Discipline Is Freedom

Our culture has entered into a terminal loop of endless self-indulgence. Through cultivating traits like moderation and self-mastery at scale, which the Spartans perfected, we will be better placed to thrive in a superabundant present and future.

In our time, Sparta is remembered mostly as a warrior society. But what made Sparta remarkable is more complicated, and more applicable to daily life, than this surface-level picture would indicate.

Impressive as they certainly were in their fighting prowess, famous Spartan military performances like the famous stand at Thermopylae were merely the result of what truly made the Spartans unique — their way of life.

That way of life stands in great contrast to the way of life of Americans and Westerners today. Where we revel in excess and luxury, the Spartans sought moderation and simplicity. 

Where we glorify the fruits of fortune — wealth, status, clout — the Spartans banned them outright. Where we fear and avoid death and pain at all costs, the Spartans trained themselves to hold them in contempt.

This isn’t to say we should copy them in every way. But many of their greatest strengths are now our biggest weaknesses, and in this, we could profit by their example.

The Hedonic Treadmill

The credo of our current era (by default, rather than an intentional point of dogma), is crassly hedonistic: having rejected the idea of objective purpose, we have defaulted to a cultural place where one’s “lived experience” serves as the highest prerogative, and the overriding and rarely-questioned purpose of an individual’s life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

We often obscure this fact by telling ourselves that we are pursuing “happiness”, although in practice this rarely looks much different. And not often do we stop to think: what if happiness is the sort of thing that can only ever arise as a byproduct, but not an end in itself? What if it cannot be reached by the straightest or most obvious-seeming path? What if there’s more to life than happiness? 

Sometimes we give lip service to the idea of a higher good, but rarely do we act accordingly. Too much of life today is therefore racing forward on the hedonic treadmill, chasing the next pleasure or reward that our tastes have inclined us to covet.

What is the hedonic treadmill? It’s the classic pattern of pleasure-seeking wherein the more we get, the more we want, and the less we value the past high. And once on the treadmill, at each step we find ourselves to be increasingly compelled forward whether we want to go on or not.

So while we find it easy to hop from one treadmill to the next, we can’t find the off button. This mode of life is a form of self-imposed slavery to your baser nature — to the animal instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain. As a hedonist your mind is just an instrument of your desire; your reason becomes a slave to passion; you are not the master of your soul, nor the captain of your fate.

Modern thinkers like Nassim Taleb and Naval Ravikant have warned about the “diseases of abundance” that we have begun to fall prey to as a society — pathologies that arise for the individual and for the collective as a result of having too much of a good thing.

The world as a whole has never been richer, and it has never been more heavily in debt, living off borrowed money. The record shows that, for society, the richer we become, the harder it get to live within our means. Abundance is harder for us to handle than scarcity.

Nassim Taleb, Antifragile

These diseases — ranging from obesity to boredom, social media or drug addiction to nihilism, weakness of character to unfettered greed — are some of the most prevalent we currently face as individuals and societies. 

Being addicted to video games like WoW is a disease of abundance. It’s something that results from too much free time and too much access to entertainment; if you were in a survival scenario, it is not a problem you would have. Not having left your house for 10 days after intermittently binging Netflix and ordering Uber Eats is a disease of abundance. Spending 50% of your waking hours mindlessly scrolling TikTok and Instagram, despite not wanting to, is a disease of abundance. 

And even people that suffer from relative scarcity in our society — unemployment, student debt, etc. — are often struggling simultaneously with behaviors like those described above. They might have picked them up by growing up in an environment of relative abundance, which only serves to compound their problems when facing true scarcity. The diseases of abundance are therefore quite advanced in our society. And we haven’t caught up to this fact quite yet.

We are still too busy squabbling about who has more to notice that we all have too much, especially in richer nations. Under these conditions, more material abundance cannot solve our deepest problems, but can certainly add to them. Progress needs to come from another direction.

As abundance becomes even more pronounced with the onward march of technology, as seems likely to happen provided we don’t fall prey to any catastrophic risks, I make the following prediction: the pursuit of happiness (i.e. pleasure) as a default telos for our society will not mix well with accelerating superabundance.

The hedonic treadmill, in other words, is a doomed place to be. We need a way off.

Breaking the Cycle

The Ancient Greeks and Romans, though materially poorer than us, understood this danger quite well. They constantly decried the siren call of luxury and celebrated moderation. Much of their fear was fixed on the effects of too much power, wealth, and abundance.

It was a cultural anxiety that modern scholars condescend to deem little more than a primitive superstition; for we in our postmodernity cannot seriously entertain the existence of a higher Good than our own subjective welfare, which abundance is thought obviously to serve — or, even if we profess belief in a higher good, our actions often reveal otherwise.

But although our civilization has the advantage of several extra millennia of history to draw from, the ancients seemed to have internalized the psychological patterns that underlie the cycle of civilizations better than us; that success breeds complacency, that abundance breeds addiction, and that the human psyche is much less capable of withstanding too much of a good thing than it not enough. It was a pattern they recognized, feared, and sought to break.

They looked desperately for solutions — it preoccupied much of their thinking. How could the temptations of abundance be avoided? How could the allure of luxurious and soft living be denied? If a starving primate suddenly finds itself at the evolutionary equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet, by what means can it be prevented from eating itself into a state of diseased corpulence?

Though they understood the problem, no solution was found. The lives of Romans like Cato the Elder were dedicated, by way of austere example, to preventing the Roman people from getting trapped by the hedonic treadmill; but such attempts were ultimately unsuccessful, like grains of sand trying to hold back a tidal wave.

So far, no civilization has found a permanent cure to the diseases of abundance. But unless we want to embrace our own downfall, we must continue to look for a solution. We must find answers.

And I think that Sparta is the place to start looking — because, in my opinion, they came closest to sustained self-mastery and freedom from the compulsive pursuit of pleasure, fear of pain, and terror of death.

More than any other society I have yet heard of, they learned how to overcome human nature, and this was the source of their excellence, their enduring appeal, and yes, their military triumphs.

Nature is not destiny

No one understood the value of voluntary self-deprivation, of structuring life towards the pursuit of something higher than fleeting pleasure, better than the Spartans. And not just in theory. They lived it — every single one of them, for generations upon generations.

That makes their example the perfect one for us to draw from for solutions. Sparta was special because it was the largest and most expansive experiment ever undertaken in how far human beings could be trained to overcome our nature**.**

The Spartan system was set up in the eighth century BC by a man named Lycurgus. Before him, Sparta was similar to the other Greek cities, especially its Dorian neighbors in the Peloponnesus. But after his reforms, Sparta became unlike any other place.

Lycurgus, the lawgiver of Sparta

The goal of these reforms, according to Plutarch, was as follows:

Lycurgus, the lawgiver, wished to recall the citizens from the mode of living then existent, to lead them to a more sober and temperate order of life, and to render them good and honourable men (for they were living a soft life)

Plutarch, The Life of Lycurgus, 1.1

Modern scholars tend to be skeptical that the Spartan system was imposed top-down by this legendary lawgiver all at once. They find it more likely that the Spartan system, to the extent that our reports about it are accurate, probably evolved incrementally over time. There’s no way to know conclusively, but I am content to take the Lycurgus story at face value, like the Greeks themselves did, because it so well captures the spirit of the Spartan system.

Lycurgus’s reforms were based on the following two premises:

  1. Soft living — aka the hedonic treadmill — would spell doom for Sparta, just as they do for any society.
  2. Human nature, which is wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain, can be rewritten.

For Lycurgus (and for the Spartans who succeeded him, believing in and living out his vision) we are not just the passive products of our nature, we are also the molders of it.

They did not deny the importance or existence of an inner nature. They recognized that some people were born with a higher proclivity towards certain personality traits like bravery, while others were not.

However, what made them radicals in the history of humanity was that they did not accept that nature was destiny. They believed that the human psyche was like clay, that it could be molded over time to take whatever shape deemed most worthy — and that even the most powerful instincts, like fear of death (phóbos), could be conquered by force of training.

There is a (probably apocryphal) story about Lycurgus that exemplifies this characteristically Spartan point of view — 

It is said that, in order to demonstrate to the Spartans the need for reform, Lycurgus took two puppies from the same litter and raised them both differently, as a form of experiment.

The first puppy he “accustomed to dainty food, and allowed it to stay in the house”, giving it a life of ease and comfort. The second he took hunting and exposed to the hardship of life outside.

After some time raising them, he took both puppies out in public and set down some “dainty food and bones” in front of them, while also releasing a wild hare. Though both bred from the same litter (i.e. having the same genes), the first puppy went for the pile of treats while the second hunted and overcame the hare. Having concluded his demonstration, Lycurgus proclaimed:

You see, fellow-citizens, that these dogs belong to the same stock, but by virtue of the discipline to which they have been subjected they have turned out utterly different from each other, and you also see that training is more effective than nature for good.

Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans

This was an extremely radical belief — almost 2,000 years before the Enlightenment philosophes expounded on the tabula rasa principle, Lycurgus was said to have proclaimed that culture is more important than blood, something that no one else at the time believed.

What’s more, this was no idle pronouncement. The Spartans built their entire way of life — their government, their customs, their morality — on this faith in the power of culture. The anecdote about the dogs illustrated the Spartan belief that good breeding was no substitute for good training:

So also in our case, fellow-citizens, noble birth, so admired of the multitude, and our being descended from Heracles, does not bestow any advantage, unless we do the sort of things for which he was manifestly the most glorious and most noble of all mankind, and unless we practice and learn what is good our whole life long.

Plutarch, Sayings of the Spartans

For the Spartans, then, instituting a lifelong practice of intense discipline was the method of achieving their highest good. Unlike us, they consciously spurned the pursuit of pleasure/happiness, for which the Greek word was “ἡδονή” (hēdonē) — the root word of “hedonism”.

Instead, for the Spartans, life was about seeking “ἀρετή” (aretḗ), meaning “excellence”; particularly, moral excellence including temperance, moderation, bravery, and self-mastery.

These things are currently seen as “nice-to-haves” in our society — admirable, surely, but not needed. No one’s reputation is ruined for lack of moderation; on the contrary, opulent consumption is actually a path to fame and admiration (e.g. the Kardashians).

 The Spartans, as we’ll see, took the opposite view, which is perhaps why the stereotypical image of a Spartan is even today the opposite of the stereotypical American couch potato.

For them, bravery was mandatory; if you wanted to be a citizen at all, you had to not merely passively avoid breaking the rules, but you had to actively practice virtue. Membership in their society, unlike ours, had to be continually earned — failing to cultivate arete would lead to shame, ostracism, and banishment. For a Spartan, shame was worse than pain, and cowardice was worse than death.

To systematically promote this, not just for the few, but for all Spartan citizens, Lycurgus (or whatever emergent process of incremental change he represented) enacted a series of extreme reforms that affected all aspects of Spartan life.

These rules are not necessarily ones that our society should adopt, but they are instructive in that they open one’s mind as to just how differently it is possible to structure society than we currently do.

The Lycurgan Reforms & The Spartan Constitution

ἀλλ᾽ ἐγὼ ἐννοήσας ποτὲ ὡς ἡ Σπάρτη τῶν ὀλιγανθρωποτάτων πόλεων οὖσα δυνατωτάτη τε καὶ ὀνομαστοτάτη ἐν τῇ Ἑλλάδι ἐφάνη, ἐθαύμασα ὅτῳ ποτὲ τρόπῳ τοῦτ᾽ ἐγένετο: ἐπεὶ μέντοι κατενόησα τὰ ἐπιτηδεύματα τῶν Σπαρτιατῶν, οὐκέτι ἐθαύμαζον.

It occurred to me one day that Sparta, though among the least populated cities, had become the most powerful and most celebrated in Greece; and I fell to wondering how this could have happened. But when I considered the institutions of the Spartans, I wondered no longer.

Xenophon, the Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, 1.1

Despite Spartan secrecy and hostility to the arts, many famous philosophers and thinkers through the ages have loved Sparta from afar. Athenian philosophers like Plato and Xenophon, whose own country fought a devastating war against the Spartans within their lifetimes, were enamored by it — and indeed constitute some of our best sources of information about Spartan customs, laws, and constitution.

Modern scholars tend to ascribe less than pure motivations for the love affair of philosophers with Sparta, claiming that they were simply democracy-haters because of Socrates’ persecution and death by the Athenians. But I believe that their admiration was more genuine and less driven by reactionary bias.

Why? Because philosophy is in large part concerned with the question, “What is the good life?” Sages and wise men distinguish themselves in normal (i.e. non-Spartan) societies because they will go to any amount of trouble, make any sacrifice, question or subvert any convention, to find out the answer.

In this way, philosophers and sages perceive themselves to be aberrations, an exception to the way people normally live — admired for it at times, but always cut off from the mainstream of their own cultures, which they either lead into the future, or live at odds with.

The Spartans, by contrast, had no individual philosophers. They instead lived out their vision of the good life at the scale of a whole society; they were, in Plutarch’s words, “an example of an entire city given to the love of wisdom” (Plutarch, Lyc., 31.3).

Not only was the Spartan experiment of inherent interest to students of human nature like Plato or Plutarch because of what its extreme circumstances could reveal, but it was also a pleasant counterfactual to their own societies, where philosophers were usually isolated, in the minority, and occasionally (as, obviously, in Socrates’ case) persecuted.

In fact, Plutarch went so far as to elevate Lycurgus to a higher status than the famous Greek philosophers who he also admired. The full quote:

Plato, Diogenes, Zeno, and by all those who have won approval for their treatises on the subject, although they left behind them only writings and words. Lycurgus, on the other hand, produced not only writings and words, but an actual polity which was beyond imitation, and because he gave, to those who maintain that the much-talked-of natural disposition to wisdom exists only in theory, an example of an entire city given to the love of wisdom.

Plutarch, The Life of Lycurgus, 31.2

For Plutarch, Sparta was a whole city whose citizens proved what many of his individual biographies portrayed; that a “natural disposition to wisdom” was more than an unrealistic ideal. To him, this made Lycurgus supreme among philosophers.

A similar sentiment was echoed by Xenophon — who, keep in mind, studied under no less a figure than Socrates himself:

Lycurgus, who gave them the laws that they obey, and to which they owe their prosperity, I do regard with wonder; and I think that he reached the utmost limit of wisdom. For it was not by imitating other states, but by devising a system utterly different from that of most others, that he made his country pre-eminently prosperous.

Xenophon, Constitution of the Lacedaemonians, 1.3

“A system utterly different from most others” — this statement holds even now, almost two and a half millennia after Xenophon first wrote it.

What were the characteristics of that system?

Banning wealth, luxury, and overconsumption

The first thing Lycurgus did was reform the economy into a type of commune. He instituted communal land ownership, redistributing the arable land of Laconia (the region in which Sparta lies) and dividing it among the ~9,000 Spartan homoioi, or “peers”, who qualified for full citizenship, into equal lots.

Each “lot” was supposed to produce enough food to supply the Spartan, his wife, and their helots (the serfs who worked the land, who were drawn from the population of nearby Messenia, with which Sparta had fought a desperate series of wars early in its history) with the requisite income.

He also banished all forms of trade or employment for full male citizens, who were compelled to do one of two things for their entire lives: train to be a warrior, or participate in the government. Manufacturing and trade could only be practiced by the periokoi, or neighboring villages around Sparta which had been subjugated, but were given more rights than the helots and provided artisan services like smithcraft.

Lastly, banned the use of gold or silver coinage, allowing only iron to serve as legal tender. What this meant in practice is that money was worthless — it would be as if the US government told its citizens that the only form of legal tender was pennies. The motivation for doing this was explicitly to remove the temptation of luxury and riches: Plutarch tells us that Lycurgus was “determined to make an attack upon the prevailing luxury, and to do away with the rivalry for riches” (Plutarch, Sayings).

Next, in order to prevent the overconsumption of food, he introduced the common mess hall or “phidition”. There, every Spartan male, regardless of age, ate in squads of about fifteen men of varying ages. Plutarch tells us that the reason for this was:

So that they might eat with one another in companies, of common and specified foods, and not take their meals at home, reclining on costly couches at costly tables, delivering themselves into the hands of servants and cooks to be fattened in the dark, like voracious animals, and ruining not only their characters but also their bodies.

Plutarch, The Life of Lycurgus, 10.1-2

In other words, it was to promote discipline and prevent self-indulgence. Lycurgus (or whoever came up with this idea) appears to have understood that self-mastery is not just about willpower, but about designing life around you so that it is not easy or tempting to over-indulge in addictive pleasures.

Intense discipline from childhood

Perhaps the most radical departure of the Spartans from the way other Greeks did things is how Spartan children were raised.

Spartan children were raised by their parents in early childhood, but at the age of seven they were enrolled in the famous agoge, which was a sort of military school.

As soon as they were seven years old, Lycurgus ordered them all to be taken by the state and enrolled in companies, where they were put under the same discipline and nurture … of reading and writing, they learned only the bare minimum; all the rest of their training was calculated to make them obey commands well, endure hardships, and conquer in battle.

Plutarch, The Life of Lycurgus, 16.4

The agoge was not only harsh in its training, but it also taught Spartan boys how to live with very little. When Spartan boys turned 12, they stopped getting new clothes and were given nothing more than a single cloak each year to wear. They were not allowed to bathe except a couple of times a year, and they slept together in “troops” on beds that they had to make for themselves from rushes that they broke by hand down at the river Eurotas.

For food, they were given just enough to keep them alive, but never enough to keep them full. They were taught to steal for the rest of their rations, because this was supposed to have been good training for campaign conditions (so they could survive enemy territory where there was no line of supply), and were beaten if caught not as a punishment for stealing, but for stealing poorly. This limited diet therefore not only accustomed the boys to hunger and prevented overindulgence in food, but also prepared them better for military life.

The training itself was brutal — think Navy Seals, except for your entire life until advanced adulthood. Their exercises were so intense that war brought a relative relief, so that the Spartans “were the only men in the world to whom war brought a respite” (Plut. Lyc. 21.1).

At the same time, the Spartan boys were taught to revere arete and have contempt for cowardice. They were quizzed in the mess halls by their elders with questions like “who is the bravest man in the city?” or “what do you think of this person’s character?”, or “who is a bad citizen”? And if they couldn’t answer adequately, they were chastised for “having a soul that did not aspire to excellence (Plut. Lyc. 18.2)”, which, again, was the highest goal of Spartan life.

The effects of this upbringing appear to have been quite remarkable. There are two famous anecdotes, in particular, which show the extent to which Spartan training allowed the trainee to overcome human nature.

The first is the story of the fox. It is said that a Spartan boy stole a fox to eat, and he was caught. As mentioned earlier, stealing was encouraged, but being caught was punished because it was seen as a failure. So the kid hid the fox under his cloak while he was being questioned. The fox, afraid, began to bite him, slowly eating into his abdomen in its panic to get away — but the boy neither cried out nor showed any outward sign of distress.

When the questioning ended, he fell dead, such was his determination to avoid the shame of capture, and such was his contempt for pain and the fear of death.

Another story with a similar theme is told of the ritual of diamastigosis at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia. Orthia, an epithet of Artemis, means “upright”. At this sanctuary, boys stepped forward in front of a statue of Artemis and were whipped by birch rods. At any time they wished to, they could end it by bowing out (or collapsing to the floor).

It is said that some boys were so loath to bow out, because of how much it resembled surrender, and were so eager to show their self-mastery, that they stood there until they died from the whipping. These boys were honored by the Spartans as if they had fallen in battle. It was a ritual that lasted a long time — reportedly, both Cicero and Pausanias, Romans who lived long after the Spartans had been conquered and absorbed into the Roman Empire, witnessed diamastigosis still going on when they went and visited Sparta (cf. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, XXVII and Pausanias, Description of Greece, 3.16.7).

To modern eyes, such stories probably evoke horror. But to the Spartans, a young person dying was not an unconditionally bad thing; if the death happened in the pursuit of excellence and self-mastery, then it was a worthy and noble death. If nothing else, this shows exactly how far a people and culture can be reprogrammed by the strength of training, institutions, and culture.

Adulthood was no less focused on arete

Spartan men and women alike trained strenuously all their life. Spartan women, for their part, were famously the most powerful in Greece. It is said that when a foreigner told the Spartan Queen Gorgo, wife of the famous Leonidas who died at Thermopylae, that “you Spartan women are the only women that lord it over your men,” she replied, “yes, for we are the only women that are the mothers of men” (Plutarch, Sayings of Spartan Women).

Spartan manhood was defined by service in the military. As noted earlier, it was their only career until they became too old to serve, when they became eligible to join the gerousia, or council of old men (i.e. Spartan senate). Since Spartan men were so often away on campaign, it often fell to women to manage the estate and property of the household.

As a result of their lifelong training, the Spartan reputation for self-mastery in the face of fear, privation, suffering, and death was so powerful among the Greeks that when a small number of them got stranded on the island of Sphacteria during the Peloponnesian War and ended up surrendering to the Athenians, Thucydides tells us that it shocked the whole Greek world:

Nothing that happened in the war surprised the Hellenes [i.e. the Greeks] so much as this. It was the opinion that no force or famine could make the Lacedaemonians [i.e. the Spartans] give up their arms, but that they would fight on as they could, and die with them in their hands​​

This remarkable event was the exception that proved the rule: the capitulation of Spartan soldiers in the face of hardship and death was considered inconceivable until it actually happened. 

Spartan women were no less renowned in their devotion to self-mastery and to civic duty than Spartan men. The following excerpts from Plutarch’s Sayings of Spartan Women give us a good picture of how the ancients perceived them. Some illustrative excerpts:

  • [A Spartan woman], as she handed her son his shield, exhorted him, saying, “Either return with this shield or upon this.”
  • Another, hearing that her son had been slain fighting bravely battle, said, “Yes, he was mine.” But learning that her other son had been a coward and therefore lived, she said, “No, he was not mine.”
  • A Spartan told her sister that her son had died bravely in battle. She replied: “As glad as I am for him, I am sorry for you that you were left behind when you might have gone in such brave company.”

This last excerpt is particularly striking. So thoroughly did Sparta train her sons and daughters to revere bravery and excellence that they considered the honorable death of a relative in battle a better outcome than their shameful survival.

The Romans, centuries after Sparta had declined from the heights of its power, continued remembered the extraordinary discipline of Spartan women. Cicero summed up their reputation in verse:

The Spartan women, with a manly air,

Fatigues and dangers with their husbands share;

They in fantastic sports have no delight,

Partners with them in exercise and fight.

Tusculan Disputations, XV

Spartan life, therefore, regardless of gender, revolved around the cultivation of self-mastery. The effects of the Lycurgan reforms on Spartan society were all-encompassing.

The fork in the road: two possible futures

I have been comparing our own society to the Spartans on mostly unfavorable terms, but I must emphasize at this point that, as with most things, there are clearly tradeoffs between their way of life and our own, and I am not remotely suggesting that we adopt everything about Sparta wholesale.

I do not, for instance, think it is remotely viable or desirable for modern, large-scale nation-states to adopt communal economies with predefined, inherited roles and classes. Apart from everything else, what works at the scale of Sparta as a city, which only ever numbered around 30-50k inhabitants, would not work at the level of millions. More is different.

However, I can say that the Spartan example does at times inspire me personally to higher pursuits and greater discipline than I might have otherwise been capable of. 

Apart from its inspirational value, I think one of the biggest lessons of the Spartan experiment was that what is only possible for extraordinary people to achieve when going against their culture, can be achieved by ordinary people with culture’s aid.

Behavioral contagion is real. What others around you do, you are more likely to do yourself; and repeated behaviors that reach critical mass in a community have a way of unconsciously habituating everyone.

In practice, this means that the first step in escaping the hedonic treadmill is to surround yourself with others who have escaped or are escaping. Tight-knit clusters of disciplined people can overcome the broader dissoluteness of our culture and reorient their lives around the pursuit of excellence; escaping the hedonic treadmill is more feasible if others are there to reinforce you and hold you to your path, just as the Spartan mess-mates held each other accountable.

Beyond that, we must learn to reject in spirit and in argument the idea that there is no higher purpose to life than to feel subjectively good. Surrendering yourself to the mercy of your own pleasures is conducive neither to your welfare nor does it ultimately make your life more pleasurable — all a successful hedonistic pursuit does is raise the bar for the next high.

Instead, it may help to understand and cultivate the belief, as the Spartans did, that suffering and death are part of life, and that they are not evils in and of themselves. Orienting life towards the pursuit of arete can not only make you resilient to suffering but can also help you find a use for it. Instead of serving no purpose if it is seen as an inherent evil, suffering in the Spartan approach becomes an opportunity to test and buttress the psyche, while fear becomes an opportunity to practice courage. 

Furthermore, one’s sense of well-being is likely to become much less fragile when it becomes decoupled from things that are often beyond one’s control, like how good or bad you feel.

We can also learn from the Spartans that a saccharine, carefree, easy childhood is not necessarily a blessing to the child. If you teach kids to get on the hedonic treadmill early in life, what chance do they ever have of learning to get off?

I’m not saying that kids should be enrolled in a brutal military school at the age of seven, or made to steal for their food, or given a single article of clothing. But it is hard to deny that cultivating discipline early on yields lifelong rewards, while early addictions can take a lifetime to overcome.

Finally, we should stop looking forward to some type of euphoric utopia the moment we reach superabundance. Even if energy and resources become so abundant as a result of technology that they become virtually unlimited (because population doesn’t expand at a commensurate rate), we must be very careful what we wish for.

Getting every pleasure fulfilled at the snap of a finger may sound like the golden fields of Elysium (what Christians call heaven), but in reality may feel more like the depths of Hades. If discipline is freedom, then indulgence is slavery; and unlimited temptation to self-indulgence is the most complete form of slavery, because it removes all choice for shaping our lives towards a higher pursuit than fleeting, pointless pleasure.

Imagine two possible futures. 

In the first future, we fail to adopt any of the lessons from the Spartan experiment. We continue to fall prey to our blind spot that dosage matters — that too much of what’s good becomes bad all over again. AI automates everything, and we live off the increasing abundance of automated thought and machine labor. VR and the metaverse make our physical bodies the object of increasing neglect as our social lives and status move entirely online; increasingly sophisticated entertainment and ecommerce make it easier and easier to gratify our every whim and desire at the click of a button, absolute wealth becomes obsolete as the result of UBI, while relative wealth lives in scarce digital assets on the blockchain.

What is the more likely result of superabundance in this scenario? Some kind of utopia where we walk around in white robes and discuss philosophy and create art, or a kind of perverse cross between the Matrix and Wall-E?

In the second future, we pay heed to the famous saying that was once inscribed on the temple of Apollo at Delphi: “μηδὲν ἄγαν” — “Nothing in excess”. We learn to recognize abundance for the sincere danger that it is, and train ourselves accordingly. We embrace self-imposed scarcity as a culture, and develop norms and institutions to remove the temptation to overindulgence. We embrace higher pursuits like developing our characters, seeking excellence in creative endeavors, and make it our mission to explore space and heighten our understanding of the universe.

For my part, I believe we should follow the Spartans in seeking arete, not hedone. The allure of the hedonic treadmill is only likely to grow in the superabundant future. If we want a way out, we would be well advised to follow in their path.

By Sachin Maini

Longtime student and enthusiast of antiquity writing about the history of ideas, cultural evolution, and complex adaptive systems.