The Long View of Empathetic Evolution — Athens and Sparta, and our Stakes Involved

The Contessa, Semana Santa, Granada, Spain

I’ve been pulling together, at the behest of math professor Kevin Vixie, a 20 pager on the whole empathetic evolution grand pattern. I was asked by both him, and an editor we hired, to come up with a long-view example of evolution up the Spiral, for an organization.

Turns out that’s really tough. Geoffrey West, in Scale, documented the standard company life to be around 40 years, and with just a little thought, it appears he’s right. Clicking through the list of companies from my childhood, from Sears and Montgomery Ward, to the local Martings clothing store, it’s not hard to find examples. But companies don’t usually start at the bottom, and they almost never end up as a large, global holistic organization.

If you want a true long-term evolution of a social organization, one has to go to the various world cities. The story below is about Athens, Greece, as well as Sparta, their sometimes ally, but inevitable nemesis.

Before I turn you over to the story, the short version is that Athens and Sparta were historic rivals, with the Spartans, as is well known, specializing in warfare. Athens evolved its culture, with the first democracy, and while Sparta and Athens managed successfully to ally against the Persians, in the end, they turned on each other in the Peloponnesian Wars, to which the Spartans brought a new level of savagery to what had historically been ritualistic warfare.

Yet even though the Spartans conquered the Athenians, and devastated the material wealth of the Greek peninsula and islands for generations, Athens emerged triumphant, and is a vibrant world city. Sparta exists only in memory — its ruins next to its new incarnation, with a population of 35,000.

But that’s not the truly interesting part of the story. Athenian social evolution laid the groundwork for Greek and world culture for millennia, even though they were not triumphant in the first round. Once a people evolve, it is VERY difficult for total regression. That needs to be remembered in the backdrop of our own difficult times in the world today, with an apparent rise of fascism across the Western democracies. Empathetic thoughts are NOT so easily un-thunk. Evolutionary v-Memes are not banished so easily.

The case lesson of Sparta is also fascinating for those that think the psychopaths always win. Sparta created an initial culture that has been reified in the minds of absolutists over the millennia, and Nietzsche has been said to base his idea of the übermensch on his interpretation.

Yet the reality is that Spartan culture only dominated for a short historical period. It was constructed on punishment and disruptive attachment — young boys were starved, young girls were raised to taunt the young boys, and mothers were required after birth to surrender their infants to infanticidal judgment. And to top it all off, pederasty was also enshrined in the culture. Just the thing to generate increasing numbers of psychopaths, to the point where, from a systems perspective, they finally generated enough of them that the wheels came off the bus. Every organization has some contingent of psychopaths — but once they gain critical mass, you’re done. Enron, anyone?

There are many transferable lessons we need to learn here, especially about the metacognitive risks associated with traumatizing young people. I grieve for our current crisis at the border regarding asylum and childhood separations, as well as the crises we’ve seen in the inner cities regarding eviction of poor, predominantly minority children from their homes. These are deep traumas, and besides the lack of compassion it shows in our current system, there will be an unknown cost to be paid. We can look at the long history for why this is such a bad thing. For the ancient Greeks, it was a descent into genocidal warfare for generations that almost unraveled an amazing culture. Thomas Jefferson said it best:

“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

Here’s the excerpt:


It’s not easy to come up with a story that both shows, and contrasts the long-time development of all the value memes – especially in a company, when the average company life is, according to complex system scientist Geoffrey West, approximately 40 years.  Companies and their lives have been studied extensively, and different paradigms have been put forward by such luminaries as Roger Martin, former Dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman College of Business.  Martin starts with magic, boils down to heuristics, and then the suits step in with increasingly algorithmic practice.  The end of the trajectory is a closed system that processes no new information, and naturally sets up authority-driven, legalistic hierarchies.  Who then proceed to last about 40 years, on average, says West.

But cities are different. Cities are fundamentally open systems, usually with indeterminate boundaries.  And what better city to look at as far as a continuing transformation of values, than Athens, Greece?  West also profiles Athens, and I’ve visited myself.  It is a mixed basket of cultures, with influences from every one of the compass points.  Athens is also one of the world’s oldest cities, and historical records indicate potential settlement 11 centuries BCE. Undoubtedly Tribal at the beginning, if one tracks through its art, architecture and political accomplishments as moving through multiple gods, authority-driven thinking, to the establishment of litigative justice through close-to-native son, Aeschylus, Athens is a great example of tracking up through the v-Memes.  At the core is the establishment of democracy in Athens, by Cleisthenes, the father of Athenian democracy, in 508 BCE, along with the enormous step forward in agency and empathy that accompanied it.  This led to a flowering of culture never before seen, with all the well-recognized figures of classical literature front-and-center.

Yet empathy alone couldn’t monotonically save Athens from numerous downfalls through the ages. Most important would likely be the attack from Sparta during the Peloponnesian War, that led to the leveling of Athens and ascent of Sparta.

But such powerful v-Memes simply cannot be killed by one war, or a documented history of rise and fall as happened in the subsequent 2000 years.  Athens now sits, from a low of 4000 people, in the 18thcentury, to a prosperous city of over 3 million people, a polyglot of languages synthesized from being a world city, with influences from every corner of the planet.  

And what of its vanquishing force, Sparta?  Spartans were known for a rigid authoritarianism, and agoge, a particularly vicious and relentless form of training for all young boys and men, where they were even encouraged to fight amongst themselves to establish superiority.  Children were underfed, so hunger was never to be a problem in battle.  But even more profound was the Spartan practice of enshrined pederasty, wherein older warriors would take especially talented youths and, well, bugger them.  

Even the women and young girls were enlisted in maintaining the Authoritarian v-Meme, and worked to impede empathetic development of the males, through taunting and humiliating the boys doing exercise.  Spartan women did have an extremely egalitarian lot in society.  They were better fed than the males, and they functioned within their role as the child-bearing part of the system. They owned property, and they could initiate divorce. They would also participate in the practice of infant inspection, whereby women would bathe their new infant in wine, and present them to the Gerousia,  the Spartan council of elders that served as a functional oligarchy, who would then decide whether the child would be raised or not.  If not, the baby was thrown into a chasm on nearby Mt. Taygetos. So much for women’s core attachment behavior naturally generating more empathy than men.  

From everything we currently know about such practices in the modern age, there’s no question that such a regimen might produce exceptional warriors for a time.  But it also likely created more than its fair share of the empathy-disordered as well.  We have no real window into exactly how Spartan society ran, other than to know that it was strictly externally bounded.  Because it had to be – without strong constraints, the people, attachment disordered from birth, would likely have killed each other.  So while they might have been able to defeat Athens in the Peloponnesian War, in the end, they could not avoid the consequences of throwing empathetic development to the side.  One thing is also clear – Sparta is credited with discarding the more ritualistic warfare all the Greek city-states participated in, and instead implemented a scorched-earth form of conflict complete with atrocities, devastated countrysides, and a gross impoverishment of its involved peoples. Another example of the effects of anti-empathy, and the psychopathy that follows.  

Sparta as a power, no matter how romanticized it has become by classical philosophers and the popular media – Nietzsche based his ubermensch concept on the Spartans – was doomed.  We are a collective organism.  

And what remains of Sparta? It remains a smallish town, in the Laconian section of Greece, with a population of 35,000.  If you want to sentence yourself to a short-lived existence, destroy empathy.  You may win in the short run.  

8 thoughts on “The Long View of Empathetic Evolution — Athens and Sparta, and our Stakes Involved

  1. “Sparta is credited with discarding the more ritualistic warfare all the Greek city-states participated in, and instead implemented a scorched-earth form of conflict complete with atrocities, devastated countrysides, and a gross impoverishment of its involved peoples.”

    That style of brutal warfare first emerged in the late Bronze Age actually. But it became more common and well established in the Axial Age. This was part of a new mentality that was developing — as explored by E.R. Dodds, Bruno Snell, Julian Jaynes, etc.

    “Empathetic thoughts are NOT so easily un-thunk.” Yes, that is true. But then again, non-empathetic thoughts aren’t easily un-thunk. The Spartans didn’t last long in the big scheme of things. Yet culturally we inherited much from them.

    I’d like to think that empathy wins out in the end, though. I guess we’ll find out.


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