Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Why Look to the Spartans for Diet Advice?

The idea of taking lessons from ancient Greece is one of the oldest and most profitable in Western Civilization. During the European Middle Ages, theological philosophers actively studied and emulated the techniques of Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, and tried to reconcile those ideas with Christianity. The European Renaissance was based in part on the rediscovery of classical Greek aesthetic, political and philosophical ideas.

In fact, the whole of Western Civilization is based in large measure upon lessons learned by studying ancient Greece. Modern ideas in politics, academics, philosophy, science, law, architecture, theater, literature and medicine are all based on ancient Greek culture. The American government does its most important business in buildings based on the architecture of Classical Greece. Doctors still take the Hippocratic oath.

Once you accept the truth that our own culture has failed to produce a physically healthy population, it makes enormous sense to draw once again from that deep well that has served us so reliably in so many spheres of cultural life.

The ancient Spartans are uniquely qualified to teach us the lessons we need most of all. Unlike us, they figured out how to stay strong when everything in their environment promoted weakness. In the midst of great wealth, the Spartans avoided overconsumption. In an age of rising and unprecedented civilization, the Spartans never lost touch with their animal nature. In an environment of plenty, the Spartans stayed lean. These are lessons we desperately need, and have not figured out ourselves. The Spartan Diet attempts to convey these lessons from Spartan culture to ours.

Here's what we can learn about food, health and strength from the mighty ancient Spartans:

Culinary primitivism promotes health and virtue. Compared to other cultures in the ancient world, the Greeks believed in the virtue of basic, traditional foods and cooking. They distained, for example, the decadent Persian love of deserts and culture of culinary innovation. But Spartans were culinary primitivists compared even with the rest of Greece. Their foods were basic, and they ate far more wild game than domesticated, for example. Culinary innovation is a product of the upper classes in any society. The Spartan mess system suppressed the aristocratic inclination to evolve increasingly unhealthy foods -- everybody ate the same crude, unadorned, unimproved foods, from kings to footsoldiers.

"Easy" makes you weak. "Hard" makes you strong. Spartans avoided anything that might weaken or soften or cause any human faculty to atrophy. Torches were banned so everyone had to sustain good night vision. Children went without shoes, so their feet get tough. Spartan boys and men wore one item of clothing all year, which acclimated them to being too hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The Spartans were obsessed with the idea that hardship is an opportunity for overcoming personal limitations, rather than something to be avoided for personal comfort.

Frugality is a high virtue. Fancy houses were against the law. Everyone wore plain clothing. Make-up, perfume and fancy jewelry were banned. Lavish banquets never happened. Even grave markers were universally plain, and sang no praises of the deceased unless they died honorably (in battle or childbirth), and these were mentioned only as plain facts. These and other rules didn't effect the poor, upon whom frugality is required everywhere. What made Sparta different was that frugality was imposed on the rich and even the royal, including what Plutarch referred to as a Spartan "frugality of the diet."

It's better to choose strength over pleasure or comfort. Whenever confronted with a choice between pleasure and strength, comfort and strength, convenience and strength -- the Spartans always chose strength.

Drunkenness is for slaves. The Spartans were one of the few city-states in Greece that rejected Symposia -- the wine-drinking parties common to that era. While the Greeks broadly frowned upon drunkenness, the Spartans banned even minor tipsiness. As Plato pointed out in "The Laws," "there is no drunken revelry in Sparta, and any one found in a state of intoxication is severely punished" and with no excuses accepted even during festivals. Part of the agoge education involved forcing a Helot slave to get drunk, then parading him in front of the boys to show how alcohol causes weakness, dullness, delusion and foolishness -- in other words, un-Spartan behavior.

Train harder than real life. Observers during war often commented about how Spartans seemed relaxed and happy before battles. The reason for this is that war was one of the few things that gave Spartans a break from their grueling training regimen. Think about that.

Lifelong athletic training is for everybody. Both men women practiced physical exercise from childhood and well into middle age. Unlike most other cultures, which view what we might call "working out" the exclusive province of athletes or soldiers, everybody trained in Sparta.

Excuses don't win battles. Spartan culture and institutions appear to have provided zero space for excuse-making. Sparta was a stand-and-deliver, do-or-die culture that tolerated no complaining, bullshitting or excuse-making.