Skip to content

You can't have one without the other

Dear Uma: Imagine a culture, a society, without arrogance or envy, luxury and crime, where everyone owns land, and merit, not money, is the measure of a man's worth. In this place there is no silver or gold; the coin of the realm is crude pieces of iron.

Dear Uma:

Imagine a culture, a society, without arrogance or envy, luxury and crime, where everyone owns land, and merit, not money, is the measure of a man’s worth.

In this place there is no silver or gold; the coin of the realm is crude pieces of iron. It has no intrinsic value, therefore there is no import of luxury items, leading to a society without robbery, or bribery.

All useless occupations are banned, with no one practising fraud, prostitution, or other trades of larceny. The rich have no advantage over the poor because wealth is useless. Greed and poverty are non-existent; there is equality and independence. Equality because everyone lives in simple houses and eats at a common table and independence because their wants are small.

All meals are eaten communally, with each household required to bring a quota of food and drink each month. The rich cannot not spend their lives at home, lying on their couches and stuffing themselves with unwholesome delicacies, ruining their minds as well as their bodies.

Houses are built using only an axe and a saw, resulting in a ‘rustic’ look for every home. A look that is repeated in the household goods and furniture, anything else appearing foolish and inappropriate, if indeed fancier goods were even available, which they are not.

Frankness in all conversation is expected, as is the giving and taking jokes with good humour. It is of maximum importance when speaking to make one’s point in a brief, comprehensive manner and to be always polite in one’s delivery.

Laws are not put in writing as it is believed to be imprinted in the minds of citizens through a good education, an education good enough to make law superfluous.

Children are not the property of their parents, but members of the society. They grow up free and active, without crybaby ways; they are not afraid of the dark, or finicky about their food.

At the age of seven, boys leave home and go to live under military discipline where they learn not only command and obedience, but literacy as well.

Girls are required to run and exercise; there is shame in being fat, or weak. They grow up to be good judges of men and the men grow up without weakness or cowardice.

Children learn the habit of long silence, so that when they finally speak, their words have weight and are noticed.

At the age of 30, a couple may set up a household together. The time spent together is rare; they don’t not suffer disgust at too much togetherness but have always an appetite for one another’s company. Jealousy is forbidden.

The members of this society spend their time practising music and dancing, hunting, or going to the exercise grounds and places of public conversation. There is no preoccupation with business as wealth commands no respect.

They engage in war, but not often and not for long. In the battlefield, with the enemy on the run, the pursuit is only long enough to be certain of victory. It is considered to be uncivilized to slaughter a foe who is not fighting but running for his life.

There is no plan for the conquest of other nations; it is believed that the happiness of man and of the nation, consists in the exercise of virtue and not in the power of wealth, a belief that led to a society of free-minded and self-reliant people.

Public zeal makes competition for political office very healthy. To be eligible for the Senate, a man has to be at least 60 years old and once in position has life time tenure. There is a council of 300 representatives, with a committee of five elected each year to exercise the executive power of government. The term for a committee member is one year, and re-election is not permitted.

The entire population of adults votes. Their country is considered to be a shrine of justice and wisdom.

This is not a Utopian dream; this place actually existed. It was Sparta, in 800 BC, under the inspired rule of a prince of the royal family named Lycurgus, a man who exhibited a respect for justice rather than an interest in exerting the supreme power granted him by birth.

He was a traveller first, not touring the sights, eating local delicacies and maxing out his VISA equivalent on gifts and souvenirs, but studying the way in which people were organized: who was ruling, and how.

He wanted men to be fair and act as brothers to each other. He wanted his people to be good, and happy, to become united in a common admiration of virtue.

Lycurgus’ ideas were able to be implemented due to the fear of the people felt by the Spartan kings, though they likely had some regrets once he got going with his reforms.

The first of those was a senate of 28 men who would have power equal to that of the kings. The people were granted the right to vote on important questions. The government became more stable and the people and their rulers respected one another.

With their decision-making power reduced, the Spartan kings no longer suffered the jealousy of the people and thus avoided the fate of nearby Messene and Argos where the kings held all their powers so tightly they ended up losing all their powers.

When Lycurgus had the ball rolling, he made his people swear an oath they would continue to obey his laws while he was away consulting with the oracle. He never came back. For 500 years Sparta kept those laws and was the strongest and most famous place in Greece.

I was impressed by Lycurgus and his vision and thought perhaps I could give up my luxury items in order to live such an engaging and engaged life, should there ever be a leader like him in my time. How much do I really care for a beaded bag from India, or strawberries brought up from California when I could be singing and dancing every day and spending my evenings in learned conversation?

Who did the cooking and cleaning? you ask. And the tilling of the soil? Well, there were these helots, you see. They were sort of servants, but more like slaves. Their lives weren’t all bad; they could keep whatever they grew that the Spartans didn’t want, and they had their own communities. And so they could be whipped once in awhile, and killed on occasion, but they could not be sold outside the country.

The helots were not the deal-breaker for me, though knowledge of their existence did colour the picture of this little Elysuim somewhat. Where Lycurgus and I ideologically parted company was when I read the part about his decision that all the music and partying could be done without wine; he declared Bacchus a bad guy and he had all the vineyards destroyed.

So we may have to go on with boorish politicians, a lazy obese populace, noisy children and rich people; we can always drown our sorrows.



Heather Bennett is a writer

who lives in Watson Lake.