This Is Not Sparta

This is a clip from Os Guiness, descendant of brewer Arthur Guiness and conservative Christian author and speaker. He’s arguing that Christians are making their cultural arguments very badly. He compares the public image of Christians making traditional arguments to “American Gothic.”

He argues that Christians need to make a better case as to why the cultural shifts they oppose are harmful to the Liberal proponents as well as their conservative opponents.

I’m 100% behind this so far. Conservative Christians need to adapt their arguments and focus on secular – meaning non-sectarian – reasoning. Arguing that harm will result from a certain legal shift would be a fair secular argument. But then Guiness goes on to make one of the strangest historical arguments I’ve ever heard:

“So for instance, you look at cultural Sparta, which was strong on homosexuals. A lot of people advocate the Spartan culture – homosexual, lesbians gay and so on. They forget, Sparta was strong on homosexuals, it was very bad on women.

Many of the cultures which have a high view of homosexuality have a very low view of women. And women whom we love and feminists who we appreciate; do they realize what they’re choosing?”

Ok, let’s break this down.

1) The whole argument rests on anachronism. The Spartans, like the rest of the ancient greeks, had no concepts like homosexual and heterosexual. They felt that humans were attracted to beauty, and their standard of beauty included the young, slightly androgynous male – think Michaelangelo’s David.

If we must bring modern concepts into this, it’s probably best to say that the greeks believed that everyone was bisexual.

2) The phrasing “strong on homosexuals” is odd. Taken generously, I suppose it could mean that the Spartans saw a place for male-male sex within their military culture. But again, this rests on anachronism.

The ancients believed that sex was always a power game: the dominant penetrator and the submissive penetrated. There was no place for a relationship of equals. Young men traded their sexual favors for guidance, protection and support, while older men got sex and status. This created hierarchies within the military that were supposedly beneficial. This is nothing like our ideas of egalitarian relationships today.

3) I don’t believe that Sparta was any worse than the surrounding cultures in regards to its treatment of women. In fact, it may have been moderately better. The fact that Spartan men were supposed to be completely focused on war left a great deal for women to do, and they had the necessary social and political power to do it. They controlled property, they could be literate and they could gain positions in political councils.

One thing is clear: they were better off than Athenian women.

4) I have yet to meet a liberal or homosexual of either gender that I would call “pro-spartan”. In my experience, Laconophilia is usually found among radicals who are outside the left-right spectrum. Calling liberals “advocates of Spartan culture” because they don’t oppose homosexual acts is like calling North Carolinians “advocates of Cuban culture” because both groups have a thing for tobacco.

At the very least, Guiness needs to propose a mechanism by which acceptance of homosexuality will result in a lower status for women. We can imagine some – men are off chasing men and have no time for women – but they don’t pass the laugh test and don’t have anything to do with Sparta.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    I agree with your criticisms, but at least its interesting to hear a novel argument.

  • Greg G.

    He’s not making any positive arguments here. He sounds like the David Barton of Greco-Roman history.

  • Machintelligence

    I’m sure (because I have encountered it) that some gays have a misogynist streak.
    They view women as competitors for other males.

    • nash984954

      WHAT!!!???Just because women have a vagina that a penis fits is no indication they are in competition with gay men for men sex partners. This is no different than the idiotic idea that women are monoliths and someone can write a book on getting them into the sack by finding the correct sex button that ALL women possess if you can just find it and press it and Boom you get laid. Women are as diverse as the number of women there are, and just because the human genitals appear more conducive for creating a copy of the species doesn’t mean much. Besides, with in vitro copulation to procreate relies less on the natural genital fittings.It’s similar to the nutty idea that male gays have to recruit since they can’t make babies with each other, again, in vitro solves that, but I’d guess the ones who make that argument also want their offspring to be gay like them.
      If what you say is true, then men are monoliths and finding the right button will get them laid with males or females, cuz after all their preference plays no part. Some idiot said the 1st sex experience is with one of your own gender, but no, no, no, my 1st partner was a 16 yr old female and to this day I’m in love with her still though we aren’t together, and none of my sexual experiences the length of my entire life(I’m 62) have been with my own gender.

  • Hitch’s Apprentice

    By his logic…. Evangelical Chrisitanity is GAY!!!!!!!!!

  • Michael

    I’ve heard this argument before. It’s a version of the “every society which has accepted homosexuals has fallen” argument, which is so blatantly hilarious it must have been first used as a poe before being picked up by ignorant rednecks.

    The problem, as Guinness makes clear, is not that neocons aren’t trying to make good arguments, it’s that they have no idea what good arguments look like.

  • lawrence090469

    Strong on homosexuals. For some reason I can’t stop thinking about “300″.

    • mitchw7959

      I can’t stop thinking about “Meet the Spartans.”

  • wombat

    His argument is so painfully wrong. For their time, the Spartans were rather progressive. Universal education for both boys and girls, no seclusion of women, marriage delayed to late teens/early twenties, and even property rights for women.

    • Grotoff

      Progressive? They were the largest slave society in the Greek world. A tiny elite of true Spartans sat atop a large level of lower class non-citizen workers and auxiliaries, and they all sat on a truly enormous base of slaves. It was the ritual of the Spartan to murder a slave in order to become a man. Don’t be a fool.

      • wombat

        Should I perhaps say, progressive in their treatment of citizen women. Many of their other policies were as backward as their neighbours, or worse.

        Calling someone names usually isn’t a great way to start a dialogue.

        • Grotoff

          I am just sick to death of people abusing ancient civilizations for their own particular hobbyhorses. Guinness is a fool, and we shouldn’t model ourselves after him.

          It’s certainly true that elite Spartan women had status in Spartan civilization. But only in the creepiest and most fascist ways. The only people worthy of having their names on their headstones were men who died in battle and women who died in childbirth. They were considered to have died in service to the polis. Women from the ruling oligarchical families certainly wielded influence. But you could say the same about Carolingian queen mothers, or other rich women over the years. It is not comparable to modern egalitarian society.

          • wombat

            Comparing societies which exist millenia apart is interesting, but it’s not something to base a philosophy on. They exist in their own time, and reflect the values of that time. So they really don’t work when compared with today.

            On the other hand, comparing them with the civilisations of their own time makes far more sense, and that was what I was getting at. When seen in comparison with the ideals of classical Athens, for example, they look relatively progressive in their treatment of women, but Gortyn may have been better still – again, according to the standards of the day. But their treatment of the helot population has no real parallel in other city-states of that era, and it has been suggested that other states found the Spartan way of dealing with them abhorrent, and the evidence we have of that treatment may be skewed by the attitude of the primarily Athenian historians that are preserved.

            Trying to create parallels between ancient civilisations and the present day is a minefield. Even the way they thought was different, their ideas about life, property, and rights are alien to us.

            • Grotoff

              They were people. They had the same brain that we have. Human nature is one. It’s a swift slope into lunacy to claim we can not compare moral values between cultures or times. Would you also claim that there was nothing wrong about Aztec human sacrifice? Or American slavery? Or Hitler’s Holocaust? According the value paradigms that the elites in those societies accepted, their behavior was not evil. In fact, it was good. Does that make them beyond reproach?

              We should definitely condemn the Spartan’s treatment of women and slaves. We should condemn all of human history’s treatment of women and slaves. Those people were no different from us. It is bigoted to suggest otherwise, to pretend that only modern people are capable of moral reasoning.

            • wombat

              I’m bigoted for recognising that a civilisation that existed some two and a half millenia ago had different social mores which make it difficult to make a good comparison to modern societies?
              I said nothing about condemning or not condemning, you’re welcome to do either. And I sure as hell did not pretend that only modern people are capable of moral reasoning. But you’re pretending that moral reasoning has not varied on the entire history of humanity. What you’re saying is essentially that we should hold older societies to our own code of ethics, without taking into account the evolution of society on that time. And that’s not how the study of classical civilisations works.

            • Grotoff

              Human rights have never changed. Only who counts as a full human has.

              Yes, you are bigot against ancient civilizations. Slavery and the denigration of women was just as wrong then as now, and your pretense otherwise is presentism. Plenty of people at the time knew it, just read the great Greek satirists.

            • wombat

              I’m a bigot because I attempt to understand their world instead of judging it. Gotcha. And trying to understand them on their terms is presentism. Sure. This is not how classical studies is done.

            • Grotoff

              Yes, I’m glad you are beginning to understand. “Understanding them on their own terms” is fundamentally the same as “The Nazis were acting with perfect ethics when you take their point of view”. It’s one thing to determine and understand the point of view of other people. It’s entirely another to say that they are fine to hold that view. To endorse them by saying “Oh that’s just how they were.” We shouldn’t judge the Southern slaveholder who rapes and beats his slaves because in his mind it was ethically justifiable? That’s a bankrupt and bigoted philosophy.

            • wombat

              I’m calling Godwin. Good day.

            • Grotoff

              Moral relativism absolutely requires a defense of the Nazis, silly internet meme be damned. They had a coherent ethical philosophy that placed particular races above others. It was the ethical thing to do to exterminate the lower races, giving the superior race more room to exercise its greatness.

              Obviously, they were specifically wrong about “races” of humanity. They rejected the humanity of fellow people and conspired for their misery and destruction. They were evil. This is a utilitarian justification for their status as evil people.

              The fact that the Nazis were evil shouldn’t be taken as a given. Moral relativism has nothing to say about the question. If you are comfortable with this then say so.

              Whether it was 70 years ago or 70,000, humanity had one nature. Women have been fighting for their rights since before Hatshepsut. Slaves have been revolting since before the Exodus. People have given justifications for the mistreatment of other humans for millenia. Their age does not lend them any wisdom.

            • Yoav

              How do you get from this discussion to moral relativism boggle my mind. Guiness made a specific claim that a society which is tolerant toward male homosexuality would necessarily be worse for women, under these conditions Wombat’s pointing to the fact that Spartan women were, with all the caveats, not worse off then women in other contemporary societies where homosexuality was not tolerated is all that is needed to disprove Guiness assertion. Your insistence that this must be considered an unequivocal endorsement of the entire Spartan social system make no sense what so ever.

            • Grotoff

              wombat made this about moral relativism by pretending that comparing ancient societies to modern ones, or even criticizing ancient societies, is somehow out of bounds. The pretense that we can only “take societies as we find them” is nonsensical.

              Spartan women did not, in fact, enjoy much greater influence over their polis than, say, Athenian women. Even elite women had their power circumscribed by their male peers. Obviously, this has little to do with whether or not homosexual behavior is considered taboo or not. Guinness is a fool. But the point is a false one. Sparta was not a progressive society, not even in its treatment of women. Extraordinary women, like Aspasia is Athens, could have achievements. That was not the case for the vast majority.

            • Kevin R. Cross

              Except that you are, at base, wrong. Athenian women had virtually no power save through their husbands or sons; Spartan women provided the backbone of their cultural and mercantile society. No matter who was given a gravestone, the records that survive (admittedly fragmentary though they are) mention Spartan women, some by name, as often as Spartan men – wheras less than a handful of Athenian women’s names have come down to us. So yes, I would say the Spartans really were more progressive, in their treatment of women, than the Athenians (or pretty much any of the other Greek city states). A Spartan woman ran her household – in actuality, not according to custom that seems to have been ignored as often as followed.

            • Grotoff

              Nonsense. You have citations for the ridiculous claim that records “mention Spartan women as often as Spartan men”? In practical terms, women often ran the affairs of the house. As they did in Athens, and as they have done throughout the history of patriarchal societies. Spartan women were NOT the backbone of the cultural/mercantile class. They were the male residents of Sparta, and its surrounding cities, who did not classify as full Spartans but who were also not helots.

              Full Spartan women, those of the highest upper class, were trained along side boys and treated well. The Spartan warrior ethos was transmitted to female citizens as well, though they demonstrated it in different ways. But these were the 1% of the 1%.

  • Kevin R. Cross

    I wonder if he noticed that the nation that finally humbled the Spartans was Thebes – you know, of the Sacred Band fame? Or that Thebes was defeated by Macedonia, which also had no problem with male on male sexuality…

  • Bubba

    Greek homosexuality sounds a lot like how Gorillas act in the wild, with the silverback mating with a less dominant male.

  • nash984954

    Candace Chellew-Hodge at religiondispatches pretty much couches religious right’s basic goal on the ‘homosexual’ problem, as she writes about Sylvia Thompson’s cheering Putin’s anti-gay stance in Russia which has hurt a lot of gay people since it was adopted as policy.

  • Per

    The funny thing is that he is kind of right in principle but choses the exact opposite example to illustrate it. Ancient Greece was a very misogynous culture. Every positive trait was masculine, every negative a feminine, the pederastic tradition even implies they didn’t even rate as sex objects.
    Sparta however was the great exception in this as in many other things. Firstly contrary to popular belief, virtually everything we know suggests homosexual acts, even with children weren’t tolerated. All ancient and contemporary sources(Xenophon, Plutarch. Aelian), adressing the mentor system claims carnal relation with their charges were a capital crime. No homosexual depictions whatsoever has been found in their art, while there are plenty in Athens and Corinth. and their gender integration and the extreme lengths their customs went into linking sex with procreation doesn’t suggest acceptance of homosexual behaviour either.

    Secondly the female empowerment in Sparta weren’t merely a matter of degree, The rest of Greece viewed their influence and freedom with scandalized fascination. Aristotle called Sparta a gynarchia, a state ruled by women, in his treatise on the Spartan constitution, he goes into details of their greed and their
    negative influence on the state. His explanation for this sorry state of
    affairs in Sparta are the martial races greater libido and the Spartan
    men’s lack of male love which have allowed the women to pussywhip them.

    “Again, the license of the Lacedaemonian women defeats the intention of the
    Spartan constitution, and is adverse to the happiness of the state. For, a
    husband and wife being each a part of every family, the state may be considered
    as about equally divided into men and women; and, therefore, in those states in
    which the condition of the women is bad, half the city may be regarded as having
    no laws. And this is what has actually happened at Sparta; the legislator wanted
    to make the whole state hardy and temperate, and he has carried out his
    intention in the case of the men, but he has neglected the women, who live in
    every sort of intemperance and luxury. The consequence is that in such a state
    wealth is too highly valued, especially if the citizen fall under the dominion
    of their wives, after the manner of most warlike races, except the Celts and a
    few others who openly approve of male loves. The old mythologer would seem to
    have been right in uniting Ares and Aphrodite, for all warlike races are prone
    to the love either of men or of women. This was exemplified among the Spartans
    in the days of their greatness; many things were managed by their women. But
    what difference does it make whether women rule, or the rulers are ruled by
    women? The result is the same.”
    Aristotle, Politics, book 2 chapter 9

  • vulfhild

    “The ancients believed that sex was always a power game: the dominant penetrator and the submissive penetrated. There was no place for a relationship of equals.”

    Not buying it. Possibly one of the dumbest blanket statements I’ve ever read.

    ” he would prefer to die many deaths: while as for leaving the one he loves in a lurch” Phaedrus, The Symposium.