Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Thought Experiment: Emulating Sparta

Occasionally I have the opportunity to listen to lectures online, and I've been progressing slowly, sporadically, but enjoyably through the free Yale lecture series on Ancient Greece. Today I was listening to the lecture by Dr. Kagan on Sparta, which was and remains famous for its intensive, rigorous, dedication to their polis; as well as their militaristic methods for maintaining it.

It is difficult to not be at once both impressed and appalled by the Spartans. It is impressive that a people would be so unified in mind and purpose to organize their entire society around such a distinct and vividly portrayed ideal. It is appalling when you see some of the lengths to which they went, and some of the strange results that were reported to have occurred.

For instance, Dr. Kagan relates a story told by one of the ancient historians about a Spartan youth. Spartans in training were fed only enough to survive and be fit for their tasks, but no more. They often sought to hunt and steal food, but if caught were severely punished. Once, a Spartan youth had caught a ferret and was preparing to kill it, but at the same moment the call to forms ranks was sounded. The boy, rather than lose his meal, stuffed the ferret into his cloak and joined the ranks. As the boy stood motionless awaiting inspection, the ferret began to eat into the boy's side. The boy, trained to ignore pain for whatever mental purpose was required, remained motionless. Eventually the ferret chewed his way to one of the boy's vital organs, and the boy dropped dead in the ranks.

Whether or not such a story is true, it is striking portrait of the mastery of mind over body that results from the rigorous training program through which each Spartan boy was made to pass. It is also a striking portrait of the strange abominations that can result from rigorous devotion to a misplaced ideal. The Spartan youth had been trained to care so little for his flesh as to allow it to be destroyed for the sake of what eventually cost him that which he would preserve. Whether the fault is in the boy or the training is less my present concern that the potential good consequences of a rigorous devotion to a set of ideals, which is accompanied by training equal to the task.

What would it look like for the Church of God to be so zealously committed to the cause of reconciling the world to Christ the King of Kings that every implementation of their collective effort was designed to realize that ideal?