July 2nd, 2003

This morning we feature part fourteen of our series on the global brain from an important book by Howard Bloom. See: 1) Biology, Evolution and the Global Brain, 2) Creative Nets in the Precambrian Age, 3) Networking in Paleontology’s “Dark Ages”, 4) The Embryonic Meme, 5) Why Birds and Humans Flock Together, 6) Mammals and the Further Rise of Mind, 7) Tools of Perception and the Construction of Reality, 8) Reality is a Shared Hallucination, 9) The Conformity Police, 10) The Huddle and the Squabble, 11) Ice and Fire, 12) The Dance of Attractors and Repulsors, 13) The Birth of Boundary Breakers. Reposted from Telepolis.

The Guesswork of Collective Mind (1,200 to 600 BC)

Howard Bloom

A complex adaptive system is a “nested hierarchy” – a net whose nodes are each a part of a larger entity. Each of these larger “superorganisms,” in turn, is a node in a far larger web. And each is also a hypothesis.

Every brain cell in a newborn is a guess. If the spot to which it migrates and the function it adopts turn out to be necessities, it stays and even gains in “popularity” – other cells massage it with nerve endings begging for what it has to give. If it is a motor neuron geared to make a tongue click like the African San language’s popping “!” and everyone chattering ’round it pops away, it will grow strong and stay. If it’s sandpapered by the baby-talk of English burblers whose syllables never make their palates snap a “!,” the wrong-way-Corrigan cell will shrink then die away.1

The cell is a feeler for the person in whom it gets its start. And that individual is a mere stab in the dark for the groups of which he or she is part. Should he try twenty ventures and see every one of them slide down the tubes, he’ll be shunned by other humans, spurned by money, hounded by the torment of his failures, and will probably die at an early age. Even if he dodges homelessness and alcohol, he may be done in by depression, which persuades the immune system to lower its weapons when bacteria storm the gates.

The hopeful baby turned an adult wreck is a probe head sent out by the group to explore its possibilities. His path helps teach his collectivity the routes it must elude. But if his attempts all turn to gold, love, health, and recognition may be his destiny. He has taught the group a better way. Right guess and you win. Wrong guess and you lose. Or in the words of Jesus, “To he who hath it shall be given. From he who hath not, even what he hath shall be taken away.”2

Meanwhile the individual depends for his success on the greater group’s hypotheses. Should the tribe or nation of which he is a part march toward a utopia which turns out barren, his band will shrivel round him, and he will shrivel too. But should the collective mind triangulate its trek so it arrives as fruits abound, it may gain power over groups from far around. And from its fate those other groups may learn their ways to navigate. This spray of antennae, test-shoots, and guesses gives the complex adaptive system its genius: its ability to slip out of tight spots and into opportunities, even if it means inventing ways to pole vault over barriers, or better yet, to turn obstacles into opportunities.

Each node in a collective brain represents a different approach available to the larger mesh of mind. Individuals and subgroups are disposable rovers, sensors for an interlaced intelligence. Way back when, we saw a bit of how this works in bacteria. Here’s how individuals and groups operate as hypotheses in the collective brainwork of baboons.

Conjectures of Baboon Groups

Baboon societies differ vastly from each other, so vastly that they once befuddled primatologists. Seemingly definitive studies on baboon behavior came out in the 1960’s, only to be contradicted by other, equally authoritative studies performed a few years later. Why did one scientific team find that baboons behaved in one way, while another discovered that baboons acted in a different manner entirely? Because the researchers had studied different baboon societies, each of which had adopted its own particular strategy.

For example, hamadryas are the democrats of the baboon world.3 Each male has a family which he keeps rigidly in line. But there’s relative peace and freedom in the band of 130 or more. When it comes time to decide which direction to move, the younger males offer body-language suggestions to the decision-making elders and usually “steer” the contingent as it roams.4 Troops of cynocephalus baboons are smaller, rougher, and more despotic. Primatologist Hans Kummer compares them to “monolithic armies.” Males fight it out to see which few will come out on top. Winners receive the privileges of an oriental potentate – a disproportionate amount of food and most of the sexual attentions of the females. The resources of the group are under their control. And the ruling elite can be brutal in fending off the influence of its juniors. The difference between Cynocephalus and Hamadryas may be partially determined by genes. But that’s by no means always the case.

The Pumphouse Gang was a troop of cynocephalus baboons originally located in Kekopey, Kenya, which relays of researchers began to study continuously in 1970.5 Anthropologist Shirley Strum, in the book retelling her thirteen years with the Gang, shows many of the non-genetic ways in which individuals and groups can become test pilots for speculative strategies.

In the Pumphouse Gang males were quiet types, incidental footnotes to the real social action. The power that counts was wielded by the females. The female-centered tactic was an educated guess about the best way to ride the tides of destiny. It offered the advantage of relative peace (though baboon females can be brutal to each other) and stability. But when circumstances change, advantages can often prove a liability.

Female baboons are conservatives at heart. Obstreperous males, with their rambunctiousness, tend to be explorers and the finders of new possibilities. During the Pumphouse Gang’s first years under the eyes of scientists, a lone male occasionally got lucky, came across a helpless antelope, grabbed it, killed it and brought it home. The ladies in the troop became increasingly voracious for meat, and soon began to grab at rabbits and gazelles. However their success rate was abysmal. Then came the real value of male restlessness and strength. As often happens when a group goes through a change, an unlikely leader kicked the whole thing off. His name was Rad. He was young, strong, and a rare individualist who didn’t so much follow the troop as run ahead or lag behind, exploring to his heart’s content. A meat craver of the highest order, Rad had been following the best hunter in the troop for years, learning his tricks while being denied a share of his kills. Finally he set off on his own, stalking groups of Thompson’s gazelles and scouring the grasses for a hiding fawn. He’d eat his prey in private, then return to the troop covered in blood – an advertisement of his expertise.

When the mighty hunter took off again, the other males spread out and followed from a distance, trying to figure out how Rad was pulling off his flesh-acquiring feats. One day when Rad was hunting in his solitary way, he dashed into a Tommy troop and lunged at a fleeing fawn. He missed, and caused the herd to bolt … directly into the arms of the surprised males who’d been peeking at the action from behind the crest of a nearby hill. Thus was group hunting born. Rad and his observers had learned a critical lesson – that by using teamwork, they could panic the gazelles into an ambush.

While the females stayed at home, each trying to improve her skills at snagging an occasional animal without aid, the males were mastering squad maneuvers, trekking two hours to find the most vulnerable group, scoping out the terrain to maximize their stratagems, and learning to focus on the herd riddled with the greatest number of easy-to-catch infants. What’s more, the males pulled off a social breakthrough. Under normal circumstances baboons are so selfish that a mother won’t share food with her own children. But the team-hunters grudgingly doled out their catch – something unheard of in the standard baboon repertoire. They looked the other way when females grabbed a portion of the groceries they’d brought home. And even mothers let their infants join in finishing what they’d snatched.

Here’s where the hypothesis of female-centered power turned out to be disabling. The sophisticated hunting team of males eventually left Pumphouse and moved on, each departing in his own time and for a different destination. The females – backbones of this matriarchal troop – remained. Though they continued their fruitless hunting, they never learned to set forth on scouting expeditions and to utilize group strategies. The gazelles in the neighborhood could relax again. Pumphouse’s meat-lovers had been reduced to vegetarians.6

One guess down, three to go. Another Pumphouse subgroup, again led by the young and the restless, came up with a far easier way to feast. Adolescent and post-adolescent males went off in bodies of six or seven to indulge in a new discovery: farm raiding. For the stodgy – females and older males–this was utterly outrÈ. They turned their backs on such dangerous asininity.7 The daredevils who’d gone off to filch ripening ears of corn had momentarily tossed themselves out of the competition for sexual favors, but the chance they took paid off. Their rich source of nutrition made them bigger than the rivals who had “wisely” stayed at home, an advantage that would later bring them the female attention they had seemingly foresworn.8

The first females to join in were still the post-pubescent crowd. Networks of alliance proved critical to information uptake – for these “gang molls” had been long-time friends and partners of the renegades who invented the profitable new sport. Next came the occasional older female who’d been mating regularly with one of the crop-stealing males. But once these women saw the richness of the pickings, they were utterly swept away. Says Strum, they not only pitched in vigorously, but “often took the lead,” stuffing their stomachs, cramming their cheek pouches until they bulged ridiculously, grabbing as many cobs as their hands and underarms could carry, and like shopping-maul looters, making an awkward getaway. Meanwhile, the well-established oldsters stuck with their traditional routines and for the most part stayed away.9

Three months later, the crop-pirates – male and female alike – set up a separate sleeping camp. Says Strum, “Older sisters, nieces and nephews, even a few of the mothers of some of the delinquents joined in.”10 Families separated. Most mothers stayed with the master troop while their children went off with the adventurers. A few discontented females abandoned their children to join the rebels, among them the lowest ranking mother in the Gang, who was angling (says Strum) to exit her bottom slot and snag a more prestigious lot. Her juvenile sons stubbornly remained behind. At first, some members slipped back and forth between the two assemblies, unable to make up their minds. But as the units’ sleeping quarters moved further and further apart, loyalties grew more firm. Then, as is often the case in fission, violent skirmishes broke out. The well-fed upstarts, apparently sensing their growing upper hand, were usually the ones to start the fight.

Farm raiding proved a boon. Males gained far more time to simply laze around. Females not only acquired the leisure for extra socializing11 , but won an even more significant prize. In the old days they’d eked out their subsistence by grubbing the savannah dirt for deeply buried bulbs.12 Back then it had seemed normal to give birth only every 18 to 24 months. Fattened on the fruits of crop-lifting, they were now able to produce new babies every twelve.13 This put the farm-raiders in position to outbreed their reactionary Pumphouse rivals. As yet there were no clear winners in the occasional battles, but the innovators had an edge. They could spend less time gathering food and more time marshalling their strength for the coming fray. Their fertility might easily tilt the balance conclusively some day, since overwhelming fighting numbers can bring invincibility.

Yet a third group had discovered an even bigger (and more dangerous) windfall – the garbage dump at the Gilgil army barracks a fair distance away. Not only was the human refuse of gourmet quality, but the location came complete with amenities: running water and easy sleeping sites in the wilderness nearby. To top it off, the army wives and children, bored and having no televisions to watch, found the daily baboon escapades irresistible. They handed out food to the youngsters and the mothers in the troop. Here’s where the hazards came in.

First off, the dump was surrounded by electrified barbed wire. Getting through it meant accepting significant injuries. And once the baboons realized that the humans were rooting them on, some of the bigger males took the liberty of breaking open the doors of storehouses, pillaging women’s gardens, and barging into homes, overturning furniture, prying open cupboards, and snatching food from shelves.14 This the women, kids, and husbands did not appreciate. One day a seething officer convinced the local game warden to take out his rifle and handle the problem. Only one baboon was shot. Meanwhile the farmers being raided back at Kekopey had set their dogs on the baboons, killing more than ten.15 Had things gone on, Shirley Strum felt she would soon see the Pumphouse Gang and its offshoots annihilated entirely.16 At that point, she obtained a plane and spirited the groups away.

The Pumphouse Gang had split into three entities.17 Each was a separate hypothesis, a distinctive gamble on destiny. The value of raiding human food became obvious when Strum’s baboons were inspected medically. The garbage-harvesters were the most robust and healthy of the three. The farm raiders came next in the vigor of their vital indices. In the worst condition was the backward-looking team which had been eating the food Mother Nature unwillingly gives away.18 Though nutritionally the garbage and farm strategies were way ahead, both were leading to a showdown with human beings. One of the three conjectures would eventually prove its superiority. Others might be clobbered by catastrophe. Through this trio of competing trial shoots, the interknit communities would have advanced their schooling. But thanks to Strum’s rescue we’ll never know which practices would have taken root.

There was no Shirley Strum to stop the group tournaments which educated the neural net of ancient Greece.

Lycurgus’ Gamble on Futurity

The innovation signalled by the rise of men like Thales was the [Subtext] coagulation of social groups not around tribes or clever, baboon-like discoveries, but around the probe-heads of philosophies. Societies and the subgroups within them were not shaped entirely by accident and environment. Some high-placed citizens thought their way through to the kind of state they felt would be ideal. Two examples were Athens and Sparta. One was given its shape by the legendary (and possibly fictional) lawgiver Lycurgus.19 The other by that other savant Thales had counseled, Solon. One was a land-rooted20 military society built with all the no-nonsense, no back-talk discipline of an overgrown army barracks. The other was a sea-going trading empire which thrived on the intake, debate and export of opinions. Sparta faced resolutely inward; Athens faced without.21 The Spartans and Athenians were allies, co-participants in Greek society, and simultaneously enemies, jostling for control of the entire Greek shebang. In their story lay many of the elaborations of complex dynamical systems which cities knotted in a meshwork first made possible.

The extent to which Sparta chose a radically different angle of attack from that embraced by its Greek neighbors was attested by the historian and short-term-resident of Sparta Xenophon, who states outright that it was “not by copying other states, but by deciding on an opposite course to the majority” that made the “country outstandingly fortunate.”22

In the days of the Trojan War, the city of Sparta had not existed, but its future territory had been the Mycenean kingdom of Lacedaemonia, seat of Helen of Troy’s cuckolded husband Menelaus, whose urge for revenge gave Homer a clash worth singing about. Then came the Dorians, sweeping from the North around 1200 b.c., wiping out the culture that they found, then mysteriously departing. For 200 years the archaeological record shows a blank. Then came a second Dorian sweep. This one stuck, giving birth to the first Spartan culture.23

The band which overran the southern Peloponnesus clamped the lid tight on the peoples it conquered. Following the tradition that had led their distant relatives to establish the caste system in another Indo-European conquest – India – the invaders, who called themselves the Spartiate, dictated that only they could be citizens. Those they’d squashed were the usual “ants and monkeys”, a sub-race to be used like harnessed beasts. One subjected class, the [Subtext] perioeci, were, much like India’s Vaisya caste, allowed to call themselves freemen, administer their seaside cities, and carry on trade and manufacture – a necessary source of income for an arrogant overclass. Others were less fortunate. These [Subtext] helots were worked “like asses under a heavy burden,” according to the early Spartan poet Tyrtaeus.24 They toiled like the lowly Indian shudras to raise food for the mess tables of their masters.

The Spartans were only a small minority. But they held full sway over the polity’s group brain–allocating its resources, speaking for it internationally, making its decisions about everything from daily life to matters of war and peace, and, to top it off, forcing the majority to live under the Spartan banner in a state bearing the Spartan name. They’d passed the test of hypotheses in one intergroup tournament. But others would arise.

In 700 B.C. revolution became the byword nearly everywhere in Greece. Aristocrats waxing fat with wealth had gone on a power spree. Those on the lower end of things were anything but pleased. Nor were they particularly quiet about their newfound miseries. City states felt a desperate need to pull order (Eunomia) out of the chaos of riot and incipient anarchy. Some used tyrants to solve the problem. Sparta took another tack. Lycurgus – [Subtext] son of a king, king for a short-time himself, and now the guardian of a king too young to rule – had reputedly travelled to Crete, Asia, and Egypt, observing their governments.25 In the face of crisis, he set off for Delphi26 , then returned home claiming that Apollo, speaking through the Delphic oracle, had given him something which was becoming all the rage – a constitution – one which threw enough bones to quiet the howling underdogs among the Spartan citizenry.27 If his knowledge of human nature was as strong as it seems, Lycurgus probably declared his constitution had come from a god to give it absolute authority. In reality, it was uncannily similar to that of Dorian Crete.

Shaping Lycurgus’ Rhetra and the peaceful assent of the public to its decrees was a ferocious revolt by the underdogs below the underdogs, the perioeci of Messenia–who occupied roughly half the territory Sparta called its own.28 This made the obvious even clearer than before: there were only 9,000 Spartans29 ; to prevent overthrow by their enslaved majorities, they were going to have to garrison themselves and permanently mobilize.30

The Spartan center of the day was not exactly what a good Greek would have called a city. It was a collection of towns surrounded by a common defensive wall.31 Thucydides wrote that when only Sparta’s ruins were left, “future generations would never believe that its power had matched its reputation … without any urban unity, made up as it is of distinct villages in the old style, its effect would be trivial.”32 Meanwhile, Athens, its future competitor, was destined to be a city extraordinaire. Sparta was testing a hypothesis popular today – that we’d all be better off without the “unnatural state” imposed by our metropoli.

Sparta tested a second hypothesis which still seems much in vogue – that we’d do best functioning in the good old tribal ways. Children were educated and men were housed communally–as in common 19th and 20th century utopian visions – but who ate with whom was determined by that old tribal subdivision called the phratry.33 Under Lycurgus’ constitution, all were viewed as equals – another goal of utopias from the revelations of Christ to the French Revolution of 1890. These were leftovers, says the historian W.G. Forrest, from tribal Dorian days. (Unlike Athenians, who used old Ionian tribal markers primarily for ceremony, the Spartans continued to organize many of their basic activities around the three Dorian tribes from which they’d apparently come: the Hylleis, Pamphyloi, and Dymanes. Evidence that these were, indeed, original Dorian tribal names comes from the fact that they were shared by Dorian colonies all over Greece.)34

Sparta was the proving ground for yet a third thesis about life. When the other cities of Greece had planted overseas colonies, many of their aristocrats had turned from farm-management to manufacture and trade. Sparta had stuck with soaking her wealth by force from the vanquished peoples in her immediate vicinity.35 Not only did this narrow her geographic horizons, but it created an atmosphere in which, as Plutarch retells it, the citizenry saw “working at a craft and with moneymaking as only fit for slaves.”36

Back to Lycurgus. When it came to wagering on hypotheses, the lawgiver placed his chips on the enforcement of conformity. He slashed the importance of private homes and ordered that from now on all meals would be communal messes “to reduce to a minimum disobedience of orders.” So if you were fortunate enough to benefit from Lycurgus’ cerebrations, you were imprisoned in a virtual army camp. Your food rations were measured out without regard to your appetite. If you wanted to add to the meager diet, you were required to organize a hunting expedition and bring down your own meat. Wine – -the only thing a decent Greek would drink – was restricted just as thoroughly. Getting tipsy was not allowed. Men could not bunch off in groups of friends, but were required to eat with the mix of members assigned to them. Table conversation was limited to one subject: the latest “noble acts” performed by worthy citizens. There was a disciplinary reason for making men eat in a separate building from that in which they slept. Explains Xenophon: “to get home they have to walk, taking care not to trip and fall under the influence of wine, and aware that it is impossible to remain where they have been dining…in fact men still liable to military service are not even allowed a torch.”37 But even safe in his bed, there was no such thing as private life.

Lycurgus did not want his people wearing themselves out with the silliness of love and sexuality. Says Xenophon, “He made it a matter of disgrace that a man should be seen either when going into his wife’s room, or when leaving it … For by having intercourse under these circumstances their desire for one another was bound to be increased…. Besides he would no longer allow each man to marry when he liked, but laid it down that they should marry when at their peak physically.”38 The marriage itself was anything but romantic. The bride was “carried off by force,” had her hair cut short, was dressed in men’s clothes, and was left “on a mattress alone in the dark.”39 Explains Plutarch, “The bridegroom came…after dining with his companions” removed his bride’s ceremonial belt, “then, after spending a short time with her, he left for his usual accommodation soberly to sleep with the other young men.” He continued “sleeping with his comrades” from that point on, and the first baby was often born “before the father had seen his wife by the light of day.”40

Possessive pair-bonding was out the question. If a man spotted another whose body and mind he felt were superior to his own, it was his duty to invite this model of masculine perfection to impregnate his wife. Similarly, if a bachelor spied a beauty who seemed particularly disciplined and rugged, he was enjoined to ask her husband for permission to inseminate her. The point of all three rules was to produce babies up to military snuff.41

Even the possessive love of your own children was on the forbidden list. The rules commanded “each man to be master of other people’s children just as much as his own. … Should any boy ever disclose to his father that he has been beaten by another, then it is a disgrace if the father does not give his son a further beating.”42

Life was as hard for women as it was for men. Unlike in other Greek city-states, female children were fed every bit as well as males. And unlike their counterparts elsewhere, they weren’t expected to hide in their homes spinning wool and making clothes. Instead, they owed their lives and bodies to the state. Says Xenophon, Lycurgus left clothes-weaving to slaves, and “required the female sex to take physical exercise just as much as the males; next he arranged for women also, just like men, to have contests of speed and strength with one another, in the belief that when both parents are strong their children too are born sturdier.”43 Women ran and wrestled against the boys, threw the discus, hurled the javelin, handled horses, and drove carts.44

Under Lycurgus’ rules, obedience to authority was the subtext even of the “democratic” government. The country was run by a council of 30 aristocrats, the Gerousia, chosen for life in a virtually rigged election (judges decided who had gotten the most votes by hiding themselves from the voters and coming to their own conclusions about which candidates had roused the loudest applause). To pacify the masses, there was a citizen’s assembly – but post-Lycurgan amendments placed it under a virtual gag order. Only the council of thirty could propose legislation and topics for consideration. Apparently if they didn’t care for the way their opinions were received, they could shut down discussion by using their right to make “withdrawals.”45 According to the post-Lycurgan amendments, there was to be no “crooked speech,” only a yeah or nay, after which the Gerousia withdrew and made its decision anyway. To be fair, on occasion the assembly slipped out of hand and managed to get its opinions across. But this was a rarity primarily limited to moments of impending catastrophe.46

The Spartan state fashioned by Lycurgus was known for its “military fitness and efficiency” and for its “austerity.”47 But it also seems to have had more than its share of intolerance for modernity. According to Plutarch, it banned the use of coined money, which as we’ve noted was revolutionizing the connectivity of the international scene. It dictated exactly what tools and what tools only could be used to put up a house – the old standbys of axe and saw. Employing any new construction implement was against the law. This was probably done to emphasize the almost communistic egalitarianism. Without fancy implements, no one could erect a structure that would flaunt his superiority. Lycurgus’ reforms decreed that each citizen was to be given the same amount of land. Citizens were known by a title similar to “comrades” – homoioi, literal translation: “equals.” Actually, some were more equal than others – they owned extra land on the side and grew rich, or came from one of the few noble families allowed to join the council of thirty and exercise political power. But the land minimums and other provisions gave members of the Spartiate a standard of living below which it was hard to fall.48

The dictates of Lycurgus’ Rhetra tested “endurance to the limit.”49 Agoge, the Lycurgan military discipline ruling life, began with childbirth. The elders of the tribal subgroup inspected each newborn and determined if it fit the model of Spartan perfection. If not, it was left to die. If, however, it made the grade, its fate was still severe. Each toddler was allowed six years with his mother, then was uprooted from home and conscripted into the educational “squadron” he would serve in for the next fourteen years.

Here he would work his way upward through the ranks in a system Forrest calls “increasingly brutal and brutalizing.”50 The title given to the aristocrat in charge of the educational apparatus was telling enough: “Trainer-in-Chief.”51 Under this brusque figure was what Xenophon calls “a squad of young adults equipped with whips.” Severe punishment was considered the path to “respect and obedience.”

To harden the six-year-old recruits as they passed through their school (or was it boot-camp?) years, Lycurgus insisted they go barefoot at all times, even on the rockiest terrains, and be issued only one piece of clothing to see them through both summer sun and winter cold, so they’d become inured to extremes of temperature. Their unappetizing and inadequate food rations were designed to keep them permanently hungry, giving them a fourteen-year-long “taste of what it is not to have enough.”52 If they wanted more, they were forced to steal it; and if caught they were given many a lash. Yet those who managed to purloin “as many cheeses as possible”53 were looked upon with honor. All this was crafted to make each pupil an expert in the skills of the soldier who “must keep awake at night, and by day must practise deception and lie in wait, as well as have spies ready if he is going to seize anything.”54 Not that the boys were given privacy to plan their thefts: the youngsters of Sparta had a commander watching over them 24 hours a day. To draw the noose a little tighter, any citizen who walked by when the Trainer-in-Chief wasn’t on the spot was duty-bound to issue orders to the students and to punish them harshly if each dictate wasn’t precisely obeyed. On the other hand, men were not permitted to take young boys as lovers, something Xenophon, when recounting the phenomenon, said was so utterly un-Greek that he doubted his readers would believe him. A child of Sparta was forced to become an obedient, slim, and tricky warrior who could fight when no meals were available and could delight in field conditions that might kill a lesser man.

When they hit adolescence, Greek boys in other states were given their freedom and allowed to roam at will. Not in Sparta, where it was “appreciated that at this age youths become very self-willed and are particularly liable to cockiness”55 (per Xenophon again). The Spartan system overloaded these would-be rascals with labor, and declared that any who tried to ditch part of his burden would be condemned to second-class citizenship for life. What’s more, teen ebullience was crushed by rules that would make modern youths protest publicly and overturn cars: “even in the streets they should keep both hands inside their cloaks, should proceed in silence, and should not let their gaze wander in any direction, but fix their eyes on the ground before them.”56 . At mess – the military-style communal meals – boys were only allowed to speak when spoken to. Xenophon was impressed with the resulting “self-control.” Said he, “you would sooner hear a cry from a stone statue or succeed in catching the eye of a bronze one.”57

The theme of young adulthood was cut-throat competition – but competition between groups, not individuals. Three young leaders were allowed to select a hundred each of their peers, explaining exactly to those who did not make the cut why they were not up to par. This produced an in-group which felt it was its job to rat on those below them, and a resentful cluster of rejects who did everything possible to catch their “superiors” in breaking the rules of “honor” and of “bravery.” No matter which side you were on, you constantly had to watch your step (remember, one slip and you were not only disgraced, but went directly to the whip). In Xenophon’s words, the children were virtually “at war.”58 They had to stay “physically fit” since they could “come to blows whenever they met.” On the other hand, if any of them kept on fighting when a citizen ordered them to halt, he would be brought before the Trainer-In-Chief and given “a stiff fine” to show that “anger must never prevail over respect for the law.”

Perhaps the ultimate display of the system’s results came in a ritual of passage eventually required for Sparta’s young men. Teenagers competed to see who could endure a flogging the longest. Some of them died trying to come out first.

Though historians W.G. Forrest and J.M. Moore59 declare that many of these rules were elaborations of old Dorian tribal tradition, the fact is that they were not adopted by any other city in mainland Greece. Plutarch said that Lycurgus had begotten a system which trained humans “to be like bees, always attached to the community, swarming together around their leader, and almost ecstatic with fervent ambition to devote themselves entirely to their country.”60 Aristotle was more harsh. He wrote that the Spartan system “turned men into machines.”61

However the constitution of Lycurgus was a thought-out choice in which a people concurred. It was a wager on the values of authority, obedience, war, and uniformity – a conscious hypothesis about the best way to make it through the challenges the future would bring. How valid this communal guesswork was, only coming centuries would tell.

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