sparta than Mably is the chevalier Louis de Jaucourt (1704–1779),
workhorse of the Encyclopédie (he is credited with contributing the stupendous number
of 17,000 articles to the work), who wrote no fewer than six articles on the city (‘Ephore’,
‘Géronte’, ‘Lacédémone’, ‘Lycurgées’, ‘Sparte’ and ‘Xénélasie de Lacédémone’).
Without Jaucourt’s contribution on ancient Greece, the work might well have been
rather slight in that area. A great classical scholar like Mably, Jaucourt was responsible for
virtually all the articles devoted to Greek antiquity (other than literature) – which was
just as well. Typical of the editors’ indifference towards Greek history, the article
‘Athènes’, which might have been expected to be a major piece, is of cursory length. But
the volume containing it had appeared before Jaucourt’s involvement.
While fascinated by every aspect of Greek culture, Jaucourt was fervently attracted to
Sparta (‘je déclare … que je suis tout lacédémonien. Lacédémone me tient lieu de toutes
choses’: art. ‘Lacédémone’; ‘I declare that I am totally Spartan; Sparta supplies me with
everything’). This is borne out by the space which he gives to the city. The article
‘Lacédémone’ runs to nearly sixteen columns in the original folio edition; yet when, in
alphabetical order, he moves on to ‘Sparte’, he allocates a further eight columns to a
detailed account of its topography.
Jaucourt shares Rousseau’s belief that the Spartans were unique. They carried within
themselves, he felt, ‘des semences de l’exacte droiture et de la veritable intrépidité’: art.
‘Lacédémone’ (‘seeds of perfect integrity and undoubted fearlessness’). His account of
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Lykourgos’ reforms goes into far greater detail, to my knowledge, than that of any
­contemporary writer. The lawgiver attains the role of a demigod, bequeathing to his
people a legacy that he has charged them to observe ‘jusqu’à mon retour’ (‘until I
return’). While the phrase makes literal sense in that he had retired to distant parts, never
intending to come back to Sparta, the eschatological overtones of the Second Coming
are inescapable.
Jaucourt, exceptionally, contests the case that the Spartans were indifferent to culture,
claiming that despite the austerity of their politics, their city contained eminent thinkers
and writers and was embellished with statues, paintings and fine furniture. But he merely
reports without comment the practice, considered ‘harsh and cruel’ even by Plutarch
(Life, 28.4), whereby fathers deliberately debauched helots with drink so as to teach
their children a moral lesson about such behaviour. As with most apologists for Sparta,
the treatment of the helots is an indefensible embarrassment.
Towards the end of this long account, Jaucourt compares Sparta with Athens, invariably
to the advantage of the former (‘cette république célèbre, bien supérieure à celle d’Athènes’;
‘this famous republic, much superior to that of Athens’). Neat antitheses are devised to
substantiate this claim; ‘A Athènes on apprenait à bien dire, et à Sparte à bien faire … Si la
morale et la philosophie s’expliquaient à Athènes, elles se pratiquaient à Lacédémone’ (‘In
Athens one learned to speak well, in Sparta to act well … Morality and philosophy may
have been expounded in Athens, but in Sparta they were practised’). While Sparta lacked
‘le sel attique’ (‘Attic salt’), its discourse was also without Athenian ‘satires and raillery’,
but characterized instead by ‘une certaine force, une certaine grandeur’.
Nevertheless, Jaucourt nowhere proposes Sparta as a relevant phenomenon. Now f­ orever
lost, it can yet be admired as an example of what was once possible for mankind. He does,
however, at one point admit to a rare moment of ambivalence: ‘les actions de bravoure des
Spartiates passeraient pour folles, si elles n’étaient consacrées par l’admiration de tous les
siècles’ (‘the courageous actions of the Spartan would be considered mad, had they not
been hallowed by the admiration of every age’). This somewhat unpersuasive ­criterion
­permits him to arrive at a final encomium: ‘En lisant leur histoire, notre âme s’élève et
semble franchir les limites étroites dans lesquelles la corruption de notre siècle retient nos
faibles vertus’ (‘In reading their history, our soul rises up and seems to transcend the narrow
limits within which the corruption of our age constricts our feeble virtues’).
But Jaucourt’s passionate eulogy appears to have made little impression on the progress
of the debate, even within the Encyclopédie. A brief anonymous article, ‘Ilotes’ (‘Helots’)
censures Spartans for that aspect of their society which even to their supporters was the
weakest link. Jean‐François de Saint‐Lambert’s ‘Luxe’ makes no mention of the city‐state.
As the same author probably also wrote ‘Législateur’, where Sparta receives just two
mentions and which ignores Lykourgos, it looks like a deliberate insult to the p
­ ro‐
Spartan lobby.
26.5 The Philosophes
This stance of Saint‐Lambert serves to indicate the heterogeneous nature of the
Encyclopédie. Whereas Jaucourt, at the heart of the Dictionary, was passionate about
Sparta, most of the philosophes, a group loosely associated with the Dictionary, were
The Literary Reception of Sparta in France
hostile: none more so than Voltaire (1694–1778). In the debate on luxury, which
brought in Sparta, Voltaire stood firmly for a way of life that embraced cultural refinement. Influenced by Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (1714) and Melon’s Essai politique sur
le commerce (1734), Voltaire’s two poems Le Mondain (1736) and Défense du Mondain
(1737) came to be seen as the most effective apologies for the beneficial effects, both
social and economic, of wealth. Melon had contrasted ‘la voluptueuse Athenes’ with
‘l’austère Lacédèmone’ and found Lykourgos’ sumptuary laws simply revolting. Trade
was the key differentiating factor, bringing Athens closer to contemporaneous
Amsterdam. Voltaire took the same line: ‘l’argent est fait pour circuler, pour faire éclore
tous les arts, pour acheter l’industrie des hommes’ (‘money is made to circulate, to bring
to fruition all the arts, to purchase men’s hard labour’).
Hence Voltaire’s aggressive stance on Sparta: ‘Quel bien Sparte fit‐elle à la Grèce?
Eut‐elle jamais des Démosthènes, des Sophocles? … Le luxe d’ Athènes a fait de grands
hommes en tout genre; Sparte a eu quelques capitaines’ (Complete Works, 36. 326–7).
(‘What good did Sparta do to Greece? Did she ever have men like Demosthenes, like
Sophocles? … Athenian luxury created great men in every field; Sparta possessed a few
captains’). A letter to Catherine II of Russia (D18078, 11 December 1772) shows his
irritation with the Spartophiles: ‘Je ne sais pourquoi on ose encore parler de Lycurgue et
de ses Lacédémoniens, qui n’ont jamais rien fait de grand, qui n’ont laissé aucun
monument, qui n’ont point cultivé les arts’ (‘I do not know why … people still dare to
talk of Lykourgos and his Spartans, who never did anything great, never left behind any
monument, did not cultivate the arts’). In short, Spartan government was a complete
irrelevance: ‘Les pauvres gens qui prétendent qu’on doit se gouverner à Paris comme à
Lacédémone …’ (D9023, to J.F. de Bastide, c.1760) (‘The pathetic people who claim
that we must govern ourselves in Paris as they did in Sparta …’). Doubtless, some animus
against Rousseau as one of those ‘pauvres gens’ underlies this quite gratuitous sally.
Even an apparent compliment to Lykourgos has to be treated with caution. Voltaire
comments that the lawmaker ‘en fort peu de temps, éleva les Spartiates au‐dessus de
l’humanité’ (ibid.) (‘in a very short space of time, raised the Spartans above humanity’).
But one needs to read the whole letter to see that Voltaire is pouring scorn on such unrealistically utopian enterprises and that ‘above humanity’ denotes an unnatural state of
affairs. Natural law dictated true human motivation: ‘L’homme est né pour l’action,
comme le feu tend en haut et la pierre en bas’ (Lettres philosophiques, ii. 205–6) (‘Mankind
was born for action, as fire tends upward and the stone falls to the ground’). The pursuit
of happiness grew out of this need for pleasurable activity. It therefore followed that
Lykourgos had not understood the basics of human nature. Indeed, did Lykourgos ever
exist? The evidence is scanty: ‘nous n’avons point les règlements de police de Lacédémone;
nous n’en avons d’idée que par quelques lambeaux de Plutarque, qui vivait longtemps
après Lyucurgue’ (OC, xxx. 419) (‘we do not have the Spartan laws of governance; we
have some notion of them only through a few scraps from Plutarch, who lived long after
Nor was Denis Diderot (1713–84) more favourably inclined to Sparta, for all his great
love of ancient Greece. In his Encyclopédie article ‘Grecs (philosophie des)’, he treats
Lykourgos most summarily: ‘Il était réservé à [Lycurgue] d’assujettir tout un peuple à
une espèce de règle monastique’ (‘It was his task to subject a whole nation to a sort of
monastic rule’). His Politique des souverains (1774) ironically ascribes to Frederick II of
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Prussia, whom he detested, a couple of Spartan reflexions: ‘Le seul bon gouvernement
ancien est, à mon avis, celui de Lacédémone …Mes sujets ne seront que des ilotes sous
un nom plus honnête’, OC, ‘Philosophie II’, 480; ‘The only good government in antiquity,
I believe, is that of Sparta … My subjects will just be helots under a more polite name’).
A letter to Catherine II follows along the same lines: ‘Lycurgue fit des moines armés; sa
législation fut un sublime système d’atrocité’ (Correspondance, xiv. 82, 13 September
1774) (‘Lykourgos created monks bearing arms; his legislation was a sublime system of
atrocity’). The closest that Diderot comes to a measured statement on Sparta occurs in
a commentary on Claude‐Adrien Helvétius’s De l’homme: ‘Je ne blâme point les lois de
Lycurgue, je les crois seulement incompatibles avec un grand Etat et avec un Etat commerçant’ (‘Philosophie II’, 442) (‘I do not condemn Lykourgos’ laws, I simply consider
them incompatible with a large State and a commercial State’). The parallel here with
Montesquieu scarcely needs stressing. While Diderot is well aware of the inherent
­contradictions within modern capitalism, he was convinced that the way to overcome
them did not lie in a return to antique republics.
Similarly hostile views are encountered amongst several philosophes, Luc de
Vauvenargues (1715–47), while accepting the principle of total equality in Sparta, goes
on to say, however, that ‘rien n’est plus impracticable et plus chimérique’ (Guerci, 40n.)
(‘nothing is more impractical and more fanciful’). Anne‐Robert‐Jacques de Turgot
(1727–81), a leading Physiocrat and sometime contrôleur‐général des finances,
denounces Lykourgos’ esprit de système because it ‘détruit toute idée de propriété, viole
les droits de la pudeur, anéantit les plus tendres liaisons de sang’ (Guerci, 42) (‘destroys
every notion of property, violates the rights of modesty, annihilates the most tender
blood‐relationships’). He poured scorn on the Spartan treatment of the helots. Likewise
Paul Henri d’Holbach (1723–89) saw the Spartans as ‘des moines armés par un fanatisme politique’ (Guerci, 195–9) (‘monks armed by political fanaticism’), though he
allowed Lykourgos credit for employing public education in his own cause’ (Rawson,
258; Guerci, 195–90).
François‐Jean de Chastellux (1734–78) wrote his treatise De la félicité publique (1772)
as a riposte to Mably’s Entretiens de Phocion, though out of respect for the latter he
played down the polemical aspect. His work, so admired by Voltaire that he adorned his
own copy with bravos (Voltaire, Correspondence, D18067, letter to Chastellux,
7 December 1772), aims to demonstrate the superiority of modern to ancient times,
since antiquity lacked the personal basis of contemporary society: family bonds, love and
friendship, because everything had belonged to the State: ‘Qu’est‐ce donc que Sparte?
Une armée toujours sous les armes, si ce n’est plutôt qu’un vaste cloître … les simulacres
de guerre, le renoncement absolu aux arts, à l’agriculture, au commerce …la discipline
austère, les macérations, les réfectoires, les cérémonies publiques […] on se croit dans la
forteresse de Spandau’ (p. 79: cf. Rosso, 314–15) (‘What then is Sparta? An army constantly under arms, if it is not rather a vast monastery … war‐games, a total rejection of
the arts, agriculture and trade […], severe discipline, self‐mortifications, refectories,
public ceremonies … you think you are in the fortress of Spandau’.) Furthermore, the
hunting‐down of helots, which Chastellux says is a regular exercise, is described in chilling detail (pp. 83–4). Despite a tribute to Lykourgos, the author considers the latter’s
ideas as fundamentally flawed (pp. 90–2). Chatellux’s conclusions are trenchant: Sparta
is both pernicious and of no consequence for modern society – any more than all the
other Greek States of old.
The Literary Reception of Sparta in France
Helvétius (1715–71) is a refreshing novelty to the embattled ranks of the pro‐ and
anti‐Spartans. Although as much a materialist as Diderot and D’Holbach, he developed
his conceptions of Sparta to reach different conclusions. All our faculties, in his opinion,
are dependent on sensations: ‘L’âme […] se trouvera réduite à la seule faculté de sentir’,
Correspondence, 441, 12 July 1759; ‘The soul … will find itself reduced to the single
faculty of feeling.’ Human passions supply the essentials for our mode of life, whether it
be learning, art, commerce or warfare. Morality was therefore founded uniquely on ­self‐
interest – even apparently disinterested love: ‘Aimer, c’est avoir besoin’, De l’esprit, 279
(‘To love is to need’). These sensations depend on the basic search for pleasure and the
avoidance of pain. All our experiences are founded on that principle, not excluding
boredom and curiosity. This reduction of ethics to such egoistical motivations troubled
many of Helvétius’s friends, most notably Diderot. But Helvétius drew from it a set of
deeply humanist convictions, on the premise that education was the key to all social
These views led Helvétius to a distinctively original position on Sparta. At first sight
his praise for Lykourgos may seem conventional:
Ce grand homme, échauffé de la passion de la vertu, sentait que par des harangues, ou des
oracles supposés, il pouvait inspirer à ses concitoyens les sentiments dont lui‐même était
enflammé; que, profitant du premier instant de fureur, il pourrait changer la constitution du
gouvernement, et faire dans les moeurs de ce peuple une révolution subite, que, par les voies
ordinaires de la prudence, il ne pourrait exécuter que dans une longue suite d’années. Il sentait
que les passions sont semblables aux volcans dont l’éruption soudaine change tout à coup le
lit d’un fleuve … (De l’esprit, 247–8)
This great man, fired with the passion for virtue, felt that by harangues or imaginary oracles
he could inspire in his fellow‐citizens the feelings with which he was himself inflamed; that
by exploiting the first passionate moment, he could change the constitution and bring
about a sudden revolution in the ways of this nation that would be achievable only over a
long period of years by the usual prudent methods. He felt that passions are like volcanoes,
whose sudden eruption completely alters the course of a river …
Mably would have assented to the point of view displayed here. But the language used
by Helvétius to depict the seismic power of the passions is quite special. Here is no
oppressive lawmaker obliging his nation to pursue a stoical denial of self‐interest, but
rather a leader who, recognizing that ‘le plaisir est le seul moteur unique et universel des
hommes’ (De l’esprit, 289), has tapped into that dynamic source.
This approach becomes more explicit when Helvétius refers to those ‘fêtes solennelles’
(‘solemn festivals’) so troubling even to some admirers of Sparta, where ‘les belles et
jeunes lacédémoniennes s’avancent demi‐nues, en dansant, dans l’assemblée du peuple’
(ibid.) (‘the beautiful young Spartan girls advance, dancing semi‐naked amid the assembled public’). Thereby these delectable women turn the young men into heroes, fired by
‘l’assurance de ces faveurs … Peut‐on douter qu’alors ce jeune guerrier ne fût ivre de
vertu?’ (ibid.) (‘the assurance of these favours … Can one doubt that then this young
warrior was intoxicated by virtue?’) The author’s provocative reference to ‘vertu’ sufficiently indicates his utilitarian application of moralistic discourse. (As we have seen,
Rousseau interpreted this custom in a quite different spirit.)
The treatise De l’esprit (1758) proved such a radical challenge to orthodox morality
that its author chose not to publish again in his lifetime. The posthumous De l’homme
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(1773) pursues a similar line on Sparta, whose citizens are now seen as being ‘à peu près
aussi heureux qu’un peuple peut l’être’ (ii. 95) (‘almost as happy as a people can be’).
Helvétius rejects the view, almost a shibboleth among the philosophes, that Sparta was
some dismal monastery. If ‘on est bien nourri, bien vêtu, à l’abri de l’ennui, toute occupation est également bonne’ (ii. 245) (‘if one is well fed, well clad, free from boredom,
every way of life is equally good’).
Yet it had to be faced that this happy state was not definitive. Poverty eventually
became unbearable, the ‘clef de l’édifice’ (ii. 247) (‘the keystone to the building’) collapsed, and with it all the laws and customs. In any case, Spartan prosperity had been
enjoyed at the expense of the helots, ‘les Nègres de la République’ (ii. 409) (‘the slaves
of the Republic’). The citizens were free only at the expense of the rest: ‘la prétendue
communauté de biens des Spartiates ne pouvait…opérer chez eux le miracle d’une ­félicité
universelle’ (ibid.) (‘the so‐called communal property of the Spartans could not …
achieve for them the miracle of universal felicity’). The pursuit of happiness must, alas!,
be carried on by different means, in a vastly different world. Yet Sparta remains for
Helvétius a magnificent model of political equality, to challenge the spectre of despotism
in the world around him.
26.6 The French Revolution
On the eve of the Revolution the abbé Barthélemy published a formidably erudite work
of historical fiction, the Voyage du jeune Anacharsis en Grèce (1788), which proved a
great success. The work is an unconditional apology for Sparta, a city bent only on peace
and justice, and for its great legislator. The huge popularity the book enjoyed is symptomatic of a new mood which was to gather force with the fall of the Bastille. At about
the same time appeared a treatise violently attacking Sparta, Cornelius de Pauw’s
Recherches philosophiques sur les Grecs, which sees the city‐state as a purely military society,
driven by greed and malice. But it was the publication by the abbé Jean‐Jacques
Barthélemy which took the public accolade; opinion was ready for a sympathetic review
of how Sparta could fit the Revolutionary cause.
The Revolutionary years up to Thermidor and the fall of Robespierre witness this wave
of enthusiasm in France for Sparta, recalled by such leaders as Louis de Saint‐Just and,
pre‐eminently, Maximilien de Robespierre. At first, as Rosso points out, ‘Sparte ne reste
qu’un ornement ponctuel’ (424) (‘Sparta is no more than an isolated ornament’). It is
only with the establishment of the Convention and the outbreak of war (1792) that a
more radical national mood fully invokes the Lykourgan sense of patriotism, as the
Revolutionary leaders seek a new source of legitimate authority; but even then Spartan
sentiments are far from universally endorsed. Robespierre derives his admiration for the
ancient republic from his more intense attraction to Rousseau as author of the two
Discours and the Contrat social. For him Sparta was, in its glorious period, a democracy,
and ‘le refuge par excellence de la vertu’ (ibid., 437) (‘the outstanding refuge of virtue’).
So the newly‐born French republic must regenerate mankind, as Lykourgos had done.
Furthermore, frugality is of its essence and the sole path to happiness, seeing that wealth
engenders only corruption. Such was the message preached by Robespierre in the hundreds of political speeches which he tirelessly made during these tumultuous years. In his
The Literary Reception of Sparta in France
own words, ‘Sparte brille comme un éclair dans des ténèbres immenses’ (Report to the
Convention, 7 May 1794: cf. H. Morel, 308) (‘Sparta shines like a lightning‐flash amid
vast darknesses’).
However, Robespierre is by no means an unconditional supporter of Sparta. He views
Revolutionary France as superior to every model from Antiquity. Nor does Rousseau’s
hatred of luxury persuade him, any more than Rousseau himself, to espouse land‐sharing.
What particularly attracts Robespierre is Lykourgos’ enterprise to infuse a new love of
nationhood in his nation. As the political tension mounts to its climax, Robespierre is
persuaded to equate ‘virtue’ with ‘terror’, a far cry indeed from the conventional image
of Spartan ideals. But he is impressed, like many before him, by Lykourgos’ system of
public education. In this his enthusiasm is shared by Saint‐Just, who goes further than
Robespierre in contemplating the possibility of land‐shares. But by the time of his death
in 1794, Saint‐Just was moving towards Athenian ideas. In any event, his downfall along
with that of Robespierre signals the end of imitating Spartan philosophies in any shape
or form; and with the arrival of Napoleon, Sparta becomes a distant memory (cf. Rosso,
490–502). As Victor Hugo put it, ‘Ce siècle avait deux ans! Rome remplaçait Sparte’,
(Les feuilles d’automne: Rosso, 490). (‘This century was two years old! Rome was replacing Sparta’). This of course was not republican Rome, but the Roman Empire, revered
by Napoleon. Sparta ceases to be an ideological football, becoming instead the object of
impartial scholarly research.
26.6.1 Post‐revolution
The debate over Sparta had been a new form of the Battle between the Ancients and the
Moderns, between the defenders of civic patriotism and agrarian ideals on the one side
and the upholders of individual liberties and a commercially‐based society on the other.
After Thermidor, the Spartan ideals had become discredited by their association with
blood‐letting. (Nazism was to discredit Sparta similarly in post‐1945 Germany.) The
coup de grâce was effectively applied by Benjamin Constant (1767–1830) in a lecture
delivered in Paris in 1819 (De la liberté chez les modernes).
Constant established the distinction between pro‐ and anti‐Sparta in lucidly simple
terms as between two concepts of liberty: popular self‐government, and private
independence. In this alternative, he argued that any attempt to revive the ancient form
of liberty could lead only to political brutality. Spartan patriotism would always risk veering into xenophobia. But Constant also warns against the opposite danger, that, absorbed
in the pursuit of our particular interests, we might renounce too easily our share in
political power and the absolute necessity of justice. So he calls for a renaissance of the
public spirit within liberal principles, steering a course between the loss of civic responsibility and an excess of politicization. For, in this view, limited government and self‐
government are mutually reinforcing. Constant felt some admiration for Rousseau’s
attack on the Ancien Régime, but he also thought that that attack had failed to give a
sufficient place to the role of the opposition.
Even so, the idea of Sparta lived on into the nineteenth century, albeit in restricted
form, appropriated by Right‐Wing and Socialist thinkers alike. Joseph de Maistre (1753–
1821), a noted Catholic Royalist, admired the martial vigour of the ancient city.
Haydn Mason
A similar devotion to Church and country informs Maurice Barrès (1862–1923) a
century later, with specific attention given in Un voyage à Sparte (1905), following on
his travels in Greece. Rejecting the admiration for Athenian rationality and justice shown
by Ernest Renan (1823–92) in his Prière sur l’Acropole, Barrès discovers an extraordinary
national energy in Sparta, born of its eugenic principles, which chimed well with his
­profoundly nationalist opinions, particularly with regard to his native Lorraine, occupied
by Germany after the defeat of 1870. Such views, however, were more common in
German literature from the nineteenth century on, culminating in the Nazi regime.
On the Left, Emile de Laveleye (1822–92), an ardent Christian Socialist, admired
Spartan land‐sharing in his De la propriété (1874) amongst other works. This aroused a
riposte from Fustel de Coulanges (1822–92) who, in his Etude sur la propriété à Sparte
(1880), denounced Spartan egalitarianism, maintaining that Lycurgus had inclined less
to communist principles than to dictatorial methods (Christesen (2012)).
In the twentieth century, Athens as the exemplar of freedom comes to dominate.
One might suitably conclude this survey with Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929), hero
of World War I, defender of Alfred Dreyfus and ardent advocate of democratic self‐
government. Clemenceau saw collectivist thinking as a betrayal of individualism, the
negation of the Rights of Man and 1789. The great achievement of Athens was to have
developed a clear concept of personal values. A supporter of Sparta in the 1880s,
Clemenceau evolved into a fervent advocate of Athens, his views only strengthened by
the patriotic defence of France that the World War had nurtured.
Thus the locus classicus of the debate on Sparta is the period of conflict in the eighteenth century, as a system of government increasingly wavered and eventually fell.
Well before Constant’s lecture, Montesquieu had clearly discerned the political change
taking place:
Les politiques grecs, qui vivaient dans un gouvernement populaire, ne reconnaissaient
d’autre force qui pût les soutenir que celle de la vertu. Ceux d’aujourd’hui ne parlent que
de manufactures, de commerce, de finances, de richesses et de luxe même. (iii. 3)
Greek politicians, living under popular government, recognized no other sustaining force
than virtue. Today’s politicians speak only of manufactures, trade, finance, wealth and even
The rights of the individual in relation to government were being increasingly debated
in the period. Diderot’s Encyclopédie article ‘Autorité politique’ is a classic statement on
the subject: ‘Aucun homme n’a reçu de la nature le droit de commander aux autres.
La liberté est un présent du ciel.’ (‘No man has received from nature the right to
command others. Liberty is a gift from heaven.’) Yet total equality was not possible in
the modern world. Even Jaucourt, fervent admirer of Sparta, had to concede that: ‘je
connais trop la nécessité des conditions différentes, des grades, des honneurs, des
­distinctions, des prérogatives, des subordinations, qui doivent régner dans tous les gouvernements’ (‘I know only too well the need for different conditions, grades, honours,
distinctions, prerogatives, subordinations, which must hold sway in all governments’).
But many were appalled by a society based on privilege and consequent social estrangement.
Should not all honours be based on purely personal merit? Should concern for the public
good not precede all thoughts of gain? Did not the manifold examples of injustice,
already intolerable, threaten a decline into tyranny? Were there practical alternatives to a
system of Divine Right monarchy? The diverse opinions about Sparta were embedded in
The Literary Reception of Sparta in France
this larger discussion, which would reach its conclusion with the fall of the Bastille.
An understanding of pagan antiquity was essential to a Christian but increasingly secular
society; and of that pagan antiquity Sparta was a vital and prominent part.
1 Rosso (2005) 142. This is the most complete work on the subject. Rawson (1969) also remains
2 This remark may appear mystifying, unless one remembers that Rousseau is making a distinction between ‘honesty’ in the sense of ‘decency’, such as existed in contemporary Geneva, and
the morality of ancient Sparta, which supplemented that ethic with the extra dimension of
pro‐active ‘vertu’.
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Haydn Mason
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