Delphi: Insight into the Spartan Mind and Philosophy during the Time of Leonidas

"No one is free, if he cannot command himself" Pythagoras

It is important to keep in mind that history is written by the victorious and then is further filtered through the minds of future writers. In their humanness they will color their documents through their own social, economic, religious and philosophical beliefs and prejudices. Educating ourselves to the actual truth thousands of years after an event has happened or a culture has disappeared is very difficult. The majority of people rely solely on written history and archeological assumptions. As I have stated before, I have little trust in the truth of a travel writer putting forth as fact religious and philosophical assumptions of the Spartans. He would be identified as an observer and not a participant of the knowledge that he is putting forth as truth. On the other hand, I would consider as certainty such things as his numbering of statues within the environs of Lacedemonia. This is straight forward, and if you can count—no problem. But delving into the mind and spirit of a culture long gone and putting forth as truth your assumptions is the height of arrogance. (Of course, we must ask, who is the greater contributor to the false image of the Spartans—the travel writer or the comic book author?) As a religious philosopher, I ponder the mysteries of creation, heaven and earth in the mundane as well as spiritual aspects. Knowledge of the past is also a mystery as much as we may want to make certain things concrete facts; it is still a mystery that cannot be proven one way or the other. So insight into the Spartan Mind and Philosophy during the Time of Leonidas is a mystery and needs to be approached as such. All of my knowledge of the ancient Spartans is during the lifetime of Leonidas, not before his birth or after his death. If historical and archeological writings and assumptions may be leading us down an illusionary path, where can we turn to make sense of the distant past and discover an alternative to commonly accepted and taught truths? If the written word is suspect, what else is there…? Common sense, intuitive sense, soul knowledge, and what I call participation mystique. This is not an attempt to replicate a culture that is no longer in existence but to experience basic parameters of life that have a consistency to them over many lifetimes. For example, a person with a ‘strong mind’ today is no different than a person with a ‘strong mind’ 2500 years ago.[i] And from these consistencies we would have more of a ‘knowing’ of the past.
I believe that there needs to be an alternative picture of the Spartans during Leonidas’ time. In my heart, I also believe that their philosophies of Freedom, Equality, and Unity, One with Nature, Silence, Natural Law and Life as an Egalitarian Community are desperately needed in today’s dysfunctional world.
Where may we discover an alternative view of the Spartans? Two places: Delphi and the museum in Sparti. I’ve already discussed the ascending serpent imagery as well as the chaining of Ares and Aphrodite. Sparta had a closer connection to Delphi than most people realize. One of the Seven Sages of Greece was Chilon of Sparta. It is a little known fact that three of the primary Delphi maxims, and there are many, inscribed on the Temple of Apollo may be attributed to Chilon. These three maxims symbolized ancient attributes connected with Zeus. The three maxims: Know Thyself, Nothing in Excess and Keep the Measure. I refer to these as the Triple Secret of Delphi. Briefly I will explain how these help us discover the mind and philosophy of the Spartans: Know Thyself: "Those who know others are wise. Those who know themselves are enlightened."[ii] ‘Know Thyself’ means being ‘complete’ and more consciously (and fully) understanding and living out all the potentials contained in who we are as an individual. If there is some truth in the training and education of the Spartan youth then we may see this maxim as an underlying foundation of their culture. All aspects of life allowed self-discovery of one’s body, mind and spirit. No one would be able to hide from the fact of who they were and their relationship to others, to the ancestors, to the land and to ‘Sparta.’ They accepted and perfected themselves in accordance to their potential and their relationship to the community as a whole. Nothing in Excess: On the surface this maxim seems straight forward. But there are deeper meanings to this maxim of Chilon’s. These inner realizations provide insight into the mind and philosophy of the Spartans during the time of Leonidas. This maxim is based on the Greek “sôphrosunê, which means moderation, self-control, soundness of mind, and the harmonia (well-balanced integration) of the soul.”[iii] Moderation, self-control and soundness of mind are three of the four keys to Nothing in Excess. Focusing just on a belief of a societal behavior of ‘nothing too much’ may lead to false assumptions about the Spartans as being austere and ascetic body obsessed militaristic-minded people with villages somewhat akin to ‘stone-age dwellings’ or plain wooden huts with grimy hulks of men strutting around showing off their muscles. This view of the Spartans is focused totally on the body and war and is lop-sided and the total opposite of a concept of moderation. Moderation means not doing things excessively. This includes one's thoughts, actions and desires. (Can you see the connection with the chaining of the statues of Ares and Aphrodite?). Moderation would also deem that education was not one sided focusing purely on fitness and military training but would have included music, poetry and dance. Interestingly dance is one of the basic means warrior cultures utilized in their training of their warriors—it’s all about movement and body and mind as one. Yes, the Spartans were disciplined but it was an internal discipline not externally enforced. Many writers and others not understanding this maxim have portrayed the Spartans as mindless, body obsessed, fighting machines embracing a life of self-denial—no leisure here. Self-control: This is the essential quality of being able to ‘command oneself.’ This is a unique ability seldom sought in our present day culture. To ‘command ourselves’ means that we have, and still are, waging the greatest conflict—the inner one.  The ancient Greek word for commander is koiranos, which usually meant leader, commander or ruler king/queen. But it could just as well have referred to the ancient Spartans, men as well as woman, who were par excellent at ‘commanding one’s self.’ Only by delving into the inner recesses of our soul may we discover some measure of truth. (See Keep the Measure) In other words we have overcome our lesser human self.[iv] This is a continuous process of change and transformation without regard for our own ends knowing that we are bound up with the larger destiny of Sparta. Command of self also refers to the concept of sacrifice self-to-self. Soundness of mind speaks for itself. The first three qualities of sôphrosunê speak to the aspects of body and mind. The fourth and last, and possibly the most important, is of the spirit: harmonia—a well-balanced integration of the soul—may we say the ‘soul of Sparta.’ “Harmonia, which is usually translated as ‘harmony,’ but means any union in which the parts form a seamless whole while retaining their distinct identities. Harmonia is the daughter of sea-born Aphrodite and fiery Ares, whom Empedocles identified with Love and Strife, the two primary cosmic forces, which bring about all change in the universe. Pythagoras likewise said that cosmic Harmonia is born of the union of Love and Strife. She reconciles all oppositions.”[v] Metaphorically, harmonia is a blending of the opposites of Fire (Absolute/Heaven) and Water (Relative/Earth) that results in harmony and an Oneness of Self. The fundamental idea of the blending of opposites is “to achieve a harmonious state, the proper mixture, the solution, which frees us to see the right way. In action it is finding the middle way, taking the right action (which may be inaction).”  It takes courage and command of one’s self to blend opposites. This is the blending of light and dark, which we may visually experience at dawn and dusk, and the blending of the “I’ into the “We,” and the “We into the “I.” Keep the Measure: This maxim may be traced to Apollo himself as he was the god of measure, science, philosophy, and the higher intellectual activities. It refers to the interpenetrative unity of the diversity of creation. Keep the Measure relates to the relationship of self (subject) to other (object). It is a knowing of the measure of our self (Know Thyself) and the knowledge of other things. Living this maxim means that we must keep the proper measure and relationship between us and all other things. In other words, living in a balanced state of being. In conflict, you know the measure of your brothers - doubt has no place to rest its head! And this is where silence comes into play. A friend, who is a Zen Roshi, follows a simple principle, which could have originated and come directly from the Spartans: Don’t explain; don’t complain. If you mouth is chattering and your mind is chattering the ‘measure’ between you and the other person is lost. It’s all about ‘you.’ And a silent mouth is a silent mind, a consciousness which would be focused in the present—aware and balanced. Additionally, this maxim included the aspects of self-sacrifice and sacrifice self-to-self. Briefly, the measure of a Spartan during the time of Leonidas: Oneness of body/mind; oneness of peer/peers; oneness of individual/Spartan society; oneness of self-sacrifice/sacrifice self-to-self, oneness with nature; and freedom and equality within the concept of ‘keep the measure.’ If you are wondering about this ponder “any union in which the parts form a seamless whole while retaining their distinct identities.” All three of these maxims are not stand alone but blend and intertwine together. In this way we may see a little clearer into the mind and philosophy of the Spartans during the time Of Leonidas. There is another trait of the Spartans that I will also briefly mention. Most people are aware that the adult Spartans at the time of Leonidas wore their hair long. There are many reasons for this but the one that may escape you is the spiritual essence of hair. The part of our body that is closest to the ‘gods and goddess.’ However, this is not the trait I will discuss. That trait is the ‘stare.’[vi] The eyes of the veterans were, to say the very least, intense. This intensity was not one of arrogance but of confidence and a ‘strong mind.’ This intensity could have the effect for a split second, and that is all that you need, to paralyze and subdue the mind of your opponent. The cut of the helmet only emphasized the ‘stare.’ The mind of the Spartan would not be attached to fear but his opponent would be for that brief moment; and that is all the time you need to overcome him. This is connected with Athena’s attribute of the intelligent conduct of war. And from this we may see the connection to Medusa! It was her ‘gaze’ that could paralyze you. This power comes from the ancient Greek verb drakeîn—to see strong. From this we derive the word Drakon meaning not only dragon but large serpent/water serpent. This all comes from the ancient mythology of the power of serpents to paralyze their pray. I have just briefly gone over the above concepts. To understand them fully and to make them a part of you, you would need a teacher to guide and direct your development. Join us in Greece and Sparta (Sparti) and/or Norway and Iceland and I will happily be your guide and teacher. JC
[i] Basically a strong mind is a non-dualistic mind. An 'ordinary' mind is a dualistic mind where all reality is viewed through the prism of right - wrong, success - failure past - future. Now one step further, this dualistic mind generates tension/stress in the body due to its mind tension of separation where life is lived in an ongoing stress of either - or. If you have a strong mind you live in the present only visiting the past and future under your own choice and power and there is no concept for example of success or failure and therefore no body tension and thus less of an opportunity for disharmony and dis-ease to occur within the body.
[ii] Tao Te Ching, 33
[iii] John Opsopaus, Guide to the Pythagorean Tarot, p. 89
[iv] There is the concept of the Inner Beast, which is too detailed and complex to explain and teach in this article.
[v] John Opsopaus, Guide to the Pythagorean Tarot, p. 88
[vi] This is not a hard focus but a ‘soft detached’ one.