Sunday, August 29, 2004

A reader writes about my Spartan analogy:

Spartans and modern America? Collectivistic Spartans with *individualistic* Americans? Are you serious? Come on, get real! Do you know *anything* about how a Spartan agoge works? There's NO comparison with anything in America.

Complaining about the elimination of "childishness" from American childhood? Meanwhile, the "conservative" critics here are complaining that society embraces "childishness" too much and that Americans in general are refusing to "grow up."

What gives here?

Well, at least this reader doesn't suffer from passivity, casuistry, vagueness or insincerity. A healthy dose of charity would be a nice addition, but no matter.

Reader, I'm glad you picked up on the paradox at work here: we increasingly erode (or drag) childhood into adulthood, but also hedonistically warp adulthood into an extended adolescence (as another reader put it). We are thus both eroding childhood and infantilizing adulthood. The problem is that the predicates of each age -- mature childhood and adolescent adulthood -- are illegitimate and therefore harmful to members of both age groups. Wizened kids make for wizened, even cynical, adults; and puerile adults make for, well, just look around. The common denominator, the prime drive, in both cases is economic well-being, commercial fitness, consumerism.

As for the invalidity of my Spartan analogy, you should heed what my old roommate always liked to say: "Don't focus on the wrong part of the story." I was merely discussing *aspects* of Spartan and US culture, not trying to analyze and harmonize every jot and tittle in them. No analogy is horrible just because it's not perfect. In fact, an analogy is meant to link only similar *parts* of two dissimilar things, in this case the economic attitude of the USA with the militant attitude of Sparta. Given your obvious expertise in the ways of Spartan life, you will recall how early and how systematically they toughened their children for battle. As well as how the left the weak to die upon the hills. Chilling similarities in otherwise plainly dissimilar cultures.

My point was and is that we regard economic fitness as our summum bonum, whereas the Spartans held military prowess as the primary end. (In both cases, I admit, these may actually just be means for that widely recognized universal greatest goal, happiness, but I hope you catch my drift.) The issue is not whether we or the Spartans are individualistic or collectivist, since that describes only economic principles. Rather the point is that we are as spartan about commerce as the Spartans were about battle. We are, to use terms you might be more comfortable with, individualistic economic Spartans, whereas the Spartans were collectivist social spartans.

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