Platonizing the Spartan politeia in Plutarch’s Lycurgus

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Abstract

Is it best for a constitution (πολιτεία, politeia) to be steered by knowledge or governed by law? And if by law, is it better for these laws to be written down in an external medium such as stone or bronze, or for them to be written only in the hearts of citizens, learned by listening and observing? Questions about the value of law and of writing are debated in many of Plato’s dialogues, and played out in diverse ways in the formulation of imaginary regimes such as Kallipolis in the Republic, the statesman-governed city of the Statesman, and Magnesia in the Laws. Beginning with a review of these debates, this paper argues that we can see a comparable philosophically informed ideal society in the distinctive portrait of Sparta drawn by Plutarch in his Lycurgus. In that ‘life’ of the possibly legendary eighth-century bc Spartan lawgiver, Plutarch presents Lycurgan Sparta as a society in which ethical habituation is best achieved without written laws, and so as an alternative to both the imaginary ideal regimes and indeed all the historical cities which Plato describes in his dialogues, none of which for their part do without written law. While Plutarch’s essays collected in his Moralia are studded with deeply Platonic metaphysical and theological speculations (Jones 1980 [1916]), Platonic perspectives have also more recently been identified in the Lives of classical Greek and Roman statesmen written by this first-to-second-century ad Greek living under Roman rule, and in particular in the Lycurgus and its paired life Numa. One scholar remarks that ‘both the Lycurgus and the Numa, the former especially, are full of Platonist ideas’ (Wardman 1974: 207); others observe that ‘one begins to feel certain that Plut[arch] had been reading the Leges [Laws] while working on the Lycurgus’ (Helmbold and O’Neil 1959: 58). It has not previously been suggested that among these Platonist ideas may belong Plutarch’s famous presentation of Lycurgus as having refrained from and even prohibited the writing down of his laws (Lyc. 13.1, 13.3).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationPoliteia in Greek and Roman Philosophy
PublisherCambridge University Press
Pages57-77
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781139096843
ISBN (Print)9781107020221
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities

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