We are the Athenians, not the Spartans

by wubbles 2y11th Jun 201741 comments


The Peloponnesian War was a war between two empires: the seadwelling Athenians, and the landlubber Spartans. Spartans were devoted to duty and country, living in barracks and drinking the black broth. From birth they trained to be the caste dictators of a slaveowning society, which would annually slay slaves to forestall a rebellion. The most famous Spartan is Leonidas, who died in a heroic last stand delaying the invasion of the Persians. To be a Spartan was to live a life devoted to toughness and duty.

Famous Athenians are Herodotus, inventor of history, Thucydides, Socrates, Plato, Hippocrates of the oath medical students still take, all the Greek playwrights, etc.  Attic Greek is the Greek we learn in our Classics courses. Athens was a city where the students of the entire known Greek world would come to learn from the masters, a maritime empire with hundreds of resident aliens, where slavery was comparable to that of the Romans. Luxury apartments, planned subdivisions, sexual hedonism, and free trade made up the life of the Athenian elite.

These two cities had deeply incompatible values. Spartans lived in fear that the Helots would rebel and kill them. Deeply suspicious of strangers, they imposed oligarchies upon the cities they conquered. They were described by themselves and others cautious and slow to act. Athenians by contrast prized speed and risk in their enterprises. Foreigners could live freely in Athens and even established their own temples. Master and slave comedies of Athens inspired PG Woodhouse.

All intellectual communities are Athenian in outlook. We remember Sparta for its killing and Athens for its art. If we want the rationalist community to tackle the hard problems, if we support a world that is supportive of human values and beauty, if we yearn to end the plagues of humanity, our values should be Athenian: individualistic, open, trusting, enamoured of beauty. When we build social technology, it should not aim to cultivate values that stand against these.

High trust, open, societies are the societies where human lives are most improved. Beyond merely being refugees for the persecuted they become havens for intellectual discussion and the improvement of human knowledge and practice. It is not a coincidence that one city produced Spinoza, Rubens, Rembrandt, van Dyke, Huygens, van Leeuwenhoek, and Grotius in a few short decades, while dominating the seas and being open to refugees.

Sadly we seem to have lost sight of this in the rationality community. Increasingly we are losing touch as a community with the outside intellectual world, without the impetus to study what has been done before and what the research lines are in statistics, ML, AI, epistemology, biology, etc. While we express that these things are important, the conversation doesn't seem to center around the actual content of these developments. In some cases (statistics) we're actively hostile to understanding some of the developments and limitations of our approach as a matter of tribal marker.

Some projects seem to me to be likely to worsen this, either because they express Spartan values or because they further physical isolation in ways that will act to create more small-group identification.

What can we do about this? Holiday modifications might help with reminding us of our values, but I don't know how we can change the community's outlook more directly. We should strive to stop merely acting on the meta-level and try to act on the object level more as a community. And lastly, we should notice that our values are real and not universal, and that they need defending.