Letters from a Spartan

Dear Leonidas,

It is with some embarrassment that I write to you. The situation in Athens is out of control. Everyone is trapped in their homes because of plague. A demagogue has taken over the Assembly. I have always envied the steady character of the Spartan state, though I cannot accept your conformism. I need your counsel. How can Athens be restored?

Respectfully yours,
Pericles

Dear Pericles,

It is uncommon for an Athenian to express himself so succintly. You must be truly desperate for my favor! You call Spartans conformist. How strange! To me, Athenians are conformist. A Spartan aligns his actions with the common purpose. An Athenian aligns his thoughts and beliefs with what is popular. Who then is free to deviate from the herd? My counsel is simple: abolish the Assembly, and put men of sound judgment in charge of state affairs.

Dutifully yours,
Leonidas

Dear Leonidas,

I received your letter with great anticipation. Sadly, I was disappointed. Your counsel is absurd, as I’m sure you know. The people of Athens love their Assembly, for all its warts. I love it too. Your prescription must take the habits of the patient into consideration. I beg you to consider my predicament more seriously, and write me back.

Pericles

Dear Pericles,

You asked what is best, and I told you. Now you ask what is expedient. What are your troubles to me? When Athens is strong, she is a danger to Sparta. Now that Athens is weak, why should I help?

Leonidas

Dear Leonidas,

Would I let Sparta burn, were the circumstances reversed? Athenian troops came when the Helots rose against you. Our two cities are the pillars of Hellas. Should either fall, the other will follow soon. Can you at least tell me how Sparta has avoided the plague?

In earnest,
Pericles

Dear Pericles,

When the plague began, I ordered each family to remain in their home. When the plague ended, I permitted them to go out. There is no deep mystery. Are Athenians unable to follow simple orders?

In confusion,
Leonidas

Dear Leonidas,

The demagogue is afraid of the plague, and ignores it. Since he rules the Assembly, we cannot issue orders. We can only advise the people, and many follow the demagogue instead. We must oust the demagogue to save the state.

Respectfully,
Pericles

Dear Pericles,

I am not ignorant of your difficulty, that all in Athens must be accomplished through popular assent. If the demagogue is popular, you should make yourself more popular. If you cannot make yourself more popular than the demagogue, why should he be ousted? Isn’t that your system of government?

Respectfully,
Leonidas

Dear Leonidas,

We have arrived at the heart of the matter: how can the nobles of Athens become popular again? I admit in the past the nobles pursued many quixotic goals, which the common people suffered for. I accept their rebuke. Yet without quixotic goals, Athens would be no better than Corinth. Our collective folly sustains us. I need a new dream, that unites noble and commoner alike.

In desperation,
Pericles

Dear Pericles,

As an Athenian, you know the people’s heart better than I. What do they desire? Give them that. And to turn a desire into a dream, simply exaggerate it.

Respectfully,
Leonidas

Written on May 20, 2020