2500 years ago, at the birth of western civilisation as we know it, there where two political nodes from which the ancient Greek world organised itself. One one side you had The City: a vibrant, messy republic. And on the other, the Castle: an austere militaristic society. I am referring to the classical match up of Athens and Sparta. Ultimately, the idea of the City and the Castle refer to bedrock notions of what the idea political body should be: one based on civil duty, and the other, righteous hierarchy.
These rivals created the bedrock of western political thinking; I would argue that each society has, since ancient times, wrestled with a political spectrum with Athens at one end and Sparta on the other. This political spectrum is both more realistic and even more practical than the clunky, outdated and ideologically motivated American conception of the political spectrum, i.e., Communism on the far left and extreme libertarianism/ anarchy and or fascism on the right (depending on who you ask), with American society perfectly balanced distinctly on the right in the realm of laissez-faire capitalism.
The political spectrum of the City and the Castle is also more complex and nuanced then a clunky authoritarianism vs freedom sense of the political spectrum. This means that the Castle does not mean “authoritarianism” and the City does not mean “freedom,” though these concepts are definitely integral to both respectively.
Athens and Sparta represent the two poles, or ideals of the western political landscape. Every society and government primarily appeals to one or the other; and while every society will have both impulses, a given government or ruler will appeal to one ideal or the other. For example, I would like the 20th century totalitarianisms of Stalinism and Nazisim with a radical shift towards the Castle. While the French Revolution could be seen as a bringing-into-line of the French political system with a socio-economic system which had already shifted along the lines of the City.
The Castle – the fundamental sense that there is a righteous, received hierarchy and order to society – is best seen in Sparta, but other examples might be feudal Europe and various authoritarian units throughout western history, ranging from the likes of Oliver Cromwell to Pinochet. There are numerous advantages: military strength and high social cohesion between the two big ones. But the idea of the Castle is as much psychological and social as it is political. As Herbert Marcuse said: “people do not want to be free.” The strength of the Castle is it’s clearly delineated social hierarchy closely linked to an ideology with religious overtones, i.e., “One God in Heaven, One King on Earth.” The Castle provides its people with simple, unquestioned answers to life’s vexing questions.
static, oppressive, brittle, ignorant
The City – exemplified originally by Athens – rests on a conception of shared humanity. Thus the human individual is a citizen – with rights and duties – rather than a subject or member of a folk. The City doesn’t equate to democracy, or even a republic necessarily. It’s about the fundamental conception of how the political body should function: how it is envisioned. The City is where the idea of the public good is primary. The strength of the City is it’s vibrancy. By this I mean more than simply “freedom.” The idea of the polis – a rational, human-oriented political unit – assists human individuals with pursuing their own well being. It is this social framework of the public good which enables tremendous social energies to be released.
The drawback with the Castle is its static conception society and life in an ever changing world. The Castle is oppressive: the result a psychological and emotional stunting of it’s people. It is a narrow conception of society and life which some psychological profiles crave, but few thrive in. Strong leaders of the Castle are almost unstoppable, but wise, great men are always in short supply and one wise man is not enough to rule an entire society. Ask any autocrat ever.
The weakness of the City is it’s trouble with social and political cohesion. Implicitly based on ideas of equality and moral relativism, it lacks a sense of divine sanction. It is hard to ask people to sacrifice themselves – either their lives or their sense of profit and gain – for an indistinct and abstract ‘public good.’ The City is more complicated psychologically, intellectually and emotionally. It’s much harder to sustain; it requires much more privileged circumstances to function properly. The most successful republics – Athens, Venice, Holland, England, and America are at once the most dynamic societies but also incredibly rare and fragile. The Venetian Republic, for example, was a totally unique production of geographic location (islands in lagoon which both protected the Venetians and inhibited the rise of the feudal system), historical confluence (the Hunnic invasions, the fall of the Roman Empire), and cultural factors (the intellectual and cultural heritage of Athens and Rome. These factors combined to create a unique sense of civic pride and duty amongst the citizens of Venice.
The Peloponnesian War – the WWII of ancient Greece – was eventually won by Sparta. Plato’s Republic is in many ways inspired by Sparta, and since then the lovers-of-all-things Spartan have only gained ground. Sparta resonates with many people, where as nobody makes movies about Athenians.
But there is a problem. There are no actual Spartan accounts of being Spartan. Everything we know about the ancient Spartans was written by other Greeks: Athenians, Thebans, Corinthians. When we refer to the birth of western civilisation, we are referring to Athens at the height of its glory. Yes, the entire ancient Greek world played its part here, but it is Athens that produced the great philosophers and the artists that created a lasting civilisation. Sparta won the War because it remained defensive; Sparta merely survived. It never conquored. Sparta rode high until they where defeated by the Thebans. And then they where gone. And we are all Athenians now.
America was founded upon the ideas of The City: secular humanism, civic duty an the public good. These values are at the root of what makes America great. These ideas are under attack, to the point of being destroyed. Make no mistake: patriotism and people shouting about loving freedom do not guarantee freedom, nor will it matter when it comes to maintaining a republic in this country. It’s the idea of the public good, linked with secular humanism which is the essence of American democracy, not guns and bibles. Corporate greed – the profit maximisation principle – and the religious right are two principles which seek to destroy the idea of the public good, which both limits profits and stands in implicit contradiction to the fundamentalist mindset.
It’s now or never.